“How I Got My Agent” is a new recurring feature on the GLA blog. I find it fascinating to see the exact road people took that landed them with a rep. Seeing the things people did right vs. what they did wrong (highs and the lows) can help other scribes who are on the same journey. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings.
It took me three long years of persistent querying to find my literary agent, and although the journey was grueling, I was ready for it. I’d already had rough-and-tumble experience with more than one theatrical agent for my plays.
Word was that a playwright wanted either a fierce woman or a motherly man for an agent, and I went the fierce woman route. So why was I surprised to find my fierce and famous play agent to be combative and high handed? She negotiated contracts just fine (I had plays done in London, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto) but I dreaded talking to her. And God help me if I had a question to ask her. One day, she took on an assistant—guess who?—a motherly man. He and I bonded, and when he left the fierce woman agency, I went with him, and he still represents me as a playwright and librettist.
When I switched my writing focus to fiction, some fifteen years ago, I pondered the writer-agent bond. My first theatrical agent, impossible though she was, did make a telling comment that I’ve never forgotten. No play, she said, was ever produced too late. By this, she meant many were presented to the public too soon, and that is true both of plays and novels. I didn’t even think about seeking an agent ‘til I had a manuscript ready. I mean, ten-years-and-twenty-drafts ready. Not everybody needs ten years to write a polished draft of a first novel, but I did.
COMMENCE “OPERATION: AGENT”
Then I began the search for a literary agent. I’d already learned the hard way that I wanted not just any agent, but someone with whom I’d have rapport. I was looking for courtesy, candor, clarity, energy and trustworthiness—someone I could freely ask questions, someone I wouldn’t be tempted to second-guess. However, landing any agent would be difficult. So my beggar-as-chooser approach was absolutely secret.
I began with researching sources such as Guide to Literary Agents and Jeff Herman’s Guide. Who’s looking for literary fiction? The agents who are, say so in their listings and/or interviews. I made a lengthy chart of possible agents, sent out queries and sample pages by the bale, fielded a lot of phone calls from agents, saw my postage and Xerox bill go up, up, up. I got a bunch of nibbles and a few bites, followed by sudden, prolonged silences.
The process, which took three years, was equal parts encouraging and exasperating. I did it in waves: first wave, second wave, New Wave. I rewrote my manuscript again, whenever I got a comment that seemed apt. And I sent out a new query the day after any rejection arrived. To keep going, I amused myself by jotting into my chart outrageous or damning bits from agents. The worst were handwritten scrawls right on my original query letter, sent back after requesting my full manuscript. Given that I paid all that postage back and forth, you’d think I might rate a piece of the agent’s stationery. This happened twice. Both agents are prominent. Call it sour grapes, but I think I’m lucky those two said no. Oh, and the pompous form rejections. Cue the tubas: We are sorry we are unable to use your material. There are many reasons to decline a manuscript, etc.
THREE YEARS, THEN…
I got contacted by Stephany Evans of FinePrint Literary Management. She loved the first fifty pages of my novel and wanted to see the rest. I Fed-Exed. She responded within a week with an offer. That’s when I brought my secret plan out into the light. It was simple. Before signing, I asked for a meeting, face to face, on my own dime. It was cheeky. I asked her for references and I called the references. All of them.
Now, it happens that Stephany’s office is in New York City, and I live in the middle of the country, in a river town south of St. Paul, Minnesota, so the face-to-face meeting was not a casual stroll across the street for me. I knew, within ten minutes of meeting her, that Stephany’s offer was my big break, but I played out my plan, every step of it, because, for me, the agent relationship is such a big deal. I played it carefully because we were setting the tone for something fine and mutually rewarding. And I played it quick: I checked those references and signed within a week of meeting Stephany, and all I’d hoped has unfolded since then. The Rose Variations was published by Soho Press in 2009 and the paperback will land in early 2010. I was lucky, yeah. But I played an active part in my luck.