How I Got My Literary Agent

NJ SCBWI 2018: the conference where it happened

NJ SCBWI 2018: the conference where it happened

Yes, this is a long post. But it includes all the stuff I wanted to hear when I was searching for an agent. Thus, this post is, as my agent would say, “as long as it needs to be.” 

My sister-in-law once posed a question to my daughter: Say you’re standing facing a wall across a room and the rule is when you move toward the wall, you can only go halfway there, each time. The question is, “When do you get to the wall?”

The answer, theoretically, is never. Because you keep splitting the distance, you never quite reach the wall.

For years, I used that story as a metaphor about my writer’s journey, particularly when I was seeking a literary agent.

I kept getting closer and closer to my goal of being an agented, published author, but I never seemed to reach the wall.

But now, I am incredibly thrilled to announce that I have an agent; I’ve signed with Edward Necarsulmer IV of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary.

How did I get here?

How did I get here? Short answer: the long way. The one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, two-steps-forward-one step-back, follow-the-rules-and-slog-through-it way.

I attended dozens of writing conferences and asked the same questions of everyone I met who had an agent or was traditionally published: “How did you do it?” I went to every seminar, webinar, whatever-inar that promised tales of “How I got my agent,” or offered tried-and-true methods to land representation.

Funny thing is, after the first few sessions I attended, I found they all basically offered the advice.

  1. Write. Write some more.
  2. Hone your craft. Hone your craft some more.
  3. Go to conferences. Go to conferences some more.
  4. Network. Network some more.
  5. Submit. Submit some more.
  6. Get rejected. Get rejected some more.
  7. Repeat. Repeat some more.

Supposedly if you follow those steps, there would be this magical moment where you’d somehow find that one special agent who was going to fall in love with your submission, adore your work and like you as a person enough to sign you to their stable of writers.

And there’s the rub. For years, I sought that magic. And I could never quite understand why, after all the work I put in, following steps 1 through 7, I couldn’t find someone who wanted to represent me.

I took it personally. Very personally. It felt like a judgement on my ability as a writer, and who I am as a human being. I’m sure some of that had to do with Agnes (the name I’ve given my Depression) who took joy in every rejection, telling me I was a poor excuse of a writer, and who the heck was I to think that anyone other than a few friends and my mother would ever read—or want to read—my writing.

But still, I kept at it.

Step 1: Write.

This is easy. I love to write. I write, therefore I am. I escape into my writing.  I find so much joy in the craft of wordsmithery, that it is truly what I want to do always. Unless I’m reading. Which is nothing more than the inverse of writing, as it’s research into what works, what gets published, what is good.

I write all the time. I keep a notebook in my shower. I dictate ideas and full paragraphs into the notes app on my iPhone. I participated in NaNoWriMo and StoryStorm. I post several times a week on this blog. I #amwriting.

By 2018, I had eleven picture book manuscripts and a 72,000-word novel I felt proud of, as well as a completed memoir proposal, a couple dozen manuscripts in progress and about fifty ideas for future stories. All of which I keep track of in a Google spreadsheet.

Step 2: Hone your craft.

Years ago, I joined a New Jersey group called Women Who Write, working with four writing critique groups simultaneously. I wanted writers and readers who could help me improve my writing.

I took online classes, subscribed to Writer’s Digest, joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI to those who know and love the organization). I took classes in person (Gotham Writers Workshop) and online through Writer’s Digest. I connected with Manuscript Academy, and paid for sessions with two agents to talk about my novel. I hired Mary Kole, a children’s book editor, to provide feedback on my best picture book manuscripts, and two different editors to make sure my novel wasn’t embarrassing. I submitted my favorite picture book manuscript to the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature, and was accepted to their prestigious event. I asked Beta readers to provide feedback. I asked teachers and parents of young children to give me their honest assessments; would you buy a book like this for your child? Read it to your class?

I listened to what everyone had to say, sorted through the editorial wheat from the ignorable chaff and wrote more drafts. I proofed. Polished. Perfected.

Step 3: Go to conferences.

In addition to local conferences, I traveled to New York. Illinois. Nevada. Georgia. South Carolina. Houston. I tried to leave Agnes at home, but most times she came with me, whispering in my ear that everyone at each conference was a better writer than me, that I was nothing more than a wannabe imposter, and who did I think I was fooling and when would I just give up already and spend my time doing something more productive like making artisanal pickles or crafting cat toys out of dog fur.

I went to SCBWI national and state conferences, craft weekends, and networking breakfasts. I attended RUCCL, and several Women Who Write conferences. I joined the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association (Yes, there are such things)—and began going to their events. Several times I attended BlogPaws and Barkworld (pet social media conferences that, sadly, no longer exist), and the Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Seminar, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. In 2018, I was thrilled to attend the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop—an event that takes place every other year, which I found out just weeks after the 2016 event, and had counted the days during those exceedingly long years until I could sign up.

At every one of these conferences and events, I learned and absorbed knowledge and guidance from seminars, workshops, and speakers. I also took advantage of every possible opportunity to get my work in front of agents and editors. I did agent one-on-ones, round tables, first-page reads, speed pitching. I did online versions of the same, signing up for webinars where I could submit my work for critiques.

Step 4: Network.

Networking is not my strong suit. But I did it anyway. Told the introverted half of ambivert me to just shut up and take it like a writer. I attended cocktail parties, sipping my cranberry juice and seltzer. I volunteered to participate on committees. I went out to dinners, lunches, and breakfasts, always prepared with several elevator pitches. I introduced myself to speakers and presenters after participating in their seminars. I talked with every person I sat next to, and asked, “What brings you here?” and “What are you working on?”

I would come home from meetings and conferences drained, but knowing I put myself out there.

I also reached out to authors and editors—most whom I met through the different events and conferences I attended. I asked their advice. I asked if they would read my work and offer honest feedback. In return I asked if there was anything I could do for them: buy their books, post reviews, share some social media love.

Step 5: Submit.

For me the hardest part about the entire process is in the querying; specifically, the research I needed to do to find the right people to submit to.

In my search for agents, I subscribed to and searched Writer’s Market, waded through the Announcements section of Publishers Weekly and pored over the faculty lists of conferences I attended. I also participated in social media-based pitching events like #PitchWars and #PitMad, followed agents on Twitter and regularly checked the Manuscript Wish List hashtag (#MSWL). I looked up agents’ names in the acknowledgments sections of books I thought felt similar to my manuscripts, and added them to my list of targets.

My goal was to find an agent who could represent me for my children’s writing and my adult writing, someone who would appreciate my somewhat erudite sense of humor, and my quirky way of looking at life, creativity—and writing.

I’ve had several people tell me I was searching for an animal that didn’t exist, the publishing world’s version of a unicorn. Is that true? I hired someone whom I met at a conference to give it to me straight. Should I even try to find my unicorn, or am I fooling myself into a belief in the impossible? Or maybe I wasn’t finding the right people to submit to; I hired a group to help me do the research, which turned out to be a wasteful mistake, as they uncovered nothing—and nobody—new. Don’t do it folks; don’t waste your time or your money.

I didn’t start querying until I had three children’s picture book manuscripts that had been critiqued, reviewed, edited, and polished into works that felt good. I had been given sage advice early on to query only if I had more than one polished story, because I never wanted to be asked the Golden Question from an editor or agent—“What else have you got?”—and not be able to immediately produce several somethings of similar quality.

I submitted my stories more than a hundred times, keeping track of them with an iPhone app called Story Tracker.

Step 6: Get rejected.

I read blog posts and books on how to write good query letters, attending sessions and workshops to learn more. I hired an editor I met at a conference—Jane Friedman—to help me tweak the query letter for my novel. That not only helped me bring it to the next level, but also helped me learn how to craft stronger queries for my other work.

My first rejection was a happy milestone; at least I had proof that someone read my stuff. Over time, the rejections piled up. Story Tracker became a depressing repository of my history of No, and worse, highlighted how many queries I sent out where I never heard a peep, not even a generic “Thanks, but no thanks” automated response.

After the heart-pounding fear of the first submission (there was something terrifying about clicking on Send when I started doing it), and the receipt of the first rejection, I didn’t mind as much. I’ve been told it’s a numbers game, a sentiment I’ve heard before when I was in telemarketing. Reach enough people, and you’ll eventually find The One.

And all you need, I was told, is one.

Step 7: Repeat.

Been there. Done that. Do it again. And again. And again.

Step by Step

Here’s what happened along the way:

I met like-minded writers, and because I went to pet-related writing conferences, I met dog- and cat-lovers, as well as capybara lovers, ferret lovers, hamster lovers and goat lovers. I now have friends across the world who get it, who understand what it’s like to be a writer—and an animal lover. I’ve found that writers and illustrators (and pet people) are the most supportive group of folks I’ve ever met, always happy to help each other.

One step closer.

I connected with editors—not book editors at first—but magazine editors. It was through BarkWorld and the CWA that I got my first writing gig. My first paid humorous essay was for Dogster.com, and it was about dog poop. True story. (They lost the photos, but I still have a version of the post on Life with Dogs and Cats.)

Another step. I was paid for my writing.

In the past, I have led seminars and workshops as a corporate communicator, so I submitted a proposal to speak at combined CWA / Blogpaws conference. I wasn’t chosen that year, but was invited to moderate a writers’ panel about getting published. The following year, I tried again, and this time my proposal was accepted. My solo session on writing for the web (“Telling Tales: How to create content that attracts, engages, and keeps your audience coming back for more”) received rave reviews.

And yes, that was a step. I was building my platform and ability as a speaker who could talk about writing—for social media, but still writing.

I stayed in touch with the people who were on that original publishing panel, including a woman who became a good friend and mentor, Lonnie Hull DuPont, an editor at Revell Books. I shared some of my writing with Lonnie, and she encouraged me, assuring me that I could write, that I had talent—and reminded me that Agnes was a liar if she told me otherwise. Lonnie proved her support was more than just kind words when she asked me to contribute a dog story to an anthology she was pulling together; she eventually accepted two of my stories, which now appear in her book Second-Chance Dogs: True Stories of the Dogs We Rescue and the Dogs Who Rescue Us, published just this past fall.

Even closer: I was paid for my writing in someone else’s book. A real book. One you could buy.

I received my first good rejection—one where I could tell the agent not only read my submission but liked something about it enough to write a personal email. “The concept is cute, but it fell a little flat for me.” I got a request for my full novel manuscript. This was a big step.

I got more good rejections: “I do encourage you to keep writing. I would be happy to take a look at any future material of yours… I’d encourage you to keep exploring new stories to tell, and perhaps work more on balancing beautiful language with simplicity and humor—each of which I think you do well, but I think they would yield the strongest manuscript possible if all were working more in tandem.”

More good rejections = more steps forward.

Through all of this, I kept searching for agents and sending out queries. For a while, I stopped sending out my picture book manuscripts, and concentrated on my novel, because I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do both, and I thought maybe I had a better chance with long-form writing.

When meeting with agents for one-on-ones or critiques, I always led with my strongest manuscript. I began to notice a pattern. Either the agent got it, or she didn’t. The ones who didn’t like it, I simply wrote off. I started to feel just a little confident; if an agent didn’t understand my work, I knew we wouldn’t be a good match, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to sell my manuscript to an editor. The ones who did like it, their feedback meant more to me.

One editor took four of my stories to an acquisitions meeting. She couldn’t sell them, but she was apologetic and told me to continue to submit to her. Another step closer.

An agent told me she loved my manuscript, calling it “nearly perfect.” She asked me to send her some of my other stories, including my novel. Then… crickets. Nothing for months, even when I sent her a few follow-up emails.

Write. Hone. Go to conferences. Network. Submit. Get rejected.

Step by step by step getting closer to that wall. But never quite getting there.

Should I give up?

It was getting old. I’ve been at this for about a decade, starting in 2009 when I began my blog. I considered giving up. Several times. More than several.

I remember sitting in the audience at the final keynote of a New Jersey SCBWI annual conference with tears running down my face as the speaker said, “The only thing that all successfully published writers have in common is that they didn’t give up.”

As I kept going to conferences and meeting with agents and editors, I started asking them to tell me honestly if I should stop. If I should give up on this fantasy, end the chase, find another dream. I promised them I’d be okay with it, if people who know writing, who know the business, looked at my stuff and saw that it was boring or mediocre or unpublishable. I could stop punishing myself. I could stop taking those halfway steps toward my wall. But, universally, they told me to keep writing, that I had what it takes. I wasn’t right for them, but I should keep trying.

Along the way, I heard many stories of how other people found their agents or were published. Way too many of them depended on flukes or plain good luck. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to call a publisher. And it just happened that my name is the same as his wife’s and his admin was out sick when I called, and the next thing you know he’s saying, ‘Sure, send me your manuscript.” And, “So I sent in my portfolio, and just for kicks wrote some words to go with my sketches, and the agent really liked it, so she signed me as an author/illustrator, but in the end the only word I wrote that stayed in the final version of the book was the name of the main character.”

True stories. I’ve heard them, and others like them. This frustrated the adjectives out of me. What good is it if you tell me to follow those seven steps, and then feature speakers at conferences who didn’t follow them, who broke the rules and still got published?

A goal for 2018: Get an agent or get moving

In 2018, I set myself a goal: either I would have an agent by September, or I would publish myself, something I really didn’t want to do. It’s not that I have a problem with independent publishing as a concept. The challenge is I already have a full-time job. I own a business as a corporate communications consultant. I also am a blogger, with a dedicated social media following, and I’m happy to say I have a few fans and followers who enjoy my dog- and cat-related essays and humor. Keeping up with all of this takes time.

As it is, the only way I can squeeze in my capital W Writing is to set my alarm for 5:00 AM, stumble my way through the dark to my office, and write for three hours until it’s time to take a shower, feed the dogs and cats, and get back in my chair by 9:00 in time to work with my clients. Sometimes I skip the shower.

The problem is I just could not figure out how I was going to fit another job—publisher—into my day. I still would like to eat, sleep, and spend some time with my family.

Independent publishing would be one more thing I had to learn (I was a self-taught blogger) and I really wanted someone to help me. Besides, my dream agent was one who would support my writing, offer advice and counsel that would enable me to keep improving and perfecting my craft, who would get my work in front of editors and publishers, and therefore give me back some precious hours that I could use to write, instead of drafting yet another set of query letters, and researching more agents to submit to.

The conference where it happened: 2018 NJ SCBWI

Materials from the 2018 NJ SCBWI conference.

Materials from the 2018 NJ SCBWI conference.

With all that in mind, I attended the 2018 New Jersey SCBWI conference. I had, as usual, signed up for every critique, one-on-one, round table, and first page read I could cram into my schedule. In between sessions and critiques, I wandered through the illustrator displays, picking up cards from artists whom I thought might be able to represent my words, if I had to do this myself.

I tried a unique approach for this conference. From among the dozens of agents and writers and editors, I picked out only three who I thought might be a good fit for me. These were agents who could represent children’s and adult books, and whom I hadn’t submitted to already. And then, I doubled down; I was meeting two of them more than once.

In retrospect, I’m really not sure why I thought it was a good idea to participate in a round table with the same agent that was in my First Page session, and meet him again for a one-on-one. Maybe I thought it was better to concentrate my efforts so that the targeted agents would see more of me and my work, and get to know me. Spreading myself among multiple contacts hadn’t worked in the past, so what did I have to lose? If nothing came of this conference, I was going to self publish. Pressure off.

The round table

The first agent-related session I had was a round table. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, a group of six or so people gather together, along with an agent or editor. One by one, participants read the first 500 words of a manuscript to the rest of the group. Then everyone offers their thoughts and feedback, including the agent.

I always try to be helpful, often using an “I like… I like… I wonder…” format in which I point out what works and then ask questions relating to issues with the manuscript that challenge me or I think could be improved. After the first manuscript was read, each of the participants—including me—offered our opinions, and then the agent spoke—and he began by disagreeing with me. Strongly. After the next author went, when it was my turn to speak, I was a little more hesitant in my commentary, a tad more circumspect. Again, the agent picked apart my comments. Quite strongly. At this point, Agnes showed up, and I shut down. It seemed like everything I said, the agent didn’t like. When it was my turn to read, the agent tore into my manuscript. He didn’t get it. Immediately after the session I checked my schedule; that’s when I realized I had signed up for two more personal encounters with this guy: a first-page session and a one-on-one. It wasn’t going to be pretty. I could nearly hear the joyous bad-guy “Bwa ha ha ha,” from Agnes.

The first page session

The good thing about a first page session is it’s anonymous. You—and about a dozen other writers—bring copies of the first page of a manuscript, with just the title on it, not the author’s name. The stories are read out loud, and a volunteer agent and editor offer their comments to the group. For my session, I dropped off my story—a different one than I used in the round table—ran to the restroom, and came back just as they were getting started. I tried to hide in the back row, hoping Agent Disagree wouldn’t see me. Turns out, he didn’t hate my story, but, then again, he didn’t know it was me.

A disastrous agent one-on-one

Later that afternoon, I had my one-on-one individual critique with Agent D. I knew he wasn’t going to be the agent for me, and even though Agnes told me to blow him off, I decided that it was worth getting another opinion on my best manuscript, and, besides, it just wasn’t professional to not hear the guy out, since he took the time to review my writing.

I told Agnes to go jump in a lake, and marched into my one-on-one figuring the agent would recognize me instantly and think something along the lines of “Oh crap.” Which is about what happened. The best thing he could say about my manuscript was that that the concept was clever. But he said it had plot holes, and he didn’t understand the characters, and he thought it needed work. I wasn’t surprised. But I shook his hand afterwards and thanked him. And I knew that no matter what happened through the rest of the conference, it couldn’t get too much worse, because I had just faced down someone who quite obviously didn’t like me, didn’t like my writing, and didn’t want to represent me. Ever.

But I also knew that this manuscript was my best one, the one I had the most confidence in. And I had learned that everything in the publishing business is subjective, and I had enough people love this story that I could walk away from Agent D and not feel completely crushed, even with Agnes’ “I told you so,” ringing in my ears.

Dinner with an agent

One of the unique aspects of the New Jersey SCBWI conference is that, in addition to the typical ways to encounter and connect with agents, they also encourage participants to eat their meals with them. When you sign up for the conference, you can pick which agents, editors, or authors you’d like to eat lunch and dinner with.

That evening, I was one of the first people to arrive at Table 12 for dinner. I thought about trying to be strategic, and waiting until more people showed up so I could try to sit near the designated table agent. But I was exhausted from a day of He Didn’t Like Me, so I just sat. As it turned out, Edward was the last to arrive, and settled himself in the only available seat, which was across the table from me. I figured I’d never get to talk with him because he was so far away, so I didn’t try too hard; I just spoke with those around me, and joined in the table conversation in general.

For his part, Edward was kind and inclusive. He tried to engage everyone, asking folks who their favorite authors were, or what their favorite books are. It was a good group at the table, and we talked about writing and editing and books— and babies laughing, and pets, and what social media influencers are. (As a blogger, I am one.)

We asked Edward questions, and he asked us questions. And maybe because I’d sent Agnes away or maybe because I knew things could only get better than my terrible, awful, no good, very bad day, I just let me be me. When dinner was over and Edward got up to leave, I walked around the table and told him that I enjoyed his conversation and that we’d be talking more tomorrow, as he had a manuscript of mine, and we were scheduled for a one-on-one in the afternoon. He paused, narrowed his eyes, smiled, and said, “I think I know which one.”

The next day was filled with workshops, including one about landing an agent—featuring none other than Agent Disagree. I didn’t think I’d learn more from him, so I used the time to catch up with other authors who attended the conference, people I’ve gotten to know over the years of attending events like these.

One more one-on-one

My one-on-one was the last time slot on this last day of the conference. I knew I was the only thing standing between Edward Necarsulmer IV and a trip back home to be with his family. But I’d dismissed Agnes, and I strolled into my one-on-one knowing that Edward had smiled at me the night before, and no matter what, I’d come out of this conference with a plan.

Edward stood up when he saw me, and put his jacket on. “You don’t need to get all formal with me,” I said.

He smiled again as he shook his head. “Let’s go somewhere else and talk.”The conference was closing down, people were leaving, and one of the things we had discovered during dinner the night before was that neither of us drink. But in the absence of easy options, we headed to the bar where I ordered my cranberry and seltzer standard and Edward ordered a Coke. He quizzed me about my manuscript. “Have you sent it to other agents? What have they said? What possible reasons could they give for rejecting it?” He asked me about how I pictured the main character, and how I thought it could be illustrated. We talked about my writing, my goals, my other manuscripts. Turns out, he had visited my blog, and had taken the time to learn about me. I asked him how he works with writers, how he felt about representing children’s and adult manuscripts, and what he thought the potential was for some of my in-the-works off-the-wall ideas.

After 45 minutes, Edward Necarsulmer IV asked me if I would like him to take on my manuscript, to send it to some publishers, to help bring it out into the world.

And I said yes.

And that’s how I got my agent.

Onward

Flash forward to today. I’ve learned that even after you have signed with an agent, things take time. Edward is working hard on my behalf and has begun sending out the initial manuscript to editors. He’s read and offered constructive editorial advice on several of my picture books, and feels confident that some of them are also ready to submit. We’re also working on my novel.

Here’s the thing. If I look back at all the agents I talked with, submitted to, queried, one-on-oned and otherwise contacted, not a one of them is as good a fit for me and my writing as Edward is. He is an agent who works with the whole person, caring for me and my entire body of work—for children and adults, fiction and nonfiction. Every conversation we have, we find more in common. He gets me, and I understand and truly appreciate his advice; he’s able to focus on the heart of my work, and ask questions that help me dig further and improve my writing.

I found my unicorn.

As of this post, I don’t yet have a book contract, but one of the things Edward has coached me on is patience. Just like I had to find the right agent for me, my first book will need to find the right editor and publisher, who love the story as much as Edward and I do.

I have moved another step forward. But now that I’m closer to that proverbial wall I mentioned way in the beginning, I realize there’s a door in it. And I’m about to walk through.



9 Comments on "How I Got My Literary Agent"

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  1. Leona says:

    I’m so so happy for you! Congratulations 🙂

  2. Leah Vidal says:

    Congratulations! Thank you for sharing your experience. It is encouraging. We met at Erma, and at your suggestion I joined SCBWI. I’m planning on attending their conference in Austin this May.

  3. suzanprincess says:

    I’m so happy for you, Susan! Finding someone who gets you is indeed a unicorn, and your hard work and determination is, albeit slowly, paying off. I am SO eager to buy your book(s) when they’re finally published, because I already know I love your writing, so I’ll be looking for the announcement from Calvin or Athena or Lilah (or maybe even Agnes)that your first book is in print

    • Aw, thank you. Watch this space, as any announcements regarding book deals (wouldn’t that be wonderful?) will appear here and on my social media sites. I really appreciate your support. It means a lot to me.

  4. zooperson says:

    I’m so glad for you that you found your unicorn. I’m amazaed that you had to nearly walk on water to find someone to represent you. There is steady bushel of mediocre writing being published (and presumably purchased ) so luck not talent must have some play in getting these boring, predictable plots off the ground. But now, you are on your way—having more than paid your dues. I know I’ll have the pleasure of reading your published work before too long. Well done!

    • Thank you! And thank you again. I agree that I’ve seen mediocre writing out there; it was one of the things that frustrated me so much—and one of the things that made me take it all personally. I would get really good feedback about my writing, but then still no offer of representation, so it was very easy for me to think, “It must be me.” Of course that was Agnes talking but she made a very good point. At least now, I have a unicorn that likes me. He really likes me. AND my writing.

  5. Sandy says:

    You persevered and I’m so happy for you – congratulations!!

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