Friday, February 22, 2013

Interview with Literary Agent Jennifer Udden

Today I'm excited to be interviewing literary agent Jennifer Udden of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She represents science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, and according to the DMLA website, she would love to find works that combine elements of all three.

Welcome to the YA Stands blog, Ms. Udden! We’re thrilled to have you here. Can you tell me how long you’ve been agenting, and what led you to being an agent?

I’ve been agenting since March of 2011 or thereabouts, though I first started working at the Maass Agency as an intern in 2010. Prior to working in publishing I worked in fundraising for a nonprofit off-Broadway theater company, running events such as their annual gala and patron nights with artists. I realized in summer 2010 that I wasn’t quite cut out for the development world, and quit without really having a backup plan. I gave myself a month to find a gig that would keep me in New York, or else it was back to Houston for me! I knew I wanted to work in a creative field—at the time, I thought I might go into film—but through friends (of friends of friends) I found out about the opening at the Maass Agency for an intern. I started as an intern at the DMLA in August of 2010 and was hired on full-time in December, and the rest is history!

Well, I’m definitely glad you heard about that internship! Besides having written a book you love, what makes you know an author is someone you just have to represent?

It’s a combination of the book they’ve already written, their openness to revision (if needed,) their enthusiasm for the process, and the ideas they have for future books. With almost every client I’ve signed I’ve done revision work on their novels before sending it out on submission with editors—even some of my clients who already had book deals in hand got an edit from me! I also always ask about plans for future projects, because I want to work with someone over the course of a long and interesting career.

Writers, take note! That’s some fantastic advice. What are you tired of seeing submitted right now? What would you love to see land in your inbox?

I see a lot of cookie-cutter paranormal YA in my inbox. Tortured boy or girl A hates school and meets equally tortured and also mysterious boy or girl B, who is a vampire/angel/witch/demon. That’s the sort of glib, surface-y answer. What I am truly most tired of seeing is writers querying long before their book is ready. “I’ve just finished” is a big red flag for me- that says that someone wrote THE END and immediately opened to look for an agent, without even proofreading their novel!

What are three things you love, and one thing you can’t stand?

I’ve been so busy lately that my hobbies have been pretty much set aside in favor of work, but that old standby “reading” has got to be #1 on my list of favorite things to do. I also love TV, especially sitcoms like Community, Parks & Recreation, and New Girl.

As far as professional interests, I’m really interested in how authors and agents are using (or not using) social media in their careers. I think it’s quite easy for authors to miss the point about social media- see my answer to the last question, below. At the same time, there are blogs and websites doing great work in bringing new voices to public knowledge, and I’ve discovered more fun writers on Tumblr than I think anywhere else. I also run a podcast with fellow literary agent Bridget Smith, called All My Best Friends are Books, launching in March of 2013.

That podcast sounds epic. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. What’s the most surprising thing about the publishing industry to you?

How much everything is changing, and yet how much everything is staying the same. Whether in an ebook original or a prestige hardcover, readers are out there, hungry for stories. The industry is having growing pains but at the end of the day, there will always be readers. Maybe I’m just an optimist!

What’s one thing you wish writers knew about signing with an agent?

I have to pick ONE thing? ;) I have to say that the clients I’ve signed have been pretty savvy about the process—I wish all writers did their research as much as mine before querying agents or getting a contract. Also, I wish that more writers were open to revision on their work!

Tell me about one work you’ve recently signed or sold. What made that project something you just had to have?

For each author I work with, usually there is something about the story they’ve told that is completely different from anything I’ve read before, no matter the genre. My first client wrote what on the surface would be a pretty straightforward mystery, but he set it in the 1920s, in an alternate-timeline St. Louis. With a psychic detective. (Awesome.) My most recently signed client wrote a steampunk fantasy that reads like a Gothic novel. My client Tracey Devlyn writes Regency romantic suspense—only her heroines aren’t wilting daisies, they’re passionate, committed, strong women who face danger with resilience. The second book in her Nexus series just came out. My client Emma Newman, whose debut novel Between Two Thorns comes out from Angry Robot Books next Tuesday, wrote the story of a guy who meets a girl from a hidden world of magic, living in modern-day England—only the magical world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And throughout everything, I want characters in the story whose fate I am caught up in, whose success I am rooting for, whose emotional journey moves me. Even if I can see that a book needs work—and my clients will tell you about my intense editing process!—if I see an ingenious twist on an old theme, or a character who I am totally on board with, it makes me get out my grabby hands at the manuscript.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

There’s a moment in the seminal film The Muppet Christmas Carol where Sam the Eagle tells young Scrooge to “Work hard, work long, and be constructive!” As silly as it may be to garner advice from an eagle puppet in 19th century academic garb, I think he has a point. An aspiring writer should work hard at their craft, should “work long” in the sense of sticking with it even when it seems like it’s not going to work—but I think it’s the last part that writers sometimes miss out on. To “be constructive” means to think more about the writing and the story than your twitter feed.

I recently attended a panel given by two agents and two authors—one of the agents, full disclosure, was my boss, and one of the authors is one of our clients. Over the course of the hour they each spoke about writing and the publishing process—from the point of view of the author and the agent—and about what makes a good book. Don Maass, my boss, spoke about what he thinks makes a book “work” where other books with similar themes might not. Janet Reid, uber-agent, talked about books keeping her from going into the office because she has to find out what happened. Jenny Milchman, whose debut novel Cover of Snow just came out, talked about writing eight books before this one found a home with a Big Six publisher. Emily Winslow Stark, whose second novel Start of Everything was just published, talked about finding freedom as a writer, releasing herself from fear through her early days writing poetry. At the end of all this discussion I was energized to get back to work, but it was time for questions from the audience—and the very first question was on how important social media is to an agent or publisher.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse! And the questions that followed—do I need to pay someone to write a proposal for a nonfiction project? What about autobiography?—were equally off the mark. It is not constructive for an author to think about their twitter feed more than their writing. It is not constructive for an aspiring writer to think about how they’re going to get published before they’ve even finished the book. I venture to guess that an author who is worrying aloud about their social media presence has a deeper fear, that there is something missing from their work that is keeping it from finding a home. I advise them to work on that first. Aspiring writers should aspire to write, and the business of writing is a bit of a long game. But if an aspiring writer with talent then works hard, works long, and is constructive about their craft, then I think they’ll have pretty good luck.

Insightful advice. Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Udden.  Readers, follow her on Twitter and check out the DMLA submission guidelines below.

How do you balance social media and writing? How do you "work long"? Share your thoughts!


  1. I do social media as long as it's fun. I write whether it's fun or not. That's how I know I've got my priorities straight.

  2. This was an excellent interview, by the way, very informative. The answers were really unique.

  3. I now have to query Jennifer just for calling a Muppet Christmas Carol a 'seminal film' :D

  4. Wow, that answer to the last question is just fantastic. And so needed, in my opinion. So glad to come across this interview!