Monday, July 4, 2011

How I Got My Agent

I do not have a good story. Or, rather, I do have a good story. It's in my novel. It's about a bald lady and her astronaut husband, and a meteor and a news anchorman and Burma and people dying alone in ravines and will power and robots. But I do not have a good agent-getting story. My agent story is probably going to be frustrating to read, if you're trying to get an agent. However, I do have a lesson at the end of it. One minor bit of advice that might help.

I spent ten years writing my novel. I threw out thousands and thousands of words. I started over two times. It was hard. In my mind, the novel became stranger and stranger, more and more itself. While I was writing for an audience, I did not firmly believe that it would find one. The book was more of a compulsion than a goal-oriented project. I did desperately want it to be published, but I did not think about that as much as I did getting to the end of the book, getting the characters through it, getting it all down and out of me.

During this time, while I was working away on my novel, I also became a mother and spent the decade also parenting and homeschooling two kids. Time was scarce. I did not have a lot of room to network, go to workshops, etc. I barely had time to drag myself to my critique group. However, I managed to do several things in this period of time that really helped me when I had a finished manuscript to sell.

1. Friends. I have friends who are writers. Not just writer friends, not just network friends, but mom friends, wine friends, holy crap this is awful friends, holy crap this is true elation friends, real friends. My two oldest friends are both writers. I try my very best not to feel competitive with them, and I worked very hard during the last ten years to not feel left behind by them, as they both achieved a lot of professional success and I did not. I had my moments of self loathing and doubt, but I always want my friends to succeed. It's a true fact that success often happens in clusters. When everyone around you seems to be "making it" and you are "failing utterly" you can comfort yourself by the fact that by planting yourself in a successful cluster, you're helping yourself.

Writers should not be afraid to be good friends with other writers. There are no angels of publishing sitting on high, looking down at your group of friends and deciding which lucky, golden, sparkly one to pick for success, leaving the others to sink into the mire of ruin. For every one of you that makes it, all of your chances improve. The other thing is that ultimately, they are the only ones that understand. They are the only ones that will tell you when you're fucking up, and will really genuinely be happy for you when you win.

2. Networking. Everyone tells you to network all the time. You're supposed to network your ass off. Just ask the internet. Google "The importance of networking" and you will find a lot of confirmations that it's highly important. The problem is how to network, especially if you're not already in the publishing industry or the writing world. You can make friends, yes, as I discussed up the page. And that counts. You can also send hopeful emails to people saying "Hello, I'd like to network with you." They might even send back an email that says "I would love to network with you. Let's network." However, the next step is tricky. You could easily get stuck looking at the person like, hey, do you like me? Check one: __yes __no.

The best way to network yourself into the writing world is to find a way to interact with writers, editors, agents, and other publishing types in some practical way. Before you're asking for help, before you have any need of help, you just happen to be around for some reason. You're a book designer. You're a reviewer. You're a manuscript consultant. You're a publicist. You're a party planner. You're a web site coder. You're a gadget scriptor. Something like that.

My dark plan to network while I was working on my novel was to create a writing contest for children. This project was an intersection of my homeschooling and my writing -- a happy coincidence. With a partner, another homeschooler, we set up many categories, found sponsors, and then began recruiting readers and judges from... the publishing industry. I emailed writers I have never met, agents I wouldn't have thought to pitch to, editors, illustrators, etc. Many of them ignored me, many said no thanks, but the crazy thing is that many said yes.

In the process of putting the contest together, I had a reason to talk to everyone I know, and ask them if they knew anyone in publishing. For the children, of course. Not to promote my own book, which didn't even exist at that point. It was no surprise: people knew people. I collected email addresses. I communicated, as charmingly as I could. There were exchanges back and forth. So, should you put together a writing contest for children? Maybe not. But if you can think of a way to interact with book people in a practical way that allows you to talk about, plan, and execute some arrangement that doesn't involve your novel, it will make it a lot easier, when your novel comes into the picture.

So what is my agent getting story? Here you go:

I wrote a book. I passed it to my friend, a writer. She passed it to her friend, an agent. I happened to have met this agent back when she was an editor (she was a friend's editor) and I also happened to have emailed back and forth with her as she was a judge for the children's writing contest. She liked the manuscript, and after some revision, we signed a contract.

In some ways my story can be reduced to, "It's who you know." In that way, it's a frustrating tale. However, even "It's who you know" ultimately comes down to "It's what you do." And there's always something that you can do about it. Eventually there's something you do in order to know who you know, and that's what you have to figure out.


  1. Great post, Lydia! And a pretty interesting story, in fact. I'm very interested in how moms end up finding the time to write and to turn their writing into a career, as I am considering becoming a mom some day in the relatively distant future and I'm not sure how that would work out with writing. ;) Hopefully I'll be published before I have a kid, if I ever do have a kid.

    Congrats on the contract! I'm looking forward to reading your book. I love a good sci-fi story.

    Are you working on another novel?

  2. Oh, and I meant to say...I've been seriously considering putting together a critique group for teen writers -- not to network, but because I probably would have been published and writing full-time by now if somebody had taught me how to use critique effectively fifteen years ago. I would be interested in picking your brain, if you're willing, about how you got the ball rolling with your kids' writing contest, since I think approaching families about this kind of thing could be tricky.

  3. Hi Libbie! Nice to "meet" you. :) I am working on another novel but I'm also still working on revisions of Shine, Shine, Shine. I just finished two days ago on the editorial notes, and now we're going into line edits. The other novel started about five years ago, though, so it's patient.

    I like your idea for teens. I did a project with some middle school aged kids and developed a curriculum for putting together a novel outline/plan/whatever... that was interesting. I just asked people I already knew to "lend me" their kids to participate, along with my son. Maybe a good first step would be writing a blog post staging your plan, and then tweet about it, put the word out, and see who bites. Or, wait, did you mean like a physical group meeting somewhere live?

  4. Big congrats on the deal!! Are you still doing editing work? I tried to recommend you, but friend said your email adddy bounced back? Can you send me good contact info. I'm at thanks

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