How I Got My Agent—And Book Deal: Writer's Digest Editor Edition

Writer's Digest editor Jessica Strawser lands an agent and a two-book deal. Here's a sneak peek at how she did it (and what it means for the Writer's Digest staff).
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Here at WD, we've always prided ourselves on the fact that our editors are writers too. It's what helps us connect with and serve our readers and contributors, it's what drives us to the office with unwavering passion day after day, and it's also part of what makes our staff feel like a real team. After all, every writer needs a tribe—and we never take for granted how fortunate we are to have a connection to this wonderful community of writers on many levels, both broad-reaching and closer to home.

We like to joke that we have most of the genres covered. Brian Klems (Oh Boy, You're Having a Girl) and Chuck Sambuchino (When Clowns Attack) have found success with their respective nonfiction/humor books. Writer's Market editor Robert Lee Brewer published a great poetry collection (Solving the World's Problems) with Press 53. Many of our other staff members, past and present—including our newest addition, Tyler Moss—have placed articles and essays in top-notch markets. (And our former managing editor, Zachary Petit, even has a new WD Book coming out later this month: The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, which I can't recommend highly enough.)

And me? Well, I dabble in freelance work occasionally, too—last year I had an essay selected for The New York Times Modern Love column—but I've been focusing on fiction for years now, writing mostly at night after my kids are in bed. In early 2014, I signed with an agent for my first novel while I was on maternity leave from WD. I'd gotten a revise-and-resubmit request from him the previous year and had completely rewritten the book, from Page 1, using his thoughtful critique as a guide, and was over the moon that he was as pleased with the end result as I was. Everyone here thought this could be it—maybe we'd have a WD staffer on the fiction shelves too!—but a long year and a half stretched by, and the novel never sold.

In the meantime, I'd been following the advice we so often print in Writer's Digest for writers who are out on submission: I wrote another novel. Several months ago, I got some revision feedback from my agent, but I admit I was struggling with it. I'm not one to shy away from a rewrite, but in this case it just wasn't resonating. We didn't share the same vision for the project.

Then, for largely unrelated reasons, and on amicable terms, my agent and I parted ways. I was feeling uncertain as to what to do next. Submit the first novel, which had already been rejected by a short list of editors? Submit the second novel, when my confidence in the project had been shaken? Or submit nothing just yet, and hunker down with either a revision or a completely new project?

I happened to be chatting with Barbara Poelle, who writes the Funny You Should Ask agent advice column in the magazine and wheels and deals at Irene Goodman Literary Agency the other 99% of the time, when she asked about my writing and before I knew it, I was pouring out how stuck I was feeling. I was really just answering her question, not expecting any favors, but Barbara is a soft touch, and knew me just well enough to know I had to be feeling distressed to have brought it up at all.

"I'll have a look. Maybe I can help," she said. "Just send me everything. Both books."

"Oh, you don't have to--" I began.

"I know. Just give me a month, OK?"

A professional opinion on how I might proceed? Who in their right mind would pass that up? Besides, I wasn't doing anything other than spinning my wheels anyway. I hadn't written a word of fiction all summer. Floored by her generosity--but feeling a bit nervous, as I know Barbara is very tell-it-like-it-is and could easily come back with a chipper "On the bright side, at least you have a day job!" response--I did as she asked.

A month later, true to her word, she got back to me. Her response to my first novel was a bit mysterious--all she would do was sing the chorus of "Let It Go." (This would have been harder to hear if not for the fact that Barbara is actually a surprisingly good singer.) But she said she loved my new one. A lot. Neither of us had thought I was actually submitting to her—at best, I'd hoped for a referral—but in the end, after years of false starts and rejections and sleepless nights surrounded by buzzing baby monitors at the keyboard, I landed my second agent largely by accident. I reassigned her column to someone else so that I was no longer her editor, and just like that, I became her client instead.

Two weeks later, she called again. The ink on our agreement wasn't even dry, but she had sold the novel in a two-book deal to St. Martin's Press.

There are a lot of lessons here that I want to share. About perseverance. "Practice novels." Uncertainty. But we have plenty of time for that.

Making this whole surreal dream seem all the more real, today Publishers Weekly announced that my novel, an upmarket book club book called ALMOST MISSED YOU, is slated for a hardcover release in 2017. And I look forward to sharing my journey here with the WD family of readers as I revise that novel with the talented team at St. Martin's, prepare for its release, write Book 2 (under contract for the very first time), maintain my post at the helm of Writer's Digest magazine, and raise my two tiny, super wonderful kids to become two slightly bigger, super wonderful kids.

It's going to be a wild ride. I hope you'll come along, and share your own stories along the way. I'm so very grateful for all of your support.

This post is by Jessica Strawser. Strawser is the chief editor of Writer's Digest magazine, where she often has the privilege of penning WD Interviews featuring writers she has long admired, including Alice Walker, David Sedaris and Stephen King. Her 15-year career in publishing has also included editing roles at a trio of nonfiction book imprints and even a brief stint in marketing and public relations. She's also a writer of women's fiction represented by literary agent Barbara Poelle, and—having first started querying agents for an entirely different, unsold novel back in 2011—is thrilled to be looking ahead to her 2017 debut novel, Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two young children. Connect with her on Twitter @JessicaStrawser.


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