Literary Agent Dorian Karchmar's Advice to MFA Students

Should MFA students think about finding an agent before graduating? How should they approach agents? And what do agents think about working with MFA grads? We asked literary agent Dorian Karchmar of the William Morris Agency, whose client list includes Helene Cooper, Guy Fieri, Kate Jacobs, Jennifer Haigh, and Jennifer Vanderbes, these questions and more.

Where do you find your new talent?
Referrals are the primary thing—mostly clients who recommend me to friends of theirs who are writing. Also editors refer promising people to me. Sometimes an editor will go to an MFA program or a conference. Editors are, for the most part, not going to sign up a writer without an agent, so oftentimes they will put my name into the mix if they are interested in someone.

What do you look for in a query letter?
Doing a query correctly is important. When writers query me, and it’s clear they’ve done their homework—they know who I am, have listened to my interviews, and know my list—then, of course, I will take them very seriously. I get queries all the time from people who graduated from Iowa, Michigan, Columbia, The New School, five years or ten years prior and have been working on things ever since. That’s always very exciting to me. I really like seeing work from people who show a real writer’s level of commitment—people who are ready now, years after receiving their MFA, because they have the passion and the patience. Writing requires tremendous patience.

Are you wary of working with freshly graduated MFA students?
I am not wary of it at all. While certainly a number of students need to work harder and longer on what it is they have to say and how to say it, there are plenty of MFA students who have been out of school and working and also working on their writing before going back for their masters. These are not all twenty-one-year-olds.

Should MFA students even be thinking about agents?
MFA students shouldn’t be thinking about agents. They shouldn’t be thinking about what other people are doing. They shouldn’t be thinking about any of it. They should be thinking about the project they’re working on.

What’s the most important thing to take away from an MFA program?
One or two really trusted readers—people who are particularly good readers for your work and are tactful but ruthless about what is and is not working. Agents and editors are looking for work that has been taken as far as it can go. If you can come out of a program with a couple of people who really understand what you’re trying to do with a project and who can dig into the work and solve the problems, it is probably the single greatest value aside from being given a couple of years of time.

In publishing nonfiction, is it better to first publish a nonfiction piece in a magazine, and then try to craft it into a book? I think getting a piece in a magazine first can oftentimes be extremely helpful in raising the author’s profile and sousing out if the subject matter deserves a book. A lot of the time, a story can be told in a piece and doesn’t necessarily need to be a book.

You’ve said that critiquing is about the person’s work being as good as it can be, and that a true professional will embrace negative criticism. What about questions in workshops that seem to be more of a matter of taste? Should a student listen more to the professor? The students? Her friends? Whose opinion matters?
I think the question is, Do they seem to understand what it is you’re trying to do? Do they seem to understand the book or the story in the fundamental spirit of the thing? If the answer is yes, then they may have a pretty good idea about why it’s not working. Very often writers know what is working and what is not. Sometimes we don’t want to believe it because that might mean starting something over. And sometimes the answer lies in putting it aside for a while. Take great notes while people are giving you feedback and come back to it a little while later with those different notes in hand and see what seems to click.

No writer ever feels 100 percent about her work. How can she know when it's ready to be shown to an agent?
Whatever your self-criticism is, you can feel when you’ve taken a work as far as you can take it. Obviously you want your key readers to read it and feel it’s working, but the thing has to have its basic shape. It needs to be very clean; you need to understand what it is. It should never be, “I think there’s something here, and I want to get an agent’s take on it.” That’s a mistake. An agent is not your professor.