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Agent Advice: Stacia Decker of Donald Maass Literary

This installment features Stacia Decker, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which she joined in 2009 after agenting at Firebrand Literary. A former editor at Harcourt and Otto Penzler Books, Stacia began her career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux after earning an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. She is looking for: mystery, suspense, noir, and crime fiction and is looking for a strong voice, dark humor, fast-paced plotting, and unpredictable violence.

“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Stacia Decker of Donald Maass Literary) 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 Stacia Decker, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which she joined in 2009 after agenting at Firebrand Literary. A former editor at Harcourt and Otto Penzler Books, Stacia began her career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux after earning an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.

She is looking for
: mystery, suspense, noir, and crime fiction and is looking for a strong voice, dark humor, fast-paced plotting, and unpredictable violence.

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: How did you become an agent?

SD: After I was laid off in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt merger, I decided I wouldn’t be happy without the flexibility to purse the writers and projects I believed in, and that meant agenting. I started at Firebrand Literary, and when that agency closed a few months later, I called Don Maass and we started talking about me joining the agency. Needless to say, my authors were thrilled when I announced we had a new home with Don. I cannot say enough about Don’s editorial insight, ethical judgment, and professionalism.

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

SD: Joelle Charbonneau’s Skating Around the Law will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in Fall 2010. This is the first book in the Rebecca Robbins series, which features a spunky Chicago heroine trying to sell her mother’s small-town roller rink, her combative romance with a hunky large-animal vet, and her inevitable foray into crime-solving with the help of her oversexed grandfather, Pop, and a retired circus camel, Elwood. You can learn more about Joelle at and hear her podcast with the editors of Tyrus Books.

GLA: Just so writers understand—you used to look for nonfiction but aren’t currently? Is that correct?

SD: Yes. I started my career as a nonfiction editor, and as an agent I was originally accepting nonfiction queries. I soon decided to concentrate on mystery and crime fiction, however, and made it official when I moved to the Maass agency, which represents primarily fiction.

GLA: What falls under the umbrella that of “crime fiction”?

SD: Crime fiction can include a detective or cop character—he’s just usually not the hero. I would say that crime fiction is less about the whodunit than about the protagonist’s dilemma in a criminal milieu. The protagonist may not have all the information—so there is a mystery in that he is trying to find something out—but the story is really about how he solves his problems, which are often as much about his lifestyle as about the particular crime that spurs the plot. For instance, in Ray Banks’ brilliant Saturday's Child, Cal Innes is forced by a local mob boss to find a former employee and the money he stole, but in many ways the story is about Cal trying to find a place for himself and form an adult life within a socioeconomic stratum that offers very few options.

GLA: Does “Suspense” really exist as a category? For me, the classic Suspense book is Silence of the Lambs, yet you still see a lot of blurbs in that book calling it a thriller.

SD: I believe that psychological suspense very much exists as a subgenre—and one that crosses genres as varied as literary, women’s fiction, and horror. For example, over the years I’ve seen quite a few nervy novels (particularly from the UK) featuring a female protagonist, sexual obsession, and the building threat of madness and violence rather than an initial crime that must be solved. These, to me, are best labeled Suspense.

Not that that’s what I’m looking for. Yeah, sorry. When I say I’m looking for suspense, I’m deliberately being a bit vague because I never know when a thriller will catch my fancy—thriller being another famously ill-defined term. The properties I represent are typically more male-oriented and action-packed than strictly psychological. As for Silence of the Lambs, I would classify it as a leader in the serial killer subgenre.

GLA: Speaking of Silence of the Lambs, I remember how that book did not start out very fast. It was interesting but lacked some kind of super-interesting jump-start that you offer see in genre novels these days. What do you like to see at the beginning of a book you’re considering?

SD: A super-interesting jump-start. My books typically start with a broken nose, a dead dog, a hold-up, a body falling through a windshield, or the protagonist on his way to breaking someone’s arm.

Because I read to live vicariously though another person’s worldview, I want a very strong voice. I want to hear someone speaking to me from the start—which is incompatible with a boring first sentence. Most of the time, I expect to start in medias res with the story unfolding with very little exposition. I should be able to pick up what I need to know from the storytelling itself. Good writing is all about what isn’t said, about what the reader infers or interprets. If something needs to be said, say it quickly and simply in the character’s voice rather than dragging me through a long scene to prove a basic point.

A lesson I’ve learned from Don is that writers should also be aware of giving the reader a reason to care about the protagonist from the start. I’m partial to dark humor and antiheroes, but there must be something fundamentally human in the protagonist that allows the reader to care about him—and the reader has to see it early in order to keep reading.

So, as a writer, don’t count on your reader getting to the good part. Frontload and keep on loading. You’ve got to bring your A Game from line one.

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GLA: You seek these big categories—crime, suspense, mystery. But within the categories, what do you like to see?

SD: I have a real soft spot for neo-noir and crime—subgenres that typically feature protagonists who are, existentially speaking, screwed from page one, who break rules or make the wrong choices (as we’d all like to), who allow us to play out our dark fantasies and fears, who exhibit dark humor and self-deprecation, who give voice to a lower or working class existence that is under-represented in our news and art. These characters, to me, give us a window onto contemporary society and the human condition. Plus they’re fun to read.

I’m charmed by any author who captures the nuances of human interaction and dialogue. My client Steve Weddle nailed my in-laws without even knowing it. My client Frank Wheeler recreates an Arkansas Ozark dialect that immediately puts the reader into the head of his sociopath protagonist. My client David Thayer illustrates, through his detective’s elocution, the social constraints of the mid-twentieth century. I really value this attention to language, this ability to capture a person’s history and location through his speech. The absence of this—through cliché, through generic language, though pastiche—is deadly.

I am not often interested in characters who are extraordinarily attractive, wealthy, intelligent, accomplished, well-dressed, and confident. These characters are wish-fulfillment constructs; they’re not relatable and they’re boring. Many serial killers in fiction are also boring. Their motivations and unreliable narratives feel overly familiar, and their obvious evil requires no work on the part of the reader. Most of us understand traditional definitions of right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure. I’m more interested in stories and characters that blur those distinctions and force us to think about those categories.

I’m also interested in issues of masculinity and male identity and the way that these issues play out in these stories. While the male experience has disproportionately dominated the historical record, I feel that the vulnerability of that identity has been unfairly underrepresented. It’s an important subject and it’s one organically addressed in genre fiction. Didacticism is a turn-off, but I notice symbolism and motifs and appreciate a genuine portrayal of the dilemmas inherent in the male gender construct.

I want the story to keep moving—in this genre, that often means violence. And if you’re going to have violence, it—as with any plot element—had better be unpredictable. Much of what I represent is unabashedly violent, but I feel it’s organic to the plot, realistic to the characters, and relevant to the reader’s interest in what the human experience can contain. That said, I’m not particularly interested in stories that highlight violence against women or children; rape and molestation are, to me, the stuff of news rather than entertainment. In the end, this is entertainment. I want to live vicariously through a physically damaged yet resilient, less morally constrained character who experiences drama uncommon to my daily life. And it helps if he’s funny. Dark humor keeps a story surprising.

GLA: Top three mistakes you see in a query letters?

SD: The number one mistake is not telling me what the book is about. This includes being so vague that after a paragraph of description I still can’t identify basic plot elements. It includes pasting the first fives pages of the novel into the body of an email with absolutely no cover letter. It includes sending me an email informing me that your cover letter and synopsis are in the attached documents. It includes letting me know that you’re writing a novel but, in place of a pitch, you would like to send me a short story featuring the same protagonist. It includes telling me all about you and your reasons for writing the novel but nothing about the book itself. These are all query letters that do not function as query letters.

Most other “mistakes” are forgivable or let me in on legitimate reasons why I am not the right agent for you. For instance, querying me for genres I don’t represent (YA, fantasy, science fiction) is a waste of your time, but there’s probably nothing wrong with the query letter itself. Letting slip personality characteristics or sales expectations that clash with my own—again, only a mistake if you want to embark on a professional relationship destined for failure.

A good query letter should mimic the hardcover flap copy or paperback cover copy you would expect to see on your book should it be published. That’s because, ideally, your query letter becomes your agent’s pitch letter, which becomes your editor’s catalogue copy, which becomes your book’s flap copy. Agents and editors are overworked and nobody likes to reinvent the wheel. Make it easier on them by giving them what they need to sell your book. Go look at some copy—it includes a snappy description of the plot (the hook and one significant twist that ups the drama, not a blow by blow synopsis), relevant information about the author, and maybe blurbs. That’s it. If you happen to dog-sit for Stephen King and he promised to blurb your book, let me know. Otherwise—and, really, even then—keep it short, pithy, and professional.

That said, I’ve signed plenty of clients whose query letters were flawed or contained outright pet peeves of mine. Do your research and do a halfway decent job on your query letter and the strength of your writing and your personality will shine through and matter most.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where people can meet/pitch you?

SD: I will be at Bloody Words in Toronto and at Bouchercon in San Francisco, but writers are better off pitching over e-mail.

GLA: Do you realize you share the same last name as the protagonist in Blade Runner, a fantastically awesome noir movie? How does this make you feel?

SD: Actually, it’s Rick Deckard. A fact that I find horribly, horribly disappointing, as I am a huge Blade Runner fan and misheard his name as Decker when I first saw the movie at a young age. (I also thought Billy Idol played Roy Batty—or Roy Baty, as in the novel.) I must now go on record as saying that I prefer the original theater release version (complete with voiceover and full eye-gouge) to the director’s cut and that my father has the perfect action hero name: Jack Decker. That is all.

GLA: (I feel stupid about the Decker-Deckard thing considering I love that movie.) Moving on, what's something about you readers would be surprised to know?

SD: I like the Sylvester Stallone version of Get Carter—a controversial position, but one I’ll take. Other than that, if you follow me on Twitter, you know all there is to know.

GLA: Best way for writers to contact you?

SD: E-mail me at sdecker(at)maassagency(dot)com with the query letter and f
irst 5 pages pasted into the body of the e-mail.

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

SD: Wear sunscreen, take care of your teeth, and don’t go to MFA school.

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