April 19, 2010

Choosing a literary agent

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 7:25 pm

Let’s start with the mega caveat that having a choice when it comes to literary agents puts me in the very, very, very lucky camp.

I can still remember…me with broken foot…hobbling around my parents’ house, which was easier to navigate on crutches than my own…and talking to Agent #1 on the phone.

A real agent! Talking to me on the phone!

She loved my book, had asked me for an exclusive on it (which I wasn’t able to give, but just being asked for such a thing is excitement incarnate), and even given me her number at her country house to get in touch. I’m telling you–excitement incarnate.

But…she wanted changes.

In the book, that is.

This was my first brush with this truism: There is no such thing as a flawless ms. Not to anyone in the industry anyway. Assuming a certain basic level of craft, you could have twelve readers, and get thirteen different takes on what needs to be done with your ms.

The trick is in finding the agent or editor whose take deeply resonates with your own and with where you have the potential to go as a writer.

This doesn’t mean you will like all suggestions for revision, or that you will instantly perk up, and say, Yes, yes! Oh no. On the contrary–some feedback will make you stare blackly at the drone who dares to challenge your vision, or inject such a problem into an ABSOLUTELY PERFECT WORK–for a little while. And then the awareness will dawn that that suggestion was very wise indeed. That there really is such a problem. And in that dawning awareness, you will realize that this person truly gets your work, and you will want to revise and revise and revise, until s/he says it’s done.

I liked Agent #1’s ideas for revision, and so I revised. I liked Agent #2’s ideas (this was on a different novel, remember) and I revised that one as well. I can still remember talking to Agent #1 after she’d read my new draft.

“I would definitely take this on, Jenny,” she said.

Oh, how I danced around, broken foot and all.

I had that other offer, too, though. Agent #2–newer, greener–had taken me on even before I completed the revisions she wanted.

How did I decide? I did it based on the new, green thing. I decided to go with the more experienced agent, the one with the more prestigious agency, who had a roster of clients that put stars in my eyes.

Was this the right decision? There’s no way to know. Everything we do as a writer sets us on a path where one stepping stone will lead to another, each one unforeseeable in advance, and all we can hope for is that the road ends in publication. In getting attention for our work.

Right or not–if there is such a thing, and I suspect there is not–I’d made my decision.

Next I’ll tell you what came of it.

April 12, 2010

Now where were we?

Filed under: Backstory,The Writing Life — jenny @ 5:18 pm

In my back story, that is.

Because I realized, hey, I’m about go on sub again–ack–and you guys don’t even know about the very first time I was on sub.

But before I go back down the tunnel of years (violin chords now, for this is a tale of some melodrama, at least it feels that way) I have to ask a question. How many people know what it means to be on sub?

I had occasion to ask this question at a terrific writers conference the other day and found that many writers–even those submerged in the process of querying agents–don’t actually know.

Quick digression. The good people at New York Writers Workshop have allowed me for the third time to present a short unit at the start of their Pitch & Shop.

I attended the Pitch & Shop a little over a year and a half ago, and for my money it’s the best conference out there for those who are focused on getting published (as opposed to on honing craft–the other excellent purpose of a writers conference). It led directly to my signing with my agent.

Which is exactly what I talk about at the conference, in addition to how best to navigate the pitch sessions.

You can attend the NYWW version of the Pitch & Shop or the Algonkian version and they each have a slightly different feel to them and different approaches to instruction, but both boast the genius that allows students to bypass the querying process–for a time–and meet actual acquisition editors.

Plus you get a great pitch out of the whole deal, and I believe that is the true gold in this experience.

Anyway…long digression…I’m going to write the steps to being on sub here seeing as they really are pretty esoteric unless you’ve actually been through the process yourself.

Caveat: the following applies to having your ms submitted to the major New York publishing houses (and a handful of independents who prefer to work with agents).

1) Sign with agent

2) Agent sends pitch letter to editors

3) Agent sends ms to editors

4) Editors put your ms in a queue to read

5) Editors read

6) Editors read (sorry, this part takes a while)

Now it could go in one of three directions. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

Hint: Choose #7

7) Editor(s) like ms

8 ) Editor(s) have suggestions for revision

9) Editor(s) pass on ms

If it’s 7) this is what has to happen next…

Exception–if your ms has been subbed to the publisher of an imprint s/he can bypass at least 10)

10) Editor(s) give ms to colleagues at house and get everyone to agree it’s worth acquiring

11) Marketing and other departments also agree

12) Publisher agrees

And 13) Offer is made

Lucky 13.

I think we can agree that this is a lot of steps. Writer Joshilyn Jackson says that being on sub is “a special kind of hell” and she’s right.

When it works, it can be heaven, I’m thinking, in that amnesiac, I-truly-can’t-remember-the-pain-now-that-my-baby-is-born sort of way.

Well, I’ve gone on a little too long to get into back story tonight.

More soon…

December 14, 2009

How to choose an agent

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 5:51 pm

Wait, you mean we get a choice?

Well, if we’re lucky, sometimes we do. And if you’ve been following these “backstory” posts, then you know that hard upon my first offer of rep, I got a second.

Just in case the green eyed monster is swimming in your eyes, not to fear. I have MORE than made up for that dose of luck once my mss went on submission. But that is for a later post.

Today I just mean to tell you how I decided to sign.

There was door number one and door number two and I chose the agent behind…

Number one.

I chose based on three factors.

1) How established the agency was (the one I chose is in fact the oldest literary agency in the United States)

2) How well known the clients of the agency were (Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Godwin, say no more)

3) How long the agent had been in the business for

Were these the right factors on which to base my decision?

I honestly don’t know.

Agent number two was new-ish to the biz at the time–I believer she’d just opened her agency–and is still in business nine years later. (Gasp, yes, I’ve finally given a number as to the time I’ve spent at this.) She has made some wonderful deals, and in the process surely made some wonderful careers, and some wonderful dreams come true.

The agent I signed with has made many deals over the years as well. Her agency continues to be just as well reputed and so does she.

She was a wonderful person to work with, dogged, strong, and encouraging. When I wrote to her recently–another post for the future–she spoke as kindly as ever. “I still consider you an extraordinarily gifted writer.” Words that an unpublished writer–maybe a published one, too–holds close to her heart.

But my agent didn’t sell my book. Not the one she signed me for (which was actually my second). And not the one I had “in the bank” (my first) after the other failed to sell. Still, I think she was and is a great agent, and that I made my choice based on the most likely outcome. The more experienced agent was probably a better bet.

Unless the green, hungry agent would’ve made something happen.

Or unless a sale has nothing to do with either experience or hunger and is in the end simply luck, your book landing on the right editor’s desk at the right time. In which case both agents were equally likely and unlikely to get me an offer.

Bottom line, I don’t regret my decision, except in the road not taken sense.

Next time I will tell you what happened once my agent started submitting.

December 4, 2009

Where was I?

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 10:24 am

A long, long time ago…

…I was telling the as yet unfinished story of my journey to publication.

I’d broken my foot, fallen to my knees, and gotten the call from the woman who turned out to be my first agent.

But here’s a rather exciting part I haven’t told.

My husband and I (childless at that point–yes, this HAS taken a while) went to stay with my parents about a half hour away. Their house was easier to negotiate with my crutches.

I had just signed up for an email account. (OK, OK, I already said it’s been a long time). I only did that because one of the agents I had queried and been communicating with by snail mail asked if I had one.

So I was no way in the habit of checking whether I had emails or anything like that. I ambled by my computer one day, lazily clicked on something I didn’t even know how to use…and there was my second offer of representation the same week as I got my first!

I can still recall that agent’s words. “I think it has bestseller potential and I would like to offer you representation.”

Ahh, if only that bestseller thing were that easy.

Still, it was exciting to have multiple offers of rep after all those months of querying. And yes, I realize that “months” of querying is really nothing. But it felt like a long time.

I remember that my brother was home for some reason and there are few people who make me feel reassured in the way that my brother does. My husband. Sometimes my dad. Clearly this is a male thing. But my brother, whom I grew up with, and who will know me longer than anyone else on earth–my sister is a lot younger; I think my husband and she are about tied in this respect–has a calming effect on me that I can’t explain.

We weren’t calm that day though when we sat on the sun porch and my brother said to me, “Now that you’re going to be famous we must establish one thing.

“I get sixty percent.”

Poor guy. He’s still holding out for his sixty percent.

But I must admit, I whooped and pretended to be grand in response to his egging me on…

And then I had to choose which agent to sign with.

September 17, 2009

Back to our regularly scheduled program

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 8:51 pm

Actually, back to the story of my still fledgling career as a writer. (In my darker moments, I call it my non-career.)

After I received that wonderful call from the agent at the oldest literary agency in the country, I actually received something else as well. My very first email. Yes, up until this point I did not use email.

At all.

Can you recall a time when that could be said?

Of course, I still don’t have a cell phone, which may or not be relevant.

Suffice it to say that there were enough people not using email that my soon-to-be agent asked, Do you have email?

But this email, which sat unchecked for about a week since I wasn’t used to having the…thing. Or stuff. Or whatever you’d call email. Anyway, it came from another agent, a newer, greener one, who’d been a novelist herself. She was also offering to represent me. Only thing was she was offering to rep my other novel.

Yep, by that point I’d written two. It took me about eight months of querying to get my first offer of rep, and in that time I both wrote another book AND got frustrated enough with the wait to begin querying on it.

Oh man. I didn’t know what waiting was.

In the next post I’ll tell you how I chose which agents to go with. (Believe me, I realize I was lucky to have a choice.)

But you might think me less lucky when you hear how the Wait, the real wait, began.

July 28, 2009

Real life

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 9:46 pm

Now that we’re back in the east, back in the burbs, back in real life, it’s time for me to start writing about writing again. I had left off as my agent search began. Here are the next eight months or so, wildly condensed.

I remember driving to Florida–my husband’s grandmother was ill and we wanted to see her–and seeing a license plate that said AGENT and taking it as a giant omen. At the time, Jean Naggar of the eponymous agency had first requested three chapters of Arugula’s Mother, and then the whole thing, and I was convinced that she would make an offer of rep upon our return from the south.

Alas, only a rejection and the actual snail mailed ms awaited me at home.

The day that I got my first real hint that I was actually going to find an agent was an all time low for me. We had no kids yet. The night before, we’d been to a movie with my brother (Oregon brother) who lived only a few country towns away then. When I got out of the car on our lumpy driveway late that night, my foot twisted in its clog, and I went down. I knew something was really wrong right away.

Turned out it was broken.

I came home, on crutches and in a cast, imagining trying to hop to FedEx with my pathetic ream boxes only to garner more rejections, when my husband hit play on our answering machine.

(Told you this was a while ago).

“Hello,” said a voice I instantly loved. “This is Anne Hawkins. You sent me the first fifty pages of your ms, and I love them. I would really like to see the rest. I’m going to give you my number at my country house, where I am now…{She wanted me to call her! On a Saturday!!} Oh, and could I have an exclusive on this?”

I’d had agents request the full ms already by this point, but somehow I just knew. This call was different.

I sunk down on the stairs, cast thunking, and literally lifted my head to the heavens. OK, the ceiling. Thank you, I whispered to Someone.

June 30, 2009

Literary agents–what they said

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 7:00 am

Since I’ve been poking fun at my own excess excitement and hubris in the early (early, early) days of TTGP (Trying To Get Published), I’ll fill you in on another gem.

After this, I did get a little more humble.

Funnily enough, though, I retained a certain core optimism. I somehow always had the belief that the very next query letter would bring me a response in a matter of hours, some agent oohing and ahhing over my work. After months of form rejections and almosts-but-not-quites, you’d think I would have well and fully wised up. But now I think that if I didn’t labor under that optimistic delusion, I may not have been able to keep going as I did.

It happened, by the way. Finally. The quick response, even an ohh and an ahh. But it took a while, didn’t lead exactly where I thought it would, and…that’s for another post.

Anyway…hubris. Remember how I queried Al Zuckerman because of the influence his writing book had on me? For this reason, I made him my top choice agent. Lucky guy! I sent him my query, then sat back and waited.

And waited. When a week went by without his writing (or calling…or visiting me at my house…) I began to frown. Shot him off another letter–and by “shot” I do mean Fed Ex–politely saying something like, I sent you my query on an exclusive basis. Please let me know if it interests you as I would be very excited to provide additional materials.

When I STILL didn’t hear back–can you believe the nerve of this guy–joke–can you believe the nerve of me? I really had no idea that a busy agent can take months to respond. Or s/he might never respond. I’ve now heard stories of writers getting requests after an entire year. Anyway, when two weeks went by–that’s like a minute in geological time–with no response, I sent to the other five agents.

Virginia Barber sent a form rejection. Chuck Verrill never responded. After some months, Al Zuckerman sent a form, too.

But Anna Cottle sent a detailed critique of my first seventy-five pages–more than enough to set me editing the baby I had previously dubbed perfect. Elizabeth Pomada requested pages. And Barney Karpfinger requested a 100 page partial! I was on my way…to something.

June 26, 2009

Literary agents–the first ones

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 9:34 pm

Here are the first six agents I queried:

Albert Zuckerman of Writers House

Barney Karpfinger of the Barney Karpfinger Agency

Anna Cottle of Cine/Lit (can you blame me for thinking my book might be made into a movie ;)

Elizabeth Pomada of Larsen/Pomada

Virginia Barber of the Virginia Barber Literary Agency

Chuck Verrill of Darhansoff & Verrill

I queried Albert Zuckerman because of the book I read by him on writing the blockbuster. I queried Barney Karpfinger because he repped Jonathan Kellerman and my book had a psychologist protagonist, too. I queried Anna Cottle because her agency was mentioned in the book by Elizabeth Lyon that taught me how to write queries and synopses. I queried Elizabeth Pomada because I read her husband’s (and co-agent’s) book on getting an agent. I queried Virginia Barber because she repped Rosellen Brown, whose book I had the gall to compare mine to. And I queried Chuck Verrill because Stephen King, who is probably the single biggest contemporary influence on my writing, praised his editorial skill.

I chose a hefty percentage of agents based on their connection to authors whose work I admired. It’s a tip that comes up again and again.

Go to your bookstore. (Buy some books). Or library. (Take out some books).

As you browse, read the acknowledgments section. See if the author mentions his or her agent. Then look up the agent.

You can do a lot of this on line, by Googling for references to authors you love and adding the word agent to the search. When I was first querying, it was all cloth volumes and telephone books. (Maybe not quite on the latter).

On Monday, I’ll tell you what those six agents had to say.

Happy weekend!

And may I suggest that if you happen to find yourself in, near, or within a 200 mile radius of a bookstore…that you buy some books?

June 25, 2009

Your mother’s always right

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 6:13 pm

When I started trying to get my first novel published, my mother had some words of advice for me.

“I think you’re really talented,” she said. “And I think you’ve got passion, and drive. I think this is going to happen for you.”

We can all tell when a but is coming, can’t we? A big ole but was just hanging there.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight,” my mother went on. “I think this is going to take time. You’re coming at it as a total outsider. It’s going to take time to build connections, to establish yourself.”

My mom could probably see the protest building on my lips. So she hauled in other resources.

“Whoopi Goldberg says every overnight sensation is ten years in the making.”

When did my mother give me this advice? Oh, about ten years ago.

Man, I hope she was right on the timing!

But for sure she was right about the other parts. Maybe there are authors out there who sit down and write a novel and send it to one agent–or egads, one editor–and it is immediately snapped up and the author becomes a star. We hear about such people, although I am hard pressed to actually name one.

But for me at least, I have spent the last ten years doing the following:

Honing my craft. Learning to pace and plot a novel so it doesn’t reach 180,000 words. Learning to trust my reader so my writing and characterization can be subtle. Those were the biggies of craft for me; we all have different ones, I think. Peg Brantley has blogged about this on her excellent site.

Getting close enough to offers that when I contacted agents I had a proven track record of interest in my work. (More on that to come.)

Meeting and supporting authors so that I could learn what they were doing and try to emulate it.

Realizing that at the end of the day, aspirations to Oprah and claims of film potential aside, what I really want most to do is tell a story that the reader can get lost in.

Oh, and one other thing these past ten years have taught me.

Mom, you were right.

June 24, 2009

A really disastrous query letter

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 6:17 am
This bit is part of Technorati registration:

People say, “Don’t tell [the powers that be] your plans; They/He/She will only laugh at them.” Oh, how that power must’ve been chuckling at me. My goal is to write my second novel fulltime?

Let’s just see, They/He/She must’ve chortled. Let’s give her, oh, ten years or so of not earning one thin dime. By then she will be good and humbled.

Believe me, I am humbled now by this thing called writing as well as the business it exists in. And so I humbly present…

November 17,  1998

Ms. Anna Cottle
Cine/Lit Representation
7415 181st Place, Southwest
Edmonds, WA 98026

Dear Anna Cottle:

Today, maybe more than ever, children kill.

This pressing, yet timeless, societal problem propels my suspense novel, Arugula’s Mother.  The novel recalls Stephen King’s Firestarter and Misery, and Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks.  Because the characters explore the theme that children are sometimes better off without their mothers, Arugula’s Mother is also serious mainstream fiction, with echoes of Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

When four year old Lucy Benson begins to kill small animals and attack people, her strange, fragile mother seeks help at Wedeskyull Community Hospital in their Adirondack town overshadowed by mountains.  The case is assigned to Dara Davies, a young psychologist-in-training with a love of children, a weak left hand, and reasons for backing away from danger.  Dara’s race to find the causes of Lucy’s problems entangles her with a family in desperate trouble, and forces her to expose the secrets of a rural community that is cruelly split.  As Dara gets closer to the truth, someone begins stalking her.  Dara’s need to save Lucy – despite danger – bears down on her career and marriage until both start to crack.  She struggles to stay close to her husband John, but his own tormented past draws him away just when Dara needs him most.  Finally Dara’s life is threatened, and only a feat of unexpected bravery can free Lucy and Dara herself from the horror she uncovers.  It is an act that brings Dara face to face with the fact that love between mothers and children is stunning in its depth, and those depths can be fatally murky.

Arugula’s Mother has a gunshot pace and will appeal to the huge audience that reads suspense rapaciously – the more plot twists and falls the better.  Its keep-you-guessing plot, realistic dialogue, and menacing sense of place also make the novel highly adaptable to film.

As a clinical psychology student six months from my doctorate, I have spoken about violent children to hospitals, schools and community centers.  Childhood violence would be an important topic on national talk shows such as Oprah, and I can discuss it from both fictional and psychological perspectives. I am in a position to promote my novel to specific target audiences – children’s advocacy and crime prevention groups, mental health associations – in addition to everyone enthralled by the world of child psychology.

I wrote and revised Arugula’s Mother in seven months, including fact-checking with a child custody expert, a journalist, an architect and a veterinary pathologist.  I did this while completing an internship working with violent children.  I am currently at work on my second suspense novel, An Absence of Wind, and my goal is to write it full time.

I decided to contact you because Elizabeth Lyon quoted you and Mary Alice Kier as saying, “If it entertains, it enlightens; if it enlightens, then it empowers.”  This belief struck me as a wonderful mirror of my primary goal for Arugula’s Mother.

I would be thrilled to send you the completed manuscript if this query intrigues you.  I look forward to your prompt response and thank you very much for your time.

Most Sincerely,

Jenny Milchman

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