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How I Got My Agent: Dennis Mahoney

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Dennis Mahoney, author of the 2013 literary novel FELLOW MORTALS. 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 with literary agents.

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Dennis Mahoney, author of the novel FELLOW MORTALS. 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 with literary agents. If you would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at and we’ll talk specifics.

(Find out why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

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Dennis Mahoney lives in upstate New York with his wife, son,
and dog. He received a BA in English from The College of Saint
Rose in Albany, NY, had jobs involving ice cream, coffee, and Nielsen
television ratings, and eventually became a stay-at-home parent
and full-time writer. He once grew a 314-lb. pumpkin in the yard.
He enjoys carpentry, boxing (spectator only), and music of the
18th Century. Find Dennis's blog here or connect with him
on Twitter.His first novel (FSG, 2013) is the literary work,

My Almost-Agents

I finished Novel #1 and started querying agents. Whenever I got a rejection, I submitted to two more agents, until eventually I contacted every reputable agency I could find, sometimes twice. I had phone conversations with two excellent agents who called to say they liked my novel but felt it didn’t work on some fundamental, unfixable level. Crushing as it was to get that close and come up short, I finally realized they were right and got back to work on Novel #2.

Agent #1

Novel #2 did get me an agent (after many others passed) at a top-notch agency. I leapt to accept her offer of representation, expecting it all to be perfect and to have a publishing offer on the table in no time. It’s hard not to leap after so much rejection, but I should have taken a breath. The agent was truly likeable and was a talented veteran of many years, but I didn’t quite connect with her and worried she wasn’t the right advocate for my novel. She and her boss also wanted a major rewrite, which I hadn’t known prior to signing up.

(11 ways to assist a friend in promoting their new book.)

Another agent with whom I did feel a connection had shown interest if I was willing to do a significant overhaul, and I suddenly wanted to go with him instead. So I backed out of the contract with Agent #1, which made me look flighty (which I was). Even worse, I happened to reach her at home on a day she was terribly sick. The whole thing was an awkward mess, but I felt it was the right decision and contacted Agent #2.

Agent #2

What a nice, smart, patient man. Agent #2 and I discussed my novel’s shortcomings and I spent six months on a major rewrite, convinced I’d hit it out of the park. We met for lunch in NYC – this was my moment of triumph, I believed – and he told me with great tact and honesty that I had made the novel worse. I reacted in a panic and despaired the whole way home. But he was still willing to represent me. I just needed to fix the book, and I gave it another whack and got a lot closer. It still wasn’t a book he thought he could sell, and we were both getting antsy. Bear in mind that all of his reading, comments, email answering, phone conversations, and support were earning him Zero Dollars, because he couldn’t earn commission on a book he couldn’t sell. He was, understandably, losing enthusiasm.

I found myself in the terrible position of either abandoning the book, which I couldn’t seem to fix, or looking elsewhere for representation. My agent and I agreed to amicably part ways. I took my broken book and returned to cold querying other agents. No dice. The book was dead. I’d had two good agents and had gotten closer than ever to publication, and I was faced with starting over, yet again, on a brand new book.

Agents #3 and #4

Novel #3—FELLOW MORTALS—felt different from the start. I had characters I loved and a strong hook. The writing went well and I enjoyed myself more than ever before, which is the best thing I gained from years of rejection: love of the work regardless of agents and editors. But I wasn’t a writerly monk, damn it, and I wanted a book deal this time around.

I finished the novel and queried the usual agents, some of whom remembered me and gave me extra attention. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Whenever someone offered specific reasons I agreed with, I revised the manuscript before continuing submissions. Anyone I disagreed with, I ignored. Dozens of rejections later, Agent #3 read it, loved it, and offered to rep me. This was Zoe Fishman Shacham with Nancy Yost Literary, and after taking some time to think it over and decide, I accepted her offer and she started submitting to various editors.

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

A handful of houses passed, but an editor at FSG, Emily Bell, passed very reluctantly and gave us excellent reasons why. Her comments were electrifying. I agreed with her concerns and saw an opportunity to improve the book, which I did over the next month. Just as we were about to resume submissions, Zoe retired from agenting. Suffice it to say she had wonderful prospects elsewhere. I wished her well but I was heartbroken. She’s a great person and I was sorry to lose her.

No one else at her agency believed they were right for the book. I threw a Hail Mary pass and emailed Emily at FSG directly, telling her I’d revised based upon her comments and asking if she’d like to see it again. She said yes. And then she very reluctantly passed a second time. But in the course of those emails, we connected somehow and she changed her mind, believing I could make it work with one more serious push. She offered me a deal in October 2011 and recommended my current agent, Jim Rutman at Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., to handle to contract. I did a month of revision in early 2012, and we were all delighted with the result.

Why Bother with an Agent Once I Had an Offer?

15% extremely well-spent. FSG was a dream throughout the entire process, so my agent never had to referee, but it’s good knowing there’s someone looking out for me, both now and in the future. And the contract he checked line-by-line was fearsomely long and complicated and nothing I’d have felt comfortable doing alone (or trusting to a lawyer, who wouldn’t be as expertly versed in the fine print). Jim’s an ally now.

So three books, four agents, many years. It was all worth it, and I’m thrilled to have an agent and editor looking forward to Book #4.

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This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of Natalie
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

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