How I Got My Literary Agent

My friend Monica sat across the table from me. We noshed Cheesecake Factory bread and butter after having a few drinks during our 1-½ hour wait to be seated.

“I still haven’t written the how I got my agent blog post,” I said.

“You have to,” she said. Her hair was pulled up and she smiled.

“I know.”

 

I put it off because the superstitious part of me was afraid if I talked about it my agent would disappear.

Monica gave me a mischievous look. “You’re so honest,” she said. Like honest is a rare commodity.

“I know. Lying is a pet peeve of mine, I don’t lie.”

“No, you’re really honest.” She kept smiling. It was bright and shone with friendship.

We met on Twitter. Sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 2 years ago during Pitch Wars, her GiFs made me laugh and she shared my affinity for Halloween. I liked how she represented herself to the world. She was a person I wanted to be friends with. I met Kristin during the same Pitch Wars. We 3 shared Twitterverse conversations, until one night I realized we lived in the same town. We agreed to meet.

We met at Amelie’s for coffee during the day. Never know whom you’re talking to on line, best for us all to keep it safe. I remember when I saw them for the first time I said, “You look like your pictures!”

If you’re reading this you may want me to get on with the how I got the agent part. The friends’ part of the story is important. Remember that. Twitter pitch contests can create real friends. Friends are vital because my journey to being represented was brutal. M & K introduced me to Jacy. We meet about once a month to swap stories about what we’re up to in the process of writing and publishing. We share ups and downs, very downs, some tears, and more laughs.

Okay– here’s where my path twists and turns.

I wrote and queried my first book and after a year I moved on to the story that was occupying all my thoughts, keeping me up at night, and made my fingers itch.

Six agents who passed on book #1 said, “Send me the next.” So I made an excel spreadsheet with their names on it and saved it on my desktop until I was ready.

Then I admitted I had to be a better writer.

Determined to cross the threshold and breakthrough the barrier that kept agents from signing me I went to workshops, worked with Lorin Oberweger, learned more about craft and storytelling. I recognized my writing weaknesses and worked hard to overcome them.

I wrote the first draft of DDDG in 3 months. I wrote it out of order. The story is non-linear, so I figured it didn’t matter what order I wrote in. I put the chapters in order and realized I left out half a book. I did revisions. I shared chapters with my critique partner, Nikki, who BTW is the BEST. My book wouldn’t exist without her. We talk practically every day and she pushes me when I need my butt kicked, listens to my neurotic whining, and helps me brainstorm ideas. She’s the best!

I revised. And revised. I printed my book out and made longhand edits. I realized the bad guy disappeared for 17 chapters. I changed tense. I changed the order of chapters (which in a non-linear book is MURDER! It affects every page after in a crazy mind-splitting ripple.) I sent it out and got feedback. Pouted, shouted, and plotted. I attended SCBWI conferences, Free-Expressions workshops, all to better the story, and my craft.

Finally after a year and a half DDDG was exactly the way I wanted it to be. I sent it to Lorin Oberweger to edit. She had it for months. She sent it back to me and when I read her notes my heart broke. I know she gave me thorough notes, but I resisted them. After making some of the changes she thought I should I decided I was ready to query!

First stop Pitch Wars. A mentor team requested my MS, but didn’t select me. I was heartbroken, but not deterred. Remember, I met Monica and Kristin. They were my Pitch Wars prize and helped me feel better.

Aligning with an agent became a scientific process. I wrote My Literary Agent Will: with the top 16 qualities I wanted in an agent and pinned it next to my computer. (It’s still there) I researched agents. I read the #MSWL, I used query tracker, watched them on Twitter, Googled interviews, researched if they represented any of my friends, I researched what they sold, their tastes and their on-line personas. I had a spreadsheet, was organized, and determined.

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I began submitting to the agents who said, “Send me the next.”

One requested a full, read it within weeks and sent a kind rejection letter. “You certainly know how to tell a story,” she said, “but this story wasn’t for me.”

A pattern emerged. Agents who claimed to like quirk, magical realism, darker subjects, and issue books, all passed on mine. Therefore didn’t actually want any of that. (This is what I told myself)

Agents who had a broader spectrum of likes, most often agents I never thought would like my book- requested it.

One agent who requested it read it quickly. She sent me a really kind and encouraging rejection letter. I rather liked her. I didn’t understand how she passed when she said so many nice things about my book and my writing. 2 weeks alter I read she left agenting to be on the publishing side of the industry.

The next agent who requested it, asked for an R&R. She gave me several bullet points to work from. She was brutally honest about what she didn’t like. Her notes cut deep. I prefer direct communication but not hot pokers in the eye. She was a poker in my eye. Her notes, unequivocally informed me the book I wrote couldn’t be sold. The voice was too drunk, I took too long to get to places, all the things I worked so hard to write authentically she wanted cut down.

I cried for a while. Then after a week I wiped my eyes and got to work. I did the revision. Then I paid and editor to make sure it was polished. It took 4 months. I had a miscarriage while I edited and learned I had a 9 cm fibroid growing in my uterus, and was scheduled for a hysterectomy at the end of August. I busted my ass on that edit so I could feel complete before surgery.

I queried at least 85 agents between the first full request and the R&R.

While I revised and queried I congratulated friends who got agents. I bought their debut books, showed up at every book signing I could to have them sign mine. I was so HAPPY they made it. They were proof talent and hard work paid off. It wasn’t difficult to be happy for my friends. I know how hard they worked, I kept telling myself with each no I got I was one step closer to my yes. Magical thinking is essential part of surviving a creative life.

A few months later I got an email from the agent with my R&R. She told me I did exactly what she asked, but no. I stared at her email. WTF?! I read it again and sent it to my CP, to make sure I read it correctly.

I did exactly what she asked but NO! I was pissed. I felt cheated and lied to. How could months of hard work, followed up by a paid edit (I paid an editor to read my work to polish it) end in a no.

I skipped Pitch Wars that year. I lost confidence in my work despite having success with personal essays. I didn’t understand how one aspect of my work found an audience while my book baby didn’t.

I’m not a quitter so I entered Pitch Slam. They had a cool Star Wars theme. I was drowning in writerly insecurities, not trusting the story I wrote, not trusting the edits, or my own voice, and submitted a page of bizarre deep POV for review and got good feedback on the hot mess they read.

I splashed cold water on my face and entered what I wanted as my opening. Kimberly picked me for her team. I cried. I felt seen. I felt understood. The feedback from those who ran the Twitter Pitch contest was all positive. They all got me. They got DDDG. It was a huge validation. I made another valuable friend. Kimberley became a trusted friend and query mentor. She is magic and hope, a swirl of dizzying words, and poetry. She’s now represented by Lorin Oberweger of Adams Literary. (2 friends connected <3)

Even more shocking was I received 7 requests from agents during Pitch Slam 2016. I remember opening my page and the utter disbelief. My fingers trembled. My insides floated. I’ve never received that much attention for my fiction. I jumped up and down. I called my husband over to read the requests with me.

Now, you’d think this is where my journey to getting my agent zooms up. Nope. This is where the GOT brutality really begins.

During this time, other agents began asking for my book.

One agent was a friend referral. I had an opportunity to meet her at a local SCBWI conference. It was one month after my surgery, I was held together with pain killers and the desire to introduce Monica and Kristin to all the Carolina writers I knew.

I introduced myself to the agent. She remembered my book and asked me to print it out for her to read on the plane ride home. I followed up with her 6 weeks later and she said, she read my book in one sitting and even shared marketing notes she made with me. Then she told me she’s considering it. Each contest I was accepted in to and every revision I did after, I sent her a note. She always responded she was happy to read it and was still considering it one year after her first read. She never made an offer.

In the fall of 2016 agents who had partials asked for fulls.

I thought I was getting close. I felt good about my work. I sold 8 essays and felt as if my dream of having a literary agent was days away. I began thinking about my next book. I tried helping other writer friends who were struggling with querying. I refreshed my inbox way too often. Every time it buzzed my heart raced. Waiting was a terrible addiction.

Then the rejections started coming. I always got a personal note with my rejections.

They loved my writing but:

  • they wanted more time in heaven
  • they wanted less time in heaven
  • they wanted more agency in the first chapter
  • they wanted dueling POVs
  • they wanted Mary more drunk
  • they wanted Mary less drunk
  • they didn’t understand the magic
  • they wanted it more like Elsewhere

Every agent had the opposite opinion of the previous agent. It felt as if they were reading my book in search of another book instead of reading the book in front of them.

Next came the Twitter Pitch contest P2P16. I entered that. The editors I wanted passed my work to another editor, Alana Saltz. Alana picked me. I shared a note I got from an agent who would accept an R&R from me. I revised and polished my book in one month. I spent ten hours a day working on it. I made more amazing friends. (Shout out to my P2P16 friends!)

Carlie Webber, who requested my book during Pitch Slam, requested my work again. I sent the revised manuscript.

I pitched PitchMass in December 2016, PitMad in the new year, and got requests. I didn’t submit to everyone who requested my work. Some were small publishers and I wasn’t emotionally exhausted enough to give up on getting an agent.

IN Feb 2017 Carlie and another agent wanted me to do yet another R&R. They agreed to share it. Both sent me notes. Again the notes were diametrically opposite from one another. I didn’t know what to do. I sent emails with follow up questions so I could figure out how to handle the situation.

I sent emails to the agents letting them know I had an R&R. More agents requested the full. I wanted one of them to just say, “I WANT YOU!!!!”

I didn’t understand why I got R&Rs and friends got agents, even when they had to revise the whole book. The notes I received weren’t major. I was tired of being tested. I wanted someone to just accept me. My emotional reserves were spent. Everything I’m made of went into the book and still it wasn’t enough.

Until…

In February 2017 a new agent requested a phone call. She loved my book and wanted to move forward. We spoke for an hour. She said she had one thing she wanted me to change. She said, “You can’t scare me. Go further than you want. Write something outrageous. You can’t go too far.”

“Are you testing me?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

I did what she asked. Wrote something I never considered for the book. I read about this agent and knew she did this to her clients, made them write something crazy to test of they trusted her. I stopped mid-way through the revision I toiled over and took a flying leap into the trust abyss.

Two weeks later she wrote back, (paraphrasing) “You did what I asked, but it doesn’t work. I love your voice and writing, but don’t know how to sell this book. So it’s a pass. I hope you learned something from working with me. Please send the next book.”

That email broke me. I fell into a depression. I still can’t fathom anyone doing that to a writer. I sent her email to my CP to make sure I read it correctly. She was outraged for me. I told my trusted Twitter friends. I didn’t write for a while. There was no story left in me.

In March my dad had a heart attack and needed a triple by-pass.

A month later I took Carlie and the other agent’s notes back out. I studied them. I went back to work. I knew I could never make both of them happy so I did what I could to make myself happy. During the process of doing all these R&Rs I learned I couldn’t please an agent by doing what they asked. I had to use their notes, but trust my story instincts.

Two months later I sent my last R&R out. I knew it was the last one I’d do. If they rejected the edits I resolved to explore self-publishing. The process won. It kicked me in the head and left my brain splattered on the curb. My heart was cut out and eaten by circling vultures. It was hard to be happy for friends because depression pressed down heavily on my chest.

Carlie and the other agent requested an exclusive. 6 weeks went by and no word from either. I nudged. I was entering Pg70Pit and needed to know if I was free to send the revision they had.

Carlie said, “I want to have a call.”

The other agent wanted a call, too.

I withdrew from the contest.

I had my calls and I knew immediately Carlie and the Fuse Literary team were my people.

I sent emails to the 6 other agents who still had my book. I received kind step asides and congratulations. One agent regretted never having time to finish my book. Two others said if by some odd chance I wasn’t picked up after the R&R to contact them. 4 agents with my full never responded.

We publicly announced I was represented by Carlie Webber at Fuse Literary on July 10, 2017. I appreciate her communication style and how she accepts mine.

When I heard her speak about my book, how it’s a story about sisters, the details she remembers, and how her voice carries support and dreams of our success my heart stitched back together. My agent gets the story I wanted to tell and is working with me to make it flawless. She’s smart and articulate. She’s no bullshit and she’s mine! I feel so lucky!

Did it take longer than I wanted? HELL YES!

I queried over 140 agents. Some agents I queried more than once because of the revisions I made. My spreadsheet is color coated for the responses I got. I know who sent personal notes, who ghosted, and who sent form letters. I know the dates I queried and when I received responses. It’s all there. I want to delete it and put querying in my past. But part of me wants a keepsake of the hard work it took. Another part of me wants to print it out and burn it. I suppose one day soon, I’ll simply hit delete and walk away from the past few years of querying. I spent enough time doing it, I’m quite over it.

“TRUST THE TIMING OF YOUR LIFE” is pinned at my desk in front of my computer screen so my eyes can’t help see it when I look up. There are days I hated that message. Days I was comforted by it, too. In the end, I had no other choice.

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So if you’re looking at your spreadsheet and you’ve hit 100+ queries, I say don’t give up. You may have to walk away from the work for a bit, recalibrate the story you want to write with the version that may sell, but don’t give up. I believe we each have stories to write. Keep writing yours.

And here’s a last shout out to all my friends I’ve made because of Twitter and writing conferences. I wouldn’t have kept plugging away if you didn’t support me. Thank you for always reading my emails and being wonderful.

How’d I do Monica?

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17 thoughts on “How I Got My Literary Agent

Add yours

  1. Wow! This story is SO inspiring!! Thank you for sharing. What you went through was an extreme emotional roller coaster. Also, thank you for never giving up even when you wanted to. The world is a better place because you believed in yourself. ❤️

    1. Thank you for such kindness!!!

      With Pitch Wars going on I wanted to make sure people knew that not being selected isn’t the end of their querying journey. And the writer commuity is wonderful!

  2. Holly, I’m amazed at your persistence. Congratulations on getting your agent. I can’t wait for news that she’s sold your book for you and you’ve signed a contract. It’s all right around the corner.

    1. Thank you!

      There are so many how I got my agent stories out there about “I wrote a book and queried 5 people”…myths. Just because it takes time doesn’t mean your story isn’t amazing. The world needs more stories!!!

  3. Congratulations, Holly, and thank you so much for sharing your story. SO MUCH of it resonates with me!!! I need to print out my own “TRUST THE TIMING OF YOUR LIFE” reminder and hang it where I can see it every day! 😉

  4. Yes! The heartbreaking, painful, hopeful truth. I’ve been there too, and I really hope the next legs of your journey go more smoothly and speedily. Trust the timing of your life – I’m printing this out too. Thank you, and congrats!

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