Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 26, 2020

June Agent of the Month – FIRST PAGE RESULTS – Katherine Wessbecher

Katherine Wessbecher at Bradford Literary is June’s Agent of the Month.

Katherine Wessbecher

Bradford Literary Agency

Katherine joined the Bradford Literary Agency in 2020. Prior to becoming an agent, Katherine edited children’s and young adult books at Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, and was the science and technology editor at an academic book review journal. She holds a B.A. in English from the College of William and Mary.

As an editor, Katherine worked with debut and veteran authors, including Sherri L. Smith, Stacey Lee, Keir Graff, Jeff Seymour, and Eliot Sappingfield. She brings to her work a nuanced understanding of the publishing industry and a practiced editorial eye.

Katherine is looking for children’s books (picture books through YA), upmarket adult fiction, and narrative nonfiction for all ages.

In MG and YA, historical fiction and fantasy have been favorites since she was young. But more than genre, she’s looking for the kinds of stories that transport her: to the past, an imagined world, or a perspective wholly different from her own. She’s drawn to stories that push readers to question their assumptions of the world. She’s interested in humorous voices; she’s also a fan of epistolary novels and other unexpected storytelling techniques, like Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files series or Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.

Her favorite picture books are the kind that make both kids and grown-ups laugh. Inventive premises, twist endings, and quirky characters are all good ways to pique her interest.

Katherine is looking for upmarket adult fiction that straddles the literary and commercial divide. Books that inspire her list run the gamut from Where’d You Go, Bernadette to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. She loves unexpected takes on familiar stories and flawed yet endearing characters. Katherine is actively seeking adult and juvenile narrative nonfiction—particularly projects that highlight stories the history textbooks left out. In the same vein, she’d love to work with nonfiction graphic novel projects like John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy.

Katherine is not looking for: adult genre fiction (romance, thriller, high fantasy/sci fi), business, poetry, memoirs, or screenplays.

Twitter: @KatWessbecher

Prior to joining Bradford Literary in early 2020, I acquired and edited children’s books at Putnam and was the science and technology editor for an academic book review journal. I’ve got room to grow my client list and am actively seeking new clients in both children’s and adult.I’m most excited by stories that transport me: to the past, to an imagined world, to a perspective wholly different from my own. I’m drawn to stories which push readers to question their assumptions of the world. I’m all for immersive storylines and plot twists I don’t see coming, but first and foremost, I need to connect with the characters on an emotional level (bonus points if they can make me laugh or cry!).

One of the best ways to stand out in my submissions inbox is with a distinctive voice. I’ve got an inexplicable love for unexpected narrative techniques, so send me your epistolary novels in the vein of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files series, Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, or Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Humor is always welcome!

For MG and YA, I’m fond of historical fiction—particularly from settings and perspectives we don’t often read about—and contemporary stories with fresh voices that don’t shy away from weightier themes. On the fantasy and science fiction side, grounded and high are both welcome, as long as worldbuilding doesn’t get in the way of the characters.

On the adult side, I’m selectively seeking upmarket fiction that straddles the literary and commercial divide. I love unexpected takes on familiar stories and flawed yet endearing characters. I’m not seeking genre projects at this time (e.g., no adult romance, mystery, sf/f).

In picture books, my favorites are the kind that make both kids and grown-ups guffaw. Inventive premises, twist endings, and quirky characters are all good ways to pique my interest. I’m a better fit for narrative texts than concept-driven ones.

I’d love to find great adult and juvenile narrative nonfiction—particularly projects that highlight the people and stories the history books left out.

BELOW ARE THE FOUR FIRST PAGES KATHERINE READ AND HER THOUGHTS (in red):

JACKIE AND THE COSMIC BEANSTALK by Stephanie L. Ward

Chapter 1-Existing Another Day

Jackie had a hard time chatting with aliens. Especially vendors.

They weren’t big on small talk unless one had up-to-date tech to bargain with, which she didn’t. Hundreds of market-goers surrounded her. Maybe thousands. [Feels like there could be a transition between the first sentence of this paragraph and the last two—they don’t seem to logically follow one another.]

Freakish tattooed worms [freakish because worms shouldn’t be wearing tattoos?] zipped through aisles on hoverboards. Mutated talking animals [mutated how?] translated languages for other species. Two-headed gelatin beasts left slimy streak marks wherever they slithered. These creatures, and so many others, shopped at the market inside the Intergalactic Space Station.

Although her tummy [this word makes Jackie feel childish compared to the preceding paragraphs] growled, Jackie swerved away from the food section while zigzagging toward her target through bustling aisles. A stand with shelves full of medication bottles stood in front of her. [Note “a stand… stood”—you might rephrase this sentence to make it more active]. After pacing for a few moments, she stood tall with shoulders back and made her approach. Jackie stared with gumdrop eyes and pouty lips at the alien vendor. “Please, miss, err…mister. My Mama needs those pills.” [which pills? Should I infer that this a recurring interaction between Jackie and the salesalien?]

The purple alien squinted at her. “Get out of here, human child.” He swished his hand, motioning her away. [The dismissive swish implies “motioning her away”; I’d cut the latter phrase.]

Visions of going without had Jackie’s lips now quivering, and a meteor shower of tears wet her face. Those pills would bring Mom back from her delusional abyss. [This line feels vague and sounds a touch old/sophisticated for Jackie maybe?]

The vendor turned toward another customer, but Jackie could tell by the way he rubbed his pearl necklace a slim chance remained.

“Fine. But only a couple of pills for your parts,” he said, at last tossing her the bottle—Mom’s meds. Jackie grinned and handed over a crate full of worthless spacecraft gears as payment. [She was lugging a crate of equipment around this whole time? Seems like that would have been mentioned earlier in the scene]. She spun away and hugged the pill container. These would make Mom much happier. [I don’t think you need this last line—Jackie’s reaction to receiving the pills shows us this fact more effectively than telling us.]

KATHERINE’S SUMMARY: 

I like the colorful details you use to situate the reader in the scene’s hustle and bustle, and you effectively convey Jackie’s sense of desperation here.  

When writing fantasy/sci fi, it’s important to remember that the reader can get bogged down in the worldbuilding. When reading a scene containing many unfamiliar details, the mind has a hard time sorting the important (relevant to the plot) details from the ones that just provide a colorful backdrop. The marketplace setting works well here, because readers have seen a marketplace before (sans aliens, maybe) and our minds can easily fill in the gaps to visualize Jackie’s surroundings. 

*******

WIND AT MY BACK by Carol MacAllister – Adult Historical Fiction  (NYC 1850s)

Mr. Harrison tapped lightly on the flat’s entry. “It’s the landlord.” He knocked again. “I’m here for the rent.” Then he jiggled the knob. “Mr. MacAvoy?” His voice grew stronger. “Rent’s past due, sir!”  [Feeling a little disoriented here – consider working in a specific detail or two to give the reader a sense of the surroundings.]

No one answered.

The door creaked open a tad, and he nudged it wider wondering if the mister had skipped out. Many avoided their obligations in these hard times. “Good day!” His glance skirted  the empty kitchen. A few washed pots stacked beside the cast iron stove but the usual cooking odors were missing. “Humpf!” He entered, assuming his rights as leaseholder.

Cool air drifted through the open third floor window where the wash line stretched across the alleyway. No laundry fluttered. He stood quietly, miffed [is this the right word?] over the odd stillness. Shuffling noises sounded in the front parlor.

“Ah! There you are!” He tucked his bowler under one arm and strode down the hallway with a quick glance at the bed chamber. Linens still dressed the mattress.

His nose wriggled [maybe wrinkled?] from the stinging odor of soured fruit when he stepped into the front room. Someone stood at the parted window curtain, glaring down to the street below. [If the figure is facing the open window, how does Mr. H know he is glaring?] “Ah! There you are. Good Day.” The figure startled but the bright sun made it hard to see. Harrison moved closer, his boot heel skidding on discarded apple cores. It all seemed so odd. “Mr. MacAvoy?” He squinted. “Is that you?” He paused. “Or, is that…Mrs. MacAvoy?”

A boy turned from the window.

“Why gracious.” Harrison pulled back. “Who are you?” The child’s unkempt appearance suggested he was what most called a street Arab, one of the homeless that wanders the city. [The dated term and explanation could be easily be trimmed by replacing with “urchin.”]

Had he broken into the flat. “Speak up! Who are you?”

With sudden pluck, the boy returned the question. “Who are you?”

KATHERINE’S SUMMARY: 

There is potential for intrigue here and I find Mr. Harrison’s nervous mannerisms strangely amusing!  I’ve learned that the first pages which most effectively pique my interest do so by layering in glimpses of intrigue and specificity in an otherwise mundane scene. I’d like to see more of those kinds of details here—it would help us better orient ourselves in the setting and get a better sense of Mr. Harrison’s personality, beyond just his role as landlord. For example, instead of: “He entered, assuming his rights as leaseholder,” why not something like: “He didn’t usually prefer to exert his right of entry, but he made exceptions on Tuesdays” or “…he made exceptions for the MacAvoys, who had never yet paid rent on time.” 

Why should we pay attention to this landlord, this family, or to the boy? You can sow in clues here and there without bogging down the narrative. If the boy is the ultimate focal point of this story and the landlord/MacAvoys are only here long enough for us to meet him, I’d say you definitely want to signal that by conveying relevant information about the boy from our very first glimpse. Rather than telling us he returned the landlord’s question with pluck, show us—how does his body language/manner of speaking suggest pluck? 

*******

STEEL MILLS TO SALVATION by Roz Silva – YA

I was a fish out of water, hoping someone would throw me back. [This is a great image to kick off the story with!] Considering we had just sailed across the gigantic Atlantic Ocean, that would have been easy.  What wasn’t easy was me going back to my hometown in Serbia, where I had left my mother and little sister. [Name the hometown?] It was thousands of nautical miles away, [I’d cut “nautical”] and besides, I was doing this for them.  I had promised Mama I would go to America and send for her and Melica as soon as I could. Then we would all be together again, enjoying a new life, far from poor, war-torn Serbia. [This line feels overly general—more like how a journalist would describe the situation, not a kid who’s just left their homeland]

Landing on the streets of New York City in 1911 with no money and no place to go, I didn’t know what to do. [The year is helpful, but again feels out of place coming from the main character’s point of view.] I dug deep into my pocket to see if I perhaps had some coins, but there were none.  Instead, I pulled out a few crumbs from the bread I had once stashed there long ago. No, I was penniless, homeless and hungry. As I wandered about the bustling city, a name occurred to me: PITTSBURGH. That’s where Vlade was supposed to be. I’d go there! [He/she didn’t think of this before?]

From behind me, I heard someone say, “What’s the matter, kid? You lost?”

I spun around. It was Stevo—from the ship. [Work in a clue of what Stevo looks or sounds like?]

I had met him after the first storm but before the second. [I like the specificity of this line—like those storms have been seared into the main character’s memory! There’s no need to set this paragraph in italics, though.] The waters had turned rough and the ship had begun to rock up and down and from side to side, like a bobbing cork. Below deck, I quickly felt the change. I tried to steady myself on my bunk, but I was no match for the forces of nature. When a huge wave tilted the ship, my body landed on the floor. Soon, my stomach was rumbling and I was gasping for air. I had to get out of there fast. Bumping into others and shoving them out of my way, I climbed up the steps to the main deck, yelling “Move!” in Serbian. And they did. On deck, along with about fifty other people, I grabbed the rail and spilled the

KATHERINE’S SUMMARY: 

I love historical fiction from less familiar perspectives and am definitely intrigued by the prospect of a Serbian immigration story! However, I’m just not connecting with this voice yet. This doesn’t quite feel like it’s coming from the perspective of a teen from 1911; the general, history-book descriptions (“poor, war-torn Serbia,” “bustling city”) could be replaced with more vivid clues to help immerse us in the scene from the main character’s perspective. For example: what details about the immediate surroundings would stand out to a child who’d never before been outside their war-torn homeland?  Instead of telling us of the promise to go to America and send for their mother and sister, what if the main character recalls the last words their mother whispered in their ear as they hugged goodbye?   

A couple of logistical questions confused me too. For example: why didn’t the main character have a plan after arriving in New York? Given how much it would have cost a family in poverty to send their eldest child to America, I’d imagine every step of this endeavor would be carefully planned out.  

The memory at the end of the page works much better because it feels more vivid and more specific to the main character’s experience.  Overall, I’d encourage the writer to flesh this story out with sensory details and historical specificity, and to use these details to reveal to the reader who the main character is and why he or she ended up on the streets of New York City. 

*******

UNDER THE RADAR by Kerry Hansen – Upper MG (Contemporary)

CHAPTER ONE: NORMAL-PEOPLE RULES

Kira dangles a silky strip of pink fabric in her manicured fingers. “I bought this for you.”

“What is it?” Knowing Kira, I probably won’t like the answer.

“A thong. Duh.”

I don’t respond. [I’m picturing Kira, but not Lula in this scene. What is Lula doing?]

Kira rolls her eyes toward the ceiling, as if asking it for patience. “It’s underwear, Lula. Eighth graders shouldn’t wear granny panties.”

Cringing, I tighten my bathrobe. [what is she cringing in reaction to? “Granny panties”? Being accosted while wearing a bathrobe?] I was right. I don’t like the answer. The back of the thong is just a string, like somebody cut out the butt cheeks as a joke. “That’s not underwear. Half of it’s missing.” [ha! I like how authentic this dialogue feels and I’m starting to get a feel for their sister relationship.]

She squints, the same look she gets before throwing a three-point basket. Usually, I have trouble reading people’s facial expressions, but I know when my sister’s determined to win.

“You can’t wear regular underwear with leggings,” she says. “You’ll get panty lines.”

Her vanilla-pine body spray lingers under my nose and reminds me of Christmas vacation, when nobody complained about what I wore. But vacation’s over, which means no more pajama pants in the middle of the day.

“Why are panty lines bad?” I ask.

“They’re embarrassing, like when your fly’s open.”

I sigh. Normal-people rules are stupid, but I follow them anyway. I have to so people won’t notice I’m not like them. [now I’m intrigued: in what way is she “not-normal”?] That means no hand-flapping, covering my ears, correcting my teachers, or, apparently, wearing regular underwear.

“Why would I wear something that goes up my butt on purpose?” I say.

KATHERINE’S SUMMARY: 

This is a strong start! I like how easy it is to get a sense of two distinct personalities in this sister relationship. The dialogue feels realistic and funny, not forced—my one note would be to make sure the dialogue tags and scene-setting details give us the clues necessary to situate the reader in the moment. I have an easy time picturing Kira, but other than the bathroom-tightening, I’m not really able to picture Lula at all. Where are the girls? Did Lula get ambushed in the hallway on her way out of the shower? What’s causing her discomfort—imagining wearing a thong or just the fact that her sister’s talking about underwear while she’s in a bathrobe? Look for subtle ways to weave in more of the context and more of Lula’s personality. I’m definitely curious about what makes Lula see herself as not-normal, and I hope the conversation is about to move on from its thong focus to keep the momentum moving forward.

*******

Katherine, great job. Thank you for sharing your time and expertise with us. All your hard work is really appreciated. So nice working with you.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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