In the spring of 2014 I entered Pitch Madness and happily made it to the team round. Carrie Howland, one of the participating agents, made the one full request I received. Less than two weeks later she emailed to tell me how much she was enjoying the manuscript and said she’d be in touch again when she finished. About a week after that she was my agent.
I would have been turning emotional cartwheels if practically anyone had made an offer of representation, but I felt a connection with Carrie right away, and it’s only gotten stronger in the time we’ve worked together. I know how hard she works. I know she’s going to challenge me to reach levels I likely wouldn’t have tried to reach on my own. And I know what a good person she is.
After spending more than a decade at the agency where she got her start, Carrie recently made the move to Empire Literary. I thought this transition would be a perfect chance for her to check in with the fine people of the middle grade writing community and share some thoughts. Welcome to our interview!
After being with the same agency for over a decade, joining Empire Literary is a big move for you. What are the most exciting things about this change?
Carrie: I loved my time at Donadio & Olson, it was a wonderful place to grow my list as an agent, but I’m so excited about the forward, out-of-the-box thinking that Empire Literary was built on. Andrea Barzvi, who founded Empire, is an incredible agent with an amazing track record for launching careers. I’ve only been working with her for about two months now, but each day I’m more in awe of her expertise, and the care she has for each of our authors. Not just her own, but every author at the agency. Empire Literary is a fantastic team of people who truly love what we do, care about our authors, and work tirelessly to bring great books into the world.
Is there any such thing as a typical work day for an agent? If not, what would you be doing during your closest approximation of a typical work day?
Carrie: There’s really no typical day. I’m sure everyone says that, but it’s true! I think one misconception is that we spend a lot of our day reading. Not the case for me. Don’t get me wrong, I spend dozens of hours a week reading, but that tends to happen in the mornings, evenings, and on the weekends. I like to get lost in a manuscript and that’s often hard to do at our busy offices. While in the office, I’m typically pitching books, meeting with editors, talking to authors, negotiating contracts, and doing all the things that go into managing the careers of my amazing clients. I’d say we agents never really stop working. Our breakfasts and lunches are often working meals, with editors, book scouts, clients, etc. After work we’re often at our clients’ readings, meeting them or editors for dinner or drinks, and attending other publishing events. On weekends, if we’re not reading manuscripts, we may be attending conferences, or other publishing festivals, book fairs, etc. I think our schedules really show our passion for our work. We truly live and breathe publishing, so we have to love it. It also might help people to know that we have so much thrown at us on any given day, that if we haven’t quite gotten back to you about your query, it’s definitely not personal! We’ll respond to you—we love reading new work and finding new talent. We’re just also doing eleven other things at any given moment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the patience of querying writers.
What qualities in a query letter or a manuscript submission tend to get your attention?
Carrie: I love a personal connection. Show me that you want ME to represent you. That you aren’t just throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. If you’re querying me because you love one of my author’s books, that’s great! Tell me about it. Are you emailing because your book takes place in Michigan and you know I’m obsessed with my home state? Perfect! I would also love to see people perfect their hooks. That opening line or two should captivate me. This elevator pitch is so important. Really work on those two lines, your comparative titles, etc. We as agents get so many queries, the more you can grab my attention from the first line, the better your chances of rising above all those submissions.
Are there any projects or ideas, specific to middle grade or young adult, you'd like to see showing up in your submission inbox?
Carrie: I am always most drawn to contemporary fiction, and if it’s literary, even better! My background is in poetry, so beautiful language will always speak to me. I’m also really looking for compelling, edge-of-your-seat stories. I’d love a great YA thriller. And I’m always on the hunt for my next big scare, so a great middle grade ghost story (like yours, Tom!) or a good mystery is always on my wish list. As I so often say, I love books set in the Midwest, where I’m from. I also volunteer for a dog rescue, so I do love any books that showcase a great cause…and animals. Always animals.
What do you feel people should people keep in mind when writing for a middle grade or young adult audience?
Carrie: Voice. I can’t stress this enough. There is no better BS detector than a kid. Our readers will be the first to identify an inauthentic voice. This means really getting to know your audience. If you’re writing Middle Grade, that’s vastly different than Young Adult, and it’s your job as the writer to know the difference. I see so many queries that are listed as one when they’re really closer to the other. And still more that simply aren’t the right voice for kids at all. My dear friend, and incredibly talented editor, Sara Sargent at Harper Collins recently talked about the importance of knowing your audience, and that might mean getting down with Snapchat, even if you think all those filters are silly. I couldn’t agree with this more. Your voice, writing, and characters have to ring true. Spend as much time as possible reading other children’s books, especially your contemporaries, spend time on social media (just not ALL your time), watch some TV that your kids or your friends’ kids like, and best of all, spend time with kids! Don’t know any? Volunteer! There are so many great organizations that allow us to give back by working with kids (I volunteer with a local public school once a week). Find one of those and you’ll be doing a great thing, while getting to know your audience better. It’s a win for everyone.
One important thing about you that I don't think a typical bio would convey is just how involved you are with volunteering. What organizations or causes do you currently work with or support?
Carrie: Thanks for asking about this, Tom! I have been volunteering with dog rescue, really my entire life, but in the past decade have fostered somewhere around fifty dogs who were pulled from high kill shelters, puppy mills, etc. in and around New York City. I am also the proud mom of two of my own rescues: Scout (a lab/whippet mix) and Zooey (my seventeen year old Pomeranian who I rescued at the young age of eleven). I am also the proud daughter of an Army veteran and spend a lot of time advocating for our military men and women. Through an amazing organization called Soldiers Angels, I “adopt” deployed military and send them cards and packages. Right now I have two amazing adopted women, both Army. I’m also a member of Delta Gamma, through which I’ve been able to spend a great deal of time with our philanthropy, Service for Sight. Additionally, I’m a member of the New York Junior League, through which I volunteer with a committee called Project Muse. Each week, I help teach art to a class of thirty-six (yes, all one in class!) amazing third graders. We do a lesson on a particular artist and then a project so the kids can learn that artist’s technique. I can’t tell you how incredible these kids are or how happy I am to spend time with them each week.
Do you have any upcoming events or conference appearances you'd like to mention?
Carrie: You can find me at SCBWI’s New York Conference in February 2017, and the SCBWI Golden Gate Conference in March 2017. I try to keep my personal webpage fairly up-to-date with my conference appearances, so I hope you’ll check there from time-to-time!
And now for some random lightning round questions. What was the last album you listened to, straight through from beginning to end?
Carrie: Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room.
How do you take your coffee?
Carrie: In an IV drip. With almond milk and Splenda.
What's the best show you've watched/streamed in the past year that wasn't Gilmore Girls?
Carrie: There are shows other than Gilmore Girls?? I would have to say The Night Of. I thought it was one of the most compelling new shows I’ve seen in years. That could just be because I haven’t watched Stranger Things yet…
What candle (or candles) are you burning these days?
Carrie: I’m alternating between Yankee Candle’s Mountain Lodge and their brand new Candied Pecans (have you tried this yet?). I like anything that smells like food or…air.
Are there any favorite places you absolutely have to visit whenever you're back in Michigan?
Carrie: I always have at least one meal at the Yin Hai Chinese Restaurant in Marshall, Michigan. I worked there when I was in High School and the amazing family who owns it still welcomes me back like one of their kids. They even catered my high school graduation open house. Best way to have the most popular open house in town? Serve delicious eggrolls. There’s also a little bar/restaurant in Albion, Michigan, where I went to college, called Charlie’s. They make something called a College Burger that’s the stuff of dreams. They also have something called sour cream and chive fries which everyone should experience at least once in their life. I’m realizing now that all my favorite places are food-related. No big surprise there…