Literary Agent Interview: Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency

This interview features Michelle L. Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency. She is a literary agent, the founder of Inklings Literary Agency (formerly of the Corvisiero Literary Agency), and she has a business administration background in addition to a lifetime of working with books (sales, editing, and writing) and authors (marketing, promoting, event planning). She is also a script/story consultant for an independent film under production in Halifax, NS. She is seeking: contemporary, steamy romance, suspense, thriller, mystery, horror, fantasy, paranormal and supernatural elements in adult, new adult and young adult fiction. Her nonfiction interests include memoir and true crime.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Michelle Johnson of Inklings 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 Michelle L. Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency. She is a literary agent, the founder of Inklings Literary Agency (formerly of the Corvisiero Literary Agency), and she has a business administration background in addition to a lifetime of working with books (sales, editing, and writing) and authors (marketing, promoting, event planning). She is also a script/story consultant for an independent film under production in Halifax, NS.

(Chapter 1 cliches and overused beginnings -- see them all here.)

She is seeking: contemporary, steamy romance, suspense, thriller, mystery, horror, fantasy, paranormal and supernatural elements in adult, new adult and young adult fiction. Her nonfiction interests include memoir and true crime.

michelle-johnson-literary-agent

GLA: How/why did you become an agent?

MJ: While running my writers’ center here in Virginia Beach, I did a lot of work promoting authors. That turned into a lot of researching and advocating for authors. My editing clients were asking me for advice with their contracts, and I ended up doing for them almost everything an agent would do. Several of my editing clients as well as friends and family suggested that I should look into a career as a literary agent.

Frankly, literary agents always intimidated me. When I met Marisa Corvisiero at a conference a few years ago, she was so lovely and approachable (and human!) that I started really pondering the idea. The experiences that I have had with publishing companies made me more determined to get out there and be a voice for authors, and when the opportunity to join Marisa’s agency came along, I jumped on it.

Now that I have opened my own agency, my hope is that once I become established enough to join the AAR, I will be able to bring on aspiring agents and help them in the same way.

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

MJ: Charming by Elliot James is scheduled to come out in December 2013 with Orbit. This book is amazing and has created quite a buzz with some production companies, so we’re all really excited about it.

It’s an urban fantasy that combines the monsters of fable with modern-day menaces, and the knights wear Kevlar instead of shining armor and wield bullets instead of blades. John Charming is the main character, and he’s the perfect combination of gritty and funny.

(Can your query be longer than one page?)

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

MJ: My taste in fiction and nonfiction is so eclectic that I can’t say I hope to see any one thing land in the slush pile. I would love to see contemporary YA that tackles some real, hard issues in a fresh way, a thriller that I can’t put down because of its intensity, maybe a hot romance that breaks my heart then makes me cry with joy at the end.

GLA: In terms of your interest in paranormal projects, what’s your advice on how new writers can stay fresh yet stick with the conventions of that category?

MJ: Paranormal is a hard sell these days. It really takes something unique to even be considered. But it’s like every other genre. You need a truly unique character who is real enough to draw people in and win them over in the first few pages, keep up the tension (internal AND external) and sprinkle it with a healthy dose of humor. If a book makes me laugh, it is usually fresh. You don’t often laugh at old jokes.

GLA: Your agency bio says you accept “steamy romance of every heat level.” What, for you, are the different levels in romance?

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MJ: There’s sweet romance, which is basically no sex—it’s harder to sell right now, but it can be done if the characters are gripping and their story unique. After sweet comes every stage of hot from fooling around and leaving the sex “off screen” to explicitly detailing every touch, which would be erotic romance. The book crosses the line into erotica when the sexual journey is more important than the romantic journey—and that is not a bad thing, just a different market.

(Find a list of romance agents here.)

GLA: Along with adult fiction, you accept young adult. Name a few young adult titles out there you wish you’d repped (so writers can get a sense of your wish list/taste).

MJ: My taste in YA tends to run toward the classics, but there are definitely some new ones I wish I had repped, like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. I loved S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, who doesn’t wish they’d repped Harry Potter . . .

GLA: What is the worst thing a writer can do in chapter 1? On page one?

MJ: Starting with a character waking up is a sure way to make me frown immediately. I’m not sure why, but I have to say about six out of ten submissions I see start this way. The manuscripts I always ask to see are ones with gripping first lines. I can’t stress enough how important those opening first few sentences are.

GLA: Describe your dream memoir submission (subject perhaps, writer, etc.). What is something you wouldn’t be able to pass up?

MJ: Stephen King’s memoir about life after his accident. Of course, anything with Stephen King’s name on it would be lovely. Perhaps a bit more realistically, I would love to see the next Diary of Anne Frank. Something that will affect people.

(Would your story make a great movie? Here are 7 tips on writing a film script.)

GLA: Since you accept both fiction and nonfiction, what are your thoughts on writer platform? If you were to Google a prospective client, what are three things you’d like to pop up in your search right away? Differences for you between fiction and nonfiction?

MJ: I like to see that the writer is putting themselves out there, attending conferences, blogging and generally has a good presence on social media. It isn’t essential, though. I have signed authors without any of that because the story is amazing. The writing always speaks for itself.

As for nonfiction—for a true crime, I would like to see some professional background that would make the writer the right person for their book, such as an officer involved in the case or a lawyer who prosecuted it. Or Anne Rule.

A memoir is different, and often treated a bit more like fiction, but memoirs are hard to sell these days also. If the story is compelling and completely unique, then the author doesn’t necessarily have to have a huge platform. Having said that, selling the memoir of someone who is famous is far easier than selling one written by someone nobody has ever heard of.

GLA: You have an extensive editing background. That said, how hands-on do you tend to be in terms of editing prospective clients’ manuscripts before you sign them? After?

MJ: I tend to turn away most projects that I think need heavy editing, most especially if it is heavy with errors. But if I am loving a story and notice a hitch in the plot or an area that could be sharpened, I always give that feedback to the author and give them the chance to work on it before I offer representation. After I sign them? I try to get their projects to the point of perfection (at least in my eyes) before I sign them, so we’re ready to get their project out there.

Of course, once I have signed a client, I do help them develop their future projects, and thoroughly go through everything they send my way.

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

MJ: There was a time in my life that I made windshields for private jets and embedded the sensor wires (defog, defrost) into the windows for an engineering company in British Columbia; but coming from a family of creatives—both parents are authors and my father is also an illustrator and designer—I couldn’t stay away from the writing world for long.

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

MJ: I am planning to attend the Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference in New Jersey on March 16, 2013; the Las Vegas Writers Conference April 18-20, 2013; the DFW Writers’ Conference in Hurst, Texas, May 4-5, 2013; and I will be at Thrillerfest/Agentfest in New York in July 2013. I will announce more as they get closer on my website.

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

MJ: Never stop learning. Never stop creating. Go to conferences. I can’t stress enough how much a writer can learn and connect at a conference.

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