Publish date:

How I Got My Agent: Sophie Chen Keller

Debut author Sophie Chen Keller explains how she got started writing and how she landed her dream agent for her novel, The Luster of Lost Things, with her first query letter.

Debut author Sophie Chen Keller explains how she got started writing and how she landed her dream agent for her novel, The Luster of Lost Things, with her first query letter.

The Beginning

I’ve loved reading books for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading out loud from fairy tales and childhood classics by Roald Dahl and EB White, helping me learn English after we immigrated to the US. It wasn’t long until I began writing stories of my own, the first of which was about talking animals who lived at the bottom of the sea (influenced, no doubt, by the Redwall books I devoured), and sometime in middle school I began reading about writing—I spent my birthday money on Stephen King’s gem of a book, On Writing, subscribed to Writer’s Digest, and checked out every year of Best American Short Stories the library had available.

This guest post is bySophie Chen Keller. Keller was born in Beijing, China, and was raised in Ohio and California. Her fiction has won several awards and has appeared in publications such as Glimmer Train and Pedestal. She lives in Boston. THE LUSTER OF LOST THINGS, releasing on August 8, 2017, is her first novel.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

One summer—I think it was the summer of my freshman year in high school, but I’m bad at math and also at remembering things—I wrote a short story about a pedicab driver in rural China. Growing up, my family and I visited China every few years to see our relatives. Back then, China was in the early stages of its development, and those “three-wheeled wagons” pulled by a driver on a bicycle were the most common way of getting around. We would pile into the wagon, four or five us at a time, mopping our foreheads in the 100-degree heat. I remember the driver’s sweat-soaked back as he strained with all his might and pulled us down the potholed dirt road.

The image snagged in my heart. I wrote a story about him, so that he might have a voice. Even back then, I followed the same writing routine, sitting down after breakfast to write a set number of words a day, every day except weekends. When the story was done, I submitted it to Glimmer Train, and received an acceptance call shortly afterwards. In that conversation, I think I was half in shock and not quite sure how to use my words. I’m not sure if they know it, but I am forever grateful to editors Linda Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown for picking that story out of the slush pile and opening that first door. That gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed, a decade later, to push away the fear and uncertainty and go all-in on writing my first novel.

The Middle

I started writing The Luster of Lost Things in the fall of 2014. I hadn’t written a thing since graduating from college and was already a pretty slow writer to begin with, but I put my head down and kept at it. In four months, I had my very first draft of a novel. At less than 60,000 words, it was a slender draft, to be sure—but then again, so was The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men, right? Well, I was no Hemingway or Steinbeck, but the manuscript was as polished as I could get it on my own, with feedback from family members—who were the only ones I had permitted to read the manuscript. And even that was stepping out of my comfort zone: I was so secretive and shy about my writing that, to read a short story of mine, my college roommate had resorted to tiptoeing over to my side of the room before I woke to sneak a look at the magazine I had shoved inside my desk, underneath my candy stash.

Once the draft was ready, I pored over writing blogs and forums online, like AbsoluteWrite, which was a treasure trove of information for someone like me who had exactly zero writerly friends or acquaintances. I absorbed the advice and insights, studied query letters that worked and queries letters that didn’t, and took a stab at writing a query letter of my own. I stabbed a few more times before landing on the right one. A few days after Christmas, I sent a query letter to Jeff Kleinman, whose name I’d found in the Acknowledgements section of one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Jeff responded practically immediately, which freaked me out, and which I have subsequently learned to be less freaked out by.

[New Agent Alerts: Click here to find agents who are currently seeking writers]

His enthusiasm was contagious, and he completely understood what I was trying to do with the strange little book I’d written. In one breath, he told me about all the revisions the book needed and offered representation. After I did a double-take and realized he actually liked my book enough to take me on, I did a silent scream and a weird dance that he couldn’t see, but that my sister, embarrassingly, could.

In retrospect, I probably did a lot of things “wrong”: submitting an anemic 60,000 word novel that had gone through minimal revisions, sending a query letter during the holidays, sending a query letter to my top-choice agent right out of the gate. But maybe it just goes to show that there’s no “wrong” way to do this writing thing as long as you’re doing it, and that it’s all about the people who took a chance on me and gave me the opportunities to make my dream reality.

I realize right about now that I don’t have an end, but that’s probably okay. After all, according to the sage and sunny wisdom of Natasha Bedingfield, the rest is still unwritten.

The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.

Image placeholder title

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

Image placeholder title

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice but Never Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice (but Never Writing)

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's mistake is to collect writing advice at the expense of actually writing.

The Benefits of a Book Coach for Writers

The Benefits of Having a Book Coach for Writers

What is a book coach? How could they help authors? Award-winning author and writing instructor Mark Spencer answers these questions and more in this post about the benefits of having a book coach for writers.

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Award-winning author Clare Chambers discusses the fear and excitement of switching genre gears in her new historical fiction novel, Small Pleasures.

Poetic Forms

Exquisite Corpse: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the exquisite corpse (or exquisite cadaver), a collaborative poem that would make a fun poetic game.

How Opening Ourselves to Other People Can Make Us Better Writers

How Opening Ourselves to Other People Can Make Us Better Writers

The writing process is both individual and communal, as receiving constructive feedback and outside encouragement helps our drafts become finished manuscripts. Author Peri Chickering discusses how opening ourselves up to others can make us better writers.

What Forensic Science’s Godmother Taught Me About Writing Mysteries

What Forensic Science’s Godmother Taught Me About Writing Mysteries

Stephanie Kane discusses the impact of Frances Glessner Lee, the godmother of forensic science, and her crime scene dioramas on writing mysteries.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Still Alive

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Still Alive

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, reveal that a character who was thought deceased is actually still among the living.

Mark Anthony: On Destigmatizing Paranormal Communication

Mark Anthony: On Destigmatizing Paranormal Communication

Author Mark Anthony hopes to educate and normalize paranormal communication with his new spirituality book, The Afterlife Frequency.

Ways Animals Have Interacted With Writers Through the Centuries

Ways Animals Have Interacted With Writers Through the Centuries

Across the globe and spanning lifetimes, animals have always operated as more than simply animals within the stories they reside. Author Richard Girling discusses how animals have interacted with writers throughout the centuries.