I was thrilled when the wonderful literary agent, and all around great person, Susan Hawk, from The Bent Agency agreed to do a MGM interview. I wasn’t surprised, however, because she’s MY agent and I knew already of her generous and awesome nature. Here’s a quick Ten Questions with Susan Hawk. Enjoy!
Middle Grade Mafia: The number one questions has to be, “What are you looking for?” I found this on your website: In middle-grade and YA, I’m looking for unforgettable characters, rich world-building, and I’m a sucker for bittersweet; bonus points for something that makes me laugh out loud. I’m open to mystery, fantasy, scifi, humor, boy books, historical, contemporary (really any genre). In picture books, I’m looking particularly for author-illustrators, succinct but expressive texts, and indelible characters. I’m interested in non-fiction that relates to kid’s daily lives and their concerns with the world. I’m actively looking for diversity in the stories and authors that I represent. My favorite projects live at the intersection of literary and commercial. Is this still correct? Anything else you’d like to add?
SH: It is! The books that I love the very most all share a couple things in common: the characters are complicated people whose hearts are big, as big as the mistakes they sometimes make. And in spite of those mistakes, these characters are wrestling with life, engaged in discovering the best parts of themselves and the people around them, all while seeing how people are unexpected, contradictory. I want writers who are interested in complexity, who aren’t afraid to show the good parts, and the bad, of their characters. The richest, most memorable books come directly from characters of the same quality.
I also appreciate a strong sense of place. I never want world-building to swamp character or story, but I do want to picture your characters in a place that’s as textured and real as they are.
I want a great story! Send me novels with strong, hooky concepts. Character and voice will get me interested every time, but I want something to happen to those great characters. Let them get into trouble, and then find a way out.
I’m interested in books that feel different. I want to read stories that capture the beautiful strangeness of life. It’s always helpful to know what I’ve read recently and loved, so here are a couple (none of these are clients):
DORY FANTASMAGORY by Anny Hanlon, MONTMARAY JOURNALS (three book series) by Michelle Cooper, SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp, THE RIVERMAN by Aaron Starmer, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness.
Dating websites have “Makes or Breaks” for couples trying to find the perfect partner. What “Makes” a query right for you? What’s a “Break”?
SH: For me, it comes down to the writing in the ten pages that should be attached. If I read all ten, and really want more, that’s a successful query and I’ll request the complete novel (or more picture books, if that’s the query). Agents are often asked about pet peeves – something that’s an automatic “break” – and honestly, I don’t have any. I’m frankly impressed by anyone who’s going after their dream, and sending out queries – it’s an act of bravery, as far as I’m concerned! The only automatic pass is for someone who hasn’t followed the format I request (like not imbedding the pages in the email), or who queries me for something that I don’t represent, like an adult novel. It is important to do your research: make sure you’re sending your work to an agent who can consider it, and send it to them as requested; they want it that way for a reason.
MGM: A few years ago, it seemed everything I read was about creating your “platform”. How important is that to you when considering a new author?
SH: A writer’s platform is not deciding factor for me. If a writer does have a blog, website, or is on twitter that can be beneficial, depending on what that presence is like. But it’s not a must. In fact, if it looks as though someone has put more time into building their platform, at the expense of writing the very best book possible, that a negative. For adult non-fiction platform is key, but on the kid’s side, we’ll have time to create a platform, down the line. So, it’s great if you’ve been working on it, but not necessary before I take someone on.
MGM: Say I’ve written a good book, researched agents who represent my genre, and crafted a query. Anything else I can do to help stand out from the slush pile?
SH: If you’ve done all that, you don’t need to do anything else! Truly, it is the strength of your writing that will make you stand apart.
MGM: I saw that you recently requested from a Pitch Wars contestant. How do you feel about contests and twitter pitches, etc?
SH: I’m all for ‘em! They can be time-consuming, so I’m selective in which of them I take part in. But I love that the writer community is so strong, and that social media has given writers so many tools for building that community, especially for debut writers. Largely, these contests and pitch sessions give writers more ways to get their work out, and that’s great. I would say that, like building a platform (or any form of marketing), to be sure that participation in contests doesn’t start to be more important than your writing. As long as writing is the most important part of your day, twitter-pitch away!
MGM: Fill in the blank: If I had a really great _______________book about _______________________________, I think a number of editors would be excited.
SH: If I had a really great MG mystery, something in the vein of THE WESTING GAME, I know a number of editors would be excited.
MGM: What types of books would be a tough sell right now?
SH: Some genres don’t feel very fresh right now (dystopian, for instance), but there are many editors hungry for middle grade (lucky, since that’s my favorite age!) books of all kinds.
MGM: Any regrets? A writer or project you passed on and wish you hadn’t?
SH: Oh heavens, I’m sure I’ve missed some wonderful things. This job requires that you read quite a bit of material, with speed. It’s inevitable that every once in a while you’re just moving too quickly, and miss something. But no regrets. My clients are amazing writers, I adore their projects, and we’ve got lots more coming! And, after over twenty years in the business, I know that there will always be another new voice to fall in love with.
MGM: Is there an ideal time of the year to query? Should writers hold back from querying over certain holidays, or the summer, to account for vacations etc?
SH: As long as an agent is open to queries, she (or he) will be reading them. Often vacations are a time to catch up on reading anyway. As long as your work is completely ready, as far as you can determine, go ahead and query, don’t try to guess the best time for an agent. Get your work out there!
MGM: Now to turn the tables. Writers spend a great deal of timing figuring out their pitch. You’ve just read a great manuscript – let’s hear YOUR pitch for acquiring a new client.
SH: Great question! On that first call, there are a couple things that I want a possible new client to understand:
- That I’m in love with your story! I don’t offer rep unless there’s something deeply compelling in your writing and characters, and that’s the first thing that I want to communicate, in very specific terms.
- That I’m an editorial agent. I don’t send anything out on submission until it’s as polished as the writer and I can make it. It’s important that we talk over what feedback I have on the manuscript, and make sure that what I’m thinking resonates with the writer. If my instincts are different than yours, we probably aren’t a good fit.
- How I plan to sell your work. I want the writer to have a clear sense of where I see their project fitting into the marketplace, how I’ll position it with editors, and how I want the house to build this author and their work, going forward – after all, a career is made of many books, not just this first one. Transparency is important to me, and I never want a client to feel that she doesn’t know what I’m doing on her behalf.
- My background. I’ve worked in all parts of the kid’s book world, for over twenty years. I’ve been a librarian, a bookseller, and I’ve acquired projects at Dutton Children’s Books. But most of that time, I was in marketing, at Penguin Books for Young Readers and Henry Holt BFYR. That marketing lens does inform my approach, and helps me advocate for your project, after it’s sold to an editor. It also means that I can help my clients put together their own marketing, when the time is right.
Thanks so much, Susan!!