Agent Advice: Ann Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Ann Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.
This installment features Ann Collette with the Helen Rees Literary Agency. Ann has agented for 10 years. She previously wrote for Fiction Writer magazine, and contributed to The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.
She is looking for: “Adult fiction of all types, with the exclusion of sci fi and fantasy. I also do a certain amount of nonfiction, including memoir, military and war, and pop culture.”


GLA: How did you become an agent?

AC: I spent fifteen years as a freelance writer and editor before meeting the head of the agency I’m with, Helen Rees. She initially hired me to go over her slush pile; she liked my work, and so asked me to become an associate.

GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold? 

AC: The Vampire Empire trilogy, by Clay and Susan Griffith. My assistant Rachel was going through my slush pile, and pulled out something that intrigued her—I’d never done a vampire novel before, but Rachel, who’s considerably younger than me, thought it had a steampunk element that would appeal to younger readers. With or without steampunk, I knew it was a terrific story that drew me in from the first page with its mixture of politics, romance, and vampires both sexy and terrifying. Lou Anders at Pyr Books agreed, and bought the entire trilogy.

GLA: You handle adult fiction.  All kinds? 

AC: I’m open to all kinds of adult fiction, with the exception of sci-fi and fantasy. (I don’t do children’s books or YA at all.) I particularly love what’s known as “category fiction”—meaning mystery, thriller, suspense, Western, and horror. I’m always on the lookout for commercial women’s fiction, particularly novels that can be thought of as “book club” books. And of course, I would absolutely love to discover the next great National Book Award winner, so I’m always open to literary submissions. I have a strong interest in race and class, and a special weakness for books concerning Southeast Asia. Right now I’m actually trying to expand my list beyond adult fiction and into nonfiction: again, race and class are issues I’m interested in, along with military and war books, pop culture and biography.

GLA: On Publishers Marketplace, I saw three crime/fiction sales from Clea Simon.  Tell us a little about what draws you to Clea’s work so writers can understand some of your tastes.

AC: I’m not in the habit of posting all my deals on Publisher’s Marketplace, though perhaps I should! Clea’s not actually my client anymore, but in general, I like dark fiction, the darker the better. The first thing I usually look for, though, is strong prose. In category fiction, I like to see terse, punchy language where every word counts. In women’s and literary fiction, I’ve got an eye out for lyrical prose. I like strong protagonists, clever and unusual plots, and lots of twists and turns in category fiction. For women’s and literary, I like character-driven stories.

GLA: On this subject—crime fiction: If you had to give your best three tips on how to write effective crime fiction, what would you say?

AC: 1) Every word has to count. Every word and sentence and paragraph has to be there for a reason, or else the plot starts dragging and I put it down. 2) Every chapter has to end on a page-turning note. 3) Either the plot or the protagonist has to offer something fresh and new.

GLA: Let’s say you’re looking at queries in the slush pile. Where are writers going wrong?

AC: Two of the most common problems I see are pedestrian prose and predictable plots. The wonderful thing about category fiction is that you can learn how to write a great mystery or thriller—it’s a matter of paring your language down to the bone. With literary fiction, you either have the gift or you don’t, but category fiction really is all about rewriting so that every word is there for a reason. Editors today are real thrill-seekers, so are constantly looking for as many twists and turns as can possibly be crammed into a plot, so even if your idea isn’t all that new, if the execution of it is, it’ll catch my eye. And if it catches my eye, there’s a good chance it’ll catch an editor’s.

 

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GLA: You recently attended two conferences—SEAK and one in Maine. Tell us some of your thoughts on what writers are doing wrong when attending conferences—specifically, when pitching agents.

AC: First, don’t waste your time or mine if your novel isn’t finished. Agents aren’t willing to invest time in an author who hasn’t finished his or her book, because anything could happen, and that writer may never finish the novel. (Of course, it’s different for nonfiction. Here, I want to see a completed proposal.) I, for one, would rather hear you talk about your book than yourself. If I’m not interested in your book, then I don’t care what your background is. I know it’s difficult to hear criticism, and it’s hard when an agent turns you down, but try to keep your mouth shut and not get defensive. The agent may actually be giving you some really good advice on how to make your book more commercial that you can’t hear if you’re too busy defending a work the agent’s made it clear he or she doesn’t want to represent at that time.

GLA: At a prior writers’ conference, practically at gunpoint, I was asked to predict what would be the next big thing.  I said “War books” because of the Iraq War and the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War coming up. I see you look for war fiction. Any chance I was on to something?

AC: In general, editors feel there’s a lot out of nonfiction out there on the Iraq War, so unless the book is offering something really special, such as fabulous writing, they’re not terribly interested. I think they’d sing a different song if the book was on Afghanistan, though. Great fiction on either war would probably be of interest. As for the Civil War, I can count on getting a couple fiction queries on the subject every week. So yes, definitely the 150th anniversary is probably going to mean a couple of important books.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences where people can meet and pitch you?

AC: I’ll be at CrimeBake (I believe this is my sixth or seventh year attending) this November, and at the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association in May of 2010.

GLA: What’s the best way to contact you?  What do you want to see and how do you want to see it?

AC: E-mail me at agent10702@aol.com. If it’s a fiction submission, send a terse query with the first chapter of the novel included in the body of the e-mail. (No attachments please.) For nonfiction, send a query only. I respond to every one of my e-mails personally, so you can be sure you’ll hear from me about whether or not I’m interested in your work.

GLA: What’s something people would be surprised to know about you personally?

AC: Other than books, my two greatest loves are opera and martial arts movies.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?

AC: I’m a great believer in writer’s workshops. Feedback from other writers can help you improve your manuscript tremendously. It’s to your advantage to always send me your best work, because the truth of the matter is I’ve only got time to give you one chance. You don’t want to blow it with a manuscript that no one else has read over. I don’t need to know who your other readers were (unless they’re published authors willing to give you a blurb) but it’s to your advantage to have gone over your manuscript one more time with someone’s editorial feedback that you respect in mind before you submit to any agent.

The Bone Factory by Steve
Sidor was repped by Ann.

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0 thoughts on “Agent Advice: Ann Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency

  1. Matt

    Interesting you’re not willing to touch Sci-Fi/Fantasy but you’re currently excited about a Vampire trilogy with steampunk overtones…

    I believe lots of vampire writers consider themselves ‘urban fantasy’. And steampunk is a well established sci-fi sub-genre written by such sci-fi heavies as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. I’m curious how/where agents draw the line.

  2. AG

    I love this column because it shares agent interests we’d never know otherwise. If I were writing fiction set in Southeast Asia, I’d know exactly who to query right now.

    Thank you, Chuck.

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