THE BEST $35 I EVER SPENT
With apologies to Courtney Milan, I am sharing the unflattering truth of How I Got My Agent.
In April 2014, I attended my second Chicago-North RWA Spring Fling Conference. On the last night of the conference, there is a Silent Auction to benefit a local literacy organization. Agents and editors offered critiques, the tables were loaded with gift baskets, and author Courtney Milan offered a 25-page critique.
Looking at that bid sheet, the extent of my calculations were something like..she writes Victorian... her books kick my butt... how would Courtney Milan improve the start of my book?
I wasn’t thinking my money would be better spent trying to win the eyeballs of an agent or editor, which is likely why I won. At $35.
Later that night, I had a thought to introduce myself so I hovered quite a while, waiting for the right moment—which never came. Courtney was at a table with four or five of her friends, who were all laughing at something on an iPad. So I hovered a bit longer until it became stupid, and finally, in one of the more awkward exchanges of my life, I butted my fat head in and said ‘hello,’ and explained that I won her critique.
(Note: Before and since that night, I have racked up countless awkward exchanges at RWA events. It’s like a disease. And perhaps inevitable, simply from trying not to gush over my favorite authors. The awkwardness has been compounded by the fact that I now have a promo card to shove at the likes of Elizabeth Hoyt and Sarah Maclean. Those were sooo awkward.)
My pages were sent off and, a week later, Courtney replied in an email that, to this day, makes me cry. The email with an offer of representation didn't, nor did the one that told me I'd sold my series. But hers did.
In a fiercely direct and smart and thrumming-with-energy email (which is her real-world voice, too), she wrote that she had no real notes to give and that she really liked my book. She wrote many other kind and encouraging lines, but here’s what gets to me every time: “I don't know if you have a full or what you're planning on doing with it, but TELL ME because I want to help you out.”
I could be a crazy person, and she writes something like that. She’d only read 25 pages (!), and she writes that. She has deadlines and workshops and a blog of her own, and she writes that to me.
Who does that?
She offered to tell her agent about me if I wanted to sell. She offered to read the full and give me a blurb if I wanted to self-publish.
Who does that?
After I composed myself, I composed an email to Courtney and took her up on her offer to refer me to the Kristin Nelson Agency. Sara Megibow at the Kristin Nelson Agency replied with a, “No query needed - just have her say ‘Courtney Milan told you I was en route’ or some such.” In June, I was offered representation.
(Note: That was the part that is unflattering to me. I didn’t write a query that slayed anyone. I was able to send the full, and with the force of Courtney Milan’s vetting behind me, the agents agreed to read the whole thing. I know that fact can irritate. I’ve had to craft queries and blurbs, too, usually with a cringe on my face. And I know none of those efforts would rise, head and shoulders, over any one else's. That was a HUGE bit of luck right there.)
No matter how my debut novel is received in December, after the many revisions and edits and the tugging and trimming of that original manuscript that Courtney read, into what is now IN SEARCH OF SCANDAL, I will forever appreciate that first act of faith and generosity.
There have been many other shows of support and acceptance from Courtney since then, but already she will not like this post—and so I apologize to her. (And I apologize if I’ve made her life more difficult in offering critiques for charity.) She waves off all my bumbling expressions of gratitude—a bit angrily at this point, actually—and if you have the chance to meet her, you’ll likely witness for yourself how self-effacing she is.
I struggled with whether to post this. Even acknowledging the truckload of luck that was dumped on me, in the end, it’s just more advice. And the idea of labeling anything I write "advice" is a little ridiculous.
But when I pick through the things I did right, here is what I find...
- I went to a second Spring Fling conference. My first was in 2012, where I pitched my first manuscript to the agent who would eventually represent me—Sara Megibow. She rejected the story that I’d worked on for three years, so I started another. And I wrote that one better.
- Between those conferences, I continued to attend my RWA chapter meetings, and listen to critiques and learn from all the writers there. And I shared IN SEARCH OF SCANDAL to get as much feedback as they’d give me. And that helped me write better.
- Before both conferences, I shared my writing freely. Sharing shuts some writers down. I don’t know why or how to fix that. For whatever reason, I feel safe with other writers and feel only gratitude (well, mostly gratitude) when people stare slack-jawed and confused at what I’ve written. I think it’s important to share, because you write the first two or three (or twelve) drafts for yourself, but ultimately you have to write for a reader. So I know that sharing made me write better.
- At the 2014 Spring Fling, I didn’t stop sharing. When I bid on Courtney’s critique, my intent was just to share. To be a better writer by getting help from a great writer.
- When Courtney offered to refer me to her agency, I was quick to send the entire book. You have to be ready to send your work if you’re pitching. (Again and again, I've heard from editors and agents that writers don’t often send pages that have been requested.)
- After her referral, I asked Courtney if I could share the entire manuscript with her, too. She read the whole thing and wrote a wonderful blurb that my agent used to sell my series. I think that testimonial probably helped quite a bit.
- That night at Spring Fling, I introduced myself to Courtney as the winning writer she’d be receiving an email from. I don’t know if she remembered me later or not, but maybe that awkward exchange was just enough to persuade her I wasn’t a crazy person. Or maybe it was enough to signal to her that I was serious and ready.
So those are some things I did right. In writing, there is luck—to be sure. And there is much friendship and support. And then there are some who are generous enough to fling open a door if you are ready and willing to share.
I hope you can attend a regional RWA conference to learn, and share, and fully engage with our generous writing community. And if you sign up for Spring Fling 2016, come up and say ‘hi,' and I'll shove—I mean, share a promotional bookmark with you.
I promise the encounter will be awkward, but I'll be happy to see you nonetheless.