It’s been a great month long celebration here at Sub It Club! Today I am extremely pleased to be wrapping up the celebrations by welcoming Molly Jaffa to the Sub It Club blog. Molly is an agent at Folio Literary Management where she represents Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction and is the Co-Director of International Rights.
Molly, thank you so much for stopping by Sub It Club to answer some questions for us! Here’s one all writers want to know the answer to: When you’re reading through query letters, what are some things that make you say hey, I need to request on this?
First, thanks so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here.
I make a request when I see great writing and—the kicker—a concept that’s intriguing to me personally. Why does anyone pick up one book over another? It can be hard to pin down why you’re drawn to a certain story, and your reasoning can vary with the weather or your mood. It’s frustratingly subjective, I know.
My day is spent working for my clients and handling foreign rights for Folio, so I read requested material on nights and weekends. Sometimes the writing is strong, or the concept seems fresh, but I just don’t find myself dying to read that particular manuscript over, say, watching an episode of House of Cards or cramming in some pleasure reading before bed. If I’m going to take on a project, I’m probably going to read it upwards of ten times throughout the book’s life, so I really need to have that “I don’t want to do anything else but read this!” feeling from the get-go.
I know it can be maddening to hear such a subjective response, but I hope it’s also a little bit freeing. There’s only so much you can control about how an agent responds to your work. Write your best work, do you research, know your genre – but please also know that agents are sometimes weird, quirky people with unpredictable interests, and a pass from us is not a value judgment on your work.
What in a manuscript makes you believe it is salable, even if you think it needs revision first?
It’s the old adage: something similar, but different. I want to see a manuscript that’s similar to what’s selling in the market right now, but that also has enough of a twist to make it stand out on a crowded shelf. This doesn’t have to be a literal twist – “It’s Cinderella, if Cinderella were a guy!” – just something that makes the project feel different from the many others in my inbox, and at the bookstore. It could be an incredible voice or an interesting narrative structure.
I also need to feel that I know how I would edit the manuscript. If I don’t immediately have a vision for how I would want to take the project to the next level, then I’m not the right agent for it.
What are some things writers can do to improve their chances of obtaining representation and that ultimate goal of a book sale?
Read! I generally make time to read a book a week to stay current with the market. It’s important to know what’s working, and to be aware of what books out there might be comparable with—or competition for—yours.
Take time to think critically about your concept and how it fits into the pantheon of children’s literature before you get too deep into the project. Though it’s a lot of work, in the long run, I think it’s much easier to craft a compelling, unique story from page 1 than it is to find yourself with 300 pages of a dystopian novel that you’ll have to shoehorn into a market that might not be receptive.
Are there some misconceptions that writers seem to have about agents that you’d like to clear up?
We’re not looking for reasons to say no to authors; we’re looking for reasons to say yes! We go into our query inboxes with optimism and enthusiasm. For me personally, a tiny little error here or there in a query isn’t a deal-breaker—I’m just looking to find that special spark. We live for finding and nurturing talent. It’s our job and our passion.
After writers get an agent, I think there’s sometimes a misconception that agents are the proverbial wall on which they can throw writing-spaghetti until something sticks. Editorial agents like me are there to offer feedback and shape the project, but we’re not there to take material from completely unformed to perfectly polished. Send your agent your work when you know it’s as strong as you can make it on your own, then let him or her work with you to take it to the next level. It can be frustrating to spend a weekend reading and rereading a manuscript, then writing an editorial letter, only to hear the author say, “Oh, I knew it was kind of a mess, I just wanted to see what you thought.” That isn’t helpful for anyone. Make sure you communicate with your agent about how you’ll work together.
What are some common reasons you pass on manuscripts?
If I can turn off my e-reader and walk away for a few days without thinking about it again, it’s a pass. I’ll also pass if the tension starts to go slack near the middle. I see a lot of manuscripts that have strong, polished opening chapters, but are suffering from weak middles and conclusions. At workshops and conferences, openings tend to get workshopped extensively, and that’s great – just make sure you’re applying everything you’ve learned to the entire manuscript afterward.
Are there things that make you pass on a query immediately?
I give a query two or three sentences to grab me. If I didn’t set limits, I’d never get anything else done! Unless I see something there – a cool title, an interesting hook, a combination of comparable books that seems interesting – then I pass.
What makes you decide to write a personalized rejection instead of sending a form?
I’ll write personalized rejections when I read the sample pages after the query and love the writing, but don’t quite feel that the concept is right for me. Sometimes I’ll ask the writer to keep me in mind for their future projects. I hope they do!
What is your advice on how to write a killer query letter?
Think about your query like a great movie trailer. It should be short but impactful, and should give us the gist of your story without making us feel as though we’ve already read the whole thing. We should be left wanting to know more without feeling totally confused.
You are closed to submissions at this time. Do you ever take part in any online pitch events or will you be at any conferences this year?
I’m actually not closed to queries! I hope people will visit my page on the Foliolit.com website to learn more about what I’m looking for and what conferences I’ll be attending.
*So glad I asked! I was going off what it said on the agency website. But then I found this post on Molly’s blog. A very good reason to follow an agent’s blog if you are interested in querying them.
Any parting words for writers searching for the right agent for their work?
If you’re reading interviews, going to conferences, keeping current with the industry, and all of those good things (which I bet you are, since you’ve made the effort to read this!), then I think the best thing you can do is to practice some self-care. Stay away from Twitter for a day or two each week, or any time the going’s gotten especially tough. Know who you can turn to for unconditional support when you need it. Know that everyone else’s online personas are carefully crafted to make them look as good as possible. It can be hard not to compare yourself to others, but try to be kind to yourself and give yourself a break. Remember that you’re doing this because you love it!
What a goldmine of advice here. Thank you so much Molly, for the insights and the inspiration!
I bet you’d all love to hear Molly’s thoughts on your query letter wouldn’t you. You’re in luck because Molly is giving away a query letter critique to one lucky winner!
3/3/2015 Update: Entry is closed. Congratulations to Julie Carpenter, winner of the query letter critique from Molly!
To be entered in the drawing, just tell us that you want to be entered in the comments on this post.
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I’ll do a random number generation and announce the winner in the comments of this post on Tuesday, March 3rd. Good luck!