How I Got My Agent: Allan Woodrow

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Allan Woodrow, author of the middle grade debut, THE ROTTEN ADVENTURES OF ZACHARY RUTHLESS. 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 and we’ll talk specifics.

Allan is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Rebecca N. won.)


Growing up, Allan Woodrow was cursed with a boring
and loving family, giving him nothing interesting to write
about. He resented it for years. Eventually, Allan turned
his bitterness into The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless
(HarperCollins Children’s; 2011), his debut novel (MG,

humorous, ages 7-12), with additional Adventures launching
every six months. Learn more at



Really. I don’t take it personally. I understand the risks by sharing my story, and that hatred is a possibility, although hopefully I’m mistaken.

I talk to lots of people who have written for years, have hundreds of rejection slips, yet persevere and vow to continue striving for their book sale dream. When I set out to write a children’s book I understood the risks and was prepared to receive mounds of no’s. I set a goal of five years to sell a manuscript, but didn’t know if that was realistic. I bought a folder to keep all my rejections.

That folder is here somewhere. I think I might use it for recipes.

Because I never got that pile of rejections. After I wrote the Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless I got an agent and a four-book contract with HarperCollins in less than three months.

So, yes, you can hate me. I’d hate me, if I didn’t know myself better.

(Hear from bestselling authors on how to get your children’s book published.)


But it’s not like I scribbled a note to an agent in crayon. After I finished writing my book, and after I had it critiqued to death by published authors, non-published authors, and random people at bus stops, I was pretty confident it was good. Because, really, that’s the most important step.

But then what? I had no contacts. I don’t live in New York. I hadn’t gone to a convention where I could meet anyone. And I didn’t have a massive online following. I was as green as green could be. I joined SCBWI, emailed friends of friends for advice, but didn’t learn anything I hadn’t found in books or online forums already.

So I needed to entice an agent with a fabulous query. I researched. I saw what I liked and what I didn’t and it was obvious what set apart my favorites.

The voice.

I found a lot of the queries sounded somewhat similar plot-wise, but it was impossible to get excited if they were written like a lecture. I liked those queries that described the events with a unique style, a quirkiness, or sense of humor that felt interesting. So I knew I had to capture my book’s tone if I was to get anyone’s attention. I made my query short and funny.

(Need help writing a query letter? Enjoy these tips.)


But having a query was hardly the end. I now needed to find an agent (I knew I wanted an agent, and not pitch directly to editors). I used a system that I learned from Jenny Meyerhoff (author of Queen of Secrets, among other books) who has given me permission to share her method, which assumes your brother-in-law doesn’t own Writers House (in which case, I give everyone permission to hate you instead of hating me):

1. Research agents. There are lists of agents in books and online, such as this site. See what books they represent. See if they seem like a good fit. I made a list of about 60 agents that represented my genre: middle grade boy books with humor, and seemed like solid options. I’m sure there were more. But I thought that was a list that would last a while.

2. Grade the agents. I gave each agent on my list an A, B, C or D. The A’s were the dream agentsthey represented the best and my genre. The D’s were agents with authors I had never heard of and the fit wasn’t perfect, but possible. B’s and C’s perhaps had some qualities, but not all (big name, but not a lot in my genre, or a lot in my genre but lesser known names), etc. My grades were highly subjective (an agent might slip, for example, because I didn’t like their website, or might get a boost from a great blog post).

3. Send out queries in batches of 4 or 8 (Don’t send one at a time: It would take forever!), spread out over your grades. So one A, one B, one C and one D for instance. There are two reasons for this. First of all, there’s a good chance your first query might not be perfect. If you don’t get responses, you’ll have to change it up. But once you’ve reached out to an agent, you can’t go back with the same manuscript. This way, you don’t kill all your “A” agents in the first week, with possibly a subpar query. Secondly, your list is purely subjective. Until you talk to someone, you can’t really know if they are an A or a D. So this allows you to reach out to ones you might not have thought of immediately, and perhaps you’ll get a better idea of what sort of agent works best for you.

4. Give the agents a few weeks to get back to you, and then sent out the next batch. Say, the beginning of every month. And keep going down the list. Be aggressive, and make sure you’re organized so you can keep track of whom you’ve contacted, when. Oh, and be honest. If someone asks if you’ve sent out other queries, be upfront about everything. Be gracious. Thank people for their time.

(Find literary agents who represent middle grade novels for boys and girls.)


I started my list in the middle of September 2009, sent out my first batch of four by the end of the month. Within a week I had two requests for full’s and I was officially a client of the wonderful Joanna Volpe [now of New Leaf Literary. Read an interview with Joanna Volpe here] a couple of weeks after that. I couldn’t be more ecstatic. She’s editorial. She’s warm. She’s supportive. She’s smart. To top it all off, we had an offer from HarperCollins before Christmas break.

So, if you think it’s about whom you know in this business, I’m proof it’s not. The key is to write a good book, be proactive, and hope for a whole lot of luckiness. Hopefully, you don’t hate me for having plenty of the latter.

Allan is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Rebecca N. won.)


Writing books for kids? There are
hundreds of publishers, agents and
other markets listed in the latest
Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market.
Buy it here online at a discount.



Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:





Writing a novel for children? Literary agent
Mary Kole, who runs the popular
website, has a new guide out for writers of
young adult and middle grade. Pick up a copy
of Writing Irresistible Kidlit and get your
children’s book published.



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23 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent: Allan Woodrow

  1. Wendy

    I’m not sure if I feel inspired by your story or if that light at the end of the tunnel is just the headlight of the steam engine about to flatten me against the tracks. If you didn’t look like such an honest guy in your author photo, I’d say you write fantasy!
    Seriously, thanks for the tips. May we all find our way out of the writing tunnel to great agents like Joanna.

  2. Liz

    lol well yes I hate you.. NO I kid. lol Although Joanna…*sigh I’ve met her a few times & she rocks. Congratulations–btw I totally agree I love the queries with those jump-off-the-page-and-grab-me voices! 🙂

  3. Layla Fiske

    Luckiness? Ah…yeah, sure…I’d say probably more like talentness…the title sounds awesomeness. Best of luck to you and thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Allan Woodorw

    Thank you everyone for all your congrats. It’s nice to know I’m not as hated as I feared. In response to a couple of questions:

    Nikki: Was Joanna an A, B, C or D: Um, honestly, not an A. (Sorry, Joanna! But I was ignorant! I didn’t know better! …Sob, cry, begging forgiveness). Of course, she’s an A+ now that I know her … which really, is the perfect example of why the system is smart.

    Jeff: About 5 months from thinking of the idea and sending it out. I had a few false starts and put it away for a while at one point … so that’s not straight writing time. But then there were other rounds with my agent and editor. The final product … revision number 32. No kidding.

  5. Kristan

    Ditto what Julie said. And LOL to this: "which assumes your brother-in-law doesn’t own Writers House (in which case, I give everyone permission to hate you instead of hating me)".

    I love the 4-step system for querying that you suggest here, and I’m going to forward it on to my crit group.

  6. Julie Nilson

    I don’t hate you. 🙂 You may have achieved representation faster than some people, but you did the work to earn it! I can see why they were interested in your MS–it sounds like the kind of book my kid would EAT UP.

  7. Barbara Watson

    As a hopeful MG writer myself, your story to publishing is encouraging. While I know everyone’s journey is not as short as yours, I’m happy your was short. It tells me to write the best story I can, rely on others in revision, take critiques to heart, invest time in researching agents, and hope, hope, hope. Thank you for sharing.


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