Book Broker—an interview with Darlene Chan
Agent: Darlene Chan
Preferred genres: Stories by and about BIPOC, women’s fiction, literary fiction, chick lit/rom-com, crime fiction, pop culture, narrative non-fiction, and non-fiction books on film and the entertainment industry.
Bio: A veteran of the film industry, Darlene served as an executive for Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures (both times under Jeffrey Katzenberg), Davis Entertainment and as an independent producer. Among the titles she has been associated with are Grumpy Old Men, Beverly Hills Cop, Thing Called Love, and Shattered. In 2009, Darlene established Darlene Chan PR, which specializes in web PR and social media for authors. Among her PR clients are Live Talks Los Angeles, Daniel H. Wilson, Joe Ide, Elizabeth Brundage, Tara Ison, and Denise Hamilton. She joined Linda Chester Literary Agency in 2020.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
A work that is familiar and new at the same time. Or maybe better put as a new spin on something we already know and take for granted. The pitch (for a work that isn't literary fiction) needs to have a strong story idea that has been developed with a twist. For example, a story about a 30-year-old woman who has to go home and live with family because of job or romance problems isn't fresh unless it's set in a unique situation.
Also, a good submission is one that is thoroughly edited and rewritten. It's clear when an author has sculpted and edited the work down to its essence through countless rewrites and isn't throwing in unnecessary words, chapters, characters just to fill up the pages. The most successful authors I know rewrite some 11 times before even showing it to their trusted readers. And then more rewriting. My friend Joe Ide often has rewritten something 15-20 times before it goes to his agent. He says he goes through every chapter and asks if it's needed; then every paragraph, sentence and then each word. Of course as a crime fiction writer, he needs to do that, but I think it's a good general rule for all genres—ask yourself how necessary every element is.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
A poorly-written query. For me, I don't think I've ever received a bad query which resulted in a good submission. An author has to be able to write a precise and alluring query. But in terms of the manuscript itself, the lack of a strong narrative voice is a tip off that it is not ready. As a reader, I want to feel like I'm in the confident hands of an author who is "driving" the story. And of course, clichés, overuse of similes, excessive floral language, and extraneous language stand out as red flags. Also, if I can guess what comes next in a plot-driven piece, that's a bad sign. Also, if the first 30-50 pages aren't stellar, I generally don't continue reading.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
An interesting first novel in a series—either in the crime thriller/mystery or rom com genres, with an interesting, complex, and fresh lead character—someone I haven't seen before.
A non-fiction book explaining something that is on the periphery of our collective consciousness but is about to take center stage.
4) Writers are frequently told to "show" rather than "tell." What does this craft maxim mean to you, and how does an overreliance on "telling" impact your assessment of a submission?
Being a veteran of the film business, I get a lot of manuscripts which are clearly screenplays put into manuscript form. The big tell is lots and lots of dialogue, which ironically in the novel form, is not telling, as well as quick, concise scenes that feel like an edited film. One of the benefits of a novel is that an author gets to go inside a character's head and explain those things you can't with a screenplay. Take advantage of this!
5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?
Every case is different, but in general I'm looking to go through two big rewrites at most and then a few smaller passes to catch details. I'm not developing from scratch unless I sense great writing and a unique story and/or setting.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
Getting editors to respond to every submission! I know I'm guilty of the "soft pass" myself, and I'm trying very hard to deal with submissions as they come in. That's my new year's resolution! This week alone I received about 20 queries. Lots of authors hit the send the button late Sunday afternoon. So it might seem hypocritical to critique editors on this point, but my submissions to them are culled and the result of rewrites and development, whereas queries I get are usually in an earlier stage, and I have to wade through many embryonic pieces.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong—Its fluid, lyrical narrative style that captures the depths, desires and fears of the narrator were captivating. It felt like I was swimming and flying at the same time.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean—A love letter to my local library! Also a mystery as who started the big fire that almost destroyed the Central Library in Downtown LA.
Just started Nathan Hill's The Nix.
Just finished the audio book The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans. Evans represents a bygone era in Hollywood, when producers were kings and tastemakers, and wielded the power that stars and studios/streamers have now. Funny inside-Hollywood stories about The Godfather, Chinatown and many more movies. And Evans' personality comes through his voice, which is why I wanted to hear it. I tend to listen to entertainment bios as audiobooks.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I love all my clients, so no, I'm not going to single anyone out as the most exciting author I'm working with at the moment. I can tell you about the projects that are coming up to fruition and why they're important to me.
A Cut Below: A Celebration of B Movies 1950s-1980s is a love letter to the horror movies of that era by Daily Dead columnist Scott Drebit. McFarland will publish later this year. It's a wide-ranging collection of film reviews by Scott that examine why certain titles hit the horror zeitgeist.
Do-Right Chocolate by Adam Pearson will be published by Matt Holt Books for BenBella. Adam, in his writing debut, will be taking the reader on the journey of how his family business disrupted the cacao bean-to-chocolate production chain and works to end the exploitation of Peruvian growers.
Joshua M. Greene's biography The Fight of Her Life: The True Story of Vladka Meed and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is the fifth in his series on child survivors of the Holocaust for Scholastic.
It's too early for cover images or links at this point, but I'm looking forward to the launch of these books.
(Current links go to author pages.)