I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot: Hamiltonian Advice for Writers

profile-picI met Tara two years ago in our critique group while she was still polishing manuscripts. Shortly after, she had three picture book contracts and an agent. She’d been seriously writing for children for 18 months, but she’d been absorbing the craft of picture books for years. She’s sharing her story with us and announcing a few details about the upcoming WWTS mentorship contest. Thank you, Tara!

Tara, your debut picture book, I Am Famous, published by Albert Whitman & Co., will be released March 1, 2018, followed by Shark Nate-O (little bee*, April 3, 2018). You have a sequel for I Am Famous under contract with Albert Whitman (spring 2019), you also have a fourth picture book that went to a multi-house auction, and two more picture books under contract, none of which we can talk about yet. What did you do to get to this point?

Well, I put in a lot of time reading picture books before I ever started writing them. I owned my own toy and book store. I specialized ages 0-6, so the only books I sold were picture books. I loved them, and I had to learn what made them work in order to be a successful retailer. I would get ideas from the store, and I told myself that someday, I would try to write them. But with three little kids, a traveling husband, and a store, there was no time for that. Then my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, and I no longer had the store. Even though I had no writing experience (but tons of reading experience), I decided to bring out all those ideas and try my hand at it. I sent my first manuscript to my sister to review. She sent it back half changed, so we became co-authors. I joined SCBWI. I found the online kidlit community. I met critique partners. I studied craft. I joined 12 x 12. I attended SCBWI conferences. I kept up my knowledge of the industry by reading voraciously.

Hamilton

During this process, I became obsessed with the musical Hamilton. If you already have Hamalaria, you know how amazing Hamilton is. If you are not familiar with it, you need to be. There is a reason editors, agents, writers and creative types in general are obsessed with it. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a lyrical genius. And Alexander Hamilton was a bit obsessive in his learning and writing because he was “young, scrappy and hungry” and clawing his way up to the top. He did not rest on his laurels and never “threw away his shot.”  
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Interview with Agent Tracy Marchini

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Tracy is a relatively new agent at BookEnds literary, but is not new to the publishing world. As you’ll see by her comments, Tracy is knowledgeable about the industry, and being a writer as well, she understands the challenges that come with pursuing a writing career.

Thank you, Tracy, for taking time out of your busy day to answer these questions. 

You’ve had an impressive career. You worked at Curtis Brown, then took time off to finish an MFA in writing for children from Simmons College. You are an agent at BookEnds Literary and an author as well. What started you on the path to working in the publishing industry and in particular, becoming an agent? 

Like many of my colleagues, I was writing and reading from a young age. My mother joined SCBWI in 1996 and learned how to submit to publishers, and the next year I started submitting my first picture book. (In hindsight, it was not that good.) A few years later, I graduated college with a degree in English and attended the local SCBWI conference. 

I was sitting with Gail Carson Levine and mentioned that I’d just graduated from college and was hoping to work in publishing. She offered to pass along my resume to her agent, where it was hung on the kitchen bulletin board. Kirsten Manges was leaving Curtis Brown to start her own agency, and so she grabbed my resume and I was able to intern for her as she set up everything from the phone lines to the submissions system to the boilerplate files. After about six months, I had to leave and find full time work. But a few months later, Kirsten told me that Curtis Brown was looking for an agent’s assistant. I interviewed first with one of their romance agents and didn’t get the job. A month or so later though I had an interview in the children’s suite, and that’s how I ended up with my first full time job at an agency!

What’s your ideal query? What’s your ideal picture book manuscript? YA and MG? 

Ideal is hard, because sometimes I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it! But my ideal query definitely follows the standard format (a line to draw me in, one to two paragraph synopsis, and a one paragraph bio with your writing or professional credits) and displays your professionalism. Writing is a creative pursuit, but publishing is a business. I need to be able to see that you understand both sides of the industry.

My ideal picture book manuscript has a strong voice and a unique concept. It’s child friendly/focused. If it’s fiction, it’s probably funny. And if it’s non-fiction, it teaches me about someone or something that I didn’t know as much about. (And generally, it doesn’t rhyme.) 

My ideal middle grade or YA manuscript has an appropriate voice for the audience. In middle grade, it looks at the way that character navigates the world closest to them – their family, their school, their community. In YA, it looks at the teen character on the brink of entering the wider world. It doesn’t have to be an issue driven book – in fact, I’d love a funny middle grade mystery with a spunky girl detective – but it does have to ring true to its readership and the things that are most important to them at that time in their lives.

And in PB, MG and YA I’m definitely looking for diversity and own voices for my list, as well as strong female characters. 

What current picture books best represent your taste? What classic picture books still float your boat? Continue reading