Querying is an important initiation into the traditional publication world–it is an introduction of your book to a literary agent, seeking representation. The process is grueling, as any querying writer would tell you. We don’t call it the querying trenches for no reason. I’ve been in those trenches twice. I know a little of the struggle, though fortunately, my stints have been relatively quick. With the pandemic, publishing woes have grown and querying has been more challenging than usual.
One of the important parts of querying is preparation and research, and to help with just that, today I’m interviewing my wonderful agent Lucienne Diver, who has already taught me so much about publishing in the one year I’ve known her.
So here go the questions I gathered from the querying trenches. If you think of others, post them in the comments.
1. How and why did you become a literary agent?
I’d known I wanted to be part of the book world since I was very young. I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I’d go to the library and check out ten books at a time. When I couldn’t get there, I’d grab books from my mother’s shelf, and my father’s, and so I read some books WAY before I should have. For example, I should not have been reading Robert A. Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND at eleven. I’m fairly sure my father didn’t remember what it was about when he caught me reading it or he would have had a fit!
I ended up getting my BA in English/writing and anthropology, and applied to jobs in publishing and to graduate school for forensic anthropology (another fascination for me – at the time there were only 48 board certified forensic anthropologists in the country, not even one per state, and it was a new enough science that I felt I could still make a mark!). I like to say that publishing got back to me first, which is true, but it’s also where I’ve always belonged.
As fate would have it, my two loves came together to land me my first job in publishing. It so happened that when I went for my interview at Spectrum Literary Agency in Manhattan, I was reading a book by Ken Goddard, who ran the National Fish & Wildlife Forensic Lab out in Ashland, Oregon. When I saw his book on the shelf, I pulled it out of my bag to rave about it and ended up talking books with Eleanor Wood the rest of the time. We had such a wonderful conversation that she gave me my shot, even though I had less experience than some who were up for the job. She was a wonderful mentor. I spent my first fifteen years in the business at Spectrum before moving to The Knight Agency, where I’ve happily spent the last fourteen years and plan to continue!
2. What is at the top of your wishlist right now?
For the only time this year, I’m open to queries for just a brief time – until noon on August 12th. Generally, I’m closed because I have such a full list, but I can’t stand the idea of missing out on another incredible new author like you or Vaishnavi Patel or N.K. Jemisin, and so… I’d love to see a high-concept horror novel or thriller. A unique, immersive SF or epic fantasy or an unexpected retelling, like Vaishnavi Patel’s KAIKEYI, something I haven’t seen before. I’d also love a cozy fantasy or a romantic comedy with a great concept. (I’m reading one of the former now, and very excited about it!)
3. What is the one thing you are tired of seeing in queries, and what would make you pass on a good query?
We work through Query Manager, and I see too many queries dashed off like an e-mail to a friend, “Hey, here it is. Hope you like it!” This doesn’t tell me anything about the book, but it does say something about the aspiring author’s professionalism. It’s so important to treat a query letter like a cover letter for a job. Yes, the agent would work for you, but first, you have to get them invested!
4. What do you look for in a synopsis? In what order do you read the query package?
What I look for: I want to know who the main characters are and what’s at stake for them. I want the world to be vivid and present. Especially with SF or fantasy, what governs your world and makes it unique? What’s the big external conflict? What keeps the pages turning or the clock ticking? How do the stakes rise and the tensions escalate, how do things come to a head and how do they resolve? I need to make sure that the book will come to a satisfying conclusion.
Usually for me, I’ll glance at the synopsis to see where things are going, then read the pages. If they hook me, I’ll return to the synopsis to see if I’m on board with how things go on, and if so, I’ll ask for the complete. If not, but I love the pages, I might ask for clarification or to see whether the author would be open to revision if I find that I still have those concerns after reading. If I get the right answers, I’ll still ask for the complete.
5. What is your advice to writers in the querying trenches?
Work as hard on your query and synopsis as you do on your manuscript, since they and your opening pages are the agent’s first introduction to your work. Then work as hard on the rest of your manuscript as you do on that opening chapter. Get critiques, whether they’re from a critique group or partner or you work with a professional developmental editor. You will be too close to your work to see everything that needs to be done. You will know what you meant to say. Someone else will be able to tell you whether it came across.
But my most important advice is to persevere. At the query stage, it’s expected that you’ll send out multiple queries. I’d suggest that you do so, because it will take a while to hear back, and ours is a subjective business. There can be any number of reasons for rejection, from a similarity to another book on their list to it just didn’t hit that agent right. It only takes one person to love and champion your book. You might get discouraged when those rejections come and not keep querying. ( You have to keep querying!!!)
I promise you, in my 29 years in the business, I’ve never sent out a submission that hasn’t garnered rejections. Not even my bestsellers. No books, no author has gotten where they are without receiving more rejections than acceptances. They’re a badge of honor. They mean you’re trying. You’re believing in yourself. You’re working toward your own success.
6. Your client list includes many diverse authors. Could you comment on what kinds of diverse stories appeal to you?
I love stories that bring other places, other cultures alive. For instance, your thriller, THE BLUE BAR is stunning in the way that the sights and scents and sounds of Mumbai are so vivid that I’m there, running with Tara through that train station in her blue sequined sari and the heels that pinch with her three minutes to escape or else… Who can resist discovering or else what? Certainly not me.
Which brings me to deep POV. I love characters who are so real that you’re not hearing their story, you’re living it, breathing it. Your heart is pounding because their heart is pounding. Like KAIKEYI, the title character in Vaishnavi Patel’s brilliant retelling of the vilified queen’s story from the Ramayana. Oh, how you feel for her!
There are so many others. Alyssa Cole can make you laugh with her rom coms and stop your breath with her thriller WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING.
N.K. Jemisin creates entire unique, intricate worlds with her award-winning fantasy novels that absolutely blow me away. The Broken Earth series won back to back to back Hugo Awards with a Nebula Award thrown in for good measure, but I’ll admit that I’m especially partial to a few of the characters from her Inheritance Trilogy.
Aparna Verma made a splash self-publishing her wonderful epic THE BOY WITH FIRE, pitched as Dune meets The Poppy War, and promoting it via TikTok and elsewhere, and I had to compete with other agents for the privilege of representing it! Orbit pre-empted to keep us from going out with it and will now repackage and publish this first novel and the sequels through their imprint.
I could go on and on, but what each author, each story has is a universality that speaks to all of us. Whether it’s fighting a system or surviving a cataclysm or solving a series of murders or falling in love, there’s something deeply personal with which we can all identify. So while we might get a glimpse of another culture or see into another city to which we’ve never been, every story is about the people in it, and I think it’s important to put people in others’ shoes, so that there’s no them, there’s only us. There’s a part of me that wants to believe that if people just traveled more widely, read more widely, their empathy and understanding would broaden with their horizons.
7. What are the dos and don’ts of pitching to an agent at a conference? Will you be at any upcoming writers’ events, festivals, or conferences where writers are able to meet/ pitch you?
Be pleasant and professional. In general, only pitch to agents in the scheduled pitch sessions unless they ask what your book is about, inviting you to tell them. Or, if it’s appropriate, possibly sitting next to them at a convention-sponsored lunch, ask if you can tell them and honor their answer.
I was at Superstars Writing Seminars, Futurescapes (virtual), and Pikes Peak Writers Conference this year, but I don’t have any more coming up for the foreseeable future. You can follow me on Twitter @luciennediver, where I always post about upcoming events!
8. Do you participate in twitter pitch parties, and has it led to signing with a client?
I don’t at the moment because I have such a full list, but I know that some of us at The Knight Agency do when we have the time! (And you can find out who at TKA is open to queries at the moment here.) A few of my clients are former PitchWars mentees.
9. Could you describe your agenting philosophy? Are you an editorial agent?
My agenting philosophy in four words: SELL ALL THE THINGS!
Seriously, I love books that contribute to the conversation, and I want to sell the books that I represent, because a) I love them, b) I think they have something to say, c) otherwise, I feel that I’ve failed to deliver on the implied promise I made by taking on the author. Yes, I’m an editorial agent, because I think there is too much competition out there right now not to make the book the very strongest it can be before it gets to an editor. I don’t want to give an editor or their second or third reader any reason for rejection if I can anticipate it in advance and help the author overcome that obstacle.
10. What qualities do you look for in a prospective client, other than a good story and writing? What would be a deal-breaker?
I look for someone who’s easy to work with, takes editorial suggestions, works well on revisions. I like someone who is a go-getter as well, because there’s some self-promotion involved these days, and no one can promote your book like you. Most deal-breakers I can spot before I get to the point of offering representation, like bigotry, which is absolutely right out. Others, like big egos or badmouthing/blaming others or unrealistic expectations that won’t get reined in sometimes don’t come out until you talk.
11. You’re an author as well as an agent. How do you balance the two careers? Where can we find out more about your books?
I’ve been writing since I was eleven, well before I was an agent, though I certainly wasn’t publishable then! The trick is that I write first thing in the morning before my inner agent comes on-line and starts running her mental schedule of all the things she has to do today and all the letters she has to write to editors, etc. Also, before she can be critical and mess up my creative flow. So, my day goes: wake up at 5:15 so that I’m walking with my girlfriends by 6 am (4 miles every day). Home by 7:15 and into my writing room, where I work until around 9. Into the office as soon as agent-me clocks in, generally by 9:15/9:30. Work until 5:30 or whenever. (It’s a home office, and so…)
In reality, agents (and editors) work nights and weekends as well, because you can’t get all of your office work and all of your reading done in a 9-5 (or 9:30 – 5:30) schedule.
I write the Vamped series for teens. My husband likes to describe it as “If Cordelia Chase from Buffy had become a vampire…” which always makes me laugh! I also write YA suspense: FAULTLINES, THE COUNTDOWN CLUB, and the latest, DISAPPEARED, in which two teens investigate the disappearance of their mother and the story their father tells about the night she went missing. For adults, I write the Olympians series of murder, myth and mayhem, which Long and Short Reviews described as “a clever mix of Janet Evanovich and Rick Riordan.” I can’t even imagine anything better! You can find out all about them on my website: www.luciennediver.com.
13. What are you reading right now? Which books from 2021-22 would you recommend?
Oh my goodness, I wish I had time to read more books I don’t represent. By the time I do get to read books, people have been talking about them for some time! Right now, I’m reading MOONFLOWER MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz. I’m only 26 pages in, but I’m very much enjoying it. It’s giving me Agatha Christie vibes, and how could I not pick up a book featuring a retired publisher who must solve a mystery involving a book she edited? Prior to that, I read LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS, a science fiction novel by Ryka Aoki, which I really enjoyed, and THE BOOK OF ACCIDENTS, a horror novel by Chuck Wendig (ditto). Loaded up on my Kindle next is BOOK LOVERS, a rom com by Emily Henry, which a friend tells me I have to read, because the main character sounds just like me. I read and loved the sample!
As you can see, I’m eclectic in my tastes. I love everything from rom coms to horror. People always ask me about my favorite genre, and I ask, “What day is it?” It’s really all about what I’m in the mood for.
Lucienne Diver joined The Knight Agency in 2008, after spending fifteen years at New York City’s prestigious Spectrum Literary Agency. With her sharp eye and gift for spotting original new voices, Lucienne is one of the most well-respected agents in the industry. A lifelong book addict, she graduated summa cum laude from the State University of New York at Potsdam with dual majors in English/writing and anthropology. Over the course of her dynamic career she has sold over a thousand titles to every major publisher, and has built a client list of more than forty authors spanning the commercial fiction genres, primarily in the areas of fantasy, science fiction, horror, women’s fiction, romance, mystery/suspense and young adult. Her authors have been honored with the Hugo, Nebula, Colorado Book and National Readers’ Choice Awards, and have appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.
Lucienne Diver is the author of the Vamped young adult series—think Clueless meets Buffy—and the Latter-Day Olympians urban fantasy series. She also writes young adult suspense: FAULTLINES, THE COUNTDOWN CLUB and DISAPPEARED. Her short stories have appeared in the KICKING IT anthology edited by Faith Hunter and Kalayna Price, the STRIP-MAULED and FANGS FOR THE MAMMARIES anthologies edited by Esther Friesner, and Faith Hunter’s Rogue Mage anthology, TRIBULATIONS. Her latest story, “The True Tale of Rumpelstiltskin” was released in March ‘22 in GRIMMER TALES, Volume One.
Have you ever pursued traditional publication? What was your experience with querying? Is querying agents easier or more difficult at the moment? Do you have questions for Lucienne Diver?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out soon with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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