Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Suzie Townsend

Suzie Townsend
   How about a query letter?

  "Orange soda in one hand, badge in the other, Suzie T entered the crime scene. The third victim this week, and it was Monday. A serial killer with a bizarre M.O. and no leads other than a dental impression pulled from each victim so far, and the entire department is baffled. How could New York City have a shark killing book critics? Suzie thought she knew who did this, and the thought made her take another gulp of diet Sunkist.

   Suzie T will face the challenge of her life to catch a killer with terrible dental problems before another critic bites the big one. Hot on the killer’s trail, Suzie will travel the seedy underground of writer’s conferences and book fairs. She begins to question her sanity when she finds her case notes have been edited and each wrong turn earns a note from the killer that reads “Form Rejection”.

   My mystery-steampunk-detective novel, Suzie T, is 348,268 words long…for part one. It’s a series, and the next book is a little longer. In book two, Suzie T gives up crime fighting for a more dangerous job: Literary Agent..."

   My guest today on The Novel Road is literary agent Suzie Townsend. She’s not a crime fighting agent, though she could be. I’m pretty sure this intelligent, kind and funny lady could do just about anything. What she chooses to do is find great books and shepherd them through the publishing process. To top it off, she is doing a job that lets her read books for a living. How great is that... 

By the way, on The Novel Road agent rating system, based on client responses alone she gets +++++, which is the highest ranking possible.

  Here’s a bit about Suzie from her website:

    Suzie represents adult and children’s fiction. She is actively looking to build her adult list and specifically interested in romance (historical and paranormal), and fantasy (urban fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, epic fantasy). She also loves Middle Grade and YA novels (all subgenres, but particularly literary projects).
   She’s interested in strong characters and voice driven stories: she’s particularly keen on strong female protagonists, complex plot lines with underlying political, moral, or philosophical issues, and stories which break out of the typical tropes of their genre.  Some of her favorites are When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost, J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series.
   She drinks too much diet orange soda, has a book-buying problem and a Starbucks problem (those soy chai lattes are addictive), and lives in Washington Heights with two dogs who know that chewing on shoes is okay but chewing on books is not.”
   Suzie keeps a blog at and can be found on twitter @sztownsend81.

I’m pleased to welcome Suzie Townsend to The Novel Road…

Suzie hatching
another bestseller?
Me: Tell us about your typical work day, from start to finish. 
Suzie: I don't really have a "typical" work day.  Every day, I have a list of things I want to get done: editing, phone calls, reading.  But a lot of what I do every day has to do with what needs to be done.  I always start the day with checking my emails. A lot of my emails get added to the to do list. If I'm pitching a project to editors I do that in the morning as well. If I have a phone call with a client or a prospective client or a phone conference, those have to be done during the business day.  Several times a week I have lunch or coffee with editors.  Most of the editing and reading I do, I do at home after work.  Queries, I almost always read before I go to bed.

Me: As a literary agent, you look for what you are passionate about, as well as what will sell. Has there been a time when you found a book you loved, but knew it wouldn’t sell?
Suzie: No. At least not yet -- I am in the beginning stages of my career. 

Me: Authors hiring freelance editors before finding an agent. Your thoughts?
Suzie: It's up to the author. I would just encourage them to do a lot of research and check references before paying anyone.  Editing and revising is an important part of the writing process. Feedback is invaluable. I definitely encourage writers to have a good critique group, that reads or writes the same genre. 

Me: How high on your list is narrative voice and distance when you are considering a manuscript? The importance of each?
Suzie: Truthfully I don't think about either when I'm reading.  I read first and foremost for pleasure.  After I've finished and fallen in love with a manuscript, I go back and read again for editing purposes and then consider narrative voice.  I'll think about the voice's consistency and whether it's authentic, and I'll also think about the narrative distance as well.  But these are more reactions to what's there, rather than an academic analysis, like I would have done when I was teaching.

Me: I send you a 150,000-word manuscript. It’s a mess, the title is even misspelled , but you read the firstpage and it catches your interest. Do you send it back with a note explaining, “Spell Check”, margins and sentence fragments, or do you keep it? What state do you like to see a manuscript in before you work on it?
Suzie: As I used to tell my students, a few errors, typos, or grammatical mistakes, can be easily fixed.  As long as they don't interfere with comprehension.  If I can't understand what I'm reading, I can't read it.  I suppose if that was the case, I could respond saying I would be willing to look at it again if the author revised and cleaned it up.  But really that should be a given.  Any author who is going to spend their time writing a book, should take the time to make sure it's cleaned up before sending it to an agent.  And thankfully, I haven't run into this problem.

PERSONAL DEMONSMe: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have taken on, that has left a mark on you?
Suzie: From every manuscript I've taken on.  That's why I take on certain manuscripts, because the characters come alive and I can't stop thinking about them.  I absolutely love Luc from Personal Demons by Lisa Desrochers.  And I desperately want to be Keek's best friend, from Arlaina Tibensky's forthcoming And Then Things Fall Apart.

Me: Have you ever had an intuition that one of your client’s books was special book. One that seems destined to huge sales or a place in literary history. Among the books you have worked with, what made your “I knew it” list?
Suzie: It's hard to say.  After all, most of the books I've sold haven't come out yet.  I will say that I read Sarah Wylie's manuscript a little over a year ago, and I came into work the next day and told my boss I had to take it on because not only did I love it more than any other book I'd read, but it could win awards.  And I stand by that.  All These Lives is schedule to be published by FSG in 2012 and it's still a book I read in every revision and feel breathless at how brilliant it is.

 Me: Lunch with you and any author you choose from throughout literary history or present, and why.
Suzie: TS Eliot because he's brilliant and I'd love to just witness how his mind works.

Me: We at the edge of the publishing fray, make our guesses as to what will happen in different segments of the industry. Is it possible that Literary agency could morph into E-Publishers, using their vast social networks to market authors from start to finish?
Suzie: That strikes me as a huge conflict of interest.  I don't see anything wrong with possibly selling manuscripts to e-publishers down the road. And I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with helping my authors self promote, but I don't want to be an e-publisher.

Me: I’ve written a post on literary agents, in an ongoing series I call “Writer’s Angst”. In it, I try to describe how tough the literary agent business can be on each agent as an individual. What would you like every author to know about literary agents?
 Suzie: Agenting is time consuming.  There's a lot of work to bring home each night and on the weekends.  And it takes a lot of time and effort before the money for that work ever comes in.  But as a result, I'm involved with the industry because I love it and because I'm excited to find manuscripts I love and get them out there. 
 Me: You wake up one day and decide to pitch it all to write a great book. What would the subject be?
Suzie: I work with writers 100x more talented than I am.  I'm never going to give that up.

'The Smell of Paint' by Sheryl McFarlaneMe: I told a new author not to even look the term up “Query Letter” until he’s done with his manuscript. I think many would be authors get wound up in writing the perfect query at the cost of their MS. Is this a fair statement?
Suzie: I'm not really sure.  I don't typically come into the game after the query letter and manuscript are done.  Sure, I've read manuscripts that weren't as exciting as their query or heard from writers who haven't actually finished their manuscript yet, but I still get a lot of queries with great manuscripts attached.

Me: Is there anything you would like to say to new authors breaking into the business?
Suzie: Do your research.  Read a lot.  And always remember you're in it because you love to write.
    I’d like to thank Suzie for being my guest. If you’re looking for an agent who’ll passionately take part in your career, look no further than Suzie T.

Now, I think I'll send that query to The Query Shark...
Suzie’s recent sales and forthcoming titles include:  A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang (Pocket, January 2011),  Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz (Simon Pulse, April 2011),  And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky (summer 2011), Original Sin by Lisa Desrochers (Tor, summer 2011),  Zombie Tag by Hannah Moskowitz (Roaring Brook, fall 2011), Tempest by Julie Cross (St. Martin’s Press, fall 2011),  All These Lives by Sarah Wylie (FSG, winter 2012), Valkyrie Rising by Ingrid Paulson (Harper, winter 2012), The Alchemy of Falling Girls by Cat Hellisen (FSG, spring 2012), May Queen by Ruth Long (Dial, summer 2012), and False Memory by Dan Krokos (Hyperion, summer 2012).
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The elixer of life?