Agent and author Kari Sutherland joins this year’s LA SCBWI Working Writer’s Retreat faculty. She was a Senior Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books before joining the Bradford Literary Agency in 2017 and she co-writes the middle grade Menagerie series with her sister, Tui Sutherland. She’s worked with bestselling and critically acclaimed authors on projects such as the #1 New York Times bestselling Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and the #1 New York Times bestselling Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard. Needless to say, she knows a thing or ten or about writing, editing, and publishing books, and she’s here to share some of that knowledge with us!
Sarah Parker-Lee: You graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in English and Psychology. Why do you consider this the perfect combination for working with authors on character and plot development?
Kari Sutherland: I’d say both fields help me pinpoint when a character is behaving in a way that isn’t authentic or in a way that may produce a reaction in readers that the author is not intending. Having studied the way minds work, it gives me insight into personality and character growth. With my English studies, I know how to catch and keep a reader’s attention through voice, sentence structure, and plotting. Psychology classes also prepared me to be an excellent listener and to help coax out what a person really wants to say – in this case, through their manuscripts.
SPL: Your Bradford Lit bio says you’re passionate about helping to polish each manuscript and equip your clients for success. What does that entail?
KS: I’ll typically do a round or two of general edits – sending out an editorial letter with areas I’d like the author to address and specific suggestions on how, along with questions on why something is a certain way, which he/she may want to clarify. On some projects, it might be more to do with shoring up a character’s inner journey, on others it might be smoothing out logic holes in the plot or world. My goal is to get a manuscript in the strongest shape possible before it goes on submission in order to increase the odds of it catching a publisher’s eye.
SPL: Any advice for newly represented authors on how to prepare to work with a hands-on agent like yourself? What should they keep in mind?
KS: Hopefully you’ve found an agent that is passionate about your work, someone you feel comfortable with, and someone with whom you can communicate freely. An agent is there to help guide authors, and editorial agents like myself tend to send out revision notes. Be prepared to make changes if you sign with an editorial agent. When you get notes back, try not to take them personally. Take your time to address the points raised. Ultimately, though, remember the story belongs to the author. I always tell my own authors to take my feedback as suggestions and that I’m open to different directions if they prefer. Any notes they disagree with, we can always talk through; maybe they had an excellent reason for doing it “X way” and I’m just here to tell them that it’s coming across more as “Y” than as the “Z point” toward which they were aiming, so let’s see if there’s another way to achieve it.
SPL: You’re interested in acquiring stories with “empowering themes.” What do you mean by that? And should writers purposefully seek out stories to tell that are “empowering,” diverse, or somehow touch on the current political climate in order to get noticed in today’s market?
KS: I’d say an empowering theme is one that inspires readers in some way. I’m partial to protagonists who take an active role in the plot and who don’t just settle for the way things are in their world or rely on others to improve things. Even if it’s just on a micro level in terms of one character overcoming her own insecurities, I like to see growth come about from within rather than leaning too heavily on outside saviors. Now, that doesn’t mean outside help isn’t appreciated, as mutually supportive friendships are something I love to see, but it shouldn’t be the only factor in causing change. In terms of seeking out stories – if it is an issue or story that moves you, by all means, tackle it. But don’t write something purely because you think it will be controversial or get you noticed. If an author genuinely feels for the characters, is passionate about the story, and does her homework/research, those are the books that shine.
SPL: You shared some great insights on first lines and pages over at Chasing the Crazies. One thing you didn’t touch on was opening a book with dialogue. Should we do it? What are your thoughts?
KS: In general, I’d suggest avoiding dialogue for the first line, as I prefer the opening sentence to ground us in the world and characters, but I do like there to be a good mix of dialogue and narrative in the first few pages. Think of it this way – if you open with dialogue, readers have no visual at all to go with the line. It’s like opening a movie with a blank screen and a disembodied voice. That doesn’t work for most stories/films.
SPL: You write the middle grade Menagerie series with your sister, Tui. How do you make co-writing work? Any advice for others who’d like to co-write a project, or common pitfalls they should avoid?
KS: We both had experience as editors going in, so we were prepared to both edit and receive edits. We’d pass chapters back and forth and kind of polish each other, so the voice ended up merging pretty well. It’s kind of hard to give advice to potential co-author teams because one of the things that made it work well for us is that we’re so much alike. We grew up together, have the same taste in books, TV shows, movies, the same humor, etc. But at Harper I worked with several different co-authoring teams that all collaborated really well together. My biggest tip would be you have to be open to changing what you’ve written. It might help if there are two or more POVs as you can each take ownership of one, but be open to tweaks even in that case. Discuss the overarching plot ahead of time and don’t change anything major without discussing it first. Remember to send along positive feedback about what you liked in your partner’s chapters to balance out any changes/critiques.
SPL: Has being an editor and an agent influenced your writing process? How has being an author influenced your “agenting?”
KS: I think all the roles influence one another. As an author, I’m acutely aware of that agonizing suspense once you’ve turned something in, so I always write back to let authors know I got their manuscript and will keep them posted on when they can expect feedback. I make sure to highlight what I enjoyed about a draft as well as what I’d suggest changing, since I know it can be crushing to only be looking at what needs to be revised and it can make you lose confidence in your work as a whole. I try to be accessible for brainstorming sessions during revisions and new projects since I know it can be hard to work in a void. Generally, I think my writing experiences have made me more empathetic as an agent.
SPL: You and your sister grew up in South America, traveled a lot, and moved quite a few times. How has this influenced your worldview and your work?
KS: I loved it! I think it made me more adaptable, gave me perspective, planted an appreciation for different cultures and places, and instilled in me a love of traveling. Books are windows into another person’s worldview and I love stories that take me to settings I’ve never been and open my eyes to different perspectives.
SPL: Your Menagerie series is about a collection of mythical animals. Growing up in Paraguay, you had your own menagerie of animals, including two screeching monkeys and six piglets who took over your bathtub for a while! So I have to ask, any photos we can share with our readers?
KS: Alas, this was before the advent of digital cameras! I was able to dig up one of my mom feeding a piglet, but the monkeys were a (thankfully) short-lived sitting gig for friends – they’d wake us up at dawn.
SPL: Any upcoming projects, appearances, or news you’d like to share before we wrap up?
KS: I’m focusing on agenting, so I’m doing a number of conferences this year, all of which are listed on our agency website under the News & Events tab. If you’re going to one, come say hi!
If you’d like to pitch to Kari, find out what she’s looking for on her Bradford Lit page. You can also follow Kari on Twitter, @KariSutherland, and hear from her in person at the LA SCBWI’s Working Writer’s Retreat. If you missed registration, be sure to get on the waiting list ASAP. The retreat takes place September 15th-17th.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Photos provided by Kari Sutherland. Book covers provided by Kari Sutherland, HarperTeen, and HarperCollins.