Agent Spotlight: Colleen Oefelein
Welcome back to Picture Book Spotlight! If you happened to miss the interview with Caldecott Honoree Brian Lies, check it out! Today, we have Colleen Oefelein, associate agent of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. I'm so glad she stopped by! Before you dive in, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss an interview! There's another one coming THIS THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7th featuring Heather Macht! But first...let's turn the spotlight on author, agent extraordinaire, Colleen Oefelein!
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
My laptop, my phone, and my interns.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Peanut butter, apples, and marshmallows.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
In Alaska -- hiking, camping, flying, snowmachining, and even just driving -- this place is full of wonder, and it's impossible to NOT dream fantastic things here.
On Manuscript Wishlist you mention hosting "Pitch Perfect" and "Rejection Correction" workshops on Facebook, tell us more about this!
Pitch Perfect and Rejection Correction are intensive workshops held inside secret Facebook groups. In Pitch Perfect, authors learn and assemble the 4 ingredients in a perfect pitch. In Rejection Correction, we review the top 10 manuscript pitfalls and how to avoid/correct them. These are interactive workshops with a critique at the end. I haven't offered a workshop in over a year, but I plan to host a couple this spring. Authors can look for information via Twitter by following @eerie_o.
You also go by the pen name C.M. McCoy. I can identify with an impossibly difficult last name. How has being a published author developed your approach and philosophy as an agent?
Having waded through the query and submission trenches myself, I'm keenly aware of how frustrating, terrifying, and heartbreaking the process can be. I've always got that experience in mind when communicating with authors. I learned a boatload of helpful tidbits on my own road to publication, and I assembled many of those tidbits into a blog post for querying authors. I also tell how I found my agent and publisher.
The post is here: http://www.cmmccoy.com/blog/a-journey-to-publication/
One approach I always thought I'd take was to give thoughtful feedback to everyone who queried me, but I simply don't have enough hours in the day. For my authors out on submission, I'm always available for a pep talk. The wait can be excruciating. I remember the anxiety vividly, and so I set a communication expectation with them when we go out, and I send them any meaningful feedback I receive from editors straight away.
What are some good questions an author should ask themselves before they hit submit?
Have I checked this agent's bio and wish list to see if she's open to submissions and that I've got something she's looking for? Have I honed my pitch? Have I written a kick-ass first 5 pages? Have I reread my opening pages to make sure they make sense?
What types of picture books do you keep encountering, that if you’re honest with yourself, wish you never received again? What picture books would be a total waste of time to submit to you?
I'm not interested in 'first day at school' stories, which I see a lot in the query box. Unless it's super unique, I'm not interested in those at the moment.
As an Army brat, I spent three years living in Germany. We lived in this absolute fairytale of a village. I Love the language, though I wouldn’t claim to speak as you can. I recently stumbled upon a delightful expression: die Füchse kochen Kaffee. It means the foxes are making their coffee, and it describes the fog or early morning mist rising up from the ground in the fall. Every time I see fog like that I can’t help but say it. Tell us your favorite German expression, idiom, or word and what it means.
I always liked: Ich habe die Nase voll, which means I'm fed up, but literally it means my nose is full. It always seemed funny to me!
Having been with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency for exactly a year, summarize what you’ve learned about the industry and about agenting.
I've learned so much from Jennifer and the agents at JDLit, it's hard to sum it all up, and so I'll share one of my biggest awakenings from the past year. Prior to taking my own clients, I was an assistant at another agency preparing manuscripts for submission, many of which stole my heart. I got comfortable falling in love with manuscripts, and it was safe because these were manuscripts from clients we represented. Now that I'm building my own list, I find I'm falling in love far too often with manuscripts way too early, because sometimes those manuscripts aren't even available. It became heartbreaking and frustrating to spend hours on a manuscript only to find out the author had already signed with another agent (without letting me know). These were hours and energy I could have spent finding an author who desperately wants an agent. I'd say my biggest lesson this year has been to be a bit more guarded while reading, and to confirm with authors that their work is still available before I even open the full manuscript. I've also learned to meter my feedback and R&R advice. I've found several authors will take those suggestions and even go back and forth with me on edits, but then sign with a different agency. It's all time and energy I could spend on an author who's serious about signing with me.
Where are some gaps in your list that you are looking to fill or hoping you receive in 2019?
I would love to find a thriller author, adult or YA or one of each would be great! Also, I'm looking for contemporary and fantasy romance in YA and adult. I'd love to find a YA light fantasy that appeals to readers of contemporary fiction.
In regards to queries, what is something you consistently see that makes your skin crawl? Any pattern of common mistakes you wish authors knew better to avoid?
Many authors bury their best opening several pages into their manuscript. It doesn't make my skin crawl, but I do loath a boring opening. I often don't have time to dig through a MS to find out if a better opening exists on page 7, and so I find I pass on most manuscripts with a sleepy opening.
I keep reading in other interviews (and on your agency site) that you’re looking to find a YA Faust retelling. I am quite intrigued...what is your background with this story and why exactly are you wanting a YA retelling so badly?
I loved reading Marlowe's FAUST, and I'm hungry for a YA character who would surrender their life and everlasting soul for knowledge and pleasure, with an expiration date. It's a sort of twist on vampire lore, which I love, and it begs for a gigantic character arc.
I think there may be a gap in understanding that querying authors have in terms of the sheer volume of submissions kid lit agents receive. Help put things into perspective for us. With a full year under your belt, what are some ballpark numbers in terms of queries you received, how many you accepted, full manuscript requests, etc. Which did you receive the most of? Finally, when you look at the numbers is there anything you can encourage writers to consider submitting more of?
Over the past year, I receive approximately 2400 queries. Of those, I requested 95 partials or fulls. I received twice as many picture book queries as thriller queries. I did find a picture book author, but I haven't found a thriller author. I'd love to see more thrillers in my inbox.
What can you tell us about any current projects you’re working on as a writer that you feel safe to share at this point? Tells us about anything you have in the works!
I'm working on several things at once as usual. The sequel to EERIE is almost complete. I've also got an Alaska YA in progress.
What are some picture books published in the last year or two that have you saying, “I want more like THAT!”
I home school my first-grade son, and so we read a lot of books from Picture Book through chapter books. I can't say I've seen anything this year that's really turned my turbine yet, but there are some older ones we read over and over. I'd love to see some funny and unforgettable characters like The Pigeon (DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS) and Elephant and Piggie.
What do you think of the state of kid lit at this moment in history?
It's a tight market, and picture books have to both be familiar and stand out to sell. It's a tough market to break into.
Finally, complete the following sentence in ten or fewer words: "Colleen is an agent who…"
fiercely advocates for her authors.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight on kid lit and agenting, the German language, and everything in between, Colleen!
And thank YOU for reading! Tune in Thursday, February 7th for an interview with Heather Macht on her upcoming picture books and living the author life! Don't forget to subscribe so you never miss a Picture Book Spotlight interview. We have tons of authors, illustrators, agents, and other industry champions to spotlight! Have someone in mind that you want us to spotlight? Get in touch here. Find this post helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or share with a kid lit friend!
About Colleen Oefelein
Colleen Oefelein is an author of YA, picture books, and author promotion guides, a devourer of books, and the owner of the book review site North of Normal. Formerly an associate agent and PR manager with Inklings Literary Agency, Colleen has hosted numerous “Pitch Perfect” and “Rejection Correction” workshops on Facebook and at conferences nationwide, and she’s mentored several authors one-on-one through online pitch contests such as Pitch Wars. Prior to her career in the publishing world, Colleen was an engineer in the Air Force who launched satellites, played with lasers, and flew helicopters. Now retired from the military, she lives in Alaska with her husband, son, and boerboel. She holds a BS in chemical engineering/biotechnology and a separate BS in German, both from Penn State. A former 911 call taker and dispatcher for Alaska troopers, she has a soft spot for veterans and law enforcement families. She represents picture books, middle grade, young adult, and adult books in many genres.
Colleen's Author Website. Colleen on Twitter. Eerie on Goodreads. Colleen's Agency Website. Colleen on Manuscript Wishlist. MS Wishlist Twitter Feed. Colleen on Query Tracker. Literary Rambles Agent Spotlight.
What I'm looking for
I love plot-driven, commercial stories with unforgettable characters and gritty character dynamics. I adore writing that has a great cadence and natural rhythm, which like a dance, flows and stutters in a gorgeous motion that worms into my brain and reverberates there for days. I love a fresh premise (or a fresh twist on a familiar story line) coupled with a strong, genuine voice. Just plain weird is right up my alley, and dark, quirky characters make me sit forward. Clean writing with plenty of white space and story-telling full of subtle nuances that give my brain room to imagine will pique my interest. I like a strong hook. Make me laugh, gasp, sigh, smile, sit forward, hold my stomach, or read through my fingers on page one please. Cliffy chapter endings are perfect for me and I prefer characters who take a book by the balls and yank it forward. An antagonistic protagonist, an unreliably evil villain, flawed characters, and antiheroes are definitely my favorite, as is a high-adrenaline plot. I love anything unexpected, dark, edgy, weird, funny, or so wrong it’s right.
I’m weary of politics, school shootings, dragons, vampires, faeries, and werewolves, and I usually don’t enjoy high fantasy, sword and sorcery, lyrical tales, heavy/spacey sci-fi, literary fiction, or women’s fiction.
Lastly, I enjoy working with authors who show social media savvy and who haven’t alienated one half of the nation or the other with intolerance.
Picture Book: I’m looking for fun, funny, adventurous, or touching stories with that magical mix of novel simplicity and a surprise ending that will have my 6-year-old asking to read over and over. My favorites are The Kissing Hand, The Good for Nothing Button, Parts, the There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a... series, the Llama Llama series, and the Pigeon series.
Middle Grade: I’m looking for mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, low fantasy, paranormal, all with a thread of subtle or not-so-subtle humor.
Young Adult and Adult: In YA, I badly want a Faust retelling. In general, send me unusual re-tellings and heart-rending love stories, harsh and sobering contemporary, romantic suspense, romance in all subgenre