Agent Jennifer Chen Tran is on faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Working Writers Retreat (WWR).
She joined the Bradford Literary in 2017, and represents fiction and nonfiction. She’s interested in diverse writers and #ownvoices from underrepresented/ marginalized communities, strong and conflicted characters who are not afraid to take emotional risks, stories about multi-generational conflict, war and post-war fiction, and writing with a developed sense of place. In non-fiction, she loves books that broaden her world view or shed new light on “big ideas.”
Originally from New York, Jennifer was an associate agent at Fuse Literary and served as Counsel at The New Press before becoming an agent at Bradford Literary. She obtained her Juris Doctor from Northeastern School of Law and her B.A. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.
She took some time to answer our questions about her work, how first-time authors can shine, and her wishlist.
ERLINA VASCONCELLOS: What are the biggest mistakes made by first-time authors?
JENNIFER CHEN TRAN: Querying or approaching an agent before your work is ready. Would you give someone a half-baked cake? I use that analogy because I often see work that is only half-baked. If you are ready to present your work to an agent, make sure it’s very polished and the best it can be.
Using the “wrong” competitive titles. Do not comp to a NY Time bestseller unless it is actually a good comp — so many times I’ve heard “it’s like Eat, Pray, Love” or something to that effect. It loses its effectiveness. Find a better comp, maybe one that is not a mega best-seller.
Overwriting. First-time writers tend to write too much and don’t revise as ruthlessly as they should. Every sentence should move the plot forward. Every string of dialogue should be purposeful. I know it’s been said a million times, but really, kill your darlings.
EV: You’ll be working closely with WWR participants on their works in progress. Can you describe how you like to engage with writers in the revision stage? And how do you see your role in the process?
JCT: I’m an editorial agent and I work closely with my clients and writers to revise their manuscript so that it is both cohesive and compelling. Revision is so critical and I take a top-down approach first; by focusing on the big picture and understanding where your story is and where it needs to go. I do this by asking you pointed questions about your characters, their motivations, the characters’ conflicts (internal versus external), sense of place, etc. We can collaboratively work together to make your story shine. After this initial stage, I’ll move into focusing more on the nitty-gritty, such as diction, line edits, and the like. My role is to serve as a sounding board and guide, but I try to remember to always stay true to your original vision for the story.
EV: Top three things that make a great agent-client relationship. Go:
JCT: Trust. Trust that your agent is working as hard as possible on your behalf. We don’t make money if you don’t make money so trust that our interests are aligned.
Transparency. Communicate and involve each other in decision-making. I always tell my clients what to expect and when to expect it by. I try my best to meet those expectations but if changes need to be made, we adjust our expectations together.
Fun. I love working with creative people and ideally this should be a joyful process where we have fun and work together to make your creative work come to life.
EV: You received a B.A. in English Literature and then went on to get a law degree. Was it always the plan to combine the two as a literary agent?
JCT: Not at all. Even as an English major, I did not know that this was a viable career path and never read The Acknowledgements section of any book. I kind of fell into agenting; it was honestly a happy accident partially possible because of a terrible economy (I graduated law school in 2008, which was the nadir of the recession, there weren’t many jobs for young attorneys) and happenstance. Through a series of great opportunities — like the Of Counsel position at The New Press — and alumni connections, I was able to get my foot in the door. Having a legal background certainly helps me do my job better.
EV: What’s at the top of your wishlist for kid lit?
JCT: I’m on the hunt for a really great graphic novel (MG and YA), dealing with contemporary issues, whether it’s lighter adventure-type fare like Sarah Graley’s Glitch, or those dealing with darker themes. As a former art major, I consider myself fairly visually literate and I really believe in sequential storytelling and its ability to reach a wide range of readers. I am also looking for more MG and YA non-fiction. I think it’s a growth area and something that more writers could write, if they find the right inspiration. I learn so much about the world by reading non-fiction and I wish I could find more of that for MG and YA readers.
Registration for WWR opened on June 30 and fills up fast. If it’s sold out, you can still get on the waitlist.
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Erlina Vasconcellos is a former Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she writes pictures books and middle grade. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda