SDSU Writers’ Conference: Five Questions with Literary Agent Thao Le

Thao Le

Thao Le, Literary Agent

1. What’s the best advice you can give to writers who are right now polishing their pitches, query letters and first 10 pages of their manuscripts in preparation for the upcoming SDSU Writers’ Conference?
Avoid being generic, vague, or too general in your pitch. It comes off as cliché and doesn’t tell the agent anything about your story. Your story should be unique and you should present that uniqueness by being as specific as possible. I don’t want to know that your story is dystopian, I want to know WHY it is THE dystopian story that I should invest my time into. What makes it stand out amongst all the rest. And if you need help, find your favorite books and read the descriptions on the back of the book or inside the book jacket. See how those books are pitched to readers, learn from them.

2. Can you share one of the best and one of the worst opening lines from query letters you’ve received?
The worst opening lines are always something along the lines of “This book will be a major bestseller!”, usually followed up with “because my [insert family member, significant other, or friend here] says so!”. Family and friends are biased and they have absolutely no credibility to me as an agent in terms of how good the manuscript is.

I really like it when the author knows how to use quotes from their manuscript in their query effectively. For instance, when Katherine Harbour sent me the query for Thorn Jack, it started with, “They call us things with teeth.” And immediately I was intrigued by who “they” were and why they would call “us” things with teeth. It was incredibly chilling and spooky in all the right ways. It immediately set a tone and a sense of mystery. S.K. Falls also does the same thing in her blurb for One Last Song, her dark NA about Munchausen. [Editor’s note: NA is New Adult, the literary category for the approximate 18-24-year-old reader.] She started with the line “I was seven when I swallowed my first needle.” WOWZA! I was hooked. It conjured up such a vivid image of the character. I knew it was going to be twisted (again, in a good way) and I just HAD to know more about this character.

3. What’s the first book that spoke to you as a young reader?
Diane Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (and everything else by this incredible woman). I loved her interconnected worlds, I loved the clever plotting and the twists, and the unique magic. I always feel SO satisfied when I finish a Diana Wynne Jones book. She manages to weave the most complicated plots and yet towards the end I feel like everything had a purpose, everything made sense in the cleverest way. She made me want to read the books over and over again to spot her genius foreshadowing and hints and clues.

4. If you had to choose only one, what’s your favorite book?
Oh gosh, this is always the most difficult question. I can’t just pick one, but I’ll pick a favorite that I read this year: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I admit that I picked it up when I heard it was going to be a movie and I was worried it was overhyped and it’s not a genre I usually enjoy so I was really surprised by how much I liked it and how much my thoughts kept lingering to it. The best books stick with you long after you’ve finished.

5. What do you hope to find at the 31st Annual SDSU Writers’ Conference?
Currently I’m looking for more middle grade (adventurous, spooky, but with heart). For YA I’d like to see more uniquely reimagined stories with lots of mythology (especially if it’s inspired by a non-Western culture’s mythology/folklore) and unreliable (possibly unhinged/twisted/damaged) narrators/protagonists (I like my villains/morally gray protagonists). For New Adult I want to see less about the college life and more about the protagonist figuring out his/her career (I’d KILL for a NA about an aspiring chef). Also I’m a sucker for the slow burn type of romance with the occasional clashes/butting of heads. For adult speculative fiction I’d love to see more sci-fi/futuristic thrillers. You can find more of my wish list items via my #MSWL tag on twitter (@thaole8) or on my tumblr: www.agentthao.tumblr.com

For more information about the SDSU Writers’ Conference, visit neverstoplearning.net/writers