Today it is my distinct pleasure to welcome literary agent and friend Ella Kennen to the blog! Ella is a junior agent at New York based Corvisiero Literary Agency. Congratulations!
NS Please tell us a bit about your literary journey to your recent appointment of agent at the Corvisiero Literary Agency.
EK I edited my first piece – one of my mom’s speeches – when I was about twelve, and I delighted in the turn-around: the chance to take a red pen to paper. But, editing was never my goal: I wanted to be a writer. I did all the typical things literary-minded kids do: I worked on the school lit mag, I entered (and sometimes won) contests, I inhaled books. In college, I added Writing Center tutor to my repertoire. But I heard it was too hard to break into fiction, so when I graduated I started focusing on nonfiction – small articles, for magazines, newspapers, and the web, and bigger pieces for trade magazines. And I made pretty decent money off of it… until I burned out. I didn’t write professionally for years. Then I had a daughter… and I started reading to her, and reading, and reading, until story ideas were oozing out of me. So I learned about kid lit, took a class, had some early successes – Appleseeds, Highlights, MeeGenius, etc. And then I joined a couple of critique groups. And that was pivotal. I was one of those people who had always enjoyed the idea of writing more than writing itself, but I LOVED critiquing. I didn’t have to wrangle a muse, or wait until I was in the mood. I just did it. The more I critiqued, the more I learned, and it made me want to become even better. So I read more, and critiqued more, and got some freelance gigs, and used that experience and skills to land an editorial position at an ebook publisher. But I didn’t have a say in what projects I worked with, so I started to look around to see what other options I might have. I landed an internship at the Corvisiero Agency in January of this year, then became an agent apprentice, and was recently promoted to Junior Agent.
NS As many of my readers are writers themselves, is there any advice you’d give them on the route to being published?
EK Write the type of projects you want to write. If you want to be a novelist, don’t start with short stories because you’ve heard you need credentials (you don’t!). If you want to write middle grade, don’t start with picture books because you’ve heard it’s easier (it’s not!). If you want to write picture books, don’t start with magazine articles – the word count is similar, but the pacing, the cadence, and the use of imagery are all very distinct. If you want to try your hand at an assortment of things, then by all means, do it, but otherwise it’s like taking up the violin because you want to be a tuba player.
-- You don’t have to write what you know, but you should write what you care about. Your passion will come through.
-- Writing is part rocket science and part alchemy. So many variables – a standout premise, distinct character development, realistic dialog, fast pacing, seamless worldbuilding, believable yet unexpected plot arcs, satisfying character arcs, fascinating subplots – have to come together just right for magic on the page to occur. It’s HARD. All those things don’t happen overnight, and you shouldn’t expect them to. Debut novelists aren’t novice writers – they are people who are now breaking through, and you can, too.
-- Read about your craft. Read, read, read. Publishing is a business, and there are good practices and bad practices. Most of the people we pass on get passed because of avoidable issues. Don’t be those people.
-- Join a critique group or two. It can be very hard to be objective about your own work, but it is so much easier to see a technique that’s been well or poorly carried out in someone else’s work. Seeing something done badly (and what is that something? It could be a host of things… which is why you read craft books to become aware of the issues) can bring about that “aha!” moment where you see why a rule exists and what happens when it’s poorly executed. And once you gain that awareness, it is easier to see how it applies to your own work.
-- Develop a thick skin. Yes, on the one hand, this is your baby that you’ve poured heart and soul and countless hours into, but it is not you. It is one attempt; you will have others.
-- Keep writing. Nothing distracts from the agony of waiting and the anguish of rejection than being excited about another project. And the only way to really get better at writing is to write.
NS What are you looking for in the slush pile at this particular time? Any happy surprises?
EK Surprises are exactly what I’m looking for. I get giddy whenever I see a project from a perspective I’ve never come across before. I love realistic novels that open the curtains to a world previously unknown to me – what it’s like to have cerebral palsy or to be a fire-eater. I love page-turning plots – I pick projects on their ability to make me lose sleep because I’m too busy reading. But it’s the characters that make me care about going on the journey or not.
I’m always on the lookout for great graphic novels (any age group, any genre) and page-turning nonfiction (any age group). I am also open to any genre of middle grade, young adult, new adult, and will consider picture books by invitation only.
NS You and I serve as judges of the marvelous Rate Your Story Organization. Are there any other groups to which you give your (limited) time?
EK Just to be clear, I am not an active judge at Rate Your Story anymore, though I do manage the blog there – and I often wish submissions I see in the slushpile had gone through RYS first! In the writing world: I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Children’s Book Academy, present at a regional SCBWI conference, and help with a Writer’s Digest workshop. I hope and plan to have more opportunities like that – I love interacting with authors and helping provide them with opportunities for professional growth.
In the nonwriting world (which I sometimes have to remind myself exists), I am on the board of my local homeschooling group and teach homeschool drama, and am special activities coordinator for my base’s spouses’ club, which sounds much more stuffy than it is – we’re talking craft club, movie outings, improv, triathlon training, etc. I don’t lead all those groups up – I just cajoled people into taking the reins!
NS How may people reach you to submit?
EK Writers can submit their query letter, 1-2 page synopsis, and first five pages of their completed manuscript to me at firstname.lastname@example.org Be sure to include my name on the subject line. Please note that we respond to EVERY submission, but do only submit one project to one agent at our agency at a time.
NS Ella, it has been such a pleasure having you visit the blog today. I know how very busy you are with homeschooling, agenting, and the myriad other responsibilities you assume. I want to wish you every success in your career at Corvisiero Literary Agency as junior agent!