Monika Woods is a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She is a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course and has worked at Trident Media Group and InkWell Management, where she worked closely with leading voices in contemporary literature. Her interests include literary and commercial fiction and compelling non-fiction in food, popular culture, journalism, science, and current affairs. Monika is particularly excited about plot-driven literary novels, non-fiction that is creatively critical, unique perspectives, a great cookbook, and above all, original prose.
Taylor: What attracted you to becoming a literary agent?
Monika: I love the idea of being someone’s fan and then having the privilege of working with them. It’s a pretty incredible way to spend your days, being a professional fan. I took the Columbia Publishing Course, and when I finally met some agents I just thought, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do.’ Once I realized how closely they work with writers themselves, I was pretty determined to become an agent.
Taylor: When you open a query letter, what are the things that are instant turn offs and turn ons?
Monika: Queries are an extension of your writing and your personality, and so for me, queries that exemplify both are exciting. I also really love to see that writers are engaged with literary culture, or that they’ve read a book I’ve worked on, or an essay by one of my clients and know my taste firsthand. I love a short, persuasive query that just basically convinces me to read the sample material!
Taylor: Can I ask you a little more about this? I ask because so many aspiring writers I know don’t know how to write a query letter properly or what the line is between showing you their personality and being professional and thus a little cold. When I queried, I erred more on the side of being more professional and brief. I know many writers who feel it is appropriate to compare their work to the work of famous writers, i.e. “my work has often been compared to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, or Jennifer Egan.” I am not in favor of this personally and try to dissuade people from doing it. What do you think about this? And can you give a couple examples of things writers do in their query letters that make agents cringe or roll their eyes?
Monika: It’s all about trying to establish yourself as a professional, I think, like in any field. It’s your introduction to someone you might end up working closely with, so I think a good strategy is to be authentic and genuine, and write your query so it’s a good indication of the kind of working relationship you would like to have. One thing I would definitely avoid is querying an agent via their personal, private Instagram account!
Taylor: What type of work excites you most when you read a writer’s sample? Do you usually know instantly when you want to work with someone as his/her agent?
Monika: Sometimes, yes, because some people write killer first sentences! But sometimes it takes a while. For fiction, it’s rare that I’ll be sure I want to work with someone before I’ve read a completed novel.
Taylor: What is something you wish writers understood about agents and their lives/schedules, something that would make the working relationship better?
Monika: We have a LOT of reading to do, AND we sometimes want to read published books! I think literally at this moment I have ten manuscripts to read! It all just takes time.
Taylor: And isn’t it true that agents are often reading and considering new work they get via query letters off the clock, i.e. not during 9-5 hours? Many writers don’t understand that agents take a lot of time to read and consider new work, even if they ultimately pass and they usually do it during their free time. Many writers see agents as cold or indifferent beings that are out to reject them but agents are often going above and beyond to search for something they feel passionate about. Would you agree with that? Is there anything you would like to add about writers’ perceptions or misperceptions of agents?
Monika: Agents are eternal optimists who believe that they will discover something amazing. We take a lot of personal time to read stories, essays, twitter, manuscripts. I read manuscripts on the train, on the weekend, during the evenings, especially when I’m reading something good!
Taylor: Once you gave me the following advice when I was feeling down about how the publishing process was going: “In the end, the writing wins. So, don’t worry.” This helped me a lot at the time in terms of trusting the quality of my work and refocusing on it all being about the writing, not about me. Do you have other advice that you have found to be invaluable? And explain more about what you mean about “the writing wins.”
Monika: I just truly believe that good writing is all that matters. You have to do the work, and sustain doing the work over a long period of time. Otherwise one can’t have a long-term career as a writer. To me, each writer is building their own audience, one person at a time. They have to convince actual individual humans to buy their book. I think you have to prove yourself to be able to keep doing that over your lifetime as a professional writer.
Taylor: Do you think it’s important for an author to know how to engage an audience and read well, interview well, or is that just a bonus when it happens? Are agents hoping for someone who can present him or herself well and be engaging?
Monika: I think the answer to this is yes, but it’s not unconditional! Building that audience happens in a lot of different ways these days, so I would encourage authors to deeply consider which ways work best for them and get good at it.
Taylor: You’re a writer, in addition to being an agent with a piece recently out in Joyland Magazine. How have you juggled both roles/interests?
Monika: For me, they’re really compatible. My entire career so far has taught me how to be a writer: how to edit, how to juggle ideas and character, develop settings, have ideas about publicity, work on social media. Writers have so much on their plates. I don’t think I could be a writer without being an agent. I try to give myself the advice I give my clients: It’s all about the writing, take your time, don’t give up, be ambitious. That kind of stuff.
Taylor: Will you discuss some of the books that caused you to fall in love with literature over the course of your life?
Monika: This is such a hard question. I think the big one would be KING, QUEEN, KNAVE by Vladimir Nabokov. It was just so different from all the American classics I’d read until then, and it really opened my eyes to what a writer could do. I also loved Sylvia Plath and L.M. Montgomery, and I think that shapes my taste a lot: I love writing by and about young women. In terms of non-fiction, the book I come back to time and time again is RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It blew me away.
Taylor: What is the most heartbreaking aspect of your profession? And what is the most wonderful part?
Monika: The most heartbreaking aspect is when a writer I desperately believe in gets bad news, and the most wonderful is giving them good news.
Taylor: What advice would you give to aspiring writers, to those who have tried hard to get an agent but have not yet succeeded?
Monika: Take yourself seriously and don’t stop trying.
Taylor: What are some of your biggest goals for your career? And how have you changed over the years from being a newbie agent to now being an established one?
Monika: My goal is for my clients to feel taken care of and supported and successful, and that will never change. I’m a pretty patient person. It’s all about them. Publishing is a challenging and competitive world, and my goal is to help each of my writers grow his or her audience and career.
Taylor: You spoke once about the importance of work/life balance both for writers and for agents. Can you explain why you feel that is so important?
Monika: Burning out is a huge risk in publishing- when your work is also your passion, it’s all you do. So when opening a book or getting a manuscript feels wearying instead of exciting, I try to step back and read essays, stories, and journalism. We’re so focused on keeping up with the workflow, writing a certain number of words a day, deadlines, emails, that the fundamental pleasure of what we do can get lost. I’ve definitely been in reading ruts before, and it hurts me professionally to feel that way! Usually, all I need to get out of my funk is a really good book. I call those rut-killers, and when I read one, it’s like I’m a new person.
Taylor: This is great advice. So it really all comes back to the writing, right? I have seen many writers overwhelmed by “the biz” or by being a public figure. So, do you think for writers of all levels it comes down to the writing and the work, regardless of notoriety, success, lack of, etc?
Monika: Being a public figure DOES seem exhausting and scrutinizing. I do think it’s important to always at least have one book that’s not mine with a bookmark in it in my bag, something I’m reading to remind me what I’m working towards. This week I read SEX & RAGE by Eve Babitz and I feel totally inspired. That book came out originally in 1979!
Taylor: Do you have some books releasing soon from authors you’re working with? We’d love to hear about some of your projects.
Monika: Yes! The three clients whose books are closest to releasing are Julia Dixon Evans, whose novel HOW TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE is publishing this spring, Chelsea Hodson’s book TONIGHT I’M SOMEONE ELSE comes out this spring as well, and Alice Bolin’s essay collection DEAD GIRLS will be out this summer!