Agent Susan Hawk from Upstart Crow Literary will be joining our SCBWI chapter at the Pocono Remix 2023 retreat this April at the Highlights Foundation. Susan will run a workshop titled Great Openings, provide critiques for those who have signed up, and participate in the panel, pitch roundtable, and mock slush pile events. In preparation for this event, Kristen Strocchia had a virtual chat with Susan for EasternPennPoints. Here’s what they had to say.
A Café Chat with Agent Susan Hawk, by Kristen Strocchia
Kristen: Hi Susan! Welcome to our virtual Sweet Spot café where we can chat about all things MSWL over a spot of virtual tea. I’d like a cup of cranberry-lime honeysuckle cold brew. How about you?
Susan: That sounds delightful! A bit more prosaic, but I’m a PG Tips person. Every morning I grab my beloved cherry red teapot, fill it to the brim, brew the tea dark, add milk and drink cup after cup as the day goes by.
Kristen: Mmm, that does sound good! Today we’re meeting at the corner of Literary and Commercial. What’s one piece of advice you have for authors & illustrators trying to find this sweet spot?
Susan: Let’s start by defining terms. If literary fiction is focused on character and employs artful language of some kind, and commercial fiction is more driven by plot and tends to prioritize action over character, the sweet spot between the two would be a book that features nuanced, layered characters, is written in distinctive style, and pulls the reader right into a well-developed, thrilling plot.
Kristen: I love how that confluence of definitions makes for the perfect advice. So, give us the dish on delish. In your opinion, what makes writing delicious? And how do you strike the balance between fresh/original and familiar/relatable?
Susan: Deliciousness has to do with relishing something. If you don’t want to drop one bite of a delicious slice of pie, you don’t want to lose one word of a delicious book. As for the balance between fresh and familiar, this starts with knowing the market well, for books obviously, but in a wider sense too—knowing what kind of premise feels different than what you’re seeing on bookstore shelves as well as on screens big and small. At the same time, as the saying goes, there are no new stories. The most unique of premises won’t come to life unless it’s well told, and allows the reader to see themselves in the characters—to relate to them—in some way.
Kristen: We’ve all heard that laughter can be a great way for readers to connect to our characters. So, let’s spill the tea on humor if we can. What’s one thing that makes it work?/makes it fall flat?
Susan: Oh gosh, I don’t think there’s one thing—there are so many different kinds of humor. There’s wordplay, there’s high jinks, there’s something droll or witty, and so much more. Often, something seems funny in that it’s unexpected—a juxtaposition of two (or more) things that don’t seem to go together. But before we get too deep into analysis—I think of E.B. White’s comment, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”—I’ll say this: I’m a fan of humor that’s generous of spirit, that invites the reader into the moment, and draws very few lines between people.
Kristen: Pass the post-its—that belongs on my inspiration wall. And I love that you talk about agenting as the sweet spot between being a book marketer, a librarian, and an avid reader. Do you think these experiences have made you an editorial agent? And if so, what kind of edits can a prospective author or illustrator client expect to work through with you?
Susan: I don’t know that those experiences made me an editorial agent—I think being editorial is a necessity of the marketplace—but they certainly influence the way I approach a manuscript and the kind of feedback I give. My job as the agent is to consider what elements of the project make it most appealing to its audience, and to work with the writer to find ways to develop those elements as fully as possible before it goes on sub. The editorial process is always different as each book is different, but I often focus on how to deepen characters, ensure there are strong stakes in the story, and layers that evoke an emotional reaction in the reader. One request that’s almost always in my edit letters: tighten, tighten, tighten! Cutting is often exactly what a story needs to sparkle.
Kristen: Oooh, like cutting a gemstone creates the sparkle. Love it! At Pocono, you’ll be talking about crafting great manuscript openings. But what’s one thing you look for in a great query letter opening?
Susan: An interesting question! The answer is quite specific and different than what I look for on the opening page of a manuscript. I appreciate seeing the following information: your book title, the category and genre (i.e. YA horror or MG historical), word count, and one or two comparison titles (a book that feels related to yours through its category, genre, theme, or tone). Think of it like this: if the world of children’s lit were depicted on a map—with the continent of YA, within that the country of Fantasy, within that the town of Portal Fantasy, etc—I like to know where I am on that map, as I start your query. It’s incredibly helpful for me to be “situated” like this before I start reading about your particular characters and story.
Kristen: Since we started at the corner of Literary and Commercial, it seems fitting to end with that brilliant map analogy. But before we go, it’s name-dropper time. Answer in a sentence or less…
A secondary figure from a classic/popular novel whose story you’d love to read: Estella Havisham from Great Expectations.
A character lingering in your thoughts at present: Fern and Rosemary – I know that’s two, but they are so intertwined you can’t say one – from Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
A favorite book at the intersection of literary and commercial: The Dory Fantasmagory chapter books by Abby Hanlon. These chapter books are hysterical, accessible, and an excellent example of bringing a very specific character to bold and happy life on the page.
A layered story that is equally funny and heartbreaking: Right now, I’m super excited about a new client’s novel, Reasons to Hate Me. A wickedly funny and witty YA novel about a neurodiverse 17-year-old, trying to recover from a devastating friend break-up. I cannot wait for people to read this book!
A favorite concept picture book: I’m going to cheat and name an author-illustrator rather than one book: Elise Gravel (not my client). Silly, smart conceptual books that you’ll want to read again and again!
Kristen: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today! We’re so looking forward to meeting you in person at our Pocono Retreat in April.
Susan Hawk is an agent at Upstart Crow Literary, a boutique literary agency she joined after twenty-five years working across many areas of the children’s book world. She represents writers and illustrators of books for kids and teens, board books through YA, as well as graphic novels and non-fiction (also for children and teens). Her clients include Ruth Spiro (author of the BABY LOVES books, selected for Amazon’s 20 Best Children’s Books of the Year), Rachel Elliott (author and illustrator of the graphic novel THE REAL RILEY MAYES), and Rachael Allen (Georgia YA Author of the Year, and author of the forthcoming YA novel, HARLEY QUINN: RAVENOUS).
Pocono Remix 2023 Retreat Info
Our annual retreat is back and in-person! It will be a weekend of amazing faculty, craft talks, industry insights, and the chance to meet with fellow creators all set at the beautiful Highlights Foundation in Boyd’s Mills, PA.
Fantastic interview, Kristen! You’re going to have a blast with Susan at the event.