Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
DEBUT AUTHORS TELL ALL
14 first-time authors discuss their journeys.
compiled by Chuck Sambuchino
The Divorce Papers (MARCH 2014, CROWN)
QUICK TAKE: The story of a very messy, contentious, high-profile divorce, and the smart, funny and sometimes prickly young woman lawyer dragooned into handling it, told entirely through emails, memos, letters, invitations, interviews, laws, and the like.”
WRITES FROM: New York City.
PRE-PAPERS: As a newly minted lawyer, I had taught a Moot Court course which required me to make up a case for my students to brief and argue. I thought then that writing a novel using real documents might be an interesting way of telling a story. Years later, after my own divorce, I decided to follow up on the idea. I also spent years freelancing by writing articles on law and the way it intersects with daily life.
TIME FRAME: The total time span was about 12 years, but mainly I wrote the book in two chunks, from 1999-2001, and from 2009 to 2011.
ENTER THE AGENT: I asked a young novelist acquaintance if she would read the book and tell me if she thought it might be publishable. She liked the book a lot, and this important step gave me the confidence to look for an agent. My [second] husband, who’s a journalist, approached his agent, Kathy Robbins of The Robbins Office, for her advice. After reading it, she said she’d like to be my agent—so long as my husband and I didn’t see problems in sharing an agent. We didn’t. He thinks of her as his agent, and I think of her as mine.
WHAT I LEARNED: I was naïve about the vulnerabilities it creates. I had to learn to take criticism and figure out from my agent’s and my editor’s suggestions how to rethink characters and situations I had known so long.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Remember TIC, or tush in chair. It’s crucial.
NEXT UP: I’ve started a second novel.
The Panopticon (JULY 2013, HOGARTH)
QUICK TAKE: The story of 16-year-old panopticon prisoner Anais Hendricks, who seeks the outlawed concepts of identity and spirit.
WRITES FROM: Scotland.
BEFORE PANOPTICON: I did quite a lot of playwriting, film scripting, poetry, short stories, and wrote my first novel at 21 (which I put in a drawer and never looked at again). In my late 20s, I departed from theater and embraced my first love (the only form I knew had no boundaries), which is fiction. I returned to studying [the craft] and won awards. This all helped me to get an agent and publication deal.
TIME FRAME: I wrote my first draft over a summer, averaging 12 hours a day, roughly seven days a week. It came in at around 160,000 words. I cut it almost in half and changed it from third person to first person.
ENTER THE AGENT: I had just been shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, and at the same time the author Ali Smith had been writing to me about my poetry. She was kind enough to take a look at my novel [and] suggest a few agents. When I met my agent, Tracy Bohan of The Wylie Agency, I knew straight away that I wanted to work with her.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I kept working exceptionally hard, and I often thought it might be a small thing that makes a difference. You know, you meet someone at a reading one day, they like [your work], they recommend your poetry to someone else. Or, you enter a small competition, it gives you confidence, you enter another.
NEXT UP: I am just finishing [a new] novel. I completed a short-story collection a few months ago, and I am finally collating all the poetry I’ve written over the last few years.
Fiend (JULY 2013, CROWN)
QUICK TAKE: A love story between two methamphetamine addicts during the zombie apocalypse.
WRITES FROM: Denver.
BEFORE FIEND: I was in my second year of grad school at Colorado State University when I started writing Fiend. I had the good fortune of landing a few short stories in literary journals, which eventually served to give me the confidence to start on a novel.
TIME FRAME: The first draft of Fiend took about six weeks to write. From the opening sentence, I had a pretty good handle on my first-person narrator (fears, desires, history, insecurities, etc.), and just wrote without worrying about what was happening or why.
ENTER THE AGENT: I met my agent, James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates, at the 2011 AWP convention in Washington D.C. I was working at The Colorado Review table when he walked up and we started talking. He gave me his card and told me to send something over. The next week I sent the first chapter of Fiend and I signed with him a few days later.
WHAT I LEARNED: 1) It takes forever. 2) An editor makes a manuscript so much better with the harsh-yet-necessary words, “This part isn’t working.” I was under the impression that once you sold a book, the work was pretty much done. My editor guided me through two rewrites of Fiend’s ending, which I’m immensely grateful for.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: Taking risks. It probably sounds corny and cliché, but it’s true. I think I took a chance with the book itself. The voice is rather raw, the subject matter vulgar at times, and it merges two seemingly incongruent genres.
IF I COULD DO IT AGAIN: Been more aware/grateful of each step along the way.
BEST ADVICE: Write books you would want to read.
NEXT UP: My agent is about to start shopping around my new novel, A Lesson on Invisibility.
The Martian (FEBRUARY 2014, CROWN)
QUICK TAKE: An astronaut must use his wits to survive after being accidentally left behind on Mars.
WRITES FROM: Mountain View, Calif., Earth
PRE-MARTIAN: I’ve been writing fiction for years and posting it in serial form to my website. The Martian was one such story. Before that, I wrote and drew two webcomics: “Casey and Andy” and “Cheshire Crossing.”
TIME FRAME: It took me three years to write The Martian. I posted it chapter by chapter to my website as a serial story. The feedback from my readers kept my motivation up and made for a better story as they pointed out problems and plot holes.
ENTER THE AGENT: It started with me self-publishing The Martian to Amazon Kindle. It sold very well and caught the interest of publishers. An editor at a major publishing house recommended the book to his literary agent colleague, David Fugate [of Launchbooks Literary Agency]. David then contacted me to ask if I was looking for representation.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: I was surprised at how long traditional publishing takes. I guess the Internet and the instant gratification it offers have spoiled me.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: Self-publishing on Kindle was the key. It’s amazing the reach Amazon has. It was available for free on my website, while, at the same time, it was 99 cents on Kindle, but ten times as many people bought the Kindle version as downloaded the free version. Once it got in to the top-ten rankings, it snowballed from there.
PLATFORM: I have a website and a mailing list where I post short stories and serials for free. I slowly built up a few thousand readers. Those core readers are great, because I get immediate feedback.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: The Internet is your friend. Create a website, or just a blog if you don’t want the hassle of site maintenance. Post your stories there and you will build up a reader base.
NEXT UP: I have a sci-fi epic that I’ve been posting in serial form to my website.
JAMES B. CONROY
Our One Common Country (JANUARY 2014, LYONS PRESS)
QUICK TAKE: The story of when Abraham Lincoln secretly met with three Confederate leaders in 1865 in the hopes to bring the Civil War to a peaceful conclusion.
WRITES FROM: Hingham, Mass.
PRE-COUNTRY: While practicing law for 32 years and serving as a Senate and Congressional aide for years before that, I always wanted to write history. After many starts and stops, I tripped across the idea of a book on the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. I was amazed to learn that no one had written a book about it and thrilled to find my subject.
TIME FRAME: While working full time as a litigator, it took me four and a half years to research and write the book—considerably longer than it took to fight the Civil War. Having finished almost all of the research, I worked my way through four progressively tighter drafts in a year and a half.
ENTER THE AGENT: Before she became my agent, the brilliant Alice Martell [of The Martell Agency] represented my son, Scott Conroy, who co-authored a book on Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. Scott referred me to Alice, and shamed me into getting serious about writing a book of my own. Alice was taken with the proposal from the start, confirmed my belief in it, and made it all happen.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: I evaded the surrender of the manuscript until it was ripped from my tight little hand—always looking for another detail to research. Parting is such sweet sorrow.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I was fortunate to generate a burst of energy to pursue the career I always wanted, at an age when my contemporaries are retiring.
DO DIFFERENT NEXT TIME: I would have followed my dream and taken my chances much sooner in life than I did.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Write what you are good at, on an unexhausted subject, and ask yourself if you are putting down your pen or taking your hands off the keyboard out of laziness or necessity.
NEXT UP: If I told you, I would have to shoot you.
My Brother’s Name (SEPTEMBER 2013, SCARLETTA PRESS)
QUICK TAKE: When Jane’s brother suffers a psychotic break, she chooses to assume his identity with the mad hope that living her life as her brother will keep the version of the brother she idolized alive in the world.
WRITES FROM: Chicago
BEFORE THE BOOK: I wrote and published short stories in literary magazines and journals for the past 10 years. The success of having stories published, and on occasion receiving awards and recognition, gave me the motivation and faith to pursue writing a novel.
TIME FRAME: I began writing some version of this novel in 2005, so it has been many years in the making.
ENTER THE AGENT: I did not have an agent for this book. I previously had an agent who shopped a proposal for this novel, but no one picked up the project and she eventually left the field. While I was trying to find a new agent and working on academic projects, I sent the manuscript unsolicited to Scarletta Press. When the first reader at Scarletta replied and said, “I fell in love with this novel,” I felt like the book had found the right home and the right hands.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I was willing to imagine alternatives to the New York book scene. I think it’s a great time to be a writer looking for an audience. Also, serendipity.
DO DIFFERENT NEXT TIME: I would’ve started networking with writers and editors and other industry professionals earlier to develop a sense of how this project could best be pitched and positioned for the market.
PLATFORM: The very best decision I’ve made about doing this was to hire a publicist. I needed professional guidance in terms of how to think about social media, how to conceptualize the audience for this book, and how to reach out to that audience.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Stay in touch with mentors, editors, and writer friends—not just by adding to an ever-growing list of contacts or social media friends, but by reading and supporting their work. Read the novels of the writers who mentor you, the journals and magazines that publish you, and pay attention to the careers of the editors who take an interest in your work.
NEXT UP: I’m working on a novel-in-stories based on the characters from my short story “Halley’s Comet.”
Midnight Thief (JULY 2014, DISNEY-HYPERION)
QUICK TAKE: An acrobatic thief takes a mysterious job with the Assassins Guild, and a young knight stumbles upon her trail.
WRITES FROM: Los Angeles.
BEFORE THE BOOK: I published a nonfiction essay, “From Words to Brain,” with a small digital press on the neuroscience of reading.
TIME FRAME: I started writing a novel in high school. Eventually I got to about 60 pages. Then I went to college and stopped writing. When I turned 25, I took out the old manuscript. The most interesting character was the heroine’s best friend, Kyra. So I took Kyra and rewrote the manuscript to be about her. It took me about two years to finish.
ENTER THE AGENT: I initially wanted to self-publish my novel, but my writer friends suggested I query a few agents. As irony would have it, I got an offer fairly quickly, and decided to give the traditional pathway a try. My agent is Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.
WHAT I LEARNED: Just how important your first book is to your career. The sales numbers color your record from then on, and it also determines the books you write after that.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I didn’t start querying until the manuscript was absolutely ready. I got a few full requests at conferences, but I waited a year before I sent it to those agents. It was hard to wait, but I knew I only had one chance. My manuscript went through my critique group and beta readers (about 20 total) before I started querying.
WHAT I WISH I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENT: I would’ve revised even more before the manuscript went on submission to editors. Because the more offers you have for your manuscript, the higher your advance, and the more support and publicity your book will ultimately get.
PLATFORM: To gain readers for my fiction, I recently self-published a novella called Poison Dance that’s related to Midnight Thief. I’ve been doing a lot of promotion for the novella, as well as giving it away for reviews in hopes of building buzz and gaining readers.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Get critique partners that you can trust.
NEXT UP: I’m exploring the possibility of a sequel to Midnight Thief, as well as some ideas for unrelated works.
Chasing the Sun (MAY 2014, NEW HARVEST)
QUICK TAKE: A tense family drama about a husband’s quest to save his wife, who’s been kidnapped in Lima, Peru, in 1992, and how far he’ll go to save their imperfect marriage.
WRITES FROM: Austin, Texas
BEFORE THE BOOK: I worked as an editor at a start-up magazine on Miami Beach before deciding to freelance full-time. I worked on magazine assignments by day, and wrote fiction by night/morning.
TIME FRAME: Chasing the Sun was my “drawer novel.” It began as my senior thesis when I was a Creative Writing undergrad at the University of Miami, but when I graduated in 2006, I didn’t feel ready to take it any further. I tucked it away and wrote a new story—a novel that, five years later, led to me signing with my agent. While we waited and hoped for that novel to sell (it didn’t), I went back to Chasing the Sun and revised it some more. Seven years after I first started writing it, the story sold.
ENTER THE AGENT: I met Brandi Bowles of Foundry Literary + Media at the Writer’s League of Texas Agent & Editors Conference in 2010. Brandi and I saw eye-to-eye on so many things; I was delighted to sign with her.
WHAT I LEARNED: That there are no guarantees. I’d heard about many authors who landed an agent and then the book didn’t sell, but I didn’t want to think it’d happen to me. Success isn’t just the multiple offers of representation, or the luck of a bestseller; it’s not giving up when rejection comes.
WHAT I WISH I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENT: Managing my expectations would’ve saved me a lot of hardship. There’s no point where things suddenly become easy. Writing a book, landing an agent, getting a book deal and then having that book sell to readers—it’s all hard work. But it’s incredibly rewarding every step of the way.
PLATFORM: I blog at TheDebutanteBall.com, a group blog made up of five first-time novelists, and I attend as many signings and events as I can within my local literary community.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: If you can write your way into a problem, you can write your way out of it. It’s like building a puzzle: You can’t figure out where the pieces go by staring at it. You have to try one piece after another until the right one fits.
NEXT UP: I’ve started writing a new novel.
Murder & Moonshine (MAY 2014, MINOTAUR BOOKS)
QUICK TAKE: When a dead body turns up at the local diner in sleepy southwestern Virginia, Daisy McGovern, a young, recently-separated waitress, learns that some secrets are more dangerous to keep than others, especially when there’s money and moonshine involved.
WRITES FROM: Roanoke, Va.
TIME FRAME: I wrote the bulk of the book over several months in a remote log cabin located in Pittsylvania County, Va. It was scenic and very isolated.
ENTER THE AGENT: Kari Stuart at ICM Partners represents me, and she is wonderful to work with! I sent her a short, simple query letter.
WHAT I LEARNED: I’ve learned patience. And more patience.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I started writing, and I kept on writing. Although that may sound obvious, it’s true. People are always telling me that they would like to become a writer, but they don’t actually write anything. You have to write and continue to write.
DO DIFFERENT NEXT TIME: Buy a good dictionary earlier! I initially wrote much of the manuscript by hand, so I didn’t have spellcheck.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Always keep a bottle of whiskey nearby.
NEXT UP: The novel’s sequel: Mayhem and Moonshine.
ALLISON HOFFMAN LARK
AmiguruME: Make Cute Crocheted People (OCT. 2013, LARK CRAFT BOOKS)
QUICK TAKE: This book enables the reader to crochet a custom doll to look like anyone he or she would like, famous or familiar, using a selection of many different patterns from head to toe.
WRITES FROM: Austin, Texas
BEFORE THE BOOK: I’d done a lot of designing for my personal website as well as several yarn companies, magazines and websites. I was constantly getting requests for this celebrity or that character, so I recognized the demand for a DIY guide to designing custom dolls.
TIME FRAME: I began writing the book in the summer of 2011 and had everything completed within a year. My biggest challenge was narrowing down the number of dolls that would actually be pictured in the book. I had almost too many ideas and spent hours trying to squeeze all of my designs into the number of dolls I was aiming to finish.
ENTER THE AGENT: Through my research, one name—Kate McKean of Howard Morhaim Literary—kept popping up. I sent her a query and talked to her on the phone. She was excited about my project and knew so much about the genre and what certain publishers were looking for. It was a perfect match.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: I was not prepared for how long it would take to write this book! Writing, rewriting, making everything consistent and thorough—all of that took a lot of time.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: Lots of people can write excellent crochet patterns and many more can crochet amazingly, but to get recognition in this craft, I think you need a signature style and niche. I started crocheting people and soon became recognized for that very skill. I also got lots of celebrity endorsements. Conan O’Brien showed my work on his show and handpicked me to be part of his Conan Fan Art gallery shows in San Diego and New York. Martha Stewart became familiar with my work and invited me to be on her show. Lots of celebrities have tweeted and shown support online for what I’m doing, so I’ve gotten a fan base just through their kind words and photos.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Don’t compare your work to another’s. In crafting, there is a lot of comparing and competition sometimes, but if you try not to focus on “one-upping,” and follow your own instincts instead, it will come a lot easier.
NEXT UP: I have many ideas for more books. I’ve been designing for galleries and several art shows around the country.
Shovel Ready (JAN. 2014, CROWN)
QUICK TAKE: Spademan, a former garbageman turned hitman who’s living in a post-dirty-bomb New York, is hired to kill the daughter of America’s most famous evangelist.
WRITES FROM: Brooklyn, N.Y.
BEFORE THE BOOK: I’ve been a journalist for 15 years, the last three at The New York Times Magazine. Shovel Ready is my first published novel, but not my first novel. My first novel, which was not hardboiled, dystopian, or thrilling, now lives in quiet retirement in a very comfortable desk drawer.
TIME FRAME: The first draft was finished very quickly after just a few months of writing. Then came an extensive editing process, with notes first from my wife (who’s a playwright), and then, later, from my editor.
ENTER THE AGENT: My agent is David McCormick of McCormick & Williams. He approached me about becoming my agent back in 2006 actually, because he’d been interested in some of my nonfiction journalism work. But he’s been terrifically supportive of my fiction writing as well.
WHAT I LEARNED: Just how many people are involved in making a single book. It’s humbling and gratifying to have such a large team of talented people, from the cover designer to the copy editors to the sales force, all working together on something that sprang out of your brain.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: For starters, I had to stop worrying, or even thinking, about getting published. My first novel (shelved) and second one (abandoned) were both strangulated, to some degree, by my inability to let go of notions I had about how each novel might eventually be received.
PLATFORM: As a journalist, I already have some kind of public profile, and I’ve long been very active on Twitter, since I enjoy it.
BEST ADVICE: Write the book you want to read. It’s the only way you’ll write anything that’s any good.
NEXT UP: A sequel to Shovel Ready. So I’m at work on that right now.
Darkwalker: A Nicolas Lenoir Novel (DEC. 2013, ROC)
QUICK TAKE: To solve a series of disturbing crimes, a cynical detective is forced to confront the demons of his past—literally.
WRITES FROM: New York City and Bujumbura, Burundi.
BEFORE THE BOOK: A short story of mine appeared in a Wizards of the Coast anthology (“Realms of the Dragons II”) back in 2005. It gave me confidence to start taking writing a bit more seriously. I started on Darkwalker shortly after that, but for a variety of reasons, it ended up getting put on hold.
TIME FRAME: The first half was written back in 2008, but I spent the next few years bouncing around the world, often in some very remote places where it wasn’t so easy to sit down and write. It took a long time to come back to the manuscript, but when I did, I had gathered a lot of new experiences and ideas, many of which found their way onto the pages.
ENTER THE AGENT: I approached Jabberwocky Literary Agency back in 2007. The agent I originally queried moved on shortly afterward, but Joshua Bilmes agreed to take me on in 2008. These days, I’m working with both Joshua and [his co-agent] Lisa Rodgers.
WHAT I LEARNED: Patience. Finishing a novel is an exciting experience; you want to share it with the world right away. But typing “the end” on the first draft is just the beginning.
WHAT I DID RIGHT: I did my homework. I sought advice from published authors, many of whom were generous enough to give it. Most of all, I stuck with it.
IF I COULD DO IT AGAIN: I wouldn’t have let my writing lapse for as long as I did. Taking time away can be a good thing, especially if you come back to a project with fresh eyes. But letting too much time pass makes getting back into the rhythm a lot harder.
BEST ADVICE: Try to find a way of getting good, structured criticism from people who are not afraid to tell you where yours misses the mark.
NEXT UP: The sequel to Darkwalker is well underway. It should hit shelves December 2014.
Know the Night: A Memoir (MARCH 2014, SIMON & SCHUSTER)
QUICK TAKE: My experience of being up at night with my oldest son, who has Down syndrome and autism, combined with the 1930s Antarctic adventure of Admiral Richard Byrd.
WRITES FROM: Rhode Island.
BEFORE THE BOOK: I was deeply involved with both of my young sons’ care, as well as writing poetry, which seemed to work with my schedule. I had had a number of poems and a short story published in literary journals. In 2008, I took a writing workshop that focused on personal essays and memoir. The work I began in that class eventually became Know the Night.
TIME FRAME: The entire process was close to four years, including the final edits with the publisher. I wrote for well over two years without a structure. I was working with various subjects: my son’s insomnia, Admiral Byrd and Antarctica, jazz, and other smaller but potent things, and I really wasn’t sure how I was going to bring them all together. After I received the structural lightning bolt, it was time to lay all my previous work, two years worth, on the kitchen table and do major surgery.
ENTER THE AGENT: I attended a writers’ conference and one of the faculty who read an early excerpt of my manuscript ended up telling an agent about it many months later. When the agent, Nathaniel Jacks of Inkwell Management, contacted me, I wasn’t remotely finished. But Nathaniel patiently waited for me to finish. Knowing that he was on the other end, and receiving his feedback, was tremendously helpful.
DO DIFFERENT NEXT TIME: I would go to conferences and workshops sooner than I did. I worked in solitude for a very long time, without supportive peers and not a lot of feedback.
PLATFORM: Once the book was sold, I was lucky enough to participate in Grub Street’s Launch Lab program in Boston. The group consisted of 14 authors whose books were about to come out, and the program coaches opened up many of the mysteries surrounding book launches and the various kinds of promotion, how to use tools like social media and align those tools with personal goals. It gave me friendships and a community I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s the kind of program that should be commonplace but somehow is not.
ADVICE FOR WRITERS: “Write what fascinates you.” I would love to thank the person who said this, but I can’t remember where I read it.
NEXT UP: I’m working on a collection of short stories.
CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino on Twitter) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His pop-humor books include How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (film rights optioned by Sony) and Red Dog / Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political (reddog-bluedog.com). Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., as well as Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, sleep-deprived new father, guitarist, dog owner, and cookie addict.