How I Got My Agent: David Halperin

"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. David Halperin was once a teenage UFO investigator. Later he became professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—his specialty, religious traditions of heavenly ascent. Journal of a UFO Investigator (Viking Press, Feb. 2011) is his first novel.
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"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. 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.com and we'll talk specifics.

David is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Ramsey and Cam won.)

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David Halperin was once a teenage UFO investigator.
Later he became professor of religious studies at the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—his specialty,
religious traditions of heavenly ascent. Journal of a
UFO Investigator (Viking Press, Feb. 2011) is his
first novel. Publishers Weekly called the book “gripping”
and “heartbreaking”; Entertainment Weekly, “an
imaginative tale about an equally imaginative
protagonist.” See David’s website here.

IS 250,000 WORDS TOO LONG?

I have the good fortune to be represented by the finest agent in the galaxy. I won’t say the universe—I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s possible that somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy there’s a literary agent as good as Peter Steinberg. But in this Milky Way, he’s tops.

Peter’s my third agent. Our paths crossed nearly 12 years after I sat down at my computer and wrote what once were the opening paragraphs—long since relegated to the wastebasket—of the book that became Journal of a UFO Investigator. Those 12 years were plentiful in rejection and disappointment. Sometimes, during the worst of those years, I imagined myself banging vainly on the thick, muffled doors of a book industry impenetrable to newcomers. The truth was more painful and more liberating. Just as in my twenties, I went through a long and arduous university training to become a Judaica professor, so in my fifties I went through an equally arduous, if mostly self-guided, training in the complex and difficult art of novel writing. I’m a long way from mastery. But I think I’ve reached adequacy; and, once at that stage, finding and working with a great agent proved easier than I’d ever expected.

The first draft of UFO took me two and a half years. It was 1,500 double-spaced pages long. Soon I trimmed it down ... to 250,000 words. My first, tentative agent queries brought form rejections. Of course. Who’ll publish a book that length, from an unknown author?

I protested: There’s no way this book can be any shorter, and still meet my artistic goals! Which was true. I hadn’t yet understood that those goals needed to be modified, into something equally legitimate artistically yet more tractable. I set the manuscript aside. I wrote another novel.

TWO AGENTS COME ... AND GO

190,000 words this time. Amazingly, through a mutual friend, I did find an agent for this “Novel #2.” Still more amazingly, she came within an ace of finding a good publisher. Fortunately, the editor who wanted the book was overruled. “Fortunately”—because Novel #2 was terribly flawed: verbose, repetitious, sometimes didactic. The rejection hurt. But I’d gotten my first great gift from the publishing industry: a real rejection, not just the form-letter doesn’t-suit-our-needs variety. From these one can learn.

I rewrote Novel #2, from beginning to end. This time it came to 120,000 words. Now that’s starting to be publishable. Meanwhile I was learning to write scenes that grab you and pull you in. My agent and I drifted apart. In the fall of ’06, I found my second agent.

He tried to sell Novel #2. And tried. But it seems I still wasn’t quite there as a novelist. While he piled up rejections, I dusted off my original passion, Journal of a UFO Investigator. A few years before, the problem of changing UFO’s scope had seemed insoluble. Possibilities now leaped off the pages.
My wife helped me think things through. So did my writers’ group. So did some wonderful novelist friends, who brought their wisdom and experience to bear on my manuscript. That was another thing I’d acquired over the years: the humility to let myself be helped, and the skill to do that. When my agent stopped answering emails, I knew it was time for a change. And for UFO, now reconceived and trimmed (through multiple rewritings) to a svelte 88,000 words, to come bursting out of its drawer.

THE BEST AGENT AND EDITOR FOR ME

I sent out queries, this time about UFO. Peter Steinberg’s assistant pulled my letter from the slush pile. A few weeks later I was on the plane to New York City. Peter and I had lunch; we talked for two or three hours. By the time I got on the return flight, I knew this was the agent I’d needed ever since that first paragraph years before.

The rest is short and sweet. Peter and I worked for three months polishing the book. He sent it to publishers; in three weeks we had an offer from Viking Press. There I found myself in the hands of the most wonderful editor I could imagine … but that’s a tale for another time.

How did I get my dream agent? By being ready for him. It’s a story I’ve heard from other writers. Rejected over and over like me, they found that when their art was ripe, the doors swung open—I won’t say easily, but with less toil and tears than any of us had imagined.
That’s all the magic there is.

David is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Ramsey and Cam won.)

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