How I Got My Literary Agent

Signing my contract with Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates!

Signing my contract with Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates!

For information on what exactly getting a literary agent means, I highly suggest hopping over to Amanda Rawson Hill's wonderful blog post: "When Someone You Love Gets an Agent" (the "Okay, so what happens now?" section in the second half is particularly helpful for folks who don't have much experience with the world of publishing). For even more background on why someone would want an agent in the first place and the process required to get one, read "When Someone You Love Is Querying."

You're never supposed to begin your novel with backstory, but that's where I'm starting for this blog post. When it comes to writing and querying, I think it can be helpful to show how far back the process can begin, and I've been writing for as long as I can remember! I wrote short stories and kept diaries throughout elementary and middle school. In high school and college, I immersed myself in poetry, and in my early twenties I started writing creative nonfiction.

I remember exactly when I decided I wanted to start writing children's novels. During a rare quiet moment in my kitchen in the fall of 2014, I was thinking about books (typical), and wondering why I couldn't recall any that depicted a third culture kid's experience. I'd taught in international schools overseas for four years and felt strongly that my students, whose lives contained indescribable richness but also often a sense of cultural confusion or loss, deserved to see their stories reflected in literature. I could also relate to their experiences, having lived overseas with my family for a period of time the year I turned thirteen, and I suddenly felt a sense of renewed energy and purpose: I'd write the book I wanted my students (and my younger self) to have.

So I did. I made myself a calendar, committed to a daily word count, and finished my first draft in a few months. When I felt too tired or stuck to write, I'd research literary agents and the publishing process. I hit "send" on my first query in 2015. 

I absolutely needed to write that book, but it wasn't the one that would get me an agent. Though I had phenomenal guidance from Taryn Albright and received positive feedback on a few full manuscript requests, I also received pretty much the same criticisms from everyone. As I'd learned more and more about what made books work, I realized the criticisms were spot-on, and after three months and twenty-two queries, I decided it was time to let go.

I felt a little sad at first, but not really. I had a new book idea, one I thought would be able to fix the problems that plagued my first one, and I was anxious to get started. Walking through the woods with my dog one day, I'd discovered a new character working her way into my brain. Her name was Addie, she lived in Vermont, and she loved the lake near her house but had also lost her twin brother in a drowning accident there, and she needed to find out whether the magical sea creature he'd believed in was real.

I cared so much about Addie and the characters that emerged as I clicked away on my laptop. The late Vermont writer Howard Mosher, my beloved friend and neighbor who had read my first manuscript as well as this one and always gave me just the gentle encouragement I needed to keep going, told me I had a good story, which gave me hope. I also had the support of a newly found and absolutely wonderful critique partner, Nicole, who provided invaluable feedback and accountability. When I started drafting THE LIGHT IN THE LAKE, I was working two part-time jobs and juggling classes I needed to renew my teaching certificate, so it took about a year to finish the first draft. Anxious to be sure I was on the right track, I sought early feedback from Zoe Strickland at Teen Eyes Editorial and began editing. I also started a new job teaching high school English full time, and it took me another year to fully revise. During that time, I was fortunate to move up the waiting list for a spot at Vermont College of Fine Arts' Writing Novels for Young People retreat not far from my house, which meant I got to spend a whole weekend with very smart, helpful, and inspiring writers.

Eventually, I sent my first query to an agent who had offered feedback on all queries sent during a certain time period. I decided I'd wait to query anyone else until I'd heard back from that agent. In the meantime, I also worked with the wonderful Jeni Chappelle and revised some more, only to receive a full request a few months after I'd sent that first query! I took it as a good sign and sent more queries. Several full requests quickly followed, most from agents who had rejected my previous work, which felt exciting. But a month or so later, I got a rejection on a partial, and later, my first rejection on a full. I knew the publishing world moved slowly, but I was feeling discouraged.

And then something funny happened. A few hours after receiving my second rejection on a full, I got an e-mail from an agent offering representation! I could barely process the message; I was just about to take my kids into a gas station so they could use the bathroom, and they got to hear me shriek a little about it. "Someone wants to help you publish your book?!" my eight-year-old shrieked back.

Three days after that first offer, I received a second, and three days after that, a third. I felt, and still feel, incredibly honored that these talented agents believed in my book. I enjoyed my talks with all of them; agents are truly lovely people!  But there was one agent with whom I felt a very immediate sense of connection and trust. We spoke for over an hour by phone and I just knew deep down that her incredible vision, professionalism, editorial wisdom and industry experience perfectly matched what I wanted. I signed with the amazing Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates and could not feel more grateful that I've been given the chance to build my writing career with her! It's a dream come true.

Lessons Learned

  • Growing and moving forward as a writer can take time and it's easy to second-guess yourself, but one of the most helpful pieces of advice I clung to during this process was something the spectacular Sarah Aronson said at the VCFA retreat. I was so inspired by it at the time that I wrote it down word for word, and I've returned to it many times since: "You are not behind. You are not lagging. You are not supposed to be somewhere else. You are exactly where you should be." Whenever I find myself lamenting that I should be moving faster, or that I should've done all of this this in my twenties, or whatever, I remember what Sarah said.
  • It's hard to juggle a job and kids with writing. A supportive partner and a schedule make all the difference, and I'm lucky to have both. Whatever your situation, you do owe it to yourself-- and to the people in your life who love you and want to see you happy and fulfilled-- to steal that time to write.
  • Over the course of the two years I worked on THE LIGHT IN THE LAKE, I sought a lot of feedback from a lot of different people: my CP, beta readers, workshop participants, editors. Ultimately, all of this input, both what was contradictory and what was consistent, taught me a lot about how to ultimately trust myself more as a writer and also how to recognize that it's important to build self-confidence but also to know that every writer needs another set of eyes.
  • It only takes one "yes" and that yes might come very unexpectedly. An agent might not inform you that they've started reading your manuscript, or that they're halfway through and enjoying. They might not follow you on Twitter first. They might just suddenly offer representation, leaving you with your jaw hanging open at the gas station where you randomly decided to check your phone.
  • More ideas will come. It took two years, but I now know how I want to fix that first novel-- just as soon as I finish writing the other manuscript that popped into my head while I was querying this one!
  • You have to write that first book. Learn what it has to teach you. And then keep going.

Query Stats
Queries Sent: 20
Rejections on query: 7
Partial requests: 2
Full requests (including after first offer of rep): 11
Offers of rep: 3