On Saturday, February 27th, amid snowstorms and tsunami warnings, I had the awesome opportunity to sit down and Skype with literary agent, Mark McVeigh. Here’s our conversation in a nutshell.
ST: There is a lot of conflicting advice on the web about writing and publishing these days. I write historical fiction and some agents say it’s a hot genre while others say it’s a hard sell. What’s your take?
MM: The important thing is to take a story and put a new twist on it. It helps if the story is character driven, and the extent to which the author can bring the setting to life for the reader. And of course the historical setting should have something inherently interesting about it. In theory it's hard to sell a story about an 18th century Venetian lace maker because that’s not something that will appeal to a broad audience--but stranger things have happened in the right hands. Writing about a particular character in history often works, although it can be difficult to pull off, especially if the historical figure is the protagonist. A major historical character in YA or MG historical fiction can also be great because it might appeal to school districts or get teachers excited about the book.
ST: So my novel, Hatshepsut: Female Pharaoh, is a new spin about the first great female ruler of recorded history. Her mummy was just discovered a few years ago along with some new evidence that has changed the typical viewpoint of her as the evil stepmother usurping her stepson’s throne. I’ve portrayed her as a heroine instead.
MM: That sounds really interesting!
ST: I’m also interested to know about the importance of word counts for various genres. I went to a writer’s conference in August with an early estimate that my 1st draft would hit 120,000 words. An agent running a seminar on queries said it needed knocked down to 90,000, which I did. However, I have another friend who writes fantasy. Would he be okay in the 120,000 range?
MM: It really just depends on the story. A lot of fantasy fans enjoy a longer, meatier story. One problem with word count is that in terms of dollars, the longer the story, the more paper, the more costly it is to print the book, and that affects the cost-benefit analysis.
ST: Another piece of conflicting advice I recently read was that it’s virtually impossible for a debut author to get noticed in the slush pile. A blog I was reading this week said now you really have to know someone or be referred to an agent by another author in order to get published. Do you have any advice for debut authors?
MM: It is very, very difficult to get noticed among an editor’s slush pile. The industry has changed and slush doesn’t work the way it used to. Having an agent, or at least a personal referral will definitely lift you out of the slush.
ST: What’s your take on blogs for debut authors?
MM: A blog is great, especially for people (like you) who might not be able to meet other writers face-to-face. It’s also a good way to see that there are people who are interested in what you’re writing. Having a blog with a large number of followers makes you easier to sell down the road.
ST: And how about critique groups?
MM: Skype is a great tool for critique groups. There’s actually a feature where you can do audio with a number of people. The face-to-face is wonderful too. Some people get weirded out about being on video, but once you've tried Skype a couple of times you hardly notice that part.
ST: I have to admit this is my first time Skyping aside from sitting down with my three-year-old and the grandparents. I had never considered using it for critique groups, but that’s an awesome idea!
MM: That’s why I was pushing for people to sign up for Skype for this contest. It’s a great tool for writers.
ST: Finally, I was wondering about something I’ve seen recently on a couple agents’ websites. A few state that in the initial query letter you need to include whether the query is exclusive or if it’s been sent to multiple agents. Is this a new trend?
MM: I haven’t heard of that before, at least not for a query letter. But every agent is different, and larger agencies, especially, have to have rules in place to keep some sort of order, just like a corporation. If they said that it HAD to be an exclusive--that would be odd, but if they just want to know, that seems reasonable. I think it's a good idea to include that sort of information anyway.
There you have it, folks! I’d like to thank Mark for taking the time to sit down with me- the chance to talk to an agent face-to-face was invaluable. If you haven’t signed up for Skype or become a follower of Mark McVeigh’s blog by now, you need to do so ASAP!