Agent-Author Interview: Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Ammi-Joan Paquette is known as a bit of a globe-trotter. She spent much of her early years in France, then traveled throughout Europe and to Japan before settling down with her family just outside of Boston.

Her first published picture book is The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, illustrated by Christa Unzner (Tanglewood Press, 2009).

She is also an associate agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, where she represents all forms of children’s and young adult projects. She only accepts queries via referral or from people she has met at conferences.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

I’m definitely one of those people who has been scribbling stories ever since I can remember. What really started me writing seriously with an eye to get published, though, was when my mom passed away in 2003. She’d always loved writing and had talked about pursuing publication, but never seemed to get to that point where she was ready to take the plunge.

After her death, I started writing about her–words poured out of me, more emotion than substance, very raw and stark, but so shockingly real. This was the kick-start that got my writing engine roaring again.

The other thing that inspired me to take my writing to the next level was the birth and growth of my daughters. They’ve been my inspiration, a source of ideas, the ones I measure everything against. They are my reason for doing what I do and a perpetual yardstick for checking my progress.

I can’t say how many times I’ve been exchanging silliness with one of them and have had to stop and scribble down a picture book idea or how often one of our storytimes has sparked the plot for a new novel. I can’t imagine what my writing would be without their inspiration!

Now that they are getting older, it’s very satisfying to see their reactions to what I write. They’re both my greatest encouragement and my toughest critics!

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any bumps or stumbles along the way?

Oh, yes. I’ve had bumps and stumbles galore. No easy, paved road for me!

On the other hand, I’ve been blessed to have enough small successes on the way to keep me striving for the bigger goals that always seem just out of reach.

The road to publication is long and winding, and while it’s different for each person, I think at some point every writer has to just resolve to enjoy the ride, no matter how long or crazy the road gets.

I’ve definitely had my share of rejections, and one of the biggest things I’m still learning is to make every project really stand out. I must have rewritten every one of my manuscripts at least half a dozen times.

And then, just when I think it’s really “there,” I have to go back and rewrite it again. Trim, tighten, clarify. Every project is a work in progress, right up until it goes off to the printer.

I think that is what defines, in the end, the truly successful authors: they are willing to keep chipping away for as long as it takes until that project is right.

Congratulations on The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies (Tanglewood, 2009)! In your own words, could you tell us about the book?

This is a very special book to mark my debut as a children’s author because it has a personal significance for me. It was inspired by a real event with my then five- and seven-year-old daughters. They were not big nature walkers, so I would often make up stories or activities to pass the time while we were out.

One day, I was inspired by this idea of going on a fairy-tracking adventure. We went for a walk in our nearby nature preserve, and I carried along a notepad where I scribbled down ideas of things we saw, and we spontaneously talked about all the “clues” we were seeing. That was when the idea for the book started to take root.

When I got home, I typed up my notes, which were the core of what would become The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies. It was fun to recently come across the photos I took on that first nature walk and to see many of the same scenes that are now illustrated in the book reflected in my pictures!

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The original fairy-tracking adventure took place in the summer of 2004. I revised and rewrote the manuscript off and on throughout the next year, then began sending out a few submissions.

In the summer of 2005, I read an article about Tanglewood Press. Though they are a small publisher, they have a great, widespread distribution system, and their books are top-quality. I decided to give them a try. I sent my baby off and didn’t hear anything for a long time.

About a year later, after nearly forgetting about this submission, I suddenly received a phone call: Was “Tracking Fairies” still available?

And so the process began. From there, it took many months to work out the contract details, and still longer for me to get it through my head that: Yes! This was real!

But now that I’m holding the wonderful finished product in my hands, I can truthfully say–it was the best journey I ever undertook.

What were challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the book to life?

From the start this was a very conceptual book. At one session with my critique group, before hearing back from Tanglewood, we discussed my manuscript. There were a lot of differing opinions about it and suggested directions I could take to improve it.

One person felt I should add more detail and make it more of a “real field guide.” Another person thought it would do best as a chapter book with more of a main character and specific events happening, and so on.

In the end, I decided to wait to hear back before taking any further action, and of course, the best revisions are ones you do hand-in-hand with your editor, because you know you’re working toward a specific goal and that the person who shares your vision is also the one who is going to bring it to life as a Real Book. And in this case, my editor ended up loving it much as it was. But I was impressed by this experience to realize that any given book can be spun off in any number of ways and has the potential to become many different creations.

The magic comes in discovering what we truly want this story to be and coaxing that dream out of the words we are crafting.

When I spoke with my editor about revisions after signing the contract, she summarized her main points and then told me, “You know, what really hooked me was that line in your query letter where you talked about ‘seeing the world through fairy-tinted glasses.'”

In the end, despite any lacks or needs in my manuscript, the core idea–a line in my query letter, no less!–had struck magic with her. She shared my vision of a book that would bring the natural world alive for children in a completely unique and magical way. All the rest was negotiable.

You also wear another hat–you’re a new literary agent! How did this evolve?

Yes, this is a new venture for me, and I’m very excited about it!

I signed with my own agent, Erin Murphy, in 2008. I’ve always been the kind of person who accomplishes more when I have a lot of different things going on. I had been working a day job in educational publishing, and when my company got downsized early this year, I started thinking about other ways to fill my time.

Agenting was something I had long considered but without a viable plan of how I might actually do it. Through one thing and another, I started discussing the idea with Erin, and before I knew it, things were in motion.

It’s now been about three months since I officially began working as an agent. I have a small core of fabulous clients, and a couple weeks ago, I was very excited to make my first sale, a three-book deal for a hilarious middle grade fantasy series. Look out for Elliot and the Goblin War by Jennifer Nielsen from Sourcebooks in 2010!

Why did you want to become an agent specifically?

To me, being an agent is like conducting a perpetual treasure hunt. My clients send me their wonderful manuscripts. My job is to look at all aspects of their projects and the market, follow the clues of concept, style and interest, and match each project up with the right editor who will fall madly in love.

It’s exciting, it’s busy, there’s tons going on every second, and my to-do list changes every day. I absolutely adore it, and I’m so grateful to all the wonderful folks who have made my transition so smooth and easy!

What sort of manuscripts are you looking for?

At this point, I’m really interested in projects that go all across the board. There’s no genre that I’m specifically closed to.

Because I am balancing my time as an agent with my own writing, however, I’m most concerned about keeping a very small and select list. So I find myself being particularly picky and only signing with a client if I feel utterly passionate about his or her work.

Believe it or not, this is one of the hardest parts of my job! I love books and stories, and I tend to see potential in many things I read. It’s excruciatingly hard to turn some projects down.

This has been an interesting experience for me, being on the other side of the rejection letter and seeing that it is absolutely no easier from this angle.

More globally, what is your attitude/approach toward today’s challenging economic market?

In this time, as in any, I firmly believe that great works rise. There is always a need for great literature, and while the challenges might multiply in this sort of economic climate, I think, if anything, it is just a call to all writers to keep crafting and produce your best work.

Write your passion, and it will find its own home.

Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent,” one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues?

I think it depends entirely on the project. I’ve worked with some of my clients quite extensively on their manuscripts. With others, I haven’t found any changes necessary at all.

My goal is to have a manuscript that is complete, well-constructed, and able to snare the emotions of the readers. When a project does all those things, it’s ready to fly out into the world.

What do you see as the ingredients for a “breakout” book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

I know “voice” is something that is frequently brought up for questions such as these, but I really don’t know of any better answer. If there is one thing that makes a submission stand out from the rest for me, it’s that elusive, larger-than-life quality that we define as “voice.”

It’s sometimes flowing and beautiful, sometimes quirky, sometimes biting and snarky, but always interesting, original, unique. It’s a way of stringing words together that moves them beyond printed words: it puts a face behind the text. It paints a real character in your mind. It brings your words to life.

Beyond that, for commercial success, for literary acclaim–who can say? There are as many formulas and “right” ways of doing things as there are successful and critically-acclaimed writers in the world.

For me the key, above all else, is to find your own magic. When you flip that switch that brings your work to life, it’s like the difference in Pinocchio before and after the visit of the Blue Fairy. You just know that all of a sudden, you’re no longer talking to a puppet but a real boy. That’s magic–that’s passion–that’s voice.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

I really wish I could open my doors to all the wonderful submissions I know are out there–but for me, taking it slow is just a necessity.

I’m very happy to receive submissions from anyone I’ve met at a conference or referrals from friends of my existing clients or people I know. Beyond that, I’m closed to queries at this time.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I’ve been surprised at how many people who attach sample chapters from novels send portions from within the text. Always, always send the first chapters in a project rather than some other part. When I get middle chapters, I don’t even read them. How can I possibly hope to be interested, when I don’t have any idea who the characters are, where they are, or what’s going on?

My ideal query is succinct, professional, and has the first 10 pages or so pasted after it in the email. I also like to know what other projects you have completed or in the works, in addition to the one you are querying about.

How much contact will you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs?

The bulk of my communication takes place by email, but my clients are free to contact me by phone as needed, and I call them occasionally, too.

We have a listserv for the whole Erin Murphy Literary Agency client list, which is a great way to exchange information and get to know others in the agency. Recently, we have also begun to organize a yearly retreat.

What are your some of your favorite recent children’s/YA books and why?

Oh, there are so many good ones!

I loved the characters and their interactions in The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas (FSG, 2008)(author interview). Jellico Road by Melina Marchetta (Harper Teen, 2008) drew me in with its structure and mystery. What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (Scholastic, 2008) was dark and riveting. I couldn’t put it down.

The voice and wacky premise of Antsy Does Time by Neal Shusterman (Dutton, 2008) kept me laughing to the last page. Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway (Razorbill, 2008) was funny and sweet and a great read.

And the language in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008)(author interview) was beautiful and evocative and made me want to hold each word in my mind as long as possible.

What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

I’m looking for a close professional relationship of mutual respect and admiration. It’s my privilege to already have signed some fabulously talented authors, and it’s my goal to see each of them published with the right editor, in the right house, and holding their finished books.

I’m looking to be part of my authors’ careers over the long-term, to be there when they have questions or need advice, anything I can do to help them be the best they can be. It’s an honor to be in this position, and I’m loving every minute of it.

Cynsational Notes

Listen to an interview with Ammi-Joan from Suzanne Lieurance at Book Bites for Kids on Blog Talk Radio. Peek: “Children’s author Ammi-Joan Paquette talks with host Suzanne Lieurance about her new book, The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies.”

Read a Cynsations interview with Erin Murphy on Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

One thought on “Agent-Author Interview: Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency

  1. Your accomplishments can inspire anybody in this field. It only proves and shows that hard work and dedication always succeed.

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