How I Got My Literary Agent: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, author of FIG. 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: Sarah 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. (UPDATE: Debbie won). 

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Column by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, debut author of FIG
(April 2015, Margaret K. McElderry Books). FIG was praised
as “achingly gorgeous” by Kirkus Reviews. Schantz grew up in
a bookstore named The Rue Morgue—one of the first mystery
bookstores in the U.S. She is an accomplished short-storyist,
with many awards under her belt. She holds an MFA in Writing
& Poetics from Naropa University. Connect with her on Twitter

A strong beginning

I started to submit my work to literary journals about ten years ago. In retrospect, I don’t think I understood why I was doing this other than I wanted to be published. As is the typical story of any novice sending her work out, I received a lot of rejections. Every time I received another standard rejection slip, I forced myself to accept it, and to then send the work back out again. Eventually, I started getting little hand-written notes on said rejection slips from editors encouraging me to send more work, and this was reassuring, and then I got my first acceptance letter. After I’d been published in a few different journals, I decided to shoot for the moon, and I started entering various different literary contests. I was surprised to find I had a lot more luck with this process.

One of the stories circulating the contest circuit was, “The Sound of Crying Sheep.” Told from the point of a view of a young woman, the narrator recollects her childhood, and what it was like to grow up with a schizophrenic mother. This story placed as a finalist for New Letters, but with my name at the very bottom of the list, I really didn’t think anything of it. Apparently, while I had scoured the guidelines to make sure I’d followed all the rules, I’d somehow missed the not-so-fine-print that said all finalists’ work would be sent to twelve different major literary agencies for consideration.

To be honest, I knew very little about agents—I definitely wasn’t seeking one; I didn’t even have a book. When the editor emailed to say he’d sent the story to the agents, he also warned that almost no one ever actually heard from one afterward, so when an agent did reach out to me the following week, I was shocked. She asked if the story was the basis of a book and I took my former writing teacher’s advice, and lied—I said, “Yes,” and then I wrote as fast as I could (the agent gave me six weeks “to get the book in shape”).

(Can you pitch a self-published book to an agency? Yes, and here’s how.)

Pushing through rejection

I truly shudder to think of the mess I sent to her, but it was the genesis for Fig, and I will be forever grateful for the motivation this allowed. In response to the mess I sent, the agent was nice and told me to keep working on the book—to send it to her again whenever it was really ready.

Meanwhile, “The Sound of Crying Sheep” had placed as a finalist several more times and won first place for an award hosted by Third Coast, who nominated it for the Pushcart Prize. By now, I understood what agents did, and why I wanted one, especially because I now almost had a book completed. I also knew how lucky I was not to have to go the query route as yet another agent had approached me, and I was convinced I’d end up signing with one of them once the book was done. I thought wrong: In the end, both agents passed on Fig, and it was devastating.

But I picked myself up and started the query process. I received some interest, but mostly just rejections, which was far more painful with a book than with a shorter piece as more of my soul was exposed, but I kept trying. I was still sending excerpts from the book that worked as stories to various contests, and in that arena, continuing to do well. I not only placed as a finalist several more times, but I won first place for three more awards.

(What are the BEST writers’ conferences to attend?)

Fairytale ending

When I placed as a double finalist for two contests hosted by Hunger Mountain, the editor Miciah Bay Gault, who’d been following the progress of Fig, wrote to say they were publishing the story online.

As someone who prefers to read in print, I was bummed, but then Miciah explained how she knew this agent—Heather Schroder, currently working for ICM—who only looked at the electronic version, swearing that said agent would be interested in my novel. I thought Miciah was sweet, but I was no longer as confident as I’d been once upon a time, and I didn’t expect anything to come from this—I certainly didn’t expect to hear from Heather Schroder’s assistant that week, or to have a phone date with Heather herself three days later, or to find myself signing the necessary papers to be represented by such an extraordinary agent—someone who not only sold my book to Simon & Schuster, but first made sure I’d made it the best book it could ever be. In the end, Miciah and Heather combined, are the two-headed fairy godmother of my particular fairytale, and I am forever humbled.

GIVEAWAY: Sarah 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. (UPDATE: Debbie won). 

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2 thoughts on “How I Got My Literary Agent: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

  1. Debbie

    We all dream of a fairytale ending for our long, hard hours of writing — and, that’s why we call it a fairytale. How nice to know it can, indeed, become a reality. I am encouraged by your falling down and dusting off. Thank you so much for the encouragement to continue to strive forward.

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