Agent Advice: Debbie Carter of Muse Literary Management

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Debbie Carter of Muse Literary Management) 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 literary agent Debbie Carter of Muse Literary Management. Prior to starting her own agency in 1998, she worked for a literary agent, a talent manager, and in the record business as a talent scout. She has a BA in English and music from Washington Square University College at NYU.

She is seeking: literary novels and short story collections with popular appeal, mysteries, thrillers, suspense, espionage fiction/nonfiction, children’s fiction/nonfiction and literary narrative nonfiction. Other nonfiction areas of interest include music, writing, birds and gardening.


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

DC: Recent sales include a short story to The Kenyon Review by 2005 Pushcart nominee Aurelia Wills, to be published in their 2008 summer issue; and a children’s folktale collection, The Adventures of Molly Whuppie, by Anne Shelby, to Univ. of North Carolina Press.

GLA: You accept short story collections and novellas. Do you feel that the stories have to be connected or can they all be individual? Are these still a tough sell to publishers either way?

DC: I am looking for writers of short fiction who have enough stories for a collection or are writing toward completing one. Most collections are by prize-winning authors and feature stories previously published in name journals and magazines. If stories are interconnected, like a novel, and the work is strong enough to compete with debut novels, the writer does not need these credentials. Aurelia Wills, a writer who sold a couple stories on her own to journals, is completing stories toward a collection, and I submitted stories to journals as she worked toward that goal. We sold one to The Kenyon Review, but major journals passed on the other stories; unfortunately, we couldn’t agree on a strategy for further submissions and we parted company: I thought the stories needed to be longer and that she should revise, and she wanted to keep sending the stories out because making submissions was “a numbers game.” If a writer and I don’t agree editorially on content, I will usually suggest that they seek feedback in a workshop. Some follow my advice, but some don’t and decide to submit to publishers on their own.

It is a matter of a reader’s taste whether or not an editor publishes a story, but if I see something wrong with a story (usually an aspect of the structure), I will ask the writer to “fix” it. It’s rare for an agent or anyone for that matter to like everything by a writer, and many writers will want to sell everything they write. I try to allow room for disagreement in my relationship with writers: I offer an agency agreement that is limited to specific works. I offer an agency agreement that is limited to specific works.

As for novellas, the content of the story should determine its length, but I didn’t see any novellas by new writers on Children’s publishers are open to young adult novels of novella length, but I don’t know firsthand if publishers of adult fiction are receptive to them; I haven’t found one. Stewart O’Nan just published Last Night at the Lobster, a Christmas novella. If readers buy it, then publishers will know there is an audience for the short novel, and will probably consider short novels by new writers. When I receive a query for a novella, my first hunch is that the book isn’t finished. I usually recommend that the writer read Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen, for its checklists in chapter 2, to see if there’s something missing in their story or plot.


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GLA: When you’re reading a partial, what are the most common problems you see in the writing samples? What are the most common reasons you turn down a submission?

DC: I usually request the first hundred pages of a novel, and for story collections, four or five stories. I want to see if the opening chapters or stories capture me in any way, with a compelling narrator or a strong premise or situation as in The Firm or The Day of the Jackal. Many times, I turn down first submissions because they’re trashy or trite, or they’re about obscure or specialized topics, like Roman history. That’s not to say these manuscripts won’t appeal to other readers; on my Web site, I list genres that don’t appeal to me. But I’ll always tell writers why I’m passing and offer suggestions on where they might look for agents. Or, in the case where I like the voice or specific passages, but there isn’t enough there for me to work with, I’ll suggest books for further reading.

GLA: You seek narrative nonfiction. What are the key elements you look for in a narrative nonfiction submission? What elements must be there to capture you attention and distinguish it from regular nonfiction?

DC: I read narrative nonfiction as I do novels, for story and character, except they seem to mean more to me because they’re true. I’ve placed my favorite titles on the “bookshelf” page on my site with links to excerpts.

GLA: Plenty of people want to write a memoir (and many do), but few are good. For you, what separates the best memoir from the others?

DC: The way you phrased the question is subjective. What’s good depends on whether you’re looking for a well-constructed story or a firsthand, often amateur, account of an experience that may provide answers to questions in your own life, as a kind of self-help read.  I’m looking for well-constructed stories, and the memoirs I like, posted on my bookshelf page, are by authors or journalists who have studied writing. I evaluate them as I would a first-person narrator in a novel. Do I like this person? Some bestselling memoirs don’t appeal to me because their lives are just too awful to read about, as in The Glass Castle. The narrator recalls one miserable episode in her childhood after another with no letup; she wore me out.

In a play or novel, the dramatist or author would alter the plot, selecting only significant scenes instead of telling everything about the life, and arranging them for dramatic effect; and giving readers a break from the main story with scenes with other characters. Some memoirs are on topics that don’t appeal to me, such as Eat Pray Love, a spirituality title, or I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (why would I want to read about a womanizer? Again, a personal reaction) or the didactic Bill O’Reilly books; But in the memoirs I do like, the narrators appeal to me as people, and have strong plots that satisfy expectations for traditional story structure: I like coming-of-age stories like Mermaids by Patty Dann, stories that capture an aspect of American culture that has past, like The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, or stories of historical significance that are relevant today, like The Zookeeper’s Wife.

GLA: Will you be at any conferences in the future where writers can meet you?

DC: Right now I’m booked for the Sand Hills Writers’ Conference at Augusta State University in March. I’ll also be at ThrillerFest in NYC in July.

GLA: What’s your best piece of advice regarding something we haven’t discussed?

DC: I would suggest they read Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review. I know writers need time to write and research their projects, but I think writers would be less frustrated if they knew more about the business. Many writers approach novels or memoirs strictly from aesthetics: Is this a good book? Many of them are thoughtful and well-written, but do they know who would want to read it? Can they define their book’s category as a publisher or bookseller would? Does the book speak to the concerns of their readers?  Some of the stories and topics are old-fashioned, too derivative of other books, or aren’t relevant to our lives today.
Readers are looking to connect with a character, and see the world in a way that is familiar and new at the same time. We constantly hear that people have less time to read, but we all have time for a compelling story that speaks to our concerns, like Harry Potter, Sophie’s Choice or Carrie. Reading PW and the NYTBR will tell them what’s being published by large and small companies, what’s selling, and why. They don’t have to force themselves to write books they don’t like just to fit a trend, but they should see who is publishing books they like, and shape their own manuscripts to fit publishers’ lists.

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