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How I Got My Agent: Emily Jeanne Miller

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

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Emily Jeanne Miller, author of BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING (June 2012). 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 literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

GIVEAWAY: Emily is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; 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: seichenblatt won.)

 

brand-new-human-being-cover          emily-jeanne-miller-author-writer

Emily Jeanne Miller is the author of the debut literary novel BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING
(June 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Real Simple called the book “A fast-paced
tale of family life,” while novelist Curtis Sittenfeld said “What a treat to read Miller’s
whip-smart first novel.” Emily attended Princeton University, where she majored in
Comparative Religions. She worked as journalist for several years before she
began writing fiction. She has an MS in Environmental Studies from the
University of Montana, and MFA in Creative Writing from the University
of Florida. She currently lives, and teaches in her hometown, Washington, DC.

 

I MADE A PACT WITH MYSELF

While I was writing my first novel, I made a pact with myself, based mostly on superstition, not to think—or talk—about selling it until it was done. Not only did I not contact any agents, I felt uneasy talking about what I was working on at all. I refused to describe what it was about. Truth told, I wouldn’t even say the title aloud.

Looking back, I suppose I was afraid of “jinxing” the process. Which may just be another way of saying I was afraid. In the nearly 10 years I’d been writing fiction, I’d heard enough about the difficulties of getting an agent and selling a literary novel in today’s marketplace to know not to get my hopes too high. Plus I wanted to put all of my energy into creating, knowing that writing the best book I possibly could was all I could do to counteract the rest.

But I was weak. Nine months or so into the writing process, when I’d written what I thought was a little more than a third of the novel, I signed up on a whim for a meeting with an agent at a writer’s conference I was attending.

(See a list of writers’ conferences here.)

This was a mistake. To say she was not taken with the chapter she read is an understatement. In our brief time together, she said she 1) wasn’t convinced by the voice, which happens to be a man’s, and 2) worried about its being thus, because, she said, female readers—i.e., the vast majority of all readers—prefer books about people of their own sex. Last, she asked whether my story ended happily, and I could see the dismissal crystallizing on her face when I said, “No.”

THE QUEST CONTINUES

I left the meeting in despair. Luckily, I immediately ran into a writer I knew who, after I relayed what had taken place, shrugged, waved his hand, and said, “Okay. She’s not your agent.”

What he meant was, your agent has to love your book to sell it, and the fact that one person, who happened to be an agent, didn’t, told me exactly one thing about my novel: that she wasn’t going to be the one to sell it.

I understood. Still, I decided to re-implement my original policy of waiting until the manuscript was finished before putting any part of it front of anyone whosoever in the publishing world, or anyone else, for that matter. Pushing through to the end, I knew, was going to be was hard enough. The last thing I needed was a critical voice in my head—anyone’s critical voice—making it that much harder.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

Seven months later, when I decided the manuscript was ready (which meant I’d completed three thorough revisions after the first draft), I gathered agents’ names from writer-friends, acquaintances, teachers, the Internet, and the Acknowledgments sections of books I liked. This left me with a pretty long list, which I pared down. If someone was a big-name agent but had never sold a book remotely like mine, I crossed her off. This left me with ten or so agents—my “dream agents,” each of whom represented authors with whom I thought had something in common, either style-wise, or subject-wise, or both.

At this stage, I wrote a query email that told a little bit about me, and a little bit about the book. I talked about my writing experience and previous publications, and described my novel as the “love-child of Richard Russo and Richard Yates.” I sent this email to three or four agents. Then I did my best to steel myself against what I expected to be a torrent of rejection. At best, I thought, I was in for a long wait.

FINDING (BOOK) LOVE ON VALENTINE’S DAY

Neither scenario came to pass. Each of the agents I’d emailed responded quickly and courteously, encouraging me to send along either the first few chapters or the complete manuscript. One agent—Lisa Bankoff—asked me to suspend my search for 10 days while she read the manuscript. I agreed. As she’d promised, I got an email from her first thing in the morning on day 10, which happened to be Valentine’s Day. She said she loved the book and wanted to get to work selling it. Of course, I was ecstatic. We spoke on the phone, and I happily accepted her offer.

(Read an interview with Emily’s agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM Partners.)

She sent the book out the next week. Unbeknownst to me, she sent it to editors using my initials instead of my name, to see if they thought they were reading the work of a man. Two editors were interested in speaking with me. (One was very surprised to learn I’m an “Emily.”). A couple of days later, I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My first novel, BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING, hits shelves in 2012.

Getting my novel written and published took a long time, and required more discipline, patience, and faith than I thought I had in me. It was also well worth the wait.

GIVEAWAY: Emily is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; 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: seichenblatt won.)

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22 Responses to How I Got My Agent: Emily Jeanne Miller

  1. Marie Rogers says:

    I’m another one who doesn’t like to talk about my book until I feel it’s ready for others to read. The tip on choosing a short list of agents to query is very helpful. Thanks.

  2. You have such a great story! I am glad you persevered and got your book published. Writing from a male persepctive when you are a female must be incredibly difficult — yet you nailed it! Very inspiring story… motivates me to get my first draft finished too!

    Thanks, and good luck!

  3. seichenblatt@floridalawonline.com says:

    .Emily Jeane Miller…great writer’ name and one I can see on Gatsby’s guest list. As an Eichenblatt, the poor receptionist at my law firm has to spell it 100 times a day and say it 200 times. Gatsby did not have many blatts at his party.

    Anyway, your story is inspirational and now that I have hit about 1000 rejections, I am reenergized. As your friend said, its’ just 1 or 1000 agents that dont like it.
    Congrats on your success, the title and cover remind me why I hate ebooks and music downloads..the loss of cover art and titles is sad for us bookstore and record store lovers.

    The reality is I would love a freebie (book) but will pay (again book) to read your work.

  4. vrundell says:

    Glad to hear that the voice-issue wasn’t consequential in the end. As a female writing a male lead, I also wonder how people will take the male voice in my work–compared to the female voice. Good luck, and thanks for your insights.

  5. tevye says:

    Thanks for the inspiration and the encouragement.

    I’m looking forward to finishing my debut novel and contacting literary agents this summer. Great to know how it’s working for others!

  6. jtfinkle@hotmail.com says:

    It’s good to know I’m not the only writer who keeps their work close to the table until it’s completed. It’s even better to know that such behavior exists within the realm of published authors as well, of which I hope to soon be joining.

  7. DanielJayBerg says:

    It sounds like the query letter/email made a great impression to the agents contacted. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. CC Dowling says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I too didn’t talk about my project until it was almost completed.

  9. RebeccaC123 says:

    Your “superstitious” habits sound a lot like mine! Very encouraging and positive article. Thank you for sharing. :)

  10. Anacacho says:

    Emily, I enjoyed reading how you found your agent and got published. Very informative and inspiring!

  11. guyallen says:

    Emily;
    This was inspiring. It suggests to me that I should keep upgrading my query and be more selective in the agents I contact.

  12. Faith123 says:

    This sounds like such a great read and what a blessing to get an agent who loved your work. Congratulations. .

  13. Chuck Sambuchino says:

    Just wanted to stop on here real quick and thank Emily for being part of the blog!

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