How I got an agent

It wasn’t until medical school that I started writing stories. My days were filled with death and disease. My clothes held the permanent stink of gross anatomy corpses. The last thing I wanted to do was journal about my day—I was too much in my day as it was. My mind escaped to imaginary worlds, magical animals, and characters that had never heard of stethoscopes and renal dysfunction.

Whenever I had a test, the more compelled I was to write.  Before midterms and finals, I’d churn out page after page and chapter after chapter. The final product of those four years was a peculiar fantasy story about a schizophrenic atheist who reluctantly became a religious cult leader in order to lead his doomed village to victory.

But it was in residency, that the mother of all exams loomed. This was the exam that struck fear into the heart of every physician: Oral boards. I was so stressed that I wrote an epic fantasy trilogy—book one clocking in at 180 gazillion words.

That trilogy was my love and for the first time I wondered if something I had written could be published. I knew nothing about the writing world, so I went to a writer’s conference.

That conference changed everything for me! No, I didn’t get an agent (I did speak to one and she tossed my beloved pages back to me with the same reverence I have when chucking junk from the floor of my car into the gas station trashcan.)

It changed my life because as I was sitting in “The Hero’s Journey” class, a gnomish old woman turned to me, her wig askew, and asked, “What’s your book about, honey?”

I stared at her. I had never told anybody what my book was about. I had never even told anybody that I was writing. I certainly had no idea how to sum up a behemoth epic fantasy in a couple of sentences. I stammered out something then did the thing that all psychiatrists do, I started asking her questions about herself. (Deflection to the rescue!)

She had come to the conference with a group of women writers and somehow, twenty minutes later, she had taken my hand and pulled me into lunch with them.   

And what a group it was! There I was, surrounded by little old ladies cocooned in t-shirts that said things like, “You can’t live on wine alone. You also need cats.” The group cackled over external and internal plots. They agonized over self-publishing vs traditional. One told how she had stalked an agent into the bathroom. These were the types of conversations I didn’t know I was so desperately missing.

 “Take a writing class, honey. At your local college,” my new friend said to my envious look. “That’s what you need.”

And just like that, I had a mission. The following week, I slid into the desk at my very first writing class ever and discovered that everything I had ever written was crap. Dialogue in a vacuum? You bet. Gun on the mantle problem? Yep. Prologue? Uh-huh. Exposition? I tell you, it was a car wreck.

I devoured one class, then two…then all of them. At the last meeting of the advanced writing class I cleared my throat and prepared to ask if anybody wanted to create a critique group. But the words never left my mouth, because the older gentleman to my left suddenly asked the exact same thing.

That’s how I found my beloved writing group. Three of us recruited (and paid) a mentor—a highly prolific romance writer who critiqued each word with a mix of gentle kindness and brutal honesty. And under her guidance, our skills began to grow.

I released my epic fantasy from death rattle to its final resting place and launched into a new book. And ages later (after a ton of revisions), I had a shiny new manuscript.

The research began. I hunted for agents—I read their bios. I looked who represented my favorite books.  I followed them on twitter. I investigated their recent deals. And then, when I was capable of pushing the flutter in my belly down, I sent out seventy-three individually tailored queries.

And I got seventy-three rejections.

My mentor did the mentor thing and gave me a pep talk—and a suggestion. She had heard about a wonderful agent who was building a clientele. Feeling more than defeated, I checked the agent’s webpage.  My manuscript fit her wish list…but, of course, I had done my homework and my manuscript had matched all of the other agent’s wish lists, too.

After letting myself wallow for a few more days, I revised my query and sent it to that agent (and to a handful of others, too).

A few weeks later, I suddenly had three requests for fulls. Behold, the power of the query tweak.

And the agent my mentor had suggested liked it. But she didn’t love it. Would I consider a revise and re-submit?

Um, yeah, of course!

I dug into her comments and made it happen. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m a good writer, but I am good at listening to feedback. I re-crafted the novel over the next three months and ended up loving it all the more. She was dead on with everything she had said.

Again, I found my courage and sent it to her.

One beautiful evening, I was sitting in a folding chair watching a movie in the park and being eaten alive by mosquitoes when I decided to check my email. And there it was:

An offer of representation and a request to call her.

When the agent and I spoke on the phone, I asked her why she wanted to sign me. She said it was because the story had touched her heart. With tears in my eyes, I knew right then and there that she was the agent for me.

So, from my perspective, this is how to get an agent…

Go to a conference. Take classes. Get a critique group. Research agents. Hit the slush piles. Query widely. Query again. Query again. Query again. Keep querying until your book touches someone’s heart.

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