“You have one chance to make a first impression. Focus on one project (not more than one at a time), the one you feel most passionately about, and execute on it to the best of your ability.
Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 24th Annual A&E Conference, taking place June 30 – July 2, 2017, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.
An Interview with Michelle Tessler
Michelle Tessler established her New York-based literary agency in 2004. She represents a select number of best-selling and emerging authors both in fiction and nonfiction. Clients include accomplished journalists, scientists, academics, experts in their field, as well as novelists and debut authors with unique voices and stories to tell. She values fresh, original writing that has a compelling point of view. She loves discovering new writers who can draft a character-driven story that has narrative drive. She represents, among many others, Hala Alyan, Paul Collins, Frans de Waal, Mira Jacob, Amy Steward, and Amanda Eyre Ward. She is a member of the Association of Author’s Representatives and Women’s Media Group.
Michelle Tessler: First, I work with the author editorially to get the manuscript in the best shape possible before submission, identifying what I see working and not working. Is the structure sound? If not, how might it be reworked? Is there narrative drive to the story? Do the characters ring true? Does it have good pacing, lively dialogue?
Once the material is in the best shape possible, I submit to editors and share responses if the author wants to see them; some do, others don’t. If possible, before a sale I try to put an author on the phone with interested editors. Because fiction and memoir is so subjective, it’s important that everyone has a shared vision for the book.
I typically retain foreign audio rights and get to work on those, post-sale, and help navigate the author through the launch of the book vis-à-vis cover design, catalogue copy, and marketing/publicity plans.
Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?
MT: Voice. It’s extremely hard to find something that feels fresh and new, and so much comes down to voice. Originality also matters, as does pacing, plot, and character development.
Scribe: Do you think social media presence is critical for a successful writing career?
MT: I think it can be helpful to be aware of online avenues that can be used to promote a book, but social media isn’t always crucial. Knowing how else you might engage readers, via author Q&As, Skype book club appearances, other online groups that might be your target audience, is often more important than a Twitter or Facebook presence. Sometimes social media can help target this community, but not always.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
MT: Put your best foot forward. In many ways this means thinking like both an editor and a publicist. How would you write the jacket copy for your book, what is the elevator pitch, and is it the best that is can be editorially? Don’t venture out to find an agent or publisher until you feel confident you have all these things covered. You have one chance to make a first impression. Focus on one project (not more than one at a time), the one you feel most passionately about, and execute on it to the best of your ability.
Scribe: Are there any recent or upcoming releases that you’d like to highlight, to give readers a better sense of what you’re currently looking for?
MT: Amanda Eyre Ward is a novelist who is both literary and commercial. Her latest novel, The Nearness of You, is a plot-driven exploration of what motherhood means to us. Her character and voice-driven novels are always engaging, emotional, and usually have a surprising twist.
Hala Alyan is a debut novelist of a multi-generational book called Salt Houses. It tells the story of a Palestinian family caught between present and past, between displacement and home. Alyan is a poet as well as a novelist and the language and writing is very vivid and lyrical. While this is more internal than plot-driven (although there is plot as well), the characters and their relationship to each other and to the history they share is remarkably compelling.
Amy Stewart is a bestselling non-fiction and fiction author whose third installment in a series based on the remarkable true story of three sister in the 1910s publishes in September. The series includes Girl Waits with Gun, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, and the forthcoming Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. It has been interesting to work on a series and see how Stewart works to build narrative drive within each book, while also leaving readers hungry for a new installment. How she plays with point of view, deviates and remains faithful to the historical time period, and handles character development has been wonderful to watch.
Click here for more information on the 2017 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 30-July 2) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.