Q&A with Literary Agent Patricia Nelson, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

March 22, 2017 | By | Reply More

Patricia Nelson joined Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2014. She represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and is actively building her list.

In general, Patricia looks for stories that hook her with a unique plot, fantastic writing and complex characters that jump off the page. On the adult side, she is seeking women’s fiction both upmarket and commercial, historical fiction set in the 20th century, and compelling plot-driven literary fiction.

She’s also looking for sexy, smart adult contemporary and historical single title romance. On the children’s side, Patricia is open to a wide range of genres of YA and MG, with particular interest in contemporary/realistic, magical realism, mystery, science fiction and fantasy. She is interested in seeing diverse stories and characters, including LGBTQ, in all genres that she represents.

Patricia is a member of SCBWI and RWA. She received her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 2008 (GO TRIBE!! – from the interviewer), and also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the world of publishing, she spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing.

Thank you, Patricia, for joining us here at WomenWritersWomen[‘s]Books and taking the time to answer our readers’ questions.


Where does one find an agent? There are so many of you, yet somehow it feels the opposite. Our careers are on the line with this one decision. How, beyond your agency website, can writers get to know you and your specific preferences?

There are lots of great resources for beginning a query list: I would start with QueryTracker, ManuscriptWishlist.com, and Publisher’s Marketplace, where you can get expansive lists of agents, what genres they represent, and existing clients.

Once you have a preliminary list of agents to query, the good thing is that most agents who are actively seeking clients tend to be very visible online, so there are usually plenty of ways to get a sense of personality and up-to-date wish lists. For example, I’ve done many online interviews (they’ll turn up if you google me!) and I’m also very active on Twitter, where I regularly tweet under the #mswl hashtag when I’m seeking something specific.

What is on your manuscript wish list right now?

I’m always looking for well-paced women’s fiction with compelling characters and a fresh premise. I love bold, smart heroines, magical realism, dual timelines, Southern settings, complex female friendships, diverse characters, family stories, and threads of mystery/suspense. Right now, I’d also love to find a unique contemporary or magical realist YA with lovely, literary writing.

What common mistakes do you see in query letters? Do you have any querying pet peeves?

Make sure your query focuses on the story of the novel you’re pitching: character, conflict, stakes. Many queries get caught up in describing either the novel’s themes or the author’s motivation for writing it—but if I’m not interested in the story, those aspects don’t matter to me.

Can you think of a query or two that dramatically rose out of your slush? What made them stand out?

Alas, there’s no magic bullet to rise above the slush—queries catch my attention because they’re well-crafted descriptions of a novel with an intriguing story. The queries that I’ve jumped to request have been clearly and competently written, but what really made them stand out was the fact that they effectively conveyed an original premise with a compelling character, conflict and stakes.

In fact, attempts to be flashy or dramatic (writing the query from a character’s POV, being overly familiar, weird fonts or font colors or images embedded in the email) almost always work against you, in my view. The query is not a genre that benefits from originality: instead, it should be a straightforward business letter showcasing a compelling story.

Do you have a preference between the personalization sentence (e.g., We met at such and such; Upon personal reference from your client XYZ; My work is similar in subject matter and tone as your client’s literary novel ABC, etc.) at the beginning of the query before the pitch or after, in the bio?

Either way is fine!

What in a bio most benefits your impression of a query: Fiction credits? MFA? Blogging? Contest credits? Activity in the publishing community?

All of these are great, and tell me different things: previous publications show me that you’re likely industry-savvy; an MFA tells me you can probably write a lovely sentence (which does matter to me!); and blogging or being involved in organizing online contests means that you’re getting a leg up on building community, which will help when it comes time for book promotion later down the line. Definitely include them!

Is it appropriate for a writer to nudge an agent who requested a full manuscript? How long should he or she wait, and what should he or she say?

I personally am not very fond of nudging—it doesn’t make me read your manuscript any faster, and just creates more emails for me to reply to. But I do understand why authors want to do it. I would say that if you must nudge, check in no sooner than four months, and just politely ask if the agent has had a chance to read your ms and if they have any updates for you. But be aware that the answer will almost always be “Sorry, I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.”

Of course, if you receive an offer of representation from another agent, it’s always appropriate to nudge at that time, letting other agents with your materials know that you have an offer and giving them a chance to weigh in.

When an author has split with his or her agent and is querying for another, should he or she mention this in the query letter? How?

Yes, I like to know this. In the bio paragraph, just say: “I was previously represented by [Agent Name at Agency]. We parted amicably and this manuscript has not been submitted to any editors.”


How much a part of taking on a client is chemistry? Do agents have the love the prospective client as much as his or her work?

When I’m considering offering representation, I need to love the work and feel that the potential client is someone that I could have a good working relationship. Just like any bond, I always expect that my connection with an author will grow overtime as we get to know each other better—and I know that many authors are shy or nervous when first talking to an agent—so as long as I have a generally positive impression of the potential client, I assume we’ll be just fine.

Writers know they should label their work according to genre yet some genres are more clear cut than others. What makes a story commercial, upmarket, or literary? How does a writer know how to describe their own work?

For the upmarket, commercial, literary question specifically, there’s a great breakdown here: https://carlywatters.com/2015/11/16/infographic-do-you-know-the-difference-between-literary-upmarket-and-commercial-fiction/

As to the broader question of how to know how to describe your work, I suggest looking to see how published books that you feel are similar to your novel are described. This will help you know where yours fits. You don’t need to force it, though: if you really can’t decide whether your women’s fiction is commercial or upmarket, it’s okay to just call it “women’s fiction.”

Not all books are compelling on the first page. How many pages do you give a manuscript before passing it over?

I read until I’m not interested in reading anymore—which may be one page, or five pages, or fifty pages, or the whole manuscript—and then I stop. For this reason, the first 5-10 pages do tend to be quite important, because if you’ve hooked me there, I’m more inclined to be interested in reading for longer, even if the story hits a slower spot later. Of course, if those first pages are strong and then there’s a notable drop-off in writing quality, that’s not good either: your early pages should demonstrate promise that the rest of the manuscript pays off.

For the record, I actually believe every book should be compelling on the first page. This is why people flip through books at a bookstore before buying, and why Amazon includes first page previews. It’s your job as the author to convince a reader to read this book and not a different one—right from page one.


Are you interested in representing hybrid authors – authors who would like to have the freedom to pursue both traditional and self-publishing? What about authors who have independently published who are now interested in traditional publishing?

Yes, I’m open to both of these author tracks. The crucial thing with my hybrid author clients is that they keep me in the loop and we strategize about their career together: which projects will be indie published and which traditional, and how do we make sure the two tracks don’t cannibalize each other’s sales.

For authors who are looking to move to traditional publishing after indie publishing, the key is that I need a brand new book or series to sell. Publishers very rarely pick up self-published books to republish, so don’t assume that this will be a possibility.

Awareness for the need for diversity in books – color, culture, women, LGBTQ,  etc. – is at an all-time high in the publishing industry. Do book sales reflect that that goal and awareness? What can we as readers and writers do?

Yes, this is something that’s increasingly important to many agents and editors, myself included—and not only diversity in representation (i.e. diverse characters), but also in making space for more marginalized or “ownvoices” authors on shelves. And I’d say the industry is making valuable progress on this front, although of course there’s room for much more. But for just one example of a fantastic success story, take a look at THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter-inspired YA novel, which recently debuted at #1 on the New York Times list after being sold at a thirteen-house auction. Readers are hungry for different perspectives. So if you’re writing about diverse characters, especially if you’re bringing some sort of relevant life experience to your subject matter, do be sure to mention it in the query.

How involved are you (and agents, in general) in the promotion of your clients’ books? What do you recommend your clients do to reach readers?

I absolutely am involved in helping authors come up with a promotion strategy. The question of how to reach readers is too huge for me to tackle here, but for authors looking to come up with a marketing strategy, I’d recommend starting by reading two books: YOUR BOOK, YOUR BRAND by Dana Kaye and PAINLESS MARKETING FOR BUSY AUTHORS by Valerie Bowman. There are great specific tips in both!

What are some misconceptions aspiring authors have about publishing? About agents?

Most aspiring authors seem to think everything will happen much faster than it actually does—especially when they’re first querying, or first going out on submission with an agent, or releasing their debut. Publishing is a long slog, and the writers who make it are the ones who realize that this business is a marathon, not a sprint.

And that’s true not just when you’re querying—there are disappointments once you’re agented too, and even once you’re published. That means that you have to want this career very badly, and you have to be resilient enough to get back up when the industry says “no” and kicks you down. Tenacity, patience, and insistent refusal to give up are even more important in finding publishing success than raw talent.

What client-work is out now or coming soon that we should be on the look for?

Some of my client’s recent and forthcoming releases include THE SECRET INGREDIENT OF WISHES by Susan Bishop Crispell (magical realist women’s fiction), ALL THE GOOD PARTS by Loretta Nyhan (contemporary women’s fiction), COTTONMOUTHS by Kelly J. Ford (Southern literary fiction), CAMP SO-AND-SO by Mary McCoy (young adult speculative mystery), KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE by Kristi Wientge (contemporary middle grade), and A COUNTERFEIT HEART by K.C. Bateman (historical romance). They’re all amazing and I hope you read them and love them!

And finally…

Lace-up or Slip-on Shoes? Slip-ons.

Chocolate or Vanilla? Both!

Dog or Cat? Cat. (Actually: cats, plural!)

Coffee or Tea? Coffee.

We can’t thank you enough, Patricia, for dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family!


Submissions should be sent directly to: patricia@marsallyonliteraryagency.com, query and first ten pages pasted in the body of the email.

Patricia’s twitter  @patricianels

Agency’s twitter @MarsalLyonLit


Interviewed by –

MM Finck

MM Finck is a novelist, essayist, and offers query letter coaching, and opening pages and developmental editing as The Query Quill. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Rising Star Award. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine.

When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.

She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Litsy (@MMF). Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com


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