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How I Got My Literary Agent: Kris Dinnison

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Kris Dinnison, author of YOU AND ME AND HIM. 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.

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Column by Kris Dinnison, debut author of YOU AND ME AND HIM
(July 2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Dinnison learned to read when
she was five years old. She grew up reading books nobody else had read
and listening to music nobody else had heard of and thinking she was
weird, which she kind of was. She spent nearly two decades as a teacher
and librarian while dreaming of becoming a writer. Now she lives and
writes in Spokane, Washington. Follow her on Twitter

A nice surprise
The day I met my agent the idea of having an agent wasn’t even on my radar yet.

After seventeen years as an educator and closet writer-wannabe, I’d left that job for the glamorous and relaxing life of a small business owner. But my real dream was to write fiction. Since I didn’t really know how to do that, I applied for an MFA program in my area. There I was sure I would learn all the magical things I needed so I could write stories. But here’s the thing: I didn’t get in to the program.

(Looking to attend a writers' conference? Start here.)

I knew this was either the end or the beginning, the choice was mine. So I decided to try writing on my own. I started writing a practice novel, and when I had a complete (and thoroughly awful) draft, I threw myself on the kindness of friends and strangers and asked for help. Because I live in a wonderful and supportive writing community, other writers came to my aid and my thoroughly awful draft became a reasonably not as bad draft.

But I was riddled with doubt and suspicion. People were giving me great advice and pretty positive feedback, which was nice, but could they be trusted? They were my friends. They wanted me to be happy. I needed someone who didn’t care about me or my happiness to tell me whether my writing showed any promise at all. I was basically trying to get someone to give me a sign: should I keep trying to write or chuck it all and make lattes for the rest of my life?

Conference critique
I was already planning to attend my regional SCBWI-INW conference, so I did something that at the time left me sleepless for nights. I signed up for a critique with Kerry Sparks, the agent who was on faculty at the conference. I polished and honed those first ten pages until I was cross-eyed and fuzzy-brained. Then I sent them in.

The weekend of the conference I picked up Kerry at the airport. We hit it off immediately as we talked about the Northwest (she’s originally from Portland, Oregon) and books and other things I don’t remember at the moment. I remember feeling relieved that she was so nice, that at least when I got her critique the next day it might be delivered with a somewhat gentle touch.

The next day the clock ticked away as I waited for my critique time. When it was my turn I descended the stairs to a small room in the basement of the venue.

“I feel really bad that you paid for a critique,” Kerry said.

My heart dropped. Here it was. The truth. I was sure she was going to say my work wasn’t even worth the money I’d paid to have her read it.

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“I have nothing bad to say about this,” she continued. “In fact I love it, and I’d really like to see the rest of the manuscript.”

I’m sure I shook my head, trying to make sure I’d heard her correctly. As the words sunk in I’m also sure I grinned like a deranged Labradoodle. She liked it. She wanted to see more of it. Was this really happening?

I have no recollection of the rest of the conversation, except that I made it really clear to her that the book wasn’t anywhere near ready. She still wanted to see it, so that night after the conference I sent her the rest of the manuscript. A week later, Kerry was my agent.

A little luck and a lot of work
I always feel sort of guilty telling this story. I never queried, never had to go through the grueling work of writing and sending out letters and partials and fulls, never had that tantalizing moment when you get close to having an agent and are then disappointed. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right piece of writing.

But this, as all published writers know, is not the end of the story but the beginning. Kerry is very editorial, thank goodness for me, the acutely unseasoned writer. We worked on the manuscript for a few months. Then sent it out, got very nice rejections and one request to revise and resubmit. We did, and the book was rejected again. We subbed some more, got more encouraging rejections, revised some more, subbed some more, got more rejections. This is how it goes sometimes. Finally, when only two editors had the book hadn’t said “no”, we got the “yes” we’d been waiting for. After a year and a half of submitting, the amazing and brilliant Kate O’Sullivan at HMH made an offer and YOU AND ME AND HIM found a home.

There were many times during that process when I was sure Kerry would give up on me, or when I felt bad about all the work she was doing for a book that seemed to me might never sell. “I know I can sell this,” she’d always tell me when I’d bring this up. And she was right. I trust her completely with my writing and my career. She has been the most amazing ally a baby writer could hope for.

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

Sometimes when I think of how we met, that iconic line from Casablanca comes to mind, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”. I’m so grateful for the day Kerry Sparks walked into my “gin joint” and changed the trajectory of my writing life forever.

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Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

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