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September 2020
A Message from Kristin Nelson

A Brand-New Website & Recent Query Trends

Kristin Nelson

Hello to all the newsletter readers sheltering at home. Hope this email blast finds you healthy, safe, and sane. Glad you are still with us and reading our monthly missive. It’s been a year in the making, but I’m very excited to share with you our brand-spanking new website that just launched this past week. Although September’s newsletter follows the old format, you can expect a newly redesigned newsletter to follow in a couple months, so stay tuned. 

For eight months, I was closed to queries to cover two back-to-back maternity leaves for the NLA family. Congratulations, Samantha and Maria! At long last, I’m back in the query game, so it seemed apropos to talk about trends I’m seeing in my QueryManager inbox. 

As always, don’t put too much weight on the trends I spotlight here. It doesn’t mean your project is dead in the water. It just means you need to be more creative in your query letter to make your story stand out. One interesting thing to note is that we’re fielding a lot of queries from authors who’ve had prior agent representation and are looking for a new partnership. Because of Covid, agents, like everyone else, are juggling a lot, and I wonder if some are paring down their client rosters. 

Good luck out there! Persevere. 

In the Adult realm:

  • Historicals set in the time periods of the 1960s through the 1990s. Might writers be reminiscing on their pasts so as to escape our present crises?
  • International thrillers with main characters that work at the CIA, FBI, etc. This is a specific thriller genre (espionage thrillers) and not something Joanna or I are looking for, but we still get a lot of inquiries.
  • Lots of stories that use BIG LITTLE LIES as a comp.
  • Jane Austen retellings are trending again. Humorous. Gender-swapped. From a different character’s perspective. That kind of thing.
  • Old-school speculative fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson—which isn’t quite where the SF&F market is right now.
  • Angsty fiction in which the characters must “find themselves,” but that lacks a clear hook or concept to drive the story. This tends to be perennial.
  • Short books—queries for novellas and novels under 70,000 words. For some reason this is popular, but 70K is pretty short for a full novel.

In the YA and Children’s realm:

  • Steampunk submissions have really wound down over the last year.
  • Pirates, pirates, pirates! Not sure what in the Zeitgeist is driving the trend, but it’s big in YA and MG (middle grade).
  • Fantasy built around elemental powers or magic.
  • Fantasy built around the guardians trope: characters who must protect a chosen one, a secret, a portal, a wall, a source of magic, etc.
  • Fantasy built around court intrigue. Heads up: this market is saturated for editors. Some sales still occur, but they are far fewer than two years ago.
  • Cool dragons with inventive premises are trending for both the YA and adult-fantasy realm.
  • Middle-grade portal/time travel stories—probably because we need to escape our current world. 
Recent News

Publishers Weekly and Frankfurter Buchmesse have named Quressa Robinson as one of 40 publishing professionals as honorees for PW Star Watch 2020.

Stephanie Lurie at Disney/Rick Riordan Presents has acquired bestselling and PW Flying Start author Roseanne A. Brown's debut middle grade fantasy, Serwa Boateng's Guide to Vampire Hunting.

After a 72-hour exclusive, Berkley’s Jen Monroe pre-empts the debut novel The Other Me by Web developer Sarah Zachrich Jeng.

Lily Kessinger at HMH has acquired, in a preempt, The Sapling's Curse, a YA graphic novel written by debut author James Persichetti and illustrated by L. Biehler.

STARRED review: Galligan’s outstanding sequel to 2019’s Bad Axe County puts Wisconsin sheriff Heidi Kick, his all-too-human lead, through the wringer.

Bouchercon nominates Kristen Simmon’s THE DECEIVERS for the 2020 Anthony Award.

Warcross' Television Series Based On Book by Marie Lu In The Works From Bruna Papandrea & John Cameron

‘Half Way Home’ Based On Hugh Howey’s Book In Works For Television By Alex Kurtzman & CBS TV Studios

“The Paper Girl of Paris” Will Transport You Straight to the City of Lights

Guest Article

Interview with John Galligan

Author of Dead Man Dancing

This month, we are excited to introduce you to one of Joanna MacKenzie’s clients. John Galligan is the author of Dead Man Dancing, the exciting follow-up to last year’s Bad Axe County, both published by Atria. An award-winning journalist, John is a native of Madison, Wisconsin, and a graduate of Wisconsin-Madison, with degrees in Environmental Policy (BS) and English Literature (MA).

Tell us about Dead Man Dancing!

The second in the Bad Axe County mystery series, Dead Man Dancing begins when Sheriff Heidi Kick’s brother-in-law posts a giant Confederate flag in the box of his pickup and drives up and down Main Street in Farmstead, Wisconsin, the Bad Axe County seat. Her arrest of him goes viral in the white-supremacist community, bringing all the wrong kinds of attention and people to the Bad Axe. Meanwhile, a local author endangers himself by exposing unwanted truths about the region’s past as a destination for the Underground Railroad, a mixed-race young man is arriving in the Bad Axe to learn about his roots, and a ruined farmer, well-meaning but depressed and desperate, joins a local white-supremacist fight club girding itself for the upcoming race war. In the midst of mounting family and professional crises, Heidi Kick has to untangle it all, solve two murders, and stop her beloved Bad Axe from exploding.

Is there anything readers need to know before jumping into DMD?

I hope that they would have read the first book in the series, Bad Axe County, which fully introduces Heidi Kick, who is also the star of Dead Man Dancing. If not, it’s good to know that Heidi is a former teenage Dairy Queen from a neighboring county, that her innocent and idyllic life was interrupted by a horrific crime against her family, that she suffered and nearly lost her life before transforming herself into a mother and a law-enforcement officer, and that as the series begins she is the interim sheriff and the first-ever female sheriff in Wisconsin. In Bad Axe County, she confronts corruption and obstruction in her own department while solving an old murder, exposing sex trafficking in her community, and stopping the next murder about to happen.

What inspired you to write this series?

I spend a ton of time in this unique setting—the Driftless area of Wisconsin—and I’m steeped in the landscape and culture of the area. I really want to write with authority—i.e., to know what I’m writing about. So a series set in a place I know and love made sense to me. Also I found a character that I could identify with and who could carry both my interest and a reader’s through a series (see your Heidi Kick question below).

Are you a plotter or pantser?

Hybrid. I pants. Then I plot what I just panted. Then I pants what I just plotted, and replot and repants. Repeat. It’s complex recursive process requiring discipline and self-awareness and involving constant interplay between the two hemispheres of the brain. If it sounds exhausting, it is!

What was the process for writing a character like Heidi Kick?

She began as a minor character in a different (unsuccessful) novel in the same setting. She showed up like the spark-plug she is wearing a fur bomber hat, seeing with clear eyes, not taking any shit, and rearranging the furniture in the man’s world of law enforcement. Because of the time I spend in rural Wisconsin, I am acutely aware of a certain type of farm girl: straight-A student, plays in the band, plays on the softball team, rides rodeo, volunteers at the senior center, drives every kind of vehicle, handles tools and guns and animals, loves her family, her community, and her country, is too mature for the boys who drool around her, and parties a fair amount—all while getting up before dawn every morning to do chores and milk cows. Heidi Kick is that girl…and the woman who grows out of that girl.

What was your journey like to getting represented by an awesome agent?

No kidding. I do have an awesome agent. I got my awesome agent by having awesome writing friends who put us together. I’ve had other agents, including one who didn’t actually read my work and wouldn’t talk to me, and one who dumped me for not working fast enough. Between agents, I’ve waited for up to a year to get a simple reply (no) from agents that I had queried. Joanna is a different “human,” as she says, altogether. She responds and communicates. She worked REALLY HARD with me on Bad Axe County, pushing me to make it the book that it is. She was both stubborn and supportive through a time when I wasn’t sure I was on the right track.

What are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

You will be sorry that you asked. I am currently reading Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck; Easter House, by David Rhodes; Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer; Cloudbursts, by Tom McGuane; Martin Marten, by Brian Doyle; Lone Tree, by Bruce Brown; No More Wacos, by David Kopel and Paul Blackman; Stump Ridge Farm, by Pearl Swiggum; Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems, by Jim Harrison; The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats; and about a billion college English essays. My new thrill, thanks to a tip from a writing friend, is Brian Doyle, a very special writer with great technical skills and a rare heart. I’d recommend Mink River and The Plover to start.

Finally, what do you do when you’re not writing?

Read, obviously. I also teach college writing, full-time. I like cycling, hiking, and fly fishing, and I’m an avid basketball fan.

Insider Tips from NLA

Online Writing Events: What's Working? What's Not?

Angie Hodapp

This week, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles under the heading “Six Months In,” looking at what we know now (and are still waiting to learn) after half a year of confronting COVID-19. That got me thinking about my friends in the writing world. We’re six months in, and our favorite writing conferences and conventions have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual. Writing is a lonely endeavor anyway, and it seems it has become even lonelier.

Or has it?

All of us at NLA have participated in myriad online events in the last six months, from one-hour Q&As to multi-day virtual events complete with pitch appointments, critique roundtables, social rooms, and dozens of workshops keyed to various learning tracks. We’ve witnessed event organizers innovate in some pretty commendable ways. The occasional tech glitch and Zoom learning curve aside, it’s actually been pretty great.

But I want to hear from you—all of you writers out there who have participated in online writing events and communities in the past six months. In our new virtual world…

• Are you more involved with writing communities, less involved, or the same?

• Is pitching to an agent or editor online more stressful or less stressful than it is in person? Why?

• Are you connecting with the same folks you were connecting with in person, or have you branched out and networked with new folks?

• How has your critique group adapted in the age of COVID?

• What types of online events have attracted you to participate, and how did they catch your eye?

• What could online-event organizers do to improve writers’ experiences, or what types of things do you wish would be offered?

• Have you attended virtual author readings or book-launch events? If so, what’s worked? What hasn’t?

I want to hear from you! Email me at [email protected] and write “Online Writing Events” in the subject line. Next month, I’ll report back on the virtual writing world through your eyes…six months in.

New Releases

A Door Between Us

by Ehsaneh Sadr

Weddings always have their fair share of drama, but this one comes on the heels of the highly controversial 2009 Iranian election and ensuing Green Wave protests.

When the matriarch of Sarah’s family arranged her marriage to Ali, it was with the intention of uniting two compatible families. However, as the 2009 election becomes contentious, political differences emerge and Sarah’s conservative family tries to call off the wedding. Sarah and Ali, however, have fallen in love and, against the wishes of their parents, insist on going through with the marriage.

Sarah’s cousin, Sadegh, is a staunch supporter of the government and a member of the Baseej, the volunteer militia tasked with arresting protestors and shutting down speech against the regime. Meanwhile, Ali’s sister, Azar, is an activist, a divorce attorney, and a passionate Green Wave supporter, trying to enact change in a way that many Iranians see as inflammatory. When Sarah impulsively shelters a protestor in their car on the drive home from her wedding, she sets off a chain of events that can either unmask the government’s brutality or ruin them all.

Sarah, Sadegh, and Azar’s stories weave together in an unflinching, humorous, and at times terrifying story that demonstrates that, even as the world is falling apart around us, life goes on.

Buy It Here:


Prime Deceptions

by Valerie Valdes

The lovably flawed crew of La Sirena Negra and their psychic cats return for another mission, and this time, they must confront past failures and face new threats in the far reaches of space.

Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra find themselves once again on the fringe of populated space—and at the center of a raging covert war. When Eva’s sister asks for help locating a missing scientist, promises of a big paycheck and a noble cause convince Eva to take the job despite lingering trust issues.

With reluctant assistance from her estranged mother, Eva and her crew follow the missing scientist’s trail across the universe, from the costume-filled halls of a never-ending convention to a dangerous bot-fighting arena. They ultimately find themselves at the last place Eva wants to see again—Garilia—where she experienced her most shameful and haunting failure.

To complete her mission and get paid, Eva must navigate a paradise embroiled in a rebellion, where massive forests and pristine beaches hide psychic creatures and pervasive surveillance technology. Can she find her quarry while avoiding the oppressive local regime, or will she be doomed to repeat past mistakes when her dark deeds come to light?

Buy It Here:


The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian: The Fuzzy Apocalypse

by Jonathan Messinger

Explorer Troop 301 tries to save an exploding planet from a fluffy bunny and a devious alien in the first book of this highly illustrated chapter book series based on the award-winning kids’ podcast!

Eight-year-old Finn lives is the first kid born in space and he spends his days looking for a new planet to call him with his three best friends and his robot, Foggy.

He’s used to wild, galaxy hopping adventures. But when Explorer Troop 301 gets stuck on a planet that’s about to explode, Finn and his friends will have to face giant aliens, a leader with mind control powers, and one evil, fluffy bunny rabbit in order to save the planet . . . and themselves.

Blast off into a brand-new adventure inspired by the popular award-winning kids’ podcast, now in its eighth season! 

Buy It Here:


The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian: The Accidental Volcano

by Jonathan Messinger

Finn and Explorer Troop 301 face off against angry rock giants in the second book of this new chapter book series based on the award-winning kids’ podcast!

Finn Caspian, his three best friends, and his robot Foggy are excited to explore a brand-new planet . . . until Finn’s mom makes them bring along an annoying new robot named Voltronix Zu.

Putting up with Voltronix’s bragging is bad enough, but when he accidentally turns the planet inside out, the Explorers get attacked by angry rock giants! Can the four friends find a way to save the planet—and the bubble aliens who live there—before Voltronix causes a volcanic disaster?

Blast off into a brand-new adventure inspired by the popular award-winning kids’ podcast, now in its eighth season! 

Buy It Here:


The Coast to Coast Murders

by James Patterson & JD Barker

A detective and FBI agent join forces on what seems like an open-and-shut case — but a new rash of killings sends them on a pulse-pounding race against time in this intense thriller.

Michael and Megan Fitzgerald are siblings who share a terrifying past. Both adopted, and now grown — Michael is a long-haul truck driver, Megan a college student majoring in psychology — they trust each other before anyone else. They’ve had to. Their parents are public intellectuals, an Ivy League clinical psychologist and a renowned psychiatrist, and they brought up their adopted children in a rarefied, experimental environment. It sheltered them from the world’s harsh realities, but it also forced secrets upon them, secrets they keep at all costs.

In Los Angeles, Detective Garrett Dobbs and FBI Agent Jessica Gimble have joined forces to work a murder that seems like a dead cinch. Their chief suspect is quickly identified and apprehended –but then there’s another killing just like the one they’ve been investigating. And another. And not just in Los Angeles — the spree spreads across the country. The Fitzgerald family comes to the investigators’ attention, but Dobbs and Gimble are at a loss — if one of the four is involved, which Fitzgerald might it be?

From coastal California to upstate New York, Dobbs and Gimble race against time and across state lines to stop an ingenious and deeply deranged killer — one whose dark and twisted appetites put them outside the range of logic or experience.

Buy It Here:



by Marie Lu

In a world broken by war, a team of young warriors is willing to sacrifice everything to save what they love.

The Karensa Federation has conquered a dozen countries, leaving Mara as one of the last free nations in the world. Refugees flee to its borders to escape a fate worse than death—transformation into mutant war beasts known as Ghosts, creatures the Federation then sends to attack Mara.

The legendary Strikers, Mara’s elite fighting force, are trained to stop them. But as the number of Ghosts grows and Karensa closes in, defeat seems inevitable.

Still, one Striker refuses to give up hope.

Robbed of her voice and home, Talin Kanami knows firsthand the brutality of the Federation. Their cruelty forced her and her mother to seek asylum in a country that considers their people repugnant. She finds comfort only with a handful of fellow Strikers who have pledged their lives to one another and who are determined to push Karensa back at all costs.

But when a mysterious prisoner is brought from the front, Talin senses there’s more to him than meets the eye. Is he a spy from the Federation? Or could he be the weapon that will save them all?

Buy It Here:

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