SDSU Writers’ Conference: Five Questions with Literary Agent Jim McCarthy

Jim McCarthy

Jim McCarthy, Literary Agent/Vice President,
Dystel & Goderich Literary

1. What’s the best advice you can give to writers who are right now polishing their pitches, query letters and first 10 pages of their manuscripts in preparation for the upcoming SDSU Writers’ Conference?
Read and re-read what you have. Read it out loud to yourself. Read it out loud to a friend. Have a friend read it out loud to you. Make notes on where you stumble, moments that sound strange, metaphors that feel forced, transitions that feel over- or under-explained. I’m a firm believer in reading one’s work out loud because it’s often the easiest way to find things that aren’t working that you may have lost sight of.

2. Can you share one of the best and one of the worst opening lines from query letters that you’ve received?
Worst: “I read of your interest in suspense and mystery thrillers.” First, “mystery thrillers” isn’t a category. Second, I can’t imagine that I’ve expressed a lot of interest in suspense—it’s just not a category I gravitate towards. If he had said “cozy mystery,” I would have believed him. Instead, I suspect this is a generic line and that research wasn’t actually done.

Best: “Nuri Jordan has three things; diabetes, a psychotic roommate, and guilt for missing Rosh Hashanah.” Hilarious. I’m IN!

3. What’s the first book that spoke to you as a young reader?
Here’s my dirty secret: while I loved going to the library as a kid, I don’t know that I truly fell in love with books until much later. So sure, I loved having my sisters read to me, and I churned through dozens of Fear Street novels. But it wasn’t until high school when I grabbed Slaughterhouse-Five off my English teacher’s shelf that I realized books could be more than simply entertaining. That book blew my mind wide open, and I’ll never forget that first read. Poo-tee-weet.

4. If you had to choose only one, what’s your favorite book?
If I had to choose only one, I’d go back to high school again for Song of Solomon which revealed to me how beautiful language can be, how deeply an author can interweave her themes and story, and why a challenging read can be the most rewarding. Line by line, I can’t think of anyone who can touch Toni Morrison’s beauty of language or depth of sympathy for her characters. But ever so close on Solomon’s heels is The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I still can’t read the last page without crying).

5. What do you hope to find at the 31st Annual SDSU Writers’ Conference?
Amazing talent! Is that too vague? I just always want to find something that dazzles me.

For more information, visit neverstoplearning.net/writers