Saturday, February 18, 2012

Katie Shea on finding the right agent

by Kathryn Craft

Katie Shea is an agent with the Donald Maass Literary AgencyShe specializes in memoir and fiction, especially women’s fiction, commercial-scale literary fiction, and realistic YA. In non-fiction she is seeking narrative, food, pop culture, health, and lifestyle.

As of mid-December, I'm thrilled to report that Katie is also my agent! The agent-author interaction is a relationship like any other, but it does start with a bang. You jump right into solidifying a joint vision for your novel, signing a contract, and adopting a plan for revision.

This interview gave me the opportunity to backpedal a bit, and get to know her better.

Kathryn: As a developmental editor, I can believe that reading slush is an education in itself. What are the top five most important things you can pass along to our readers that you learned about good writing while reading slush?

Katie: 1. The first sentence. Catch my eye, Make me want to continue reading your query. Make sure not to be too vain about your work and make sure NOT to tell me that "this is a bestseller." Be real and modestly confident. Believe it or not, I can tell a lot about a writer through his/her query letter.

2. Your pitch. I love a one-sentence pitch. This shows me how the writer sees his/her own project. Can the writer 'sell' their own work?

3. Length. Keep your query short and to the point. A good length is three to four paragraphs. First paragraph: short introduction, one-sentence pitch, word count. Second–third paragraph: short summary, comparative titles, market. Fourth paragraph: writer's bio.

4. A strong writer's bio. I always want to see what the writer has been doing to get to the point where he/she is today. Also, give me something to click on. Your Twitter page, Facebook page, website and/or blog. I want to see how the writer presents him/herself online. Having a positive online presence is always a plus.

5. Font. I really cannot stand when a query is sent in a fancy font. Stick to the standard email font or Times. I read every query from top to bottom, but I am much happier to read it when it’s easy to.

Kathryn: You've said that your favorite genre is memoir. Name a couple of your favorite memoirs, and what you loved about them.

Katie: Ah, memoir. I have loved memoir since I began to read. There is something about how a person can recapture a chapter in his/her life and execute it in a way that is universal and intriguing.

I am a HUGE fan of Joan Didion, whom I began reading when I was in high school. Her writing is real, beautiful, honest, and deep. What I love about her is that she can take the smallest moment in her life and create an ENTIRE book about it. That takes pure talent. Searching for those moments, and then understanding them in a way where you can connect to the mind of a general reader, is something that should be acknowledged.

Other writers such as Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle and Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place are great examples of how to take events in your life and be able to create a fascinating story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Writing memoir is tough. I believe the smaller amount of time that you include as the span of your book, the better it will be. The first thing I look for in a memoir is if the writer has a complete understanding and strong prospective of this time in their life, and captures moments of their deepest, most purest thoughts throughout. This makes a "good" memoir.

Kathryn: We know that this industry is "subjective" from our rejection letters, lol. But I know from talking with you that subjectivity is more than a sense of "good" or "bad"—it's a sense that a project is "right for you." What creates that sense of rightness, in your opinion? And for those writers who think they'd be happy at this point to have any agent, why is that rightness so important?

Katie: Finding the “right” agent is so very important. When I find a project that seems interesting to me, it normally relates to my life in some way. It can be the voice of the character, it can be an event that takes place, it can be a theme presented throughout the novel, or it can be the setting of the novel. Whatever it is, I must relate to it in some way.

Finding an agent who believes in the original premise of your book is what you are looking for. You want to find an agent who understands your novel. Who understands what the main character is going through. Who understands the audience this will reach out to. These many things need to be thought through when editing, and then eventually sending it to editors. If you and the agent are on different paths, how will this work?

After I read a full manuscript, I think about how much something needs to be changed, where things need to remain, and where things need to be cut. Before I can offer representation to an author, I want to make sure we are in this together. I want to make sure that we can work as a team instead of one person wanting one thing and the other wanting another. Having an understanding about where the novel needs to go is a must in an agent/author relationship. Rejection is the process of finding the right fit.

Kathryn: We met your current boss, Don Maass, at last year's conference, but you've interned and worked at a few different agencies now (Katie’s full bio). What kind of differences exist from agency to agency, and what makes the Maass agency a good fit for you?

Katie: I have gained so much experience working at other agencies to help mold me into the agent I am today. I have watched and learned from many talented agents in the industry— all who work differently. Thus, being an agent is subjective.

The way I see it, the job of an agent is a well-rounded position, combining editorial, sales and marketing, while focusing on my relationship with my clients, the editorial process, communication with editors, negotiating the deal and contract, and the promotion of my clients' online presence.  I have taken the best advice for my career from my fellow industry mentors, yet combined that with my own personal style.

When I came to Don's agency I finally found what I was looking for—creative control and professionalism. Don is a fantastic mentor and boss. He lets you find what you are passionate about and then guides you step-by-step to success. Don handpicks his employees and makes sure we all are in it together. At the DMLA, I continue to learn something new everyday. Just like writers search for agents, agents search for agencies. And when it fits, it fits.

Kathryn: This blog is called ALL THE WRITE STUFF. What do you think the "write stuff" is— those key qualities a writer must have to succeed in today's market?

1. Passion.
2. Dedication.
3. Ambition.
4. Talent.
5. Focus.
6. Good listener.

Thanks, Katie! We look forward to seeing you at The Write Stuff.


  1. What a wonderful interview between writer and agent. I learned some important things to add to my query letter. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You're welcome! I believe there need to be a special connection between agent/writer when trying to get a book published. It is a long process, and building a relationship is key!

  2. Wonderful interview that captured a bit of Katie's personality but still came across professional. Thanks for the great Q&A!

  3. Thanks for the great insight into the author/editor relationship.

  4. Kathryn, thank you for sharing your interview with Katie Shea. I agree with Ms. Shea that a good writer/agent/editor relationship is key in birthing a new book.

    Congratulations on your relationship with Katie Shea. I look forward to reading your work.

    Donna O'Donnell Figurski