How I Got My Agent: Emily Jeanne Miller

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Emily Jeanne Miller, author of BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING (June 2012). 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: Emily 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: seichenblatt 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 Emily Jeanne Miller, author of BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING (June 2012). 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: Emily 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: seichenblatt won.)

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Emily Jeanne Miller is the author of the debut literary novel BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING
(June 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Real Simple called the book "A fast-paced
tale of family life," while novelist Curtis Sittenfeld said "What a treat to read Miller's
whip-smart first novel." Emily attended Princeton University, where she majored in
Comparative Religions. She worked as journalist for several years before she
began writing fiction. She has an MS in Environmental Studies from the
University of Montana, and MFA in Creative Writing from the University
of Florida. She currently lives, and teaches in her hometown, Washington, DC.

I MADE A PACT WITH MYSELF

While I was writing my first novel, I made a pact with myself, based mostly on superstition, not to think—or talk—about selling it until it was done. Not only did I not contact any agents, I felt uneasy talking about what I was working on at all. I refused to describe what it was about. Truth told, I wouldn’t even say the title aloud.

Looking back, I suppose I was afraid of "jinxing" the process. Which may just be another way of saying I was afraid. In the nearly 10 years I’d been writing fiction, I'd heard enough about the difficulties of getting an agent and selling a literary novel in today's marketplace to know not to get my hopes too high. Plus I wanted to put all of my energy into creating, knowing that writing the best book I possibly could was all I could do to counteract the rest.

But I was weak. Nine months or so into the writing process, when I'd written what I thought was a little more than a third of the novel, I signed up on a whim for a meeting with an agent at a writer's conference I was attending.

(See a list of writers' conferences here.)

This was a mistake. To say she was not taken with the chapter she read is an understatement. In our brief time together, she said she 1) wasn't convinced by the voice, which happens to be a man’s, and 2) worried about its being thus, because, she said, female readers—i.e., the vast majority of all readers—prefer books about people of their own sex. Last, she asked whether my story ended happily, and I could see the dismissal crystallizing on her face when I said, "No."

THE QUEST CONTINUES

I left the meeting in despair. Luckily, I immediately ran into a writer I knew who, after I relayed what had taken place, shrugged, waved his hand, and said, "Okay. She's not your agent."

What he meant was, your agent has to love your book to sell it, and the fact that one person, who happened to be an agent, didn't, told me exactly one thing about my novel: that she wasn't going to be the one to sell it.

I understood. Still, I decided to re-implement my original policy of waiting until the manuscript was finished before putting any part of it front of anyone whosoever in the publishing world, or anyone else, for that matter. Pushing through to the end, I knew, was going to be was hard enough. The last thing I needed was a critical voice in my head—anyone's critical voice—making it that much harder.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

Seven months later, when I decided the manuscript was ready (which meant I'd completed three thorough revisions after the first draft), I gathered agents' names from writer-friends, acquaintances, teachers, the Internet, and the Acknowledgments sections of books I liked. This left me with a pretty long list, which I pared down. If someone was a big-name agent but had never sold a book remotely like mine, I crossed her off. This left me with ten or so agents—my "dream agents," each of whom represented authors with whom I thought had something in common, either style-wise, or subject-wise, or both.

At this stage, I wrote a query email that told a little bit about me, and a little bit about the book. I talked about my writing experience and previous publications, and described my novel as the "love-child of Richard Russo and Richard Yates." I sent this email to three or four agents. Then I did my best to steel myself against what I expected to be a torrent of rejection. At best, I thought, I was in for a long wait.

FINDING (BOOK) LOVE ON VALENTINE'S DAY

Neither scenario came to pass. Each of the agents I'd emailed responded quickly and courteously, encouraging me to send along either the first few chapters or the complete manuscript. One agent—Lisa Bankoff—asked me to suspend my search for 10 days while she read the manuscript. I agreed. As she'd promised, I got an email from her first thing in the morning on day 10, which happened to be Valentine's Day. She said she loved the book and wanted to get to work selling it. Of course, I was ecstatic. We spoke on the phone, and I happily accepted her offer.

(Read an interview with Emily's agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM Partners.)

She sent the book out the next week. Unbeknownst to me, she sent it to editors using my initials instead of my name, to see if they thought they were reading the work of a man. Two editors were interested in speaking with me. (One was very surprised to learn I’m an “Emily.”). A couple of days later, I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My first novel, BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING, hits shelves in 2012.

Getting my novel written and published took a long time, and required more discipline, patience, and faith than I thought I had in me. It was also well worth the wait.

GIVEAWAY: Emily 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: seichenblatt won.)

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