“How I Got My Agent” is a 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk specifics.
“QUERY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE”
While I was still writing Zen Under Fire: Learning to Sit Still in Afghanistan, a memoir about my life and work as a UN peacekeeper and human rights advocate in Afghanistan, I started reading agent advice blogs. I started filling a new notebook with information about agents and the query process and began making a list of agents who seemed like a great match for my book. On many agent blogs I read that, unlike other forms of nonfiction, you generally need a completed manuscript before you can query agents for representation for a memoir. So I diligently set about completing my manuscript.
When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I shared my synopsis and first three chapters with some beta readers. One of them is a published author who thought the synopsis was fantastic and asked whether I had started approaching agents. I explained why I was waiting. She wasn’t convinced and offered to ask her agent for advice.
Her agent’s advice was this: Because the subject matter of my memoir (i.e. Afghanistan) is so newsworthy at the moment, I should query as soon as possible. She wanted to see my first three chapters. I decided that if I was going to send the chapters to her, I would also take a risk and query the five agents who were at the top of my wish list.
UH-OH. TOO QUICK?
So I queried six agents. Two of them were agents to whom I had personal referrals from their clients (including the one who encouraged me to query early). Three were agents with whom I had no connection. The sixth agent had approached me after she read my blog, which she loved, and saw that I was working on a memoir.
I had my first response the next morning—a request for a full manuscript. I had to explain that I didn’t have a complete manuscript. She still wanted to see whatever I had written. So I took another risk. I sent her ten more chapters despite the fact that they had not been through the purifying fire of my beta readers’ insightful critiques. She eventually passed on the manuscript.
The first agent contacted me again, asking to see more. I sent her the additional chapters. She came back saying that it was a fascinating and well-written story but that the market at the moment demanded more grit in its war stories. She would be interested in seeing another, grittier, draft. I got two more requests for full manuscripts. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of querying early but I decided to give the draft chapters two last outings before I regrouped.
A few weeks later, I awoke to my first offer of representation. I was stunned. It was such a surprise after the first two rejections that I almost accepted the offer on the spot. Instead, I asked for a little time and wrote to the one remaining agent who had my partial manuscript. She wrote back almost immediately, also offering me representation. Now I was spinning. Two New York literary agents wanted to represent my book!
I set up phone interviews with both of the agents. I got in touch with all the published authors I knew and asked them for advice. I prepared my questions. Each of the agents did a fantastic job of answering them. Both gave me referrals to clients who gave them rave reviews. I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with either of them.
In the end, the deciding factor was that when Laura (Laura Nolan of DeFiore and Company) talked about my manuscript it was as though she had been inside my head as I wrote it. She got to the heart not only what I had written but also of what I was trying to write but hadn’t quite pulled off.
I broke one of the cardinal rules of querying, which is: Never query until your manuscript is complete, beautifully polished and the best that it can possibly be. In this instance, it paid off. I was fortunate to find two agents who were willing to work with me on a promising manuscript that still needed work. Not all agents do that. Not all writers need that. Maybe it worked for me because of the timeliness of my subject matter. Maybe it was because I found the right champions for my project. In either case, I’m grateful.