Interview With Agent Claire Anderson-Wheeler

I’m back! Happy New Year! I don’t know about the rest of you, but 2014 feels like it’s going to be amazing!(of course that could just be the chocolate talking. Mmmm, so good!) My next few blog posts will be for all my writer friends (or soon to be friends) out there.

I am currently serving as the co-chair for the 2014 American Night Writer’s Association “Time Out for Writer’s” Conference which will be held at the Hilton in Mesa, Arizona February 20-22, 2014. I know what you are thinking: oh those are expensive. But, my fellow penny pinchers, it is a boutique conference which means, affordable (at least compared to the other conferences out there).

I am huge advocate of writer’s conferences for many reasons, but I’ll just focus on three for now. First, it is a place where you can meet other people just like you! We are an exquisitely strange bunch, aren’t we? We have crazy vivid imaginations that only other writers can truly understand and relate to. In other words, crazy knows crazy. Secondly, there are amazing classes given by seasoned writers, agents and editors for every step of the writing process. Who better to teach than the ones who have successfully reached publication or helps others to do so? And third, you get a chance to meet agents and editors! Lets face it, agents and editors receive hundreds of queries a week. Any way you can stand out, can only help your chances at getting your work noticed. And if you pitch at a conference chances are high they’ll ask for pages! (Hey, it worked for me. I met my agent through last year’s ANWA conference.) Oh and there will be chocolate! Okay, that’s four reasons, but I couldn’t leave out the chocolate.

This year ANWA has five agents/editors coming in, covering every genre, who will be taking pitches on sight. For more information on the ANWA Writer’s Conference, including how to register, click ANWACon. Over the next few weeks, I will be interviewing these fantastic agents/editors so you can learn a little more about them, what they are currently looking for, and the publishing industry.

For my first interview, I have literary agent Claire Anderson-Wheeler from Regal Literary. portrait

Claire is the newest agent to join Regal Literary Management, a New York-based full-service literary agency. Prior to that she worked at Anderson Literary Management in New York, and at Christine Green Authors’ Agent in London, UK. She holds an LLB from Trinity College, Dublin, and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, UK. Claire is Irish, was born in DC, and grew up in Dublin, Geneva, and Brussels. I approached Claire to come to our conference after she gave me the nicest pass on a submission I have ever received, and yes I received quite a few before finding my agent. Don’t worry, we all do.

Now onto the fun:

TBS: What are you looking for right now? 

CAW: My tastes are pretty broad but here are some pointers for what I’d love to see.

  • Atmospheric suspense narratives: not gun-heavy thrillers, think more “domestic gothic”
  • Young adult fiction based in the real world. I’m still a sucker for a good dystopia or sci-fi, but not so interested in paranormal or fantasy.
  • Contemporary women’s fiction treating on strong topical themes: issue-led storylines, ideally along controversial or debate-stimulating lines.
  • Literary fiction that can pull off a strong plot as well as elegant language
  • In non-fiction, I’m looking mainly for topical memoir, and popular science or pop psychology with a solid research background

But I hesitate to be prescriptive. Send me a query and I’ll let you know!

TSB: What do you expect from your authors? And what should they expect from you?

CAW: Good question!

I expect authors to take the hard work part seriously, and to have realistic expectations. My heart sinks when I read “I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. Good writing takes pain! As to the realistic expectations: I appreciate ambition, but it’s important for writers to understand that publishing is not a golden ticket or a quick one, and the JK Rowling stories are few and far between.

What authors can expect from me – I guess this is two-fold. Anyone who sends me a query can expect a response, though I very rarely have time to give feedback on the work. I’m sorry: I wish I did have time. But it’s a business like any other, and I simply can’t afford to perform a role of editorial consultant. As for what my authors can expect: they can expect thoughtful editorial feedback on their work, and a genuine dialogue. The idea is to synthesise what I’ve got and what they’ve got: it’s a partnership, not a power game! And they can expect someone who is dogged about getting their work to a good home.

TSB: What are the top three things that turn you off to a query letter, and top three that get you excited?

CAW: Top three that turn me off:

  1. Haranguing me about why I have to read their work: don’t be a nag! I was going to read it anyway!
  2. Writing in the third person. “Jim is the critically-acclaimed author of….”
  3. Not telling me what the book is about and what happens in it. Teasing cliffhangers are just irritating.

Top three things I want to see

  1. Dignity without arrogance: a courteous introduction and a request to read, no need for flattery or effusion. Remember, you are a businessperson.
  2. A concise, value-neutral account of what you’ve written. The full synopsis you can leave for an attachment if you like: but up-front I am always happy to see a paragraph or two describing the project in analytical terms. By all means, tell me you aspire to “an incisive but ultimately redemptive panoramic social narrative”. But don’t tell me you’re “a striking and original writer” or “the next David Foster Wallace”
  3. A great story, of course!

TSB: In this changing industry, specifically with self publishing on the rise, what benefits does traditional publishing offer the author that self publishing cannot?

CAW: I would identify two major ones:

  1. Promotion. Look at it this way: you hear of self-publishing runaway successes, sure. But consider that maybe one-third of the new titles published every year in the US (caveat: very loose estimate) are self-published. Now think about what books this year have made the bestseller lists; have been reviewed; have been read by your friends; have been read by you. So that helps illustrate just how rare and anomalous those self-publishing successes are. A traditional publisher may not get you on everyone’s radar. But it’s unlikely you’ll get there without them.
  2. Editorial input. Why wouldn’t you want a second (and third, and fourth, and tenth) pair of eyes on your book, to make it as good as it can possibly be?

TBS: How important is the first line and first chapter of a manuscript?

The first line, not that important (but try to avoid a terrible one!). The first chapter, however: massively important. People always ask, “but how much of a book do you actually read?”. The problem is, to me this implies that I should be giving every writer all the benefit of the doubt: “okay, the first chapter was clunky, confused, and nothing was happening – but maybe it’ll pick up.” I don’t read like that – and nor will a publisher! I’ve had people send me a chapter from the middle of the book because they feel their first chapters are slow or somehow unrepresentative of what they can do. But it all needs to be your best work. If your first chapter doesn’t reflect well on you…. Lose it, or rewrite it!

TBS: I hear it’s becoming harder and harder for debut authors to break into the industry. What are your thoughts on this and how can writers be one step ahead of the game?

CA-W: I don’t like to sound negative – or unduly negative – but this is, I believe, true. On the plus side, wonderful work is still getting out there, and smaller indie publishers are springing up to fill the gap, as the major publishers concentrate more and more on established brands.

As to being a step ahead of the game, I don’t believe there are quick-fixes. In many ways it’s the same as it ever was: you have to write something distinctive, and good, and then you have to make it better. The number one thing I would say is, use your peers. Not just for networking, but for workshopping. Find a tough crowd, don’t just give it to your favourite sister to read. Also, I think being part of a writers’ group is good because it allows you to see other people’s flawed work-in-progress, and thus, allows you to use your own critical skills. If you can’t do this, then just read. Read the bestsellers. Read the critics’ picks. And just to get your critical faculties nice and stimulated, practice reading bad fiction. Find some free ebook online that nobody seems to like (except the author’s favourite sister), download it, and use it as a tutorial in what not to do.

The other thing you can do is work on your publication record. It’s good practice, good for the ego, and doesn’t hurt your resume. While you’re working on your novel-length masterpiece, try sending some shorter stuff out to magazines. You can build a portfolio, build your confidence, and maybe get some good feedback out of it.

Thank you, Claire, for being so gracious to take the time to share some insights with us! I can’t wait to meet you in person February! 

In addition to taking pitches at ANWACon, Claire will also be conducting a query/pitch workshop and teaching two great classes. Her first class is “Building up and editing down: foundation, structure, and embracing the delete button.” And her second class is “Writing for your reader: market consciousness and knowing your audience.” However if you cannot make the conference, but would like to submit a query to Claire you may do so at here Regal literary.

That’s it for now aspiring writers’. Next week I’ll be interviewing the equally awesome, Heidi Taylor from Shadow Mountain Publishing.

Until then keep writing and revising my friends.

~Aloha

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