Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Query Questions with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

Note: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock has left agenting. 

Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It's what makes their stories so fantastic. But there's a darker side to so much out of the box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They start pulling out their hair and imagine every possible disaster.


Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a new series of posts called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites like Agent Query Connect. They are the type of questions that you need answers for the real expert--agents!

If you have your own specific query question, please leave it in the comments and it might show up in future editions of Query Questions as I plan to rotate the questions.

Today we have more from Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency. It's Jennifer Johnson-Blalock's turn to tell us about her query slush. You can find a more specific list of her wants on the agency website.

I s there a better or worse time of year to query?
I'll consider your query seriously no matter when you send it, but the holidays aren't ideal. Publishing tends to shut down completely from just before Christmas through early January. 

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?

Not necessarily. I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice, though, and I take it into consideration along with everything else. But it wouldn't keep me from taking a look at something if I loved the concept and the query was strong overall.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?

I prefer to see just the query first. If I like that, I'll request part or all of the manuscript. 
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?

It's all me! I'm building my list, so I look at queries very closely.
Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?

I do. I tend to go through queries very quickly and reject the ones that definitely won't work for me (a genre I don't represent, a screenplay, a word count that's way off) and then look again at the ones that remain a bit more slowly. It's actually rare that I look at a query and instantaneously know that I want to see more.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
Yes, definitely--that would be the first thing an editor reads when it goes out on submission; I want to get the same experience. And if you choose to have a prologue, it should be important enough that you'd want to include it.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?
I love comp titles! I've certainly requested from queries that don't include them, but they give me a great sense of how you think about your work and how well-read you are in the genre. They should be as specific as possible, though--ideally not the most famous work.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

The manuscript is the most important part, but I like the chit-chat as long as it's authentic. Knowing why you approached me will help me better understand how you see your work.

Most agents have said they don’t care whether the word count/genre sentence comes first or last. But is it a red flag if one component is not included?

It is. I won't automatically reject a query if it's not included, but I'll wonder why it isn't there. And--this is just a personal preference, by no means a requirement--I actually like to see the information at the top of the query so I can get myself in the right frame of mind.
Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?

For nonfiction clients, an online presence is close to essential. For fiction clients, it's a little less important, but it helps. I almost always look for a writer's Twitter; a significant following or particularly interesting commentary can definitely tip the scales. I'd never require a writer to be on social media, but I would encourage it and help them get started.
If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?

Only if material was requested, and only if the changes are significant. Though I certainly understand the impulse, there's no need to resend if you've just cleaned it up a bit. 

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

Just the basics--where you live, what you do, if you're involved in any writing organizations or groups. The bio isn't really decisive for me if it isn't relevant to the work, but it's nice to start getting a sense of who you are.
What themes are you sick of seeing?

I know for a fact there are agents who feel differently on this one, but I personally am not drawn to books (particularly thrillers) with a World War II connection. They crop up frequently.

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?

Absolutely. The publishing industry is only getting more competitive as time goes on, and I want the manuscript to be in the best shape possible before we send it out. The exact scope of the editing will depend on the book, though; every project is different.
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?

- a liberal/progressive political nonfiction work from a journalist or someone with experience in Washington
- a work--fiction or nonfiction--from someone with a feminist writing platform
- a dark psychological thriller with a female protagonist
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 

It's always hard to narrow these things down! I've stuck to contemporary works and tried to categorize to make this useful. I've also kept it to things I'd like to see in my query inbox--I love Jeffrey Eugenides, but I don't do literary fiction, for instance. With those caveats in mind, here are some favorites:

- Smart women's fiction with big ideas like J. Courtney Sullivan's COMMENCEMENT, insanely lovable characters like Marisa de los Santos' LOVE WALKED IN, or push back on accepted tropes like Emily Giffin's books. The movie version of this would probably be my perennial feel-good film, YOU'VE GOT MAIL. Though they vary in tone, I'd also put SEX AND THE CITY, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY (the movie more so than the book), and MERMAIDS in this category. Despite the male protagonist, UP IN THE AIR probably goes here, too.

- Anything with quippy, quotable dialogue: GILMORE GIRLS, all Aaron Sorkin, classic romantic comedies (think Hepburn-Tracy), and on the darker side, films like CLOSER.

- Contemporary YA that leaves me feeling exhilarated about life like Nina LaCour, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, and Megan McCafferty. On the movie side, this is going to date me, but CLUELESS, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, EMPIRE RECORDS, and (here's something from the last decade) EASY A are all fantastic.

- The dark and twisty: Gillian Flynn and Tana French. BLACK SWAN, DEXTER, HOUSE OF CARDS, SCREAM--lots of variation in there, but I like things that mess with your mind or have an unexpected note (like humor in a horror movie or rooting for a serial killer).

- Finally, a random but too large to be ignored category--I have a soft spot for all things dance-related. The afore-mentioned BLACK SWAN, but also CENTER STAGE, DANCE ACADEMY, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, some very obscure books like the Scottish Sadler's Wells series, ASTONISH ME--if it has dance in it, particularly ballet, I will read or watch it. 


Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent's assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate.

Jennifer is focusing on nonfiction. She is looking for seasoned writers with strong platforms and is excited by narrative nonfiction and memoirs that use a unique story to explore a larger issue. Particular areas of interest include current events, social sciences, women's issues, law, business, history, the arts and pop culture, lifestyle, sports, and food, including cookbooks and health/wellness.

Jennifer is also seeking upmarket commercial fiction, especially thrillers, and is pleased to work with clients who write both fiction and nonfiction.

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