Agent Advice: Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

This installment features Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown, LTD. She had been working with CB since 2008. With her own MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, Sarah loves getting to work directly with new and developing authors. She is seeking: literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, science fiction, literary horror and young adult fiction.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown, Ltd.) 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 Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown, LTD. She had been working with CB since 2008. With her own MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, Sarah loves getting to work directly with new and developing authors.

She is seeking: literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, science fiction, literary horror and young adult fiction.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

SL: I interned with a small boutique agency while I was getting my MFA. In college, the big dream was to move to New York and become an editor. I didn’t really know what an agent did. I just had the vague definition of agent being “a person you need in order to get published.” When I moved to New York and started interning at an agency, I realized that was true, but that they are also editors and publicists and cheerleaders all rolled into one. I knew I wanted to stick with agenting. It just felt like the best way for me to work with writers from the beginning stages and watch their careers grow. To be a part of it. A job opened up with the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, which has been such a great experience. Learning about foreign markets is so important in being a good agent, so I’m grateful to have that knowledge. And now, two years later, I am an associate agent with CB!

GLA: Your bio states that you are interested in literary horror. My first reaction to this is to imagine a mass murderer sitting by Walden pond reflecting about himself. For the sake of an author who may have unknowingly written a literary horror, are there clear characteristics to look for? Perhaps a few examples of this?

SL: I think you might be onto something. I can picture a serial killer, an existential crisis, and an opening scene of him staring pensively to the other side of the ponds. Usually, when I think of literary horror, I think of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Shirley Jackson. Style-wise, I think what makes “literary horror” its own genre is the same as what makes literary fiction different from commercial fiction. Heightened language, themes, concepts, etc. Only with horror, you get all the dark and gruesome elements too. Added fun.

GLA: Talk to me about selling literary horror or literary fiction in general? Is it a tough sell? Do you find yourself turning down good work because of the market?

SL: Selling literary fiction in general is harder, and it always has been. So many people are saying that style is “dead,” but I don’t believe that at all. It’s probably never going to be an easy sell, and I do keep that in mind when reading submissions. But, I think there will always be people who want it, especially if a novel is worth it. Maybe I’m an optimist.

(Look over our growing list of literary fiction agents.)

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The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
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GLA: You also like to see coming-of-age stories. Are you looking for children’s coming-of-age or adult or both?

SL: I like both, even though I think they’d technically need to be called something else when it comes to adults. I prefer YA coming-of-age because I think there’s more room to explore and allow the character to really change. In real life, adults don’t usually go through massive transformations, so in novels, the changes are more subtle or pertain to a specific aspect in their lives. With teens, every year of their lives is something new, and they are often completely different from who they were the year, or sometimes day, before.

GLA: You say you’re drawn to strong narrators. Do you find yourself drawn to female or male narrators more?

SL: It’s strange because some of my favorite narrators of all time are teenage boys (Holden Caulfield, Ponyboy Curtis, and Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but I am always drawn to a strong female voice (I’m thinking of someone like Scout’s adult perspective in To Kill a Mockingbird or the protagonists in a Lorrie Moore short story). To me a strong narrator is more than just someone who’s sassy (which I see a lot of in female-narrated YA) or even someone who’s tortured. No matter the gender, good narrators need to have something to say while staying true to their character, and they need to be multi-dimensional.

GLA: Science fiction seems like a really tough genre for new writers to break into unless they have been commissioned to pen a novel in an established series (such as Star Trek). What can science fiction authors do to make themselves stand out?

(See our list of science fiction agents.)

SL: I love science fiction, but it is really hard to find something that stands out as “special.” I think a good thing to remember about science fiction is that there are many different genres and styles, so you need to know what you’re going to write before you write it. Otherwise, it can become a mess. Another is to establish whatever world you’ve created immediately. Once I know where I am, when I am, and what I am, it is much easier for me to just let go and enjoy it. The best way to stand out is to have a great story that’s original and compelling. Original doesn’t always have to mean “this has never been thought of before ever” either. To me, with genre fiction especially, more often it’s the way the story is told, as opposed to the plot itself, that makes it fresh and relevant.

GLA: In your bio, you seek both urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Since these genres tend to have many of the same characteristics, do you see some subtle differences that could help authors know which category they fall under?

SL: I was talking about this recently with a colleague, and she helped me break it down in a much less convoluted way than I would have normally explained it. There is a lot of overlap in these two genres, but at its core, paranormal romance cannot exist without a romance. Urban fantasy can.

GLA: What are you sick of seeing in the slush pile?

SL: Vampires! Werewolves! Angels! Zombies! No more please. Some creatures are still OK, but I need an indefinite break from those others.

GLA: What makes you reject a query?

SL: If the execution of the query is bad, I question the writer’s storytelling ability. It might not be fair, but it’s usually a safe bet that it’ll be weaker. But most times I reject a query either because I have no interest in the plot or because it feels like something I’ve read a hundred times before. Or, of course, if there’s a vampire in it.

(How to write a query letter.)

GLA: What kind of writer would you ideally love to represent?

SL: I’d want a writer whose work I am in love with and who will be in it for the long hull. I also like to be a part of the editorial process, so it’s important for me to have mutual trust and respect in our relationship. So far, I
’ve been lucky.

GLA: Best way to submit to you?

SL: I prefer email (sl[at]cbltd[dot]com) with a query letter and the first five pages pasted into the body of the email. I’m also not opposed to snail mail, but it will take me longer to respond.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you? (See a ever-growing list of writers conferences.)

SL: Yes, I’ll be at the Rutgers One-on-One conference in October 2010. I can’t wait!

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

SL: I was voted “Most Optimistic” in my junior high school yearbook, which I later discovered was because most of my friends thought it would be funny. The irony is that at the time, I was a typical angst-ridden teen, but now I am a legitimately optimistic person. Most of the time.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?

SL: My grandmother’s favorite piece of advice to hand down to us grandchildren when we were little was “Think before you write.” I think that’s still a valid point.

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This interview by Jennifer Benner, 2010 summer
intern for Writer’s Digest and senior at
Grace College. She spends her time working
on a novel and talking to other writers.
Check out her blog.

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