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How I Got My Agent: Debra Ann Pawlak

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

“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.

Debra is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Elizabeth won.)



     


Debra Ann Pawlak is the author of Bringing Up Oscar:
The Men and Women Who Founded the Academy
(Jan. 2011). She writes from southeastern Michigan
and has authored a children’s book detailing the
life of Bruce Lee. Her work has appeared in Chicken
Soup for the Soul, The Writer, Aviation History and
Michigan History Magazine. See the Facebook
page for her book here.

 


A WONDERFUL HOBBY LOST AND FOUND

Growing up, I had two favorite pastimes—writing stories and watching old movies. I never tired of putting pencil to paper or of sitting in front of the television mesmerized by those glamorous Hollywood legends. As the years rolled by, I put down the pencil to work a full-time job and raise a family, but my fascination with those old movies and the people in them continued. Fast forward a whole lot of years. By 2000, my daughter was in college and my son in high school—both becoming independent a little quicker than I liked. My husband kept busy with his job, but my day job was unfulfilling. Yes, it paid the bills, but a certain restlessness settled deep in my bones. Something was missing. Then one day it hit me—it was that stupid pencil.

“WRITE THIS, NOT THAT”

I started writing again, but instead of a pencil I upgraded to a keyboard and tiptoed out of my comfort zone. I answered an ad in Variety from an editor in Los Angeles. She was developing an online magazine about Hollywood. In my e-mail to her, I suggested a little Hollywood history to round out the current events and, being an old movie buff herself, she loved the idea. That led to a bi-monthly column and my first paying gig.

From there, I built my confidence, took online writing classes and earned a screenwriting certificate. I also moved on to print publications and the darnedest thing happened. I would e-mail an editor with what I thought was a pitch-perfect query and he or she would reply by declining my original idea, but offering an assignment on a totally different subject. In between articles, I wrote two nonfiction books for small presses, but I wanted more.

In late 2008, I developed a book proposal on early Hollywood history and began sending query letters to agents that I thought might be interested. Not wanting anyone to get the impression that I was just a ‘one-book wonder’, my letter concluded by saying I would like to write a second book about the 36 men and women who founded The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Then life unexpectedly threw me a curve.

BEATING THE DEADLINE

In January 2009, the business I’d been employed with since high school offered a buy-out. I agonized over my decision. I’d always wanted to be a full-time writer—maybe this was my opportunity. I accepted their offer, but remained with the company until December 1. At the same time, I gave myself an assignment: find an agent before I left. Faithfully each week, I sent out five query letters. Rejections poured in—some canned, others encouraging.

A few liked my style, but weren’t interested in the subject. Several asked for the entire proposal package, but none offered representation. Then at the end of August, with my self-imposed deadline drawing closer, I checked the website for International Transactions. The agency seemed like a tough nut to crack. Peter and Sandra Riva were not open to fiction writers at the moment. I was a nonfiction writer so I read on. They would only consider nonfiction writers who had been previously published. Small presses or not, I had two books under my belt, so after a moment’s hesitation, I submitted my query.

Two days later, Peter responded. He liked my idea well enough, but what really intrigued him was my book suggestion about the Academy. Out of all the agents I queried, not one ever mentioned the Oscar book. I liked Peter already. I got to work developing a new proposal and once it was finished, I emailed Peter hoping he was still interested.  Instead of hitting the ‘reply’ button, he called to say he was. His enthusiasm for early Hollywood matched mine and we just clicked as our conversation covered the era’s endless possibilities. He asked for an exclusive, which was no problem. By the time, I hung up the phone, I didn’t want another agent.

Several weeks later, we spoke again. Peter liked the proposal, but, as always, wanted to kick it up a notch, so he asked for some revisions.  I complied and by November 13, (two weeks before my December 1 deadline), I signed on with International Transactions. Three weeks later, Peter sold Bringing Up Oscar, which was published in January, 2011.

I am fortunate to have such a great ally in Peter Riva who shares these interests. As a matter of fact, I could almost see the twinkle in his eyes when, during a phone conversation, he mentioned that his grandmother was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous legends, Marlene Dietrich.

Debra is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Elizabeth won.)

 


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18 Responses to How I Got My Agent: Debra Ann Pawlak

  1. Brooke says:

    How ironic that I was just researching the Oscars last night!! My dream has always been to write screenplays and maybe one day win an Academy Award for myself!! Your book sounds amazing and I am definitely going to read it!!

  2. Maria Rohde says:

    Great Story!

  3. Debra Ann Pawlak says:

    Thank you all for your kind words! Keep writing and never give up the dream of publication! It really does happen!

  4. Jessica says:

    How inspiring! Maybe eventually I’ll reach the ‘where’s the stupid pencil’ point and start up again too! Best of luck!

  5. Marlo says:

    Great background. This book has caught my eye, and I love that it wasn’t even what you were originally planning on writing. Glad the change of direction worked for you.

  6. Brooke Martens says:

    Thanks for sharing the story behind the book, it always makes a read more interesting to me to know the ‘why’ of it.
    B~

  7. allan kelly says:

    Your book sounds like a great history of the Oscars

  8. I sure do appreciate the Facebook trivia of Hollywood, Tales of Tinsletown. Read it everyday!! Great stuff. Thanks Debra!!

  9. Kellie Edson says:

    Like most of the comments, we also share the love of growing up watching old movies and writing. I am only 23 and I probably know and love more old movies than the vast majority of my generation, thanks to my parents owning a video store when I was a baby. And I LOVE the Oscars. My husband and I have a party for them every year. And I called my dad yesterday morning at 7am when the nominations went out to discuss.

    Good luck Debra! Thanks for sharing your story. :)

  10. iola reneau says:

    We have a couple of things in common writing and a love of old movies while growing up. I enjoyed this article very much and wish you star studded Oscar style success.

  11. Hank Henley says:

    Congratulations, Debra! Your story is more proof that the road to publication is rarely a straight one. It’s also consolation for those of us still on that road.

  12. I live a few blocks from the Chicago factory that creates the Oscar statuettes. Nothing too glamorous about this behind-the-scenes facility or its light-industrial neighborhood. I need some Oscar sparkle about the Hollywood side of this phenomenon, i.e. "Bringing Up Oscar!"

  13. Theresa Schultz says:

    What a wonderful story. And what a difference that deadline made. Congratulations!

  14. Love the title! We’re old movie fans, so I’m going to look it up. : ) Thanks for sharing your progress.

  15. Pua Mei says:

    Re: "Debra is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48"

    I’m a little more than upset that Hawai’i & Alaska are ONCE AGAIN being treated like step children! There’s nothing that turns me off a product, website, author, etc. more – than being told Hawai’i and Alaska need not apply!

    Pua

  16. Debra that is a great lesson to all of us who write to keep on submitting and querying. Thanks and best wishes with your book!

  17. You book looks amazing, I am a huge vintage movie buff. What a fantastic subject.

    Good luck with the book Debra.

    Michael

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