“How I Got My Agent” is a new recurring feature on the GLA blog. I find it fascinating to see the exact road people took that landed them with a rep. Seeing the things people did right vs. what they did wrong (highs and the lows) can help other scribes who are on the same journey. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings.
This installment of “How I
Got My Agent” is by
Lisa Dale, who writes fiction.
SOME SMUTTY, ILL-RESEARCHED ROMANCE
I wrote my first novel during my senior year of college, while I was working on my senior thesis, “Magical Realism and Post-Colonial Vertigo; The Narrative Strategies of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” While my thesis went on to be nominated for best in my entire graduating class, the “big” project I was working on secretly was a romance novel – a smutty, ill-researched, 500-page whopper of a romance set in Colonial America (which is, incidentally, not a great time for romance).
When I finished, I stepped back, took a look at my heaping (and heaving) doorstop of a book, and I thought, well, it’s bad—but why not try to get it published? I figured I’d learn something about the process, if nothing else. So the summer after I graduated, I began the research to find an agent. I was in up to my eyeballs in market books and Post-it Notes, and when it came time to mail queries, I wallpapered the whole city of New York with them. And that was just the first round.
Oddly enough, I had this feeling something good would happen even though I had a lackluster bio, no publishing credits, and no idea how the industry worked (I figured I’d work that trivial stuff out as I went). And lo and behold, I got an offer from a boutique agency based out of a home office. I went for it. I figured that if getting an agent was so easy, it was only a matter of time before I hit the bestseller lists.
And then … nothing. The agent wasn’t sending the book out and I was too petrified to call her—dialing her number made me feel like Dorothy sidling up to the Wizard of Oz. I agonized. When she did start sending the book out, I suspected she was sending my book along with other writers’ books at the same time, and my rejection letters from editors showed not only my name, but the names of other unlucky writers are well. I ignored my suspicions in favor of feeling optimistic (read: willfully ignorant) about my prospects. Any agent was better than no agent, right? A year later, when my agent still hadn’t sold the book (and I’d written another novel, equally as bad as the first, if not worse), we parted ways.
That’s when I started to realize four important things: 1) I was going to have to learn how to write, not just crap out bad novels as fast as I could, 2) I’d have to learn something about the business of writing, 3) I’d have to build a really impressive bio to prove to people I meant business, 4) I needed to get honest about my true writing voice (which meant soul-searching and time).
ROUND TWO: DOING IT RIGHT
Instead of writing another book, I interned at an NYC literary agency. I worked for free to learn about publishing from the business side, and I even though I kept on writing, I put it largely to the side. A year or so later, when the owner offered to let me become an acquiring agent, I said sign me up! I really liked working with authors and editors; I tried exceedingly hard on behalf of the writers I worked with. But in the end, it was sort of like I was trying to make my head fit the shape of the hat instead of the other way around. I realized I wouldn’t be able to avoid my real passion: writing.
So, I regrouped again. I went back to school for my MFA because I knew I needed to improve my technique. I volunteered for everything, read anything, wrote in all genres, worked tirelessly. I built up my credits with numerous publications in the small press/university market, and even got nominated for some cool awards like the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. And, outside of the MFA program, I wrote my first women’s fiction/romance (Simple Wishes, Grand Central, 2009). The book felt more like “me” than anything else I’d written. I found a way to combine my love of culture, art, and drama with my love of, well, love.
The second time I went agent-hunting, it was a whole different scenario. I had all the ammo I needed: the bio, the technique, the experience—and the proof (in terms of the publications and awards for my poetry and short prose). I sent out some feelers to agents I had met in my travels—people who I thought might remember me from various panels and conferences, people who I thought might enjoy my work. I also sent some queries to agents I had not met but who were interesting to me, though I got more positive feedback from folks who knew me.
Ultimately, I hooked up with Kim Lionetti of Bookends, an agent who I’d sat on a panel with years ago. Kim, you might guess, is a fantastic agent—what an agent should be. She’s also a former editor, and her generosity in sharing her editing expertise with me is—I’m certain—one of the biggest reasons she scored us two different offers of publication for Simple Wishes
It was a long, very convoluted process to finding an agent and getting published—with lots of highs and lows. But I wouldn’t change a thing. The highs keep me going when the lows get the better of me, and the lows are learning processes that I do my best to be grateful for. I’m still working all the time, searching for new opportunities and inspirations. In the end it will always come back to just doing what I love: writing stories. That’s where it begins and ends—convolutions aside.
instruction, checklists, and worksheets
that touch upon everything from plot
conflicts to the art of editing and
polishing your manuscript.