Today, we’re interviewing literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. Thank you so much for being here, Jessica!
Me: How did you become an agent?
Jessica: It was actually completely by accident. My college roommate had an internship with a very large, corporate, powerful agency–the sort of office that reminds one of Mad Men, but without the cool retro clothes. Anyway, she finished the internship and recommended me as her replacement. The same roommate got another internship at a medium-sized publishing company (they do very serious books but, at meetings, sometimes shoot rubber bands at each other), and then gave that to me. After that, I was hired by a tiny, radical magazine on the Upper West Side that, with (what should be frightening) regularity, received death threats. (Everyone there is fine, to the best of my knowledge.) When I graduated, I was hired as an assistant at my current company and, soon, Sarah Jane–the most supportive, lovely boss on the planet–started encouraging me to take on my own projects. I was initially terrified–What if I ruin an author’s life? I kept thinking–but, then, I fell so hard for a book–Falling Under by Gwen Hayes–now in seven countries!–that I just wasn’t scared anymore.
Me: What are three things that elicit automatic rejections from you when reading the first 50
pages of a manuscript?
Jessica: 1. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ratio of dialogue to narration, and I’ve come to the conclusion that more than 1:3 (lines of dialogue to lines of narration) in the first few pages almost never works for me. It can be done well, of course–but that’s rare. I’m also a fan of what I call the “voiceover opener,” like in the beginning of a movie–something that gives a sense of the theme or tone of the book, versus throwing us right into a scene that may or may not ground us in the story. This shouldn’t go on for more than a few paragraphs, though.
2. I’ve seen so many very specific, niche books open with scenes that are incredibly generic (an alarm going off and the character getting ready for work, for example–I get at least one of those a day). It’s important to me that, somewhere in your first scene–ideally in your first page and first paragraph–I get a sense of the tone of the book. If your first scene could work for any other book in your genre (with names changed), then think about specificity.
3. I know agents often say to start with action–and it’s true; I don’t want to spend the first thirty pages watching nothing happen–but too much action without enough description can be problematic, too. It’s hard to care about characters (especially characters in a really high stakes situation) if I have no idea who they are. I received a first chapter from a writer who is very talented–but we were thrust into a hostage situation by sentence two, and I had no idea who the characters were. If you’re going to take me to the edge emotionally, at least give me a character I feel familiar with as a guide. I don’t want to go there alone.
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?
Jessica: I’m always happy to see fiction with active, powerful female protagonists–especially if they’re unconventional. I tend to like works for women that stretch genres–women’s fiction with a surreal bent, highbrow sentences with lowbrow content, thrillers in beautiful locations, protagonists with both brave and kind sides to them. I like scandal, mystery, intrigue, and scheming.
I don’t judge by genre, but by quality–so know that it’s possible I could like anything.
I’d love real world YA with an unusual bent (check out David Isersen’s Firecracker, which is amazing, or Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood by Eileen Cook–also fantastic). I like protagonists with secrets, who get revenge (but are justified), who are mischievous and great at reading the people around them.
In terms of nonfiction, I love pretty much anything to do with food, and I’m surprised by how few parenting books we’ve received recently. I’d also love more travel, memoir, technology, politics, psychology, and pretty much any nonfiction with a strong narrative element.
Me: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
Jessica: I get these weird little hobby/obsessions for about three weeks. Right now, I’m really interested in rock climbing (indoors, of course!), careening around Central Park on rented bikes (poor Sarah Jane has heard me talk about the unlimited bike rental program so many times), and the idea of what the NY Times calls “Hipsturbia”–walkable, green suburbs connected to commuter train lines. I’m a huge fan of the TED Radio Hour (their “Do We Need Humans?” podcast on how robots can mimic human microexpressions and stir our empathy is really darn amazing: http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/15/ted-radio-hour-asks-do-we-need-humans/). I’m thinking a lot about creating some sort of podcast station (Publishing Happy Hour?) and spend far too much time thinking about how to redecorate my apartment. I lust after ceiling medallions.
Me: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
Jessica: Do your research. I receive so many queries from people who don’t know who I am (love it when they call me “Dear Sirs” since, of course, I’m neither male nor plural) that it’s always a nice surprise when people know something about the agency. I know some agents think it’s a waste of valuable query space, but I don’t see how one “Dear ________, I see that you also like ___________” line can really hurt. In most cases, it helps. A huge percentage of our rejections go out because the author clearly doesn’t know who we are, or what a query should be, or the fact that we don’t represent screenplays without a book attached.
Me: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
Jessica: Of course! Please send query and the first ten pages (all in the body of the email, query single spaced and pages double spaced, if you can) to Submissions at SarahJaneFreymann dot com.