Wednesday, April 13, 2011

an interview with the interns

There's an abundance of websites out there dedicated to the study of literary agents—AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Literary Rambles, etc. etc. etc. But what about the interns who act as their front lines of defense? Where's InternQuery where you need it? Who are these unpaid underfed street urchins who field your queries today and might be editing or agenting themselves tomorrow?

INTERN is pleased to announce that select members of the League of Illustrious Interns have kindly agreed to share their loves, hates, deepest desires, and nefarious plans for the publishing industry. Meet the interns—'cause if you're trying to get published, they'll almost certainly be meeting you.


Naughty Intern: Various literary agencies

[note from INTERN: yes, you read that right—some Illustrious Interns work at more than one place. Which means that, technically, the same intern might be reading your query at six different agencies. Come to think of it, how do you know that Naughty Intern isn’t, in fact, the only person who has EVER read your query, despite the fact that you queried half the agents in NYC? IT’S POSSIBLE. mumble mumble CONSPIRACY mumble. *shifty eyes*.]

Intern Rachel*: Arthur A. Levine Books

Intern Milan: Scholastic Press, Upstart Crow Literary, Simon & Schuster

Intern Cassandra: The Agent

Intern Miranda: Houghton Miffling Harcourt


Naughty Intern: I’m here at Various Literary Agencies, spamming your vampire queries, helping you prepare your manuscript for submission (i.e. specific line edits, grammar bullshit you should’ve learned in third grade and then applied to your novel), and convincing your agent NOT to pitch your novel as Twilight meets Gossip Girl.

Intern Rachel: I read your queries, double-checked every p and q on your book cover, and raved about you on Twitter.

Intern Cassandra: I read queries during the wee hours of the morning and on holidays. I'm the one who might pass on your project at 3 am or on Christmas. Maybe even 3 am ON Christmas. I'm that hardcore.


Naughty Intern: Make your manuscript stand out. I’ll admit, I’m a query skimmer, so I usually look for key words and phrases that stick out. (AND NO. This does NOT mean you should bold/highlight/write your query in pink glitter pen.)

[note from INTERN: “Key words and phrases?” you ask. “Which ones?” INTERN doesn’t want to speak for Naughty Intern, but she’s guessing LUNCHTIME is a good place to start.]

I usually look at the sample pages more than the query. If a query sucks, but the sample pages are really great, I’ll usually request. So make sure your story has very strong beginning lines.

And this really is personal preference, but if your manuscript is fantasy or dystopian or [insert whatever the hell you want here] don’t reveal every little detail about your world in the query. You might say, “Then how will you know what my book’s about?” but leaving out those details usually makes me even more interested and eager to read, and more likely to request pages.

Intern Rachel: Learn to love revising.

Editors often tell me they’re never sure how good a writer is until they’ve been through one round of revisions together. Some authors are married to their first draft, but it's the authors who are able to see how moving those essential threads around, and even clipping a whole ream of them, can better reveal that inner beast of the story who really have what it takes.

And beyond that, you'll need all that inventiveness and persistence to keep playing the publishing game—this industry is built on second and third and fiftieth tries. So learn it early.

Intern Milan: Write and write well.

Intern Cassandra: Writing is a business. Treat it that way. Schedules, professionalism, etc.

Intern Miranda: Proofread. I know an editor who won't read beyond a cover letter with typos and once saw a pretty good proposal get declined because a different editor wasn't confident enough in the writer's grammar.


Naughty Intern: At my place of internment, I would demand more field trips.

If I were holding publishing at gunpoint, I’d say, “Give me all your money, bitch.”

And then, I would say, “Give the smaller books a chance, too,” because it seems like every book being published these days is being pitched as the next big thing.

Intern Rachel: In all honesty, if I had the industry at gunpoint it would be hard not to demand my own imprint (and maybe to be John Green’s BFF).

But really what I want is to see publishers let go of some of their safety nets—those very typical stories that everyone expects will succeed. I want to see more books with diverse characters (and I mean that in every sense of the word, from gender to sexuality to race to ability and more). More of those characters accurately depicted on covers. More female leads and greater faith in boys to read about them.

I want the industry to do its job in questioning every stereotype that crops up in what we publish and refusing to perpetuate the tropes that dis-empower people.

There are a ton of good people in publishing doing this already, and I am so grateful for all the wonderful work that they do. But I think a lot of the big players are afraid to take too many risks. Sometimes I want to smack someone upside the head and say “Hey, teens these days don’t care half as much about that model's skin color as you do!”

Intern Milan: A physical office, my own cubicle, a fancy email, free lunch & coffee, pecuniary compensation, an actual job (promotion? yes please).

Intern Miranda: A cushy, secure gig with a salary, benefits, and unlimited editing-from-home days that allows me to read and make good writing happen for a living. Brilliant authors who provide intellectually stimulating discussions and collaborations with no conflicts. Commercial success for the best writing. And for Toni Morrison to be more valuable than Snooki.


Naughty Intern: There are some things that you should never, ever compare your book to in a query letter. The Jersey Shore is one of them. This is why they invented the mark-as-spam button...

Intern Rachel: It’s a community. We often think of artists, especially writers, as toiling in isolation. And I think that at one time they sort of did. But now we’re all so close—because the heart of the industry lies in one city, because it’s so in flux and writers and publishers change imprints and houses all the time, because we now have all these fabulous ways to connect and move around and share our ideas—that it’s hard to remain anonymous.

That can put a lot of pressure on a writer, but it's also this great opportunity to meet other people and share ideas with them. And, like in any community, you get out of it about as much as you put in. Interacting with readers, collaborating with authors, and offering help and praise wherever and whenever you feel so moved really does pay off.

Intern Milan: Interns read, interns reject. Very few make it to the agent or editor's desk.

As much I take pleasure in sending rejection letters (sadistic? kind of.), I am determined to unearth the next best book from the slush pile. Send your novels. I will plow through submissions until I can find The Book.

Intern Cassandra: It only takes one agent/editor to say yes.


If you would like to know more about these illustrious interns, you may stalk them at the URLs below.

Intern Rachel has a blog here.
Intern Cassandra has a blog here.
Intern Miranda has a blog here.
Naughty Intern has a very naughty blog which shall remain nameless.

*Intern Rachel is now an Editorial Assistant. She retains the title "intern" in this post for the purposes of Illustrious Intern solidarity.


  1. The only one of these I was familiar with before your post was Cassandra. It's nice to see different viewpoints of people who work in the industry.

    So thanks to her, and the others, and The Intern for this "roundtable" discussion. (Hopefully far fewer members of it will go crazy than those associated with the Algonquin Roundtable, though.)

  2. Ah, anything that makes the insides of a publishing house less murky is wonderful. I've fed my book in at one end and now waiting patiently for it to be spat out the other. I like to think there's a lot of clockwork between those two points. And hamster wheels.

  3. Interns Unite! Also, reformulating query to include "lunchtime, free lunch, and out to lunch."

  4. Fellow Interns, your lists of demands made me laugh (and force all that repressed pain back out of my mind where it belongs) -- I remember being a not-yet-employed intern SO WELL. It will totally happen for you. Hope you're still sharing such great insights when you have that email address.

  5. Discovered yesterday that you were blogging again, and have been catching up on the new posts!
    I really like this one, it's very interesting to hear from other interns, and what they think.