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How I Got My Agent: Sheena Kamal, The Lost Ones

Debut author Sheena Kamal explains how she got an agent for her novel, The Lost Ones, while fighting internal thoughts that she felt like she never really belonged as a writer.

When it comes to writing fiction, I feel like the new kid on the block. I’ve been writing in some capacity for many years, but sometime in early 2014 I realized that I had a novel in me—which was a bit of a shock. I’d been pursuing screenwriting with no success at that time and had few connections. My writing network consisted of one published crime writer, who’d told me once that he gets many requests for introductions to his agent and generally doesn’t respond to them. This was understandable, but discouraging.

This guest post is by Sheena Kamal. Kamal was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to Canada as a child. She holds an HBA in political science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. Kamal has also worked as a crime and investigative journalism researcher for the film and television industry—academic knowledge and experience that inspired her debut novel THE LOST ONES. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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I’d never taken a writing class or gone to a writer’s conference. I truly did not know how to start trying to find a literary agent—but I knew I couldn’t do it without a finished book. So I quit my job in Toronto, moved across the country to Vancouver, and wrote until I almost went cross-eyed. Day in and day out, the book was all I could see.

When I had a draft of the manuscript, my author friend told me that my best chance of getting an agent was to go to Pitchfest in New York, hosted by the Thrillerfest conference. His agent would be there that year and he said I could drop his name in my pitch. I was exhilarated. This was my shot. I wanted to meet his agent, of course, but there was another agent I had my eye on: Miriam Kriss, from the Irene Goodman Agency. Something clicked for me from her bio on the conference website and I ended up lining up at her table first. When I met her, I felt we hit it off. She was friendly and easy to talk to. My nervousness disappeared. My positive experience with Miriam set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. That day, I saw nine agents—and all nine requested material.

I was elated, but exhausted. Being exhausted didn’t seem to matter too much, though, because the pitching had gone better than I’d expected. That evening I sat at the bar of the conference venue, trying to gather my strength to hoof the forty-minute walk back to my dingy hotel, when a man sat next to me.

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The man introduced himself and said he’d spent the afternoon pitching, as well. He recognized me from the line-ups. We talked a bit about that and I was genuinely interested to learn of his military background and his experiences. But over the course of a roughly twenty-minute conversation, some of what he said began to sink in. He’d said that he’d seen a lot of thirty-year old women at these events and they don’t have much of a grasp on military life. Which is fair, I suppose, but thrillers don’t have to be about military life so I didn’t think too much about it. Then, toward the end of our conversation, he proceeded to tell me that he was sure that I was going to be very successful, but he’d like me to remember that things are often deeper than they seemed. That I need to look beneath the surface.

At the time, my manuscript was called Deep Current. It is about what is unseen, and women who are invisible.

A wave of soberness washed over me. I was around thirty at the time and had never been in the military. I realized that my new friend had been insulting me for almost the entire time we’d been talking—and I hadn’t even noticed! So much for women’s intuition.

I was alone, on a trip I had to borrow money to take so that I could give my dream a chance, and here was a fellow writer taking shots without even knowing anything about my book, the subject matters I tackle, or the struggles I went through to be there that day. I felt like an idiot.

I left New York soon after, three days earlier than planned. That conversation at the bar shook me. Despite the kindness of almost everyone there, I felt like I didn’t belong. It was my first book, my first pitch, my first writer’s conference. What the hell was I thinking?

Nevertheless, I sent out submissions to the agents who’d requested material and found my way back to Vancouver. I tried as hard as I could to hold onto the elation I’d felt after pitching. There were some great moments. Miriam requested the entire manuscript after reading the first few chapters. My friend’s agent seemed excited to get my material. These were small victories.

Over the next few months, however, the rejections came piling in. I obsessed over the manuscript. My friend’s agent turned the book down. I thought about the man at the bar who implied my currents were shallow.

I brooded and tried to re-read The Iliad, because anyone who reads Homer has got to have some depth to them, right? I didn’t make it past the first page. I’d read it in college and already knew what was going to happen. Besides, the first page of The Iliad is the best page, in my opinion. I thought about picking up War and Peace, but it was too heavy. It literally couldn’t fit it in my bag.

My dream, the one that I’d upended my entire life to give a chance to, seemed to be slipping away. Then, a few months after Thrillerfest, I got an email from Miriam. She was interested in working with me, and asked for some revisions to the manuscript, which I happily provided.

Almost two months later, Miriam called me with an update. I had deals in the U.K., the U.S., France, and Germany. Miriam told me that she thought my editor at William Morrow and I would get along very well—and she was absolutely right. Her instincts for me as an author and the book have never failed me. After a moment, she gently broke the news to me that the title would have to change, because Deep Current wasn’t quite right. That’s all right, I thought. I know things are deeper than they seem. I don’t need my title of my book to be a euphemism for my work. I don’t need to prove anything to men at bars.

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