Sarah Lapolla is the ultimate people’s agent.
While many literary agents seem to be the untouchable gatekeepers of the publishing industry, Sarah’s blog, Glass Cases, helps aspiring writers by showcasing their short stories, novel excerpts, and creative nonfiction. She also loves working with debut authors.
A relative newcomer to the agent scene, Sarah began working at Curtis Brown, Ltd. in New York in 2008 and became an associate agent in April 2010. She represents literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, science fiction, literary horror, and young adult fiction.
Sarah proudly proclaims herself to be a “pop culture junkie, writing enthusiast, [and] all around book nerd.”
Sounds good to me.
1.Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Sarah! You have an MFA in creative writing, so what made you decide to become a literary agent instead of a writer? Do you think you’ll ever write a book of your own?
I always thought I’d be working on the “business” side of publishing, even when I was in college. I love writing and thought it would be interesting to get an MFA. It vaguely introduced me to a “New York literary scene,” which I was grateful for; but I knew it wasn’t going to matter in getting me the job I wanted. My MFA is in creative nonfiction, so I never had high aspirations to be the next great novelist in the first place. It made me a better writer, a better reader, and a better editor, though.
As for writing a book of my own, I am currently dabbling in fiction; but this is mostly for fun. I have no serious plans to do anything with it once it’s finished. Right now, I’m just trying to see if I can finish.
2.How do you decide which pieces of writing appear on your blog, Glass Cases?
I would say 95 percent of what’s submitted to the blog gets published. I only feature five pages of a writer’s work, and I accept all genres, with the exception of poetry. The reason the screening process is far less severe than, say, accepting queries at my job is because Glass Cases is meant to be for writers to share their work, support each other, and provide comments. It’s not just about me.
3.In your own writing, are you a pantser or a planner—that is, do you outline or write organically? Are you comfortable working with both types of writers?
I’ll answer the second question first by saying it does not matter to me at all what type of writer someone is, as long as she can deliver a good story. I can adapt to either work style if I’m assisting in revisions.
My own style of writing is more organic, I guess. I can’t just sit down and decide to write, which is probably why I never thought to make it my career. I’d starve if my livelihood depended on it. I never outline a project. I usually think of a good first line, think of who would say it or whom it would be about, and then think where I want that person to end up. The middle is written eventually. Usually in fragments. Writers who can outline and know exactly where the next chapter begins and ends are pretty remarkable. I wish my brain worked that way when I wrote.
“...I love supporting debut authors. I think the most satisfying part of my job is being able to tell a writer that someone is going to publish her book.”
4.You say you’re always on the lookout for debut authors. What are the most satisfying and most challenging aspects of working with debut authors?
Maybe it’s my background in being around aspiring writers, but I love supporting debut authors. I think the most satisfying part of my job is being able to tell a writer that someone is going to publish her book. This is exciting for any author, but everything is so fresh and new for debut authors. It makes it more special that way. Plus, debut writers have the advantage of offering a fresh voice. People get excited to hear something new.
With debuts, there are also, of course, challenges. Will an editor want to take a chance on someone unknown? Or, if they do, will readers be willing to support them? You have to fight a bit more for them. But, like with everything in publishing, it’s worth it.
5.You have such varied tastes in fiction—from literary to paranormal romance to science fiction. Can you give an example of a favorite book from each of the genres you represent?
I think my list would take up far too much space, so I’ll limit myself.
Science fiction: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Literary fiction: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
YA fiction: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky or The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Magical realism: any short story collection by Kelly Link
Literary horror: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
6.Do you have a personal list of automatic rejection criteria for queries and submissions?
The only time I delete something without reading it is if the query letter is sent as an attachment. Everything else, I send at least a form rejection. But I send instant form rejections to picture book, chapter book, self-help, general nonfiction, and traditional romance queries. I will never have an interest in those genres.
7.What premises or plot twists are you tired of seeing in your inbox?
1) Teenage girl or boy leads a normal life until he or she meets [insert mythical and/or fantasy creature here].
2) Main character’s parents are dead/neglectful/drunk/other excuse for absent, so main character must find self-actualization through a “wild” best friend or perfect soul mate.
3) A main or supporting character is or becomes a vampire. (Sadly, this is still all-too-common in my query pile.)
“It never matters to me if a writer has no publishing credits if I think his or her story sounds great.”
8.How do you feel when you receive a query from a writer with no previous publishing credits? Are minor credits necessary or just nice to have?
It never matters to me if a writer has no publishing credits if I think his or her story sounds great. Credits from larger literary magazines do catch my eye; but ultimately, I have to fall in love with the project.
9.Years ago, writers were cautioned not to cite work published on websites in their query letters. Given today’s increasing reliance on the Internet, should online writing credits be included?
It depends on the publication. If it’s a site like McSweeney’s Online, then definitely include that. If it’s your friend’s blog or a site that’s not widely known, then don’t.
10.Different sources give different advice about the details of writing a query (length, structure, how much of the plot to give away, etc.). Do you place more emphasis on the finer details or the big picture of a query?
Most agents just want a few solid sentences saying what a writer’s book is about. That’s the only thing I pay attention to. A brief bio at the end of a query letter is fine. So, I guess the short answer is that I look at the big picture. But, if I can’t find that picture right away because the query is about everything but the project, then the finer details I usually ignore become liabilities.
11.In general, what percentage of partials you request turn out to be (a) disappointing; (b) close, but not quite ready; or (c) worth requesting the full manuscript?
50% Close, but not ready
20% Worth requesting the full
Of the 50% that are close, I try to offer constructive feedback and encourage the writers to resubmit after revising.
12.If you discover a manuscript has potential, but still needs a lot of work, what deciding factors come into play as to whether you’ll make an offer of representation?
Whether the author is able to revise. I’ve been in positions where I want to love a project so much that I’ll allow for more than one revision. If they nail it after the first revision, it’s likely I’ll offer representation. If the author still doesn’t get it after a second full revision, then no matter how much I love whatever it is I first connected with, I can’t in good faith offer representation. These are the worst types of rejection letters, by the way.
“My personal belief is that self-publishing is cheating.”
13.What are your views on self-publishing? Do you represent any clients who previously self-published their work?
I have clients who have self-published chap books or poetry—but not their novels. My personal belief is that self-publishing is cheating. This, I know, is becoming the less popular opinion in the industry, and I know several professionals who embrace it. If a writer queries me about his or her self-published book, then all I really want to see—other than what it’s about—is how it sold. Without that, there’s no difference between a self-published book and an unbound manuscript other than the glossy cover.
14.How important is it for aspiring authors to build a social media platform before they receive a publishing deal? Is it necessary groundwork or a waste of time until later in the process?
Ah, the dreaded social media question. There is a lot of hoopla around “building your presence.” Before a publishing deal, I think it’s good to get your feet wet in social media. But, of course, it all depends on whom your audience will be. If your intended audience is using social media, then you need to be there, too. New authors can also gain a lot just from “meeting” other writers, who also become potential readers and buyers. The YA community seems to have embraced every aspect of social media; so if you’re an aspiring YA writer, why not try to join that club? It seems counterproductive not to. Other genre fiction writers, on the adult side, have found their own supportive niches, too.
But if your books do just fine, your readers couldn’t care less about Twitter and Facebook, and you have no personal interest in participating on these sites, then I’m not going to tell you, “But you have to!” That’s just silly.
“The YA community seems to have embraced every aspect of social media; so if you’re an aspiring YA writer, why not try to join that club?”
15.The serial comma: do you use it sometimes, always, or never? Which do you prefer to see in submissions?
Serial commas are annoying, but I have no preference either way.
16.Should authors have other book ideas in the works before they query you? Are you content to work with writers who feel they have only one book in them, or do you work only with those who can build a career from their writing?
Well, I don’t think any writer thinks she just has one book in her. If a writer does think that, then yes, it would be off-putting. I prefer to take on clients who want to build their career. It’s not necessary to have multiple ideas before querying, but I want to know at least one other project is in the works.
17.Some sources say it’s more difficult than ever to secure a publishing contract as a debut author; other sources say it’s easier. What has your experience been?
My first project sold in October, and it took exactly two months (almost to the day) for it to get from the submission pile to Publisher’s Marketplace. This was for a debut author. Whether that’s typical or not, I don’t know firsthand. I think it’s always going to be just a little bit harder for a new voice to be heard. But if the story is there and the writing is good, then it stands as fair a chance as anything else.
18.What books—fiction or nonfiction—do you highly recommend every aspiring writer read?
Oh, wow. Well, I mentioned The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay above, and to me, that novel has basically everything you could want in a novel. For any writer, fiction or nonfiction, understanding the structure, pacing, or storytelling elements that Chabon uses in that novel is the equivalent of taking a creative writing course.
I’d also recommend short stories by Flannery O’Connor. Again, if only to study her style and structure. She’s pitch perfect—every time. But, of course, it helps that her stories are amazingly brilliant and entertaining to read, too.
Since I also focus a lot on YA, I’d say re-read The Outsiders. Writing for teens does not mean toning things down, lowering vocabulary standards, or condescending to children. This was the first book to prove that.
19.Writing routines and healthy habits don’t always go hand in hand, but maintaining good health can help increase writers’ productivity. What are some important healthy habits writers should aim for when setting their writing goals for 2011?
Boy, am I the wrong person to ask!
I’d say pick one day out of the week to not write. Don’t even think about writing. In fact, don’t even read. Instead, use that day to go to the gym, walk around the park, or just sleep until noon. Basically, press reset every now and then.
20.January inevitably sparks a rash of writing resolutions among those who dream about penning a novel. What are some of the defining characteristics of a writer who is truly ready for such a task?
Have an idea worth writing about.
Don’t get discouraged.
Be prepared to get frustrated.
Let yourself get super psyched when you know you just wrote an amazing scene.
Great advice, Sarah!
Learn more about Sarah Lapolla by visiting Glass Cases today.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman is the founder of Write It Sideways, a blog dedicated to helping aspiring authors learn new skills, define their goals, and write more productively. Her articles have been featured on Writer Unboxed, Write to Done, Men with Pens, Storyfix, and many others. Join the free 31-Day Better Writing Habits Challenge, or download a complimentary copy of Suzannah’s Read Better, Write Better Novel Study Workbook.
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