Interview

Agent Spotlight: Kiana Nguyen

We are so excited to put the spotlight on literary agent, Kiana Nguyen! Kiana seeks out YA fiction across genres, especially POC and queer voices as well as Adult romance and domestic suspense thrillers. It was so much fun finding out what makes her keep turning the page, how DVPit affected her career, TV, and so much more. She is one of the smartest and fiercest agents I know but don’t take my word for it. Check it out:

1. Jumping right into it, what are some questions you wish writers would ask when it gets closer to making a decision on representation?

This is not necessarily a question, but I want writers to be more aware of this as they’re querying and speaking with agents about representation: Your career will be more than one book, and it will certainly be more than this book. Think about the kinds of books you want to write as you go further into your writing career – do you want to write across genre and categories? Do you want to write books that can be audio first or better adapted for audio (one of the only growing markets in publishing right now). Are you interested in short form work, for magazines, novellas, etc? Can you realistically write one book a year on contract or want more freedom between sales?

These questions above are not for the agents you’ll be talking to, rather questions you ask yourself, so that you have a better handle on what you want out of your career. This will help you better navigate calls with agents because you’ll have informed yourself of your trajectory so agent-client relationship is on the same page. It’s so, so, so important to look further into the future at this stage, because you want the agent that will help you reach YOUR goals.

2. When it comes to storytelling elements, what do you think is often overlooked and you’d like to see more of? What have you seen plenty of but would like to see more attention to detail in its execution?

I am such a picky little peanut, but I want to see more immersive emotions on the page. I think this is why I don’t like first person narratives – it’s easy to become an endless train of your character’s running thoughts. I don’t care about that as much as I care about how their thoughts and emotions effect how they observe, react, and interact with the people and world around them.

I want to see more diversity in voice – and I don’t mean like character representation (which I do want!), but I feel like too many things are written in this same middle class tone of voice that’s old to me. Well, I guess it’s better to say that I want a voice that sounds like RIGHT NOW (2015-present) which I feel like a lot of contemporary writers aren’t tapping into. This can come from a fear of their book getting dated too quickly, but I also think it’s a disconnection from how teens actually speak today as well. They don’t all sound like suburban kids from 2001.

3. That is so true. So how heavily are you involved in revisions with your clients before submission?

I am an incredibly editorial agent. Typically, I’ll do multiple rounds on edits, as needed for a project, with each round focusing on one thing. So one pass on world, overall plot clean up, one on more minute plot points, one on character, etc. This definitely depends on each writer and how they revise/what they need, as well as how much work a project needs. I really believe that the book is the best representation of an author’s work, so I am a bit of a perfectionist on it.

4. Anybody who follows you on Twitter knows that you’re really drawn to character driven stories. What makes a three-dimensional character that jumps off the page and connects with you? What do writers do right when it comes to maintaining that connection from beginning to end?

For me, it’s always about building a character’s emotional life. I think that’s executed best by doing away with outlining a characters thought, and focusing on how what the character is thinking is effecting how they observe and interact with the world and people around them. You don’t have to point out to us that your character is upset, if they’re slamming doors or speeding away after an argument. I love when writers let characters actions speak for themselves. I think it also comes with fleshing out details about your character that may not necessarily be revealed on the page, but enrich their motivations, physicality, and actions. Maybe they had a dog growing up, but it passed away and now when they see one on the street they can smile but keep their distance. I wish I was better at coming up with examples on the spot!

5. No, I totally get it. It’s all good. I do want to stay on Twitter for a minute though and talk about DV Pit. Can you talk about how DV Pit has affected your list and what you are dying to find through DV Pit, the slush, and in general?

Fun fact: I participated as a writer in the first DVpit! It was so magical and so uplifting that it really spurred me on to get back in the business (I’d basically taken a year off at that point after my first internship), and I started applying for positions in editorial and agent internships. I started at DMLA that June (2016), so I am forever grateful for Beth Phelan and DVpit, and how it has not only incentivized marginal writers, but amplified their work. I started looking to acquire clients in the fall of 2017, during the first October DVpit and found my second client through it! I just cannot find the adequate words to wax poetic about this Twitter pitch contest. It’s my favorite.

I love it because the tags allow me to search for the specific kind of stories I want: POC and queer ones. I need a queer POC story that feels emotionally immersive for me. I want something that’s edgy and angsty, but ultimately triumphant. Unfortunately, I cannot work on stories where the main arc is overcoming oppressive racism/homophobia or bigotry, though I can work with that woven as facets. Very very specifically, I want stories that feature queer kids that are already out, they can still be questioning and learning and finding exactly who they are within or outside of labels, but I want to move beyond the coming out story. I also want to clarify the previous sentence does not include characters who are out to their friends, but not family or vice versa. I’m down for that.

6. I want to read what you’re reading. Wow. Writers, submit to Kiana so we can read all of that! Okay, so, from one huge TV fanatic to another, I wasn’t going to talk to you without bringing this up in some capacity. What can writers learn from TV that they may not even be paying attention to already?

The NUMBER ONE, MOST IMPORTANT THING, prose writers can learn from television: dialogue’s main purpose on the page is to drive the story forward. It should always further our understanding of the main character, further our understanding of their relationships with people in their lives, and have POINT. I’m going to be honest – I’m not a big fan of most banter for this reason. Sure, it’s fun and it is indicative of character traits and feelings, but it needs to have a purpose for the scene.

7. Yes! Say that! But also, tell us about TV shows you love and why and what similar things you would want to see in your inbox?

Euphoria – I have watched the pilot about 10 times and each subsequent episode almost as many. It’s such a great character study and amazing example of how to write ensemble casts who we’re not always in the perspective in, but how each of their actions effects everyone else. IT ALSO FEELS FUCKING CURRENT AND I LOVE THAT SHIT.

Black Mirror – Early episodes of Black Mirror make a great study of how world building does not need to be heavy-handed with exposition. We see the world and the tech in it, but we only learn vital information when we can USE that information to understand a scene. We understand that there are larger power structures in the world of Black Mirror that are oppressive, for example, in “Nosedive.” Each episode tells an incredibly specific story about one character moving about their limited world, but we walk away understanding the structure of the world at large.

Haunting of Hill House – I love this show so much and I think it’s another perfect example of ensemble casts, in general, but also how to flesh out side characters. Essentially, this story is about one family where each member lived through the same experience, but walked away with completely different understandings and feelings of that experience. It effected their relationships with each other, how they interacted to the world around them, etc. And because each episode is from a different character’s perspective, you can watch the first episode and learn how those past experiences that we don’t know about yet were so clearly demonstrated in the characters lives, actions, and dialogue. And we can GET that they’re like this and GET that there’s backstory there and APPRECIATE it even though we don’t know how they got to be that way.

8. We could talk about TV all day but you have manuscripts to read. So. Last question. What’s one book that you would hand to someone who wants to get to know you, your reading style, or both?

WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power is such a queer narrative that it hurts. I almost didn’t read this book because I saw a stray comment saying that there was no queer rep because nothing happened. But if you read it, the narrative and voice is so inherently queer, and powerful because of it. A great example of how to build character, tone, and atmosphere without having to spell everything out.

Thanks again for having me! And if anyone wants to check into my continuous rants about what I’m reading, watching, loving, and hating, you can check out my Twitter @kianangu.

Kiana is currently offering query critiques for a limited time! Click here for details.

Visit MSWL for Kiana’s wish list and Donald Maass Literary Agency for submission guidelines before querying Kiana at query.knguyen@maassagency.com.

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