Readings at Writers’ House

One of Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful illustrations for God Got A Dog, a book that originated out of a set of poems called God Went To Beauty School.

I work as an intern at Writers’ House, a literary agency based out of New York with branches in London and right here in La Jolla. I work under a wonderful literary agent, Steven Malk, who represents children’s, middle-grade and young adult literature. That includes a host of beautiful picture books by well-known authors and illustrators such as Marla Frazee, Drew Daywalt, and Nikki McClure. The above illustration is from perhaps one of my favorite books that Mr. Malk has represented, God Got A Dog by Cynthia Rylant.

Nikki McClure’s papercuts.

I’ve learned so much in the time that I have been a part of Writers’ House. An agent is responsible for a lot of the communication between writer and publisher, or even writer and illustrator if the work is a dual project. They also make sure the work is as good as it can be before sending it off to a publisher, through close and frequent communication with their clients and through constant revision and restructuring. Agents build strong interpersonal relationships and advocate for their authors, and it is their job to know which editors and publishers are looking for what sort of work. Agented books are much more likely to be picked up by a publisher than non-agented books.

The cover of The Day The Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt.

It is important for an agent to have strong reading and editing skills, and to be able to spot the good qualities of a manuscript quickly, and to have a strong background in the discipline itself. As an intern, I read manuscripts and write reader’s reports, which include explanations of the aspects of the work that a reader likes and does not dislike; specific page notes demonstrating these qualities; and an ultimate assessment of whether or not the project is worth pursuing. They also include helpful comparisons of similar published novels in the industry to judge the manuscript’s marketability and originality as it compares to current trends and classics. In each reader’s report, I find myself drawing upon the critical and analytical skills that I have gleaned from my fiction writing and English literature classes. It’s exciting to be able to put these skills into practice in the industry that I want to go into, whether as an agent, and editor, or an author.

One of Jon Klaassen’s spare, striking illustrations for Sara Pennypacker’s middle-grade novel Pax.

I’ve also glimpsed how much work goes into just one project. When I started at Writers’ House, I was given a wonderful young-adult manuscript to read. That first report that I wrote went into an editorial letter giving feedback to the author, who submitted another draft to the agency a couple months later. That process continued, and almost ten months later I have read four iterations of this same story, pinpointing what works or doesn’t in each draft and getting a sense of how it changes over time.

One of Jen Adams’ wonderful “primers”, board books that introduce children and young babies to classic works in both English and other languages.

Now that I am familiar with the work, I can remember what I loved about that first draft and see how it has carried over to the present form, even as the plot has changed. With this macroscopic view, it’s so interesting to see how all the separate threads in a story can work together as a whole to create something that- we hope- will one day be a published novel. It’s this process of constant revision that helps the literary agent work with an author’s vision for a novel. Their expertise helps that vision become a reality.

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