Wednesday, January 18, 2012
ALL 'LIT' UP AUTHOR ESSAY FEATURE: TAMARA LINSE - How I Got My Dream Agent
Tamara Linse lives in Wyoming, where she writes short stories and novels. To support her writing habit, she also edits, freelances, and occasionally teaches. Her new novel is about love, loss, triumph, and socks. Well, not socks exactly. Her website is www.tamaralinse.com.
How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 1
I am so honored to have the lovely Rachel Stout (http://www.dystel.com/staff-e-mail/) at Goderich Literary Management (http://www.dystel.com/) as my agent. Getting here has been a long and winding road, full of long-dark-teatime-of-the-soul moments. But if you know anything about publishing or are a writer yourself, you knew that already.
So, because it’s so long, I've broken down into two parts. In part 1, I’ll tell the story of how it happened, and in part 2 I’ll try to pinpoint the things that made a difference in my search. So, without further delay...
Once upon a time, way back in 1999, I started writing my first novel. It was the summer between graduating with my undergraduate in English and starting grad school. After timidly taking my first writer’s workshop, I had convinced myself that maybe, just maybe, I had it in me to write one.
This first novel, Earth’s Imagined Corners, is women’s fiction set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. It’s the story of Sara, whose father tries to marry her off to his younger partner ~ a grasping and coercive man ~ only she elopes with a kind man, James, whom she just met and who, though she doesn’t know it, just got out of prison. It’s based on the lives of my great grandparents. We’ll call this Novel #1.
It took me six years, until 2005, to write this first draft. I would write furiously for two weeks, a month, and then life would get in the way or I’d come to a hard part. Then I’d put it aside. Once I had a complete draft, I got some friends to read it, and then I revised and revised until I didn’t know what else to do.
I crafted a query and started sending Novel #1 out in November of 2005. In a testament to optimism over stark reality, I sent it out to almost a 130 agents, plus about 20 small presses, with minimal response. By minimal, I mean only one request for a full and maybe a couple of requests for partials. I know now that my query letter wasn’t that good and that the first pages of the novel had red flags ~ switches in points of view, boring scenes, an unlikable character, and other things. One very kind agent in Canada requested a full and wanted to take me on, but her partners didn’t agree. She asked for an exclusive too ~ so long months of waiting. I finally gave up on this book in 2007, but you’ll be happy to know later in this narrative its gets retrieved from the bowels to which it was banished.
In the meantime, I’d moved on with writing. I’d also been writing short stories, which really really helped me with craft. Then, in August of 2005 I started a second novel, the one that got me signed with the agency. It’s called Deep Down Things. Set in present-day Loveland, Colorado, it’s about a naive young woman Maggie who falls in love with an idealistic writer named Jackdaw. She helps him write a book, and they get pregnant and then get married. However, because Jackdaw is so idealistic, he doesn’t respect her because of it. Then they have a baby boy named Jes who has spina bifida, a severe birth defect. Maggie tries to save her marriage and her baby. It was inspired by something a friend went through. Let’s call this Novel #2.
I finished the first draft in March of 2007, so a year and a half. I had a great deadline ~ I wanted to do a mentorship on it at the Tin House Writers Conference, so a lot of it was written in the early months of 2007. I don’t know how but I landed a great mentorship there with an editor at a big New York publishing house. She was so kind. I have to say, at that time, the manuscript was in sort of a mess ~ first person in four points of view and also two different time frames going concurrently ~ but she pointed out what was working on a large scale and on a small scale and what could be changed. “Do more of this ~ characters not just in the moment but also reflecting on what it means,” she said. “Even though you’re in first person, it has to be a little more toward third person. Less asides.”
I wrote and revised. I kept the four points of view but made the narrative linear. I made sure each of the characters had his or her own arc and distinct voice. Because of my initial structure, I had the beginning and the end written but not the middle. I took the book to a couple of more conferences and got more advice. I revised. I made connections with editors and agents and writers. I went to the Algonkian Writers Conference (http://algonkianconferences.com/), which is all about figuring out publishing from an agent’s and editor’s point of view and looking professional and honing your pitch. Heck, it’s about basic things, too, like making sure you know what genre you’re in and you’re sticking to those conventions. Michael, who leads that conference, gave the name of a kick-ass freelance editor who used to be an in-house editor, and she went through the novel again and gave me the full editorial treatment. I urged her not to spare my feelings ~ tell me what’s working and what’s not. She did such a great job, and I paid her a lot of money but not as much as she deserved. (Many things in this process, like conferences, cost a lot of money.) I revised and revised, including changing the title (it was called Loveland) and the ending.
In March of 2009, I started sending my query out to agents. I started with top agents and agents who represented things similar to what I write. I immediately got requests for partials and for fulls, but then they all came back with “You write really well, but fiction is a tough market right now.” I received invitations to submit my next project. I kept submitting, ten to twenty agents at a time, every month or two. I kept my ear to the ground and submitted to newly established agents and agencies. I also followed the great advice of submitting to new agents at established agencies ~ I have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, so I scanned that every day and collected names and submitted to them.
One of those new agents was an agent at Dystel & Goderich. I submitted to the agent on January 8, 2010. She requested a full on January 14. Then, the evening of Friday, February 19, I got this fabulous long email from her. I read along and she said all these wonderful things about it and I kept reading, waiting for the “but …” The but never came. She suggested some changes and said she’d love to see it again. Over the weekend, I addressed all her changes and sent it back to her on Monday. As she reviewed it, we exchanged friendly emails about other things, at her initiation. She took another look at the manuscript and then had some other agents take a look, but then on March 25 she rejected it! I had started to become convinced that she was The One, and it was kind of heart-breaking. She was so encouraging and wonderful in her rejection email. But I understood why she had done it ~ as everyone was saying, it’s a hard market for fiction right now, especially literary fiction. I sent her an email saying that I’d much appreciated her enthusiasm and I understood. That was that ~ so I thought.
Then in late May, the agent emailed me to say that she’d come across a story of mine that was recently published and that she really liked my writing. This begins a great series of emails about what we were reading and about cowboys and the West and her being from Australia, once again at her initiation. I really enjoyed our conversations, and of course it was balm to my craven writer soul, but I didn’t really think that anything would come of it. Then, she emailed that she’d been talking to the primary agents in the agency, Jane and Miriam, and they’d read my website and liked my voice. Would I send the full again? Of course I would! Throughout this process, the agent kept me updated with small emails saying they hadn’t forgotten about me. She got back to me when she said she would.
Then, on July 15, the agent emailed me to say that nothing was definite but that they might have some very positive news for me. AACCKKK!! But, you know what, at this point, I really wasn’t believing it. I was so hoping, but I didn’t think it would happen. Then, the agent called and offered representation! I accepted of course, after emailing the other agents who had partials and fulls. I couldn’t have be more thrilled and honored to be part of Dystel & Goderich.
Do you think the story ended there? Nope. It never does. The agent was wonderful, and I went through several rounds of edits with her. Unfortunately, her father was really sick, so she quit the agent business. The agency very graciously kept me on, and I got another agent within the agency. I ended up dropping Deep Down Things (Novel #2) in favor of Earth’s Imagined Corners (Novel #1), which I totally rewrote in the first five months of 2011, keeping only the skeleton plot and tossing all the actual prose. But then, as things happen, this agent moved on to greener pastures. Once again, D&G very graciously kept me on, and now my agent is Rachel Stout. I’m so stoked because she and I have very similar taste in books, and I can’t wait to get her feedback. We chose to stay with Novel #1 instead of switching back, as I think this one is the more commercial of the two. She’ll be getting back to me with edits any day now, and soon hopefully we’ll be submitting to publishers.
And I’m sure the road doesn’t end here. I’m just thankful to be where I am, and I keep putting pen to paper. I’m looking down the road, working on an exciting new project, thankful for all my good fortune and all the great friends I’ve met along the way. Friends like James Goertel. Thanks, James!
How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 2
In Part 2, I wanted to talk about what I feel made the difference in my search for an agent. Many of these are things that people have been saying for ages, but I have also found them to be true. Please take them with a grain of salt ~ these are things that helped me. I hope these help others.
Not one big thing. In my experience, it wasn’t one big thing that got me an agent but, instead, a whole bunch of small things. This means, in practical terms, that we just need to keep trying different things, keep doing research and brainstorming, keep learning, keep putting it out there, keep bouncing back. Boy, do I wish there was just one big thing!
Perseverance. The number one thing, I think, is perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. Sheer pigheadedness. I mean, we're ambitious, right? That's why we're still here. Maybe it’s just my take on the world, but a large portion of my success (in anything) has come from just being there, showing up again and again, keep putting it out there, finding new solutions or work-arounds. I mean, it took me eleven years! And, while getting an agent is a milestone, I know that it’s just another beginning.
Patience. Sort of a corollary to the last item. The publishing industry is notoriously slow. It all takes lots of time. The more ways you can find to make yourself patient, the better. It always helps me to have a number of irons in the fire. That way, when I get rejected, I have other things to look forward to. It’s all part of my Haystack Theory of Publishing(http://tamara-linse.blogspot.com/2010/03/haystack-theory-of-publishing.html). Also, if you’re sending an impatient or angry followup email, that’s not going to help your cause. I believe in following up ~ the squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all ~ but I think we should be on our best behavior when we do. To give you an idea, one of my partials was out sixteen months before I signed with the first agent, and I’d followed up three times.
Follow up on every opportunity. You know how serendipity will hand you something, and you’ll mean to follow up on it. Say your husband’s best friend is married to an agent. Or you start talking to someone in a bar who loves your book idea and says she’ll send it on if you send it to her. Follow up on it, dang it! Don’t let it pass. It never hurts to ask. Let me give you some examples. I recently read that 9 out of 10 authors fail to return their promo questionnaires ~ a huge missed opportunity. I volunteered at an archive that had a notable author in my genre who was a board member and an active researcher. I asked my lovely friends there if they would forward an email to her. I asked my workshop teacher and mentor to recommend me to her agent. I sent queries for my second book to all agents who included personal notes on their rejections to the first book, mentioning that I much appreciated their kind words. Don’t be obnoxious, but be persistent.
Jump into online media and social networking with both feet. In industry jargon, create a platform. You should create a website and/or a blog ~ NOW, don’t wait until your book is coming out ~ and be on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other places. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons my agency was interested in me. I showed I was capable of being a promo-sapiens. And it’s an ongoing commitment. If you create a blog, you can’t not write for weeks and then announce to the world, “Oh, look, I have another blog post up!” No. You have to blog at least every other day, five days a week. It’s a commitment. Also, keep your website current. Be a good Facebooker (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ru-freeman/facebook-etiquette-for-au_b_398318.html) ~ don’t just talk about yourself. Interact. Comment and promote others and enjoy it.
Making lots of writer and editor friends. AKA networking. But I don’t think of it in those terms. I just love being able to rub antennae with other geeks just like myself. I don’t think of others as competition. I think of them as a great big groups of fun people who I loved to connect with. But, in practical terms, this also pays off for your career.
Go to conferences. This pays off in so many ways. You improve your craft. You make friends. Your spirits go through the roof. And it gives you so many opportunities in the searching for an agent game. You can pitch agents at conferences. Even if you don’t pitch an agent, you can mention in your query letter that you saw them speak at such and such a conference but that you’re sorry you weren’t able to sign up for a pitch appointment with them. If they give a talk, you can mirror back to them what they said. I went to a conference, and the agent talking said he liked Cormac McCarthy and also was looking to take on women’s fiction. Well, I could say that my style is in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and that I write women’s fiction, as he mentioned at the X conference.
Get published in literary magazines. This sounds like an old saw, but it’s true. Not only does it get your name out there and increase your platform online, agents read them. It helped me keep my first agent interested, and I also received an invitation to submit a manuscript to a fabulous big-name agent. I was not able to follow up on this fabulous opportunity, as he requested an exclusive, but it was worth it in ego points alone. Who doesn’t want to hear that someone else liked their stuff?
Get an MFA. I don’t have an MFA, but I have friends who do. It paves the way like nothing else will, especially if you go to a big-name school. In some cases, agents come knocking at your door. I have a friend who went to a top-rated MFA program and then also attended a top conference every year. Without sending out a single query, she had her pick of four or five agents for her short story collection, and this with having only two or three stories published.
Learn about the industry. Read agent and editor blogs. Listen to agent interviews. Obsess. Do research on AgentQuery.com. Get a subscription to Publishers Lunch at least, if not Publishers Marketplace. Lay awake nights and wonder what you’re doing wrong.
Be polite. Don’t be the difficult person. Be persistent, but be pleasant.
Revise, revise, revise the manuscript. It needs to be as perfect as you can possibly make it. Resist the urge to send it out immediately upon finishing the first draft. Resist mightily. Find as many ways to polish it as possible. I wrote and revised my first novel for six years. I wrote and revised my second novel for four years. For suggestions to help revising, see the following.
Read craft books. I can’t tell you the number of great things I’ve learned from craft books. Halfway through my first book, I stopped and thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Then I read a gazillion craft books. I still read and reread them. It helps.
Get feedback on your writing through friends and critique groups and workshops. Prevail upon your friends. It’s nice to have your family tell you how good it is ~ we all need that ~ but it’s more effective in craft terms if the feedback is from another writer. If you have a critique group, great! Or take a novel workshop. Or take an online workshop. Or go to a conference that has a novel workshop. Get feedback on it as much as possible.
Have a professional freelance book editor give you feedback. Preferably one who has been in the industry. If you’re going to pay good money (as much as $2,500 for a good one) for a book doctor in order to get published, make sure that editor knows about publishing. If you’re just looking to get feedback on craft, that’s great. It’s fine to pay a writer who’s also an editor. But if you’re trying to work toward publication, it makes sense to get an editor who knows about publishing. I plan to use my freelance book editor for all future books (if I can and depending on my finances).
Things in your manuscript that put up a red flag for agents (http://tamara-linse.blogspot.com/2010/06/signs-of-amateur.html). Every writer goes through a natural progression of learning craft, and there are craft things that mark you as someone starting out. I think you can get away with one or two of these (calling your writing literary, one misspelling), but they add up quickly. Click on link at the beginning of this paragraph for an elaboration.
Sometimes it’s time to move on. Sometimes, you’ve learned everything you can from a book and it’s time to put it away and move on to another one. They say it usually takes two or three or more book manuscripts with multiple revisions each to get an agent. You heard me right. There came a point when it was time for me to move on from my first manuscript. Then I went back and totally reworked it.
The Query Letter
Do a whole bunch of research on writing a great query letter. It is the most exacting genre there is next to the resume. One word will make the difference between getting a request and not. There’s a lot of great blogs and resources out there. Take advantage of it. Read Miss Snark’s query letter Crap-O-Meter (http://snarkives.blogspot.com/2006/02/cover-letter-crap-o-meter-posts-links.html) ~ she commented on something like 99 query letters, talking about what was working and what wasn’t. I’d pay special attention to the ones in your genre.
Revise, revise, revise. When you’re not getting requests for partials and fulls, revise it some more. Still not? Revise some more.
Get feedback on your query, preferably from other people who’ve been trying to query or people in the industry. I went to a whole conference devoted to crafting a query, and I posted mine on an agent blog who was having a contest to give feedback on queries, where mine won a spot and received feedback. I also asked the freelance book editor who went over my manuscript to also go over the query letter.
Some basic stuff. Use her or his name. “Dear Ms. Smith:” Do not mass email to a bunch of agents. Do research on whom you’re sending to. Personalize each query. By that, I mean, read their website and any interview and somehow mention something very specific that they said. Use their wording. Think about it: You’re trying to seduce this person. You’re looking to get a partner for life, much like a marriage partner. Is quantity going to get you into someone’s heart? Nope. Quality. Personalization. Making a connection.
Check your spelling. This seems like a no-brainer, yet agents say that they get queries with lots of misspellings.
Don’t try to be cute or funny. You may feel a connection to an agent because you read their blog, but do not give in to temptation to be funny. Business formal only.
Previous connections. Mention right away if you have a referral, if you had them in workshop, if you went to a conference they spoke at, if they included nice words in their response to a previous submittable, if they are your cousin-in-law.
Follow guidelines. For each and every query, read their guidelines on their website and follow them to a tee. Also, you can get a lot of good information on AgentQuery.com.
Play by the rules. Don’t be that guy who thinks that breaking the rules will get you in. It won’t. It’ll just irritate people.
I’d recommend sending queries out in batches. Maybe ten at a time, every month or two. Aim your query high and low. New agencies and new agents at established agencies are good places to query for new writers. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace and sign up for Publishers Lunch Deluxe and pay attention to the announcements for new agents.
Follow up politely. Give them the amount of time they state on their website. Or, if they don’t state it, I’d give them three months for a query, four months for a partial, and six months for a full. Repeat (politely) until you get a response. Don’t take it personally.
When is it time to give up? I don’t know. I think some people would’ve given up way before me. I queried 128 agents on my first manuscript and 62 on my second. Maybe that makes me a slow study. Like I said, pigheadedness is sometimes my greatest asset.
I hope this helps. You can do it, I know you can! And if you have questions, feel free to email me at tamara [at] tamaralinse.com.
Tamara Linse was raised on a ranch in northern Wyoming. She received a master’s in English from the University of Wyoming. Her work has been a finalist for Georgetown Review, Glimmer Train, and Arts & Letters contests, and a book of short stories was a semifinalist for the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize. She has been published in the South Dakota Review, Georgetown Review, Word Riot, and Talking River, among others. She lives in Wyoming, where she is an editor for a foundation and is hard at work on a novel.