Patricia Nelson is an agent with the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, where she represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction. Patricia’s middle grade clients include Hayley Chewins (The Turnaway Girls), Margaret Dilloway (Summer of a Thousand Pies), Anna Meriano (Love Sugar Magic), Melissa Roske (Kat Greene Comes Clean), Sandy Stark-McGinnis (Extraordinary Birds), and Kristi Wientge (Karma Khullar’s Mustache).
Patricia is a member of SCBWI and holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Patricia on Twitter at @patricianels.
MR: Before becoming a literary agent, you spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing. How has your experience as an academic contributed to your skills as an agent?
PN: My favorite thing about teaching was getting to know my students, engaging creatively with their work, and helping them grow as writers and thinkers. Agenting lets me build these kinds of bonds long-term with clients, which I love. And while the agent-client relationship is very different from the teacher-student relationship, as a very editorial agent who tends to do a lot of developmental editing with my clients, what I learned as a teacher about giving constructive feedback and helping a writer nurture their ideas definitely comes in handy.
MR: What is your favorite part of the job? Your least favorite?
PN: The best thing about agenting is the feeling of falling in love with a book no one else has seen yet – whether that’s a new project by an existing client, or a brand-new voice from the query pile – and then getting to champion that book and help it make its way into the world.
The worst part (and I think most agents will tell you the same) is sending rejections. We all got into this job because we love authors and want to support them… but because of the need to keep our client lists manageable, we unfortunately also have to spend a lot of time saying “no.” Nobody likes that.
MR: What sorts of queries prompt you to request more pages? What would make you reject a query outright?
PN: When reading a query, I’m looking for a fresh, original story with an interesting protagonist and clear stakes. I also ask for 10 sample pages with all queries, where I’m looking for a voice that feels vibrant and special. If I see all those things, it’s a request!
In general, the queries that get rejected outright have problems that no one doing the research of reading this interview would have: They don’t conform to our submission guidelines, they’re address to “Dear Agent” (or sometimes, inexplicably, “Dear Sir”), they’re just a blank email with an unsolicited attachment (which we don’t open), they don’t include sample pages, etc. If you’re following the rules, don’t worry! Your query will be thoughtfully considered.
MR: I know there’s no such thing as an “ideal” client, but what comes close? Also, what can a writer do to make an agent’s job easier?
PN: The best clients are hard-working, communicative, and full of ideas. They are proactive about their own careers, but also take seriously their agent’s advice and industry expertise. If they have a concern, they reach out. If they’re stuck on a project, they ask to hop on a call and brainstorm. Good communication is key – and saying “thank you” really does go a long way.
MR: Please fill in the blank: “If an MG novel about______came across my desk, I would request it ASAP.”
PN: I’m hesitant to answer this one, because in reality, it’s not just about the premise, but also about the pages – even if I love the topic, nothing’s an automatic request unless I fall for the voice in the sample pages that accompany the query.
Sometimes authors will reply to a pass by saying “but this exact thing was on your MSWL, I thought it would be perfect for you!” But of course, not every story that falls into my broad MSWL categories is going to be a fit, and often I’ll fall head-over-heels with a story that I didn’t even know I was looking for. (Which is why while MSWL is useful, it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you think I might be interested, you should just try me!)
MR: Anything else on your MG manuscript wish list?
PN: With the caveats above, right now I’m especially hungry for literary MG fantasy with an original premise, unique worldbuilding, and beautiful writing. I’m always looking for stories from diverse perspectives that have been historically underrepresented. And I’d love to find an MG novel in verse.
MR: What are you not looking for?
PN: I tend not to be the right agent for slapstick or gross-out humor, or for Percy Jackson-style action/adventure stories. I also don’t represent chapter books or very young MG.
MR: What’s on the horizon for 2019? Any news and/or hopes and dreams you’d like to share with us?
PN: On the middle grade front, I have some client books that I’m very excited about coming out this year:
Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway (out in April), about a 12-year-old Great British Baking Show superfan who gets sent to live with her pie-shop-owning aunt in the mountains of California. I want to be friends with every single character in this book, which is one of my favorite feelings.
Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (out in April), a debut novel about a girl who believes that one day she will transform into a bird and fly away, but has to reevaluate everything she thinks she knows when she’s placed with a foster mom who feels like family. It’s a beautiful story that makes me cry, in the best possible way.
Honeybees and Frenemies by Kristi Wientge (out in June), about two former best friends who have to spend their summer together when their parents volunteer them to help out a local beekeeper. This is Kristi’s follow-up to her debut Karma Khullar’s Mustache, and it is just as full of humor and heart—there’s one scene in particular in this novel that makes me laugh hysterically every single time I read it.
I love them all, and you should check them out!
MR: What is best way to contact you?
PN: I’m open to queries via email, at email@example.com. As mentioned above, make sure you include your first 10 pages pasted in the body of the email.
MR: Thank you for your time, Patricia. It was great chatting with you!