Thursday, November 7, 2013

Getting Specific: What Literary Agents Want to Get RIGHT NOW (Guest Post by Chuck Sambuchino)

(This column excerpted from GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, from Writer’s Digest Books.)

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Something that gained attention during the past several months on Twitter was #MSWL, which stands for “manuscript wish list.” It’s a rare yet special occurrence when agents take a day and lay out exactly what they’re looking for on Twitter. For example, instead of simply saying “I represent young adult books,” they’ll get more specific and say “I really want to get a query for a young adult western/horror set in the 19th century,” etc. The value of #MSWL was in the specifics.

Then it dawned on me. For some time now, whenever I’ve interviewed agents on my Guide to Literary Agents Blog, I’ve tried to pry these same specifics out of them—always asking the same question to each: 

Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

The answers that come back are specific and illuminating, as each agent cuts through the smoke and points to something concrete and unusual that they want to see. These answers are like little lightning bolts that can connect with writers who happen to be querying that very kind of story. So, with no further ado, here is my collection of agent responses upon being asked, “What are you looking for right now?” Look over the list, and then query away!

“I’d love to get more historical fiction and serious adult literary fiction. I’d also love to get more really well written middle grade stories that don’t talk down to readers. And I’d love to get a totally heart-breaking YA story that doesn’t have death or maiming in it.”
“I’m definitely looking for smart middle grade books that will appeal to children and adults alike. One category I would like to see more of is humorous middle grade fiction, especially in the vein of Gordon Korman. I’d also love to see more spooky or creepy MG books. I’m interested in wide range of writing styles, and am open to everything from Roald Dahl to R.L. Stein. Kids really connect to the grotesque, and I’d jump at the chance to have a writer on my list who can give me goose bumps, but still be appropriate for MG readers.”
“I’d love to represent more books that explore healing, perhaps of a sort that isn’t always comfortable or popular to talk about—whether around psycho-spiritual health, sexuality, death and dying, or grief. I also would like to find more books that explore counter-intuitive or common sense approaches to business, as well as books on creativity, either as interesting, illustrated gift books or literary nonfiction.”
“I’m seeing a lot of middle grade and young adult submissions that are ‘issue’ driven these days, which is really not my thing. Basically, I would love for your story to include a bullying subplot, but if you’re going to preach at me about how bullying is wrong and everyone should be nice to one another, I’m not going to be interested. I’m looking for story first and message is a distant second. So, I would love to receive more submissions that tackle issues without being issue books, if you can appreciate the distinction.”
1.     “An author on a mission. Rory Freedman comes to mind. She’ll do anything for the animals she loves, and her forthcoming book, BEG, will [sell well] because of it.
2.     The infamous platform. Happily, a platform doesn’t have to mean your own national radio show or network news broadcast anymore. It can mean a developed, consistent voice (and the followers and friends that come with that) on Twitter and Facebook. Or Pinterest and GoodReads. Maybe you blog or interact with fans and fellow writers on sites like (as our YA client Sarah Maas did for years before publishing her first book, Throne of Glass). I know this implies new burdens on writers, but we think of our authors as partners, and with so much content out there, we need to know how we can work together to distinguish your work.
3.     Historical Fiction and just plain History.
4.     High concept, funny middle-grade.”
“I would love to see contemporary YA that tackles some real, hard issues in a fresh way; a thriller that I can’t put down because of its intensity; maybe a hot romance that breaks my heart then makes me cry with joy at the end.”
“For nonfiction, I’d love to see some more popular science projects, something that sheds light on an interesting topic in a compelling and very readable way. I loved Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and would be thrilled to work with something like it that combines history and science in such an absorbing narrative.”

(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

 “I’d love an incredible retelling of a fairytale. I do see many of these queries come in, and I almost always request material; I just haven’t yet landed on the right one yet. I think they’re very difficult to do. Ultimately, I’m looking for something like THE MAGIC CIRCLE by Donna Jo Napoli.”
[Regarding pop culture book topics she’d like to see:] “Women’s issues, relationships, music, sports. I think those are my top four. But, you know, if a great project came across my desk that revolved around psychology or science, I’d love to work on it, if all the chips were in the right place.”
“For narrative nonfiction and memoir, I see too many proposals that are only about the author’s life and family; they become too much like bubbles of personal experience that don’t connect enough to some bigger picture of the world. I love to have a personal voice on the page that sucks me into some world I didn’t know existed or that shows me what’s so magical about greyhounds or being the director of a giant public hospital.”
“I want my very own John Krakauer! However in general, I’d like to see more quality nonfiction projects. And I’m still in search of a good animal story, like Homer’s Odyssey or Dewey. I recently found one on raising chickens (not for food) that I liked, but it was already represented when I contacted the author. I would like to see more women’s literary fiction projects. I wouldn’t mind finding the next Carlos Castaneda or Dan Millman, and maybe a spirituality book with a fresh approach. I’d definitely like to see a lot more humor. And [co-agent] Kimberley Cameron is always in search of good horror.”
“I love nonfiction about science and I love working with academics. I also want more literary fiction. I get a few mystery, crime, and thriller submissions, but I want more. Please, however, keep sending me your sci-fi, and your fantasy, and your YA, and your MG novels. I can never get enough.”
“I haven’t been finding enough edgy paranormal or contemporary romances in my inbox and I am always searching for steampunk or other non-traditional (not sword-and-dagger) fantasy. I have a fondness for really quirky characters and novels about families that aren’t ‘normal.’ ”
“I would love to see more women’s fiction. I’m also looking for a good cozy mystery and all types of romance including romantic suspense, historical, contemporary, category, or paranormal. On the nonfiction side, I would love to see an advice/relationships or parenting book with an interesting/new thesis, current events, or narrative nonfiction with an interesting topic.”
“I always hope I’ll find a great adventure story but these are tough to come by. Anyone can describe just about any situation as an adventure if they stretch it enough, but the books I want to find focus around an unusual or unlikely quest, such as in The Lost City of Z, or that tell a story of survival, as in The Ledge. I also love travel memoirs as long as they are driven by a plot with a real beginning, middle, and end. I also look for remarkable love stories, or any human-interest story in which people triumph over great odds.”
 “I would love to see more romance (all genres) and sci-fi/fantasy/urban fantasy.”
“I’m always looking for a well-written cozy mystery. I’m also on the lookout for a good edge-of-your-seat thriller. I am always looking for a good romance. I work with many subgenres of romances: contemporary, historical, paranormal, suspense. I’d also love to get a steampunk.”
“I’d like to find something with good action in it, with humor and strong characters, and a good, creepy mystery. I’m also always looking for that new paranormal or urban fantasy that just sucks me in and truly stands out from the slush pile.”
“I want to learn about other cultures and experience different points of view [in multicultural fiction]. In another direction, I think non-white characters are underrepresented in children’s fiction, which just simply doesn’t represent the population.”
“I’m really hungry for well-written contemporary YA without any fantasy or paranormal elements. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts in the last year or two about teenagers who can read minds, open magic portals, or talk to ghosts. I think those stories are fascinating, but I’m increasingly interested in reading manuscripts with situations and characters that readers can relate to.”
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers Conferences:

Early 2020: Writing Retreat of Maui (Maui, HI)
March 6, 2020: Alabama Writing Workshop (Birmingham, AL)
March 7, 2020: Minnesota Writing Workshop (St. Paul, MN)
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June 27, 2020: Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
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Other columns by Chuck Sambuchino

- How to Write a Screenplay: 7 Starting Tips for Adapting Your Own Novel
- Why “Keep Moving Forward” is My Best Advice For Writers Everywhere
- Do You Need Multiple Agents if You Write in Different Genres?
- How to Write a Novel Synopsis: 5 Tips
- Building Your Writer Platform—How Much is Enough?
- What to Write in the “Bio” Section of Your Query Letter
- 15 Questions to Ask a Literary Agent Before You Sign
- Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips
- 25 Debut Authors Share Advice for Getting Published

Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S and ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.
    His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING and SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.
    Besides that, he is a freelance book and query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham. Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook


  1. Thanks for posting this, Donna! (And thanks to Chuck). I see at least one agent in that list that I need to try.

  2. Thanks for posting this! I have some agents to keep in mind now when my book is {hopefully} ready for submission at the beginning of next year.

  3. Wow.thanks for sharing. I have work in progress. Already spotted some agents that I can pitch to.


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