I am so excited to present my first-ever author/agent duo for the How I Got My Agent Series.  Thanks to Jennifer Mattson for agreeing to go under the microscope participate alongside Linda. I decided on a She Said/She Said format, with their pictures as the indicator for their responses.  Of course I couldn’t resist sprinkling in a few of my own comments, which appear in italics.

Linda Ashman is the award-winning author of more than two-dozen picture books.  She has had three books released in the past three months, and you can enter to win one of them (details below).  Yesterday’s post includes my reviews of the books, and you can earn double points in the giveaway if you also comment and share that one.  Linda lives right here in the great state of Colorado with her husband Jack, son Jackson, and dog daughters Stella and Sammy.

Jennifer Mattson is an Associate Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  Before joining ABLA, Jennifer spent nearly five years  reviewing children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine. Prior to Booklist, Jennifer was an Associate Editor at Dutton Children’s Books. She represents authors across all children’s genres – picture books, MG and YA.  Jennifer is also the co-author of THE OFFICIAL EASY-BAKE COOKBOOK, which we happen to own! (although I hide it because truthfully, I dread the days my daughter asks me if we can “Easy Bake.” Same thing with Play-Doh actually, but enough about me…)

Let’s dig into the questions shall we?

Linda, when did you seek an agent for the first time, and how/why did you know it was time to look for one?

I signed on with my first agent around 1999, after selling seven manuscripts on my own.  Although I wasn’t actively looking at the time, a writer friend spoke highly of her new agent and suggested I talk to him.  Since I’d been “negotiating” my own contracts (as in, “Where do I sign?”), it made sense to work with someone more knowledgeable about contracts — and the business in general — than I was, and who had relationships with more editors and knew their particular tastes.

Jennifer, the first question this audience will have is: Are you currently accepting submissions from picture book authors and/or illustrators?  If so, what kind of manuscripts are you looking for?

Yes, of course.  I am accepting text-only picture book queries and queries from author-illustrators, but at this time I’m not looking to sign up illustrator-only clients.

It impresses me when an author knows how to develop a character and tell a complete, satisfying story with extreme concision, with 750 words as a target maximum, and under 500 words much preferred.  I’m not looking for issue-driven/teachable moment stories, stories with historical settings, fairy tales or fairy tale retellings, nor, as a rule, nonfiction picture books – though I’ve been known to take a shine to nonfiction that illuminates some truly surprising corner of history or science with strong kid appeal (I loved The Day Glo Brothers, for instance – wish I could have represented it!)  What excites me most, though, are humorous stories that turn on universal conflicts resolved in memorable character-specific ways.

Since poetry is Linda Ashman’s specialty, it’s clear that I’m open to rhyming manuscripts. Having said that, I now have a few clients who primarily write in verse, so for the time being I’ll be most active about adding writers-in-narrative to my roster.

Note, in a few months I will be taking a hiatus from reading queries for a while because I’m going on maternity leave (my e-mail autoresponse will be clear about when that goes into effect).

What an excellent reason for a query hiatus. Many congratulations!! One more voracious reader of children’s books is about to enter the world…

Linda, Jennifer was not your first agent. What have you learned from working with three different agents?

I’ve learned that it’s really important to get a sense of how an agent works.  When you send her a story, will she read it within a matter of days, or does she, for example, devote one week a month to reading clients’ work?  Does he have an overall submission strategy for your manuscript, or does he send it to one editor at a time and wait for a response?  Does she notify you right away when she hears back from an editor, and — if it’s a decline — discuss with you the next plan of action?  Is the agent a one-person shop, or part of a larger organization?  (Neither is necessarily better than the other, but I really appreciate the support Jennifer gets from her colleagues at Andrea Brown.)

In order to avoid annoyance on one side and frustration on the other, expectations are everything.  Be very clear about communications.  How often should you expect to hear from him — only when there’s news, or will he check in periodically?  Is she accessible by phone or email if you have questions?   Beyond that, make sure you like this person, and feel comfortable asking questions.  This could be — hopefully will be — a very long relationship.   You don’t need to be best friends, but respect and compatibility are important.  And, above all, make sure the agent is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work.  This is a tough business, and it helps to feel you have a professional ally looking out for your interests.

Wow, that is such a great answer.  I so often think that in this competitive market, writers think any agent is better than no agent and forget that it’s a business relationship that should benefit both the agent and the author.  Thanks for giving us some great questions to ask!

How did you find Jennifer and then come to the conclusion that she was “the one?”

I met Jennifer when we both were on the faculty at the “Big Sur in the Rockies” writing retreat in Boulder in May 2010.  I really liked her, and was impressed with her thoughtfulness and intelligence.  I knew she’d worked with Meredith Mundy, my Sterling editor, so I asked Meredith about her.  I really trust and respect Meredith, so when she gave Jennifer a ringing endorsement, I decided to contact her to discuss working together.  I’m so glad I did — Jennifer has been a dream to work with.

I’ve met Jennifer at two different ABLA events, and she is so knowledgeable, but also so friendly and approachable.  Readers, query her if you think your stories are a good fit!

Likewise, Jennifer, what drew you to Linda’s work and made you want to sign her as a client?

I’ve known Linda’s work for a long time, because when I was an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books in the late 1990s, she would regularly submit (and be published by) the head of our imprint.  The publisher would bring promising manuscripts to an editorial board meeting, so I recall seeing Linda’s work and being impressed by her professionalism and her gift for poetry.  Later, Linda went on to publish with a former colleague and friend of mine, Meredith Mundy at Sterling.  The degrees of separation kept getting a bit smaller over time – and finally Linda and I were faculty members at the same writers’ workshop, Big Sur in the Rockies in Boulder, CO, cosponsored by our agency and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.  In a way, meeting Linda felt like greeting an old friend, partly due to our professional connections, and partly because I had spent so much time reading my daughter her board book, BABIES ON THE GO!  I was thrilled when, several months later, I received a note from her asking if I’d like to discuss working together.  Honestly, it didn’t take much thinking!

BABIES ON THE GO is great! But you guys have probably already figured out that we’re big Linda Ashman fans in this household.  By the way, at that very same Big Sur in the Rockies meeting, I was fortunate to have Linda as one of my faculty members.  From that experience, I can tell you that her manuscript critiquing service is well worth the price.

Linda, the picture book market is tough right now, and it seems many agents don’t take PB clients only.  I know your situation is a bit different because you had already sold many books before signing with Jennifer, but what advice would you give to a pre-published PB writer seeking an agent today?

Sometimes, in our eagerness to get published, we send our work out there before it’s ready.  I certainly was guilty of this when I first started writing, and I cringe when I come across old manuscripts which should have landed in the recycling bin instead of on an editor’s desk.  So before even thinking about editors and agents, I’d advise writers to become students of the picture book.  Reading them to your kids or your students — or recalling old favorites from childhood — isn’t enough.  Study the really good ones, especially those published in the last five years or so.  Start with year-end “best of the year” lists from ALA, School Library Journal, Bankstreet, the children’s blogging community, etc.  Really look at what makes these books successful and appealing (or not; this is highly subjective, after all).  Pay attention to the voice, the pacing, the escalation of the drama, and how the story is resolved.  Then make a dummy of your own manuscript and see if your story fits the picture book structure, if you’ve cut out every extraneous word, if your voice is distinctive, your story dramatic and visually interesting, and your ending satisfying.

Once you’ve got several strong stories, and you’ve followed the manuscript formatting requirements (and a meticulous friend has checked for typos), then you can turn your attention to agents.  Here again, research is key.  If you can go to conferences and meet agents in person, that’s great.  But it’s not necessary.  Fortunately, you can find tons of information on the internet.  Study agency websites, and make a list of agents who appeal to you and seem open to your writing style and interests.  Then google them.  Many have been interviewed on blogs, and a few have blogs of their own.  The more information you have, the easier it will be to target your submission and write an informed and personal query letter.

I’m chuckling as I read this because Linda shared one of her early manuscripts with us at a rhyming workshop she gave. Don’t worry Linda – I won’t name it here! Suffice it to say it’s inspiring to see how much a writer can grow if they truly commit to studying the craft.  And now, for a shameless plug of one of my own posts: If you want more information on how to research agents and editors, go here.

Jennifer, Linda writes almost exclusively in rhyme, yet we hear agents and editors say (often) that they don’t want to see rhyming manuscripts.  What separates a saleable rhyming story from one that is not?

That’s a great question.  I think that there is a note of inevitability communicated by the best rhyming manuscript – in other words, one barely notices the rhyming, except to be delighted by it, and one can’t imagine another way of expressing the same idea.  It’s a combination of perfect rhythm / scansion and absolutely perfect end rhymes:  I’m never fond of slant rhymes.  (When I was a kid, I used to hate reading British poems that rhymed things like “again” and “rain”!)

Apart from technical perfection, to be saleable in the picture book market, editors need poetry to be more than just gorgeousness and musicality.  Linda and I have had the same comment on a number of manuscripts recently, and it’s not uncommon at all:  “This needs a stronger story arc!”  So, writers of verse face an exceptionally high bar.  Their manuscripts must be technically flawless but also must advance a storyline.  It is so rare for a writer to have mastered all of those elements simultaneously that I think many editors and agents have simply found it more efficient to put the kibosh on rhyme preemptively.  For whatever reason (perhaps the prominence of Dr. Seuss?), it seems that amateur writers gravitate to verse before trying their hand at anything else.

This might be some of the best advice I’ve seen on what makes a rhyming manuscript work – thanks!

Given how tight the picture book market is these days, what advice would you give to PB writers looking for agents on how to stand out?

An exquisitely professional query letter that references specific, comparable, recent titles on the market always catches my eye.  We receive tons of queries from people who clearly don’t read much in the contemporary picture-book marketplace, so it’s nice to include any sign that you’re engaged in the industry in an active, ongoing way (it’s also nice to mention membership in SCBWI and critique groups).

Other aspects of your submission will convey the professional level of your work, too.  It helps when a project reflects the typical length of a frontlist picture book (rather than the typical length of a published-long-ago classic, like Robert McCloskey’s wonderful but 2000-words-long TIME OF WONDER…).  I also look for writers who know how to creatively anticipate the contribution of an illustrator, e.g., by not overwriting description and, when appropriate, leaving certain key beats of story development to the visuals.

I always recommend that authors of picture books line up three or four projects that they feel are ready to share with an agent before first submitting.   Agents usually ask queriers to focus on one manuscript, but if an agent is interested in continuing a discussion, normally he or she will ask to see more of your work.  You’ll want to be ready for that.

Linda, dogs are frequent characters in your books, including your latest release, No Dogs Allowed!  Can you tell us one of your favorite real dog stories based on one of your own pets?

Sammy, our Lab mix, is very smart and has an impressive repertoire of tricks.  When appropriately bribed, she’ll fetch the paper, wake Jackson (our son), deliver canned goods from the kitchen cabinet, jump like a kangaroo, roll over, speak, whisper, dance, spin (once, twice, or three times, as directed) and more.  But she has a lot of attitude, and feels that this sort of performing is really beneath her.  And she has a way of showing her resentment.  After every meal, she goes on a raid and finds a sock — on someone’s dresser, in the laundry basket, in a closet — and runs off with it.  She never actually chews it.  She just likes to hold it hostage for a while (usually until we tell her how funny and cute she is, thereby rewarding her for her naughtiness).

Awww, too cute! I want to give her a hug just reading this. If I’d thought ahead I would have asked you for a picture of her.  🙂

Jennifer, please complete this sentence:  “If I could take just one book with me to a remote desert island, it would be….”

I hate to compromise the children’s-lit focus of this blog, but I’d probably choose something lush and long-lasting, like George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH or Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.

Nope. I totally get that.  If you’re stuck on a desert island, you need something a bit broader in scope than a children’s book.  My own choice would be A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, by John Irving.

Let’s all give it up for these two lovely ladies for this great post!  I hope you learned as much as I did.  Also, don’t forget that Linda Ashman is giving away a personalized, signed copy of both SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED for two lucky winners. You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post and/or yesterday’s post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points

THANKS AGAIN to both Linda and Jennifer. I had so much fun putting this post together, and I hope you did too!

Categories: Agents, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Poetry, Publishing, Queries, Rhyming, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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19 Comments

  1. This one is a keeper! What a great interview! I love Linda’s Ashman’s work. I was lucky enough to have a sneak preview of SAMANTHA ROLLS this summer at a RMC-SCBWI Retreat. Linda’s a great teacher too. CS

    • Caroline, thanks for stopping by! You should know that we’ve been doing lots of reads of By the Light of the Halloween Moon now that it’s October! 🙂

  2. Thanks for all the helpful information here – very informative. I would like to win Samantha on a Roll. I tweeted this
    How I Got My Agent: Linda Ashman with Agent Jennifer Mattson http://wp.me/pIkHt-1jM /via @wordpressdotcom

  3. Kristin Coulter

    What a great interview! I am currently taking Linda’s PB class and am fan of her and her work. I really appreciated the informative discussion with her agent. I would like to win NO DOGS ALLOWED. Thank you!

  4. What fun to have both perspectives together in an interview and despite the very challenging nature of breaking into the picture book market at present, I felt totally uplifted by this interview. I loved Linda’s article on making the No Dogs Allowed book. Have tweeted, of course. Thanks, Julie, great fun and useful!

  5. Alice Knisley Matthias

    Great information in the post. Any book about the antics of dogs is a sure bet in our house.

    Alice

  6. Thanks for a very informative and entertaining interview with our lovely Linda Ashman – an extremely talented author, as well as an inspiring teacher, and a dear friend!

  7. bethanne faulkner

    Thank you for the wonderful interview on Linda Ashman. I was fortunate enough to meet and be taught by her this summer at a SCBWI retreat and had a preview of Samantha On A Roll. I’m presently teaching my six year-old daughter to skate. I would love to win this book so we could read it together!

    Beth Faulkner

  8. Wonderful interivew, Julie.

  9. Wow – great interview! I’m in the process of querying, so this is beyond helpful. Thank you! 🙂

  10. Such an enjoyable dual interview and great information! Thank you Julie, Linda and Jennifer!

  11. What great information! Really good to hear what a rhyming manuscript needs to have to be successful. I would love to get No Dogs Allowed 🙂 But they all sound wonderful. Thanks for a great interview

  12. Great interview. Rhyme is so hard, isn’t it.

  13. This entry was delightful! I’m a grad student at GWU majoring in Publishing. It’s nice to see an agent/ author relationship up close. It’s a very different view from the one described on papers. Relationships vary by circumstances and agencies. Great job!

    Please check out my WordPress blog “An Unconventional Publisher Confesses”, here’s the url:

    http://www.lateshagoodman.wordpress.com.

    Thanks for your entry

    Latesha Goodman

  14. Great information from Linda and Jennifer. I especially like the point about not rushing to send it out. Linda makes rhyme seem very easy. Her work is a delight to read.

  15. Wow, this was such a great interview! Thanks so much, ladies. And Julie, I’m with you on Play-Doh. In my home, it’s known as “the devil.”

  16. wow! this was a very interesting interview, gave lots to think about. Hope I am not too late for the competition…. no dogs allowed.

  17. Loved your last few posts. Thanks to your fabulous guests for this great information!

  18. Thank you for sharing the great tips. Very helpful! Loved it.

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