How I Got My Agent, or, How Timing Is Everything

It’s hard to tell when this story begins. Was it in college, when I first started writing fiction, which was heavily (and I do mean heavily) drawn from my own life? Or was it a few years later, when I realized that in order to really tell a story, I need to let any fictionalized realities go and start from scratch with a blank page and people I only met in my head?

I first started querying back in 2009 — 2009! — with the first YA book I ever wrote, which grew out of my creative thesis from undergrad. Should I have queried this book? Okay, in hindsight probably no, but I did, and in the process learned a lot about querying. I learned what agents were interested in, I learned how to write a query letter, I sort of maybe learned how to write a synopsis (still not sure I have that down pat), and I read a bajillion writing blogs.

After a lot of full requests (and a lot of full rejections), I shelved that book and NaNoWriMo-ed a new YA novel in 2009, which I then revised and eventually queried in 2010-2011. I felt like I was back on the merry-go-round, as I again got a bunch of full requests but still, no agent.

I was close — receiving personalized responses from several agents — but still something was missing, and without a writing community, I didn’t know how to close the gap myself. That’s when I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts, which I attended from winter 2012 to winter 2014. In those two years, I learned so much about the craft of writing, all the while working on three different novels, one MG, one YA, and one that couldn’t decide if it was MG or YA.

While I was still at VCFA, I started querying my third book, this time: a middle grade novel (which I wrote during the program), the very first I’d ever written. I started sending out queries right before Christmas 2012. Like the previous times, I was getting full requests and a variety of responses (but no offers), so I kept chugging along, researching agents in my free time and adding their info to my ever-growing spreadsheet. For each book I queried, I kept a detailed spreadsheet with agent names, agency, materials sent, date queried, date requested, and response. Having all of this data available was super useful for me, as it helped me see the big picture and have all the information I could possibly need, not knowing how long this journey was going to take.

In April, a couple months after I’d sent her a query, I received a full request from the agent who would ultimately become my agent. But I didn’t know this then! I sent off the full and kept on querying because, well, I was basically a querying machine at this point. I was determined that this time, it was going to happen, and as each rejection came through, out went another query. Having read so many writer blog posts about how many queries it sometimes took to find an agent (especially with a more literary story), I was not afraid to rack up more rejections!

And then, the week before my wedding, I received an intriguing email from an agent who’d had my full for a few months, Katie Grimm. She acknowledged that quite a bit of time had passed since she requested the book, and she was… oh boy, she was saying lots of nice things about my book. But also talking about revisions. That sounded fine. More and more agents are editorial these days and that was to be expected. She wanted to talk on the phone the next week. The week of my wedding. Um, yikes! And right after the wedding, I was going to head off to Costa Rica for my honeymoon!

But Monday, right before I left for Costa Rica. That could work. There was a flurry of emails and it was set. Monday. If it wasn’t for that whole wedding thing, I would have been freaking out, but luckily the wedding had all of my attention. Alas, on Monday, Katie was sick and didn’t go into work, so the phone call was pushed back to when I returned from my honeymoon, right around the Fourth of July, when publishing basically shuts down. And then, oh yes, residency at VCFA was lined up next. Finally, that was over and Katie and I finally, finally, finally connected on the phone. We talked about her ideas for revisions, I learned more about the agency, etc. etc. I’m pretty sure I drank a few glasses of water out of nerves. And somewhere in all of that, it happened. She offered!!!!

I gave the other agents that had my full manuscript a week to respond, but in the end, it really wasn’t a contest, and on August 2, 2013, I signed the agency agreement with Don Congdon Associates.

I may or may not have also told people I was one step closer to becoming BFFs with David Sedaris (who is also repped by DCA). Still waiting on that….

 

So how long did it take? Well, from very first query ever sent to signing an agency contract: about four years. But for this project (what will be my debut middle grade novel): about eight months.

 

The biggest lesson from all of this? Be patient. And always, always, always, keep writing the next book. Because you really don’t know how many it’s going to take, and you always have more stories in you.

On writing and running

I can’t be the first writer to compare writing a book for training to and running a marathon, but as of last week, I can at least say I’m qualified to write about it. It’s been a week and a day since I ran the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon (and probably not my last). The soreness is gone, I can walk like a human again, and I’m down a few toenails, but the memories are a strong as ever.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like to round the corner onto Columbus Dr and see that the finish line was in sight, but maybe it’s fair to say that it felt a little like sitting on the beach at Watch Hill, and seeing my agent’s name on my cell phone (she only calls with good news). The end was in sight, or sort of. Because of course, I soon learned that selling the book was one of the many steps toward seeing that book in print, toward holding it in my arms like a baby and sniffing it. (No I haven’t been able to do this yet, but heck yeah, I plan to.)

The thing about writing a book and running a marathon is that anyone can do it, but only some of us ever do. It takes training and persistence and grit and time, always time. There are things you can control (lacing your sneakers and going out there whether you feel like it or not, getting your butt in the chair day after day) and things you can’t (the weather on race day, the cover your book eventually gets, who is assigned to review it). At the end of the day, all you can do is put in your best work, your best effort and put your faith behind that.

As I toed the start line (okay, as I stood in my place in the middle of corral F wondering if I should’ve stopped by the porta potties), I couldn’t help but ponder this one piece of wisdom that Bart Yasso shared at the previous day’s shakeout run. Run the mile you’re in. Well, duh. Pretty hard to run the mile you already ran. Or the mile ahead of you. But of course he was right, so completely right. It’s so easy to look back–at failures, mistakes, the things we wished we could change–and so easy too, to look forward, to gaze into the future trying to figure anything out. It’s hard to stay in the moment. And it’s that way with writing, too. I’m always fighting that inclination to go back, fix the work from the previous day, previous week. Or to jump ahead. To get so lost in all the things I still have to do for the piece that I’m simply overwhelmed.

Run the mile you’re in. That was my mantra for the race. As the crowds cheering us on and the thousands of runners around me distracted, made me forget the pace I had practiced, in all those long solo runs, running around and around a nearby pond, I came back to that one line. Run the mile you’re in. It’s that way with writing too. Write the sentence you’re in. The paragraph. The page. The scene. The chapter. That’s all you can do. All you have control over. That blank page in front of you. Everything else falls away as you focus in.

As I’ve spent the last week sitting on my butt (I mean, recovering), I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from marathon training to writing. Putting in the time. Accepting the results. Not every run is perfect. The first mile can be rough, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up cruising, flying on that third mile, or as I surprised myself to find sometimes, that thirteenth or seventeenth mile. Same goes for writing. A tough start to the session can yield amazing gems, words you didn’t know were in you, revelations in a scene you couldn’t have anticipated before planting that butt in that chair.

Run the mile you’re in.

Thanks, Bart.

The 777 Challenge

I’ve been tagged by Nisha Sharma in the 777 Challenge. And no, as far as I know, a 777 is not an airplane. Actually, maybe it is an airplane and it looks pretty nice. ANYWAY… The 777 Challenge challenges the writer to post the first full seven lines of the seventh page of his or her work in progress, starting seven lines down.

My work-in-progress is a contemporary middle grade novel, tentatively titled 14 Hollow Road:

The biggest concern on soon-to-be-seventh grader Maddie’s mind is the end-of-the-year sixth grade dance: will her crush Avery ask her to dance? When Avery asks her best friend instead, Maddie feels like her world is ending. But her night is about to get a whole lot worse before it get better. Across town, an unexpected tornado severely damages Avery’s and Maddie’s home. Their families are fine, but their homes are unlivable, which means for the summer, Maddie will have to stay in a generous neighbor’s house… with Avery.

And here are my lines:

I stare down at my sparkly shoes. “Sorry. I kind of had other things on my mind.” I don’t know how I’m supposed to think about anything besides Avery and what it’s going to be like to dance with him, and how me and Kiersten and Schuyler and the whole sixth grade are going to have the best night ever.

“I guess you’ll have to do Cammie’s chores tomorrow to make up for it.”

“Fine,” I say. No, not the best night ever. That’s so fifth grade. Epic. That’s what Kiersten’s older brother Bryant would say. Tonight is going to be epic.

 

And the authors I’m tagging to keep this challenge going are:

Katherine Quimby

Laura Sibson

Jen Petro-Roy

Robin Kirk

Gwendolyn Heasley

Jim Hill

C.M. Surrisi

 

Can’t wait to read everyone’s seven lines!