Friday, March 2, 2012

Tales from the Slush Pile with Agent Sarah LaPolla

Today I’m pleased to welcome agent Sarah LaPolla, an associate at Curtis Brown, Ltd, to the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference Blog.

Sarah is an associate agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She studied creative writing at Ithaca College and has an MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School. In 2008, she joined Curtis Brown, Ltd. full time as the assistant to the foreign rights department, and became an associate agent in 2010.

Sarah represents both adult and YA fiction. For adult books, she is looking for literary fiction, urban fantasy, magical realism, mystery, literary horror, and has a soft spot for short story collections.

On the YA side, she welcomes contemporary/realistic fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, mystery, and horror. No matter what age the intended audience, Sarah tends to be drawn to voice-driven narratives, strong female protagonists, and complex characters.

Sarah runs a literary blog called Glass Cases ( and can be found on Twitter at @sarahlapolla.

This coming April, she can be found taking individual pitches at the Missouri Writers’ Guild annual creative writing conference, billed as the 2012 “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now! Conference.

Sarah, thank you for taking the time to make a guest appearance on our conference blog. I’m hoping what we talk about today will help conference-goers prepare better pitches for you at our upcoming conference.

Sarah’s reply: Thanks for having me!

Question: To get us started, are there any specific plot lines that you’d love to find or any plot lines that you’re tired of seeing in your slush pile?

Sarah: I think the only plot I prefer to avoid is “Girl or Boy meets Girl or Boy and suddenly their life has meaning.” Since I don’t represent romance, I need more than that to keep reading. I always look for who the characters are outside of their relationship with each other, and what else is happening around them. In terms of what I’m looking for in a plot, I really couldn’t say. I want something that will excite me or challenge me, and I need characters who will keep me interested in the story, no matter what the plot is.

Q: You represent several different types of writing – from literary fiction to magical realism with a special place for short story collections. What percentages does each genre represent in your slush pile?

Sarah: I wish I could do a pie chart for this question! I’m seeing more literary fiction in my slush pile lately, but I’d say it’s still around 30% of my total queries. Contemporary YA and fantasy YA make up the majority of the submissions. YA genre fiction, adult magical realism, and short story collections make up 5-10% total. I’d like to see more of them.

Q:  Are there any types of submissions you don’t accept but repeatedly show up in your slush pile?

Sarah: Yes. I don’t do children’s or picture books, category romance, or general nonfiction; yet they always manage to find me.

Q: Do you get involved in the editing of a manuscript or proposal before sending it out?

Sarah: It depends on the manuscript, but usually I am pretty hands on when it comes to editing. I usually work with a client on a revision or two (if needed) before going out on submission, and usually before I even offer representation. Revision is a different skill set than writing, and it’s important to know a potential client can do both.

Q: On your Blog, Glass Cases, you said you like talking about books, publishing, pop culture and promoting up-and-coming authors. Why do you like working with debut authors? In your answer, could you include an example or two from a current debut author you’re working with right now? KM Walton, perhaps?

Sarah: Part of why I wanted to be an agent was to see a project come to fruition from the beginning. It’s hard to get published and there are so many great writers out there who want to break in. I love being able to help them do that. My client, KM Walton, had her debut novel, CRACKED (Simon Pulse), come out earlier this year. She had sent out over 100 queries for longer than I had even been an agent. I like to think she just had to wait for me to get here. Her query came through the slush pile and she had no reason to think it would turn out differently than the others, but her novel just blew me away. It went on to be the first project I sold as an agent.

Q:  How can writers get something posted on your blog? How do you pick what you post?

Sarah: Writers can submit 1500-word excerpts or flash fiction to my blog at What I post on the blog is not always the same as what I choose to represent. More importantly, submissions to the blog are not considered for representation. Any queries to me via the blog address get instantly deleted without being read. They are two different areas and the blog in no way represents Curtis Brown, Ltd. As long as a story is well-written fiction or narrative nonfiction, and isn’t inappropriate in any way, then it usually gets posted. I don’t treat Glass Cases as a lit magazine or an industry blog. It’s a place for writers.  

Q: You became an agent at Curtis Brown in 2008. In the past three, almost four years, what is the most surprising or unusual thing that’s happened to you as an agent?

Sarah: I started working at Curtis Brown in 2008, but I didn’t become an agent until 2010. I began (and still work) in the foreign rights department. I think the most surprising thing for me was how much I’d enjoy working in foreign rights. Then, of course, being given the chance to build a client list is also up there with surprises. Both were very nice!

Q: Thanks for the clarification. Who knew foreign rights could be enjoyable? My last question, since you’ll be taking pitches at the conference, is could you talk about the elements that a good pitch would include?

Sarah: A good pitch is one that tells me what the book is about right away. Writers sometimes get nervous during pitches, so they end up giving too much or too little information. I think the most important thing to remember when pitching to an agent is that we want to hear about your book. We’re there to hear about it. But if we don’t know what it’s about, we won’t know why we should read it.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add, for anyone who’s thinking about pitching you at the MWG conference?

Sarah: 1) Make sure what you’re pitching to me is something I represent. 2) Don’t be nervous! Most agents are just book nerds like you. :)

Sarah, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate the insights you’ve shared – especially about how it’s important for agents to know writers can work through the revision process and your thoughts on pitching. I hope they will help our conference goers as they decide who is the best person to hear their own pitches.

If anyone would like to learn more about Sarah, I recommend checking out her other interviews here and here. To learn more about her submission guidelines, visit Curtis Brown’s website

Did you like what Sarah had to say? Let us know by leaving a comment and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a Missouri Writers' Guild Conference tote bag. Sharing this blog via Twitter, Facebook, or a blog post earns you additional chances to win.

If you haven’t registered for the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now! Conference, click here. If you have, thank you and we’re looking forward to seeing you in April. With agents like Sarah, faculty like Jane Friedman and authors like Claire Cook, it’s going to be one of our best conferences yet.


  1. Great interview with lots of good tips! looking forward to seeing Sarah at the conference!

  2. Thank you both for a great interview and good information.