Congratulations to author and literary agent Sera Rivers, who just signed with Katie Shea Boutillier of Donald Maass Literary for her YA contemporary, JEZEBEL.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you’ve found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Fifteen-year-old Sarai Brooks must learn how to break free from the cult’s indoctrination, find faith in herself, and become fierce and brave—like Queen Jezebel—if she is to become the loving parent she never had. JEZEBEL (YA) is based on my experience growing up in the 90s in a patriarchal, fundamentalist cult that represses women, shuns those who leave, and instills the fear that everyone outside the cult will be killed by God’s army. This book was originally conceived as a memoir, THE WICKED ONES, which won the 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award for unpublished work.
JEZEBEL touches upon themes of spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Like my main character Sarai, I suffer from panic disorder and PTSD from the spiritual and domestic abuse I endured. I was also a teen mom, and like Sarai’s son, my child almost died in childbirth. My hope is to empower young adults in the knowledge that sexuality is a part of being human, that making mistakes does not make you wicked, and that you can choose your own path in life and be successful, despite odds against you.
2. Did you query books before the one you signed with your agent? How many books/how many years? Give us a peek at what your own personal timeline to being agented has looked like.
This is a tricky answer because I first wrote this book as memoir in 2006 for NANOWRIMO. I then revised it on and off for the next ten years. I queried for about two-and-a-half years before I got my first agent in 2016. She has since left agenting.
I then looked to rewrite this as a novel. This fictionalized version took me one year to figure out the plot and then four years to write and revise. I started querying the novel version in early March and signed with my agent at the end of August.
I’ve written professional development books for educational publishers. I’ve written two other novels as well. But this is the first book that got me my agents.
3. You’re an agent yourself, with Speilburg Literary. Do you think you approached querying any differently because of your experience on the other side of the desk? Is there anything about being an agent that changed your perspective on querying?
I would say the only difference about querying now versus querying before I became an agent is my perspective on wait times. It’s easy for me to spiral into negative thinking about my writing: it totally sucks; who would ever want to read my stories, etc. But being an agent really helped me realize that not hearing back from an agent for a long period of time only means one thing: they have not made a decision yet. This could be for many reasons, such as they haven’t had a chance to read the query yet, they’re on vacation or are sick, they’re swamped with client work, or they have read the query and are still considering it. Waiting is so hard, but it’s the nature of publishing. Every step of the way is a waiting game. I still get anxious, but I remind myself how much I love writing, and I would rather wait than not pursue publication.
4. Was there anything you’d point to as a turning point or turning points where you really leveled up your writing?
When I got laid off from my job in 2009 due to the recession, I knew it was time to go back to college to hone my writing craft and transition into a career in the publishing industry. I started volunteering for my regional chapter of SCBWI and spent several years learning everything about writing for children and the business side of publishing.
5. How did you find the agent who eventually offered? (Cold query, contest, introduction from a writing friend, conference, etc.)
When I read Katie Shea Boutillier’s MSWL, I knew we’d be a great match! But she was closed to public queries! Fortunately, another agent forwarded my query to her because they thought the same, and she requested the manuscript.
6. Tell me about the call. How did you know this agent was the right fit for you?
The call was pure magic! Katie got my story, like truly GOT IT! Which was a big deal for me because of how close to my heart this story is. I knew she was the right agent because she checked off all the boxes of what I’m looking for in an agent: communication style, submission and career strategies, editorial feedback, to name a few things. Plus, it was very clear that she would be a fierce advocate for this book.
7. Do you have any favorite resources you’d share to help other writers learn to query successfully?
Writer’s Digest has some great information on querying. Publishers Marketplace is also a valuable resource, though it is subscription based. I have learned so many helpful querying tips over the years! I’ve put everything I’ve learned into a webinar presentation called SEEKING REPRESENTATION: NEXT LEVEL QUERYING. The workshop focuses on how to find the right agent, what to include in a query letter, and what to do when offered representation. I’m teaching this webinar live on September 13 at 7PM EST.
People can sign up here: https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Qo70ITy7QuSJ5wfDrVU5xQ
The recording will be available on demand for registrants who cannot attend the live event.
8. What is your top tip for other querying writers?
Never give up. Be open to—learning, adapting your strategy, revising your manuscript if you receive similar feedback. And also, turn to your writing community for support when you need it.
Sera Rivers is a Literary Agent at Speilburg Literary, an AALA member, and a writer. She holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. Prior to agenting, Sera worked as an editor in educational publishing for seven years. Sera lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner. When she’s not reading, writing, or story slamming, she can be found running all over New England training for her next ultramarathon.
“Working with Michelle was a fantastic experience! She was professional, communicative, and met deadlines. Most of all, she gave an in-depth, detailed review of my novel with specific feedback on how to strengthen weaknesses, such as pacing, consistency issues, and character arc/growth. She also did a stellar job pointing out specific places where trauma was presented in a way that could potentially give the wrong message. Her critique allowed me to move forward with a clear vision for revision. She left no question unanswered. I highly recommend working with Michelle!
I highly recommend Michelle for whole novel critique, feedback on synopsis, and feedback on trauma representation in fiction.”
-Sera Rivers, literary agent and author (YA Contemporary)