“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Dorlan Karchmar of WME Entertainment) 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.
She is looking for: “She represents bestselling and award winning literary and quality mainstream fiction and narrative nonfiction (memoir, biography, history), cookbooks and general upmarket nonfiction.”
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
DK: Russian Winter, a debut historical novel by Daphne Kalotay, to HarperCollins; subsequently, we have sold it in 14 countries.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray
for when tackling the slush pile?
DK: More phenomenal historical fiction—I get a lot in, but not a lot that’s as good as it needs to be—that, and a beautifully-written, very scary ghost story for grown-ups.
GLA: Can you tell us a little bit more about the kinds of short story projects you seek?
DK: I am not actively seeking short stories, as collections are nearly impossible to sell. The culture has moved away from stories to the point where they are nearly an endangered species from a financial perspective. That said, I do still take occasional leaps with collections, in which case I tend to be drawn to linked collections and collections that illuminate a place or culture that is unexpected or in some way deeply unfamiliar. (I would love to find something set in North Korea, written by an “insider.”)
GLA: I read online that you seek “offbeat/quirky” fiction. Can you give us 2-3 examples of books you’ve repped that fall into this category so that writers can get a better sense of what you mean here?
DK: That definition of what I’m looking for has probably caused me more trouble than almost anything else I’ve put out there, so I’m happy to have the opportunity to clarify. I love to be transported when I read, and what I’m seeking are stories and voices that I don’t feel I’ve read before. I’m not looking for the deliberately experimental, nor am I looking for much in the way of overtly comic novels (though I do love to laugh, I like the laughter to be only one part of what a book makes me feel—I’m not a big fan of satire, per se).
I represented an extraordinary memoir last year called The House at Sugar Beach by New York Times reporter Helene Cooper, which was a New York Times bestseller. It’s the story of her growing up in Liberia and of her return there as an adult to try to find the foster sister she left behind when Helene’s family—a political royalty—was forced to flee the country in the way of the coup in 1980 when Helene was 13. That’s a story unlike any I had read before—something only this author could have written—and it completely transported me both emotionally and intellectually, to places I had never imagined. To me, that is very exciting.
Last year, HarperCollins published a debut novel I represented called The Seamstress by Frances De Pontes Peebles, a young Brazilian-American writer. It is an epic set in Brazil in the 1930s, telling the story of two poor sisters who are separated as teenagers: one is kidnapped by a group of roving bandits and goes on to become their eventual leader; the other sister marries into a political dynasty in the capital of Recife. It’s a sprawling, deeply colorful story, and it felt both beautifully old-fashioned and refreshingly original to me in its settings and the intertwining of the political, the natural world, and the emotional pull between these sisters who are separated for over a decade. This wasn’t a book you would look at and necessarily think of as “quirky,” but, again, it could not have been written by anyone other than Frances, and I think it was an absolute triumph of historical fiction that used impeccable research without ever falling prey to it.
GLA: Do you notice any trends in what you tend to represent? Subgenres or elements that particularly grab you?
DK: I seek out assured and elegant voices—I’m a stickler for clean writing, which doesn’t mean it has to be spare, but I want writers who have made the tough decisions about what to include and what to exclude on a word level, line level, and plot level.
I have lately been drawn to historical fiction and to fiction that has some sort of fabulous element to it—again, I’m dying for a ghost story: I’d like to be spooked out! I’m always interested in books that bring together unlikely people or pairings: something told from a unique point of view that we don’t often get to inhabit (an animal; someone with an strange and interesting job)—that’s back to the “offbeat” thing for me. I’d like to read about a Chinese washerwoman on a British naval vessel during WWI; an old gardener in the 18th century who takes it upon himself to redesign all the Queen’s gardens at some far-flung castle in France that the Queen never visits, etc.
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GLA: You also rep some nonfiction areas. If you met a writer and suggested that he build his platform, only for him to ask “How do I do that?” – what would you say?
GLA: What is the number one mistake you see in queries?
DK: People querying too early—before their writing and their book has matured to the point it needs to be. Finding an agent should be the last step, not the first. If the book is truly wonderful and fully-baked, the author will be able to find an effective advocate for it. Most people querying are doing so well before their work can stand up to honest scrutiny.
DK: Don’t give in to internal and external pressures to try to find an agent before you’ve matured as a writer. The book business is very difficult and not getting any easier; most books that are published don’t sell well, and many careers end practically before they start.Write a book that only you could write, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.Be more patient and more honest with yourself than you ever thought you could be.Find a couple of writers who you think are better than you are, ingratiate yourself with them, and start reading and workshopping each other. And ask them—beg them—to be merciless. Be humble and quiet while they give you feedback.
Be prepared to cut, delete, throw away, put in a drawer.
Only when you’ve got your best possible work—something that can stand up there with the best of whatever genre you’re working in—should you start looking for the right agent to represent you. If you’ve got a terrific book, you should end up with plenty of good agents from which to choose, so don’t jump at the first person who says “yes.”
Put the good of the work before the good of your ego as much as you can.
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- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 24, 2017: The Alabama Writers Conference (Birmingham, AL)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- March 25, 2017: Kansas City Writing Workshop (Kansas City, MO)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- April 22, 2017: Get Published in Kentucky Conference (Louisville, KY)
- April 22, 2017: New Orleans Writers Conference (New Orleans, LA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
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- June 24, 2017: The Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- Pitch Perfect: How to Craft Your Book’s Hook.
- It Takes a Village (To Write a Novel).
- Literary Agent Interview: BJ Robbins of BJ Robbins Literary.
- More Commonsense Tips on Writing a Query.
- How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Group.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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