Today, we are lucky enough to have literary agent Stacy Testa of Writers House on the blog. Thank you so much, Ms. Testa for being here with us!
AN: How did you become an agent?
ST: I began my career in publishing as an editorial intern at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Though I ultimately decided to make the switch to the agency side, my time at FSG convinced me that publishing was indeed the industry for me. I mean, reading all day? Was this really a job? I couldn’t believe my good luck! In February of 2011, I was hired to assist Susan Ginsburg here at Writers House and started learning the agency ropes. Under Susan’s expert mentorship, I began taking on clients in 2013 and have been building my own list ever since.
AN: Many of my readers are aspiring authors and are actively looking for their first agent. Can you tell them a little bit about what the author/agent relationship is like? What can they expect after they sign with an agent?
ST: It’s definitely a partnership. You’re working towards a common goal, and there needs to be a lot of trust and mutual respect in order to fulfill that goal. I also see it as a long-term relationship in that agents should be there to advocate for and advise their authors every step of the way. What’s more, an agent should always be thinking about how best to serve their author’s career in the long run. I’m also a big believer in agents taking on an editorial role, so I always do at least a round or two of revisions with my authors before going out on submission. It’s crucial for authors to be open to hearing editorial feedback from their agents and, by the same token, for agents to respect their clients’ creative autonomy.
AN: 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?
ST: I would love to see more smart novels with a great sense of humor, in the vein of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Big Little Lies, and This Is Where I Leave You. I also find myself drawn to novels with exotic settings (particularly Scandinavia or India), unique subcultures (I am endlessly fascinated by cults), or a hint of myth/folklore (à la The Tiger’s Wife). In addition to adult fiction, I represent realistic YA, narrative nonfiction, and memoir. I’m not the right agent for picture books, romance, paranormal or fantasy, though I’m not opposed to a little magical realism.
AN: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
ST: I can’t stress enough the importance getting a fresh read. Whether this means putting your manuscript away for a few weeks or a few months and returning to it with fresh eyes, or asking a trusted friend or family member to take a look, it can be enormously helpful. While you (and your friends and family) aren’t exactly an unbiased audience, getting fresh reads can often open your eyes to holes in the manuscript, be they unmotivated shifts in character, omitted contextual information, or simple errors in logical continuity. Authors often forget what has and hasn’t made it to the page. You’ve probably written what feels like a million drafts, you’ve likely lived and breathed these characters for quite some time, and there’s a decent chance that you’ve failed to communicate to your reader some crucial information which may seem obvious to you. There’s a quote I love, from Michael Crichton, about the author-editor relationship, which I find broadly applicable to the writing process:
“In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the docks, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked and it looks to me, as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.”
In the life of a manuscript, there will be many people – namely your agent and editor – who will stand on the docks and tell you what’s wrong with your ship while you toil in the boiler room. But wouldn’t it be nice to know that you are missing a bow before you submit your manuscript to an agent? After all, you’ve only got once chance to make a first impression…
AN: As an agent, you see a lot of manuscripts from beginning writers. If there was one area you could tell a writer to focus on, to work toward improvement in, what would it be?
ST: Plot, plot, plot! I can’t tell you how many gorgeous novels I’ve read in which absolutely nothing happens. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your writing is, how rich your world is, or how lovable your characters are if there is no narrative arc to your story. It might seem obvious but, in my experience, it bears repeating.
AN: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
ST: Yes, I am definitely open to submissions! Please send a query letter, along with the first five pages of your manuscript pasted into the body of the email, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find Ms. Testa on Twitter here.