How I Got My Agent: Scott Dominic Carpenter

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of the short story collection, THIS JEALOUS EARTH. 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.
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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of the short story collection, THIS JEALOUS EARTH. 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.

(Which writers' conference is the BEST to attend?)

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Scott Dominic Carpenter teaches literature and critical theory at Carleton
College (MN), where he has written extensively on the representation of
madness in the novel, political allegory, and literary hoaxes. His fiction has
appeared in such journals as Chamber Four, Ducts, Midwestern Gothic, and
Spilling Ink. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a semi-finalist for the MVP
competition at New Rivers Press, his first collection of short stories,
THIS JEALOUS EARTH (MG Press) appears in January 2013. His debut
novel is Theory of Remainders (May 2013, Winter Goose Publishing). 

HOW *NOT* TO FIND AN AGENT

How hard can it be, right? After all, your manuscript is pure adrenalin. It’s going to set crowds screaming with desire. Lance Armstrong would be banned from cycling just for looking at the title. And the only person standing between you and glory is that horn-rimmed, grizzled gatekeeper known everywhere as The Agent.

Maybe a counter-example would be useful: how not to find an agent. Because that counter-example is me. I looked too early, querying too many agents with a letter that was ill-conceived and a manuscript that was only half-baked.

Lesson Number One: Get Real. That’s right—be aware of your weaknesses, seek outside readers, and above all take time. I went to agentquery.com and did clever searches to generate a list of some 200 agents who seemed custom-conceived to hawk my manuscript. Did you hear me? I said two hundred! An inexhaustible supply. And my work was soooo enticing that I figured I’d sent out a spate of queries and start a bidding war among the agents. I e-mailed about 20, then sat back with a glass of wine to watch the offers of representation roll in. But something went wrong. Maybe my Internet was down? But no, I was still receiving the regular supply of spam. So only agents had been black-listed? Nothing came. Zip. Nichts. Nada. A couple weeks later, I sent out another blast to another score of names. Surely that would suffice? It did trigger a couple of reactions—form rejections.

TIME TO FOCUS ON REVISION

This was unthinkable. Why couldn’t they see my brilliance? Then, as I did the math, I realized that 200 agents is a small number. You could burn through that list in a hurry if you’re not careful. So I stopped sending queries and returned to polishing my manuscript. I reworked my blurb. I had friends scrutinize my query letter. Finally I understood: if I couldn’t hold an agent’s attention through three short paragraphs, I was never going to get my prose in front of normal readers.

(Learn about the value of beta readers.)

That’s when the process started for real. I revised and queried, queried and revised, dipping into the pool of possible agents one or two at a time. Bit by bit I found myself with personalized rejections, then requests for something beyond the initial chapter, then the full manuscript. It took time—maybe six months—before I got serious nibbles: two or three agents who asked for revisions, only to turn me down after I made them.

But I stuck with it. Rejection is tough, but when it drives you to work harder, it helps you succeed. In my case, I ended up with a polished manuscript and a well-crafted query. I received my first offer of representation from Victoria Skurnick at Levine Greenberg, which came as a terrific relief. More important, though, I received four other offers at almost the same time: clearly the manuscript was ready.

(Read an interview with Levine Greenberg agent Lindsay Edgecombe.)

All those agents who had been wrong to reject me before were now suddenly right. And I’d learned something in the process. I signed with Victoria, and I’ve never regretted it. Pretty soon I had contracts for two titles. The first to appear is This Jealous Earth(MG Press), my collection of short stories, which has received favorable advance reviews from Publishers Weekly and The Rumpus. The second, a novel called Theory of Remainders, will come out in May, 2013. I think this is what they call momentum.

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