by Tammy Burke
I want to thank you for taking time out for this interview. With your background in literature along with your experience in the publishing world our conferees are certainly getting a well-informed resource with you. It is my delight to welcome you aboard to our 22nd annual GLVWG “Write Stuff” conference.
Patricia Nelson: Thanks so much for having me!
I was wondering, in your opinion, how much does talent play into good writing and how much is it a learned skill that anyone can pick up?
Patricia Nelson: The myth of the solitary genius who sits down at his or her computer and writes the Great American Novel by sheer instinct is just that–a myth! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pick up the skills to write a publishable book. In my view, writing is like any other craft: a person develops their talent by putting in a whole lot of time. In this case, that means reading and writing as much as possible. Maybe (probably!) your first book won’t land you an agent or a book deal, but if you write another book, and another–reading widely and working with a critique group for the whole process–chances are good that eventually your skills will grow and you’ll be able to produce writing at a level that you couldn’t when you were starting out.
I know you probably get this question often but what was your inspiration to become an agent? Was it always something you wanted to do?
Patricia Nelson: I always knew that I wanted to work with books in some capacity. When I was in high school I imagined that I would be an editor. Instead, after college I ended up going to graduate school, and for a time pursued a career as an English professor. There were aspects of teaching college students that I loved: helping talented people develop their writing, championing creative thinking, and figuring out what individual students needed and giving them the support system to grow and take risks. But ultimately, after getting the chance to teach many amazing, life-changing books, I realized that I really wanted a career on the other side of the literary world, where I could have a role in helping great books get made. As soon as I discovered agenting, I knew it would be a perfect fit for me.
What would be your ideal working relationship with someone you’ve either signed on or would like to sign on? Could you give an example of what that person could expect from you and what your expectations would be.
Patricia Nelson: I look for clients who are professional and dedicated to pursuing writing as a career – talented people who work hard and are persistent and goal-oriented. Because I want to partner with writers for the long-term, not just one book, I’m looking for people who have lots of ideas and who are in it for the long-haul as well. I aim to bring that same professionalism and commitment to my relationship with clients – I’m in frequent communication with them and work together with them at every step of the process, from revision, to submission and sale, to developing next projects, etc.
Do you have any pet peeves when someone is querying or pitching? On the other hand, do you have things that tend to impress?
Patricia Nelson: I’m always impressed with a concise query that gives me a sense of character, plot and stakes in a few short paragraphs–and even better if you can infuse it with voice that makes me excited to dive into the sample pages! I’m also a big fan of queries that include comparisons to a few recent published books, which helps me know what kind of tone to expect and where you imagine yourself fitting in the current market.
On the flip side, my pet peeves include: comparing your book to runaway bestsellers like HARRY POTTER (to assume that kind of success reveals unrealistic expectations); saying your book “will make a great movie” (I’m more interested in it making a great book); genre categorizations that suggest a lack of basic understanding of the market, e.g. “I’ve written a realistic sci fi-fantasy young adult/middle grade romance novel with crossover appeal” (hard for me to know how I would pitch that project). I also have an acute and irrational hatred for the redundant phrase “fiction novel” (just say “novel”!)… but that one certainly wouldn’t be a big deal if I otherwise loved the sound of the story! 😉
More stories about different cultures and lifestyles, I believe, are important and beneficial to society on many levels — two of the top reasons being the opportunity for greater understanding and, well, more stories! I am curious though…what would you say makes for an exciting story in multicultural and LGBTQ fiction? Would you say this fiction requires something more than only having a minority protagonist and/or other characters?
Patricia Nelson: Great question! Part of what I’m looking for with any novel is specificity – characters that are so well-rounded and layered that they feel like real people. Well, real people are diverse, in all sorts of ways: gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, body type, family background, social class, etc. So I want to see that portrayed honestly and authentically in the books that I represent. When I say that I’m looking for diverse books, I mean that I’m actively looking for novels where a character’s “diverse” identity is a part of the story insofar as it shapes who they are as a person. But just like race or sexuality is only part of a person’s story in real life, I’m looking for that complexity in novels as well. I am explicitly looking for diverse characters who populate all kinds of unique and captivating plots in all genres that I represent.
What would you predict for this market in 2015 and what would you like to see?
Patricia Nelson: Every genre right now is a tough market–when you look on the shelf, keep in mind that every single book there got published because numerous people in the industry along the way loved it and couldn’t imagine it not being out there in the world. With that in mind, when I’m reading queries and submissions I’m really just hoping to find books that bowl me over with how amazing they are. Books with fresh voices, unique premises, and complex characters making tough choices. Books that make me have to pause to collect myself because I’m crying, or laughing, or surprised, or curious, or even in awe of one perfect sentence. There will always be space in even the toughest market for those kinds of books, so that’s what I’m looking for.
I understand some of the other things you are looking for include upmarket women’s fiction, romance (contemporary, historical, and New Adult), and accessible literary fiction. I was wondering… how would you explain the difference between literary fiction and accessible literary fiction?
Patricia Nelson: By “accessible literary fiction” I mean novels that pair impressive writing and strong character development with a page-turning plot–books that are both masterworks of craft and the kind of stories I can’t put down. Think THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer, THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg, or POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt: all beautifully-written books I read obsessively and then shoved into the hands of friends. I’m not the best person to represent literary fiction in which the writing is significantly more important than the plot–although I do think those kinds of books have an important place in the literary landscape!
And last question…If you were to share one of your favorite stories as a child, what would it be and why? Is it still a favorite? And what do you like to read now if you get to read for pleasure only?
Patricia Nelson: Just one childhood favorite?! That’s tough. Can I cheat and pick both a middle grade and a YA? On the middle grade side, I read Judy Blume’s JUST AS LONG AS WE’RE TOGETHER so many times that my copy fell apart, and looking back, it has many traits that I still love in fiction for all ages: complicated friendships, nuanced family dynamics, lots of hijinks, and a relatable, emotionally honest story. When I was a little bit older, I got completely hooked on Tamora Pierce’s SONG OF THE LIONESS series, which is still very close to my heart: an amazing female protagonist, lots of adventure and romance, and a fantasy world you can just fall into in your mind.
As for what I read for pleasure now: all kinds of things! In addition to reading being generally my favorite thing, it’s also important for me to keep up with the current market in genres that I represent, so even much of my pleasure reading isn’t really just for pleasure. Honestly, my to-read stack regularly threatens to overtake my house.
I guess that was more than one. Anyway, thank you again, Patricia!
Patricia Nelson: Thank YOU for your thoughtful questions!
Patricia Nelson is an agent at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. She started at Marsal Lyon in early 2014 as the assistant to Kevan Lyon, and has previously interned at The Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency and in the children’s division at Running Press. Patricia received her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 2008, and also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the world of publishing, she spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing.
And my wish list:
I represent adult and young adult fiction, and am actively looking to build my list. On the adult side, I’m looking especially for upmarket women’s fiction, romance (contemporary, historical, and New Adult), and accessible literary fiction. I’m also looking for all genres of YA, including contemporary/realistic as well mystery/thriller, horror, magical realism, light science fiction and character-driven fantasy. I’m always interested in finding exciting multicultural and LGBTQ fiction, both YA and adult. In general, I love stories with complex characters that jump off the page and thoughtfully drawn, believable relationships.
Tammy Burke, GLVWG member, 2011 conference chair and past president, has published over 400 articles in daily newspapers, newsletters and regional magazines. As a journalist and also with helping with the GLVWG “Write Stuff” conference she has interviewed a wide-range of literary agents, publishers, authors, state and local government officials, business and community leaders, everyday folk and celebrities. Currently, she is in the revision stage for her first YA fantasy adventure book, Uriah’s Window, the first in an intended series. When not writing, she works in the social service field, fancies herself a student of the fantastic and mundane, and is a fencing marshal in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).