THE JUDGE HAS SPOKEN: An Interview with Literary Agent (and WordHustler Contest Judge) Danielle ChiottiBy Anne Walls
January 27, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen of the court, all rise for the noble and knowledgeable Danielle Chiotti, literary agent at Upstart Crow Literary and esteemed judge of WordHustler’s Literary Storm Novel Contest (NEWSFLASH: due to popular demand, we’ve extended the deadline to February 26, 2010! You’ve still got time to submit!). Danielle is passionate about great writing, finding amazing new clients, and helping writers succeed in the publishing industry.
Luckily for us, Danielle made time in her busy schedule to sit down and discuss what draws her to different books, how important the query letter really is, and how she plucks talented writers out of the slush pile. Will you be the next gifted scribe to catch her eye?
Read the interview to find out, then polish those manuscripts and send them out!
WordHustler: How did you get your start in the publishing industry?
Danielle Chiotti: Completely by accident, actually. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, and spent a year waitressing before I basically stumbled into a job doing reader’s reports for a small literary agency. A few months later, they asked me if I wanted to come in and learn about being an agent. I had no idea what that meant, but I thought, “Oh, why not?” I’ve been working in publishing ever since.
WH: You’ve worked all over the publishing industry, at places like Kensington Publishing and Adams Media. What is the main difference between editing and agenting, and why did you decide to make the switch?
DC: Literary agents have a lot more autonomy than editors do; we’re not beholden to a certain set of parameters for publishing a book. I loved my work as an editor, but there were always so many rules about what I could and could not acquire, depending on the needs of the publisher. As an agent, I can truly sign the projects I love–in any area I choose.
WH: What draws you to a fiction book? Non-fiction?
DC: Goodness. The obvious answer for each of these questions is: Good writing!
For fiction, it’s really all about the voice. I’m drawn to stories in which the voice grabs you in the first line and doesn’t let go. The three main narrators of Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP, for example, just blew me away. I also read Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE over the holidays, and I just can’t stop thinking about Olive. Such a complex, flawed, and interesting character. Of course, plot is also important in fiction, but most of all, I look for characters who are so interesting and unique that they could be telling me about something really boring–like wallpaper– and I’d be positively riveted. I also tend to favor strong, flawed female characters, and fish-out-of-water stories.
For nonfiction, I tend toward narrative that explores a previously unexplored topic, or that brings a fresh take to a perennial topic. For example, Michael Chabon’s MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS is certainly well-trod territory, as far as “dad lit” goes, but so beautifully and heartbreakingly written that the topic doesn’t feel stale. I also adore food memoir.
WH: You also represent a fair amount of YA authors. Do you think the YA world is more challenging than the adult world?
DC: I think each has its challenges, and I don’t want to say that one is more difficult than the other. What I will say is that since YA has been the category “du jour” for so long, it’s getting crowded, and the competition is fierce.
WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today? (Obviously you can include people you rep…it’s only fair!)
DC: Of course all of the authors I represent are my favorite authors! They are an enormously talented group of people. I’m honored to be working with them, and I’m always thrilled to read what they’re working on next.
My reading tastes range far and wide. Anyone who has read my profile on the Upstart Crow site knows of my undying devotion to E.B. White and CHARLOTTE’S WEB, which is pretty much the book that started it all for me. I’ve read Michael Chabon’s THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH so many times that the pages are falling out. I think I mentioned earlier that I adore food memoir, and so I’m a devoted fan of Ruth Reichl and all of her books, especially COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. I’ve also always had a soft spot for retired romance author LaVyrle Spencer; I used to steal her novels from my mother’s bookshelf and sneak them into my room!
WH: What types of books are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?
WH: What’s your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straights or blooming? Both? Neither?
DC: There’s been much debate on the state of the publishing industry today, lots of doomsday speculation about the death of publishing, and even some heated debates about the role of literary agents in an author’s career, especially with the growth in popularity of e-books and the like.
I tend to think that much of the online chatter is just that: chatter. Publishing has proven itself time and time again to be a resilient industry, and though there have certainly been some dark days in the recent past, I’m always amazed by the ability of the industry to pick itself up, dust itself off, readjust, and thrive.
No matter how the content is published in the future, publishers will always be looking for talented authors, and thus authors will always need an advocate to help them navigate the publishing process and think about the trajectory of their career in the long term. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that I remain optimistic about the future of publishing, in whatever form it may take.
WH: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what percentage of authors that you decide to represent come from the unsolicited submissions?
DC: Oh, are you going to make me do math? No fun! The truth is, the bulk of my current client list has come from unsolicited submissions. I rely very heavily on my unsolicited submissions to find talent, and I give them very serious consideration. I’ve found (and signed and sold) some absolutely amazing writers as a result.
WH: How important is the query letter? Do you want any sample pages or does the query make enough of a first impression?
DC: Every agent seems to have a different take on query letters. For me, a clearly-written, professional query letter is incredibly important. That said, it’s nearly impossible to gauge a project’s true worth from a query letter. So at Upstart Crow, we’ve made it part of our submissions policy that writers are invited to send along the first 20 pages of their manuscript with their query letter. For more information and a complete set of submissions guidelines, visit here.
WH: What are three things in a query that make you want to read more?
DC: Ah, this is an interesting question. I know that most writers would prefer that I answer in absolutes, but the more queries I read and consider, the more convinced I become that queries are not at all a black and white issue. But in an effort to be specific, the three things in a query letter than make me want to read more are:
1. A concise summary of the book.
2. A unique/compelling premise.
3. An indication that the writer as thoroughly researched my areas of interest/background and feels we’d be a good match. It’s pretty easy to tell when a writer hasn’t done their homework and doesn’t really know a lot about the agency or my specific interests as an agent.
But if I can be totally honest here, reading a query or sample pages is kind of like going on a blind date–it’s all about the spark. When I read a query and sample pages, I’m not only looking for the elements I listed above, I’m looking to feel a connection to the writing, the story, and most of all–the characters. Call me a hopeless romantic, but when I read a query or sample pages, I’m looking to fall in love at first sight.
WH: What are three things that let you know this project/writer isn’t for you?
DC: 1. A query that tries to be too flashy/stylish, but that leaves me with too many unanswered questions about the story. It’s best to be concise and up front about the story in your query letter, and to summarize it to the best of your ability.
2. Unoriginal or “copycat” ideas that are riding a current trend (vampires, for instance!).
3. Anything that is in the mystery/thriller category, or poetry or short stories.
WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?
DC: Writing your novel and then querying agents is a long process, but you have to keep the faith that something will happen for you. Be persistent and constantly dedicated to your craft!
Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop asking questions, don’t ever stop striving to push your writing to the next level. Complacency is the enemy of any writer.
Also, while Internet is a great resource–for networking, researching and the like–I find that many writers are using it for a diversion these days. If you’re spending more time on writing websites, message boards, and Twitter than you are on your own writing, you should set aside time to unplug and get back into it.
WH: Do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there and into your hands, professionally and effectively?
DC: Of course I do! It’s a most excellent resource for writers. Good luck, and write well!
We find the judge GUILTY of having amazing taste and publishing wisdom to spare! So you heard her, Hustlers- polish those manuscripts, perfect those queries, and work on getting your projects 100% up to snuff. Then send them out digitally via our brand-spankin’ new Digital Submission System which helps you find contact info and track all of your submissions in one easy place.
Yes, we said ALL of your submissions because everyone knows that getting published is a numbers game. Aim to have ten submissions out and in play at ALL TIMES. Doing this ensures that writing success is just within reach. Don’t forget to submit your novel to our Literary Storm Novel Contest as well! Danielle could very well decide your manuscript is a real WINNER! All hail the judge!