What makes a good plot? How important is voice? Are there common mistakes that authors make in their submissions to agents? We’ve got an industry insider who can answer these questions, and more! Plus, she’s a lot of fun.
Kathleen Ortiz began her career in publishing at Ballinger Publishing as an editorial assistant and interactive media designer for the young adult section, working to boost the magazine’s online presence through social networking. She then moved on to UWire as online editor for the features, art & entertainment sections. She has also taught high school classes as a visual media instructor.
After teaching for a few years, and even a seven-year stint in veterinary nursing, Kathleen moved on to her true passion of working within the book industry. Before joining Lowenstein Associates, she interned with Fine Print Literary and Caren Johnson Literary Agency.
Kathleen is currently Associate Agent and Foreign Rights Manager at Lowenstein Associates. With the continued demand for online marketing in publishing, a strong online platform is essential for today's authors. Kathleen uses her background in interactive media design to assist Lowenstein Associates’ clients with branding themselves.
1.How did you become an agent?
I was the one who knew exactly what she would do with her life since age four. I was going to be a veterinarian and work with marine mammals. [strikes superman pose] I worked at a veterinary clinic for six years through college, moved up from secretary to assistant nurse to surgery nurse, attended a special high school magnet program for pre-veterinary students, took pre-veterinary courses at the local college while I was a senior in high school and skipped off to college to work toward my pre-veterinary B.S. I even volunteered regularly for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida in their food prep, sea turtle show (I was the girl who stood in the tank giving facts to the audience.) and even got to work with an adorable dolphin named Nicholas.
I was convinced that was my track (Did I mention since age four?) and did everything to gain experience. Then I had the most amazing composition teacher freshman year of college who flat out told me, “If you don’t go into some field of publishing, it’ll be a waste of talent.” I had always loved reading (I was the kid who always had a book in my purse.) and editing (Friends put up with a lot of my spelling corrections senior year.), so I took some English electives, hated them (That whole poetry/classics thing? Not really for me.) and thought she was crazy. She sent me to the journalism building to prove me wrong. I talked to the dean, signed up for some magazine/newspaper publishing electives and poof! I was in love.
Just like with veterinary medicine, I wanted to gain experience in publishing. In four years, I worked (simultaneously, for the most part) as an online editor for UWirePr.com’s arts/entertainment section (Claim to fame: I interviewed Joss Whedon.) [fist pump], an editorial assistant in charge of the teen section of Ballinger Publishing, a tutor (and co-creator of the online portion) for our university’s writing lab, a writer for Get ‘Em Magazine, a resume/cover letter critiquer, and a writer for our university’s paper.
After that, I moved back to my hometown, got my own place, and started teaching. I knew I wanted to work in publishing, but I really wanted to take a few more classes on interactive media design before I broke into the book publishing industry. I had the most amazing mentors in college who told me flat out “In five years you’re going to be grateful you did this. You won’t have the time if you work now in the business, so take a year or two, brush up on your interactive and online skills, and then go for it.”
Best. Advice. Ever.
I taught high school for a couple of years (English, Web Design, Yearbook, TV Production, list goes on), loved my students, but had to keep true to my goal.
Applied for grad school and some internships. I landed two internships with the amazing Caren Johnson Literary Agency and Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation. Moved to NYC, worked my butt off at the internships, and prepared for the new semester. Applied for a lot of jobs and was called in for three interviews. Got the job with Lowenstein Associates and am now Foreign Rights Manager and Associate Agent.
I think the most fascinating part, to me at least, is that every single job I’ve had since high school has helped lead me to where I am today. Even working at a veterinary clinic helped, because I used to be an incredibly shy person and it forced me to interact with a variety of people on a daily basis. Agenting is a lot easier when you’re not shy.
“…every single job I’ve had since high school has helped lead me to where I am today.”
Having been in the business 30+ years, Barbara is well known for her bestselling authors in non-fiction, specifically medical and business books. She also represents some acclaimed novelists and mystery authors.
3.You’re seeking children’s books and young adult non-fiction. What draws you to these genres?
I was the kid with a book in her purse who tried to read under the table at restaurants, during family functions (including weddings), while camping with the Girl Scouts, and even during class. I still get that same “OMG-I-have-to-finish-this-now” feeling when I read a book that really hooks me and draws me in. I want to represent books that do that for others, especially kids and teens.
4.Do you see any specific trends developing in these areas right now?
Paranormal’s still big and chuggin’ along, as are dystopian and fantasy. I’ve seen some sci-fi, but most of it is centered around space travel and aliens, which isn’t really my thing. I wouldn’t suggest writing for a trend, though. If the right plot came along that falls under one of these genres, I’d consider it. But everything I’m looking for tends to fall outside this group.
“I wouldn’t suggest writing for a trend, though…everything I’m looking for tends to fall outside this group.”
5.What’s your usual way of finding clients?
Slush. I’ve yet to find a client any other way.
6.When reviewing a submission, what do you look for?
A unique plot that flows well and voice. If the overall voice isn’t at the right age level (e.g. Writing for YA, but it’s obviously MG.), then it’s an instant reject.
7.What are some common mistakes you see in writers’ submissions to you?
In queries? Three major things:
- You don’t follow submission guidelines: If you e-mail me a query instead of filling out that form we require, you’re getting deleted. I get at least five a day, and it just makes me shake my head because there isn’t a website out there that says “E-mail me your query!” (And if you find one, let me know.)
- You query me with a genre I don’t represent: It really amazes me how many screenplay and picture book queries I get. I don’t represent either of those and I’m not looking for either of them. Do you want an agent to take on your work if they’re not only not passionate about your genre, but also completely out of the loop on the world of your genre? If an agent says “middle grade, only,” then it means their connections are in that age range only. They probably don’t have editor contacts or know what the market is for your non-fiction historical proposal. Go for agents who represent what you write—you want them to not only like it, but also be up-to-date on what’s going on.
- Calling me “Sir.” Last I checked, I’m female. I’m quite very certain there’s no question to that. If the fact that “Kathleen” is a female name doesn’t tip you off, at least do your research. Check out my blog, Twitter, Publisher’s Marketplace page or agency’s website. All pronouns about me are “she.”
“If an agent says ‘middle grade, only,’ then it means their connections are in that age range only... Go for agents who represent what you write—you want them to not only like it, but also be up-to-date on what’s going on.”
Seriously, though, while I know the “Dear Sir” isn’t meant as an insult, it’s a red flag you were too lazy to type in my first or last name. I’m not looking for lazy clients. I want hard-working, I’m-gonna-do-my-research, passionate clients who want to reach their publishing goals. If you’re not willing to start at the query stage, then I’m not the agent for you.
In actual submissions? Three major things:
- Wrong audience: Writing a YA in an MG voice or vice versa. It shows me that not only are you confused about who your audience is, but you’re also not very well read in that age group.
- Unoriginal beginning: Tons of backstory, waking up from a dream, looking at yourself in a mirror are all ways to open a story that have been done time and time again. While I’m not saying it’ll never work, I am saying that I’d much rather you be creative and unique with the way you open your story.
- Too much telling, not enough showing.
8.What are you excited to see come across your desk?
I'm currently looking for children’s books, specifically young adult, middle grade and chapter books. I’m open to both fiction and non-fiction. While I enjoy a variety of genres, I’d especially love for one of the following to cross my desk:
Young adult: I tend to skew toward darker/edgy YA. I’d love to see a romance from a male POV. I’m all about voice and an authentic teen voice. I’d pretty much do a happy dance if an awesome thriller were to come by—especially if it's creepy enough to keep me up at night, afraid to turn out the lights.*
Middle grade/Chapter books: I’m a sucker for light-hearted, funny, or adventure. Family/sibling relationships (think Ramona) or slightly serious (think Maniac Magee).*
Non-fiction: Something different than what’s already out there. Not really into “how to find the perfect guy” or “how to apply makeup” or “100 awesome things of being a teen.” Anything with technology thrown in is a bonus. You must have a strong platform or be considered an expert in your field for me to consider a non-fiction project.*
*Note that these are just items I’m really hoping cross my desk. I have a variety of tastes, so if you’re unsure if it's something for me, feel free to query me anyway (be sure, however, it’s a children's book).
9.In your opinion, what makes a good plot? What do you look for in a plot?
A good plot keeps me reading more and essentially makes me want to be ok with the fact that I’m going to sacrifice a night’s sleep over wanting to see how the manuscript ends. A lot of people confuse theme with plot or premises with plots.
“A good plot keeps me reading more and essentially makes me want to be ok with the fact that I’m going to sacrifice a night’s sleep over wanting to see how the manuscript ends.”
10.How important is voice? What type of voice are you looking for?
Voice is very important, especially in children’s books. While voice is made up of the author’s style, personality, and overall writing, it shouldn’t overshadow the story. The voice should shine through in a way that shows me the author has a unique writing style while also ensuring it doesn’t overpower the overall plot. I should be sucked into the world and more concerned with the actions taking place rather than the flip-flopping of the author’s writing itself.
11.Do you get involved in the editing of a manuscript or proposal before sending it out?
I’ve never signed, or seen for that matter, an MS that is ready to go from the start. I don’t believe a manuscript like that will ever cross my inbox, and that’s ok. It’s a really subjective business and even if it’s something as minor as a few comma issues, everyone’s going to read it differently and have input.
Short answer: Yes. I edit.
“I've never signed, or seen for that matter, an MS that is ready to go from the start. I don't believe a manuscript like that will ever cross my inbox, and that's ok.”
12.How much development or reworking of a manuscript can you assist with? Would you ever completely restructure or overhaul a novel, for example?
I can give constructive feedback on plot changes, awkward word usage, and a few detail enhancements/deletions. I can’t/won’t reconstruct an entire manuscript or change voice/style.
13.What can an author do to make your job easier when working on her book?
My clients understand, from the moment of the phone call to offer representation, that I’m an extremely transparent and honest person. My feedback is never meant to be malicious or cruel and is to be read with the understanding that it’s constructive criticism to make the project the best possible manuscript. I’m also big on ensuring I have open communication—if they have questions, I always want them to come to me rather than go to other people for fear of speaking to me.
The agent-author relationship is absolutely symbiotic and without the right level of communication, it’s a relationship that can easily fail. However, my clients also understand that I do much more than read manuscripts and may be delayed in responding. There’s no “favorite,” so I don’t choose to read one’s work over another. Sometimes I go based on deadlines and other times I go based on who sent what to me first. Patience is absolutely key, especially since it can take a while to go through revisions and hear back from editors.
In a nutshell, it would help if a prospective client were to be open and honest, have good communication channels with me, take constructive criticism well, and be a very, very patient person.
“In a nutshell, it would help if a prospective client were to be open and honest, have good communication channels with me, take constructive criticism well, and be a very, very patient person.”
14.Do you have other suggestions for writers working on their craft? Favorite resources or ideas?
If this is what you want, don’t stop practicing your craft and gaining experience. Conferences, critique groups (sometimes), even Twitter chats like #kidtlitchat and #yalitchat can be so much help when you’re starting out. Use all the tools available to you to help improve your craft.
However, take care to always remember this is a very subjective business. Opinions vary widely, so seek advice/tips from a variety of credible resources.
15.What should authors do about establishing or building a platform?
I think, for a writer, social media is a huge advantage. Too many writers focus on “Must build my audience!” which is important, but not necessarily the first thing you should go for—especially if you haven’t landed an agent or sold your book yet. Social media is great for networking with others who are in the same boat you are and also who can become a support system for you.
If you find your normal writing process interrupted by the need to Tweet, blog, check a discussion board obsessively, or Google random, non-writing related things, then either give your Ethernet cord to someone to hide (if it’s a desktop) or ask someone to lock the wi-fi function on your laptop. It’s good to network and connect, but if it affects your job (writing), then it’s doing you a disservice. Reading all the blogs and Tweets in the world on how to get published won’t help you if you’re not actually writing something to publish.
“Reading all the blogs and Tweets in the world on how to get published won’t help you if you’re not actually writing something to publish.”
16.You’re able to use your background in interactive media design to assist clients with branding themselves. Could you describe what that entails?
I assist several of our non-fiction authors with understanding how to use online marketing/social networking effectively. There’s no point in having a Twitter account and blog if you don’t actual Tweet or post regularly. A lot of people think you have to be on every major social networking site, which is certainly not the case. So, I just show them the resources, help them set up, and answer questions along the way. If they’re already set up, then I’ll go through everything and give them a report on what they are doing right or what they can do to increase their online presence even more. I also help with setting up blog tours, interviews, etc.
17.What do you like most about your job?
My favorite part of agenting is working with clients; I really couldn’t have asked for a better group, and I’m always on the lookout to add to my list. Whether it’s working on revisions, listening to their ideas for future manuscripts, reading WIP teasers (which usually I just wait until it's completed), or just having a casual conversation on Twitter or GChat, they really make my day. I wouldn’t have this job without clients, and I don’t think my publishing career would be nearly as entertaining, energetic or inspiring without them.
18.Describe a typical day at the office for you.
No such thing.
Totally depends what’s going on/what’s the current deadline. However, I can give a sampling of what a day may entail for me, since I do both foreign rights and agenting: foreign rights negotiations, drawing up/reviewing foreign rights contracts, researching foreign rights deals, following up with publishers on checks that haven’t been received/book covers/catalogue copy/reviews/marketing questions/contract questions/paperback timeline (this includes both foreign and domestic publishers), working with client manuscripts, following up on submitted manuscripts, writing editorial letters, reviewing proposals, sending out books to interested foreign publishers (after I check to make sure we have the foreign rights and they weren’t already sold in that territory),
answering permissions requests, following up on e-book amendments/sending them to our clients on behalf of publishers, reading slush, reading partials, reading fulls, crafting pitch letters, following up on interview requests for clients...
The list goes on and on.
19.What do you read in your leisure time? Any recent favorites?
I’m a really big Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, and Melissa Marr fan. Their world building and intricate plots are just completely intriguing and make me want to keep reading. I also enjoy Claudia Gray, Justine Larbalestier, Pam Bachorz, Libba Bray, Simone Elkeles, Maureen Johnson, Suzanne Collins, Kody Keplinger. the list goes on and on. Kickin’ it old school? Philip Pullman and L.J. Smith (specifically The Forbidden Game trilogy).
20.Do you have any final advice for authors seeking to get published?
Regardless if it’s something that becomes a full-time job, writing is a career and should be treated as such. Always stay professional, respectful, and dedicated to your craft.
To find out more about Kathleen, visit her website:
MARCIA PETERSON is a columnist for WOW! Women on Writing and Premium-Green (The Women’s Guide to Freelance Writing and Markets). She lives in northern California with her husband and two children.
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