“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Maria Mutch, author of the memoir KNOW THE NIGHT. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk specifics.
Maria Mutch’s essays, poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals
across Canada and the US. Her debut memoir, KNOW THE NIGHT (March 2014,
Simon & Schuster and Knopf Canada) is about her experience of being up at
night with her oldest son, who has Down syndrome and autism, combined with
the 1930s Antarctic adventure of Admiral Richard Byrd. Find Maria on Twitter.
I suppose the moral here is be prepared. But, at the time, I was a terrible Boy Scout.
At a writers conference I attended in 2010, I decided to take advantage of the program’s consulting service. The faculty member reading my manuscript was a journalist, but I knew enough about responses to writing to know that was a good thing, even if what I’d been working on wasn’t journalism. The problem, which was really just process, was that the manuscript I’d been working on for nearly two years was still in its early, unruly stages (my book would take a total of four years to write). I’d been working to combine the story of being up at night with my older son, who had multiple diagnoses, no longer spoke and had developed a sleeping disorder, with the Antarctic adventure of the explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. I had read Byrd’s book, Alone, and loved it—it had helped me during those dark nights—which is why I was folding it into the story of my son. There were other tethers and threads, too, such as jazz (which my son listens to), and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. There were a lot of ideas and emotions curling around in the small vortex of my work.
As it turned out, the journalist liked what I was doing and I went back to my home with his suggestions and the desire to keep going. As the months went by, I continued researching, adding material to my manuscript and rearranging the disparate parts.
9 MONTHS LATER
About nine months after the conference, I received an email from an agent, Nathaniel Jacks at Inkwell Management; the journalist (and, yes, his positive karma for this kindness is immense) had told him about my manuscript and he wanted to see it. Which made me wildly excited, for about three seconds before I remembered that I wasn’t remotely ready. My unwieldy ideas were still unwieldy, and I had imagined all along that I wouldn’t show my manuscript to an agent until it was done and no longer so unruly. How was I going to explain myself and the collection of tentacled beasts I’d been working on? And then, since opportunity was indeed availing itself, how could I not?
I worked for the next sixteen hours, stopping to help my husband with our two sons and then diving back in. I gathered what I could of the manuscript into a sensible order, wrote a cover letter, and then woke at 3 a.m. to recheck everything I had done. I clicked the send button right after breakfast and then dealt with the morass of excitement, anxiety, vulnerability and relief that I felt. I settled back down at my desk but it was difficult to concentrate and I was exhausted.
TALKING WITH AN AGENT
That afternoon, Nathaniel emailed me and arranged for us to talk on the phone, just after my boys were home from school. I remember breaking into a cold sweat when the phone rang and my younger son getting impatient while the receiver was pressed to my ear. He handed me a note that he had scrawled, “Can I have some ice cream?”
Nathaniel and I talked at length about the manuscript, where it was heading and what, really, it was—the first of many conversations about genres and categories and defying boundaries. He was prepared to wait while I finished the book (another eight months) and the effect of that was transformative. I got to work with renewed energy and an understanding of how to tame some of the wilder aspects of my writing. After I turned in the manuscript, he sold it to Simon & Schuster and Knopf Canada (more revisions, and more taming, followed). Having Nathaniel’s wise responses and his trust in my ability to bring clarity to my ideas has taught me so much about the process of creating. I also learned about the power of word-of-mouth, and the vital and sometimes serendipitous responses of early readers.
And, somewhere in there, my younger son did get his ice cream.
This guest column is a supplement to the
“Breaking In” (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer’s Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- A new agent wants unique literary voices, women’s fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir & comedy.
- 10 Dos and Dont’s For the Aspiring Novelist.
- The Value of Tough Love and Honest Feedback.
- Agents Share Their Query Letter Pet Peeves.
- Agent Maria Vincente seeks clients NOW.
- Open Your Eyes and Ears: Writing Inspiration is all Around You.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.
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