By Lindsey Wojcik
Literary agent Sharon Pelletier loves Twitter.
I know this because I’ve followed her for years and have always appreciated her witty take on "The Bachelor," plus our shared obsession with wine, and love and appreciation for Justin Timberlake. She also happens to hail from my home state of Michigan.
While I appreciate following her commentary on our shared interests, I also find her tweets offer important information for writers looking to land a literary agent or anyone seeking information on the publishing industry in general. Pelletier currently works as a literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in New York City. She counts Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone, which The New York Times recommend as one the best nine thrillers to read this summer, as a client.
Recently, I noticed Pelletier tweeting with the Manuscript Wish List hashtag (#MSWL), which inspired me to dig deeper and find out more on her manuscript wish list, what she looks for in query letters, and her advice to aspiring writers.
Lindsey Wojcik: How did you get your start in publishing?
Sharon Pelletier: I moved to New York City at the ripe old age of 25 and applied ceaselessly to every publishing job I could reasonably fit my resume into until I got an internship at a small press. Then I went to every mixer, event, and happy hour I could to meet people, collect business cards, and hustle up interviews—all while working 40 hours a week at Barnes & Noble and freelancing like crazy, mind you! It was a very exciting, exhausting, and skinny time in my life. Eventually my internship led me to a full-time position as an editor at another small publishing company, and I was off to the races.
LW: You've worked in many facets of the industry, from bookstores to a small press to a self-publishing company and now at an agency. How have those experiences shaped your role as agent?
SP: I’m glad I made a few stops on the way to being an agent because I have a full understanding of the whole publishing process! I’ve worked in editorial, production, and marketing, in addition to my time as a bookseller, which has made me better able to answer clients’ questions, evaluate publishers, or offer suggestions if a book needs to be jumpstarted. Of all of these jobs, being a bookseller might be the most useful, in a way, because I learned how different readers make buying decisions, from the hardcore readers who go through 50-plus books a year to genre devotees to folks who pick up one or two books a year from the nonfiction categories. Learning the reading tastes of customers who came in regularly for recommendations was good practice for profiling an editor’s taste.
LW: What steps do you recommend an author take when trying to land an agent?
SP: Step one: research! You’ve put a lot of time into finishing your manuscript and polishing it until it’s the best you can be, right? Writers are often eager at this point to start launching their work out there, but it’s best to put the extra time into learning how to query effectively. If you’re brand new to the process, seek out blog posts and other resources online to learn how to write a strong query letter and how to find the agents seeking your kind of manuscript.
Twitter is another great way to get to know agents’ individual preferences, both what they’re looking for their list, and their favorite television shows, pet peeves, etc. Twitter is also perfect to connect with other writers at the same step of the process for support and tips.
LW: How can writers develop a quality query letter that catches an agent’s eye?
SP: Again, research! The things we ask for like word count, genre, comp titles, show that you’ve researched your market and understand your readership—and that you know we work in that category. Writing is about art, but being an author is also about business, and as much as we’re looking for manuscripts we love, we’re also looking for authors with career potential who will be a strong partner for us. So a well-researched, carefully crafted query that follows industry standards and our specific agency guidelines shows that you’re taking the business side of writing seriously and putting the time into careful research.
There’s a lot of info online (including on the DGLM blog) about the components of a strong query letter, but here’s the short version:
- Opening: 1-2 sentences with genre, word count, comp titles, and mention of why you’re querying this agent (I follow you on Twitter, we met at X conference, I read your client X’s book and loved it, etc., for example)
- Story pitch of around 200 words. Highlight characters, world, and stakes—think about what would be on the back of your book’s cover in the bookstore.
- Bio: 2-3 sentences about who you are, including publication credits, experience you’ve had that informed this book, etc.
Rather than querying every agent whose email address you can find, put the time in to query a handful of agents who seem like the ideal fit—take the time to seek out details on their website, their #MSWL, interviews they’ve done, books they represent, etc. Then you can write a strong personal query mentioning why you’ve queried this agent in particular.
LW: What is the most common mistake you see from first-time authors?
SP: If you’re speaking of the query process, I gotta spout my favorite word again: research—or the lack thereof.
If you mean in the writing itself, one common rookie mistake is to open with your character waking up in the morning or some variation on “The day that changed her life started like any other day.” Don’t tell us that—show us! If your plot starts with a weird email when your character gets to her office, show us her sitting down at her desk with a mug of hot tea, or checking her email on the phone while sipping a smoothie on her way out of the gym. In either scenario, you’re showing us something about the character’s personality and lifestyle that is more important than us knowing what color her hair is or what she’s getting dressed in. You’re setting the character’s “normal” just before the unusual interrupts to start the story.
LW: What do you look for when you're reading a manuscript?
SP: I want to be absorbed in your story to the point that I forget I’m reading a submission and am just reading. And this usually comes down to voice, which is an easy term to throw around and harder to define or teach. It’s not about splashy, lavish descriptions or sassy dialog. Does your main character seem real and alive, like I could picture her walking around in the real world outside the page? Do her obstacles have stakes? Am I invested? Have you created a time and place for the story and drawn me into them? All of these questions matter whether you have a fast-paced crime thriller or a quiet family story set in familiar suburbs.
And the best way to develop your voice as a writer, paradoxically, is to read widely and deeply. Reading teaches your brain quietly how to pace a story, how to seed in details without drowning the reader in description or back story, so that your distinctive voice can emerge.
LW: Speaking of manuscripts, you've been active on Twitter using Manuscript Wish List's #MSWL hashtag. What's your involvement with Manuscript Wish List and what benefit does it offer agents, editors, and authors alike?
SP: Manuscript Wish List existed for a long time on Twitter as a hashtag where agents could tweet genres they’re interested in or story ideas they’re dying to represent. Sort of the reverse of a Twitter pitch event, it is the brainchild of an agent named Jessica Sinsheimer. In the last year or so, it’s taken on even more momentum with a very snazzy website where agents and editors can post profiles about what categories they represent and the kinds of stories within each category they’re most eager to see—and perhaps most handy of all, update those profiles as often as they like as their lists change. It seems to be a great help to authors in finding agents hungry for manuscripts like theirs.
And on my end, my eyes perk up when I see someone reference my MSWL in a query! It’s a nice shiny sign of an author who’s putting in the research and is plugged in to the latest in the writer community. I don’t think I’ve signed a project that way yet, but I’m sure I will soon!
LW: What's on your Manuscript Wish List?
SP: Right now I’d love to find some smart narrative nonfiction that brings that perfect combo of gripping storytelling and merciless research—something like Brain on Fire or Five Days At Memorial. I’d love to work with journalists who have a long-form book project. I’d also be interested in working with cultural voices with a growing platform—the next Lindy West or Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I think I’ll always be eager for smart, upmarket suspense (think Tana French or Gillian Flynn) and book club fiction that’s warm and earthy but not sappy—Ann Leary and Delia Ephron are two writers I’ve loved lately.
LW: What's your advice for aspiring writers?
SP: Find a community of writers to connect with! Whether it’s in your local area or online, find other writers in your category who take their writing seriously. They’ll be valuable as critique partners when you’re in the early stages of perfecting your manuscript, and more importantly, you’ll have a built-in fan club when you’re moving toward an agent and a publishing deal. There’s a lot of waiting, a lot of struggle, and a lot of disappointment along the way to a successful career with adoring readers and having support from writers who know what’s it’s like is key for boosting you during the hard patches. Finding writer friends at different stages of the process can be especially helpful for advice and encouragement! Even if your loved ones are your biggest fans, they don’t really know how it feels when you have writer’s block or have to cut out a scene you absolutely love.
LW: What is a random fact about yourself?
SP: Wow, this is the hardest question of all, I think! Hmmm, I’ll give you a few to choose from: I’m the oldest of seven, never went to school, and would choose mashed potatoes over pie any day of the week.
To learn more about Sharon Pelletier, follow her on Twitter @sharongracepjs.