Although you're a new literary agent, you have 13 years of experience in entertainment and intellectual property law, and have even represented a Grammy® winner. How do you feel that your experience in entertainment law will lend to your career as an agent?
In dealing with musicians, management companies, recording companies and music publishers, I know what rights creators hold, what a creator can and should exploit, and, in most circumstances, for how much. These are the core analogies between lawyering and agenting. I know what publishing agreements say, how to advise authors as to their meaning, and how to negotiate them. Most agents come up from the mail room, answer phones, then become junior agents, etc. I've been practicing law on my own for long enough to have developed the experience and the battle scars to now help writers along their path through the legal, transactional and advisory morass that is the nexus between art and commerce. However, though these legal skills and years of experience are valuable, I think the fact that I am a writer (acquiring an agent on my second novel), the insight I bring to the process as an artist, is even more potent and useful to the writer-client. I truly 'get it'.
You ask for the first two chapters along with a query. What sorts of things do you look for in these chapters when you're deciding whether or not to make a request? Any particular turn-offs?
I just want to be hooked and compelled. For that to happen, there has to be an intertwined and robust combination of narrative, prose and character. There is no objective checklist. There really can't be one. That's why we like art, why we read, why we write, right? Because it is all totally subjective and often inexplicable. So, to identify turn-offs would be to delve into objectivity. But I can say that triteness kills. But so does a desperate attempt at uniqueness. It's so case-by-case. All writers should innately know this. What works...works. What doesn't, doesn't, which is for me and me alone to determine. Others may very well see something in a piece I don't. And, really, thank God for that. Let's celebrate our differences, understanding that everyone has differing sets of expectations. Art is magic, and as such, it cannot be explained. Methinks I pontificate too much. I'll stop now.
How would you describe the perfect query letter for you?
Brevity. Cut the cuteness and the tap dance. Include the word count up top, and the genre as you see it. Erin Morgenstern, author of 'The Night Circus', posted hers online (link). That's a good example. The rules for queries are simple and posted on many a snarky blog. There's no excuse for not writing a solid query. That said, for me, I don't put too much credence into a query, unless it's just ridiculous. I get to the writing right away as long as the premise is viable.
Are you open to queries for Young Adult? If so, is there anything in particular you're looking for in this category?
Sure. I'd say I probably prefer YA that's literary and cut from the cloth of real life as opposed to fantasy and magical realism. I'm simply not interested in a shapeshifting anything or anything that trades on Harry Potter.
You say that you're looking for novels with a "literary-bent". In your opinion, what are the characteristics that give a novel a "literary-bent"?
Again, very hard to objectify. Lyricism, an elegance, a beat and meter to the prose that intoxicates. "Voice". To me, reading and writing is about trances, being in one and inducing them. The cobra/horn blower dialectic. When I write, when it's coming and it's feeling good and the endorphins are flowing, I lose time. I'm in a trance. Plot-only books can put me there as a reader, certainly, but it's the books that tell the tale in a way that entrances, mesmerizes . . . that's when a book is a knock-out. That ability is innate within a writer, sewn into a certain work; it cannot be taught. So, when I say literary-bent, I mean a great tale well-told, something beyond the quotidian stage direction, where they're standing and what they're wearing.
What are some of your personal favorite books?
Of course I'll say it's hard to say, but for the sake of it: all wandering around the top of the list as I sit here today would be: O'Nan's 'A Prayer for the Dying', Woodrell's 'Winter's Bone', McGuane's 'Ninety-Two in the Shade', Proulx's 'Close Range: Wyoming Stories', 'The Great Gatsby', Cunningham's 'The Hours', Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude', King's 'The Shining', McCarthy's 'No Country for Old Men', 'Lolita'. As soon as you publish this, I'll forget about nineteen others I'd like to see on there, so. Lists . . . bah. :)
You're a published writer who's been through the querying process, and as you say on your website, you know it can be a real "slog". What advice do you have to help writers stay motivated through the querying process?
Man, oh man. Before getting to that, I need to say that rejection, in all its myriad forms, hurts. Please don't fall for the grain-of-salt crap. It stings. Let it. You're an artist, after all. You're sensitive. Stiff upper lip? It's just business? My ass. Let it sting. Let it pass. Don't let it enrage. It will make you stronger. Eventually.
There. I feel better.
First: Don't be delusional. Do you really have the chops? Do you really? Is this book really good, or are you just wanting it to be?
Second: Listen to criticism. If you are hearing the same negative thing about your book over and over, you've got to fix it. If it can't be fixed, it's probably fatal to the book.
Third: If the answer to the first is an honest 'yes', and you've rewritten the book per criticism, from others and your own (answering that first question again), do not give up.
Writing a good novel is arguably one of the more difficult and rewarding tasks in all of human endeavor. If it were easy, more would do it. Few can. Staying passionate about your book is maybe the hardest thing. You've been schlepping it around, in your head, in your briefcase, tinkering, rewriting, editing, rewriting. You're bloody sick of it. But that's exactly when you have to summon that inner Rocky Balboa, go running to the top of the stairs, thrust your fists into the air and say to yourself, "I will not give up." Do whatever you need to do to put you in that place of passion you had when you were first writing it. Playing music, reading works that inspire, maybe working on something else to freshen your brain. Coffee helps too.
Thank you, Mark! It's good to know I'm not the only one who has an existential crisis every time I get a form rejection. :) To query Mark, send your query plus two chapters (in the body of the e-mail, please) to mark.falkin [at] gmail.com.