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How I Got My Agent: David Halperin

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, How I Got My Agent Columns.

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

David is excited to give away 2 free copies 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: Ramsey and Cam won.)

     


David Halperin was once a teenage UFO investigator.
Later he became professor of religious studies at the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—his specialty,
religious traditions of heavenly ascent. Journal of a
UFO Investigator (Viking Press, Feb. 2011) is his
first novel. Publishers Weekly called the book “gripping”
and “heartbreaking”; Entertainment Weekly, “an
imaginative tale about an equally imaginative
protagonist.” See David’s website here.

 

IS 250,000 WORDS TOO LONG?

I have the good fortune to be represented by the finest agent in the galaxy. I won’t say the universe—I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s possible that somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy there’s a literary agent as good as Peter Steinberg. But in this Milky Way, he’s tops.

Peter’s my third agent. Our paths crossed nearly 12 years after I sat down at my computer and wrote what once were the opening paragraphs—long since relegated to the wastebasket—of the book that became Journal of a UFO Investigator. Those 12 years were plentiful in rejection and disappointment. Sometimes, during the worst of those years, I imagined myself banging vainly on the thick, muffled doors of a book industry impenetrable to newcomers. The truth was more painful and more liberating. Just as in my twenties, I went through a long and arduous university training to become a Judaica professor, so in my fifties I went through an equally arduous, if mostly self-guided, training in the complex and difficult art of novel writing. I’m a long way from mastery. But I think I’ve reached adequacy; and, once at that stage, finding and working with a great agent proved easier than I’d ever expected.

The first draft of UFO took me two and a half years. It was 1,500 double-spaced pages long. Soon I trimmed it down … to 250,000 words. My first, tentative agent queries brought form rejections. Of course. Who’ll publish a book that length, from an unknown author?

I protested: There’s no way this book can be any shorter, and still meet my artistic goals! Which was true. I hadn’t yet understood that those goals needed to be modified, into something equally legitimate artistically yet more tractable. I set the manuscript aside. I wrote another novel.

TWO AGENTS COME … AND GO

190,000 words this time. Amazingly, through a mutual friend, I did find an agent for this “Novel #2.” Still more amazingly, she came within an ace of finding a good publisher. Fortunately, the editor who wanted the book was overruled. “Fortunately”—because Novel #2 was terribly flawed: verbose, repetitious, sometimes didactic. The rejection hurt. But I’d gotten my first great gift from the publishing industry: a real rejection, not just the form-letter doesn’t-suit-our-needs variety. From these one can learn.

I rewrote Novel #2, from beginning to end. This time it came to 120,000 words. Now that’s starting to be publishable. Meanwhile I was learning to write scenes that grab you and pull you in. My agent and I drifted apart. In the fall of ’06, I found my second agent.

He tried to sell Novel #2. And tried. But it seems I still wasn’t quite there as a novelist. While he piled up rejections, I dusted off my original passion, Journal of a UFO Investigator. A few years before, the problem of changing UFO’s scope had seemed insoluble. Possibilities now leaped off the pages.
My wife helped me think things through. So did my writers’ group. So did some wonderful novelist friends, who brought their wisdom and experience to bear on my manuscript. That was another thing I’d acquired over the years: the humility to let myself be helped, and the skill to do that. When my agent stopped answering emails, I knew it was time for a change. And for UFO, now reconceived and trimmed (through multiple rewritings) to a svelte 88,000 words, to come bursting out of its drawer.

THE BEST AGENT AND EDITOR FOR ME

I sent out queries, this time about UFO. Peter Steinberg’s assistant pulled my letter from the slush pile. A few weeks later I was on the plane to New York City. Peter and I had lunch; we talked for two or three hours. By the time I got on the return flight, I knew this was the agent I’d needed ever since that first paragraph years before.

The rest is short and sweet. Peter and I worked for three months polishing the book. He sent it to publishers; in three weeks we had an offer from Viking Press. There I found myself in the hands of the most wonderful editor I could imagine … but that’s a tale for another time.

How did I get my dream agent? By being ready for him. It’s a story I’ve heard from other writers. Rejected over and over like me, they found that when their art was ripe, the doors swung open—I won’t say easily, but with less toil and tears than any of us had imagined.
That’s all the magic there is.

David is excited to give away 2 free copies 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: Ramsey and Cam won.)

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25 Responses to How I Got My Agent: David Halperin

  1. SuzanneM says:

    Thank you for your motivating story. Good luck with Journal of a UFO Investigator!

  2. dlcocchio says:

    Congratulations on your success, David. You give the rest of us some hope. So glad to hear you didn’t give up. Can’t wait to read your book. Hope I win. Thanks.

  3. Liz says:

    Your story is particularly inspiring to me because I’ve just finished a YA book about alien hybrids. When I tell people about it, they look at me like I’m insane. If it was about vampires, ok, but aliens, psycho ward. There’s always been a stigma attached to UFO research/writing, so I believe you had a double whammy for publication– and hence all the more wonderful that you succeeded. Best to you.

  4. I am a random poster. Anyway, this was a pretty awesome post and deserves tons of comments. I’m holding on to that idea when work is ripe it will be picked. I will certainly give your book a read. Peace. M.C.

  5. Julie Nilson says:

    Your success story is a great lesson for those writers who are so loath to edit their work down. Sometimes a little time is all we need to uncover a manuscript’s real potential!

  6. Cam Pietralunga says:

    Thank you for the inspiration! It’s nice to hear that the novel you tucked away came back and was victorious. It gives me hope for my first flawed but much loved attempt at novel writing. :)

  7. I love the phrase "when their art was ripe." The readiness is all.

    Thank you for sharing your story, David. (Your novel’s cover is cool, too.)

  8. Wendy Greenley says:

    Thanks for the inspiring story. I am at the "earning my way to ultimate success through writing phase" and truly appreciate your comments about honing my craft until the synchronicity when I’m ready for the world and it’s ready for me. So glad to hear it worked for you.
    I’ve got a son at Duke, so I don’t know it that automatically disqualifies me from the giveaway!

  9. Thanks to all who sent comments!
    Margaret, I’ve never seen any UFOs, badly as I’ve wanted to. I do believe, but only in the Jungian sense–that UFOs are something rising from our shared unconscious, demanding our conscious attention. I no longer believe they’re spaceships from other planets, or anything like that. Some people say, UFOs are a myth, and therefore not worth bothering with. I say, as Jung did over 50 years ago, that UFOs are a myth, and therefore important, therefore exciting.
    Rebecca, I do remember the Larson cartoon, and got a good laugh from your mentioning it. But I wonder … the cartoon perhaps implies that the door would have opened long ago, if only we were doing it right. My experience is, we’re doing everything right–sending out stuff, getting it rejected, is just part of the process. As long as we’re learning from the process, continuing to grow as people and as writers, we’ve just got to keep the faith.

  10. Heidi says:

    David, I am an unpublished author and I aspire to write well enough and write a long enough novel that I get to the point where I write up to 250,000 words. I know that you ended up putting the novel aside but, WoW, even if I have to hone it down, just to say that much and have that much material to work with would be phenomenal for me. I can’t wait to get to that point and have to figure out what needs to go and what needs to stay to make the story functional. I am inspired by your story and your determination to evolve with the process and stick things out. Your book sounds very interesting, my husband is often picking up materials from the library about UFO’s and ET Life and I think he would really find your book interesting.

  11. Margaret Fiske says:

    Congrats on your triumph, David. It sounds like a fascinating book. I’m wondering if you’ve ever seen any saucers… Do you still believe?

  12. Richard says:

    I’m very happy for you, David. I wish you nothing but success with your writing. But Peter Steinberg is far less of a dream to other writers. For some reason, he needed six months to respond to my query, which he then rejected with a form letter. Many agents respond to queries in 24 hours. Why would Peter Steinberg need six months?

  13. Karen says:

    Great story! I’d love to read it. And congrats on the FABULOUS cover! It’s a WOW of a cover!

  14. Rebecca says:

    Remember the cartoon showing the guy on the steps at the School for the Gifted? Gary Larson’s work, if I remember correctly. The sign says "pull". He’s pushing with all his might.

    Getting a good agent must feel somewhat like that guy. You push, push, push with all your might. Then, the least little pull at the right moment when you’re at the right place, and voila! — the door opens. A voice in the back of your head chuckles and then says, "Duh!"

    Your article was both entertaining and amusing. Thank you.

  15. pc says:

    Sounds like a great book. Thank you! "Heavenly Ascent" traditions are fascinating too.

  16. annette says:

    "Build it and they will come"…comes to mind here. When the work is ready the doors will open ~ very encouraging! Can’t wait to read the book…I’ll buy it if I don’t win ~ very interested in the subject!

  17. Kathy says:

    12 years…it’s a sobering reminder to those of us just starting out the amount of patience and dedication this career takes. Thank you for your insights.

  18. Ramsey says:

    An inspiring account of triumph, truly. It must have been hard to go through two ages with little to no avail, but I can only imagine that it must certainly be worth it to have the best agent in the Milky Way.

    As a young, yet unpublished author (mixed genres thusfar, I’m finally getting started on what I hope to be the first book I can actually sit down and finish, for once), reading success stories like this gives me the hope that I can find the right agent for me one day, if I keep pushing and working hard enough.

    UFOs have always fascinated me, too, the book sounds very interesting!

    Congratulations on all of your success and for being able to overcome the hardships. I hope you find success in all your works, and good luck for the future, as well!

  19. Nick says:

    Forgot my email. Sorry!

  20. Nick says:

    Interesting success story! I’d love to read the novel and would love even more to read it for free!

  21. Kristan says:

    "A few years before, the problem of changing UFO’s scope had seemed insoluble. Possibilities now leaped off the pages."

    I know the feeling. I’ve had the same revelation with my first novel (although I’m in the middle of writing a different one so it will have to wait and simmer some more).

    "That was another thing I’d acquired over the years: the humility to let myself be helped, and the skill to do that."

    {nods} Well said. Thanks for sharing your journey! And congratulations!

  22. Wonderful story! I love how these stories show how things can work out if you have the dedication and the patience.

  23. this is a great account of success for all new writers. I think I read on this blog that a writer needs to have written one million words before really hitting stride. so true. thx for sharing.

  24. Ted Cross says:

    I feel right at home with your story. I wrote my first book and love it, but I still need to keep growing as a writer and storyteller. My second book is showing the strides I have made. I hope I get there someday.

  25. Maren says:

    I love your story, the idea of finding an agent is terrifying….but your experience gives newcomers like me hope. Thanks and continued good luck!:)

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