Today, we are interviewing Laura Biagi of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. Thank you so much for being here, Laura!
Me: How did you become an agent?
Laura: The roots of how I came to become an agent could probably be traced back to my college studies in creative writing. I loved critiquing manuscripts in writing workshops so much that I chose to enter an industry in which I could read and critique manuscripts for a living! I was also attracted to how collaborative and creative the industry is, and how everyone involved in publishing is driven by a passion for good writing and good stories
My official start in the book publishing industry began with an internship at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in 2009. Soon after, I was hired on full-time. As an assistant, I worked closely with Jean Naggar and Jennifer Weltz on their titles. I also worked a great deal on our international rights; I created rights lists for international book fairs and sent materials and reviews to our coagents. I am still involved in our international rights and, in that vein, now sell ANZ rights for our published books.
Last year, I began taking on my own clients. I am very excited to be building up a list of adult literary fiction authors and kids’ book authors (YA, picture books, and middle grade).
Me: What are three things that elicit automatic rejections from you when reading the first 50 pages of a manuscript?
Laura: There are always exceptions, but there are indeed some things that often lead to passes from me. The most important aspect of a manuscript for me is the quality of the writing, and so I often pass on a manuscript if the writing isn’t quite where I want it to be. Signs of lower quality writing might include the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, sentences that repeat what’s already been said, cliche word choices, and sentences that don’t quite feel knit together and cohesive.
Another problem for me is starting the plot too soon or too late. To throw a random example out there, if you’re writing a manuscript about kids embarking on a grand journey into a fantasy land, it will likely feel too abrupt if, in the first chapter, they’ve already found evidence of the fantasy land, determined a reason to set off into it, and begun the journey. Think of Harry Potter. Harry doesn’t learn about his wizard ancestry and jump on the train to Hogwarts all in the first chapter. Instead, the story sets up the characters, the tension between the characters, and the setting first, all of which build toward the moment when a letter inviting him to wizard school arrives and the adventure really begins. On the other hand, too much description that doesn’t build toward anything quickly enough leads to a plot that starts too late, and this in turn often makes readers feel disengaged.
Lastly, I need to have a sense early on of why I should care about the story or characters. If I don’t care about any one thing strongly enough to feel compelled to keep reading, I will often pass. Of course, what is compelling can be incredibly subjective. Each reader cares about and is drawn to certain things more than others. A skillful writer can make almost anything compelling, though. One of the keys to doing this is to make sure each character’s motivations come through in his/her dialogue and actions early on. You don’t need to reveal the secret, dark past of a character right away, but you do want to make sure that if he/she does have a dark past, there is something unique to his/her actions, dialogue, sense of humor, etc, that foreshadows the reveal.
Me: What are you looking for right now in fiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?
Laura: Overall, I’m looking for good writing and a good story, and these can come in many different forms. I would love to find more magical realism, though a lot of writers miss the distinction between magical realism and fantasy. They are not the same, and magical realism is not paranormal, either. Magical realism involves the extraordinary or magical arising from reality, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
One idea I’d really love to find done well is that of a character or group of characters embarking on a journey across a contemporary terrain (perhaps with a hint of the magical) and running into a crazy string of secondary characters who help the main character(s) discover something about the world and about themselves. Very specific, I know, but for some reason I love the idea of journeys and how transformative they can be. There are many diverse examples in which a journey is a fundamental structural element, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Hobbit, and even Water for Elephants.
I’m getting too many angel/devil paranormal stories. Straight paranormal doesn’t typically interest me unless it’s done really well, and so many of them all feel the same. I also just personally don’t care for hard-boiled detective mysteries. These would be more up my colleague Jennifer Weltz’s alley.
Me: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
Laura: I want to be a writer myself eventually, and so I very much approach manuscripts with a writer’s mindset. If I can think of ways to help an author make his/her manuscript more compelling, I often give that feedback and can help with brainstorming on small-scale or large-scale levels.
Me: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
Laura: Read as much as you can of the type of books you want to write. Look at how the writers you love shape their stories. What is it about their characters that makes you want to keep reading about them? What is it about the setting and the descriptions that makes an author’s fictional world come alive? Thinking about all of this will make your writing better, your characters more intriguing, and your ideas stronger–and it will make you better able to create something that stands out from the crowd (since you will know what that crowd looks like!).
Me: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
Laura: Of course! I am eager to find new authors, and I am actively building up my client list. Please submit to me through our form on the JVNLA website, athttp://jvnla.com/submissions.html.
You can Find Laura on the web at the following places: