Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 15, 2020

Agent of the Month – Part One Interview with Nora Long

PART ONE OF MY INTERVIEW WITH NORA IS READY TO READ.

It is my pleasure to announce that Nora Long at Writer’s House is our Agent of the Month for May. Scroll to bottom for guidelines on how to submit a first page for a chance to win a critique with Nora.

NORA LONG: Junior Agent at Writers House

Nora primarily is interested in YA and adult fiction, as well as the stories that occupy the murky borderland in between. She thinks there’s a grand underexplored space for twenty-something coming-of-age novels, and she’d love to see more stories that deliberately appeal to the readers who are too old for YA but still end up reading YA because it feels more engaging. Everything she says below about genre applies more-or-less equally to YA and adult.  She is also open to some middle grade as well.

Here is Nora:

My first love will always be fantasy, and while I’m not averse to the odd swords-and-sorcery epic, my preference is for low fantasy and magical realism; stories that twist the real world 90 degrees and see what happens. I’m a sucker for a unique premise that can be expressed in a single sentence: “What if everybody got notified on the day of their death?” (THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END) “What if people were born without the ability to show their emotions via facial expressions?” (A FACE LIKE GLASS) “What if there were people who re-experienced their lives and retained their memories every time they died?” (THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST). I love time travel. I love genre-bending; tell me a story about vampires in space, or a neo-noir fairy tale, or a post-apocalyptic romcom. I love retellings of well-known stories (fairy tales, myths, classic literature) made queer, or genderbent/racebent/disabilitybent, or transplanted to an unexpected setting or genre.

I’m always on the lookout for queer love stories, whether in a fantasy or contemporary setting, from all across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. And while I understand the importance of coming out stories and stories of dealing with homophobia, I prefer to see queer characters ultimately get to be joyful rather than constantly carrying their queerness as a burden. I’m also interested in straight couples (or poly relationships) that feel unique or subversive in the ways the people relate to each other, in the balance of power dynamics and gender roles.

I’m the right agent if you’ve ever been told that your novel “reads like fan fiction,” as if that’s somehow a bad thing. I’m interested in the kinds of stories that get told in that space, stories that play with and subvert tropes, stories that focus heavily on relationship-building, stories that put familiar character archetypes into new and surprising worlds. One of my recent favorite YA novels was IN OTHER LANDS, which I think benefited a lot from starting out as serialized online fiction. That said, I’ve worked with a couple of authors to adapt ideas they’d written as novel-length fic into original novels, and it’s hard work. Don’t just find-replace the names in your fanfic and send it along; spend some time thinking about how to tell the story with entirely new characters, and without the benefit of an audience who comes in already knowing backstories and believing the main couple belongs together. I’m also very open to YA along the lines of ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS, FANGIRL, and SHIP IT, that explores what it means to be a part of fandom.

In miscellany, I’d love a well-plotted heist novel, anything that convincingly puts the reader inside the mind of someone with a mental illness, an unreliable narrator, or anything playing with meta or interactive story elements.

Specific requests aside, though, I want what everyone wants: characters who represent the diversity of the world we live in, protagonists who feel true and provide an interesting lens through which to view the story, villains who feel just as true and vibrant and story-shaping, and little details building up to big ideas that I feel compelled to keep talking about long after I’m done reading.

NORA’S Submission Guidelines

Submissions should be emailed to nlong@writershouse.com

Please send a query letter and the first ten pages of the manuscript copy-pasted into the body of the email to nlong (at) writershouse (dot) com. In the query, the main thing I’m looking for is your hook: whether it’s the premise, the world, a character, hopefully there’s something about your novel that made it fun for you to write and will make it intriguing for me to read. Tell me what that is. Also give a little background about yourself, any relevant experience or publications, and the book’s genre, age category and word count.

I aim to respond to every query within 8 weeks, preferably sooner. If it’s been 8 weeks, feel free to follow up. Definitely let me know if you get another offer of rep before hearing from me. And if you’ve previously queried someone else at Writers House, wait to hear back from them before querying me; we don’t accept simultaneous submissions to multiple agents here, and we don’t CNR–at least not on purpose.

Guidelines & Details

HERE IS PART ONE OF MY INTERVIEW WITH NORA:

When did you know then that you wanted to become an agent?

I was definitely that kid who always knew I wanted to read books for a living. I did all the editing things in college and beyond—selected for the school literary magazine, copy-edited for the school paper, went through a bunch of internships with news-ish organizations. Agenting wasn’t really on my radar till I came to New York and went through NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute, which is a six-week program designed to give students a thorough introduction to all aspects of book and magazine publishing. What I figured out is that the part of editing I like the most—finding a unique, “diamond in the rough” story that I’ve never seen before, and helping shape the plot and characters and basic building blocks so that what’s special about it shines through—mostly happens at the agency level.

Have your college philosophy studies helped you with your agent career?

Yes, actually. A lot of people come into publishing with English majors, which makes perfect sense, but an English major mostly teaches you how to approach the “classics,” books that are already finished and part of the literary canon, and deconstruct them looking for ways to take away meaning as a reader. Philosophy, though, is so much about constructing an argument from first principles, and I think seeing novels that way gives me a unique perspective. In philosophy, when you’re approaching a complicated question, sometimes you break it down by constructing a thought experiment. Like, instead of asking “Are we morally responsible for bad things that happen due to our inaction?”, we tell a little story: “Joe is walking to work one day when he sees a four-year-old drowning in a puddle. He could easily save the kid, but he’s running late and doesn’t want to get his suit dirty, so he leaves him to drown. Is that immoral?” Your emotional reaction to that thought experiment helps clarify your answer to the more abstract question—and you can change the parameters a little bit to make the scenario less black-and-white. What if the kid wasn’t right in front of Joe? What if he only heard about a kid drowning in a puddle a mile away? Or halfway around the world? A lot of fiction, I think, consists of fleshed-out thought experiments, and my instinct is to come in and challenge the parameters, say, okay, for the big question you’re trying to ask in your writing, it’ll be more interesting if X thing in your plot is tweaked. I have a joke on my MSWL page about “talk syllogisms to me,” but that really is how my brain works.

Also, every once in a while I get submissions from people who are explicitly playing with, say, many-worlds theory, and it’s delightful.

How did you get the job with Writers House and long have you been with them?

Funny story: I found my internship through the “writing jobs” section on Craigslist. This was back when the Writers House Internship Program was a little less formalized than now, but also, I was interning for Al Zuckerman, who’s the founder of the company, and his intern followed slightly different rules. So, I was a full-time intern in fall of 2013, and also covered regularly for his assistant Mickey, who was recovering from TB and needed to check in with the health department for an hour every day. And at the end of the program Al was kind enough to advocate for me—he was an incredible friend and mentor, and he felt like I was a good fit with the Writers House culture, so I ended up getting hired to assist part-time for Susan Cohen and part-time for a couple of newer agents who would be getting an assistant for the first time. I’ve been passed around between bosses a few times since then, but I’ve been with the company for six and a half years now; it’s been almost my entire publishing career.

Do you think you will limit the number of clients you will represent? 

I’m not even close to that point yet—I’m still in the early stages of building my list. But eventually, I suspect everyone comes to a point where they need to slow down in taking on new clients in order to do their best work for their existing clients. There are only so many hours in a day, after all.

Any story or themes you wish someone would submit?

This is hard, because the story I love the most is always the one I didn’t even know to ask for. I guess something fairly specific is I’d be interested to see more trans female characters—there’ve been some very nice trans male narratives recently, at least in YA, and I’m not sure why I don’t have any young trans women in my inbox.

Which do you lean more towards: Literary or Commercial?

Oh, I think that binary is kind of misleading. There are a few different binaries people like to bandy about: Literary vs. Commercial, Literary vs. Genre, Literary vs. YA. If we’re defining Literary as the kind of thing that tends to come out of a college MFA program, hyperrealistic stories that strongly privilege emotion over plot and pay thematic homage to the classics, then no, that’s not really where my interests lie. (No shade, though!) But I do love beautiful sentence-level writing, complex themes, character-driven conflicts—all things that can appear just as much in Genre and YA books as elsewhere. I suppose the word that’s most useful to me is Upmarket, which is agent-and-editor code for “has a lot of the prose elements traditionally thought of as literary but won’t be shelved in the Literary Fiction section of the bookstore.” I lean towards the Upmarket, but I definitely don’t mind some id-fueled tropey adventures every now and then.

Do you think it is okay for an author to write novels and picture books? Or do you feel it is better to focus on one age group and genre?

Well, I’m not looking to rep picture books right now, so from that perspective it’s a little awkward for me if someone queries me with a novel and it turns out their primary interest lies in picture books. I think writing for different age groups definitely involves both flexing different writing muscles and building different audience platforms. It’s not impossible, but the author should be pretty sure it’s the path they want to pursue.

What do you like to see in a submission?

Any agent will tell you, a lot of it is subjective, some X factor in the writing that makes me sit up and take notice. My biggest sweet spots genre-wise are fantasy and queer/quirky romance and combinations thereof, but even if something’s way outside my usual interests, I’ll keep reading if it feels like the author has something substantive to say and is saying it in an interesting way.

How important is the query letter? 

Not as important as you might think. There are certainly excellent query letters that tell me an author has done their research on me, has figured out the exact right buzzwords to hook my interest, and I get really excited to read the sample pages. But I’m always going to read the pages regardless, and that’s when I make my decision. I think the query letter becomes more important if your opening pages aren’t a good representation of your book as a whole—if it’s alternating-POV, say, or if there’s a twist on page 20 that puts your character in a whole new setting. Often if the pages are well-written but I can’t tell where the story is going, I’ll go back and look at the query again for clues. But 90% of the time, your main job is to write your book well, and your query is just the packaging for your writing.

Any tips on how an author can get you to ask to see more?

Write a great book. Write the exact book you want to write, and then figure out how you’re going to make it irresistible to an audience, and then decide if you think I’m part of your target audience. If I am, I’ll want to read more. Honestly, that’s it.

How far do you normally read before you reject a submission?

Oh, this one might get me in trouble. There are queries where I stop reading the sample pages after one paragraph. There’s an energy in good writing, and sometimes it’s obvious when it’s not there—or at least, when I’m not feeling it. If I’ve requested material, that’s because I liked the first ten pages a lot—so at that point, I’ll usually read at least 50 to 100 more pages (or sometimes the whole text) before I give it the thumbs down. Usually what happens in that case is a strong premise that doesn’t really go anywhere, or goes in a different direction than I was hoping, or the execution is flawed enough that I don’t feel confident about helping the author revise.

Do you let people know if you are not interested in their submission?

Yep! I do my best to respond to all queries, even if the answer is a no. Authors should never assume that I’m rejecting them if they haven’t heard back from me yet.

How long does it usually take to respond to requested material?

The goal is eight weeks. Sometimes a little longer, if I have a lot coming in at once, if the requested material is extra-long, or if I feel like I need to get a second opinion.

Any pet peeves?

I really don’t like when queries start by talking about how everything else in the genre is bad. Like, “I don’t understand why HARRY POTTER is so popular, I tried to read CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE but couldn’t make it past the first few pages, what is wrong with YA fantasy? My book is the first and only one to do X, which means it’s the only one worth reading.” I understand the instinct to say that your book is new and different and better than what’s come before. But part of writing in a genre is reading and loving that genre, and figuring out how you can fit inside it while also moving it forward. I can’t work with someone who doesn’t love any book besides their own.

HERE ARE THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FOR MAY 2020 FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES:

In the subject line, please write “MAY 2020 FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE” Example: Paste the text in the email, plus attached it as a Word document to the email. Please make sure you include your name, the title of the piece, and whether it’s a picture book, middle grade, or young adult, etc. at the top on both the email and the Word document (Make sure you include your name with the title of your book, when you save the first page).

PLEASE name the Word document file by putting 2020 MAY  – Your Name – Title of first page. Thank you.

REMEMBER: ATTACH THE WORD DOCUMENT AND NOT GET ELIMINATED! Your First Page Word document should be formatted using one inch margins and 12 point New Times Roman font – double space – no more than 23 lines – only one page.

Send to: kathy(dot)temean(at)gmail(dot)com.

PLEASE FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES: Your submission will be passed over if you do not follow the directions for both the pasted email and the attached Word doc. This is where most people mess up.

DEADLINE: May 22nd. – noon EST

RESULTS: May 29th.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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