Purple Prose + YA

Q & A with Joanna Volpe

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I won a blog contest. My prize was a ten page crit and a five minute phone conversation with Joanna Volpe (agent). This is NOT a transcription of the phone call. I scribbled some notes and as soon as I hung up, I was typing the answers like crazy.

1. What are your biggest pet peeves when reading the first chapter? (Note: Joanna doesn’t request sample pages with the query. Her manuscript requests are based on query alone.)

• When the writer starts at the wrong point in the story. Maybe she should have started on page three or on chapter two.

• When the story starts with forced back story. In other words, the back story doesn’t have to be there for the reader to get what’s going on. It can be delayed until later, if it’s needed at all.

• When a character has powers and the beginning opens with her using the powers just show she has them. It comes off sounding forced, and that’s a big turn off.

2. If you have key background information but don’t want to reveal for awhile to create suspense, how can you do this without driving your readers crazy?

(I’m going to use an example here without naming the book. I was stunned when Joanna knew which book I was talking about. Turns out she had been involved with the project when she was an editorial assistant.)

Example: In the YA book, the main character has witnessed her best friend being raped. She’s the last person to see the friend alive. The main character was drunk at the time and doesn’t report what happens. Her friend goes missing. Near the end of the book, her body is found. However, even though the mc knows about the rape from before page one, the reader doesn’t find out the truth until the climax. (If you want to know which book I’m talking about, send me an email. It’s a great book.)

Joanna’s answer: You have to determine what the main focus of the story is. In this case, it was the main character coming to age, not the rape and disappearance of her best friend. The latter part was the inciting incident, but the story was really about how the main character grew as she dealt with her guilt. Pacing, storytelling, and tension also play a role.

3. What should a writer do if they query an agent and land a request, but before they receive the request, they win a critique from a different agent for a portion of their manuscript? The feedback resulted in substantial changes. Should they mention this to the requesting agent?

If the agent is responding to a query alone, the answer is just send the requested material. But if the writer sent sample pages with the query, she should mention to the requesting agent that the writer won a critique in a contest, which resulted in rewrites to the sample pages.

4. When someone participates in a conference pitch session, how long should the pitch be?

It depends on the length of the session. Basically, the pitch should be half the length of the session. If it’s ten minutes, then your pitch should be five minutes long. It gives time for the agent to ask questions, but it’s also long enough so the agent isn’t still left wondering what your book is about. And it should definitely be longer than a one liner.

Can the writer reader her pitch? Yes. Agents don’t expect you to memorize them. [Remember, you’re selling your book, not auditioning to play a role in a movie.]

5. What do you wish writers would ask you during THE CALL?

She didn’t have any specific questions, though she likes it when potential clients ask how she works so they know if they’ll mesh together as a team. If she’s calling the writer, it means she’s passionate about the book and really wants to represent it. She’s trying to sell herself to the writer.

6. Do you have advice for writers who want to write in different genres, for example MG and YA, or different subgenres within YA (paranormal, contemporary, and thrillers)?

Write what you want to write. It really depends on the writer, and it’s something that the individual and her agent would discuss. It certainly isn’t a problem. Published authors are doing it all the time. For example, Suzanne Collins had a successful middle grade series before The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Joanna pointed out that maybe because Suzanne had the successful series first, the violence in The Hunger Games wasn’t as much of a problem as it might have been if she had been a new author.

She also said that if you write a middle grade fantasy series, writing a YA one makes sense. Your readers will eventually outgrow the middle grade series and will move onto your YA one. Bonus for you.

I hope you found the answers helpful. If you’re interested in querying Joanna (and I highly recommend it. She’s super sweet), check out these sites for more info about her. And make sure you’re querying what she’s looking for.

Mother. Write. Repeat

Literary Rambles


I’m not a big fan of blogfests. But Steena Holmes is having one you don’t want to miss out on. Why? Because there’s an ultra cool prize for the best logline.

That’s right. Steena is hosting a logline blogfests/contest on Monday (which means there’s no photography post next week) to help us prepare for the MSFV December auction.

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Q & A with Joanna Volpe + YA