How I got my agent and what nearly stopped me

[ 32 ] December 30, 2015 |
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alone on stage by Kian McKellar on Flickr

I’ve vacillated about whether to record this journey, as it may be the most personal thing I’ve written yet, but all things considered, I think it’s best to capture the story of how I signed with a literary agent, and the fear that almost stopped me.

For 20 years I’ve earned a living from writing, first as a journalist and then as a copywriter, so getting words onto the page and seeing my name in print wasn’t the difficulty or the dream. Like a lot of writers, my true and secret ambition was to write for children, crafting stories that the 11-year-old me would have read without stopping, forgetting meals, bedtime, and even homework to read just a little more.

It was hard having a goal that I wanted so badly, I hated discussing it, in case friends delivered no encouragement, or the wrong kind of encouragement, or urged me to self-publish. The goal of becoming a children’s writer was so precious and so huge, like a gigantic and slightly embarrassing imaginary friend, that it wasn’t until I was 33 that I looked that dream in the eye and made the first inquiries about how one goes about that kind of thing.

I approached a published children’s writer in Dublin, back in August 2003. How could I start writing for kids? Everything I’d read as a child was still in my head, but did kids still like that Enid-Blyton, C.S.-Lewis kind of thing?

No, it turns out – not when it’s written in a voice that so blatantly wasn’t mine, but was an unknowing mash-up of Blyton-Lewis-Montgomery. So we can skip the first nine years of my journey: the science fiction caper I quickly wrote in 2003 that was just as quickly rejected by a London agent. That sole rejection was enough to skewer my confidence, and the dream went back to sleep for years.

A manuscript in the attic (seriously)

It was only during a clear-out of my mother’s attic in 2012, when my kids were five and seven, that I came across that rejected science fiction manuscript. By then I’d read a new generation of children’s books and could see that my story wasn’t bad. On the advice of author illustrator Debi Gliori, I joined SCBWI, and it was the smartest thing I could have done.

SCBWI helped me stop spinning my wheels and turned me in the right direction, helping me learn about the market, introducing me to industry professionals like agents and editors, and letting me meet like-minded writers who shared the same, gigantic, imaginary-friend dream.

The first heartbreak: not-bad isn’t good enough

The first useful thing SCBWI taught me, thanks to a 1-to-1 at the 2012 conference with then-editor Non Pratt, was that my revised, not-bad manuscript wasn’t good enough to submit to agents. I’m not going to lie: that feedback was a bitter pill. And by bitter I mean cue the eczema flare-up, the wretched self-blame. Who was I, anyway, to think my ridiculous imaginary friend and I could ever get anywhere?

Fortunately I’d begun to write something else, and in the writing had discovered something about story craft. This story was, I imagined, going to be Book Two in a series, and already I could feel it was stronger than Book One: the story faster, the characters more real. So I threw myself into the writing.

Another heartbreak: Book Two had no ‘voice’

I submitted Book Two to an agent in November 2013 – right around the time that an editor I met advised aspiring authors not to write a series until the first book had sold. When Book Two was rejected by an agent, it was as awful (if not moreso) as when not-bad Book One fell flat. The agent said my story didn’t have a strong enough voice for her to successfully represent me, although my way with words was promising.

I needed more feedback than that if I was to progress, and fortunately, at that same SCBWI conference I’d won a raffle prize of a full manuscript read from a top agent. (For me, SCBWI conference raffle prizes have been gold. They’ve garnered me feedback from agents and editors who are otherwise too busy to guide early-stage writers.)

On the clue train: what do I do well? What needs work?

The 2013 feedback I received from that top agent was the first of many clues I began to hoard about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This path toward publication was beginning to feel like a videogame: I dashed from wise gatekeeper to wise gatekeeper, most of whom spoke only in riddles that it was up to me to decode. What was this “voice” they spoke of? What did they mean when they said, “where on the shelf would your book sit?”

I began to read like crazy, getting through more than 100 books for middle grade and young adult readers; I noted what worked, discovered authors I loved, and kept track of it all with Goodreads. Reading widely wasn’t enough, though: I had to write as much as possible, too, and in 2013 I tried NaNoWriMo, which challenges participants to get 50,000 words onto the page during the month of November.

In my 20s I’d had some success as a professional actor, and I started to feel how similar writing was to acting. If I wrote “in-character,” the way I’d acted, would that give my story this elusive voice?

For NaNoWriMo 2013 I experimented with a new idea – not a caper set on a space station, but a story set in my Massachusetts hometown, about a girl who wakes up every day in a different version of home, and who’s trying to get back where she belongs.

The rough draft I produced had voice, I was sure of it. But it needed revising. Through SCBWI I made inquiries about editors I might work with; I sensed that an experienced editor could give me the macro oversight I needed in order to revise properly.

The editor did indeed read the manuscript, pointing out again my strengths and weaknesses. And at the risk of sounding like a breathless and mentally fragile Victorian shut-in, I again withered at her feedback. I’d poured my heart and soul into this draft. And I’d got what I asked for: an honest critique. So why was I going to pieces?

Heartbreak the third: even a deeply-felt draft needs revision

I was seeing a pattern in myself and in the creative process, and I didn’t like it: submitting my work for professional assessment felt like the worst kind of vulnerability: more humiliating than strolling naked down Main Street, more terrifying than a parachute jump.

It was the true fear of the child urged to stand in front of the whole school and sing a solo: bare and immediate and alone. Those three exhilarating years in my 20s as a professional actor had ended in part because I wanted to train as a journalist, but if I’m honest, a big reason I left acting was because the rejection was intolerable. Each part I didn’t secure was a failure. Rejection of my creative writing felt like an unpleasant déjà vu.

If not for my SCBWI friends, and more peers and professionals I met at the wonderful BookBound retreat in May 2014, I would surely have stopped. BookBound in particular delivered an epiphany: revision isn’t the mark of failure, it’s the mark of a professional. Even a deeply-felt first draft is unlikely to be the most eloquent expression of the story concept.

This epiphany was a tremendous liberation. After BookBound I threw myself into the world of revision, discovering craft books by experts like Darcy Pattison, Renni Browne and Dave King, James Scott Bell, Noah Lukeman. These experts were the toolmakers, offering me proven techniques to turn a promising manuscript into a ripping story.

Revision tools work, but none is a magic bullet

Their tools worked. During summer 2014 I revised the Massachusetts book hard. Showing it to BookBound and SCBWI friends, I discovered which aspects of the story readers found most intriguing. By autumn 2014 I began submitting to agents, and this time I wouldn’t let one query and one rejection stop me: I queried widely. When I quickly received full manuscript requests, friends told me I should be elated. And I was, cautiously so. In fact I was quietly confident.

Make that prematurely confident.

Twenty-nine submissions and rejections later, I was bereft. Heartbreak number four was here, and it just about finished me off. I had used the tools correctly, hadn’t I? So why didn’t agents love the story is much as I did?

The answer again came via SCBWI. At an autumn 2014 conference raffle, I’d won a full-manuscript review from Rebecca Lewis-Oakes, an editor then with Faber and Faber. Her five-page editor’s letter arrived on Christmas Day 2014. Rebecca’s letter, along with the detailed feedback that agents had kindly provided, sat on my desk for two months while I put the Massachusetts book away.

The story had broken my heart and I resented giving it any more time. Instead, I took out the revising tools and began to chip away at the first draft of another book, set in Scotland, that I had written during NaNoWriMo 2014.

The Scotland book was interesting – my first fantasy story – but I could already see it needed a vast amount of revision. All that deep, methodical revision I’d already done on the Massachusetts book would be wasted if I didn’t make one last push to use the professional feedback, and try to find an agent.

The final stretch: into the breach with the Massachusetts book

In March 2015 I began heartfelt revisions on the Massachusetts book, taking the advice several experts had given, to introduce a new character. I also tried to clarify something I’d thought was the heart of the story, but that readers weren’t reacting to: the connection between the main character and her older sister.

By this stage I knew how precious industry interaction was, and I enthusiastically attended a live Writer’s Digest webinar in May 2015 by Jennifer Laughran, a senior agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Webinar participants also got a critique from Jennifer, and her encouraging comments on my revised opening pages gave me hope.

I burnished my pages throughout summer 2015 – I devoted July just to adjective and adverb work, scrutinizing each descriptor in the 50,000 word manuscript. I also workshopped the revised manuscript and query letter with SCBWI friends.

In September 2015 I renewed my subscription to Publishers Marketplace to research agents; I wanted a US-based agent, since the Massachusetts book was very American. I started to build a target list of agents who represented not just middle grade, but also picture books, which I aspire to write. If an agent was on my A list, I refused to submit to them until I’d read at least one title they’d sold.

And then I panicked. In November I texted my SCBWI friend Louise, confessing that I couldn’t face submitting and being rejected again. She advised I take a breather and forbade me to do anything for a week. When KidPit, a Twitter pitching contest, came around (I’d enjoyed and found a great mentor and a beta reader through the previous year’s Nightmare on Query Street Twitter contest), I jumped in, risking a one-line tweet pitching the Massachusetts book. To my shock a reputable New York agency immediately requested my opening chapters.

Polishing the pitch, not just the pages

Simultaneously I’d been working on my live pitch for The Hook, a SCBWI 2015 conference event to let writers pitch their stories live on stage to agents. When I was chosen for The Hook, the terror of that was all-consuming, and I practiced my pitch ad nauseam, until I could do it in my sleep (see more on The Hook in my blog post here).

Whether for a one-line pitch or a two-minute speech, I could now tell my story easily, because I’d come to know it so deeply, including the all-important heart: that connection between the sisters. The KidPit manuscript request had given me confidence, so I quietly submitted to three agents on 13 November.

Within a month, I had four offers of representation, a long-listing for Undiscovered Voices, and a shortlisting for another Scottish award, plus I’d won two pitching competitions, including The Hook. Those four weeks were hectic, including a trip to the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop in California, and a chance to meet a whole clutch of agents and high-profile editors, in person.

The stupendously stressful business of choosing among different, equally strong offers of representation is not something I wish to repeat. Every agent was a luminary – all were on my A list. In the end, after speaking with writers each agent represented, I contacted Jennifer Laughran to accept her offer of representation in mid-December.signed contract abla

I am beyond thrilled to be represented by Jennifer; I hardly let myself believe this was happening, until the signed contract arrived last week, just before Christmas. When I ran to my diary to record this astounding turn of events, I saw it was exactly a year since my “heartbreak four” entry, when I nearly abandoned the Massachusetts book altogether.

I’m glad I didn’t. When I opened the envelope from Jennifer, I may or may not have placed the signed contract under the Christmas tree and taken a picture of it. The journey’s not over, of course, but I’m ready for what’s next, whatever revisions may come. It’s all part of the process.

 

What I learned about finding a literary agent

Still reading? Really? Ok, then maybe you’ll be interested the seven things I learned during this process of finding a literary agent.

  1. The story is the thing. As Jennifer has said on her fabulous Tumblr where she answers questions from writers, she really just wants to know about your story in your query. Stylish writing is awesome, but I didn’t get anywhere near to my goal until I had a gripping story to tell, because I’d written it from the heart. And thanks to revision tools, I’d finally managed to tell that story in a way that was compelling enough to interest agents.
  2. Friends who critique and who care are vital. It may only be during the beta-reader process that you discover the most intriguing elements of your story. Friends and family are acceptable beta readers, but writers – even those on an earlier stage of their journey – have a storyteller’s sense and can highlight weaknesses and strengths in your manuscript. These writer friends are also your oxygen when the heartbreak comes, which brings me to my next point.
  3. This is going to hurt. Submitting, and being rejected, are agony, but don’t let that stop you. Getting onto that bare stage, all alone except for the song you’re going to sing, becomes tolerable when you know other writers are doing the same thing, on their own empty stages, in front of their own audiences. When the rejection comes – ideally with constructive feedback – you don’t have to act on it right away. But using that feedback (especially from industry professionals) can help you rebuild and fortify your story. Of course one rejection, or even 10, doesn’t mean your story won’t win the heart of an agent somewhere. For me, it was important to know when to stop submitting and go back to revise further. And it was equally important to let the sting subside before I began that revision.
  4. I learned about myself and how I write. Turns out that I write fast, but I need to revise slowly and deeply. Over the past three years I’ve always had two different manuscripts on the go, and for me that works: being able to throw myself into a completely different story was a great distraction while I was on submission.
  5. Get closer to agents and editors, whatever it takes. Go to writing retreats, go to conferences, join SCBWI, take up any opportunity for professional feedback of your opening chapters. If there is no SCBWI network in your area, start one, as I did in southeast Scotland with my friend Louise. Industry organizations like SCBWI get you closer to (and defuse your fear of) the professionals who’ll help you improve.
  6. Seek feedback on your query, not just your manuscript. Pitching competitions like The Hook and the 10-word pitch competition at the SCBWI annual conference are brilliant. For new projects I’m crafting a story pitch at the rough-draft stage, and that pitch helps keep me focused. Your writing friends will spot holes in your pitch and query letter: let them do so before an agent does.
  7. Be professional, prompt and polite. When you’re ready to submit to agents, a very specific etiquette is expected, one that’s easy to research online. Especially if you begin to receive one or more offers of representation, keep everyone you’ve submitted to informed, and appreciate that they’ve cleared crowded desks to read your story quickly. Listen to their ideas. Take notes on your conversations. Let “the professional you” handle this part of your journey. Keep your wild imaginings, fears and anxiety on simmer for when you’re writing. For the query phase, pretend you’re at the bank or applying for a job, and be that cool-as-a-cucumber you.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear if there are any tips you’d give to writers who are looking for a literary agent. What worked for you?

 

Main image by Kian McKellar on Flickr 

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Category: Blog, SCBWI SE Scotland, Writer's craft

About the Author ()

I live outside Edinburgh, Scotland and write middle-grade adventures (age 9-12) with a science-fiction/fantasy bent. Originally I'm from Boston in the US, where I studied American History & Literature and did arguably too much student theatre at Harvard University. I’m represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Comments (32)

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  1. Rebecca says:

    I love “the call” posts and was so happy to read yours! Congratulations again, Sheila! I’ll be looking forward to reading your book when it hits the bookstore shelves!
    Rebecca

  2. Dawn Amesbury says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing. And congratulations – I’m happy to see it all paid off in the end! I’ve suffered many agent rejections (mostly without feedback) and am currently working on my MG fantasy MS after a full report from Cornerstones. Having beta readers helps but I’ve found a world of difference between that and getting industry feedback. I’m also a member of SCBWI and hoping to make better use of my membership this year. (Although my kids are 5 and 1, so I don’t get out much!) Thanks again.

  3. Jan says:

    Good to read the full story, Sheila.
    Rebecca’s comment is interesting – there’s a how I got my agent ( ‘the call posts’) genre of blog post!

  4. Barbara says:

    Wow, Sheila, what a lot to think about for those of us still stuck between Heartbreak 3 and four! And so heartening that, with persistence and investment, it actually can happen to real humans!
    Another congratulations to my very own beta reader!

    • Oh my gosh it will definitely happen for you, take it from one human to another. Problem is, our humanity makes the whole thing so painful. How much easier the journey will surely be for the future generation of robot writers.

  5. Thank you so much, Sheila, for being so open with your journey. It gives me hope that i just have to persevere with my own work and not give in to despair. You have worked so hard; it is wonderful to see you succeeding in spades now!

  6. I keep saying this again and again, but EVERY CONNECTION I’ve ever made as a writer can be traced back to the SCBWI, and quite frankly some of those connections would never have been made if I hadn’t been actively VOLUNTEERING for them. You’ve proved once again how richly your contributions to the network can pay you back!

    Congratulations – this is only the beginning!

  7. Anne says:

    Reading your article makes me want to read your books as soon as possible! What a journey! And what a talent to narrate it! I was thrilled by all the steps you went through, and so pleased by the good ending!
    The part about acting/writing had a great echo in me, as I was in a drama’s school in my 20 too. I never thought to write in the way I acted (and loved too).
    Thanks a lot for your inspiring words!

    • Thanks Anne, I keep meeting children’s writers or agents/editors who used to do drama. Maybe it’s a common right of passage? Thanks for reading. I’m sure I’ll shout it from the rooftops if I ever get my publishing deal!

  8. Julie Sullivan says:

    I loved this post. It was so honest and refreshing to see how your years-long journey ended in success! I think all of us at SCBWI UK feel a bit proud of you too!

    I’ve never had the nerve to submit anything, but working up the courage to do it this year and follow your path. Thank you Sheila!

  9. Sheila this is such great advice and so bravely honest. I am beyond thrilled for you that things are at last taking off xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  10. Rowena House says:

    Catching up after holiday break, and this post my first ‘must read’. I’m in awe, Sheila! What tenacity. And how well deserved your success. Very best of luck with publishers in 2016, and I’m definitely getting all those revision advice books you mention which aren’t yet on my shelf. xx

  11. Frances Brown says:

    Congratulations, Sheila. The best Christmas present, no? This is a brilliant, honest post. What a journey- and you never gave up. I have only submitted to a few publishers, one agent and have had the form rejections. One from the agent who I met at the SCBWI agents party in London, with no feedback on any single text (I sent 5 PB texts), just “not for me, I’m afraid”. I understand these are busy people but I wish we could feel like we’ve learned something so we could do better for the next time. Writing is so personal, so subjective- I know it’s the idea of rejection that holds me back. Even worse, I still feel anxious showing to writer friends.I really appreciate the advice books you noted. Thank you!

    • Thanks Frances. I’ll never forget how shaky and sick I felt the first time I showed a draft of something to a writer friend. But you are almost always in good hands with writers – most writers know to deliver ‘the sandwich,’ that is to say a description of what’s strong about the piece, followed by what may need work, finishing with a final sincere note of praise. There is something awesome in everyone’s work, and writers will help you find it. And like you, I remember feeling nonplussed by rejections like, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I am not a good fit for this. All my best, NAME”. They just can’t give any more than that, though, usually, as they may be getting 1000 (literally!) submissions a month. It’s the writers who’ll help you get better; but also, those 1-1 meetings you get at conferences and small-group work with professionals at writing retreats also help you improve. Don’t give up!

  12. Robbie Donaldson says:

    Congratulations on becoming contracted with a good agent and congratulations on this wonderful blog that reveals success is not overnight; unless, of course, “overnight” can be defined as a 20 year learning experience! Your steps resonate with so many of us but your determination to get back up after a knock-back shows you have enough strength to continue with your dream. It also shows me that the only reason my dream is still beyond arm’s length is that I need to re-write and edit and work as if writing is my life and not a side-line. How’s that for a New Year’s Resolution? I only just put that into words responding to you so,now, I’ve got to do it!

    • Oh Robbie I’m so thrilled to hear this resolution! My profession is copywriting, which certainly demands time and energy and I do love it, but as you say, the fiction writing needs to be done with 800% heart and commitment, as if your life depended on it. Then you can tune back in to other priorities (family, work, meals, shopping) when that couple hours of writing is over. You can do this. Go go go!

  13. Fiona Mckeracher says:

    Massive congratulations, Sheila, and having read some of your work I’m not in the least surprised! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your progress in due course. Thank you also for the compelling article on your journey and for your generosity in sharing it.

  14. Really inspiring and encouraging post, thank you.

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