Agent Interview: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

I recently had the chance to interview agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of the Liza Dawson about recent trends in Women’s Fiction. She’s such a thoughtful, professional presence in the publishing world, and I truly appreciate the time she took to answer my questions. (To the Shelves questions are bold and italicized)

TTS: The buzz is that agents are looking for slightly more serious WF that tackles big issues — is this correct? Which issues seem to be the ones garnering the most interest?

Yes and no. I’m certainly looking for slightly more serious WF at the moment, but that’s primarily because my list is skewed towards the more fun/commercial. I think it’s still a mix, as it’s always been. There are people who are looking for weighty matters, and there are those who are looking for more fun escapism. Many, including myself, are open to both, and I’ve had different editors recently tell me they’re looking for one or the other, so there are certainly places to submit both.

Whether serious or light, I think there are many agents looking for diversity, in the broadest sense of the word. There’s been almost a mandate for it in YA, and there are an increasing number of agents and editors who would like more diverse WF offerings as well.

TTS: How much influence has our current political situation had on what agents/editors are looking for?

That’s a tough question. It’s certainly influencing us, but I don’t think it’s doing so in one universal way–this ties into my answer above. In the last couple weeks, one editor told me she’s really only looking for books that are politically engaged in some way. But another editor told me she thinks really lighthearted, fun, commercial books will experience an upswing because of what’s happening politically. And it’s difficult to be too on the nose in publishing since books are typically scheduled 18 months out. So my best advice is to write what you need to right now, and there will probably be an agent looking for it–though it might not be the same agent who was looking for it in October.

TTS: What are the big picture trends in publishing WF , and what are  WF editors looking for?

I’ve heard an increasing number of editors looking for WF (particularly in a debut) that’s high concept or has a really strong hook–something with a premise that will get people excited and allow the editor to break it out in hardcover on a crowded list. (THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Leigh Himes is an example of high concept WF.) Diversity, as I mentioned above. Several editors have asked recently for historical upmarket WF (think Paula McClain). I still know editors who are looking for suspenseful WF, but I think that trend is waning.

TTS: How long does it typically take WF editors to make an offer?

I’d say a few months is probably average, but it varies. (This is probably the second toughest common question for an agent, after “how big will my advance be?”.) I got an offer in two weeks at the end of 2016–that was unusual, but it happens. And then you hear the stories of a book selling after six months, or even a year.

TTS: How much of a market is there for romance/WF crossovers?

I don’t think there are many true crossovers. I have a couple clients whose books started as contemporary romance, and by the time I saw them, they were edging into WF, and one of the things I did editorially was to push them more definitively in the WF direction, namely by developing the non-romance portions of the plot. I think of it as a continuum, with contemporary romance on one end of the spectrum and literary at the other end. The line between commercial and upmarket WF is pretty blurry. But for publishers, there’s a more clear demarcation between romance and WF–it’s oftentimes different editors, digital only vs. trade paperback deals, different contractual elements. There is certainly commercial WF with a strong romance at its center, but that typically doesn’t follow the usual conventions (alternating third-person POV, for instance) of contemporary romance. Generally, the easier it is for publishers to categorize your book, the easier it will be to sell.

TTS: What WF writers do you like?

My perennial favorites are Emily Giffin, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Marisa de los Santos. Recent WF I read and loved includes THE HATING GAME (which is probably the best example of a successful romance/WF crossover), COME AWAY WITH ME, and THE REGULARS.

TTS: Finally, is there anything I didn’t ask but you think would be interesting for WF writers to know?

I mentioned the word “diversity” a few times here, so I want to expand on that briefly. There was recently an Open Call for Muslim Writers that many agents participated in, and I know of at least one agent-client match that came from that. When I say I’m looking for diverse books, I mean that in the broadest way possible–diversity of race, religion, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status… But with WF in particular, I’m also on the hunt for a diversity of female experiences. For instance, the dating landscape has changed so much in the last decade. And I know a significant number of women just in my own life who are choosing not to have children. I’m always on the hunt for books about women making different choices or leading atypical lives.

Thanks again so much for your time! 

ABOUT JENNIFER:

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.

If you’re interested in querying Ms. Johnson-Blalock, please check her agency’s website for up to date submission directions: www.lizadawsonassociates.com

Developing Complicated Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aroldis Chapman. For those of you who don’t know, he’s the star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Most believe he’s the reason the Cubs won the World Series this year. Watching him pitch is thrilling. I mean, he throws a 105 mph ball. His strikeout record is through the roof. Gifted athlete.

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And yet also, there’s this: Chapman was suspended for 30 games last summer. Because he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired shots at the garage door during an argument. Abusive partner. Moreover, in an interview with the New York Times, he maintained he’d done nothing wrong.

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What does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Because readers connect to flawed characters like Aroldis Chapman. Sometimes it’s because of the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. Better you than me, pal.

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‘You’re loving this, aren’t you?’

Other times it’s feeling sorry for someone who’s down on his or her bad luck. Or cringing at the train wreck of someone’s bad behavior. But mostly it’s because we want to root for people. Why else do we (or maybe it’s just me!) talk to the characters in our books or on the television? “Don’t go in the water! The shark is there!”

We like to root for people because of course, we’ve all made regrettable choices too. And we all hope to be loved and appreciated anyway, in the hopes we’ll do better next time. Real people are complicated, messy, layered, fragile. They lie. They lie again to cover the other lies. Their choices are motivated by ego, pride, selfishness, the secrets they keep, mistakes they’re trying to rectify, people they’re trying to protect, however inexpertly.

For example, Han Solo. Because everyone needs a little Han Solo in their day.

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At first, Han was motivated by the need to pay off the debt he’d been ducking. His choice to ferry Luke and Obi Wan is what launches the rest of the story — and it’s definitely not rooted in nobility or heroism, even though ultimately he becomes both of those things.

I’m a plotter, so I’m going to tell you the best way to craft strong, compelling, therefore flawed characters, is to plan them before you write them.

As you plan, remember that important or transformational moments in your book should result as often as possible from choices your character makes. And those choices should not always be “the right choice.” When they flow naturally from who your character is, they won’t always be smart. But they’ll be true to your character. And fixing those mistakes will be part of your character’s arc.

My system for programming these choices isn’t elegant, but it works for me. First, I sketch my character(s), using all the best advice to help me develop who they are. Goals, motivations, habits, weaknesses, tics, backstory. What they want and how they change.

Then, as I put together my beat sheet, I sketch each plot point with a choice. And the choices don’t always have to be major – that would be exhausting to read. Even minor choices keep us moving forward.

For example, Walter White.

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The first choice he made, which launched his story of a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, was based on love. He was dying of cancer and wanted to ensure his family’s security after he was gone. Heartstrings.

But along the way, as he evolved into a far less sympathetic character motivated by power, he made little, off-the-top-of-his-head choices too – like calling himself “Heisenberg” – that ultimately became part of his legend.

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Whenever you find your characters reacting, ask yourself, is there a way to make this action a result of a choice? Sometimes the answer is no – totally. Like, a volcano buries their hometown, and a family must rebuild. Or, a civil war erupts and your character must flee. Or fight. But all that comes next must be rooted in choice, so that we can keep rooting for your character.

I’m curious to know if you’ve come up with other ways to ensure your characters are flawed and realistic? How do you plan for their failures and choices?

On Poinsettias, Faith, and Writing

Among my very favorite stories of the holiday season is a book about faith: The Legend of the Poinsettia.

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This retelling of an old Mexican folk tale, by Tomie dePaola, is simply lovely. It’s the story of Lucida, a young girl helping her mother weave a new blanket for the Baby Jesus, to be used at the Christmas Eve procession for their church.

When her mother falls ill, Lucida tries to finish the blanket by herself, but the threads get hopelessly tangled. She is bereft, certain she has failed the Baby Jesus now that she has nothing to offer him. On Christmas Eve, she lingers outside the church, afraid to show her face. She meets an old woman who assures her that “any gift is beautiful because it is given. Whatever you give, the Baby Jesus will love because it comes from you.”

Lucida looks around her and sees nothing but a bunch of green weeds. She gathers them up, goes into the church, and places them at the manger.

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Where they transform into the glowing red stars we know today as the poinsettia, also known as la Flor de Nochebuena.

I read this book to my children every year – and every year, the first time I read it, my heart fills with joy, and I can’t keep from crying.

I offer it to you this holiday season because I believe there’s a message of hope in it for everyone, and certainly for writers. (And also because if you need a good cry, this will do the trick.)

We often get down on ourselves along our paths to publication. Whether we’re unagented and in the query trenches or agented and on sub or sold our debut novel and waiting to see whether people will buy the book, it happens. And also when we’re waiting to see whether reviewers will love us. Or whether we’ll sell another book.

In the depths of our worry, our own words can seem like weeds to us, ugly and without value.

But in the spirit of the season and our own inner peace, I urge us all to remember that in fact our words do have value. They are gifts, which we give to the world with love. Whether we write space operas or historical romances, noir crime, contemporary, or tween detectives, we dig deep within our souls to find our stories. We find the courage to keep doing it over and over again because we have faith. Some of us have faith in a higher power. All of us have, at some level, faith in the power of story to heal, build and create.

In this uncertain time, on the cusp of a new year, my wish for all of you is la Flor de Nochebuena. The miracle of love, peace and good will, courage, faith, joy, and stories.

A Word About Trolls

I’m going to get personal. Which is not something I do comfortably, but sadly, it’s a good jumping off point for my post today.

I just had a terrible fight with my husband. And the reason I’m telling you about it is that what we were fighting about is what I’m seeing all over social media right now, most recently and virulently on Twitter.

Here’s why my husband and I fought: he said something tone deaf and I called him on it. (He’s white, I’m brown, it happens.) But instead of hearing me on why his words struck a bad note, he defended himself and then got mad at how it was too hard to say anything today without fear of recrimination.

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We talked it out, we’re okay, and he understands why I took offense. Truly understands.

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But had this happened on Twitter? The trolls would have come out. Defending my white husband – even when he himself no longer believed what he said was defensible. Terrorizing, excoriating me, the brown woman, for calling him on the carpet. There may even have been death threats.

Author Laura Silverman got them last week. And I won’t repost them here because they’re gut wrenchingly terrible, and I won’t disseminate the hatred.

But they were awful, awful volleys of hate, and they gathered steam even after people stopped engaging the trolls who posted them.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, writer AC Thomas drew terrible heat – from members of the writing community! – in the fallout from her genuine bid to gather support for diversity.

My god, people. What are we doing?

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These conversations are hard and scary enough already. Because – giving everyone the absolute benefit of the doubt – many caring people (not the trolls) say things that come off poorly or ask obtuse-sounding questions because they truly don’t know the answers. Not because they’re trying to hurt people – more often, it’s just a symptom of learning. And even allies make tone-deaf mistakes. It’s not a perfect world and none of us gets it right 100% of the time.

If only we had an edit function on Twitter. But we don’t, and we mess up. And if we were in a safe space, having hard conversations in productive ways designed to help all of us see each other’s worlds more clearly and sensitively, messing up would be a good starting place for a constructive conversation.

But it’s not.

Because the trolls come. Out of the woodwork. And when they do come out, it’s with a maniacal defiance and vengeance. And then we no longer have an honest conversation with people helping each other navigate scary, tricky, painful waters. We have hate pile-ons from the most vicious, hateful members of society hiding behind the safety of a Twitter handle, setting fire to the world because they can.

Innocent authors like Laura Silverman and AC Thomas are forced to protect their tweets and hide. Which can hurt their brand, sales, and souls.

Silverman wrote about her ordeal in this recent piece for the Huffington Post – where she quoted recently deceased Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I believe that’s true. I believe speaking up is a forceful way to fight the trolls. And by speaking up, I don’t mean engaging them directly – that just fans the flames. I mean, shine a light on the dark place by reporting that nastiness. Send a DM to support the author who’s been attacked.

That said, I also believe not everyone can or should support in all the same ways. Minority communities will feel these attacks in ways our allies won’t. If you don’t understand fully what’s happening, you don’t have to speak out – you can still report and reach out.

In whatever ways we are able, we must refuse to let the trolls destroy all that is good about a group of people whose creative souls thrive on community, interaction, understanding, and acceptance. And who are willing and ready to learn and evolve, given the safe space to have those conversations.keep_calm_fight_bigotry_card-r575513c82f764aeda240fd8c16b87bd4_xvuak_8byvr_324

So how can we protect ourselves?

Report and Reach Out

  • Report tweets that threaten a life or use hateful language. Let your voice be heard: tell Twitter trolls aren’t acceptable.
  • Reach out — support the attacked author – send a DM, tweet a message of unity against hatred.
  • Use #GoodFightBrigade to report harassment against writers.
  • Follow @yalitsos to know when someone in the writing community needs help.

But those are all reactive strategies. It’s important to be proactive too:

Support, Include, Listen

  • Support diverse authors by preordering and buying their books.
  • Promote diverse authors – tweet about them, talk about them, signal boost them.
  • Listen before you react when the conversation is tough – especially if you’re not from a marginalized community.
  • Follow some of the voices on Twitter who have made a point of articulating what’s happening in a cogent, thoughtful way: @getnicced, @justinaireland, @meredithIreland, @heidiheilig, @ElloEllenOh, @SC_Author, @missDahlELama

There must be more than this – please add resources and ideas in the comments.

Find Your Tribe

“Why don’t you go on and tell me everything about yourself, so I can see you with my heart.”

  • Kate DiCamillo, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE

I’m a careful person. I don’t trust quickly, don’t easily make true friends. Don’t get me wrong, I am an extrovert, thus, am friendly and enjoy talking to people on a social, casual level. But real, raw, tell-you-everything-so-you-can-see-me-with-your-heart? Not so much. Takes some time for me to feel safe enough for that.

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I wasn’t always like that, but that’s another story.

The people with whom I do feel that safe are those in my tribe.

We all have a tribe. Some of us have more than one. I have a husband and two children, they are my tribe. I am still unusually close to the friends I grew up with in Minnesota even though we are all spread out. We’ve literally grown up and are now growing middle aged together. They’re my tribe too. And in my first career, television news, I had a tribe. The folks who understood the vagaries of our business, the excitement and agony, what personal sacrifices it took to succeed.

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But it wasn’t until PitchWars that I finally found my writing tribe.

Before that, I had joined Twitter and spent time trying to figure out this talkative, funny, opinionated, and brilliant community of writers. I flailed about, trying to figure out how to interact with other writers in ways that are professional and not stalkery.

And then I was chosen for PitchWars 2015. And the angels sang. My mentor, the amazing Kendra Young, took my manuscript, deftly identified its (many) problems, and set me to work reconstructing a better story.

The pressure was both searing and exhilarating. It was the first time I’d ever revised an entire manuscript with the actual help of an actual real writer – and my changes were significant. Structural overhaul, eliminating characters, deleting some scenes and reimagining others. Plus getting rid of about nine hundred gajillion filter words.

And in the middle of all of it, I had to have surgery. Not like landed-in-the-ER kind of stuff, but critical to my health nonetheless.

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So I was pressed for time, a little foggy, and suffering from the same insecurity that dogs us all.

But. There was a saving grace.

The other warriors. On a secret, members-only Facebook page where we could bare our tortured writer’s souls.

And I’ll be honest – I didn’t bare a lot at first. In fact, I barely contributed. (Sorry. Pun. Couldn’t help it.) Remember how I said I’m careful? I was. I read everything and sometimes commented. I even asked for advice sometimes. But mostly, I just watched. Because that’s what I do.

And as I watched, here’s what I found: funny, kind, thoughtful, brilliant, trustworthy writers, all of whom wanted the best for each other, all of whom were unfailingly willing to give time, advice, perspective, beta reads, encouragement, sympathy, jokes, GIFs, and so much more. Plus, bonus, some of them were fond of bourbon and/or red wine.

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My people. My tribe.

Nearly a year later, I still don’t contribute the most to our little group. But now when I get quiet it’s only because life is too busy to play or because I don’t always have something fresh to say.

But when I do say something, I know these are people to whom I have told maybe not everything, but a whole lot of things. And they’ve seen me with their hearts. And I trust them.

Enter PitchWars. And while you’re sweating the selection process, reach out. Find the people who could be in your tribe. Even if you’re not selected, you’ve got something you didn’t have before. People you can reach out to for advice, encouragement, support, and GIFs. People who can suggest a new brand of bourbon you’ve never tried or help you celebrate every moment of exhilaration or offer hugs for all the frustrations we endure on the path to publication.

Good luck.