How I Got My Literary Agent: Cate Holahan

Cate Holahan, author of THE WIDOWER'S WIFE (Aug 9, 2016, Crooked Lane Books), shares how she overcame nerves and got her agent and a publishing deal.
Publish date:

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Cate Holahan, author of THE WIDOWER'S WIFE. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. 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 and we’ll talk specifics.


Column by Catherine "Cate" Holahan, author of THE WIDOWER'S
(Aug. 9, 2016, Crooked Lane Books). Cate is an award-winning

journalist turned fiction author. Her articles have appeared in BusinessWeek,
The Boston Globe, The Record and on plenty of Web pages. She lives in
New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, ages 6 and 4, and dog. 
Follow her on Twitter

Nerves abound at conferences
I talk too fast. Blame a Queens birth. An upbringing in the New York City suburbs. That post-breakup binge on Gilmore Girls. Whatever the reason, I have a regrettable tendency to blab away like a verbal bullet train, words whizzing at a speed that defies the mechanics of the frenulum linguae, aka that stringy muscle keeping the tongue tethered to the mouth.

(Attending a writers' conference soon? Learn how to prepare.)

I talk faster when anxious. And, I was never as nervous as when pitching the man who would eventually publish my first book.

We met at a writer’s conference. I’d quit my journalism job with the promise to get serious about “real writing.” Everyday, I’d worked as though on imminent deadline. Soon, I had my first novel—a thriller about a budding sociopath and the undocumented nanny hired by the kid’s oblivious, overworked parents.

I queried agent after agent, starting at A and working my way through the alphabet. It was a decent day when someone rejected me by full name. It was a better day when someone said no with a word of encouragement about my writing.

The New York Pitch
As the better days grew farther apart, I decided maybe there was something wrong with my story that I couldn’t see. So, I spent more money that my book wasn’t earning on the Algonkian Writer’s Conference.

The New York Pitch proved the best decision of my fiction writing career—though it didn’t feel that way at first. I was assigned to a small workshop with the woman who would become my agent, Paula Munier. She critiqued our query letters and first pages explaining what sells and what makes industry professionals ship things to the slush pile. Afterward, we had the opportunity to pitch real editors.

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My future publisher, then an editor at St. Martin’s Press, was first up. He walked into the room and out went all the confidence I’d built up during small group critiques. Here was my version of the Nursery Magic Fairy. I was a velveteen writer and he could make me a real one. My stomach clenched. I felt mildly ill. My underarms were moist despite the blasting air conditioner.

My future agent asked who wanted to go first. I volunteered. Better to go before I turned green. I stood in front of the seated editor, a court jester before the king, and launched into my elevator pitch.

Was I selling a novel or auctioning livestock? Words jumped from my mouth, fleeing a sinking ship only to drown beneath waves of additional verbiage. At the end, the editor blinked and said something about not being into evil children.

And that was it. I blew it. Spectacularly.

Taking a chance
Fortunately, my future agent had seen some of my writing and decided to take a chance on me. She encouraged me to age up my villain, perhaps put her in high school. The subsequent novel, DARK TURNS, sold to Crooked Lane Books, acquired by the same editor who had rejected its predecessor.

My second novel with Crooked Lane, THE WIDOWER’S WIFE, comes out Aug. 9. In a starred review for the upcoming book, Kirkus said that the thriller “really will keep you reading all night” and praised my “uncanny skill in pacing.”

(Literary agents share advice on how to approach them at a writers' conference and pitch your work successfully.)

Pacing! Thankfully, my fingers have better control of the English language than my mouth… And my agent does the talking.


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

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Your new complete and updated instructional guide
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craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

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