Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
We’re pleased to offer the following exclusive interview with Stephen Fraser, children’s book agent and a former HarperCollins executive editor. Stephen has edited and/or sold the manuscripts of an impressive list of acclaimed youth novelists. Stephen seeks and champions new talent—imaginative, original writing that may yield “the next big thing”—as well as supporting authors with proven track records. Come meet him at our 2009 seminar!
How would you characterize your agenting focus and/or core philosophy?
My background as an editor for 20 years is what characterizes my role as a literary agent and seems to be why people tend to come to me. (Other agents have different qualifications and strengths.) And my clients know that I am glad to thrash around Ideas before a book is even written, comment on chapters, or respond to an entire manuscript. I will not send out a manuscript to an editor until I feel it is ready. But I feel innately and strongly that a good manuscript has a home.
While agenting is a business, I see my primary goal as not just making money, but as finding and celebrating good writers, helping to find a home for each manuscript. I guess my best quality is that I am enthusiastic about my clients and their books and I hope to convey this enthusiasm and joy to editors and publishers. This is how a book starts to find its way in the world: joy is contagious.
Which genres and themes do you solicit in youth novels?
I look for books in all genres that are imaginative and fun... Dazzle me!
I like a story that is dramatic, but I don’t want to get stuck in dark, depressing material. A good novel might in fact have a dramatic, even dark storyline, but there needs to be a reason for it. And I’d like to see a glimmer of hope at least. What gets my attention is good writing, a love of language and a facility to craft a good story. A great concept is not enough; good writing must back it up. What’s important is what is called “voice,” an authentic originality that is the writer’s own.
Our 2009 workshop theme is “Vision and Voice.” Voice is often touted as a compelling element in fiction, yet it’s difficult to define. What does “voice” mean to you? Examples?
Voice is really the “sound” of the character, both in words and thoughts. Sometimes voice is inseparable from the author’s own writing voice, much as it’s hard to separate the character from the actor playing him or her in a movie. When publishers speak about wanting a strong voice, I believe they mean the sound of the writing must be original, not derivative or banal. You can’t mistake Francesca Lia Block for Cynthia Rylant; Gregory Maguire for Meg Cabot.
I think one of the most important books of the 20th century is Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat. That wonderful one of a kind, LA-wacky yet sweet voice completely won me over from page one. You can’t fabricate that kind of distinctive voice. And it sings out for all time.
The poignant, sweet, and sad voice of Cynthia Rylant’s Summer in Missing May is unforgettable; similarly, Stanley in Louis Sachar’s Holes is wonderfully fresh. I also love what Jack Gantos does in his Joey Pigza books, bold and funny and contemporary.
Teens, especially, detect false notes in voice. If it doesn’t sound authentic or believable, they will drop your book. However, if you get it right—and you are consistent—they will follow you anywhere.
Approximately how many youth novelists do you represent? What percentage are debut authors—or were, when they signed with you?
I represent about 20 middle-grade and young-adult novelists. More than half of the authors I represent are debut authors. Most of them have sold at least one other book since they signed with me.
I love meeting new talent. But I also love working with seasoned, professional writers who know what to expect. All of my authors are stars.
What are some distinctive youth novels you’ve sold in the past few years? Which aspects appealed to you from the query and/or manuscript’s first lines?
Two very different books that I sold last year: (1) Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd, essentially a collection of short stories with repeating characters. I loved the sweetness and honesty of the lead character, Brother. Writing about spiritual themes is challenging, because it can come across as sanctimonious or boring; but Rosanne Parry has written a book that pulsates with real life. And it is inspiring.
(2) The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien-Jones is a marvelous fantasy novel that truly believes in its own magical, winter-laden world. Max and Rose and the other characters come right out of that wonderful world of fantasy writing that seems realer than real life, not unlike Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence. Christine Brodien-Jones has one previous fantasy novel, so she is a pro at creating other worlds. I love the beautiful clarity of her writing.
What background and interests do you bring to agenting; how do they inform your work?
I have more than 20 years’ experience as an editor, so that informs how I read submissions and how I work with clients. I have a strong visual sense, so (1) I love picture books and (2) I can visualize a book jacket when I read a good novel or even nonfiction proposal. My background in music and theater also informs my taste.
II. SUBMISSIONS (QUERIES, SYNOPSES, MANUSCRIPTS)
Do you consider unsolicited queries and/or those submitted without a referral? What are your usual response times?
Yes, I look at unsolicited queries and referrals from people I know in some way or another. I try to answer within a few weeks. A full manuscript takes more time.
I read all queries and try to answer within a few weeks. But to be honest, I’d rather read a page or two or a novel than just hear about it... because it is all about the writing.
What makes a query irresistible to you—or not?
I am not impressed by fancy stationery or expensive courier service. I only want to read a simple, clear query—and as I said, preferably a few pages of text. From experience, I can tell within a paragraph or two if I will be interested.
In a query, should writers include a brief market “pitch” or just a succinct plot description to show the story’s potential?The query should include a succinct plot description and pitch.The pitch (positioning a book in the market) can be useful. I encourage every writer to create an “elevator pitch.” This means comparing the manuscript with already-published and even classic books. This comparison helps sales forces know how to position a book on a publisher’s list. Learning to create a query and pitch also helps writers focus their ideas. [Accordingly, our August 2009 pre-workshop assignments include crafting a single-sentence plot summary of one’s novel.]
What makes a synopsis intriguing to you?
Do you read the synopsis before or after reading a manuscript—or do you sometimes bypass the synopsis entirely?
Sometimes not at all. I guess afterwards, once you have gotten my attention.
How many pages do you read before deciding to continue or decline a manuscript?
From years of experience, I can usually tell in a paragraph or two if I will be interested in a manuscript. However, I will keep reading as far as I am still interested. And sometimes, if the story is really good—even if I’m not sure it’s for me—I will read until the very end to see what happens!
I will look at submissions from a conference for up to one year afterwards.