If you're anything like me, you might be harboring a deep-seated curiosity about the life of a literary agent intern. What is it they do, and more importantly, what nuggets of writerly wisdom have they collected while digging through all that slush? To quench some of this curiosity, I asked literary agent intern and aspiring author, Kerbie Addis, a few questions! In addition to her work at a major literary agency, Kerbie's participated in Pitch Wars (twice!) as a mentee, and also as a co-mentor in 2016. And she's currently working toward her Master of Library Science degree.
Hi, Kerbie! You intern at a major literary agency. Can you tell us what made you seek out the position?
My answer might be boring, but I sought out interning to help with my career options. I’m very interested in pursuing a career in publishing later on in life. I’m also in grad school to become a librarian, and the two fields have quite a bit of cross over. I figured learning about the publishing industry would help my career as a librarian, and vice versa. For instance, I’ve taken courses in YA/children’s literature that help me to analyze why certain books are more effective than others, and why those books are needed for kids. Both fields also have criteria for selecting books. We all know how selective agents and editors are, but librarians also have to make tough choices and justify their purchases.
What has your experience been like? Has anything surprised you?
It’s been fun! Sometimes it’s stressful, but mostly it’s fun. I adore the agent I work for and I think that definitely helps. I think what surprises me the most are how many good manuscripts are out there, or how many manuscripts are there. It’s pretty intense competition. I thought more queries would be instant-rejections, but that’s not the case in my experience. Many queries are good, but at the end of the day I can’t take them all.
When I first started, my reactions to manuscripts and queries surprised me. I have friends in the industry and some of them are merciless, particularly in their inboxes. I thought I’d be like that since I’m quite blunt, but really I’m a big softie because I’ve been in the slush myself (sshhhhh intern secrets, lol). I might reject your query, but I do feel bad!
What are some of the most common mistakes you see in the queries?
I’d say the number one mistake I see is not enough conflict/stakes. We want to know not just the plot, but what is threatening your main character, and what will happen if they don’t succeed. Sometimes people don’t talk about their story at all; their entire query is basically an autobiography of the writer. Please don’t do this! I’m sure you’ve had a great life, but I want to hear about your story! Keep bios to just one paragraph.
For fantasy/science fiction queries, I often see too much worldbuilding attempted in the query. If there’s a lot of terms and names thrown around, it’s confusing and drowns out your conflict/stakes. When possible, simplify the worldbuilding. If your query is confusing, many agents won’t slow down to understand terminology or worldbuilding. They’ll just pass. Make sure your query is plot-first, not world-first.
Word count is another mistake I see frequently, whether too little or too much. There are plenty of resources on appropriate word counts for different age groups/genres (Jennifer Laughran has a great blog post on it here). Nothing is more disappointing than reading a cool query and discovering that it’s 250,000 words.
What else have you learned from your time in the slush pile?
I’ve learned you don’t need to panic and grovel. Writers (myself included) are often paralyzed with fear that they’ll mess up something, so when they do, they flip out. Called the agent by the wrong name? Have a typo? I had a friend accidentally send out a query in comic sans. Mistakes like these don’t influence my decision on your query. If you mess something up, just take a deep breath. It’s gonna be ok, I promise.
Another thing I’ve learned is to don’t reply to a form rejection to thank the agent for their response. I’ll admit I did this when I first queried, but being on the other side of the inbox I can see why this isn’t a good idea: it clogs the inbox. I know you mean well, but if for every rejection (and I sometimes send out 50 per day) someone replies, it means I have another 50 emails to file, which cuts into my time for reading actual queries. If you want to be polite, just thank us for our time at the end of your original query letter.
What makes a manuscript stand out?
Oh gosh, this is tough, because a million different things can do this and it can be very subjective. What pops to me might be boring to someone else. But when I read, I’m looking for characters I can fall in love with and voices that feel real. I want plots that keep me on the edge of my seat. I love reading a story that can surprise me. I love conflicts where I don’t immediately see how the characters will fix things.
Having a manuscript stand out is more than just a basic grasp of spelling, grammar, and plot. These are things that should be expected, not praised. What makes a manuscript special is the hard work a writer puts in, the extra touch of magic that makes the characters and places real to the reader. Sometimes I read manuscripts that have nothing “wrong” with them, they’re just lacking that spark. The best way you can achieve this is reading in your genre, figure out what’s been done, what’s bland, and what makes you like the books you like. There’s no real formula for this, but it’s something you can eventually develop an eye for.
What is the biggest challenge of the job?
Oh, this is an easy one. Not having enough time. I’m always reading, whether it’s manuscripts, queries, homework, textbooks, etc. I also dedicate time to reading recently published books because part of my job is knowing the current market. I invested in an iPad so even when I run errands, I can take it out and read.
I use a planner and an app called Trello to keep track of what needs to be done, when. I try to focus on only what has tangible deadlines and what is coming up next—otherwise I become overwhelmed with the amount of work and might have a panic attack.
What advice can you give querying writers looking to make that all-important first impression?
Critiques, critiques, critiques. I promise that you won’t see all the little bumps in your query and pages. Grab a critique partner to help smooth those out. It can be a fellow writer, a workshop, an editing service… doesn’t matter. If you’re not sure whether to take someone’s advice, it never hurts to get a second opinion—and there are loads of people out there willing to critique queries and pages. If you’re afraid of reaching out in the writing community, just ask a friend to read it and see if it makes sense. Just one critique can make a world of difference with your query!
Enormous thanks go out to Kerbie for taking the time to answer these questions, and for all the great advice she's shared here. Find out more about her on Twitter as @deodignus, or on her website at: www.kerbieaddis.com.