AN INTERVIEW WITH LITERARY AGENT
by Jon Gibbs
Cherry Weiner started her career handling science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She now works with writers of all genres, including some fairly well-known authors in the fields of romance, westerns and Native American work. In recent years, some non-fiction has crept into the mix, but no poetry. Cherry tries not to handle children's or young adult manuscripts, but since a few of her authors are now doing the YA run, she's learning the genre and submitting their work for them. In December 2006 she took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions sent in by our members.
Which genre do you sell most? It changes all the time. I’ve sold a lot of westerns, a lot of science fiction/fantasy, a lot of romance, as well as other genres like horror, mystery etc, and a little bit of non-fiction. In the last year, I’ve sold a little of everything… pretty evenly distributed in all of the genres.
What do you like to read (when not reading your clients’ work)? For a while I got hooked on Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus mystery series, but I rarely get time to read for pleasure.
How would you define science-fiction and fantasy? To me, science-fiction is anything that takes place in an alternative world, or in space, with all the technology of space travel. Anything without magic. Fantasy is anything with magic.
Can a novel be ‘fantasy’ without magic? Yes. Vampires, werewolves etc, can be both horror and fantasy, especially when set in the modern world. Any creature with unexplained, mystical powers comes under the realm of fantasy.
Which is easier for writers to break into, fiction or non-fiction? You’re comparing apples and oranges. Unless you’re already famous, or have unique credentials/experience behind you, there’s no easy route to either. It takes hard work and persistence, but fiction or non-fiction, I think there's always room on the shelf for a great book, and I work towards getting the editors to agree and buy that book.
At what point in the process should a writer start looking for an agent? When your manuscript is finished (including re-writes), and is as perfect as you can make it. By the time you send it in, you should be already working on your next one.
In an earlier interview, you explained why you like to meet authors before accepting queries, do you ever make exceptions? Very rarely, if one of my authors or an editor/writer friend who knows me and the way I work refers someone to me.
What are some of the most ridiculous things writers have done to try and sell you their idea? There’ve been so many, I’ve blocked them from my mind. Although not ridiculous, a few queries have stuck with me. I once got a letter from a woman who claimed her ‘psychic abilities’ told her I was the right agent for her manuscript. Unfortunately, those abilities hadn’t told her how to format her 500-page ms properly. Once, at a pitch session, while inviting a writer to send me her book, I told a writer I liked the dusty-pink rose sweater she had on - I expected her to mention it in her query letter, so I’d know we’d really spoken. She misunderstood and sent me a sweater just like hers along with the ms. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the book, but she told me to keep the sweater anyway. Another time I got a query from a writer claiming we'd met at a science fiction convention in Chicago , even though I hadn’t attended it.
Apart from international collaboration, do you work with other agents? Occasionally. If one of my authors is writing with another agent’s author, then we’d get together and talk about who gets to negotiate the contract. If someone pitches me work in a genre that I don’t cover, I try and recommend someone.
Do you consider self-published books? Not really. Self-published books are less likely to get picked up because they’re already ‘out there’ and supposedly selling. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, it’s a catch-22 situation, if the book hasn’t sold well, why buy it? If it has, the first market base has already been saturated. That said, if the writer comes up with a new book that I can interest a publisher in, the self-published work becomes part of the his/her back-list and I might be able to sell it in the future, once the author has built up a following.
Do you represent the same author in more than one genre? Yes, it happens quite often. Sometimes I recommend the author uses a pseudonym, especially if the genres are very different (like science fiction and romance).
What mistakes do new writers make when pitching a story to you? Always research how an agent wants work to be submitted, and get his/her name right. Even though my entry in Agents guide makes it quite clear that I don’t accept unsolicited queries, I get up to 50 emails and twenty letters a week from people I’ve never met. Once someone even turned up, unannounced at my home!
What are some common mistakes writers make in the manuscripts they send you? When I turn work down, it's usually because the writing just doesn't hold my interest. Whether it's because the dialogue is stilted, or the story's been done many times and I see nothing new in the way it is presented The list can go on. I might have started out interested in the story idea, but the execution of it didn’t come up to my expectations. If that's the case, I might tell the author what fell short and ask if he/she is interested in reworking the ms. I always tell writers ‘I want the quality’, I’d rather wait six months for someone’s best effort, than have them send the manuscript before it’s ready. Another common mistake new writers make is they leave out important story details and information. They had it in their head, but forgot to put it down on the page to let the reader know too. Another one, is where the story ends suddenly, as if the author was in a hurry.
What do you wish writers would ask you (and what would your answer be)?
‘What can I do, as an author, to make your job easier when working on my book?’
Give me the best you can do, then let me do my job. Once I’ve submitted your work to an editor, it usually takes three to six months to get a response, so it's no use chasing me up every few weeks. I will get in touch when I have good news. The fastest sale I ever made was nine days, the longest six years - but during those six years, I sold a lot of that author’s other work. This was just a different genre we were trying to break into. Keep in touch with a phone call or an email every three or four months, but stay focused on your job (which is writing your next book), and trust me to do mine. If potential publishers make constructive suggestions/criticism, I'll send you a copy of the rejection letter. If it just says 'sorry, not for me', I won’t. But I must reiterate here, I WILL contact you when there’s good news.
ADDITIONAL WRITING TIPS FROM CHERRY
By the time you get to the end of your manuscript, you should know your characters inside out, so go back and revise the beginning. Make it as strong as the middle and ending.
When you've finish a manuscript, put it aside for one month, then read it all the way through with fresh eyes, making one-word comments in the margin eg ‘expand’, ‘describe’. Then go back and do those edits.
Know when to stop revising and move on to the next book.
Be in it for the love of writing, not the money.
A synopsis is a short, short story of the novel. I usually prefer no more than 5-7 double spaced pages.
If you're planning a series, I like to see a 5–7 page synopsis of the first book of the series, 3-5 pages for the second, and up to two pages for the third. If it's going to be a longer than three books, and you know where those stories are going to go, then I'd suggest one paragraph, single spaced is okay here, for books 4, 5 & 6, all combined on one page.