The Drug of Good Writing: the Weronika Janczuk interview

Weronika Janczuk, Independent Editor and writer of YA, literary and historical fiction, just signed on as a literary agent with D4EO Literary Agency. Weronika’s been a reader and commenter here for some time, so when she announced her recent promotion, I realized this is a perfect opportunity to bring the real, human experience of becoming a literary agent straight to all of you aspiring writers out there—all of you just as hungry for excellent representation as she is for excellent fiction.

Sit up straight, folks, and grip your pens. This is your chance! What’s it like to move from one side of the fence to the other? You’re about to find out.

Weronika, congratulations! How fun to be able to announce such a great promotion.

First off, I just wanted to extend my thanks, Victoria, for your time in putting together this interview. I appreciate it!

You’re very welcome. We really appreciate you sharing your experience with all of us. You’ve been a literary agent now for several weeks. How’s it going?

Incredibly busy. I’ve been kind of trying to create a routine for myself, but it’s little early to make any predictions. Right now I’m editing & agenting, both. It’s just natural for me to be able to balance those things—I’ve always been a multitasker.

Where do you find enough hours in the day?

I’ve always been a very, very, very quick reader. People ask me, “How did you get through this in five minutes?” Well, I read it in five minutes. [laughing]

I limit myself in terms of what I request to see, I ask people to send me ten pages with their query letter, and I absolutely have to be able to—if I can’t reject the email and forget about it, if there’s something that just pulls me, then I’ll request an ms. It brings me down to a very, very, very small request rate.

It’s a matter of, do I want to be one of those agents who replies in twelve hours or in one month? Right now every single writer who has queried me has received a response within twelve hours. I know as a writer I hate waiting, so I want to get writers a response. I also know most writers will go with the first agent who offers.

So it’s always a balancing act, because of course I put my clients first, even before queries.

It can get really hectic, can’t it? You’ve been in the publishing industry for a number of years already. What’s your background?

In terms of writing, I consider myself fairly self-taught—I’ve never taken a structured fiction writing class, and my experience with critique partners has been limited to a few constant mentors and fellow writers.

Publishing-wise, I began as an acquisitions intern at Flux, where I worked with Brian Farrey, in addition to a few editors at Llewellyn, the New Age non-fiction imprint. That internship has been the most defining experience of my career so far. Soon thereafter, I began to work with Jenny Bent at The Bent Agency and Bob Diforio at D4EO; I also worked in different capacities for Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management, Mary Kole at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and myself as an independent freelance editor. Bob promoted me to associate agent at the end of July, 2010, and I now work solely for D4EO.

So you’ve worked with a wide variety of agents in various cities. How did that happen?

I was proactive. Once my time at Flux drew to a close, I began to suffer from withdrawal, so I sent out a few emails to agents and inquired if they needed any assistance. After I scored my first remote position, after a phone interview and a query reading ‘test,’ the others came faster—I’d networked and demonstrated I was capable, so I just kept adding to my workload.

What work did you do for agents?

Briefly, in my time as an intern, I’ve: read submissions, analyzed the quality of writing in manuscripts, written reader reports on manuscripts, researched manuscripts’ potential placements in the market, edited manuscripts, kept records of submissions, sent rejection emails, worked with contracts, followed up on submissions, networked, dealt with foreign and subsidiary rights and more.

You’ve done everything! So what’s special about D4EO Literary Agency?

We’re a small agency, first of all, with four agents, three of them fairly new—most of us are very hungry for clients, so there is a lot of room for debut authors and writers whose manuscripts might need some work. Mandy Hubbard is an agent dedicated exclusively to YA/MG work, I represent an incredibly broad range of commercial fiction and non-fiction, and Joyce Holland also has narrow tastes and a background at D4EO.

In addition, the head agent—Bob Diforio—has been in the business for decades and represents some of the most well-respected contemporary literature out there. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with him.

What is it about being a literary agent that makes you want to do this all the time from now on?

I am fascinated by the dichotomy of agenting—there is both an artistic and a business aspect to my role: I develop projects, I represent their authors and I am an advocate for that duo. I thought originally I would want to be an editor, but I’ve found that larger publishing houses can be very political, and small houses don’t always have the resources to properly launch debut authors. As an agent, I can sell books to the big houses and then push for maximum publicity and marketing.

It’s also nice to work in pajamas.

[Laughing] Boy, ain’t it. Is this your dream job, or do you have even higher aspirations?

Agenting in terms of role is my dream job, yes, and I am thrilled that I figured out early on it is the position I want to hold. As for higher aspirations, I know without a doubt that I will want to start my own agency at some point in the future, for a multitude of reasons, one of the larger ones being the opportunity to give back to the publishing community by mentoring young aspiring agents and editors. I owe a lot to those with whom I’ve worked—they opened the doors for me.

What a great attitude, Weronika. So what genres will you be representing, as you start your career as a literary agent?

I don’t have a favorite genre, and there is no way that I can pick and choose between different genres, as I care far less about the type of story being told and far more about the writing. Good writing is a drug for me.

As a result, I represent pretty much everything—single-title romance, women’s fiction, literary fiction, commercial fiction, thrillers/mysteries/crime fiction, horrors, fantasy/sci-fi, memoirs and nearly every kind of commercial non-fiction. I have a list of editors to whom I submit different genres.

If I had to choose, I tend to like more fast-paced fiction—a good thriller or fantasy, for example—but that means a huge chunk of my favorite novelists and books are thrown out of the loop. I’ll read anything as long as it’s written well.

What kinds of queries are you getting?

I think there’s a growing romantic suspense genre that is really interesting for readers, and I’m seeing a lot of those kinds of queries now. Romance continues to be the genre that fuels the industry.

I’m seeing a little bit of thriller, a little bit of romance with a thriller subplot, fantasy with a mystery subplot, where you see the female lead starting to kind of detour from that traditional household role. I’m not sure why it’s happening now, because it seems kind of overdue since women have been part of that for a long time—but probably eighty percent of the queries I get have that kind of subplot in it. Maybe it’s because I look for thrillers and mysteries.

Janet Reid has a great blog post saying, “We’ve terrified the wrong half of y’all.” Do you see a clear dividing line between writers who are really taking their time to learn their craft, doing their research, following the rules of querying conscientiously, and people who are just oblivious?

I absolutely agree with you about, “Don’t rush.” You might have a very wonderful book done and ready to go, but there’s always a question of how much are you willing to work and how much time are you willing to spend working on it.

I’ve dealt with the crazies. I’ve been a bit shocked. But I think it’s very easy to pick up the ones who are working on getting published very hard—that’s their number one goal, their one aspiration, and they’ve been hacking away for a long time. The query letters—you know, despite all the resources available now, and there are a lot of resources, I still see some poor query letters. Some people are just a little too sloppy. It’s not anything explicit, it’s just this subtle feeling that they’re not trying as hard as they could.

What about the situation where you’ve worked on your query letter so hard for so long that it kind of winds of garbled? You’ve tried too hard?

For me, I think those are the queries and page samples that make me the saddest. They’re trying so hard because they don’t believe in what they do have. They’re not completely one-hundred-percent comfortable with what they’re sending. That level of comfort takes a long time. It took me maybe six years to pull back enough not to go over the top. If someone’s trying too hard, they’re still in that middle ground where they’re not comfortable enough.

If I see that and am personally drawn to the voice, I have said, “Yes, if you don’t find an agent or you’d like to do a rewrite, do query me again.”

So, how do you make your decisions on what to accept and what to reject?

There are different factors that come into play. First of all, I’m hands-down an editorial agent. All three of the clients I have so far are in the middle of huge revisions and even one rewrite because my goal is to present to publishers the best possible product.

I’m more than willing to do structural development because I’ve found over the months I’ve been editing it’s very easy for me to convey instructions on structure. So if there’s a voice there, but there’s not enough tension or there should be an addition or subtraction—that’s no problem. It’s a little more difficult for me when it’s anything that’s not structure. Plot and structure are the easiest because they’re so formulaic. So character and voice—the factor would be how much I would need to work on it, how many suggestions I’d have to make—how much, really, would I be teaching the writer.

I’m not just throwing suggestions out there. I’m helping ground the writer. If there are a lot of other agents I might have reason to believe would offer representation if I don’t, if it would be easy to sell once it was fixed—if I were intrigued enough—I would definitely put in the time. If the writing is mediocre, though, I’m going to have to pass.

What do you just fall in love with?

That’s an impossible question for me to answer. It depends on the genre, but I guess the most important thing is the voice. So that’s going to be how an author puts sentences together, how they structure the pacing, where they choose to begin and end the story. It’s a very unique blend. If the author manages to surprise me, that’s a really good sign. Because I read so much these days I can almost always pick up an ms and tell what’s going to happen on the next page. I have to be surprised multiple times as I re-read the ms and notice things I didn’t before.

I absolutely hate it when there’s poor grammar. I’ve found there’s definitely a correlation between poor writing and poor grammar. It can be one of the most random things. That’s why I’m repping different genres. The books I love are all different. They can be very dense, or challenging—anything challenging stereotypes, I really like.

It can be anything, just a story told from a fresh perspective, a character I would not expect to be put into such a situation. I’m already drawn to younger narrators, really smart narrators, underdogs, those kinds of characters. If the voice grabs me, the writing grabs me, the plot isn’t that important. As long as it’s something that people would love reading.

I’ve had writers come to me and say, “An agent told me my novel doesn’t have a hook.” And I’ve read it, and there’s been a great hook. A fabulous hook. But it wasn’t the hook that lead to that particular novel. What do you do in such situations?

I’ve seen that to a degree. The one I remember most was an ms when I was reading queries for an agent, and this query comes through, and it’s romance, and it’s absolutely the most captivating concept ever. I forwarded it to the agent, and we got the ms, and we were on it. But the writer didn’t follow up on it. And that’s the toughest decision on what to do about that, because we were drawn to the writing, and we felt a little betrayed because we’d been set up for a story we didn’t get.

If I loved it so much I couldn’t stand to think of another agent touching it, I might ask for a second novel. Directing a total rewrite, though—I would not be able to handle that.

What if you have suggestions about just tweaking the plot?

I always ask for a chat, and the first thing I do is I want to talk over my editorial suggestions and things I saw that were a problem. Even people who have decided to sign with me, we’ve already had disagreements about what can be the most effective story. I want to be able to justify what I think would be more readable or more marketable.

So what’s selling these days?

Everything that’s really mainstream. Of my first three clients two of them are fantasy writers. Fantasy is selling very well now. As long as there’s something fresh in the book.

With romance & women’s fiction it is really trendy. If I find something it needs to be very very well-written. Single-title romance are still selling, Regency, Victorian. I do expect to be able to sell romance very quickly. Romance is crazy, and there are so many venues for romance writers out there.

I also took on a client who has a piece of literary fiction, and I think that’s going to be far more challenging because of the nature of the genre. People have different perceptions of what they expect. Literary fiction has its niches, and some publishers will publish only in certain niches. Literary fiction is less-read than other genres.

A really good thriller should sell pretty easily. There aren’t a tremendous amount of venues.

I really would like to find a literary horror novel, but there aren’t a lot of people actively looking for horror. Horror is kind of a pre-established genre. You have to be a pretty big name.

Writers are hearing a lot about platforms, as in: get out there right now and build yours. What is your opinion on the issue of the author building a platform for their book, nonfiction and fiction?

I figure it’ll be awhile before I take someone with a nonfiction proposal, because they need a pretty big platform. I hope I get lucky and find someone.

What do you suggest for fiction authors?

Quite a few things—and I think all of these things are kind of proactively helpful. I don’t think there are any requirements for debut fiction writers. I think at the very minimum fiction writers should have an easy-to-find web presence, even one page (her blog).

In terms of building an actual platform, publication of short stories, maybe even some nonfiction articles as long as they’re relevant to the subject area of their book. For example, if you’re writing about someone Jewish and that plays an integral role in your book, publishing articles on Judaism helps get your name out there. As long as you’re talking to the right people.

I think writers think a writer-to-writer community is all they need. And it absolutely isn’t. For instance, on Twitter I’ve seen communicating with booksellers do wonders. That can result in book-signings and hand-selling, the bookseller showing your book to someone who comes into the story. Integrate yourself into your genre community. For example, if you’re writing YA having a presence on teen web sites, teen literature, teen circles online is always very helpful

And then I guess having access to a variety of different venues in the town or nearest city that the writer’s coming from. Sometimes I get the feeling that setting up book-signings in your area is kind of an afterthought to writers, and that surprises me. If a writer sends out press releases to local newspapers saying, “Hey, can I have an interview?” the foundation can all be started before the book deal.

But I think that promotion is most effective in those three months before debuting and in the months right after. You put in some time every week with radio and newspapers, touching base with them to let them know you’re there.

Authors who want to be seen more have to go beyond what the publishing house gets them. That may be just one or two signings in their local area, but they should go autograph copies around the state if they can. There’s always a draw to books with signatures or to bookstores where there are signings.

What’s something really important you want to say to writers out there querying?

Oh, how to phrase this. . .I would tell those writers that they should put themselves into the shoes of—I don’t know what the career would be—unless you are a literary agent, it is absolutely impossible to understand the kind of—the weight of the decisions I make every day about queries and ms’s. It makes me sad that I have to sometimes pass a very quick judgment and send a very informal non-personalized rejection letter to maybe 150 or 200 writers a day, if that’s the number of queries I’m getting.

I would tell writers to never, ever take a rejection personally. I don’t think, “Oh gosh, this person is a terrible writer, they should never be published.” I think, “This person isn’t there yet, and I hope from the bottom of my heart that they find out how to fix it.”

There are just only so many hours in the day. I’m also living my own life, and I have my first dedication to the clients I’m working with. It’s just unfortunate that there are a limited number of agents out there who are able to help.

I think writers can underestimate how much work we put in and how much I wish I had all the time in the world to help fix everything.

What’s your favorite thing about working with writers? Your least favorite?

No one has asked me this before, but it’s a great question.

My least favorite thing? I think a lot of writers have egos. They aren’t necessarily huge egos, but they are egos of enough size for writers to flinch when, after they’ve been told often that their book rocks, they are still asked to revise. A good friend of mine from the blogosphere and I have talked often before about the authors who cease any communication with us if we criticize too harshly as critique partners or freelance editors. I have never been able to wrap my mind around it—why are writers driven so much toward publication that they don’t stop and pause to ask themselves if this is their best work, if they would show this writing to their favorite writer and be proud of it completely?

My favorite thing would be the magic of creativity and the passion for writing. I am a writer, too, and I understand what it’s like to feel that adrenaline, and more than anything I love it when that adrenaline transfers into a willingness to work hard. To kick butt. And to come up with stronger projects in the end.

Weronika Janszuk can be found on her blog and Twitter. To query her, please send a submission email and the first ten pages of your manuscript in the body of the email with QUERY in the subject line to Weronika Janczuk.

14 thoughts on “The Drug of Good Writing: the Weronika Janczuk interview

  1. OH WOW. This is one of the best interviews I have ever read with a literary agent. I can’t thank you two enough for this. It provides insight and shines a bright light onto what you’re really doing, Weronika. It’s amazing and fascinating to read this! I’ve got to pass this around. Writers need to read this.

  2. Simon L. says:

    Okay, I already hearted Weronika a little after her interview over at Sierra Godfrey’s blog. This interview gets a bit closer to sealing the deal. (And we’re all well aware that wodka Polska is my favorite, right? Right? Right. So clearly I’m favorably inclined to Weronika’s country-of-heritage. [Yes, I’m aware that comment’s a tad boorish, but hey, I’m kind of incorrigible, so what do you expect?])


    I didn’t see one major, possibly controversial question addressed here (Victoria’s probably too classy and discreet to ask it), and I might as well be the one with the big mouth who asks it: what about the age issue?

    See, if I signed with you, dear lady, and took you out for cocktails to celebrate, I could be arrested and fined and such (unless we went to Europe for cocktails–and I suppose that’d depend on the size of the advance you got me). The fact that Bob Diforio has enough faith in you to promote you to full agent speaks volumes–VOLUMES, I say–but your youth will give more than a few writers pause when considering query targets.

    What, O lovely and sparkling breath of fresh air, would be your response to such (shockingly ageist and curmudgeonly) skeptics?

  3. Thanks again, Victoria, for this interview. I enjoyed speaking with you!

    And, Simon, I think the question of age is the ultimate paradox, since most people who care have already dismissed me as someone unqualified, and nothing I can say will change that. I would say they should still query me and, if they are ever in a position lucky enough to have to make a choice between another agent and me, they should ask the right questions and judge my answers in comparison. Unless you’ve had the opportunity to talk books and publishing with me, it’s unfortunate that how old I am physically will precede — for some — my experience with books and the industry. I don’t hesitate to note I am a new agent and that, yes, I have had less experience in the industry compared to other new agents, but every agent has to start somewhere, and this is my starting point. I’ll build from here with the writers who trust in me enough to have given me a chance.

  4. Victoria says:

    Here’s another angle on it: what if you’re under about 50 and get an agent older than you? Where will you go when they retire before you do?

    Anyone smart can learn fast. But you can’t age slower. Believe you me, I have tried.

    Take heed, also, folks: some people look younger than their age. Has anyone asked Weronika how old she is? And what if she lies—how would we know?

  5. This is one of the few interviews I’ve read all the way through – I get bored easily. 😉 Lots of great info!

    I plan to query Weronika as soon as my MS is polished. She’s high on my list, even if I can’t take her out for drinks.

  6. Simon says:

    @Weronika: Well played, good lady. Deftly answered.

    @Victoria: Have you tried aging faster? I’m pretty sure that’s possible….

  7. Victoria says:

    Oh, yeah. That one I’m pretty good at.

  8. Judy Croome says:

    What a fabulous interview! Some great answers and insights. I winced a bit at some of Weronika’s comments because they hit hey mark (especially about trying too hard with the query because I’m not comfortable with it!).

  9. Kathryn says:

    Twelve hours for a reply? How refreshing compared to the agencies who simply say, “If you never hear from us, that means no.”

    Best wishes, Weronicka.

  10. Kathryn says:

    And how do you feel about people mispelling your name, Weronika?

  11. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Aging slower?
    Aging faster?

    I’m just trying to age well!

  12. Eva says:

    Weronika, you are an exceptional person. Whatever you have, hang on to it.

  13. Marisa Birns says:

    Absolutely loved this interview. Weronika, you are delightful. And from your answers, you show that – despite whatever your age – you are quite knowledgeable and professional in your chosen field.

Comments are closed.