Thursday, February 9, 2017

1 Agent Interview: Alyssa Jennette of Stonesong Literary

Exactly four weeks from today, we'll be opening to submissions for the spring round of our Red Light/Green Light writing contest! You'll find more details on the contest structure here. Today, it's my very great privilege to introduce our judging agent, Alyssa Jennette from Stonesong Literary. She'll be reading your work should you choose to enter Red Light/Green Light on March 9th.


Q: Hi Alyssa! First of all, could you tell us a little about how you ended up working as a literary agent?  

My path to publishing was not at all straightforward. I was always editorially-inclined, but decided at the relatively last minute to put together a portfolio and apply to art schools. Luckily, I got in and now have a BFA in Illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Obviously I didn't end up pursuing art professionally, I'm so, so glad I attended MICA, because the illustration program taught me so much about how to think narratively, how to critique constructively (and take criticism gracefully), and how to work on a deadline, among many other things. I got engaged shortly after graduation, which meant a few years of upheaval: planning, moving, figuring out how to pay loans once the grace period ended. I waitressed for almost two years until I ended up in an internship for a budding online lifestyle brand, then another for an online fashion magazine, then I started nannying (which I still do part-time).

Throughout that time, a good friend (who later became my first client) was turning his blog into a book, and had asked me for notes on the manuscript. Once I had given them, he told me that he had already been querying agents, and my notes lined up completely with theirs--maybe I could be an agent? I had no real idea what an agent was, and mostly brushed it off. But then the process repeated with his middle grade novel--my notes matched those of the agents he was querying, and one of my bosses at the online fashion magazine had offhandedly suggested that book publishing could be a fit for me, so I decided to take the idea more seriously. I did some research and cold-emailed a bunch of agencies to ask about internships or assistant positions. I was lucky to find a fit quickly at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, where I worked with the lovely Jessica Sinsheimer.

After nearly a year at SJF, I started applying for assistant gigs at agencies and publishers. The first few months of the search were frustrating, and jobs were scarce. I finally applied for a full-time agent position at Stonesong that I knew I wasn't qualified for. They knew it, too. Lucky for me, Stonesong's admin was leaving for law school and I had unwittingly put my name in for a job I WAS qualified for before they had even advertised for it. I interviewed, loved it, and...didn't get the job (they hired their intern, Maddy, who is spectacular).

But, Stonesong liked me and wanted me to consider coming on as a production assistant for the packaging arm of Stonesong's business--plus, I would be allowed to pursue and acquire clients whenever I was ready. This was an offer and a level of trust I hadn't sensed in any other opportunity, and I was happy to accept.

I've been at Stonesong for almost two years, and an active agent for almost a year. I couldn't have asked for a more awesome team of women to be working with and learning from (or a more wonderful crop of clients thus far!)

Q: If you could give unpublished writers one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Write a whole story. Know the story you're setting out to write before you write it. That doesn't mean know every twist and plot point, but you need to know your ending and how the rest of the puzzle pieces fit together to make that ending convincing and satisfying. That goes for series as well as stand-alones; so many times I get to the end of a manuscript to find it is intended to be the first in a series, and it is clear the author hasn't considered The Whole Story. By and large, I suggest that authors learn to write one good, whole book before tackling a series.

Q: What do you think are three elements of crafting an engaging opening?

Three key elements for an engaging opening are a strong voice (not necessarily first person--don't mistake "I" for a shortcut to a compelling POV), clear conflict (this could be the Big Conflict or simple an obstacle that serves to illustrate the scene/character for us), and no dilly-dallying. I love thoughtful prose, but I need context before you dive into all your musings.

Q: What is your favorite opening line and why?

"That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift."
-Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine

Right away we have a distinct, illustrative voice: someone smart, irreverent, and who doesn't shy away from conflict--but also a perceptive person who can see to the heart of a another's intentions. We have clear conflict: Ella is cursed. And, no dilly-dallying: we know up front what kind of world and circumstance we're dealing with throughout the rest of the story; this is a world where magic and curses exist, and everyone treats it as normal. Information, deftly and wittily conveyed, is the joy of any agent or editor.

Q: Just for fun, if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? 

I think this is a tie between Paris and Cairo. I have family in Paris and I'm learning to speak French, but I've never been! Tsk, tsk, Alyssa. As for Cairo, I've always been very interested in ancient cultures, and visiting Egypt's monuments and museums would be a truly enriching experience (not to mention exploring its modern culture!)


Alyssa Jennette represents children’s and adult fiction and picture books, and has dabbled in humor and pop culture nonfiction. She values diversity, ensemble casts with distinct voices, and formats that are specific to the story and give it its own context.

In children’s books/YA, she likes sophisticated middle grade, magical realism or urban fantasy, secret societies, and unreliable narrators. She would love a teen noir in the vein of the film Brick, or a Clueless-esque “teen movie” update of a classic story.

In adult fiction, she likes literary fiction full of wit and wordplay that may border on the absurd/surreal (bonus if it includes footnotes), smart psychological or supernatural Suspense/Mystery/Horror, or beautifully crafted historical fantasy in the vein of JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL.

Alyssa is open to graphic novel submissions. She is not looking for historical fiction, romance, or women’s fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful interview! I won't lie, I've been kinda hoping one day I be involved in publshing like this. I love seeing the "behind the scenes" type information. Thank you!


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