How I Got My Literary Agent

I decided to do one of these posts because when I was in a position to start looking for an agent, I became mildly obsessed with knowing the “path to publication” of each writer I read, and was always disappointed when at least some information wasn’t provided, while the stories I did find served as inspiration (such as that of A.S. King and Shannon Hale). Also people keep asking.

February 2013 was the first time I ever pitched to an agent. I’d finally finished and polished a whole manuscript (to death, really) and there was nothing left to do but go for it. I paid for a ten-minute session with an agent at the LTUE conference and was nauseous I was so nervous. Looking back, I think it wasn’t so much that one pitch, but rather that I was owning up to the fact that I wanted to be a published author and this was the first leap off the cliff (except I didn’t so much leap as I did close my eyes and tip over). I’m read Seraphina a few weeks ago, and there’s a quote that describes this perfectly (but is actually describing a dragon hunt; accurate, I think): “There’s the exhilaration of an exciting chase mixed with the fear that it may all end in nothing, but there is never any question that you will try, for your very existence hangs on it.”

jump

Despite my nerves, the agent was nice and asked me to send the full manuscript. I was clearly a bit awkward, but I had an interesting concept (this will turn out to be a pattern in my other publishing attempts as well; I fumble in nearly all areas of this process, but by darn, I do have good ideas). From there I sent query letters to 50 other agents. I used the “Guide to Literary Agents” and agent websites, plus blogs like Miss Snark’s to make sure my query was properly formatted. I’m not saying I did an awesome job, but I did try and fully recognized that I needed to put my best foot forward, even if I was still figuring out what that was.

Some of you may have guessed, the manuscript was Once Upon a Nightmare*. Roughly five agents wanted to read it, but all of them ultimately turned it down for basically the same reason: nice idea, needs some work on the execution. The rest were form rejections or no answers. At this point, I had two choices: go back and rework OUAN again and get it up to snuff . . . or I could move on. I chose to move on. I think a lot of new writers fall into the trap of nursing their one book, babying it, when really what they need to do is write more books. [*It’s still online because I’d put it up on FictionPress before ever trying to query, and when I took it down I got some very distraught e-mails from old fans, so I’ve left it up for the people who still enjoy it.]

So I wrote more books. I wrote a speculative mystery novel, then I went to the UK and was completely blown away watching Shakespeare plays at the RSC and the Globe Theater. I remember seeing As You Like It and thinking, “You could make such a freaking cool novel out of this.” I added the thought to the multitude of notes I’d made in my Shakespeare class last semester of different retelling ideas. But I didn’t really think I could write books based on Shakespeare plays, because wasn’t that kind of cheating? Or overdone? Or laaaaaame?

Meanwhile I got home the end of June and did some more rewrites on the mystery novel. Time to query again! Except I ended up not querying, because I entered it into a contest for adult fiction and it got picked up by a small publisher. Shortly after, I read an editor’s tweet saying she’d love to see a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing. Um, what? That’s my favorite play (not just favorite Shakespeare play, but favorite play period). I had so many things I wanted to do with it . . . which meant, could I actually write this?

I took it as permission and (re)watched every adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing I could get my hands on, and read the play again, highlighting all the best lines, of which there are many. I watched Ken Burns six-hour documentary on Prohibition and read multiple books on the 1920s and bootlegging. My excitement grew. I wrote my retelling faster than I’d ever written anything (though to be fair, I was following the play pretty closely, so it was like having a built-in outline). I was so jazzed about it, I wanted to come back to the story every morning and was sad to leave it when my eyes started to blur from staring at my screen too long.

Yadda, yadda, yadda, I showed it to some readers, got feedback, rewrote some scenes and chapters, polished it up, and decided to query again. (At this point I just sigh and pat my past-self on the head; my excitement outran my patience, to say the least.) I was much more specific in my research this time. I used querytracker.net and narrowed my search field to include young adult and historical fiction. From the agents that popped up, I studied each one more to narrow my list even further. I wanted a semi-younger agent (younger in the business, not in age) who would hopefully be my partner for my entire career. I also looked for, in addition to young adult and historical fiction, an agent who could handle a flexible spectrum in fiction and was interested in high concept books. Nearly all of my books, or at least the ideas and notes I have for them, are fairly high concept and different from each other in many ways.

I sent the first batch of 20 or so queries out, got a few form rejections right off, then entered my ms in Brenda Drake’s PITCH MADNESS contest. I ended up with five bids, in addition to a handful of “ninja” agents who also wanted to see it. Then two agents I sent queries to asked for the full. Then #pitmad happened and I got additional requests from that. I also, as a result of #pitmad, got an e-mail from an agent* I’d already queried who saw my pitch on Twitter and was like, “Wait, didn’t I already ask for that?”

Suddenly, within what felt like a relatively short period of time, over a dozen agents were looking at my manuscript. One of the #pitmad agents responded in a few weeks, and I really liked her. I was hoping she’d write back and she did, asking for rewrites of the first chapter to see if I could take feedback and edit well. This was another case of: nice idea, execution needs a little work. Except this time people were willing to give me a chance to improve the execution. I severely over-wrote and slaughtered that rewritten first chapter; it was terrible. But the agent, bless her heart, saw the effort and potential and offered representation.

yay

Dreams come true! Dreams come true! I was over the moon, but still knew the professional thing to do was let all other agents who had my manuscript know that I’d had an offer. At this point, I was slowly realizing that in my over-eagerness I’d sent out a manuscript that still had a way to go, so I wasn’t expecting any passionate pleas for all future works of genius (cough).

About 2/3 of the agents very politely and warmly stepped aside, citing various reasons they weren’t personally as excited about it as they’d hoped to be. (I just want to make a quick aside here that it’s easy to see agents as these Gandalf gatekeepers between us and our dream going, “You shall not pass!”, but they are truly some of the nicest people in the world.) The last third asked for more time to finish. Of this third, most ultimately passed, giving me good feedback, but one had a full page of notes that ended with, “If any of this resonates with you, I’d be happy to talk, but do know that I would expect a lot of additional edits.” Ha—you and me both, I thought.

I couldn’t quite tell if she was very interested or not, so I wrote back and said, “I agree this needs additional elbow grease. Um, would you want to represent the book?” That’s a paraphrase, of course. Actually when I look back on some of these e-mails to both agents, I cringe. I, at least, can tell that I was a screwed up ball of anxiety.

nervous

In short, second agent and I talked on the phone, lots of her edits did resonate, and I was left in an unanticipated situation where I liked both agents and didn’t know who to choose. I also knew my novel was going to drastically change. What if I signed with one agent, made the changes, and they hated the new draft?

If the cringe-y e-mails weren’t bad enough, it was nothing compared to the second phone call I had with the second agent, where, in retrospect, I think I was presenting ideas and subconsciously trying to wring a confession out of her to admit she would like the changes (before I’d even sent them) and be happy she signed with me and we’d ride off into the sunset. Which is crazy. And I remember getting to the end of the phone call, when she was maybe starting to see through the fog of my crazy, and she said something to the effect of: “You know, I get how important this is to new writers, but at the end of the day, you can say no to both of us. That’s not the end of the world. And if this book never finds an agent, then you’ll write a new book and try again with that one. The fate of your career doesn’t have to be decided in the space of this phone call.”

It was good advice in general, but really good advice for me personally. Plus, she’d sort of talked me off the crazy cliff, which I suspected might be a useful skill for a future agent of mine to have.

Thus . . . I said no to both, because clearly it was important for me to chillax and rewrite this book on my own terms. So I rewrote my manuscript, incorporating the plethora of professional feedback I’d received. It was a massive undertaking, almost 80% new writing. During this time, funnily enough, two other agents I’d queried asked for the full ms, one who later declined and one who I later declined (I only add this detail because one of the requests seriously came six months after I sent the query, so you just never know). Then I waited for the first two agents to read the rewrite and while I waited I cyber-stalked them. If they uttered a word on the world wide web, I probably read it. I’d also made sure to ask them questions about their clients, what they envisioned for the book, are they a member of AAR, etc., etc.

In the end, they both were still interested and, honestly, it just came down to what felt right in my gut, because they were both genuine, qualified, lovely people. I looked at it from a business angle as well as a personal angle and chose the second agent, the indomitable Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, who is pretty much fantastic. I love that she is an editorial agent and is never going to tell me, “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” when it could be better (I also like that she thinks I’m capable of making it better). I’m not sure how many writers feel like that they’re getting a mentor into the publishing world with their agent, but that’s been the case with me. I used to read the acknowledgments of books with authors describing their agents as ninja/sword-wielding/super people, and thinking, ‘They can’t all be like that.’ And maybe they’re not, but Katie is (after our first phone call I described her to my friend saying ‘she has a lioness quality’).

[*She was also the agent who I sent a regular cold query to, but who e-mailed me back after seeing my pitch on #pitmad, so I never know to which venue I should attribute the contact.]

So top lessons learned: be patient. Don’t take every e-mail from every agent like it’s the start or end to your life. If you truly love writing, you’re probably in it for the long haul, so just relax. And finally, hold out for an agent that really gets you and gets your book. Many aspiring writers, myself included, are ready to say yes to whichever agent makes you an offer first. If that first agent at LTUE had made an offer for OUAN, I would have jumped on her like a koala, refusing to let go, but I’m grateful for all the delays and side-turns that ultimately landed me with agent I have now.