But I have to back waaaaay up, because although it feels like I just hit the number that took me straight to the top in the Find a Literary Agent edition of Chutes & Ladders, the road that led to this moment was long and winding and full of potholes and long periods of inactivity and failure.
So let’s start from the beginning of the beginning, the first time I ever tried to acquire agent representation, and then compare it to what just happened.
A Scarlet “F” for FAIL
The first novel I completed was my funny vampire book, Scarlet Letters. I was an awfully eager beaver at that point, thinking I had this whole thing in the bag. I would craft the perfect letter, send it around to every agent in town, and then get the book deal I so desperately wanted.
Of course, I knew other people certainly hadn’t had it that easy, but I was special, dammit! I also knew nothing of the humorous fantasy market (hint: it’s tiny and consists almost exclusively of Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Jeff Strand, and Neil Gaiman). I knew nothing about how a book like this might actually sell. All I knew was I had a finished novel and the world deserved the opportunity to buy it and shower me with riches. I got a few bites from agents who asked for partials, and that was a buzz. Especially since those agents were notorious for saying “No” pretty much right off the bat. Ultimately they did say no. Then I had a friend’s agent take a look at it, and she gave me the reality check I so desperately needed. She told me it had its good qualities, but it was basically half-baked and not ready for prime time, and the subject was just not terribly commercial. I was angry at first, but you know what? It’s exactly what I needed to hear. I went back to the drawing board. I still have a lingering affection for this book and have tinkered with ideas of re-editing it and submitting it to a small press, but for now, it rests lovingly in the trunk.
“S” is for Stargazers. Or Strike Two
The Stargazers. My shoddy attempt at YA, and an attempt I will likely not make again. It was the first and only book I started for NaNoWriMo and managed to complete within the same month. It was about a young witch who lived in her own world and had to cross into ours and impregnate herself, only to return and sacrifice her own child for some magical rite of passage. As hinky as it sounds, it was a slightly better book than the one about the vampire mailman. The only problem was the plot. It was uneven and a little forced in spots, and I don’t think I was a good enough writer at the time to take the book where it really needed to go. I pitched it to an agent at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and she asked for fifty pages. I also queried dozens of other agents, all of whom said thanks but no thanks. Again, I got a great reality check from the agent who’d read the partial. It had some good moments, but the voice felt uneven. I just still wasn’t ready for the big leagues. It was a painful and difficult truth to swallow, but what was I going to do, quit writing? Also, the e-book marketplace was beginning to really emerge, and I saw new opportunities waiting.
Running Out of Steam
Over the couple years that followed, I dove into e-publishing and found a new following and success there when my stories “Under the Scotch Broom” and “Dust” became hits on Amazon. That led to a friendship with Vincent Hobbes, who discovered my work there, and eventually that led to a few publishing deals. Two short stories appearing in The Endlands anthology and eventually contracts for two of my novels, The Last Supper and Strings. I’d had temptations of querying out Strings just to see if I could get any bites on it in the agent market, but I decided why push it further when I had a publisher willing and ready to take it on? Also, truth be told, I was afraid that I still wasn’t ready for that. Querying is emotionally difficult work and I was loathe to line up for another flogging.
But then my dear friend Ian Healy
and I penned a steampunk book together and we decided to send out queries. Same process again. We got some good hits off the bat. Several requests for partials and fulls, and a lot of hope. Only, we struck out time and time again. A number of them said the book needed character work, and ultimately we agreed to trunk the novel. It was another instance of not quite being there, though it seemed like I was getting closer to something.
The 2014 Resolution
After Strings came out in the latter part of 2013 and I got a taste of what it felt like to have a traditionally published book on the market with good reviews coming in, I felt like I was finally ready to take another shot at the big leagues. Also, I was really enjoying writing commercial suspense/thrillers, and I felt like if I could get a foothold in that market, giving the stories my own personal and visceral twist, I’d do pretty well for myself. With that in mind, in February of 2014, I set out to write a suspense novel with which I could wow an agent. My goal was to land representation by July. It was a very specific goal, and a crazy and unlikely one, but what did I have to lose, really? I’d been down this road before. If it didn’t work out, there were other books to try it with, and I had some small press options up my sleeve still.
My southern Gothic suspense novel, KUDZU (which was originally titled GRACE, GEORGIA), was born nearly four months later. I started it the first week of February and wrapped up the first draft on Memorial Day weekend (because I edit a lot while writing, my first draft was really more like a second). My beta readers worked quickly and gave some much-needed feedback, and so I was able to go through and expand it a bit more and have the final draft done by the first week of June. While the betas read, I was able to draft a query and synopsis and have an agent list ready to go. With all that in hand, and a quivering gut, I started sending out the dreaded letters around June 16th.
The Agent List
There are numerous ways of assembling a list of agents and other publishers. The most typical method is to go to a place like QueryTracker
, which is a database that allows you to search by genre. You can read comments from other users on how quickly the agent responds, and in what manner, etc. I’d used QT in all my previous endeavors and I still find it to be a handy reference and organization tool.
However, I didn’t pick agent names from a search list this time. I had only one plan of attack in mind, and that was to focus like a laser beam. I made a list of bestselling authors I greatly admired in the genres I wrote, and then I looked up who their agents were. I took this approach, because if I was going to sign with an agent, it was going to be with one who had a strong track record for selling books. I know far too many writers who have gone this route and come out empty-handed, and while I know there is still no guarantee of success signing with a bigger name in the business, I see nothing wrong with doing everything in your power to increase the odds. Authors included Stephen King, Joe Hill, Diane Chamberlain, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, etc. The agent I was MOST interested in, however, was Stephanie Kip Rostan
, who represents my literary heroine, Gillian Flynn.
Out of all the authors who have most inspired me to tap into my dark suspense side, it is her. Gone Girl is part of the reason I wrote Strings. It opened this door for me of creating characters who were both unlikable but totally sympathetic. I knew that if there was an agent out there who could appreciate her brand of darkness, that same agent might also appreciate mine. So Rostan was at the tippy top of my list, and she was the first one I queried. Additionally, I was just really impressed with LGR Literary’s submissions form. I’ve queried dozens of agents over the years, and I’ve never encountered one quite like it. I also sent out letters to fifteen or sixteen others, as well as to Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, a great independent press.
The very next day, ding ding — I received a full manuscript request from Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich, as well as one from none other than Stephanie Rostan at LGR Literary (or rather her assistant, who is an incredibly sweet lady).
I nearly fell out of my skin with excitement. All I could think was GILLIAN FLYNN’S AGENT JUST ASKED TO READ MY BOOK OMG OMG OMG. I went a little nuts. I guzzled down a gallon of celebratory gin and made embarrassing Facebook posts. It was one of the best days I’d had in a very long time. Of course, I expected to receive rejections all around, but still, it was awesome to receive that kind of attention for this book so quickly.
Over the coming days, I didn’t hear much. You gotta let people have time to read. Also, a lot of agents are on vacation in the summer months, so you can’t count on timely responses. Jim McCarthy read it with interest but ultimately passed five days later. That bummed me out a little, but he is an incredibly nice and professional guy at a fantastic agency, and his clients are lucky toh ave him. But then on the same day, Susan Ginsburg from Writers House requested the full. Lou Aronica also came back and said he liked the partial and would like to read the whole thing. My spirits soared again. As of the third week of June, only a week or so after beginning the process, I had three full manuscripts out for review from some serious contenders, and I had only fielded a tiny handful of rejections. Life was good.
The Email that Ruined My Weekend (in a good way)
The afternoon of Friday, June 27th, 10 days after I’d sent the full manuscript, I heard from Ms. Rostan personally via email. She said she’d read a chunk of the manuscript and thought it was “incredibly good,” and could we speak on Monday? I was sitting in a shopping mall with my kids, and I won’t lie . . . I jumped up from the bench, jumped up and down, and acted a complete fool in a public place. Racing through my head like a bullet train was, GILLIAN FLYNN’S AGENT LIKES MY BOOK AND WANTS TO TALK TO ME OVER THE PHONE OMG OMG OMG. Was representation on the horizon? What did it all mean? I spent hours combing through the very short message for any hidden clues. I was a freak. I blame the gin.
And so I proceeded to endure an entire weekend with bated breath. And would she actually call me on Monday? Sometimes really busy people say Monday, but they really mean Wednesday. Publishing is the industry of delays and hurry-up-and-wait. Worse yet, maybe she would get to the end of the book and decide it was no good, and instead of a call I’d get a regretful email saying it was an “almost but not quite.” Or a phone call expressing the same, because some agents will do that. I drowned my worries in more celebratory gin, but that only took care of one night. As Sunday dragged on, I don’t think I’d ever wished so hard for a Monday in all my life.
When the day finally arrived, I accomplished precisely zilch. I was a fully distracted mess. Would she call or wouldn’t she? It was like being an insecure high school girlfriend all over again. Then a call came through from an unfamiliar number with a New York area code, and my body completely froze. But was it her, or was it a telemarketer? I held my breath and answered the phone.
And it was her.
Stephanie was immediately the kind of person that made me feel at ease. I didn’t have to put on any airs, and my voice didn’t shake like it normally does when I’m nervous. She immediately spoke of the book’s potential, but did mention a couple caveats that she’d like to address about some of the subject matter, which was all completely okay with me. Then she said she’d like to work with me, and I might have fallen off the couch, but I can’t remember, because it was all a blur. We then talked about the authors we love and the other kinds of writing I do. She seemed interested in some of my more speculative fiction as well. I told her I had to wait to hear back from the other two people reading the manuscript, but that I’d be back in touch soon.
I hung up from that call knowing that regardless of what happened, I had an agent. It wasn’t because she liked my book, but because I really liked her. I think it’s important to feel a connection to the person who is going to be selling your work. You have to get the sense that they believe in you and see the kind of writer you actually are. I got that from her pretty much off the bat, and in my heart, my decision was already made.
When I emailed the others to let them know I had an offer on the table, they answered back immediately and said they’d have an answer within a few days. Suddenly, I had the ball in my court, and that was a huge table flip from the way this typically goes.
A few days later, with the path cleared, I accepted Stephanie’s offer.
As an additional note, once I signed the contract with LGR, I received requests for partials and fulls from two other agencies, which I had to politely decline. It was good to know my book has a strong enough market.
The Importance of Goals
I’ve been hoeing this row of being a writer representing only herself for a long time now. The thought that I have an agent, and not just any agent, but a very successful one who represents multiple bestsellers (including a major hero of mine) just boggles my mind. It feels like it’s happening to someone else and I’m just along for the ride.
There is of course no guarantee this book will sell when she goes to submit it to publishers, but I feel like it has an excellent chance in her hands. Stephanie has a nose for hits and she’s been tremendous at helping me to revise the book to make it the best it can be. I can only hope this spawns a very fruitful relationship for the both of us.
At some point, after you’ve worked hard enough to become good at something, you have to decide when you’re ready for bigger and better things. I don’t work in a field where people receive promotions and raises–or even steady paychecks for that matter–so you have to really dig deep and find the resolve to improve with everything you write and set goals for yourself. And if you don’t meet those goals, go back to the keyboard and keep on keeping on. It’s the rare player that hits a home run the first few times at bat. My goal was to have an agent by July, and I had an offer on the table on June 30th. It happened incredibly fast, but if I hadn’t had those previous seven years of Sisyphean efforts under my belt, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.
My friend, author Shewanda Pugh, asked me on GoodReads how I deal with discouragement. I said that it was in large part due to the help of my friends. But not only that, despite moments of crushing self-doubt, I am too damn stubborn to quit. I’ve worked too many hours and sacrificed too many years to learn this craft and this business to quit now, especially when time has proven again and again that I DO have a talent worth fighting for. I’ve only needed to wait for my turn. Maybe this is my turn, maybe it isn’t, but I won’t know for sure if I don’t keep going.
Everything happens in its time.