Literary Agent Interview: Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency

This installment features Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency. She is seeking: Contemporary young adult & middle grade, narrative nonfiction for young adults, graphic novels, YA Dystopian with strong world-building, YA or MG contemporary romance or chick lit, and adult trade nonfiction on quirky subjects or people. She is currently especially drawn to YA & MG projects with humorous situations or funny characters.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman 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 featuresLauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency. Check her out on Twitter: @BostonBookGirl.

She is seeking: Contemporary young adult & middle grade, narrative nonfiction for young adults, graphic novels, YA Dystopian with strong world-building, YA or MG contemporary romance or chick lit, and adult trade nonfiction on quirky subjects or people. She is currently especially drawn to YA & MG projects with humorous situations or funny characters.

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GLA: Why did you become an agent?

LM: In college, I read Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg and realized that I wanted his career—that is, I wanted to work closely with authors and help make them the best they can be. Max was an editor, but I think the relationship he had with his authors is most similar to the current agent/author relationship. And I wanted to be an agent, rather than an editor, because I wanted to be able to work with my authors forever and on every book.

GLA: What's something you've sold that comes out now/soon that you're excited about?

LM: I’m really excited for Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Hélène Boudreau, which publishes in December. It is this hilarious middle grade novel about a plus-sized aqua-phobic girl who suddenly discovers some latent mermaid tendencies. Even the original query letter was funny!

GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you hope for when tackling the slush pile?

LM: I’m really hungry for well-written contemporary YA without any fantasy or paranormal elements. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts in the last year or two about teenagers who can read minds, open magic portals, or talk to ghosts. I think those stories are fascinating, but I’m increasingly interested in reading manuscripts with situations and characters that readers can relate to.

(See our growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GLA: You specialize in juvenile fiction—middle-grade and young adult (not picture books or chapter books for early readers). What are three of the biggest mistakes you see writers make when writing for kids/teens?

LM: I find being very preachy is a big turnoff for me. Nine and a half times out of ten, when a query letter for a YA or MG starts talking about all the lessons the novel will teach kids, I reject it. Literature can be very powerful and it can teach lessons, but I think it is most important to focus on writing something that kids will want to read first.

(Learn more about editing your query letter.)

I’ve also seen a lot of things lately set in the ’80s or ’90s that don’t need to be; I think it is because this is when the writers remember being teenagers. However, it is important to remember that a fifteen-year-old now was born in 1995. The ’90s are historical fiction to them, and if the story can work at all set in 2010, it probably should be.

Finally—and this isn’t a mistake, per se—but writing an authentic teenage voice is very difficult, and I see a lot of writers struggling with it. If there is one thing YA and MG writers should practice and work to perfect, it is writing a teenage voice.

GLA: One thing you say “gets” you in a manuscript is when it makes you laugh. Using two of your favorite comedies (TV shows or movies), describe your sense of humor so writers can get an idea of your tastes.

LM: My sense of humor is: Elf meets Zombieland.

GLA: Your agency profile says you are “flooded” with fantasy, paranormal romance, historical fiction, and tragedy memoirs. Does this mean you aren’t looking for these at this time?

LM: I’m still open to and considering those sub categories. Most agents are probably like this, but I really hate to say “No X,Y, or Z, please,” because I am worried I will miss out on something fantastic. This just means that, for me to take on something in any of those categories, it probably has to be one of the best I’ve ever seen, and it needs to be a little bit different from what is out there.

I’ve just sold a YA trilogy (The New Soul Trilogy) to Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins by Jodi Meadows, which could fall into the fantasy or paranormal romance categories, but I read it in one sitting and absolutely fell in love with it. The book stood head and shoulders above the crowd—that is what a manuscript in those areas needs to do for me to take it on.

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GLA: Being that you rep nonfiction, how much would you say a writer’s platform factors into the equation when you consider a project? What do you feel is the best way a writer can build his platform?

LM: For nonfiction, a writer's platform is almost as important (and in some cases maybe more) than the topic. To convince an editor to buy your book, you need to make a compelling case that you are the only person who can write this particular book in this particular way.

When we are evaluating platforms, we look for articles the author has written for academic or trade audiences, we look at college courses he or she may have taught, or special connections to the material (like a relationship with the subject, or a discovery of new documents) that another writer might not have.
An impressive platform for a narrative book is very different from an impressive platform for a popular science book, but, in all cases, we are looking to make sure that this particular author is best suited for this particular book.

GLA: With fiction?

LM: In fiction, platform matters significantly less. If you write a beautiful, compelling, haunting novel, it doesn’t matter if you have never before lifted your pen to write anything other than a grocery list—your writing will speak for itself.

But it doesn’t hurt to start building an audience early. Submit to literary magazines, enter notable contests, or participate in your local literary community.

GLA: Sticking with your nonfiction interests for a second, your agency website says you seek “adult trade nonfiction on quirky subjects or people.” Could you elaborate on this so writers get more of an idea of what you’re looking for here? What do you consider "quirky"?

LM: Like most agents or editors, I’d love to have a few more books on unexplored historical events or famous people. Wendy Strothman, our principal agent, represents this fantastic young writer, Hali Felt. Hali is writing a beautiful narrative nonfiction book about Marie Tharp, this incredibly tenacious geologist/artist who discovered the mid-Atlantic Rift that proved continental drift (Henry Holt 2011). Marie is wild and fascinating, and there isn’t a lot out there on her already—these are exactly the kinds of books that I and the Strothman Agency are looking for.

GLA: To you, what is the most important thing writers can do to maximize their success in this changing industry?

LM: Write a fantastic book. A good novel is a good novel, even if it is written on a scroll, bound into a paperback, downloaded onto an e-reader, or even fed directly into the brain like in M.T. Anderson’s Feed. The industry is evolving rapidly, but no matter how publishing looks in the future or how the delivery method changes, we will always need really amazing content.

GLA: I read in your recent GalleyCat interview that you used to be way into sunken ships/Titanic (pre-James Cameron). What is something else about you writers would be surprised to hear?

LM: I almost never drink coffee. In this industry, that sometimes feels a little like saying “I almost never breathe air.” I’m trying to learn to like it, but I’m still trying to navigate the crucial point between when something ceases to be called coffee and starts to be called milk and sugar.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

LM: Read! I think one of the best things a writer can do outside of writing is read. Read everything in your genre, especially the bestsellers. I’m in a fantastic book club with a few other young local industry people, and we always pick a bestseller and then talk about why we think it did so well. It is a really interesting thought exercise, and I think it would be wildly valuable to authors as well. As you are reading, ask yourself: Why do I think the editor acquired this novel? What is it about this book that speaks to my target audience?

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
The Write-Brained Network. You can
Visit her blog
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