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  • Guide to Literary Agents

How I Got My Agent: Kirstin Chen

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 Kirstin Chen, author of SOY SAUCE FOR BEGINNERS. 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: Kirstin 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: vrundell won.)


kirsten-chen-author-writer         soy-sauce-for-beginners

Kirstin Chen is the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners: A Novel (New Harvest,
Jan. 7, 2014). A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she holds an MFA
from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. She was born and
raised in Singapore and currently lives in San Francisco where she is at work
on her second novel, set on a tiny island off the coast of southern China in
1958. Connect with her on Twitter.




Near the end of my first year of graduate school, I published a short-short story in an online magazine. Not long after, I heard from an agent who’d read the story and wanted to see more of my work. My elation was short-lived; I had nothing to show her. At that point I’d written about thirty pages of what I hoped would be a novel—pages that I was reluctant to share with my workshop, much less a literary agent. I asked a professor for advice, and she firmly cautioned me against sending out my work too early, not just because I only had one shot at impressing an agent, but also because I needed to avoid distractions and focus on writing. I took my professor’s advice to heart. Tamping down the fear that I was about to push away my only shot at representation, I told the agent I wasn’t ready.

Again and again, throughout graduate school, I’d hear similar advice from teachers and more experienced peers: Don’t even think about querying agents until you’ve written the best draft that you can.

Three and a half years later, I had completed draft number four and was still far from my goal. That summer, I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference, and when the opportunity arose for a five-minute, one-on-one meeting with the agent Michelle Brower, I went ahead and signed up, even though I had nothing to show her.

(Check out a growing list of writing events nationwide.)


Our five-minute meeting flew by. I gave Michelle my two-minute pitch: my novel was about an artisanal soy sauce factory—a family business in Singapore that was the last of its kind and fighting to stay alive. The protagonist was a young woman, a member of the family’s third generation, who’d tried to escape the family business by building a life in San Francisco. A series of misfortunes—the breakdown of her marriage, her mother’s illness—had forced her to return home. When I was done with my pitch, Michelle took the lead, asking question after question that impressed me with its thoughtfulness and specificity.

At the end of those five minutes, she asked to read my novel as soon as possible, and even though I was thrilled to hear this, my heart sank. Here I was yet again. I told her I didn’t have a draft that was ready to be seen; I didn’t tell her that I was months, possibly a year away.

Michelle remained unfazed. “Send me what you have,” she said. “I’ll read the first forty or fifty pages, whatever you’re comfortable with.”

After our meeting, I consulted other, more experienced writers, and they told me to wait until I’d completed a good, solid draft, as I knew they would. Besides, everyone knew agents never took on debut novelists without having read full drafts. Again, I swallowed my elation and resolved to be patient and to focus on the writing.


Back home in Boston, I attacked draft number five with renewed energy. As I worked my way through the early chapters, I saw that although there was much I needed to untangle in the novel as a whole, the opening pages were starting to come together. I was proud of them. I wanted them to be seen. I spent the rest of the fall revising the first three chapters until they were the best three chapters I could write. When I was done, I put aside all the advice I’d accumulated through the years and sent the pages to Michelle, hoping that she would like them enough to ask to see the entire manuscript when I was ready.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

A month later, to my great surprise, Michelle called to offer representation. When I finally recovered from the shock that she would sign me on a mere forty pages, I accepted her offer. We’ve worked together ever since. In addition to all the other reasons for which I’m grateful to Michelle, I am forever grateful that she saved me the heartache of going through the agent-query process—there’s enough heartache in our field of work as it is.

All this being said, I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly believe that as writers we need to shield ourselves from distractions in order to do our best work. On the other hand, if we wait to perfect our manuscripts before sending them out, none of us would ever get published. In the end, all I have to offer is this: good writing will speak for itself, and our ultimate goal should always be to put our heads down and write as well as we can. But sometimes opportunities present themselves, and at those moments we need to stop what we’re doing, look up, say yes.

GIVEAWAY: Kirstin 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: vrundell won.)


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14 Responses to How I Got My Agent: Kirstin Chen

  1. marcysantos says:

    It’s always such a balancing act, and then knowing when to jump in. I’m not sure I’ll have the tenacity to wait as long as you. But now I’ll know some of the pitfalls and that there is still hope after draft ten.

  2. cotidiano says:

    Very inspiring. Your story motivates me to keep writing! Hard work and passion can get you anywhere, I suppose.

  3. offdeadline says:

    Thank you. This was particularly timely, as an editor for a debut novelist I was advising him just this morning on how to approach a literary agent. I have shared this article with him and will retain it for myself when my own debut novel is further refined

  4. pulcetta says:

    Your two-minute pitch fascinated me.
    And I agree with your conclusions.

  5. LDani says:

    Hi, Kirstin! I thought it brave of you to share this. No matter that it turned out to be a success for you in the end, I appreciate that you didn’t leave out the bumps in the road on the way (mainly from your trepidation). I find that most people who dare to comment on how they found their agent like to keep the frustrating bits in the process to themselves, making it seem like a magical journey that just sort of happened. Thank you so much for this!!! Xoxo

  6. DanielJayBerg says:

    It’s interesting to hear the balance of “go for it” and “go back and revise” during this experience.

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck!

  7. trinity says:

    Thanks for sharing! It gives a person hope that a connection can be made during conferences. It also highlights how important the first few chapters are when writing.

  8. What a great and unusual feature. Getting signed on your forty pages puts your book on my must-read list!

    Good for you, waiting until you were ready to submit. Often, I hear of writers who submit too soon.


  9. spirthful says:

    I’m happy to hear that your perseverance paid off! :)

  10. bendwriter says:

    Great story and one I rarely hear. Most of us have itchy fingers and can’t wait to hit the ‘send’ button when querying an agent. You did what most of us know we should do, but can’t. You practiced patience. Thank you for sharing!

  11. burrowswrite says:

    a lot of work went into your piece of art. three and a half years for draft number four really resounds with what a lot of writers i know are going through. congrats on the achievement!

  12. vrundell says:

    Thanks Kirstin for sharing your experience. I, too, have met an agent at a meeting. In fact, she selected my entry as the winner of the conference contest, but I’m waiting to send her the whole thing until it’s “right” which is probably a bit away, still.
    Writing is the key, make it bold and strong, and the rest takes care of itself.
    Congrats to you and good luck with the novel!

  13. momiji5 says:

    That’s a great story of perfect and perseverance. I can only image what the book must be like.

  14. earlie99 says:


    Thank You so much for providing us with a real person’s testimony. So many of us are out here looking for every clue to be discovered.

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