Thursday, August 23, 2012

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Brianne Johnson

Welcome to this interactive installment of “Interview with an Agent” with Brianne Johnson of Writers House! Check out Ms. Johnson’s answers to the usual questions, then meet me at the bottom for details on the interactive part. Hope you enjoy!

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

BJ: I started at Writers House as an intern in 2007 and absolutely loved it. I originally thought of the internship as a stepping stone to an editorial position in a publishing house, but once I got a load of what agents get to do, I was hooked.

A few months after my internship ended I was hired as an assistant, and, after a few years of learning the ropes and acquiring contacts, started selling my own projects under the excellent mentorship of my bosses. I was promoted to Junior Agent last year and have continued to build my list, focusing mainly on children’s literature--although I’d love to find more great adult fiction.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

BJ: I think of it as a kind of creative partnership, and that’s my favorite part of the job. I do expect the ability to keep an open mind and a workman-like approach regarding revisions, and so far that hasn’t been a problem. I choose my clients for personality as well as talent, and adore all of them--I really love brainstorming together on ways to tighten plotlines and deepen character development and am always in awe of their ability to breathe life into these imagined worlds. Great writing is its own kind of magic.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

BJ: Wesley King’s THE VINDICO just came out in June, and the launch has been great. Wesley, who is SO much fun to work with (and very, very funny) made the coolest book trailer I’ve ever seen, sort of documentary-style, about hiring a consultant to help him with his book trailer, who turns out to be this abusive evil genius--and an eleven-year-old.

I found Wesley’s query letter in the slush when I was still an assistant and loved both the idea (teenage supervillain protégées who go berserk, a funny, morally-complex tale I pitched as The Breakfast Club meets the X-Men) and the tone of his letter--hilarious, humble, and smart. We worked on it for ages before we submitted it, and Wesley was just wonderful throughout the whole process--energetic, optimistic, and willing to work hard to get it right. I think I was as thrilled as he was when we sold it!

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

BJ: Children’s lit--picture books through YA--are my main focus, although I’m working on developing a select adult list. I’d love to find literary women’s fiction, historical fiction, or even satirical, slightly diabolical contemporary fiction (I love Vonnegut and Palahniuk).

I have a pretty open mind, although I don’t think I’d be a great representative for genre thrillers.

More about my taste preferences can be found at publishersmarketplace.com/members/bjohnson, which I update pretty frequently.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

BJ: I ask that writers send a query letter, bio, and the first five pages of the their work in an e-mail. I can tell when a letter isn’t personalized, and usually pass on those.

If I make it to the writing sample, I get turned off quickly if I’m plunged into an action sequence immediately. I like gentler and more creative approaches to a new world. I recommend that requestors go to a bookstore and read just the first chapter of ten of their favorite books to remind them of the best ways to ease into a story--an intense, complex chase or fight scene isn’t it!

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

BJ: I’d love to find more humorous MG projects. As Roald Dahl says (in Matilda) “Children aren’t so serious as adults, and love to laugh.” And I’m always looking for beautiful, witchy adult fiction with an elegant touch of magical realism--a modern follow-up to Practical Magic or Garden Spells.

As to what I’m finding slightly fatiguing--much as I truly love the whole “16-year-old discovers they have the magical ability to _____” plotline, it needs a really creative spin (or truly fantastic writing) to set it apart from what’s already out there.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

BJ: A truly kickass e-mailed query letter! And five pages that don’t include a crazy action scene.

Thanks, Ms. Johnson, for these answers. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who nodded eagerly after that line about great writing and magic:)

And now for the exciting part! If you have a question for Ms. Johnson, feel free to leave it in the comments below. She’ll pop in a few times throughout the day to answer any questions she finds down there, leaving her answers in the comments, too. We’ll wrap things up at 5:00 p.m. EDT (or 2:00 p.m. PDT), but until then, ask away!

28 comments:

Whitney Gaines said...

So glad I got first question. YAY!!! I am currently writing a YA vampire novel and was wondering: Are vampire novels a dying field? If not, have you been queried recently with a vampire book that grabbed your attention despite the avalanche of existing vampire novels? Do they need creative spins to grab you?

Whitney Gaines
Providence, Rhode Island

Kellie DuBay Gillis said...

Hi, Brianne! Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. In your answers above, you mentioned you are looking for more humorous MG. In a previous interview (via Operation Awesome), you mentioned you recently finished and loved WALK TWO MOONS. That book had humor but was a pretty emotional read. Do you see room for an MG project in that vein on your list and how do you think a book like that would do in today's MG market? Thanks! (And yes to a modern Practical Magic follow-up!!!)

Hong said...

Hi Brianne,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to ask questions!

Are you interested in middle grade fantasy novels that are set in a non-Western setting or a combination of Western and non-Western setting?

Do you see a market for these kinds of books?

kiperoo said...

Thanks to Krista and Brianne for this interactive interview!

I see you're interested in historical fiction and magical realism for adults. Are you also looking for these genres--or even a mash-up of both--in YA?

Flute71 said...

Thank you so much for participating in this, Brianne! My question is about how to spin the pitch of your novel when it crosses multiple genres. Currently I am querying a Suspense thriller/sci-fi/paranormal work. I find that it is difficult to pinpoint the right agent! Any advice for situations like this one? I appreciate it! Have a great day :)

Susan

BrianneJohnson said...

Whitney: EVERYTHING needs a creative spin to grab me! The YA market is so vibrant right now, but the new challenge is that you really have to have a deeply original hook to set your work apart from the rest. Paranormal still seems to be doing well in the adult romance realm, but to be honest with you, I'm hearing a lot of paranormal fatigue (particular regarding vampires) from children's editors right now. I'm a big fan of "never say never"—it's a kooky industry, and anything can happen (plus, we all know how good vampires are at coming back from the dead)—but personally, I’m very wary of taking on "vampire projects" right now.

Kellie: Good point. I did indeed love WALK TWO MOONS (if anyone reading this hasn’t read it yet, please run, do not walk, to your nearest indie bookstore for a copy). I just think that a book of that emotional caliber is really, really difficult to pull off, and that they run the high risk of being labeled “too quiet” in today’s story-driven MG market. If you can hit that emotional pitch while still giving us a great story, I think that’s ideal. And I almost always think that there’s SOME room for humor in MG fiction, even in an emotionally-intense landscape.

Hong: as I said above—never say never! It’s always about the story, but an original setting can help make a book more memorable. Plus, I love low-fantasy—that is to say, fantasy that’s rooted in reality, in a setting (Western or otherwise) that really exists somewhere in the world. Platform 9¾ may not really exist (sigh) but King’s Cross station sure does, which helps us visualize the story, as readers.

Kiperoo: Yes  absolutely!

Flute71: I would recommend reading up on recent deals on PM that sound exciting to you, and seeing who repped them. Most agents like a carefully-chosen selection of different projects, a gorgeous and varied collection, even if they specialize in one particular genre. When people talk about “a good fit for their list” they often are talking about a complementary project, not something exactly like something they already represent. Do your research, write personalized query letters, and go with your gut!

Whitney Gaines said...

I just moved here from Alabama and my best-friend back home was writing a book, idk if he ever finished, about an Egyptian pharaoh or something like that who was turned into a vampire. He made it to where a really infamous serial killer from history was made by a vampire by him. (Maybe Jack the Ripper, or Dracula, or the Countess who bathed in blood.) I’m a little worried that mine doesn’t have a creative spin like his so mine won’t even get a second glance before flying to the trash bin. Should I just wait a while and try again or is my vampire book doomed forever?. Thanks again for doing the Q & A! ; )

Whitney Gaines
Providence, Rhode Island

Noelle Henry said...

Hi Brianne! I just (very) recently signed with the awesome Beth Miller of Writers House, so I don't have a question, just wanted to nab the opportunity to wave at another Writers House agent and say how excited, thrilled, and over the moon I am to have Writers House in my corner.

Have a great day! :)

Kellie DuBay Gillis said...

Thanks for answering my question, Brianne. The quiet v. loud MG distinction is one that intrigues me (and it's actually the topic of tonight's #mglitchat). If you were working with a client on a book you thought might be considered "too quiet," what sort of suggestions might you give to help turn up the volume?

kiperoo said...

Thanks for answering my question, too! :-)

Flute71 said...

Thanks so much for your input, Brianne!

Vanessa said...

Hi, Brianne,

I was wondering, how do you feel about genre's mashed up in one book?

J. Osborne said...

Hi Brianne,

I've heard mixed reviews about comparing your manuscript to best-sellers in your query letter. For instance, I'd pitch my YA novel as The Bourne Identity meets Twilight (sans vampires).

Curious to learn your personal preference and Writers House's general feelings on including this type of comparison in a query.

Thanks!
J. Osborne

Jennifer Malone said...

Hi Brianne (and thanks for doing this!),

You touched on this a little bit above but I was wondering if you could expand on it. When we research and query agents based on books they've repped in our genre or category, don't we then run the risk of hearing, "Thanks, but this is too similar to something on my list already?" Are agents looking at particular titles when they say that or would they not want two writers on their list to be writing in a similar style. I don't write in this category, but for the sake of an example, let's say I write commercial YA in the vein of Sara Dessen. Would I want to steer clear of Sara Dessen's agent or gravitate towards her?

Thanks once more,
Jennifer

Renee DeAngelo said...

I would like to get an agent's take on the growing trend of self publishing. How do feel about this?

Anonymous said...

Hi Brianne,

Given that you say you are interested in historical - do you have any advice for writers of historical YA? I keep hearing about what a tough market it is...

Thanks so much!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

One more from me, since I forgot to ask it earlier: Are you interested in picture book writers who AREN'T illustrators?

BrianneJohnson said...

Whitney: Again—it’s always comes down to the story and the writing. I would recommend joining a writers group and making it the best story that you possibly can, and then trying a few agents and/or smaller houses with it. Even if you eventually have to shelve this one (and believe me, even truly great writers have a “drawer book” or two) the things you learn about building a story will build and grow and carry though to your next work.

Noelle: Hi! I just saw Beth this morning. She is just wonderful—you’re in excellent hands!

Kellie: Get ‘em into trouble! Seriously. Faulkner said “kill your darlings!” That might be a bit much for MG, but you can certainly get those mischievous kids into a whole world of trouble. Raise the stakes. Are there times when your protagonist “almost” does something and decides against it? What would happen if they decided to go for it? Get them into as much trouble as you can muster… and then help them write their way out of it.

Vanessa: If it’s accurate, I think it can be helpful. The world has the attention span of a goldfish right now (I’m sorry, what were we talking about?) and a quick, clever “elevator pitch”, or hook, can be useful in a query letter to give people a very quick sense of what your book is. That said; I would be a bit more careful with using hugely successful projects as comparisons, which might make agents or editors feel that your work is too derivative.

Jennifer: Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula to finding the right agent for you, aside from what I mentioned above—do your homework, write personalized queries, and go with your gut. You always “run the risk” of hearing “this is too similar” or, “it’s not the right fit for my list” or “it’s just not speaking to me” but if you do… so what? This is a crazily subjective industry, but luckily, it’s a good-sized one, and it’s all about keeping your chin up, being receptive to feedback, and trying again. If Sarah Dessen’s agent tells you it’s too similar, surf PM and see if there’s a younger agent still building her list who handles projects in that genre who doesn’t yet have a Dessen-like author, and write her a great letter. One tip—if you know Agent X represents the very successful Author Y, rather than telling the agent that you write “in the vein of Author Y”, buy a copy of Y’s latest book and tell her, specifically, what you liked about it. That way, the agent will know that you’ve done your research and are knowledgeable about what she represents—always an attention-grabber in a query letter.

Renee: I always recommend trying to get into traditional publishing first. There’s a lot that you’re personally responsible for when you self-publish. That said, if you can’t seem to make headway into traditional publishing and don’t mind doing the work (self-editing, marketing & publicity, trying to get reviews, etc) it can be a good way to build your platform. If it takes off (and sometimes it does!) you can always decide later whether or not to use your self-published success as a leg up to get your books professionally published.

Anonymous: it’s always about the story! Make it the very best story you can. Join a writer’s group, get as many reads on it as possible, and revise, revise, revise. Love your characters to death, let them find their own voice, and get them into trouble. If you write a truly amazing story with characters you can’t look away from, you can set the story in whatever era you’re most drawn to.

Krista: Yes, but I am very, VERY selective about taking on PB authors-only. It has to totally blow me away.

Carrie-Anne said...

Do you have any specific things you're looking for in historical (e.g., 18th century, World War I, set in certain countries), or are you open to any projects that interest you? Also, are you mostly interested in straight historical, or this new "sexy historical" trend? I've been kind of wondering how an agent would distinguish between true YA historical and a historical that happens to have younger characters but strikes them as more adult in scope. (For example, would a historical with a higher word count or longer timeline be considered more in the realm of adult?) It's been kind of difficult for me to find a lot of YA historicals published within the last 5-10 years, so it's hard for me to determine how to go about querying.

Vanessa said...

Brianne,

When you say you want the letter personalized, do you like for it to personalized or jump into pitch

Like
Dear Ms. Johnson,
I read in the publisher's marketplace that you are a fan of Francesca Lia Block and I thought you....


or
Dear Ms. Johnson,
The bloody knife went flying around the house like a dagger

Which is your preference?

Whitney Gaines said...

Thanks for taking time to answer our questions. I know a lot of us are struggling to get our start and it's very refreshing to see a successful agent with a high profile agency taking time to help unpublished writers by answering our questions. We all appreciate your help and thanks to Krista for putting this whole thing together. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Whitney Gaines
Providence, Rhode Island

Melanie Stanford said...

Hi Brianne,

Just wondering if there's a certain etiquette when an agent AND and editor have both requested a full. (I don't query editors, this one asked via the WriteOnCon forums.)

Thanks!

Kellie DuBay Gillis said...

Brianne: Loud music to my ears. A story with heart can most certainly have trouble and meaningful stakes. Thanks again. Enjoyed your answers today!

A W Exley said...

Hi Brianne, another question about historicals. Would you be interested in a gentle steampunk spin on a historical - coupled with a dead sexy romance? :)

thank you.

Anonymous said...

Brianne:

Could you please explain your process of reviewing partial/full requests. What would you say is your typical response time? Is waiting a good sign or a bad sign? How long would you say is appropriate to wait before checking in? It's confusing when certain writers get a response in a matter of a few days and for others it can take so much longer. As you likely know, the waiting can produce so much anxiety, and it would be greatly appreciated if you could shed some light on this issue.

Thanks so much!

Jessie Oliveros said...

Brianne-

Can you define your aversion to action scenes more? My MG novel begins with my MC running through a ship to a specific destination. But she's not being chased. And no punches are being thrown. I'm using it as a device, I guess, to describe the setting but I'm not sure it's the best beginning.

Would you say most agents share this sentiment?

And can you please tell me how to get my son to clean his room?

Jessie Oliveros

Krista Van Dolzer said...

And that's a wrap! Thanks, everyone, for all your questions, and thank you, Brianne, for spending the day with us. Have a great weekend, all!

BrianneJohnson said...

Carrie-Anne: This is tough to answer, because every story is really different. And it’s not a longer word count or a longer timeline that makes a work adult fiction vs. YA fiction—it’s more about the prose style, the issues that your protagonist faces, and the level of darkness present. If your story is told fairly directly and features coming-of-age issues, it’s probably YA. And although I hate to generalize, I think a little romance does help in selling ANY book YA and up, even if that plotpoint doesn’t take center stage.

Vanessa: I definitely prefer the personalized one. With the second, it much more possible that it’s a huge multiple submission that’s being sent everywhere, with just the name changed.

Melanie: that’s great if both an agent and an editor requested the full! Just keep them both in the loop and apprised of any developments. If things move with one contact and not the other it can be a good excuse to “nudge” things along :) the art of the friendly, appropriate nudge is a very useful skill in publishing, which is discussed more below.

A.W: it always depends! Send me a query :)

Anonymous: a typical response time on partial manuscripts is about 6-8 weeks. At the six week mark, if you haven’t heard anything, I think it’s fine (and I often appreciate this, myself) to send a short, friendly “check-in” nudge. Publishing is a frantic and rather ADD kind of business (with the abovementioned attention span of a goldf… oh, look at that new cover!) and it’s a little too easy to get sidetracked. I wish this weren’t so, but it is. A friendly check-in keeps you on our radar, so to speak. And waiting is never “good” or “bad”. It’s frustrating, but it could really turn out either way. Sometimes I really really WANT to read something, but perhaps I have two clients that just turned in new drafts that I absolutely must read first. You never know what’s going on with someone. This is not a business for the impatient; or the faint of heart!

Jessie: “fight” or “chase” type action scenes are a lot of fun to read, but they take a certain amount of creative visualization, which is challenging when you don’t know the character or what’s going on. When they’re at the very beginning of a story, I often just find them confusing! Once you’re emotionally invested in the character it becomes much more interesting. As long as your running scene isn’t overly complicated, I’m not sure that it would qualify as an “action” scene. And I’m sure not all agents feel this way--it's not even a hard-and-fast rule for me; more of a general preference. As I said… it’s a kooky and crazy-subjective business. And as for your son, I often find that bribery goes a long way. Or maybe you could threaten to chase him through a ship? :)

It’s getting late on the East Coast, so I’m signing off! Krista, thank you so much for having me—this was a lot of fun. Good luck to everyone here. I'd like to let you all know that a colleague of mine recently sold a book to a Big Six house after it had been submitted to 35 (!!!) editors. It takes a long time to find the right match sometimes—it’s a big world out there, and it’s a tough industry—activate author armor, and chin up!