Michele Mortimer is an agent at Darhansoff & Verrill Literary Agents, handling rights, scouting for new writers, and representing select projects of her own. The agency welcomes literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, sophisticated suspense, the occasional memoir, and children's books. For her own list, Michele is most interested in picture books (fun, whimsical, weird, easy on the lessons learned); young adult fiction (contemporary, voice-forward realism or moody, edgy mystery); adult literary fiction (contemporary, character-driven, descriptively-rich realism); and noir and detective lit (standalone or series). During the Missouri Writers Guild “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference, Michele will be listening to pitches Saturday morning.
Sarah: Michele, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about agenting, querying and the upcoming conference. Hopefully, your answers will help attendees decide which projects are best suited for your review.
Michele: Thanks so much for inviting me, I’m happy to be a part of all this.
Sarah: To get us started, how did you become an agent?
Michele: Way back when, a writer friend of mine hooked me up with some freelance work at her agency—slush reading a few hours a week. This was around 2000, 2001. I’ve been with DVA since. Slush reading led to manuscript reading which led to more serious editorial work which led to rights work which led to work as an agent proper. Because we’re a small company, I never traded in one duty for another, I just added to the desk of responsibility.
Sarah: When you sign a client what are your expectations from the client?
Michele: Even before the official commitment to work together—from the time I express serious interest in your work—I expect an honest and forthcoming dialogue. Generally, throughout the duration of our working relationship, I ask for patience with the process. I ask for expectations to be managed, to be tethered to the reality of this market. I ask that you prepare yourself for all manner of responses to your work. A related note: writers have access to so much information these days, thanks to the internet, message boards, and other social media, there’s a tendency for writers to tell us what our job is and how we should do it. This, if it must be said, is super annoying.
Sarah: What do you think is the most difficult part of your job? Please explain.
Michele: Plain and simple, not selling work. Sometimes there are rational, sensible, intellectually comprehensible reasons for why something didn’t sell but such reasons don’t completely cushion the visceral blow of rejection. And you spend a considerable amount of time fielding, parrying, examining, translating, and persevering through rejection. It’s why we try, as best we can, to be kind and helpful when we’re delivering rejection to writers that seek us out.
Sarah: Query tracker says you’ve read over 200 query letters and accepted about 9. Could you give us a more accurate estimate of how many query letters you receive, say in a month, and how many times you request partials and fulls?
Michele: It varies, depending on the season, but the average is closer to 350 per month. Last year, we requested about 200 manuscripts, so 16 or so per month. In the era of digital files, I tend to request full manuscripts rather than partials.
Sarah: Having read that many query letters, makes you more than qualified to answer my next question. What is the most common mistake you see writers make in their query letters?
Michele: Queries blatantly mass emailed to every agent under the sun; queries that are within a document attached to an email; queries that provide nothing but a link to an online excerpt—these earn demerits for being either impersonal or unwieldy. When it comes to the pitch itself, I have a few pet peeves. If a query is windy and rambling, then I assume your book is similarly insufferable. If a query asserts lofty ambitions and themes and motifs, I will assume your book is similarly abstract and opaque. Keep it short, simple, clear, persuasive. Tell me just enough to rouse some curiosity for the story—listing every character and plot point just clutters up the query. Tell me where this book would sit on the shelves and perhaps, without reaching, name some titles or authors you think are kin. Tell me a little about yourself and your writing history. I typically respond to unfussy, professional pitches, or those delivered with an unpretentious, natural voice. So many queries we receive fall into two camps: flat and perfunctory or overwrought and self-important. The middle ground is where real consideration begins.
Sarah: What are three words that describe how you read your slush pile? Why did you pick those words?
Michele: Quickly, intuitively, hopefully. Okay, also, sometimes, begrudgingly, but that’s because of volume. In one sample pile, there are always a number of queries that don’t match up to our agency and those are easy, immediate rejections. Understand, too, interests are fluid—what we responded to last year is different than what we’re responding to now—personal tastes evolve, market trends change. Then there are the queries that do match up to our interests but the writing indicates that the sender is probably best working with something other than sentences. There are always a handful of queries that seem promising but betray a fatal flaw in the work—it’s indulgent, it’s flat, it’s plotless, it’s underdeveloped, it’s gimmicky, etcetera—we request these sometimes, just in case our instincts are wrong, and then we end up writing rejections saying it’s indulgent, it’s flat, it’s plotless, it’s underdeveloped, it’s gimmicky, etcetera. Everything legitimately interesting is still a maybe. I usually leave potential queries alone for a bit and then reread them fresh. The thing about slush is that much of it, to be polite, is rubbish, and when you read though many in one sitting, your brain adapts to a lower standard; as a result, certain queries standout as relatively notable. If, however, a query survives a second examination, then I request material.
Sarah: Are you more likely to request pages for a character driven story or a plot driven story? Why or why not?
Michele: I request an even amount of both but I tend to be demanding of character no matter what kind of plot is at hand and demanding of plot no matter how great the character work.
Sarah: It seems like when most agents are asked what they’re looking for in a submission, they answer, “good writing always stands out,” or something along those lines. That’s vague. Please name three contemporary authors who define “good writing” to you.
Michele: I’m going to name more than three but will keep to those writers that suggest something about my professional taste rather than touch on all the idiosyncrasies of my personal library. Literary folks: Dan Chaon, Sam Lipsyte, Richard Powers, Lionel Shriver, Sarah Waters. Crime/Mystery: P.D. James, Robert Crais, Richard Price, Gillian Flynn. YA: John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, Michael Northrup.
Sarah: For my last question, I’m curious about your thoughts on pitching since you’ll be listening to them during our Saturday pitch sessions. Listening to pitches is obviously a bit different than reading query letters. So is their preparation. What are some tips writers should consider while preparing their pitches for you?
Michele: I know the sessions are limited in time but don’t rush through the pitch. Don’t worry about ums or you knows or other verbal tics. Remember that I haven’t read every book ever published and may draw blanks at some references. A sense of humor is welcome. Forgive me if I interrupt. Basically, talk to me like you’re talking to a fellow reader about a book you sincerely think I should read. Finally, let’s make this a useful conversation even if we’re not a perfect match.
Sarah: Michele, thank you for taking the time to give us a glimpse into your daily life as an agent. I hope our readers will have found this interview a useful conversation, even if they aren’t attending this year’s conference.
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Don’t forget to register! If you’ve learned something from reading this blog or are interested in pitching Michele, please consider attending the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Annual writing conference. We would love to see you in April!