Every agent has their unique way of discovering great new voices. For Monica Odom of the Bradford Literary Agency, connecting with writers includes a blend of seeking out innovators, pushing them to create their best work, and helping them grow each step of the way. But the nuances of how she does this are what set her—and every agent—apart. We chatted with Monica about her favorite parts of agenting, from that first email to the day a book hits the shelves.
Most people come to New York City clutching their dreams. Some fight to get in and fight even harder to stay. Others have a much easier path. But what happens when the city fails them? Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, follows a young Cameroonian couple, Jendi and Neni, who are in New York because they want a better life for themselves and, even more so, for their six-year-old son. Jendi has been working as a chauffeur for Clark, an executive at Lehman Brothers, and his high-society wife, Cindy. And Neni has been toiling away at school, hoping one day to become a pharmacist. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is about to threaten everything these four people have strived to attain. I spoke to Imbolo about her inimitable characters, her creative process, and how rejections helped her improve her manuscript.
Jende, Neni, Clark, and Cindy do not have the same dream. Even the spouses don’t necessarily align. What they share is ambition, each one striving to secure or preserve a bright, prosperous future. Without offering any spoilers, these characters surprised me at crucial moments, when their dreams were threatened. Did they surprise you too?
Yes, they very much did. Even now, when I re-read some sections of the book, I’m amazed at how far people will go to keep their dreams alive or hold onto the dream lives they have. I suppose that’s just part of being flawed humans—we make choices which we think will benefit us in the short-term, forgetting that the choices might come back to haunt us, and all four of the main characters have to deal with that.
What kind of research did you conduct for this novel?
I mostly relied on my experience of having lived in New York City for years as an immigrant from Cameroon—Jende and Neni are from my hometown of Limbe, Cameroon, and they live in a Harlem neighborhood where I used to live. Much of their story, however, was inspired by other immigrants I’d met and with whom I’d discussed the joys and woes of an American immigrant experience.
As for Clark and Cindy, I mined the brief encounters I’d had with people who seemed to be from their world, as well as conversations I had in parks with nannies and housekeepers who worked for people like them. To better understand what went on at Lehman Brothers, I read excerpts of the report prepared by the court-appointed examiner who investigated the firm’s collapse.
Where you do write?
I write at the dinning table in my living room. There really isn’t much to it—a wooden table in a typical far-from-spacious New York City living room.
What’s your creative process like? And do you have any particular quirks?
I generally sit at my dinning table and write whatever I’ve been inspired to write. With Behold the Dreamers, I’d been inspired to write a story about the relationship between a Wall Street executive and his chauffeur and I began doing so the day I got the inspiration, learning everything I needed to know about the characters along the way. As for quirks, the only place I’ve been able to write in the past five years is at my dinning table, though I do fantasize about someday having a “writerly” writing space.
What have you loved most about the publishing process so far?
Before my agent sold my novel, I’d been unemployed for several years so going through the publishing process felt like finally having a “job,” and a really wonderful job at that.
Have you encountered any unexpected challenges?
The biggest challenge I’ve encountered is how incredibly difficult it is to write a novel, especially a first novel. I’m still in awe of how difficult it was—I’d never considered it would demand so much of me physically, mentally, and emotionally. And yet, given the chance, I’d do it again.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing. It was the advice given to me by agents who saw potential in my earlier work but rejected me so I could become better. The rejections hurt, but the advice was invaluable.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.
When, after a last frantic round of edits, you send off a piece to a literary magazine, it’s hard to picture the editor on the other end as anything but a “yes,” “no,” and “this isn’t right for us at this time” machine. But there’s something more here than just clicking submit and hoping for the best – you’re building a literary relationship.
We spoke to One Story’s managing editor Lena Valencia about life at a literary magazine, where editors usually turn out to be writers rather than robots, and her suggestions for budding writers looking to submit. Lena will be speaking at the panel “It All Starts At A Literary Magazine” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
Sometimes it happens, when reading a book, that you will be so sure of what the plot and characters will do next, and simultaneously so worried that things will actually happen that way, that you have to hold the book a little further away as the words play out before your eyes. Or maybe you even have to set the book down and take a few sighing, head-shaking moments before continuing with the rest of the story.
This is not a bad thing, when a book does this to you. It’s, in fact, the opposite of bad. Because it means you are so caught up that the only way you can distinguish between the story and the real things happening in your life is by closing the book and setting it down. (And then picking it up again as soon as possible to keep on going.)
So with that as an introduction, meet Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World. It’s her debut novel, and it’s due out this October. And if you’d like to go beyond the written words in the five questions below, you can also meet Jade at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference happening in Brooklyn, NY, on September 10 and 11. Jade will be joining us on the 10th, for the A Matter of Character panel.
We asked our conference panelists to send us a few words of wisdom for emerging writers. They came back with gems that’ll inspire you to keep writing, even if—actually, particularly if—you just received another rejection. These pros urge you to keep going; to connect; to find your voice, your process; and not to stop until you’ve created “worlds vast and beautiful enough to get lost in.” This is just a glimpse inside the assembly of minds taking part in the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference this September. #SLWC16
“Find a balance between patience and tenacity. A writer needs to be their own advocate and set the expectations for their career, but they also need to work respectfully and collaboratively with those interested in helping them reach those goals.” —Noah Ballard, Agent, Curtis Brown, Ltd.
“Learn when and how to accept critique and when and how you can politely ignore it.” —Emily Barton, The Book of Esther
“1) Choose your readers carefully. 2) Enjoy writing. I love writing. If you don’t, question your decision to become a writer. Yes, it’s hard, damn hard, but I’ve heard too many writers bitching and moaning. (‘It sucks.’) It’s a privilege to be a gifted writer. My dad parked cars in a polluted, smelly underground garage dealing with lots of cranky customers from 5.30 am until 4 pm for decades—that sucked. 3) Rejection hurts, but it is coming. Be prepared. Don’t let it stop you.”—Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep
“Steal and learn all you want from other writers. But then write the story that only you can write.” —Marina Budhos, Watched
“Try to find the right balance between immediate satisfaction and long-term goals. It can take years, even the better part of a decade, to get one’s first book published, but there are also plenty of opportunities that can present themselves along the way. Balancing the two can be tricky, but also incredibly rewarding.” —Tobias Carroll, Transitory; Editor, Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“As a journalist I got the chance to interview a lot of really accomplished people in creative fields—the one trait that many of them shared was a sort of wide-ranging, egoless curiosity. They were interested in everything, highbrow and lowbrow, and weren’t worried about asking the most elementary questions. So that would be my advice: Be curious and stay curious. It will help you make unexpected connections both on the page and in real life.” —Jade Chang, The Wangs Vs. the World
Think about the last time someone told you she (or he) works in publishing. Did you immediately assume that person was an editor? Well, for this interview we were able to snag a few moments of an honest-to-goodness editor’s time. Meet Vanessa Mobley, an executive editor with Little, Brown and Company. If you want to catch her eye, she admits that she’s pretty much looking for two things (see the second question below). And if you want to get an idea of the caliber of writers she works with, well, she’s got a few bestsellers and major prize winners under her belt.
Vanessa will be joining us on Sunday, September 11, for the How We Spot the Next Generation of Great Writers panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ conference. What better place to be to try to get spotted, yourself?
Literary agents can seem like an elusive bunch when you’re an emerging writer trying to break into the industry. They tend to reject most submissions they receive, but in truth, they’re actually looking for new writers just as eagerly as you’re looking for them.
We spoke with Jim McCarthy, VP and literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, about how he tends to find—and work with—new clients. Turns out, his process can be just as surprising as the path his clients took to find him. Jim will share more wisdom on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
As a writer, you’ve likely turned to Google for industry advice at some point. And who can blame you? With a few clicks you can dig up agent contact lists, read forums about the best agents to query, even swipe query letter templates. Some of the resources out there are more reliable than others, and when it comes to querying agents your best source of wisdom is the agents themselves. If only you could personally ask them the burning questions that keep you Googling long after Stephen Colbert is done for the night.
We chatted with Writers House agent Andrea Morrison about her best advice for writers who are getting ready to query. She’ll join a team of fellow agents on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11. Their talk will unveil so much more than a Google search ever can.
With so many adults reading YA fiction these days, writers crafting young characters might struggle to decide where their work falls on the spectrum. For publishers, the line between YA and adult fiction is absolutely clear—regardless of who the end reader might be.
We spoke with G.P. Putnam’s Sons Senior Editor Stacey Barney about her process for acquiring YA fiction. Stacey will also share her insights at our panel “But Will It Sell?” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
If writing a book isn’t enough to max out a writer’s brain, the pressure to ‘build a platform’ also looms for anyone hoping to land an agent and publisher. But what does having a ‘platform’ really mean? And how do the rules change based on the kind of book you’re writing?
We chatted with literary agent Andrea Barzvi about the nuances of building a following before your book is published. Andrea will talk more about this on our panel “Plugged In” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.