Slush Pile: Behind the Scenes with Danielle Chiotti

January 26, 2015

Hi y’all, and welcome. I’m very excited to have literary agent Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary join us today! Writer friends, you’ll want to sit up and pay attention as she takes us through a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes on when agents are sifting through their query inbox, reading submissions, and, of course… signing a new client!


MR:  Thanks so much for joining us today, Ms. Chiotti! To start us off, what story would you love to see in your inbox right now?

DC: Oh goodness. You know this is the worst question to ask an agent. The story I ALWAYS want to see in my slush pile is the one that gets at a certain truth, one that shows me the world in an entirely new way, one that makes me jump up out of my chair with excitement. I want to see a story that wows me. 


MR:  What is your query-reading process? Do you read them as they come in or do you designate certain times of the day? Do you sort them out, or just plow through all at once?

DC: I receive a lot of queries, and it wouldn't be possible for me to read them as they come in (or I'd never do anything else!). I dedicate one day a week to a HUGE amount of query reading (it's usually Wednesdays), and then dip into the query pile other days of the week when I have the time. I try to read queries in the order in which they come in (oldest to newest). But a funny or interesting title floating around in the box catches my eye from time to time, and I stray from the order.  I also have a fantastic crew of very enthusiastic readers who hang out with me on Query Wednesdays and help me spot the standout projects. 

I have a Query Golden Rule: Never judge a manuscript by its title, query letter, or prologue. I'll explain further: 

Finding a great title is difficult. Just because a novel has an awful title doesn't mean the writing will be awful. So I don't take bad titling too seriously at first, and I certainly don't reject based on a title alone (unless it's not in my categories). 

Some people write great query letters and lousy books. Some people write lousy query letters and great books.  So I don't reject based on bad queries alone (though I would encourage all writers to work on crafting a good query letter, as it is an extremely helpful tool). 

And finally, prologues. Oh, prologues! Writers won't like to hear this, but I don't like prologues. Most of the time they are superfluous, a distraction.  If I judged submissions based on the prologues and without dipping into Chapter One, I would reject most of them! Which is why I tend to skim the prologue and go right to Chapter One, which, 99% of the time, gives a stronger indication of the writing. 

MR:  Roughly how many of your current clients came to you via query?

DC: I currently have about 30 clients, all in various stages of book-making. Fifteen of them came to me via query, and the other half via referral or other strange twists of publishing fate. I love finding authors via query--it's exciting and inspiring to discover great work that way. 


MR:  If you request a manuscript, do you always request a partial first or do you sometimes ask for a full right away (and why?). 
DC: Upstart Crow's submission guidelines allow writers to submit the first 20 pages of their novel with their query. It's a lot of pages, but it allows me to get a strong sense of the writing right away. So when I request a manuscript, it's typically a full. 

MR:  Do you read manuscripts in the order they’re received or in order of what looks most appealing? Do you always read the whole thing or do you stop when you lose interest?

DC: I read requested mss in the order in which I receive them, the exception being if there is a rush or a time limit on a project. I don't always read the whole thing. I read until the story stops pulling me along, and that's different for every manuscript I read. 

MR:  After reading a MS do you know right away that you want to represent that author or is there a certain process you go through to reach that decision?

DC:I usually know by about 75 pages or so if I'm totally in love with a story so by the time I finish the entire manuscript, I'm pretty certain whether or not I want to offer representation. My next step is to speak with the writer on the phone to make sure we're a good personality match, and that their wants and needs as a writer are in line with the way I conduct my business as an agent. And if that all checks out, I offer representation.

New Clients:

MR:  What happens after you sign a new client? What's the next step for that author?

DC:Usually, we do some revision (the amount differs for each client) . So I have a creative back-and-forth with the author, and then we begin the exciting/excruciating submissions process. 

MR:  Most authors only dream about landing an agent. How different is life for an author on "the other side" of signing with an agent? Is there anything a new clients are typically surprised by (both pleasantly and unexpectedly?) 

DC: Even though the process of querying agents is harrowing in its own right, I think what most writers don't take into account is that even after signing with an agent, the process of developing a thick skin, of shouldering rejection and/or disappointment, is still very much ongoing. 

Writing is a business of looking ahead. And learning how to focus and keep writing through bad days (rejection) and  great days (getting an offer!) is the reality of writing for a living. The writing process goes on. Even once you get an agent, it goes on. Even after you get a book deal, it goes on. And even after your first book comes out, it goes on. Looking at your process, learning how you work best, and learning how to keep writing no matter what--that's probably the most important thing a writer can do once they've broken through "to the other side".

For fun:

MR:  Your ultimate vacation: 

DC: There is a little spot on Long Island Sound in Connecticut that is close to my heart. I think of it on the dreariest winter days, and dream of July sunsets. It's not fancy, but it's pretty darn near perfect.  

MR:  If you could be dropped into any story (book, movie, or tv), where would you want to go, and why?

DC: I would want to be dropped into the grandmother's storyline in Ruth Ozeki's A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, because of the setting (a Japanese temple with a view of the sea!) and the depth of emotion that takes place in that particular part of the narrative. 

MR:  Who's your role-model (literary or otherwise)?

DC: Okay. So this might not be true later today or tomorrow or next year. But I'm currently completely engrossed in watching the entirety of The Gilmore Girls series on Netflix. And at this moment in time, Lorelai Gilmore is my role model. 

MR: Thank you so much, Ms. Chiotti, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to stop by! Best of luck to you and your clients, both current and future! :D

From her agency’s website:

Danielle is actively seeking fresh young adult and middle grade fiction across all genres. She is drawn toward gorgeous writing and strong, flawed characters. Her dream project for young readers is one that challenges and inspires, with a compelling voice that will make her stay up all night reading. Good examples of this are Chime by Franny Billingsley, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
For adult fiction, she is seeking  up-market commercial fiction. She prefers books that explore deep emotional relationships in an interesting or unusual way. Good examples of this are Shine Shine Shine  by Lydia Netzer, The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
She is not considering the following adult categories: romance, mystery/suspense/thriller, science fiction, horror, or erotica.
For nonfiction, she is looking for compelling, voice-driven projects that shed a humorous or thought-provoking light on a previously unknown topic in the areas of narrative nonfiction/memoir, lifestyle, relationships, humor, current events, food, wine, and cooking.
If you are looking to query Ms. Chiotti, you may do so via e-mail at danielle.submission (at) gmail (dot) com, using the criteria listed on her agency’s website here .

Also, don’t forget to follow Ms. Chiotti on twitter: @daniellechiotti

Thanks for stopping by, friends. See you soon!


  1. Great questions. I love getting to know agents through such interviews.

  2. I really enjoyed this interview. Thanks Megan and Danielle! I like the idea and focus of query Wednesdays and I went through a Lorelai Gilmore phase, too:)