Q&A with Linda Pratt
What kind of manuscripts do you typically like or not like?
—A broad description of my likes are: stories that explore other cultures; fish-out-of-water stories; larger-than-life supporting characters who contrast with the protagonist; smart and witty dialogue; historical fiction where the stakes for the protagonist are palpable and have a sense of urgency; elements of magical realism; and above all else, emotional truth in all stories. I love encountering the unexpected on the page, as long as it is done in a way that makes sense for the character(s). Quirky, odd, or unpredictable simply for the sake of being so tends not to work for me: it has to fit within the character’s personality or the context of the story.
—The kinds of stories that are probably not the best match for me are: stories in all genres that are written to convey an overt lesson to the reader; high fantasy; the now well-trod plot lines involving love among vampires, werewolves, and the like (unless of course, it offers a fresh and unique point of view); and “listy” picture books (i.e. those where there is no story arc created for the series of events or hypothetical situations being posed).
What makes for a healthy, productive relationship between you and your authors and illustrators?
For me, the ingredients are:
—Trust: it’s important that both parties enter the relationship with a mutual feeling of trust. Without that, the relationship seems almost doomed to fail.
—A shared fondness: both parties should like one another. I don’t mean there needs be a presumption of becoming “best friends,” but there should be an overall feeling of liking one another, because if a sticky situation should arise (which in a long-term relationship is a possibility), it is easier to successfully navigate if there’s an underlying fondness for the other party.
—Flexibility: no career trajectory, industry, or relationship is static, so it’s important for both parties to have the ability to be flexible as an author’s/illustrator’s goals and needs change and the market for children’s books evolves.
What are your particular preferences or pet peeves regarding submissions? Is there anything that might make a query irresistible to you?
—I do want to see a true cover letter. Some “cover letters” are presented almost as a completed fill in the blank application; e.g. “synopsis: (complete in this space), bio: (complete in this space),” etc.; or a cut-and-paste from our submission guidelines with responses next to the things we ask to be included. As a writer, the cover letter is your first introduction to an agent, and it makes sense to show that you can compose a compelling letter. It’s hard not to become skeptical about a submission if it appears that little thought has been given to its presentation. A cover letter is your “book jacket” for the agent — and a book, as we know, is judged by its cover.
—I like the work to be described: i.e., is it a YA fantasy, middle-grade historical fiction, young picture book? what’s the target age group? word count?. Be sure that this accurately reflects the standards for the genre, though. For example, if you’ve written a middle-grade novel for ages 10-12; perfect! But if it’s a novel for all ages, or it could be a middle-grade or YA, or it’s a picture book for 5- to 8-year-olds, these are signals that you’re not clear on the market for your book, and the work itself is likely ambiguous, as well.
—I’m most responsive to a concise pitch that sets up the stakes of the work, leaving enough unanswered questions to whet my appetite. If it takes a long time to encapsulate the essence of your work in the letter, it’s likely that it will take a long time for the novel and/or picture book to unfold as well. It’s important to be able to define the guts of your story succinctly. The query/cover letter shouldn’t say everything that happens. A synopsis can do that. A query letter should function like good flap copy.
—Show something that indicates that you are committed to your craft. Credentials are good, but if you’re a newer writer without credentials, that’s OK, too. Almost every agent has taken on at least one client with no publishing history prior to representation. Why shouldn’t you think it could be you? What can you tell us about yourself that lets us know that you didn’t “just get this idea one day,” but rather are the kind of writer who, if this book doesn’t sell, will write another and another because you have no choice? That kind of dedication is what you want to get across.
—Avoid saying “I’m new and I don’t know anything yet.” There is so much information available online to help beginners decipher the submission process. It is in the aspiring author’s or illustrator’s best interest to spend a little time learning the ropes before you start sending their material out. It’ll serve you well and is always appreciated by the recipient, too.
What excites you about the industry at present?
—For some, publishing has always been considered a stodgy profession. The business model ostensibly remained the same for a half century and survived. Evidence, I think, that story will never die! However, in the last several years, there’s been this exciting elasticity in the tried-and-true way of conveying stories, and in the audience who ultimately reads them. Of course, electronic publishing has been a monumental change, but beyond the technology boom, there’s also been a psychological shift regarding the creation of children’s books. Take Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal for THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, a 544-page illustrated novel. Or the more mainstream acceptance of the graphic novel as a legitimate form of storytelling, e.g. David Small’s STITCHES. Or the crossover market for young adult fiction, the examples of which are too many to name. Children’s books are being embraced in different ways, in different formats, and by different audiences than they were 10 years ago. While categories certainly still exist, the lines separating them have become more blurred in recent years, opening many interesting creative possibilities.
Can you share some of your favorites to give a fuller picture of your range of tastes and interests?
—Movies HARVEY (love a character who might be judged as simple or crazy that turns out to be wiser than everyone else, in the end), REALITY BITES (great depiction of the confusion inherent in transitioning out of school), HOOSIERS (a big fan of damaged characters who triumph, especially in a sports story), ALL ABOUT EVE (characters who turn out to be quite different than you initially think – both in good and bad ways: Margo and Eve, gotta like that), THE PRINCESS BRIDE (great, quotable dialogue, rides the line of irreverent goofiness perfectly), CHOCOLAT (my kind of magic realism; romantic and poignant: a bit of regret, a bit of forgiveness with an openness to change that ultimately leads to contentment), and CITY ISLAND (it rings so true to me on every level; helps I’m related to an Andy Garcia-like character; yes, I’m serious).
—Television I LOVE LUCY (is there any better example of how to up the stakes?, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy) , MY SO-CALLED LIFE (nails the issues and dialogue of both the teen in transition, as well as their parents), THE WIRE (a modern Dickensian novel in 5 seasons), DEADWOOD (the moral compass rests with the most unlikely of characters through the most unlikely of alliances), WONDERFALLS (great premise that delivers; funny, quirky and definitely original), and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (Texas high school football! it really is that big).
—Books TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee (for the definition of “show, don’t tell,” read Scout’s conversation with Mr. Cunningham on the jailhouse steps, page 175-176; perfection!), FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen (one of the best “first” love stories ever; makes my stomach do flip flops), DADDY LONG-LEGS by Jean Webster (made me feel so grown up and sophisticated at 11; my dad bought my copy at a secondhand book sale, complete with stills from the silent movie version starring Mary Pickford), THE CANNING SEASON by Polly Horvath (I love quirky characters), FAREWELL by Horton Foote (real life quirky characters? Even better), BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott (am forever recommending this to any writer or aspiring writer who hasn’t already found it on their own), THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr (vivid historical fiction with great character relationships that unfolds as an “on the edge of your seat” mystery/thriller; would love to come across a YA that strikes this chord), and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (Cliché, I know. Two hundred years later, Mr. Darcy still has it; what can I say?).
—Painting/Sculpture Alexander Calder’s CIRCUS (saw this on a school trip to “the City” (NYC) when I was about 10. It was so different from what I had seen of “art” to that point. I felt as if Calder — who was obviously important and serious enough to adults to be in a museum — was speaking directly to me as a child. That never happened to me with an artist outside of children’s books before).
—What’s on your iPod? Sons of Leon, Gary Clark Jr. (he’s from Austin and plays the blues, what’s not to love?), Shakey Graves, Valerie June, Tedecschi Trucks Band, The Punch Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine, Annie Lennox, Joan Osbourne, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, John Hiatt, Tom Waits (I like the storytellers and music that makes my feet move).