Therese here. When I learned that Donald Maass recently brought a new agent into his fold at DMLA, you know my first thought was to interview her here at WU. I’m so glad that Katie Shea took the time to answer a few questions for us and let us get to know her and her literary tastes a little bit. Enjoy!
TW: Tell us about your journey to becoming a literary agent. Did you always want to be an agent? Have you ever been a writer?
KS: I love answering this question because I have always wanted to be a writer. As a little girl, my dream was to have a best-selling novel. After college, I was a freelance writer for a couple of websites, and I had the lifestyle beat for a small press. When I realized there were businesses called “literary agencies” in New York, I wanted to learn more. I got an internship with FinePrint Literary Management to absorb what agents were looking for and process of getting your book published by the big wigs. (Hoping I would one day do this.) During this time, I was drafting my first novel, writing on a strict weekly schedule. However, while learning more about the business, I began to love it. Reading queries was interesting and exciting to me. A pile of submissions was a land of possibilities, a path toward discovering a new fantastic writer. Moving from there, I got a fantastic opportunity to work along side of agent, Erin Niumata at Folio Literary Management, where I worked with celebrity chef, Buddy Valastro and his first cookbook, CAKE BOSS: STORIES AND RECIPES FROM MIA FAMIGLIA. I was hooked. This was what I wanted to do. (*Note: My first drafted novel, THE DIVORCE HOUSE, is currently aging in my desk drawer. I do plan to work on it someday.)
TW: What areas do you/will you specialize in?
KS: I love real-life stories. I want the raw, emotional, gritty, story line that I can feel deep inside my bones. At the DMLA, I am specializing in commercial-scale literary fiction, women’s fiction, realistic YA, and memoir.
TW: What do you look for in a compelling project?
KS: I want to know the main character. Really, know him/her. A successful writer isn’t afraid to be honest. Put emotion into your story and put details you think should be secret. Conflict is a major part of a story, so use it. Use conflict as a base to your protagonist’s emotions. Another aspect that is important in a “compelling” project is the development of the characters. I love character-driven novels, and I love seeing when characters change their ways and realize certain values in life through a particular situation. Show personal struggle and personal strength to make the full circle in a character’s novel life.
TW: Can you provide a few examples of clients who’ve hooked you with either voice, plot, characterizations, a great query or synopsis? What did it?
KS: I love one-sentence pitches. Give me what the story is about in one sentence. This proves to me that the writer knows his/her project.
One of my first clients, Carolita Blythe, sent me a query letter that I could not refuse. Her first sentence went like this:
I am seeking representation for my 90,000 word completed novel, Revenge of a Not So Pretty Girl, the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between an 80-year-old reclusive former actress and the 13-year-old girl who tries to mug her.
Tell me more! Lets break this down to why this is a great first sentence. First, she included the word count. Title is next, which is always important. Now to her one sentence pitch:
The highlighted word here is “the.” There is only one story like this.
Carolita did her research; I love character-driven novels.
80-year-old reclusive former actress
A fantastic brief description of one of the main characters.
There is a huge age difference here between the two protagonists, and it is obvious this story is of an “unlikely relationship.”
who tries to mug her
Conflict! Carolita proves to me that she has a well-developed story line with two interesting characters while presenting conflict.
*Carolita Blythe’s Revenge of a Not So Pretty Girl will be published Spring 2013 by Delacorte Books.
TW: Defining “women’s fiction” is always challenging. How would you do it?
KS: My definition of women’s fiction: An extraordinary story relating to women involving in-depth characters, emotion, struggle, and uncovering life’s unexplainable joy.
KS: 1. Start in the middle of a scene. I hate reading back stories of characters. Too boring.
2. Create conflict immediately. It doesn’t have to be the major conflict of the story, but some sort of argument or emotional struggle.
3. Don’t include a Prologue. It is rare for me to like a Prologue and to have an author keep it in the novel.
4. Stick to revealing a lot about the main character through the first scene. Connection between the reader and writer is so important. I want to immediately connect with the protagonist. Let me in on her secrets.
5. Keep the story line going. Make sure the first 5 pages lead to questioning for the reader and wanting to know more.
TW: What are a few of the books on your keeper shelf? What is your all-time favorite read, and why do you love it?
KS: My “keeper shelf”:
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help
Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle
Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking
Koren Zailckas’ Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Many of these books are memoir, yes I know, but I LOVE memoir. It is my book of choice. I grew up reading memoir because I like to connect with the author on the deepest level. It amazes me when an author can reveal a particular chapter in their life and be able to be so honest on paper about their thoughts, feelings, troubles, and emotions. This speaks to me as talent. There is one thing to having an interesting life and great book idea, but can you execute it?
TW: How can prospective clients contact you? Should they mention reading about you in this interview?
KS: Writers may certainly query me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make sure to read the submission guidelines in my bio on the agency web site: www.maassagency.com. They may also mention they read this interview.
TW: Is there anything you’d like to add?
KS: Listen to your gut. And write what you know. Finding an agent is like “finding” a relationship. There is an art to finding the perfect agent to represent your work. Do your research and never give up.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s lloydcrew