Freelance editor and former literary agent Amy Tipton discusses her love of young adult and middle grade fiction, the “unlikable female character,” whether agents who don’t want a manuscript will be likely to pass it along to an agent friend, her personal editing style, and more.
Amy Tipton graduated from Naropa University with a B.A. in Writing and Literature and received her MFA from New College of California in Writing. She has been working in the publishing industry for 13 years and started freelance editing in 2018. Prior to that, she was a literary agent at Signature Literary Agency since 2009. (She first stepped into the role of literary agent at Peter Rubie Literary Agency, now FinePrint Literary Management, in 2007.) She started out as an assistant and office manager at several agencies including JCA Literary Agency, Diana Finch Literary Agency, Gina Maccoby Literary Agency, and Liza Dawson Associates, as a book scout for Aram Fox, Inc., and as a freelance editor for Lauren Weisberger (author of The Devil Wears Prada).
5 On Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You’re reading as a young person, and…What’s the strongest reading memory that comes to mind? Why does it stand out?
AMY TIPTON: I honestly don’t have any strong memories about reading per se, but looking back, I was one weird kid with weird reading habits. I did a book report in 4th grade (3rd grade? I was young) on the book Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns! (It was a book from my mother’s bookshelf; I’m sure I misunderstood lots.) While other kids were reading Where the Red Fern Grows (great book!), I was reading about the comedian Gracie Allen, wife and professional partner to George Burns.
Another report (another book from my mom’s shelf) was on the life of Sidney Poitier.
I also remember that the movie My Left Foot started an obsession with Christy Brown and I did a report on him, too!
I do remember the more age-appropriate books I read, but not the when or where or if anyone else was involved. I mean, I know my mom always read to me (even in the womb she read The Little Prince—which 1. is my favorite book [with To Kill A Mockingbird] and 2. is a strange thing to read to your unborn child; it probably started my weird reading habits). Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny were big hits. I also remember The Secret of Nimh (book, not movie—though I loved the movie) as well as A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I devoured any Nancy Drew story and every Sweet Valley book in sight. I loved the Fear Street books, too, and yes, I was a Judy Blume fan and a Beverly Cleary fan!
I try to read everything, now.
Your website submission page expresses a preference for young adult and middle grade fiction. What draws you to the genres in general, and what would you like to see happening in YA/MG in the future?
The totally solid, professional answer: I believe writing is an act of resistance (the personal is political) and kids are the future. We must teach our children that doing what’s right is important and they should stick to their values and beliefs.
And you can do this without sounding preachy! I think a lot of writers view right/wrong and sticking to beliefs as stories with morals at the end—like a sort of Aesop fable. Writers tend to view these things didactically; we teach them, they’re academic, or something. I don’t necessarily see it in edited/published work, but I do see it in rougher drafts. That’s something I revise. I think “lessons” can/should be organic, and these teaching moments can be so natural that when you’re done reading you can be, “Whoa, I think I learned …”
(I think The Hate U Give does this beautifully, by the way. Also, I’ll say I’m not really the audience for Tupac, but I found myself watching YouTube videos of him for days after reading it!)
I think kids respond to that more, anyway.
The unprofessional answer: I feel younger than I am. I laugh at (probably) wildly inappropriate/immature things and therefore become Amy Poehler in Mean Girls: “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.” Haha!
(Both answers are true, by the way.)
Author Lyn Fairchild Hawks wrote in a blog entry about her experience working with you, “I tease her that ‘Uh, no!’ is her signature marginal comment, telling you to cease and desist, immediately, with that nonsense you just wrote.” What nonsense do you see most frequently in manuscripts that will get an “Uh, no” editorial comment from you?
It’s hard to give a concrete answer, here. Every book is different, the plot/characters/dialogue/world is unique. I would say anything that reads unbelievable or is inconsistent with the story definitely earns an, “Uh, no.”
And that comment is so true, too—I do write ALL KINDS of things in the notes! Some writers are offended, some can take the critique. I have learned over the years to soften feedback, but I admit I can be intense (OK, mean!), sorry.
From your website: “There is no female character too ‘unlikable’ to pique my interest.”
I’m very interested in the “unlikable character” conversation: are male unlikables more tolerable than female unlikables?; is “unlikable” the same as “unrelatable”?; do male characters get to have more flaws before they’re deemed “unlikable” (would any male John Irving character be considered likable as a woman?); etc.
What are your thoughts about all of this, and who are (or who is) your favorite “unlikable” female character(s) (and what makes that/those character(s) unlikable)?
Well, hmm. This is a long/complicated subject! A subject author Claire Messud took on in 2012 in a Publisher’s Weekly interview, when the interviewer called her main female character “grim” and said they wouldn’t want to be friends with her [the main character]:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
Basically, there’s a double standard that pops up in fiction (and in media and in life) all the time: we expect males to be flawed (it makes them complex), but our expectations for females are stricter.
Plain and simple, it’s unfair.
For example: we forgive—even root for!—our male heroes when they show emotion (like cry hysterically; they could be heartbroken, after all) or are moody or are alcoholic or just drink and smoke way too much and swear constantly or are selfish or lie—we’re ok if they are unredeemable—yet these traits we love in our male MCs become, in female MCs, qualities of the dreaded “unlikable character.” (Dun, dun, dun!)
Males are hardly ever subjected to such criticism. One commenter on Erica Jong’s blog post concerning “unlikable characters” said “Unlikable = interesting,” and, well, that’s one way to look at it/(over)simplify it, but yeah!
A lot has been written already regarding Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, so I’ll mention how I love the female friendship explored in Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona Del Mar, and I love Ani FaNelli from Luckiest Girl Alive and Rachel Watson from The Girl on the Train. I love Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn characters. They buck societal norms/deviate from the system—they don’t necessarily need or want the marriage, 2.5 kids, a house with a white picket fence life. These ladies scheme, swear, rage, lie, drink, and don’t really apologize for doing so. (Which is really why they’re “unlikable”—a woman can only be this complex if seeking redemption or is punished at the end…)
Look, there’s no “right” way to be a woman. We’re all “unlikable” (meaning interesting)! I’m pretty sure if I were a character in a book, I’d be labeled “unlikable,” too.
According to one of your bios, pieces of your first two novels are published in a variety of literary journals. What are your novels about, and what is your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?
I wrote a lot while I was in school (college) and most of my work was character based. I loved Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and set one of my stories in and around a neighborhood 7-11. (I was also influenced by Karen Finley and Miranda July, so I was a bit arty AKA experimental AKA weird in my work…ha!). I, unfortunately, don’t write as much anymore (so, good thing I get to work with writers).
I think it’s hard for me to make the time to write—to stop checking my email or doing laundry or watching TV or cleaning the bathroom in order to make writing a priority. I say yes to coffee with a friend and brush writing aside; I say “tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow,” and tomorrow turns into 10 years, or something! But once I set aside time, once I get my butt in the chair, you can’t pry me away. It could be 3 a.m. and I started writing at noon, but I’m not leaving. That’s the thing for me—I write in huge chunks of time. I’m not one of those “I have 5 minutes waiting for the bus so I’ll just get this down” people. Yes, sometimes, I jot down notes for a funny scene or a character quirk, but I can’t write like that. I constantly edit as I go, too. If I get stuck, I can’t “just move on”—that’s not my process.
5 On Publishing
Janet Reid writes in a blog post about what authors should do if their agent stops being an agent, “An agent who is looking to switch careers is an unhappy agent.” What did you so love about being a literary agent that you got back to work in 2009 not long after having had a stroke, and what are the parts of the job that might make someone—or, you—not want to do it, anymore?
I wouldn’t say I was unhappy agenting per se; I was super into reading the work—reading queries, requesting books, offering to rep, getting to revise (I love revising!—not surprising, I mean, considering I’m a writer, I get to put a creative stamp here), but it’s also business-y work like contracts and royalties, and I’m just not a suit. I went to school for writing, I’m not a lawyer or number cruncher.
I think (ironically enough) Lyn’s blog post about me as a great agent made me realize I am pretty great! Humblebrag, here—did you know I came up with the Courtney Summers book title This Is Not a Test? And my mom’s advice to me about boys showed up in Courtney Summers’s All the Rage? I also encouraged Amy Reed to edit the Our Stories, Our Voices anthology and helped shape the 2014 Stonewall Award winner Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills. (I’m not here to take credit away from anyone, either—these books are incredible—I just think I also deserve some credit!)
That blog post made me realize I would make a great developmental editor. Which was the “hands-on” part of (my) agenting—the reading/revising/notes/talking of ideas/etc. I did all of that and more, and I did it because I loved it. So, voila! Offering editorial services seemed like a good fit.
I thought about opening up my own agency, but a friend who runs her own agency said you can’t be creative, or as creative as you want, since it’s more paperwork/business stuff. Being a boss is hard! So I just decided to go the freelance editor route. Yes, I’m a boss, but it’s creative, so it feeds my punk rock/anarchist/progressive soul.
It wasn’t an easy decision. The feeling of guilt was heavy (the guilt of failing authors—not getting their books published or not getting a higher advance for their book, which you know they deserved). It was all too much. I am only one person, and tracking down editors (who just ignore follow-ups) or arguing about higher advances with editors or scrambling to find an audio publisher or a film/TV agent (garnering their interest is almost another full time job!) and keeping track of foreign rights—who has what where (another full time position)—was an insane workload. Most of the stuff I represented was not easy—the subjects were not big, splashy, blockbuster/fun reads—so it’s very easy to be frustrated. With every pass I, honestly, felt like a failure.
But at the same time, admittedly, I’m at the top of my game. Courtney Summers is a New York Times bestseller, and Amy Reed just did a New York Times interview on her book The Nowhere Girls and the Me Too movement. (Both ladies have exciting things coming their way.) And my first sci-fi/dark fantasy YA mystery What the Woods Keep is holding its own! But this success was a looooong time coming. As they say, too little, too late, right?
I had been reading a lot of writer/editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s blog, and while I sometimes disagreed/it (sometimes) induced eye rolling, there were things I agreed with, like maybe—not saying “definitely”—maybe you should compartmentalize your career: have a lawyer look at contracts, have an accountant do your royalties, get a foreign rights agent, film agent, have an editor (or someone like me). Maybe you shouldn’t rely solely upon your agent. Your agent maybe should just submit/sell your book.
But in this fast-food/one-stop-shop culture, the writer-agent job grows, and so stress is greater. I had a stroke at 30—I’m not about to have a heart attack at 40!
It seems like writers today are told to think about marketability more than they might have been told that in the past. I can’t see Fitzgerald or Steinbeck worrying over what editors and/or the market is looking for. Has publishing changed in that way, or does it just seem like it? Or, maybe, were Fitzgerald and Steinbeck worried about marketability?
I don’t know if Fitzgerald or Steinbeck worried about marketability (I doubt it, too—if they did, it was a lot less/very different). Today you have to consider the current climate and how fast-paced life is and how technology is a big part of our life—social media/platform/audience. The writer has to worry about whether they even have the right to tell certain stories (and suffer the consequences of whatever they decide). I also think writers have to have hooks or concepts. Sadly, I’m part of the problem. I watch The Real Housewives and Little Women L.A., so I feed this stupid reality-TV culture that affects what books (stories/ideas) get published. (Sorry.)
Long gone are the 1990s, when I spent time aimless in plot, following my characters’ f-ups, like so many indie arthouse flicks I loved.
As someone with such an established background in the business end of writing, how do you approach a manuscript as a freelance editor—with a creative eye or with a business eye?
Both, but more so with a creative eye. I mean, sure, I bet I revise/edit (subconsciously) from a business stance (I do want these books to sell!), but I feel freer/able to edit work and go with whatever flow the author wants. I am not necessarily in charge of selling this book, so I am a lot less controlling. Ha!
Asked how often you would pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested, you said, “Sometimes. It has happened.” It’s possible writers hope this happens more than it does, but is it actually pretty rare? If so, is it usually that agents are passing because they think no one will like it? Or is there a competitive element (“I don’t want it, but I don’t want anyone else to have it, either!”)? Or is it more like that picture of the double yellow line painted over a dead possum with the text, “Not my job”? Or: Is it that agents don’t, in fact, all know each other and have no idea what anyone else is looking for?
I have done this. I actually passed Amber McRee Turner’s Sway on to Joanna Volpe in 2008! However, writers probably hope this happens more than it does. Contrary to belief, not all agents know each other (they probably know of each other) and know more editors and what editors want/buy. Some agents are friends, for sure, but a lot are more invested in what editors like rather than, say, what their competitor is looking for.
Your editing service, Feral Girl Books, is geared toward female/female-identifying voices. You write on your website, “I am drawn to the unique pressures and circumstances girls and women face. […] I firmly believe female characters deserve to be featured with the same depth and range as their male counterparts.” When did this focus first become a priority for you, and are you seeing a change in the publishing landscape as far as female-identifying voices are concerned?
I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment, actually.
I have always been drawn to females/female voices; feminine energy is something I’ve always been around. My mom and my BFF are very strong females in my life. (My BFF has been my partner-in-crime since we were five! We went from elementary school to junior high to high school together, and we are close to this day. She was in my hospital room as I recovered from this stroke—she might as well be my sister.)
I was lucky growing up, having strong female role models in the form of family friends and a great lady who lived across the street and who kinda became my substitute grandma. But I also came of age in the ’90s on the West Coast, and I’d be remiss to not credit the Riot Grrrl movement—Bikini Kill in particular—as a driving force. I credit that movement for keeping my confidence/self-esteem afloat through high school and bad boyfriends, etc.
Briefly, I played with the thought of working for a rape/sexual assault hotline (like RAINN) or a domestic-violence shelter, but I also loved writing, discovered zines, and through zines discovered Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Cahun, and Diamanda Galás.
A lot of the Riot Grrrl movement was overwhelmingly white, so it wasn’t until college that I got thinking about intersectionality and women, race, and class—which is the title of the first Angela Davis book I read.
Knowledge is so powerful.
I know I’m lucky to have studied women’s studies/read feminist texts, and I now think it’s important to big up these voices. Kathleen Hanna believes archiving is a vital feminist act. Me too. We [women] don’t want to be erased.
I want to help be part of that change. I want to get writers before the agent stage, and I want to whip them into shape so an agent won’t overlook them/won’t say no. This certainly happens—which is why so many straight/white/rich dudes get published before anyone else. The same thing happens when writers work with a less hands-on agent and get requested rewrites/revisions from an editor but end up rejected. I want to help! (Yes, some agents are more than capable of revising, but they’re busy, and their clients feel ignored.) I also want to help them be/feel heard! I don’t want us to be erased—not now, not ever. If I can, today, I’m here to help stop it. They say the future is female, so welcome to my fempire, ladies. (Thank you Lifetime [Television] for the word fempire. I use it all the time!)
Thank you, Amy.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.