The following article was published in the Nov./Dec. issue of The ASJA Monthly. Because that issue is no longer accessible to the public on ASJA’s website, I’m pasting it here. Please forgive typos that may have resulted from my shoddy cut and paste job. – BDB
Voices on Writing
BY BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT
Laurie Fox is the West Coast associate for the Linda Chester Literary Agency, based in Manhattan. As Chester’s partner, Laurie joined the agency in 1989 and is celebrating 25 years with the agency. She is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a published author of fiction and poetry, including Sexy Hieroglyphics (Chronicle Books), My Sister From the Black Lagoon (Simon & Schuster), and The Lost Girls (Simon & Schuster).
For the Linda Chester Literary Agency, Laurie represents works of literary and qual- ity fiction, biography/memoir, popular culture, history, and science. With Linda Chester, Laurie co-agented Wally Lamb’s bestselling novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. Other books of Laurie’s include New York Times bestsellers Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, Lolly Winston’s Good Grief, James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, and Cameron West’s First Person Plural. Other highlights: Cheryl Strayed’s first novel Torch; David Bianculli’s Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”; Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot By the Side of the Road; Robert Zubrin’s The Case For Mars; Bob Walker and Frances Mooney’s The Cats’ House; Philip Sudo’s Zen Guitar; Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys; David P. Murphy’s Zombies For Zombies; and Carolyn Cooke’s novel, Daughters of the Revolution, a New Yorker Book of the Year. For more information, please visit LindaChester.com.
Talk about the path from bookseller to agent.
My path was an unusually linear and organic one. I had been a longtime bookseller, having been the night manager at George Sand Books in Los Angeles (owned by agent Charlotte Gusay), as well as a bookseller/events coordinator for Warwick’s Books in La Jolla—two beloved, community-supported indie stores. In between, I worked with antiquarian books at a cavernous store in San Diego that had shelves devoted to every imaginable topic, from great fires to zoology. Our scratch paper was taken from end- papers that had fallen out of books from the 1600s! At Warwick’s, I met acclaimed agent Sandra Dijkstra who generously encour- aged me to come work for her.
During my time at her agency, I was fortunate to be included in most aspects of the business, having a hand in everything from reception to editing proposals and novels, to consulting during auctions. Within three months of arriving, the first draft of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club graced Sandy’s desk and I was privileged to watch how a bestseller is born from a front-row seat. I also was taken with how democratic the agency workplace is: again, do- ing both filing and high-end manuscript development. After 2 1⁄2 years, I left to pursue my own writing, but the exigencies of life took over and I began working with the visionary and passionate agent Linda Chester. Linda was based in La Jolla (later establish- ing a main office in New York City). As I write, Linda and I are looking forward to celebrating 25 years of working together this November. While we’ve always maintained separate offices, we enjoy an unusually close relationship that is equal parts business colleagues and close friends.
You’re also the author of two novels. When do you write?
A critical question, as it took me about seven years to figure this out myself. I work on a laptop in coffeehouses away from my agent’s desk to keep the two worlds distinct. In Berkeley, I was regularly inspired by the knowledge that everyone around me was also working on serious projects—from music composition to studying language. Of course, many of the denizens were writing books of their own.
One could work on a national holiday in a coffeehouse in Berkeley and not be considered a weirdo! I first began to work on my own fiction solely on Saturday mornings, then added Sunday mornings to the mix, and occasional weekday evenings. Now, on rare weekdays, I manage to get in a couple of hours between 4 and 6 p.m. PT after Manhattan shuts down. Of course, during the busy seasons, this is not possible.
After my first novel was published, I remember going around telling everybody that if I could find personal writing time (with- in a 70-hour workweek), other writers could be equally “ruthless’ in taking time devoted to their own work. But I soon discovered that each novel has its own rhythms, requirements, and pace, and no two books have proved to be similar in terms of how they emerge.
I’ve been working on a third novel now for five years and am nearing completion—at least that’s what I tell myself! I’m doing serious rewrites now just like my own clients. I always say, not only does writing fiction keep me sharp as an editor, but also enables me to age without becoming embittered or envious! I’m doing the work I need to do for my own sense of self, and like to believe it makes me more open, understanding and generous to my authors. I’ve gone through all the phases of publishing myself so I believe I can function as a savvy “guide dog” when it comes to understanding what happens to a book once it’s in the pipeline: developmental editing, copyediting, and later, doing publicity and reading from one’s own work.
Are you your own agent?
Oh, no! Never recommended! Even though I know publishing law and could easily handle my own contracts, I firmly believe in the need for a liaison who represents you with panache, smarts, and full-bore belief—the person who is with you for the entire- ty of the journey, someone who acts as a buffer between the two worlds of art and commerce. I have been very blessed to have the same unflaggingly enthusiastic agent represent all three of my books as well as my new novel. My first book (Sexy Hieroglyphics from Chronicle) was a novelty book that created over 3,000 erotic haiku poems, and when it was acquired, I knew intuitively that I should have a representative in place to discuss the cover, interior design, font, publicity, and everything in between. If one is going the indie or self-publishing route, an agent is not altogether nec- essary, although I always tout the virtues of having self-published books developmentally edited and professionally copy edited and designed, and the contract reviewed by an agent or intellectual property attorney. But for mainstream/NY publishing, the au- thor/agent relationship is extremely vital. Having someone who has faith in your work over the course of many years (and multi- ple books) is invaluable—a major psychological boon while you’re working solo in the trenches.
Anyway, you’re now up in Portland, after being in Berkeley for—how many years?
I set up the agency’s West Coast office in Berkeley in 1993 and was firmly in place there for 20 years. Obviously, there’s a moth- erload of talent in the Bay Area as well as a palpable, longtime de- votion to literature and ideas. It is both an intellectual and heart- centric environment.
However, I represent just as many authors on the West Coast as in other places, including the East Coast, the Midwest, and even New Zealand and Hawaii. An interesting East Coast/West Coast note: I am privileged to represent New York-based editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin, Mitch Horowitz. His powerful works
Thus far, I honestly haven’t noted a huge difference given that Portland is similarly a creative mecca—for literature, design, music, etc. It’s just as progressive as the Bay Area and is bursting with talent. Too, Portland offers a great many speaking venues for au- thors and boasts truly outstanding bookstores. Gratefully, most of my clients come through town to read at Powell’s Books. (Two of my gifted au- thors reside here, which is delicious icing on the literary cake.) About the only significant difference between the two areas is that the Bay Area boasts the largest assembly of agents outside Manhattan and, therefore, it’s easy to get together with other agents and talk shop, schmooze, and compare notes. But there are many whip-smart and dedicated book people in Portland with whom I’m enjoying getting together. Portland also enjoys a thriving indie publishing scene that one can’t fail to no- tice. For starters, check out the remarkable books coming out of Tin House and Hawthorne Books.
How is it different being an agent in Portland rather than Berkeley. Moreover, how is it being away from New York?
To my mind, the question regarding having a New York-based agent versus a West Coast agent was resolved about 25 years ago. Authors stopped asking me about this, no longer worried that they were missing out on something special. Most agents work hard, passionately, and thoughtfully for authors, and that’s the important thing; we all submit our clients’ work electronically so there’s a level playing field. Some publishers feel that New York looks to West Coast agents to bring them fresh ideas and introduce them to talented new voices that may have been overlooked. Of course, since my clients live on both coasts and everywhere in between, I am not focused on locale—I am looking for brave, startling new fiction voices and fresh non-fiction ideas from every corner. I would say the more important questions for the author to ask are: Am I going to get lost if I choose to work with a large agency versus a hands-on boutique agency? Of course, an author can have a positive experience in either scenario—it truly depends on the agent’s work style and degree of dedication, as well as those intangibles: the author’s personal experience at the publishing house, how much attention and publicity one’s book garners, and how the author’s work is received by the public.
So are you mostly on the lookout for West Coast-based writers?
As stated above, the agency is sincerely looking for brilliant, original work regardless of its provenance (we sign up only one to two new clients a year, so we choose extremely carefully). Of course, if I can bring attention to a West Coast-based writer, I am especially delighted. I just sold the tender, affecting memoir of one of the event coordinators at the esteemed Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, CA: Pieces of My Mother by Melissa Cistaro, and it brings me considerable joy that Melissa not only is a West Coast writer but also a devoted bookseller. Likewise, when I first sat down with Portland-based engineer/musician Christine McKinley (her book, Physics For Rock Stars), I knew I was in the presence of a unique and wildly creative writer. When I first met New York Times bestselling author/roboticist Daniel H. Wilson, he was a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie- Mellon in Pittsburgh, and now, 12 books later, it’s so much fun to find myself in his West Coast hometown of Portland. I would prefer to think that extraordinary work lurks everywhere—it’s just a matter of it being brought to the attention of agents. Unfortunately, agents are over- whelmed as a “species” (and typically pedaling as fast as we can to keep up with what is coming in to us); because of this, we sometimes miss out on exciting opportunities because we are devoted first and foremost to those clients we’ve signed up. That said, nothing is more exciting than the moment when we recognize we’re in the presence of a singular and arresting literary voice. Agents seek out these “eureka” moments.
If the publishing industry is going to hell, as some would assert, have you considered bailing?
To be honest: never. Certainly I have read the morbid accounts, written almost every year for over 50 years, that the book business is on its last leg, given the latest competition (radio, TV, movies, videogames). I’m not a Pollyanna—there are stronger market forces than ever to con- tend with—but I happen to believe that storytelling will survive. It may take forms we can’t even imagine, but the heart of this art/commerce hybrid is strong and ticking. Of course, it worries me that fewer people are reading books (as evidenced by the annual surveys), but I’m confi- dent these changes are cyclical. Plus, we know that Young Adult books are thriving and in the vanguard; I’d like to think they are spawning a swarm of new and passionate adult readers. Naturally, I worry the most about how authors will financially survive the changes in our industry.
As far as my own commitment, though, it is unwavering. That’s because each book offers me a peephole into a subject or subculture that is invaluable; authors still bring us the news in depth. In this way, agents get to stay au courant about a world of things, and this keeps us fresh, mo- tivated, with our ear to the ground. And there’s nothing more enthrall- ing than encountering a new voice in fiction or non-fiction that wakes us up. I long to be grabbed by the collar by an inventive idea married to ex- quisite language. If I didn’t still “pass out” on occasion when the writing makes me swoon, perhaps I would consider another profession. But as much as I worry about the industry’s often disturbing financial and psy- chological effects on my clients’ spirits, I try to balance this with an op- timism about stories and narratives that have yet to be written.
When you’re queried, whether in fiction or nonfiction, what’s the least you’ve read before you stop reading? I’m thinking the first sentence—the first word, even—would tell you all you need to know.
This question makes me smile because it demands that agents be as candid as any reader. I usually read the entire query letter to learn about a book project and get a handle on the author’s background. But as far as the actual material, I read as many pages as I feel are necessary be- fore I form an opinion. Sometimes this means only a paragraph; other times it takes 35-50 pages for me to make my decision. Most of the work I see is quite sophisticated—at a very high level—so the questions I ask are: Would I be successful representing this particular work? Am I a good match for this book? Does the work add something new to my list? Is this a book I feel contributes something vital to the literature? Do I have a native interest in the subject or story? Often, agents pass on work that we know is excellent but have to acknowledge that we aren’t the right people to guide it all the way into print. One thing I like to tell authors is: Don’t be afraid to include the first 2-3 pages of your work at the bottom of the query letter. Just when an agent may feel “This is not for me,” the actual pages may catch our attention and make us sit up straight in our seats. This is because the query letter usually adopts a different tone than the pages of the book itself.
What’s the problem with short stories? Attention spans have grown shorter, so it would seem that short story collections would work out well.
While it appears that we are living in a golden age of short sto- ries, where stories are garnering much attention from readers and periodicals, and collections of stories enjoy a high profile in the press, they are not so much taboo at New York publishing hous- es, but rather perceived of as difficult to sell. The sales figures for such books tell us that these books simply don’t “perform” as well as novels do. However, editors often look for writers who have both a short story collection to kick off their career followed by a novel. This may appear unfair as many celebrated short story authors are not pressed to write novels (though some do because they enjoy writing long-form fiction, too). But again, New York publishing is an unusual animal: an industry working in tandem with an art form and therefore compelled to pay attention to the bottom line. Still, there are literary houses that honor short story collections and remain open to taking them on. Even so, agents concede from the onset that selling collections is a genuine chal- lenge. We are caught in the middle as lovers of stories who under- stand that placing collections can be a very long shot. So when we do take on a collection, you can believe that we have fallen head over heels in love.
If you’re checking out agents, what should you really pay attention to? What should you ask?
I would first check out the agency’s website and list of pub- lished books to make certain that your own work is a good fit with a specific agency.
I would also pay attention to chemistry. Not that there has to be a perfect match. Ideally, though, an author wants an agent who is not only enthusiastic but whose values don’t conflict with your material. For example, one wouldn’t want a cynical person repre- senting a work of genuine optimism. I would also ask how closely the agent will work with you on a particular manuscript: Will they farm out the developmental work or develop it “in-house”? (Both paths are standard.) I’d also want to know how my own work com- plements or adds to their list of books, and how they present the work to publishers—essentially, the agent’s strategy and meth- odology. We all have different ways of handling and submitting books. Mostly, I would want to genuinely like my new agent. It’s a long and often intense relationship, and an author should feel good about calling or writing her agent whenever the need arises. I’m always stunned to hear that some authors are fearful of their agents! The author should never hesitate to pick up the phone.
What’s the most important thing you should have in an agent?
Chemistry is very high on the list for any intimate relation- ship. You want to be free to laugh and cry (or kvetch) and then jump for joy with your agent when your book is sold. The most important thing, I believe, is the agent’s deeply felt belief in the author’s talent, prose, intellect, and sensibility. This belief should be sustained over the course of multiple books and, therefore, be unwavering. However, an author can’t ask an agent to love all of her or his books equally—it’s only natural to connect with some books more powerfully than others. But considering the work of an author as a whole, the agent should be in a sustained state of admiration if not downright love. We all have favorite works of each client—often the author’s first book remains our sentimental favorite—and we have to be absolutely candid if we don’t connect with a new work of the author’s. I’m of the mind, though, that my authors, over time, can make any book “work”—they need to dis-cover its spine, shape and true form, and this can take countless revisions.
Describe the client from hell.
That’s easy: an author who tries to micro-manage the agent and control every aspect of the process, from the agent’s cover let- ter to the negotiation. An author who cannot trust the agent to do his or her job. A writer who needs to take over the agent’s job! I have to confess, in nearly 30 years as an agent, I’ve only “lost it” twice on the phone. But now I am friends with the same two au- thors who once tested my patience. We can’t even remember what got us heated up in the first place! As stated above, trust seems to be the key to a great relationship. So does the ability to rebound from negative or less than rosy news. It’s a tough business and an author needs to stay as even-tempered as possible, knowing that the agent is feeling the sting (of rejection, of bad news) alongside the author. We become very involved emotionally in each book—it cannot be helped—and, therefore, the agent should never become a punching bag. We’re in the author’s corner, as I said, and feel deeply about the fate of each book we take on.
Describe your dream client.
My dream client is a prose stylist with ideas that send me to the moon and back. I want to be inspired and smitten. As far as personality, I enjoy all manner of authors but especially am fond of eccentrics, mavericks, and writers for whom even individual words are important. A dream client will not be defensive but, in- stead, stay open to the idea of revision (oftentimes numerous re- visions) and take about 80 percent of the advice offered by both the agent and the in-house editor. A dream client is a self-starter but also interested in what I have to say along the way. She or he is usually a generous and kind person (after this many years in the industry, I don’t have the patience I once had for the charming egomaniacs!), as well as a curious and open person who is hungry for ideas and not closed off to readers’ interpretations. ¢
This past July, during one of my Palm Springs writers’ retreats, Laurie Fox spent time on the phone with us talking about the elements of a strong query letter.
Introduction. At the top of your query, introduce your book in one to two provocative sentences.
Overview. In a couple of paragraphs, explain what your book is about. Study flap copy of published books to understand how to convey what you need to say in concise, interesting language.
Compare. Agents and editors find comparisons help- ful. In one sentence, compare your book to other books or authors: “My work is a cross between John Updike and Tom Robbins.” Or: “My work is reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s.”
Your book/your life. How is the topic or theme of your book supported by, or connected to, your life? This applies to fiction as well as nonfiction. If you’re writing a novel, is it at all autobiographical? If so, say so. This is especially helpful for radio. Interviewers like to know what in your life led you to write your novel. This goes for nonfiction, too, although it’s not as vital. Nonfiction authors are sought after for radio be- cause their work is often topical and easily connected to the critical issues of the day.
Endorsements. If you have potential endorsements by notable authors, say so. However, there’s no need to get a commitment prior to querying.
Marketing. Announce that you’re willing to go all out to market your book. It’s now expected to have a mar- keting plan of your own up front. Include info on orga- nizations or venues where you could speak about your book. If you have radio/TV connections, name them.
Bio. Include publishing credits, an MFA program, au- thors you’ve worked with, your professional expertise, and anything else in your bio that’s relevant to your book.
Length. Cite the length of your manuscript.
Pages. To give agents a taste of your work, include the first two pages of your book at the end of the query (not as an attachment), unless the agents you are querying specifically say not to.
Tone. It’s often fun to match the letter’s tone with the book (this is more difficult for fiction). At least make the experience entertaining for the agent. The closer the query is in tone to the actual book, the more likely an agent will be intrigued to read it.
Your query should be a page in length. Writing a query letter can be a daunting experience, but you’re a writer. You can do it! —BDB
Visit the Linda Chester Literary Agency site where Laurie i