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?

More... 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?

DC: A book with a kick-ass zombie heroine–think BREATHERS, only with a female protagonist. I keep putting it out there on Twitter, but no one has risen to meet my challenge 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!

Who is more passionate than a mother about her children? Only a mother who is also a writer! Meet Corin Wiser, mother, wife, and successful author of the book Matters of the Heart: A Guide to Living and Loving Your Teen Years. As Corin puts it, her book “offers simple and straightforward tools to help the reader connect with her inner voice, or ‘internal guidance system,’ and to overcome negative influences on the way to reaching her full potential.”

Well, it’s definitely working. After publishing her book, Corin has seen it snapped up by mothers and daughters everywhere! A series of workshops have sprung up to accompany the book, and it’s even been embraced as required reading in some forward-thinking schools! Not bad for a mama with something to say, huh?

WordHustler sat down with Corin to get her opinion on what to do when the drive to write overtakes you, how to market yourself as a new author, and why sometimes breakfast for dinner is the best solution. Read on to find out more about this amazing mother/writer!

WordHustler: You have a background as a speaker and have your Masters in Education- what made you decide you HAD to write this book?

Corin Wiser: That’s precisely how I felt – I felt that I HAD to write this book. A few years ago, I was drawn to my old journals, journals that I’d kept since I was nine years old. I sat on my bedroom floor for two days and just read, reconnecting with my younger self. What I discovered in those journals was a young adolescent who had a pretty good childhood, but who also experienced self-doubt and insecurity, feelings of uncertainty and insignificance, and plenty of unanswered questions and regrettable mistakes. Looking back, I wish I’d had a roadmap – a guidebook – to help me discover and focus on the things that really mattered to me, and to help me develop the strength and courage to live by those things.

More... As the mother of three daughters, I realized that I had a responsibility to help them on their own imminent journey through the challenging teenage years. And so I began writing what was originally intended as a book for my three daughters, Rebecca and Leah (12 ½ year-old twins) and 8 ½ year-old Hannah. Several months into my writing, I realized that I simply had to share my message with as many teen girls as possible, and that realization fueled my passion even further! I felt inspired and “guided” in my writing, and I loved every minute of it! The result was Matters of the Heart: A Guide to Living and Loving Your Teen Years.

Looking back now, I can clearly see what was taking place. I believe that we all have a deep-rooted need to contribute and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Some of us become aware of this need and live a life filled with meaning and purpose. Some of us go through life searching and searching, not really understanding why we don’t feel fulfilled. But the moment we connect with this need and commit to contributing to others, we feel purposeful and joyful, even when things don’t go our way. And that’s what writing Matters of the Heart became for me: my purpose and my contribution.

WH: How long did it take you to write this book? Then how long until you decided to publish it?

CW: I’ll never forget the day I started to write… I honestly had no idea that what I was writing would eventually become a book, and that I would publish it! I just started writing and, as strange as it sounds, the words literally began to flow through me. I became so immersed in my writing that I had time for very little else. I took my daughters to school, came back home, and did nothing but write until it was time to pick them up from school. I skipped meals – eating them and preparing them (thank goodness my family had grown accustomed to eating breakfast for dinner!), and I sometimes went days without speaking to close friends and family. I just wrote – six days a week.  At that pace, I was able to complete the book in about five months.

Then it was time to edit… My husband is an amazing editor, and he was committed to helping me get my message out there. After he had edited the book, I sent the manuscript to Joyce Sweeney, an acclaimed author and editor. Joyce was tremendously helpful in pointing out things that my husband and I had overlooked. Once the final edits were complete, I sent the manuscript to the publishing firm that, from day one, I had envisioned publishing my book. I had seen it in my mind’s eye, and I was absolutely certain they would publish Matters of the Heart, so when I received their very polite rejection letter several months later, I was absolutely crushed! I consulted with a friend of mine, a successful author who had become my mentor, and discussed the self-publishing option. And the rest is history!

WH: Do you see this book as part of a series? Are you interested in bringing this message to different groups like teenage boys, etc?

CW: Even as I was writing Matters of the Heart, I knew that my next book would be written from the perspective of Nicki, the book’s fictional teenage character. You know, it’s amazing to me that any time I speak to an audience of teen girls, they always ask about Nicki. They want to know whether she’s real or fictional. I think my audience connects better with the book’s message when it’s presented from the perspective of a teen girl. I’d love for Nicki to “write” the next book, but she hasn’t started that one yet! I’ve been asked by a number of people to write a Matters of the Heart book for teenage boys, and while I know that boys would benefit tremendously from the book’s message, I’m not sure I’m the right messenger. Put it this way, I’ve been blessed with three daughters for a reason – I was meant to write a book for teen girls!

WH: What for you is the most challenging part of writing a book for teens? Convincing prose? Educating without talking down to kids? Etc?

CW: Matters of the Heart was initially intended for my three daughters, as a guidebook for them, and so my voice was the voice of a mother offering advice to her daughters. Once I made the decision to share this book with as many teen girls as possible, I became more aware of the importance of not speaking down to my audience – of speaking from a place of honesty and integrity, without sounding too preachy. After all, I wanted my message not only to be read but to be heard.

What’s interesting is that I think I was able to accomplish that by presenting two distinct voices in my book – mine and Nicki’s. Mine is the voice of the caring, loving adult who made her share of mistakes as a teen. Nicki’s is the voice of a 16-year-old girl who openly shares her struggles but who is still a good role model – someone the readers can learn from.  Incorporating Nicki helped me to create a balance between the “motherly” voice and the teen voice with which teen girls can easily relate.

But the book was not intended to “sound” like the teenage girls portrayed in the media. I wanted to speak to teen girls based on who they can become, not on how they’re perceived by the media. And keeping it real (literally) is what I think allowed me to create more convincing prose: For the most part, every story in the book is a true story – something I experienced first-hand (or someone close to me experienced first-hand).

WH: You are doing a fantastic job of marketing yourself and your book since self-publishing it last year, especially in conjunction with all the workshops you teach. What advice do you have for other writers out there who are looking to market themselves?

CW: Networking is a must. Being out there in the community, getting involved with groups that share similar interests, and volunteering to speak at a variety of events is always helpful. You’ll never know with whom you’ll eventually connect. Just recently, my twin daughters were asked to speak to a group of women about the work they’re doing for the Give a Girl a Chance organization. I was there to hear my daughters speak, and at some point someone mentioned that I had written a book for teen girls. After the talk, a woman walked up to me and took down my contact information. She was the very same person who put me in touch with WordHustler!

I’ve discovered that teens benefit greatly from reading my book within a group setting, where topics can be discussed and insights shared. Consequently, I’ve begun conducting as many workshops as possible for schools and mother-daughter groups. Actually, doing these workshops is really what it’s about for me. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they have an “aha” experience! Last year, through The Ophelia Project, I gave a talk at several Tampa schools. One of these schools decided to incorporate Matters of the Heart into their middle school curriculum this Fall.

Another school, in Puerto Rico, made my book required summer reading for their middle school girls. I recently had an opportunity to visit with these girls and to discuss, in a group setting, what they gained from reading the book. It was an awesome experience for me! My dream is to continue marketing the book through my workshops so that it’s read by girls in a group setting and by mother-daughter groups all around the country!

WH: What are a few of your favorite books out there today (besides your own, of course!)?

CW: I love to read – and I frequently find myself reading several books at a time. I just finished reading The Rabbi and the CEO, by Thomas D. Zweifel, Ph.D. and Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, an excellent book on leadership. I’m also re-reading The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. And I’ll never get tired of reading Og Mandino‘s books.

WH: What is your preferred writing method? Do you have a certain writing spot/technique?

CW: I rely quite a bit on my laptop (a gift from my husband to encourage my writing!) and I do best when I can write in a peaceful, natural setting with few outside distractions. What’s interesting, though (and I’m sure other writers have experienced this) is that most of my ideas come to me in the middle of the night. When I wrote Matters of the Heart, I kept a journal on my nightstand and jotted down ideas that came to me during the night. It’s as though my mind takes a break at night, allowing my more creative nature to emerge. I love the steady flow of ideas, and I welcome it, even if it means not sleeping very much!

WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to do?

CW: First, I’d advise them to just start writing. Don’t postpone writing for a calmer or more “inspired” day. It’s easy to put things off; but if this is your passion, then go for it now! I would also encourage them to connect with other successful writers – learn from them! Ask about and read about their trials and errors; grab what speaks to you and let go of what doesn’t. And following this, I would encourage writers to discover and stay connected with their own unique voice, especially when writing a book that reveals elements of their own personal lives. Although Matters of the Heart is a self-help book written for teen girls, with a fictional teen character, the book is an accurate reflection of who I am, of my values, and of my vision for teen girls.

WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to NEVER do?

CW: Never force the writing process. Let it flow and come from a place of inspiration. Although I believe that one should not wait for conditions to be perfect before beginning to write, I also believe that it’s important not to force the process. Be committed to writing regularly and consistently but also know that there will be days, months, or even years where you may need to take a break from your writing. Never be afraid to express through your writing what feels right to you, even if you think it won’t have a mass appeal. And finally – and I know it’s been said before by other authors, but I’ll say it again – never, never, never give up. No matter what.

WH: Do you think WordHustler is a valuable resource in helping writers successfully get their work out there, professionally and effectively?

CW: Absolutely. I only wish WordHustler had been around to guide me on my journey. As a first-time published author, a true novice, I could certainly have used your help! Yes, I was committed to getting my book published, but WordHustler‘s resources and support would certainly have made the process smoother and more effective. Maybe my next book?

Listen to Mama, all you WordHustlers! She knows what’s up. Is your book ready to be criqitued by editorial maven Joyce Sweeney? What’s that? You’d like to WIN a free critique from Joyce? Well y0u still have time to enter WordHustler’s Literary Storm Novel Contest– the deadline is January 25th and besides a manuscript critique from Joyce, you can also win a chance to be published by Flatmancrooked, as well as Barnes and Noble gift certificates! Now THAT’S something to write home about! Enter TODAY!