How I Got My Agent: Alma Katsu

"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. 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. Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker (July 2011), which has been compared to The Historian and Interview With the Vampire—but without vampires.
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"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 literaryagent@fwmedia.comand we'll talk specifics.

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Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker (July 2011),
which has been compared to
The Historian and
Interview With the Vampire—but without vampires!
Her website is www.almakatsu.com.

WRITING, BUT NOT FOR PLEASURE

“The Taker” got its start from a short story I’d written when I was in my twenties. The story was a twist on a classic ghost story. Once the story was finished, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the three main characters. I wanted to know what happened to them next.

I fit the classic writer profile: As a kid, I was always reading or off scribbling stories for my own amusement. From there, it was a jump to journalism in high school and college, but once I took a job with the federal government and moved to Washington, DC, my fiction writing slowed, then stopped. For fifteen years, the only writing I did was for my job.

REALIZING THE DREAM AT 40

At forty, I decided that if I was ever going to realize my dream of writing a novel, I had to get back to work. The first months were painful, like trying to run a marathon after lazing on a couch for a decade. I had to develop writing muscles that had atrophied a long time ago, so I decided to go back to school. I applied to the Johns Hopkins Writing part-time Masters program, and the writing sample I submitted with my application was the much-reworked ghost story, which I pictured as the first chapter of a novel. By some miracle, I was accepted.

Writing programs aren’t for everyone, but in my case it provided the rigor I needed. It didn’t magically transform my novel, though it taught me a lot about craft, enough to understand that the book I envisioned was going to be difficult to write. The Taker had problematic elements: It spans over 200 years, with much of the story happening in the past with a present-day frame weaving through it, and if that weren’t enough, there’s a long piece of backstory in the middle (a story-within-a-story-within-a-story). I attempted several rewrites, but came to the conclusion that, at the time, I didn’t have the skill to make it work.

I put The Taker aside while I worked on other stories. I wrote four novels and in the process learned about developing an arresting plot and pacing. During these years, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters in The Taker. I couldn’t give up on them, so every so often I went back to work on it. I’ve lost count of how many rewrites I did. But at one point, in early 2009, I thought of a way to make the whole thing work. It required one last, complete rewrite, which took six months.

AN AGENT LANDS ME A DEAL

Peter Steinberg was at the top of my list of agents to query. I admired the writers he presented, particularly Keith Donohue, who also resides in the DC area. With Peter’s help, Donohue’s debut, The Stolen Child, had become a New York Times bestseller. While Donohue is a great writer, and I would never compare my writing to his, our books had similar traits: both are historical, with a supernatural or fantastical element.

I’d sent the manuscript to two agents who’d expressed interest earlier, but since neither had asked for an exclusive, I also sent it to Peter. He got back to me right away to let me know he was enjoying it. He wrote again a few days later to say he had taken it on vacation with him and while he wasn’t finished, he asked me not to sign with anyone until I’d heard back from him. Miraculously, I did get another offer for representation but knew that Peter was the right agent. There were still problems with the book, and he knew exactly what to change to make the book “click.”

We spent a few weeks polishing it, and then he submitted to publishing houses, getting a lot of interest. Shortly after New Year’s 2010, it sold at auction to Tricia Boczkowski at Gallery Books. He also sold rights in a pre-empt to Century (UK) and Longanessi (Italy), and since then, has sold the foreign rights in Russia, Spain and Poland as well.

The most rewarding part, since selling the book, is hearing from the people who’ve read it—editors, foreign rights agents, scouts—that they couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. They want to talk about them to their friends, to others who’ve read the book, and they want to know what happens next. And, of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, either, and am now working on the next books in what has become a trilogy.

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