GLA: How did you become an agent?
JSV: I started at a small publisher on Long Island, Blue Marlin Publications. I was basically a part-time publisher’s assistant and loved it—I got to do everything! From attending BEA to editing to publicity. It was a great way to start in publishing. At the time, I was taking a publishing course with Peter Rubie of FinePrint Literary Management. Five months later, I was working for both FinePrint and Nancy Coffey, then eventually I got to sign a few clients as a junior agent, made some sales and I started in January of this year as a full-time agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation. I’ve had some great mentors along the way. [Keep in mind that as of 2013, Joanna is with New Leaf Literary.]
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
JSV: The most recent book I sold was in December: Bloomsbury Children’s, Ghost Watcher trilogy.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? When you read the slush pile, what are you praying that you find?
JSV: I am looking for good historical fiction with female protagonists, strong YA told in verse, and humorous middle grade. I am always praying to find a dark read for boys/young guys that’s Stand By Me meets a modern Catcher in the Rye … I’ve come close with a few, but so far, no perfect fit!
GLA: In my agent interviews, I haven’t really gotten much advice from agents on writing children’s nonfiction. Can you give us some 101 tips?
JSV: You can write about almost anything when it comes to children’s nonfiction, even if it’s been done before. But you need to come at the subject from a different angle. If there is already a book on tomatoes and how they grow, then try writing about tomatoes from a cultural angle. There are a ton of books on slavery, but not many on slaves in Haiti during the Haitian Revolution (is there even one? There’s an idea—someone take it and query me!). Another thing to always consider is your audience. Kids already have textbooks at school, so you shouldn’t write your book like one. Come at the subject in a way that kids can relate to and find interesting. Humor is always a useful tool in nonfiction for kids.
(Hear from bestselling authors on how to get your children’s book published.)
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GLA: It seems like a lot of juvenile nonfiction is series stuff. “The 50 States.” “Historical Figures.” Should writers try to add to an already-existing series or should they come up with an original one-shot idea?
JSV: Adding to a series is a great way to get started as a writer of nonfiction, especially for unagented writers (depending on the publishing house, of course). But it can’t hurt to research the market and try to come up with an idea of your own. Every publishing house is on the lookout for good nonfiction for kids. Another great way to build your resume is to write articles for kid’s magazines like Highlights, Ranger Rick, Muse, Ask, Boys Quest, Boys Life, Jack and Jill, Discovery Girl, Pockets, Spider, etc, or even writing pieces up for educational workbooks. If you have a lot of experience writing nonfiction for kids, an agent or editor will know that you know how to reach that audience.
GLA: You give a speech on the “dreaded synopsis.” In your mind, what do you think the three most common mistakes a writer makes when composing a synopsis?
JSV: 1) Including too many characters. 2) Including too many subplots. 3) Making them too long! I usually ask writers to submit a two-page synopsis, but I’d prefer even one page.
(Read an article with 5 tips for writing a synopsis.)
GLA: I point writers to Query Shark to let them see query examples and critiques. Do you know recommend any books or websites for seeing and evaluating synopses?
JSV: I actually don’t know of many—which is why I chose it as my workshop topic for a number of upcoming conferences. Lisa Gardner has a very detailed layout though, I’m pretty sure it’s on her website.
GLA: Let’s say you sit down to read an adult fiction partial – the first 50 pages. Where are writers going wrong? What do you hate to see in a ms early in the story?
JSV: Too much backstory. A lot of writers feel the need to tell us all about their protagonist right up front, so we know them like they do. I’d rather be shown who the hero/heroine is throughout the piece. Voice tells me more about a character than any description paragraph.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
JSV: Yes I will!
- NETWO’s Writers Roundup (Camp Shiloh, TX) 4/24-4/25/09
- CTRWA’s Connecticut Fiction Fest (Meriden, CT) 5/2/09
- LIRW Luncheon (Jericho, NY) 6/12/09
- Midwest Writers Workshop (Ball State University, IN) 7/23-7/25/09
- South Carolina Writer’s Workshop Conference (Myrtle Beach, SC) 10/23-10/25/09
- Oh … and of course, the Writer’s Digest 2009 BEA Pitch Slam!
- [Editor’s note: Joanna will be taking pitches at the 2013 Writer’s Digest Conference, April 5-7, 2013, in NYC.]
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?
JSV: Don’t try to find out what the next “hot thing” is. Just write what comes to you. Trends or no trends, agents and editors are just looking for solid writing.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Agent Interview: Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates.
- A List of Overused Words in Novels and Story.
- NEW Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Liat Justin of Serendipity Literary.
- Why Publishing Your First Novel is Like Running For Student Body President.
- 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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