Literary Agent Interview: Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary) 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 Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary.
Formerly a Senior Editor at both Kensington Publishing and Adams Media, she enjoys working closely with authors to develop projects. She welcomes first-time authors with a unique voice and point of view.

She is seeking: contemporary women’s fiction, narrative nonfiction, humorous tales and young adult & middle grade fiction.


GLA: How did you become an agent?

DC: It was a happy accident, really. I’d been thinking about it for some time (I suppose all editors do at one point or another), but I never pursued it seriously. Then one day, a colleague sent me an email about an agency that was looking for new agents, and I thought, “Maybe it’s time for a change.” The rest is history.

GLA: What’s something coming out soon (or that just came out) that you’re excited about?

DC: Since I’m still pretty new at this, my projects won’t be coming out until 2011 and 2012, but that doesn’t make me any less excited about them!  I have a young adult “fantasy light” project called Frenenqer by Rinsai Rossetti (title is going to change, though) from Dial Books for Young Readers. It’s a commercial concept, but the writing style has a really gorgeous literary edge, and that’s why I fell in love with it.

There’s also an adorable novel in verse called Love and Leftovers by Sarah Tregay coming out with Katherine Tegen Books in 2012. When I got this project on submission, I was so charmed by it that I stayed up all night reading it. It’s a welcome antidote from some of the more “emo” novels in verse out there—kind of like Michael Cera film crossed with a novel.

GLA: You have a background in editing (including at Adams—an F+W company like WD!). How does your background influence your agenting style?

DC: I think my background as an editor makes me very attuned to the marketplace, because a very large part of my brain still thinks like an editor. Every time I read a submission, I flash back to my all of my past editorial meetings, and I ask myself the questions that I know potential editors will face from their publishers, marketing departments, and sales teams when they take the book to their acquisition meetings. With that in mind, I try to make sure I have the answers before I take a project out on submission.

I also think that I’m more sympathetic to the plight of editors; I know what they’re up against, and how difficult it can be (especially these days) to get a project through an acquisitions meeting. Editors don’t need any more reasons to say no to a project—they have plenty of those already! When I sign a client, I work very hard with them at the editorial level to get their manuscripts into tip-top shape. That way, by the time I send a project out on submission to editors, I know the project is as close to perfect as it can get, which makes it much easier for an editor to acquire.

GLA: You are the only agent at UCL who handles adult fiction and nonfiction. Are you ever ostracized around the office for being different and “too adult-y”? (not a serious question)

DC: It’s terrible. Michael, Chris and Ted pick on me constantly. They throw ARC’s of their YA books at me. I don’t know how much longer I can take this abuse! (not a serious answer)

In all seriousness, though, I really love working with everyone at Upstart Crow. I’m lucky to be a part of such a talented group of people. They are awesome!

GLA: Concerning your likes in the kids world, is it confined to YA? If so, tell us more about what kinds of YA you’re looking for.

DC: The bulk of my work is YA at the moment, but I’d love to start doing more middle grade as well. As far as what type of work I’m looking for: That’s always the hardest question, isn’t it? And the answers are always pretty perplexing for writers. So here’s my perplexing answer: I am looking to be moved by a great story.

I’ve always been a person who has been drawn to character-driven stories rather than plot-driven ones. I like stories about intense and complex relationships between characters, and stories that deal in high emotions. I’m also growing incredibly tired of novels that are about magical creatures, especially vampires and werewolves! That’s not to say that I can’t be swept away by a great paranormal story, but for me to take on something that’s paranormal these days, it has to be truly incredible and original.

What I’m really looking for is high concept, commercial fiction that is more realistic in nature, but high concept. Complex relationships, interesting, intriguing situations. I’d also love to get my hands on some historical YA fiction—something with the melodrama of Gossip Girl, only that captures another time period.

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GLA
:
Your recent sale Shucked: My Year in Oysters kind of combines genres a little bit, as it’s described as “part love letter, part memoir, and part documentary.” Usually when nonfiction crosses over like this, it doesn’t work (such as memoir & self help combined). Why did that book work?

DC: Ah, I guess that’s where my penchant for lots of description hurts more than it helps! Shucked is, first and foremost, a narrative nonfiction book. I think Shucked works because it’s a dual narrative. It’s a personal narrative, in that it tells Erin’s story and how her life on the farm changed her perspective, but it’s also a “documentary” narrative about  the intricate farm-to-table process of growing oysters. Plus, it’s got tons of oyster recipes, and what oyster-lover can resist that?

GLA: It’s hard to tell what adult-type books you seek besides narrative nonfiction and women’s fiction. What else catches your eye?

DC: That’s because the bulk of the adult-type projects I’m seeking are either narrative or women’s fiction. For nonfiction, I tend to be drawn toward narratives that have a food twist, like Shucked. I’m also drawn toward narratives that deal with women’s issues, like pregnancy, motherhood, etc.

I very much like cooking and cookbooks, and will be doing more of that in the future. Occasionally, I dabble in self-help and parenting titles, but most of the clients I’ve signed recently have come via referral, and not through my submissions box, and with the market being so flooded, any author submitting to me should really do their homework. They should know their competition inside and out, and they should be able to tell me in three sentences or fewer why their book is different and better than any other book out there.

For women’s fiction, I’m really looking for high concept, voice-driven projects with a commercial concept, but a slight literary edge to the writing. Feeling confused? Yeah, me too! But that’s what I’m looking for. I love Michael Chabon, and I’d love to find a woman who can give me some Michael Chabon-esque fiction, only with more obviously feminine themes. And whether you loved or hated The Help by Kathryn Stockett, that’s a voice-driven story that really jumps off the page—the voice sucks you in whether you want it to or not, and that’s the type of voice I’m looking for in women’s fiction. Not necessarily a Southern voice—just a strong, unique voice that lets me  know exactly who the character is after only a couple of sentences.

GLA: Concerning all genres, what kinds of submissions do you see too much of and would be happy never receiving again?

DC: Vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and stories that include a boy so beautiful that he seems otherwordly (or maybe he is otherworldly!). I see far too many of these types of submissions. As I said earlier, I’m always looking to fall in love with a great story—no matter what magical creatures may inhabit it—but so much of what I get feels too “copycat” to me. I’m ready to be wowed, so as long as it’s fresh and original, I’ll keep a very open mind.

GLA: Most common problems you see in Page 1 of a fiction submission?

DC: One of the most common Page 1 problems I see is too much telling and not enough showing. For YA submissions, I see a lot of pacing problems, in that writers always seem to spend too much time on showing their characters getting out of bed and getting ready for school. That doesn’t make for very captivating reading, so I always look for stories that plunge me right into the action.

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

DC: Unfortunately, I won’t be doing any more conferences in 2010, but I’ll keep you posted for 2011 and beyond!

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

DC: I dropped out of my MFA creative writing program! I was accepted and had my classes scheduled and everything, but a few weeks before classes started, I quit. Soon thereafter, I stumbled into book publishing. Dropping out was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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

DC: On the subject of writing: Write what interests you, and always, always, always keep your protagonist’s motivation front-and-center in your mind as you write. That’s the best way to keep yourself—and your readers—emotionally invested in your story.

On the subject of getting published: Expect rejection, but don’t let it stop you. Take the time to research literary agents and publishers to make sure you’re seeking out the best match.  Take your query letter very seriously, as it’s the first thing an agent will read from you.  And with that in mind, please check out our submissions guidelines for agent bios and a complete set of (very specific and helpful!) submissions guidelines.


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