Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Agent Interview: Beth Miller of Writer's House




Beth Miller is a junior agent at Writers House, where she has worked with Robin Rue since 2007. She is looking for fantastic YA in all subgenres, as well as adult romance and fantasy.

In her other life, Beth was a DNA sequencing technician at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. She much prefers books to E. coli, and enjoys scuba diving and road trips in her spare time. She also has a fascination for all things Scottish (including, but not limited to, men in kilts).


1. What book spoke to you most during your teen years?

Two books come to mind right off the bat: A SWIFTLY TILTING PLANET & A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT, both by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved the former because it involved time travel by way of unicorn, and the latter because the girl can communicate with dolphins. When I was in high school, my dream was to work with dolphins—I even went to college as a marine biology major (which didn’t stick)—so this was just a perfect book for me to love.

I also really loved the teen thrillers—anything by Christopher Pike and his thriller contemporaries, and the Vampire Diaries novels by L.J. Smith. My copies of those books—which I still have—are all dog-eared and falling apart from multiple reads.

2. What YA novel or novels have you read recently that you are most inclined to get all your friends to read?

One book that thrilled the heck out of me over this past year is THE SCORPIO RACES, by Maggie Stiefvater—this was just such a different book from everything else that’s out there. I loved the water horses; the romance; the lonely, windswept island setting. Just loved, loved, loved it.

I also have been telling everyone about Erica O’Rourke’s TORN and TANGLED, in which the heroine, Mo, finds herself caught between her uncle’s shady mob association and a world of magic she never knew existed. Oh, and she’s also caught between two of the dreamiest guys ever, Luc & Colin (Team Colin!). These are great books, and I can’t wait for the third, BOUND, which comes out not soon enough.

And for those of you who still love a good vampire book—I know you’re out there!—I really loved Veronica Wolff’s ISLE OF NIGHT & VAMPIRE’S KISS (Books 1 & 2 of The Watchers series). A teen girl trying to escape her crappy home life accepts the offer of a hot (HOT) boy to live on a remote island in the North Sea where she will train to become a Watcher—an elite group of women who are the caretakers of the male-only vampires. But it’s survival of the fittest on the Isle of Night—and those who don’t make the cut don’t leave the island alive.

If I can also promote another forthcoming YA—I highly recommend DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN, by J.A. London (June, 2012). It takes place in a dark alternate world where the vampires and humans battled — and the vampires won. Now the country is in ruins, all but for a few cities, each of which answers to a Vampire Lord. Dawn is a teen girl who has become the liaison to the vampire lord, Valentine, after her parents’ murder. She must somehow find a way to get the resentful humans in her city to donate the required quote of blood…or else. And then she meets sexy Victor, who isn’t all he seems, and she soon learns that not all vampires are created equal.

3. How have those earlier book-loving years impacted your career as an agent?

I love a wide variety of books: from contemporary to thriller to fantasy (and almost all of which have that romance as well—so important in the YA genre), and I think that love has made me willing to take a look at almost anything that sounds interesting. It has also enabled me to multitask my reading—I am often in the middle of several books and manuscripts at the same time. That love of books has also helped me know pretty quickly whether something is to my taste or not, which is super-helpful in this business.

Plus, I just feel really lucky to be able to read books and get paid for it, to see new talent and help hone that talent, to have that thrilling moment when I read something that’s REALLY GOOD—that makes me forget where I am and makes me want to throttle anyone who distracts me from finishing it.

4. What would make a query really stand out for you?

It’s funny — most of the time, the queries stand out in a bad way—poor writing, an obnoxious letter, etc. Given that I’m interested in so many different genres, if the query is well-written and the story sounds intriguing, I’ll request it.

5. When you receive requested pages, is there one specific thing you're looking for more than any other (story, voice, character)? And is there anything that's going to make those pages an automatic pass?

I’m looking for something unputdownable. It’s a vague answer, I know, but I know it when I see it—when I can’t stop turning those pages (or hitting that NEXT button), and I’m hanging on every word (and generally not picking out what’s wrong with it). If I am reading a manuscript and find myself flipping over to something else, or putting it down and not picking it back up, then generally it’s not right for me.
An automatic pass would be poor quality of the writing. Often, if the writing is good and the story has potential but needs work, I can think about whether I want to try and give some notes and read a revision. But if the writing is poor, there’s really no way to fix that.

6. You are very selective as you build your client list. What are some traits you look for in an “ideal” client?

This is a tough one. First and foremost, of course, is the writing — something new and different and fun. But there’s more to it than that, which is the hard part. I want to work with someone who has more than just one book in him or her, someone who I hope I can work with on a long-term basis. And of course, you never really know that going into it. So I look for the first part—the great writing and great story, and hope that the rest falls into place too!

7. Is there anything on your current wish list? Anything on your "I hope I never see another____" list?

I don’t really have an “I never want to see another ____” list, because there’s always the possibility that someone will do something new and different with vampires or angels or shifters or witches. So I’ll just say I’m looking for something new and different, or a new twist on something tried-and-true. And always great writing!

8. Anything else you'd like to share with our readers or writers?

I could go on at length about the querying process—and I’ll try not to. But please, if you’re going to query, do your homework—there are so many great resources out there in the blogosphere and on Absolute Write’s forum. Blasting out your email query to everyone under the sun (in the same email) will get you nothing but deleted from everyone’s inbox. Being obnoxious and arrogant will probably get you rejected as well—remember that we have to want to work with you.

And please be polite and courteous, and make sure you’re prepared for rejection. I only say this because I got a particularly disgusting reply to an email rejection I recently sent, and that’s never okay. This is business—it’s not personal, so don’t make it personal. Wishing me a slow painful death, or some other nasty response, gets you nowhere.

Remember that we agent-folk WANT to read your work, so write some good stuff and send it to us! :-)

Submission instructions / requirements:

Please feel free to email me at bmiller@writershouse.com, and include your query letter, first five or so pages (to the nearest break—please don’t leave me hanging in the middle of a sentence!), and a synopsis—all pasted in to the body of the email.

22 comments:

Kimberly said...

Beth,
Thanks for such a great post. When I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be an ichthyologist because I read a book called Shark Lady. Too bad I'm deathly afraid of water. LOL. But, that's when books became so important to me--they took me to places I would never go on my own.
I'm glad you mentioned the Torn trilogy. I just finished rereading the second one last night, and I can't wait for the third one!
As my TBR pile has diminished recently, I thank you for the recommendations. And also for letting us all know not to be obnoxious in the querying process. That SHOULD seem like a no-brainer though. It's too bad that agents have to deal with that at all.
Thanks so much!

Lea Nolan said...

Beth,

Thanks so much for stopping by and for coining a new term: "unputdownable." I love it! I will try to use it at least twice today :)

Beth Miller said...

@ KImberly: Hi Kimberly! It's so interesting to see how books we read as children can have such an effect on our hopes and dreams and futures. I never did get out of the "girl and her horse" phase, which probably began with reading The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, and various others. And I'm still in the "girl and her dolphin" phase as well.

I've never heard of Shark Lady- was it a memoir of a shark scientist?

And yeah, you would think that courtesy when querying is common sense, but...

Beth Miller said...

@ Lea: "Unputdownable" is alas, a word I cannot claim ownership to--my boss uses it all the time... It is a great word, though!

Melissa Landers said...

Welcome, Beth, and thanks for visiting. I understand exactly what you mean by "unputdownable." As a reader, that's when I know I've found a winner, too. But one gal's unputdownable is another person's "meh, it was just okay for me." I think writers get tired of hearing how subjective the industry is, but it's so true, and I hope they remember that while querying/subbing.

Beth Miller said...

@ Melissa: It is really true-- something that doesn't click with one agent/editor may well be the perfect fit for another. I see it all the time with projects I've turned down that go on to sell for megabucks--clearly another agent loved it and went on to sell it. I also see it with projects I have on submission that I love, love, love and then get turned down by editors. And the reasons given by the editors vary widely as well. My advice to writers is just to keep trying. If your query isn't getting positive responses, then maybe you need to work on it. If you are getting partial requests, but then turndowns, then you need to strengthen your pages.

Kimberly said...

Beth,
Shark Lady was based on the true story of Eugenie Clark. She was nine when she went to her first aquarium visit (the age I was when I read the book) and went on to experience many adventures in her study of sharks. She became a famous scientist, the director of a marine laboratory and a professor of zoology. I bet that's MORE than you wanted to know. :-) But what struck me when I was in the fourth grade was that she was nine when she decided to pursue those dreams. My age...and she did it! I obviously found it very inspirational because here I am more than thirty years later thinking about that. Alas, I never did become an ichthyologist. That fear of water thing kept getting in the way. :-)
But I became something even better. A writer. So, now I can WRITE all the adventures that live in my head. LOL

Beth Miller said...

@ Kimberly: RIGHT! Eugenie Clark. As I was writing my earlier comment to you, I was thinking that there was a famous shark biologist. Whew! I'm a total marine bio nerd, so it was definitely not TMI. :)

I did a marine science internship in college-- at Moss Landing Marine Lab in CA, and one of the grad students was doing research on great white sharks-- I wanted sooo badly to go out on the research boat with him, but he had too many people going and couldn't take me too.

That was a complete digression from the YA literature stuff, but oh well!

And yes, the best part of writing and reading is that you can have all the grand adventures you want-- or write about them!

Kerri Carpenter said...

Hi Beth! Awesome interview!

Now I'm just sitting at work thinking of all the books I loved in high school, which is much more interesting than day job. I was obsessed with Baby Sitter's Club and then Sweet Valley High. I actually reread them when I go visit my mom.

But speaking of series, if a writer is querying you, should she mention that this book is the first in a series or let the writing speak for itself if you request the pages?

Thanks so much!

Beth Miller said...

@ Kerri: Hi Kerri, and thanks! When you re-read those old favorites, do you find that they hold up, or no? Are they as good as you remembered?

As for querying-- sure, you can say that it's the first in a proposed series, or something like that-- but you should only query the first book (in other words, don't query Books 1, 2, & 3 at the same time).

Christine Ashworth said...

Beth, it's lovely to meet you and hear your story...thanks so much. I, too was a total Madeleine L'Engle addict growing up - after cutting my teeth on all the original Nancy Drew books, LM Montgomery books and the Little Women books. Oh oh, and can't forget the Little House on the Prairie books - my barbies used to play Little House, lol! All these books, alas, are now in boxes in my garage...

Beth Miller said...

@ Christine: Thanks for saying hi! All those books are still in my parents' house-- much to their dismay.

Julia Bade said...

Beth, I love your open mind, love of reading, and versatile interest in genres! Sometimes we get comfy in our tastes, and it can keep us from finding gems ! I was a prime example.

Beth Miller said...

@ Julia: Thanks for the kind words! I've definitely been expanding upon my reading tastes-- you really never know when something will strike your fancy, even if it's a genre you normally don't read.

Lorie Langdon said...

Beth:
Thanks so much for stopping by! This is great information and I appreciate your welcoming style.

I just read TORN and loved the mesh of fantasy and mob elements. TANGLED is next on my TBR pile. :)

Lorie

Beth Miller said...

@ Lorie: Thanks for the kind words! Oh, you will love TANGLED!

Vanessa Barneveld said...

Hi, Beth!

Just dropping in to say how wonderful it is to work with you. :)

I lurve Christopher Pike--REMEMBER ME had a massive impact on me when I was about 15. Totally agree with you on Erica's TORN. Fab talent right there.

Great interview, Jen!

Jo Ramsey said...

Beth, thank you for sharing with us.

I loved Madeleine L'Engle's books when I was younger. I'd forgotten about the dolphins in A Ring of Endless Light; I need to get that book for my dolphin-obsessed 13-year-old!

Beth Miller said...

@ Vanessa: Hi Vanessa! Thanks for stopping by--and for your kind words-- back atcha!

REMEMBER ME was a huge favorite of mine as well-- though not so much the sequels. I also really liked BURY ME DEEP (which really had nothing to do with being buried, but whatever...). I also remember SCAVENGER HUNT scaring the crap out of me. :)

Beth Miller said...

@ Jo: Hi Jo! L'Engle's books are really great-- she was so imaginative. Now I kind of want to re-read them all... it's been years since I've read A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. Wonder where it is... I hope your daughter(?) enjoys it!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Late to the party, but so glad I found this post!

Christy Cousineau said...

Hi Beth,

It's great to hear an honest and informative perspective on query writing. I feel as though as soon as agents read, "young adult, paranormal" in my query they roll their eyes and hit delete. It's frustrating for those of us who love that world and love to write about it. Great to know that some of you are still open to a great witch story.

All the best,
Christy Cousineau