July 23, 2010

How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 1

What I’m Reading Today: Lots of websites and things about social networking and platform.  I miss fiction.

Big announcement!

I signed with a literary agent this week! The lovely Rachel Oakley at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. I am just so thrilled! It’s been eleven years in the making.

(Since this initial post, my agent as D&G has changed to the lovely Sharon Pelletier.)

I thought I’d make this a two-part post. In today’s post, I’ll tell the story of how it happened. Monday I’ll report on SSFD, as usual, but then Tuesday I’ll try to pinpoint the things that made a difference in my search. So, without further delay …

Once upon a time, way back in 1999, I started writing my first novel. It was the summer between graduating with my undergraduate in English and starting grad school. After timidly taking my first writer’s workshop, I had convinced myself that maybe, just maybe, I had it in me to write one.

This first novel, Earth’s Imagined Corners, is women’s fiction set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. It’s the story of Sara, whose father tries to marry her off to his younger partner, only she elopes with a kind man, James, whom she just met and who, though she doesn’t know it, just got out of prison. It’s based on the lives of my great grandparents.

It took me six years, until 2005, to write the first draft. I would write furiously for two weeks, a month, and then life would get in the way or I’d come to a hard part. Then I’d put it aside. Once I had a complete draft, I got some friends to read it, and then I revised and revised until I didn’t know what else to do.

I crafted a query and started sending EIC out in November of 2005. In a testament to optimism over stark reality, I sent it out to almost a 130 agents, plus about 20 small presses, with minimal response. By minimal, I mean only one request for a full and maybe a couple of requests for partials. I know now that my query letter wasn’t that good and that the first pages of the novel had red flags ~ switches in points of view, boring scenes, an unlikable character, and other things. One very kind agent in Canada requested a full and wanted to take me on, but her partners didn’t agree. She asked for an exclusive too ~ so long months of waiting. I finally gave up on this book in 2007, but you’ll be happy to know that I’ve resurrected it and am now deep in revising it and making it sparkle like sunshine on water.

In the meantime, I’d moved on with writing. I’d also been writing short stories, which really really helped me with craft. Then, in August of 2005 I started the current novel, the one that got Rachel to fall in love with it. It’s called Deep Down Things (at the moment). Set in present-day Loveland, Colorado, it’s about a naive young woman Maggie who falls in love with an idealistic writer named Jackdaw. She helps him write a book, and they get pregnant and then get married. However, because Jackdaw is so idealistic, he doesn’t respect her because of it. Then they have a baby boy named Jes who has spina bifida, a severe birth defect. Maggie tries to save her marriage and her baby. It was inspired by something a friend went through.

I finished the first draft in March of 2007, so a year and a half. I had a great deadline ~ I wanted to do a mentorship on it at the Tin House Writers Conference, so a lot of it was written in the early months of 2007. I don’t know how but I landed a great mentorship there with an editor at a big New York publishing house. She was so kind. I have to say, at that time, the manuscript was in sort of a mess ~ first person in four points of view and also two different time frames going concurrently ~ but she pointed out what was working on a large scale and on a small scale and what could be changed. “Do more of this ~ characters not just in the moment but also reflecting on what it means,” she said. “Even though you’re in first person, it has to be a little more toward third person. Less asides.”

I wrote and revised. I kept the four points of view but made the narrative linear. I made sure each of the characters had his or her own arc and distinct voice. Because of my initial structure, I had the beginning and the end written but not the middle. I took the book to a couple of more conferences and got more advice. I revised. I made connections with editors and agents and writers. I went to the wonderful Algonkian Writers Conference, which is all about figuring out publishing from an agent’s and editor’s point of view and looking professional and honing your pitch. Heck, it’s about basic things, too, like making sure you know what genre you’re in and you’re sticking to those conventions. Michael, who leads that conference, gave the name of a kickass freelance editor who used to be an in-house editor, and she went through the novel again and gave me the full editorial treatment. I urged her not to spare my feelings ~ tell me what’s working and what’s not. She did such a great job, and I paid her a lot of money but not as much as she deserved. (Many things in this process, like conferences, cost a lot of money.) I revised and revised, including changing the title (it was called Loveland) and the ending.

In March of 2009, I started sending my query out to agents. I started with top agents and agents who represented things like what I write. I immediately got requests for partials and for fulls, but then they all came back with “You write really well, but fiction is a tough market right now.” I received invitations to submit my next project. I kept submitting, ten to twenty agents at a time, every month or two. I kept my ear to the ground and submitted to newly established agents and agencies. I also followed the great advice of submitting to new agents at established agencies ~ I have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, so I scanned that every day and collected names and submitted to them. One of those new agents was Rachel.

I submitted to Rachel on January 8, 2010. She requested a full on January 14. Then, the evening of Friday, February 19, I got this fabulous long email from her. I read along and she said all these wonderful things about it and I kept reading, waiting for the “but …” The but never came. She suggested some changes and said she’d love to see it again. Over the weekend, I addressed all her changes and sent it back to her on Monday. As she reviewed it, we exchanged friendly emails about other things, at her initiation. She took another look at the manuscript and then had some other agents take a look, but then on March 25 she rejected it! I had started to become convinced that she was The One, and it was kind of heart-breaking. She was so encouraging and wonderful in her rejection email. But I understood why she had done it ~ as everyone was saying, it’s a hard market for fiction right now, especially literary fiction. I sent her an email saying that I’d much appreciated her enthusiasm and I understood. That was that ~ so I thought.

Then in late May, Rachel emailed me to say that she’d come across a story of mine that was recently published and that she really liked my writing. This begins a great series of emails about what we were reading and about cowboys and the West and her being from Australia, once again at her initiation. I really enjoyed our conversations, and of course it was balm to my craven writer soul, but I didn’t really think that anything would come of it. Then, she emailed that she’d been talking to the primary agents in the agency, Jane and Miriam, and they’d read my website and liked my voice. Would I send the full again? Of course I would! Throughout this process, Rachel kept me updated with small emails saying they hadn’t forgotten about me. She got back to me when she said she would.

Then, on July 15, Rachel emailed me to say that nothing was definite but that they might have some very positive news for me. AACCKKK!! But, you know what, at this point, I really wasn’t believing it. I was so hoping, but I didn’t think it would happen. Then, last Monday morning, Rachel called and offered representation! I accepted of course, after emailing the other agents who had partials and fulls. I couldn’t be more thrilled and honored!

Rachel is my dream agent because she is so smart and so enthusiastic about my work. She’s responsive and professional and part of a great agency that’s helping put out such fabulous books. I am so lucky.

Questions of the Day: What’s your agent story? How did you get your agent? Have you had some close calls? Are you just starting out?  I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to add your comments!


Naomi Leigh said...

I am so proud of you! Keep up the great work and remember the movie deal is next! :)

Brad Green said...

Congrats! That's fantastic news. I have no agent story to tell...yet. I know another writer that went through the no/yes ordeal too. Yours lasted longer though. Nerve-wracking!

It's interesting to hear that your website played a part in it. What journal did the story appear in?

I look forward to reading part 2!

Tamara said...

Naomi ~ movie deal. heheheheheheh (maniacal laughter).

Brad ~ It'll happen Brad! It will. I've read little of your work, and I think good things are in store for you! Definitely. Yes, I think the website was maybe a bigger part than some people would like. It shows I'm a promo-sapiens, for better or worse :-) Your blog is a great site too. Having stories published adds to it too. The story Rachel was looking at was "Exit Wounds" in Imitation Fruit, but I also had another fabulous, very well established agent email me out of the blue on "Wanting," a story published in the Georgetown Review. One of my main things in Part 2 is going to be that, for me, it wasn't one thing; it was a WHOLE BUNCH of little things.

Pembroke Sinclair said...

I had a literary agent once read my entire manuscript, asked me to revise it into a YA novel, then rejected it. She was kind enough to recommend me to some of her colleagues, but no bites so far. I highly doubt mine will have a fairly tale ending like yours, but I couldn't be happier for you! Congratulations!

Tamara said...

Thank you, Pembroke! Sigh. All that work, and then a reject. Hopefully someone else will pick it up! Keep the faith ~ you'll definitely have a fairytale ending but when's the question? I believe in you!

Pembroke Sinclair said...

By fairly tale ending I meant the agent who asked for revisions changing her mind and deciding to represent me. Sorry! I didn't make that very clear!