Client Spotlight is a feature on the blog to highlight the incredibly talented writers I work with. I ask them a few questions about their writing and querying process and then they get to turn the tables and pose a few questions to me. Today I'm talking with Adrienne Proctor.
Agent Asks Author
Tell us about your book!
My book is a young adult contemporary fantasy about a young art forger named Mara. She paints spells in her forgeries that she uses to rob her clients, and she's on the run from her tutor who wants to use her abilities for her own purposes. There's some kissing with a mohawked tattoo artist, lots of magic...and did I mention the kissing?
You don't write in chronological order, right? Tell us a little bit about your writing process!
I've never been able to write a story from beginning to end. Maybe if I was a little bit more of a plotter than a pantser! But usually when I'm writing, a lot of different steps happen all at once. I'm exploring the character while drafting, going back and editing what I wrote the day before then drafting some more, filling in a structure outline, then jumping from a scene in the middle to one near the end. It's a pretty chaotic process, but it works for me.
For this novel, I started with the idea of spells hidden within paintings. I let it sit in my head for a while until a character started to form around that idea. Since I love antiheroes, I thought it might be interesting to make her an art forger, so I let my imagination play around with that. Then I began to envision her interacting within her world. Once I had a couple specific lines of dialogue and a concrete action, that's when I took pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and began writing. I think I started with a scene where she's breaking into a house, which is currently several chapters in. Then I jumped to the scene where she meets the love interest, several more chapters away, toward the end of the first act.
I love creating the character and the world through this process. My brain just won't work if I'm staring at a blank outline. At some point, usually once I have a fair amount of scenes worked out, I refer to my story structure outline. I'll make sure I'm hitting the right beats, and I can figure out what else I need to flesh out the story.
Why did you decide to query me?
You seemed perfect for my manuscript, and for me!
I'd queried this manuscript a little bit, and while the idea seemed to interest agents, the writing just wasn't getting any requests. So I made two huge decisions. Well, three. First, I decided to change the book from Adult to YA. I felt my voice possibly read too young and some of themes might be better suited for YA. Second, I changed the tense of the entire manuscript, from first person present to first person past. Once I was finished (and what a tedious job that was!), I saw on Twitter that you'd just opened to queries, and you seemed like an amazing agent.
So my third big decision was sending you my second query for my re-vamped manuscript. And you requested the full WITHIN THIRTY MINUTES!
I did! And then you made me wait THREE DAYS before you sent it! I was in agony. The voice in your manuscript grabbed me immediately. Nailing an authentic, compelling voice is a common struggle for writers; Any tips to share?
Oh, gosh. Voice is HARD. When I was writing this book, I kept asking myself lots of questions. Based on Mara's backstory and experiences, how would Mara view this other character's appearance/demeanor/decision? Are her thoughts something she would voice out loud or would she keep them to herself? Would a particular event resonate on an emotional level or is it something she would barely pay attention to?
I just tried to keep in mind that everything happening in the manuscript was coming through the filter of my character, especially since I was writing in first person.
Also, I would, and still do, refer to books I love and examine how the writer created her own unique voice. Not to copy her style, but to examine the passages that drew ME in, and to analyze what I think makes them effective. It helps me to know what I like and then try to infuse my own writing with those qualities.
Tell us about The Call!
I was so nervous! I'm not usually a phone person, even though my day job is to call clients for hours straight. I had a list of researched questions, and I tried to sound as professional as possible, even though I was jumping up and down on the inside.
Before we spoke, I was almost certain I wanted you as my agent. Then you hit the ground running with your offer of representation, and it took everything I had not to blurt out I ACCEPT! The same thing went for the end of the call. I hung up knowing I was going to say yes. I was looking for an editorial agent like you, and you spoke so enthusiastically about my writing that I knew you'd be a strong advocate for it. I had other queries out, and I gave them the requisite week. But I'll tell you, that was the longest week of my life!
Author Asks Agent
Assuming you have some time for personal reading, what recent books have you read and loved?
The lack of pleasure-reading time is one of the only truly hard things about this job, but I make sure to prioritize it when I can. For the year 2017 (with the obvious exception of client manuscripts and other work-required reading) I've committed to reading and purchasing books written exclusively by authors from marginalized or oppressed groups, including but not limited to POC and Native authors, authors with disabilities, LGBTQIA authors, those from underrepresented countries, cultures, and religions, and neurodiverse authors. I've been trying to diversify my reading for a long time now, and was never able to achieve a good balance, so I decided to go all in. My favorites thus far have been THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, WINTERSONG by my dear friend S. Jae-Jones, and AMERICAN STREET by Ibi Zoboi. Next up on my list is THE GAUNTLET by Karuna Riazi.
What advice would you give to aspiring agents? Or what was the best advice you've ever gotten?
Agenting is about more than loving books. Of course loving books is a huge part of agenting, and the publishing industry in general. We all love books. That's why we're here. But loving books is not going to be enough to sustain you. Agenting is hard work, most of it done upfront for no pay (remember, agents don't make money until the author makes money. We are answering queries and reading requests and editing manuscripts and calling editors and pitching books all before we ever see a paycheck). Agenting is about books, yes, but also about establishing relationships and match-making. It's about sales and career management. It's about contract negotiation and advocating for authors. The reading and editing is only a very small sliver of what agents do, and I think a lot of people enter this profession without knowing how truly difficult the work is, and how much hustle it requires. So, I would tell aspiring agents to think holistically about the job, and then embrace every aspect of it. You've gotta love books, yes, but you've gotta love authors more. You have to be willing to go to the mat for them.
And the best advice I've ever been given was from the infamous Janet Reid, of course. Way back in 2008--when I was just a publishing baby, an assistant at a literary agency--I somehow ended up having drinks with Janet and a mentor of mine. I was fantasizing about my future career as I sipped my craft cocktail and Janet asked me what I liked to read and what I'd want to represent when I started building a client list someday. I gave a very earnest answer about how I just loved literature of all kinds! All books are so beautiful and precious and I just love them all! And Janet shot me the stink eye over the rim of her glass and said something along the lines of, "That's an amateur's answer. Nobody loves everything. Cultivate taste. Figure out what you care about. Then work your ass off." I popped like a balloon and spent the rest of the evening mortified, but of course she was right. I didn't really love everything then, and I don't love everything now. Figuring out my taste and where that taste sits in the market was crucial. It helps me ensure that I connect with authors for the right reasons and can advocate for them to the very best of my ability.
What is the most unexpected thing about being an agent, so far?
Imposter syndrome. Even with my resume, I still sometimes wake up and wait for someone to say, "Wait a minute! That's not a literary agent, it's three toddlers in a trench coat!" I didn't expect to feel that way after all my time in the industry, but I guess that's the thing about imposter syndrome: it doesn't care who you are or what you've done. It comes to get you anyway!
I'm a huge procrastinator. And you're able to get through hundreds(!) of queries a month, on top of the rest of your professional obligations. Do you have any strategies to share for time management?
Time is my enemy! I never feel like I'm managing it to the best of my ability, but I think I'd always feel that way no matter what. There's just so much to do! Organization helps. I sort my email into folders. Whenever possible I try to sort queries right away: Request, Reject, or Maybe. I don't actually respond to queries as they come in (unless it's a request, which usually happens quickly) but sorting them for later helps. I also try to carve my days up into blocks of time. Each day is different, but starting with a To Do list and a schedule helps keep me on track.
I also live and die on external validation (Gryffindor forever) so being accountable to my clients, to editors, and to querying authors helps keep me motivated. If I have to do something for myself I tend to drag my feet, but when I have to do something for someone else I'm on it! Transparency is an important value for me as an agent. I want to be open about the things I'm working on because I think it's an important way to maintain trust. So I post monthly #querystats here on the blog so that querying writers know where I'm at with those, and I check in with my authors so they know what I'm working on and what is coming down the line.
I think passion and organization are the best tips I have to offer. Find a way to care about whatever it is you need to do (even if it sucks, find some way to connect to the task), and create organizational tools that help you function as seamlessly as possible. And don't be afraid to chalk up a loss. Some days suck and nothing gets accomplished. Just don't let that bleed into the next day. Try to always start fresh.