Agent Advice: Shannon O’Neill of The Sagalyn Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Shannon O’Neill of The Sagalyn 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 Shannon O’Neill of The Sagalyn Literary Agency. Director of Domestic Rights, Shannon is a native of the Washington region. She has a Masters of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College. She worked for Island Press and Politics and Prose Bookstore before coming to the agency in 2007.

She is seeking:
The Sagalyn Literary Agency specializes in quality nonfiction and mainstream fiction. They do not represent romance, westerns, science fiction, poetry, children’s books, or screenplays.

 

 


GLA
: Why did you become an agent?

SO: Since childhood, books provided me things that nothing else could—an unwavering supply of companionship, escapism, entertainment.

In high school and then at Dartmouth College, I started taking creative writing classes and found that I didn’t just enjoy reading, I was also curious about how poems, short stories, novels, and long narratives were constructed and assembled. I got a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins University while working as an assistant editor at a small publisher and as a bookseller at Politics and Prose, a powerhouse of an independent bookstore here in Washington DC.

When I learned more about what agents do, I was struck by the combination of skills the job required, and I started looking around to see what agencies were located in DC. I was lucky enough to land at a place where editorial input is welcomed as essential, and where each project is given ample time and attention, no matter what.

I love meeting with potential authors and helping them hatch an idea, and then watching/helping/guiding as that idea grows into a book proposal and a full-fledged manuscript.

GLA: Tell us about a recent project you’ve sold.

SO: I’ve worked on a host of eclectic projects lately—everything from a biography of a Civil War general to a book on the health of presidents and how it affects their policies while in office to a look inside the modern mysteries of aviation and the air travel industry. Basically, a lot of nonfiction from experts in their fields who have the writing chops and the clear voice needed to appeal to a general audience.

GLA: Are there any books coming out now that you’re excited about?

SO: I’m very excited to see Judy Pasternak’s Yellow Dirt come out in the fall from Free Press. Judy is a marvelous writer and, in this book, she tackles a subject that demands attention. The United States government undertook uranium mining operations on the Navajo reservation during the frenzy of the Cold War and left behind a contaminated wasteland. The local people have suffered immensely as a result, and this book is a reckoning for all the world to see.

GLA: What are you looking for right now when tackling the slush pile?

SO: I pray for someone who has done their homework. By that I don’t mean a nicely written “grabby” query. By that I mean someone who is intimately involved in the inner workings of the field that they are writing about or who has at least done extensive research on their topic and knows it inside out.

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GLA: Looking at your agency’s title list, I notice the majority of subjects—in both fiction and nonfiction—deal with the political, the historical, or the military (which makes sense, being that you are based in the DC area). Do you notice any trends in the kinds of projects that pique your interest, in terms of subgenres or elements that particularly grab you?

SO: The best writing embodies a sense of discovery. As far as subject matter goes, my tastes are catholic and wide ranging. In terms of execution, I tend to be quite orthodox.

So pique my interest with your discoveries about why insects congregate, your new findings about how the limbic system affects cognition or your new theory about how the war in Afghanistan will end. But hold it by writing in an engaging and effectual manner about what that means about human behavior, how we can recover from brain trauma, or what that means for future geopolitics in the Middle East.

Details can be captivating, but the big picture is what concerns us all.

GLA: You teach a number of writing and publishing workshops at The Writing Center in Washington, DC. One of your current classes focuses on the idea that writers have four distinct artistic personalities. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

SO: I think that writers are often too hard on themselves in the initial stages of the creative process—that, or they think that first stage is the only one. Writing is a methodical process that involves drafting and revision, rereading and revision, more drafting, more revision … you get the point.

You have to let yourself go and write that sh*tty first draft (Hemingway said it, not me!)—just let the ideas flow and get it out on paper. But that’s not the draft you show to anyone except your cat or your spouse. There’s a lot of work that you need to do to get it to some end stage where it can be judged and reviewed by a person like an agent. So that particular class talks about the stages along the way.

GLA: With the amount of nonfiction your agency represents, author platform must play a major role in your everyday decisions when considering book proposals. We’ve all heard writers need to have a Web presence (and it doesn’t hurt to have your own TV show), but what impresses you in terms of platform?

SO: Doesn’t have to be much—a couple well-placed, thoughtful articles in well-known publications, or even just publications that are important to your field. I like reading projects from academics and journalists, as long as they can translate their style from that of their profession to that of the general book reader.

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

SO: There might be a few others in the spring and summer, but I know for sure I’ll be at the June 12, 2010 American Independent Writers Conference in Washington, DC.

GLA: I read you came first in your age group in the XTERRA Fugitive 10K in June 2009 (congrats, by the way!). Is there anything else writers might be surprised to learn about you personally?

SO: Wow, you did some serious sleuthing to come up with that one. I’m impressed. Running is a big part of my life—though I prefer longer distances than 10k. I’m a marathoner, really. And I enjoy the training as much, if not more, than the racing. Kind of like the writing process and the finished product …

GLA: What should new writers do in 2010 to keep up with the publishing industry?

SO: As a new writer, I would worry less about e-books and more about sustained narrative, creating an arc of a story, and incorporating telling detail into your writing. Yes, it’s important to keep abreast of trends in publishing. But you have to have something worth publishing first. Start worrying about industry stuff when your first book is out and you’re cracking on the second.

This agent interview by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
Shenandoah Writers in VA. Visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter.


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