How I Found My Literary Agent: Cassandra Dunn

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Cassandra Dunn, author of the novel, THE ART OF ADAPTING. 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. GIVEAWAY: Cassandra is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; 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: TheWritePlace won.)
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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Cassandra Dunn, author of THE ART OF ADAPTING. 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 literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

GIVEAWAY: Cassandra is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; 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: TheWritePlace won.)

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the-art-of-adapting-novel-cover

Cassandra Dunn is the author of THE ART OF ADAPTING (Touchstone/Simon
& Schuster, July 2014). Kirkus Reviews said of the novel, “Dunn’s debut novel
treats readers to a family in transition. . . . A neatly wrapped, happily-ever-after
tale of a broken family that survives and thrives.” Dunn received her MFA in
creative writing from Mills College. She was a semifinalist for the Amazon
Breakthrough Novel Award and a finalist for Glimmer Train's Short Story
Award for New Writers. She's published 12 short stories. She is represented
by Harvey Klinger. Her website is cassandradunn.com, and you can
connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.


I HAVE A MANUSCRIPT WHAT DO I DO NOW?

Like most aspiring authors, I had no idea what I was doing when I started seeking out an agent. I had a completed manuscript, and I was proud to have a finished novel. Was it ready to go out into the world? Not even close. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I finished my MFA program with a memoir that I soon abandoned, got married, had kids, got lost on my writing path, and eventually found my way back to writing, this time focusing on fiction. I wrote some short stories, and managed to get a few published. I chose an unpublished story that had been selected as a Glimmer Train finalist and kept adding to it until I had a novel. A terrible, unbalanced, meandering novel full of rookie mistakes, but a novel just the same. I was hooked. And I knew that I could do better.

I wrote a second novel, a little deeper than the first, full of bigger tragedy and greater risk, and I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. It survived round after round of cuts, eventually making it to the semifinals. I gave it a brief (too brief) revision based on some of the reviews it had received and on feedback from an online novel workshop. Then I assembled a list of new agents who were actively list-building, and started sending it out. I got enough requests to see more of the novel to know that my query letter was decent, but each agent ultimately passed. I was about 60 failed queries in when I decided to shelve that novel and focus on the next one, which was coming along quickly.

(Can writers query multiple agents at the same agency?)

THE END OF ONE NOVEL, THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER

That novel, The Art of Adapting, came from my heart -- the scenes and characters waking me in the morning, my fingers and wrists cramping each afternoon from not being able to type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. It was personal, inspired by my uncle, and it mattered to me more than anything else I’d written. I finished a draft in three months and sent it to two trusted friends for feedback. As I waited to hear back from them, I worked on more short stories, publishing a handful of them. I wanted agents to see that I was serious about writing, publishing, pushing myself.

I revised The Art of Adapting with the notes from my beta readers, and started compiling a list of agents. This time, I decided not to start with junior agents. I aimed for my dream agents right off the bat, because, why not? I was methodical. I researched, looking for agents who wanted women’s fiction, who had positive feedback from other queriers, who had recent sales and impressive author lists. I made a list of 25 agents, knowing I might need more than 50 eventually, and broke them into groups of 5. Each Monday, I was going to query 5 agents, taking the time to craft a personal letter for each of them. I was not going to check my email every 30 seconds to see if any of them had responded. I was going pass the time working on short stories and attending writing conferences to make connections and conquer my shy nature. But then the unthinkable happened. One of the agents in my very first query group responded right away. Harvey Klinger asked for the first chapters. Then the whole book. And then he offered to represent me.

(Learn why "Keep Moving Forward" may be the best advice for writers everywhere.)

BUT IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE

The book wasn’t ready to go out to publishers. It was still chock full of rookie mistakes that made me cringe (show, don’t tell!). Over the next few months Harvey helped me revise the entire manuscript chapter by chapter. He’s a tough but encouraging critic, and his guidance was one of the best gifts I’ve ever had as a writer. I felt like that revision phase was a test of our relationship, to make sure we were a good fit. For me to see if he really got the heart of my story, and for him to see that I could take criticism and was determined to do the work necessary on a project.

And that’s my best advice for aspiring authors. Be determined to do the work. Not just the fun part of writing that first draft, but the long, heart-wrenching editing passes where you kill your darlings, the awkward networking, the bio-building of getting your name out there in some capacity. And when your work is as ready as you can make it, aim high. And show don’t tell.

GIVEAWAY: Cassandra is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; 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: TheWritePlace won.)

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