Welcome Bridget Smith on the blog! Bridget is a literary agent with Dunham Literary, and also runs a fabulous podcast that covers agenting, publishing and fannishness. If you’re not listening to Shipping & Handling, which she records with fellow agent Jennifer Udden, go! listen now! (OK, maybe after you read this post)
What are you looking for/hoping for that you DON’T see coming into your query box?
BS: I always want more YA fantasy, particularly the kind with complex, original worlds and vividly drawn characters. I’d especially like some that’s a bit more optimistic: everything has gone dark and deadly since A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE became popular. While that’s all well and good – I love the series too – I’d also like something that sparkles, especially in YA. This doesn’t mean low-stakes! You can put the world in danger while also writing a book as gorgeous as Robin McKinley’s THE HERO AND THE CROWN, as hopeful as Tamora Pierce’s ALANNA, or as charming as Neil Gaiman’s STARDUST. (No pressure.)
What kinds of protagonists are you looking for? Any particular kinds of voices you’d like to see?
BS: I would love a voice reminiscent of CODE NAME VERITY – everyone talks about the plot with that book, but for me it was all about that whip-smart, take-charge, instantly charming voice (see also: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE; THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY). But that’s a rare and specific kind of voice. In general, I’m looking for voices that I’ll still hear in my head after I finish the book, voices so strong they affect the way I speak. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy; sometimes eloquent, sometimes gruff; always memorable.
But I like lots of different kinds of protagonists! I particularly like women and girls, but I’m certainly not anti-male. What I really want are the ones with something interesting to say and an interesting way of saying it. Among other things, this means I’d love to see more diverse characters (and writers).
Do you respond to all queries that come to you, or does no response mean no?
BS: I do respond to all, though I’m not always as quick as I’d like to be.
You recently marathoned Battlestar Galactica and you performed an experiment in microgravity for NASA (so cool, BTW). What are some of your favorite recent YA sci-fi titles, and what kind of YA sci-fi are you looking for for your list?
BS: I really enjoyed RED RISING by Pierce Brown, though it’s not strictly YA, and CINDER etc. by Marissa Meyer. Scott Westerfeld’s LEVIATHAN trilogy, though steampunk (which is basically historical sci-fi, right?), reimagines WWI beautifully and intricately; similarly, his EXTRAS was by far my favorite of the UGLIES series because of the way it used the speculative elements to build an interesting society (that was, in fact, the entire point of the book). Patrick Ness’s CHAOS WALKING series is extraordinary: smart, painful, thrilling, and told in an unforgettable voice.
Right now I’m not necessarily seeking YA sci-fi, as it needs to be extraordinary to gain any traction, but I’m certainly still open to it! I’d love to see more that focuses on the science part of science fiction, or that is genuinely interested in the worldbuilding. A mix-up also led me to the joke idea of “BSC meets BSG” – and then I decided I really wanted it. So if you have something (probably MG) about teenagers acting as babysitters on board a spaceship carrying the remnants of humanity, taking care of little kids while their parents go off to fight and search and die, well, send it my way!
What’s one hobby/interest/quirk you’d love to see a YA protagonist have that you generally don’t see?
BS: I don’t often see protagonists with all-consuming devotion to something: future Olympians, future astronauts, future politicians, future knights, etc. The kind of driven character who spends all their time working toward a goal. People like that are rare in real life, so I’m not surprised they’re also rare in fiction. But I’d love to see more characters who inspire me to get stuff done.
What are some of your favorite movies and TV shows?
BS: I watch a lot more TV than movies, and I tend to get more invested in them. My newest favorite show is Sleepy Hollow, because it’s exactly the right kind of ridiculous and the central partnership is so compelling. Others I currently love include Hannibal and all its gorgeous creepy heartbreak, Parks & Rec for being a bastion of joy, and Community for being both smart and goofy.
Add in some old favorites, too, like Pushing Daisies, Firefly, The West Wing, The X-Files, Doctor Who, Slings & Arrows, Bones, Arrested Development, Downton Abbey, and enough others that I should really stop. (I got really into Netflix in college. I even had a system worked out to get through the DVDs most efficiently.)
If I saw a book based on the concept of X, I’d pee my pants with excitement! (fill in the blank!)
BS: Honestly, the concept alone rarely does this for me – not without matching execution! I’d always rather see a really great novel with a premise I’d never have thought of. That said…in addition to all the stuff mentioned above, I’d love a YA contemporary based on “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, a YA historical based on “Dust Bowl Dance” by Mumford & Sons, and a YA contemporary with two narrators destined to be best friends but who don’t meet until the end of the book (a la How I Met Your Mother).
And my boss would probably like me to add that she really wants a high-stakes YA or MG novel about climate change.
Do you keep an organized manuscript reading queue? Or do you jump around your submission pile according to what manuscript catches your fancy in the moment?
BS: I read in the order they arrive, unless someone emails to tell me they have an offer and need a quick response! I’m excited to read all the manuscripts I request, so going (approximately) in order feels fairest to me. This is why you also shouldn’t worry if agents don’t respond to you right away: it doesn’t mean we’re not interested or that we won’t love your manuscript.
Does a YA novel have to have romance to work?
BS: It often seems that way, doesn’t it? Romances certainly do tend to help YA novels in the market, and that element of discovering love is definitely a part of teenage experiences, for both actual teenagers and the adults who read YA to remember those feelings. It was certainly always one of my favorite parts of the books I read as a teen! That said, a shoehorned romance helps no one. The romance can’t be there just because of some arbitrary “requirement” of the YA market, or it won’t work. The emotions need to shine. And I’d love to see more YA novels that focus on the other kinds of love teenagers are struggling with as well: more friendship stories, more family stories, more self-acceptance stories.
What YA novel cliches do you love? Which ones do you hate?
BS: I do not like the Bad Boy with a Heart of Gold character: I had nothing but scorn for him in my extremely prudent youth, so it takes a lot to convince me of his worth now. What I DO like (because, again, extremely prudent youth) is unrequited love, or at least love that is believed to be unrequited. Some good old-fashioned hopeless pining works for me!
You have a podcast with fellow agent Jennifer Udden, Shipping & Handling, which often discusses fannish topics. What is your fandom history? Did you read/write fanfic, and if so, does it inform your current literary tastes at all?
BS: I did indeed read & write fanfic, and it’s still out there, though it’s obviously not under my real name! Harry Potter, absolutely, and various TV shows: ongoing and still-developing universes that had lots of dark corners to play in. Digging through endless piles of fanfic to find the stuff that was both quality and to my taste definitely prepared me for the slush pile! And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that process was refining my taste and helping me focus on what makes fiction sing for me. I place a huge emphasis on character and voice, it turns out: I wrote a lot of missing scenes that were also character studies, and a long, plotty fic was not in itself alluring.
And bringing it back to Shipping & Handling–what are your plans for the podcast in 2014? Any topics we can look forward to?
BS: We would very much like to get it up on iTunes! We’ve had some technical difficulties, but we’re hoping this will happen soon. We’ve got some topic ideas, but we’re always open to more: send publishing questions or topic suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Bridget Smith began her career at Dunham Literary, Inc. in June 2011. Previously, she was an intern at Don Congdon Associates, worked at a secondhand book store in Connecticut, and evaluated short story submissions for Tor.com under Liz Gorinsky and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. She graduated from Brown University in 2010. While there, she studied anthropology and archaeology.
See her submission guidelines on Dunham Literary’s website
Follow Bridget on Twitter
Listen to her podcast, Shipping & Handling
A recent Writer’s Digest interview