Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call

 Finding a literary agent, Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call
Nov 152016

Well, we’re one week out from the shocking US Presidential election that has left so many devastated. I’m personally just starting to claw myself out of a well of despair. Attending a poetry reading Friday night at Hugo House helped, as did a reassuring note from my agent that a Trump presidency doesn’t spell the demise of the publishing industry. Although I refuse to call things back to normal in America, it does make sense for us writers to get back to work as we feel able, for the good of the country and for our own sanity. Writing CAN make a difference. And since you sometimes need an agent to help you get your words out into the world, let’s talk about a truly exciting part of the agent search: acing a phone call with someone who’s interested in representing you.


When Opportunity Knocks, Be Ready

Most of the time, an agent will want to schedule the call in advance, but a few go getters may ring without warning, so make sure you’ve done your homework regarding the agents you’ve queried. Also, learn as much as you can about how the publishing world works early in the submission process so that you’re not totally unprepared if a call takes you by surprise. Like Oprah says…


For the purposes of this post, however, let’s assume you have some prep time before a scheduled call. After you jump up and down and scream for joy and maybe eat a cookie because an agent wants to chat, what should you do?


First of all, do a fresh round of the research on the agent.

Review the agent’s website. Read any interviews they’ve given or articles they’ve published. Check YouTube for videos.  Google madly.

If you’ve purchased a Publishers Marketplace membership as I suggested in a previous post, go to PW now and check out the agent’s sales history. Has the agent sold any books recently? If not, why not? Have they sold any books in your category lately? Have they sold multiple books for the same author? (Hint: That may be important if you’re looking for a long-term career partner.) Also, see how many clients the agent has. Will they have plenty of time to devote to you, or be spread thin?  Skim the agent’s client list — is there anybody you know/could reach out to and see if they are satisfied with their representation?

Of course, not all agents contribute data to PW, but for those who do, you’ll find the site a useful source of info that can  help you identify areas you want to address during the call. And if you’re lucky enough to have more than one agent vying for your attentions, be sure to use PW to compare their profiles.

Amazingly, I had two agent phone calls to prepare for this summer. A review of PW’s data revealed that one of them had sold several memoirs to small presses — publishing houses with typical advances of $5K or so that I knew I didn’t need an agent to approach. This was useful info to have in my back pocket, since I’d prefer not to share a tiny advance with an agent if I don’t have to!  Plus, my dream is to have the support of one of the Big 5, so as I went into my calls, I wanted to determine if either/both of the agents shared my big vision.


Next, draft a list questions.

I wish I’d saved my questions,  but I tossed them right after I made my agent decision. As always, I googled obsessively to prepare (ie “literary agent call”and “what to ask a literary agent before signing.”) I read tons of posts on asking the right questions. For example, the site has a great basic list:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is NOTE: I wouldn’t waste time asking this — this is part of your research!
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with? AGAIN: I think you should do your homework here, and instead of asking what the agent has sold, maybe ask some more specific questions related to those titles. For example: I saw on Publisher’s Marketplace that you recently sold a debut novel at auction. I’m also a new author, so maybe you could tell me a little about how that successful deal came about…
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Additional questions that I recall adding to my list include:

Why do you want to represent my memoir?

After I finish this book, I’d like to write a novel. Assuming we have a good experience working together on the memoir, what is your experience in placing debut fiction?

Do you have an assistant? If so, will I be dealing with the assistant or directly with you most of the time?
I went into my calls highly prepared, but here’s the thing: I didn’t really need to ask most of these questions. Agents conduct these calls all the time, and they have a good sense about what authors want and need to know. Both of the women I spoke to immediately told me why they wanted to represent my book, volunteered backstory on how they got into the industry, and the conversation flowed from there. But I was glad I had my question list, which ensured I had a cheat sheet to calm my nerves and a checklist to consult so that the call covered everything I wanted to know.


Go into the conversation with a clear — but not rigid — vision for your book and your career.

As writers, we deal with so much rejection that it’s easy to collapse in a heap of gratitude should an agent actually offer us the time of day, BUT if you’ve reached this stage of the process, it’s critical that you have a strong vision for your project and your career. Every agent is not a good agent. Every good agent is not a good match for every writer. Now is the time to put your insecurities aside and remember you have something to offer or the agent wouldn’t be pursuing you. This is a potential business partnership. Think it through and don’t just say yes.

As I mentioned above, I’m holding on to a big vision for my memoir, and so I was thrilled when one of the agents I spoke with articulated a similarly big vision. I loved her submission philosophy also: work and work on the material until it feels absolutely ready, and then go big and wide, to the “top” of publishing.

The agent I chose not to partner with also seemed likable and smart, but during our call she said she wanted to take my material out immediately to editors at both large and small presses at once. This made me feel like her strategy leaned more to a fast deal vs the best deal, which didn’t sit right. Also, she encouraged me to edit my proposal to expand on the market potential for my book among a certain audience of readers — an audience that others in the publishing industry had told me was small, small, small. This made me feel like the agent hadn’t really done her homework. Perhaps if she’d been the only one to an extend an offer I would have tried to talk through these issues and possibly signed with her, but because I had an offer that felt perfect in every way, my choice was clear.

All that said, the ideal agent brings experience to the table that complements your own. The ideal agent also can be more objective about a book and its prospects than you, the writer. Having a clear vision about your book is critical for finding the right champion, but at the same time, you have to remain open to feedback from someone who is an expert in the field. Again, it all comes down to educating yourself, and then trusting your gut to leap in the right direction.


Finally, set yourself up for success in the moment.

This could be the call of a lifetime, so optimize conditions around appointment time as much as possible. As I said earlier, I conducted my agent search over the summer, so when it came time to have conversations with interested agents, I was dealing with kids home on summer vacation. My children are teens, so you might think that they would refrain from bothering me while I’m on the phone, which would mean you’ve never parented a teenager.

I couldn’t take the risk.

For my calls, I got out of the house. I drove to a beautiful park in my neighborhood and parked my Volvo in a spot where the view was lovely and spent 15 minutes on deep breathing and meditation so that I was calm and ready when the phone rang. Not all of us have the luxury of getting away, but do what you can. If you have young kids, try to hire a sitter at call time or set the kids up with a movie. If you work full-time, try to set up the call for the start of the day or lunchtime, and maybe take it away from the desk where you’re a lawyer/administrator/ salesperson etc. Claim some space and privacy, and do your best.

When the phone rings, take a breath. Say hello. You’ve got this.


In case you missed my previous posts on Finding a Literary Agent, check out:

On Being a Late Bloomer: AKA “I finally got a literary agent”

Finding a Literary Agent: How do you decide who to query?

Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and personalizing the query letter

Finding a Literary Agent: Plotting your submission strategy







 Posted by at 9:01 pm

An Imperfectly Magical Writing Residency at The Lemon Tree House in Tuscany

 Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on An Imperfectly Magical Writing Residency at The Lemon Tree House in Tuscany
Nov 072016

Last year I spent a week writing in Walla Walla, Washington, courtesy of the Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Ms. Leticia Lopez, who generously donated the use of her vacation home for the residency. I wrote about that experience on the blog as The Week of Magical Thinking, revealing my absurd fantasy that I’d  be able to draft most of my memoir in seven days. Of course that didn’t happen, though I did get some pages written.

I’ve since learned that, for me, writing this memoir is a marathon, and that’s okay. As long as I dip into the manuscript regularly, the pages accrue. But here’s a confession: this summer I got busy with kids and freelancing and my literary agent search, and I let the manuscript grow a little cold.

Never fear, I told myself, I’ve got another residency coming  — and this one is TWO WEEKS LONG. AT A VILLA. IN ITALY.


A view of Camporsevoli, “The Lemon Tree House,” from their website.


I now knew better than to pretend that I’d finish my book in those two weeks, but in the words of the goddess Cheryl Strayed, I intended to “write like a motherfucker” and make up for the lost time of the summer.

Hope springs eternal, ya’ll.

Unfortunately, life proved hectic on the family and work fronts in the weeks leading up to my residency at The Lemon Tree House in Comporsevoli, Italy. In addition to back-to-school craziness and general preparing-to-go-out-of-town stress, two of my kids suffered sports injuries that required repeated medical appointments, plus we have some other family worries at the moment. Then, just as I was boarding my flight, wondering what important item I’d forgotten to pack, an essay I’d turned in to espnW weeks before landed back in my in box for edits.

Bottom line: Despite months of anticipation, I just wasn’t in the centered place I’d hoped to be for this residency.

After landing in Florence and meeting my fellow “Lemon Trees” at a delicious welcome dinner (hello lemon caper pasta!) I spent the first day recovering from jet lag, the second day day revising that essay on deadline, the third day lying in bed with a stomach ache, and the fourth day pacing around panicked about the fact that I only had 10 days left to work, fretting because my new agent was waiting to seeing what I produced. Also, even though we were up in the Tuscan Hills, the wifi somehow worked great, allowing me to use the internet to obsess over the US Presidential election instead of writing. Given that the whole Trump “grab ’em by the pussy” horror erupted during that time, I found it really hard not to check the news daily.

Finally one night I texted my husband at 2 am Italy time to confess that I felt weird, and sad, and guilty. After all, I was moping around  a villa, enjoying hot breakfast every morning prepared with love by Lemon Tree founders Julie Jolicoeur  and Erinn Beth Langille,  and savoring a delicious three-course meal every night prepared by Chef Jason Yates while my husband was at home driving our three kids to soccer. My stepmom also had taken off work and flown across the country to help out at my house. Folks were sacrificing to give me this time and I was self-indulgently freaking out. Oh, and Italy had turned cold, and I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes. Can you say “big whiny baby?”


I mean, just look at that pasta. WTF was my problem? I was in ITALY!!!

Once I confessed my uneasy feelings, however, I started to make peace with them. I spent time walking through the woods and read Heidi Julavits brilliant memoir, The Folded Clock. I started going through manuscript edits from my agent, and saw they were small tweaks, not major overhauls, which tamped down some anxiety. I realized that some of the weird feelings and tense body sensations I was having mimicked feelings I’d had while living the experiences I’m writing about in my memoir. I was working some things out at a subconscious level, even if I wasn’t sure what they were and didn’t much like the process.

But Italy is magical, even when you feel like jumping out of your skin. Time away from your typical routine is a gift that may lead to magical productivity, or may give you an opportunity to wrestle with all the muck you ignore as you’re hustling through everyday life that gets in the way of creative work. I felt mucked up, but the structure at The Lemon Tree House helped.

Every evening at 5:30 pm, the dozen of us writers and artists gathered with faculty and staff at “The Courthouse” for craft talks and readings, punctuated by festive cocktails mixed by novelist Rosa Rankin-Gee, and followed by another amazing meal from Jason. Rosa and the other faculty-in-residence Craig Francis Power, Nadja Spiegelman, Ryley O’Byrne, and Sarah Cale were generous with their insights and encouragement, the staff led by Julie and Erinn was kind and attentive, and   my fellow Lemon Trees were just a lovely bunch. I got my very first shiatsu massage from Coralie Aussi, a masseuse who’d come from Paris to help us all with our aches and pains. Slowly, as the residency unspooled, my funk lifted.


“The Courthouse,” where we gathered for evening salons, and prosecco, and lambrusco, and rum punch, and sangria, and…the drinks never stopped, though there were delicious mocktails available for those who preferred that option.

My time in Italy inspired and rejuvenated me, and by the end of the two weeks, I was writing again/at last. I was reminded yet again that I’m not a writing machine with an on/off switch, as much as I might like to be at times. I’m learning that sometimes a residency is about priming the pump, and then the creativity flows when you return home. My everyday life remains very stressful at the moment, but I’m getting the work done in part because I was able to take a break to honor it. To be able to do that is a huge privilege, and I’m thankful. I still feel some pressure to make that time pay off, but in a good way.

If you’re interested in attending The Lemon Tree House in 2017, applications are open now through December 1 for spring and fall residencies. There are fees associated with the program, but I can tell you it’s high quality and a TREMENDOUS value for the price if it suits your budget. I may even go back myself…


The wonderful writers and artists at The Lemon Tree House, Fall 2016. Miss you all!



 Posted by at 8:17 pm
Oct 292016

This weekend the Out of the Binders Conference for women and gender non-conforming writers is happening in New York. The event known as BinderCon offers keynotes, like today’s apparently amazing opening address from novelist/NYT journalist Anna Quindlen, panel discussions, and speed pitch sessions, where attendees can propose story and book ideas to magazine and book editors, and literary agents.

Founded by writers Luz Alptraum and Leigh Stein, Out of the Binders is “a non-profit devoted to advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers by connecting them with the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities they need to get ahead as authors, journalists, screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights, poets, and more.” The name Out of the Binders references Mitt Romney’s remark during the 2012 presidential debate that he had “binders full of women” to consider for his team, and communicates the group’s mission to move women writers from the margins to the center.

The very first BinderCon was held just two years ago. The fast-growing organization has also helped create dozens of closed online networking groups for women writers; members are sworn to secrecy regarding what is discussed there. I participate in several of those groups, and the support and information I’ve gained there has boosted my career beyond my wildest imaginings. But I’m writing today specifically about the conference, which is public, and the attendance policies that have a lot of folks up in arms, including me.

Search #BinderCon on twitter right now and you’ll uncover endless bits of writing/career wisdom flowing from today’s sessions. You’ll also find Britni de la Cretaz’s name mentioned quite a bit. Britni,  a mother of two who writes about “the intersections of feminism, sports, addiction, and parenting,” for magazines like Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, appeared on today’s Reproductive Justice panel. During the session, a colleague was babysitting Britni’s 6 week old baby in a nearby coffeeshop because the nursing infant not welcome inside the conference venue.

BinderCon’s no infant/no child policy got some press last year  when organizers made it clear to writer Jade Sanchez-Ventura that she wasn’t allowed to attend with her nursing baby, even though Ventura’s mother planned accompany her as an additional baby whisperer. Ventura wrote about her experience for Mutha Magazine in an essay titled “My Baby Comes with Me,” which kicked up some dust at the time, but not enough, since the essay is still relevant, and getting fresh shares on social media in light of this year’s gathering.

Lux Alptraum wrote a rebuttal to Ventura’s piece at the time, also published in Mutha, that read in part:

Over the past year and a half, we’ve wrestled with the question of who BinderCon is for. Should men be allowed to attend? Should attendees be allowed to bring their children? Should talented teenagers be welcomed as attendees? After much discussion, our team – an impressive group of accomplished writers; some child-free, some moms – came to the conclusion that, in order to provide the best BinderCon experience for all our attendees, attendance must be limited to participants only. As a professional development conference focused on advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers, that means attendance is limited to working and aspiring writers above the age of eighteen who identify as women or gender non-conforming.

Alptraum went on to say that, as a young, mostly volunteer organization, BinderCon faces financial constraints and can’t provide childcare, but they welcome donations! The conference currently offers some scholarships and childcare stipends of up to $250, which is wonderful. But bottom line: banning babies and kids is not about the money. Allowing a nursing mother to wear her infant in a sling costs nothing. Allowing a single mom/parent whose babysitter bailed to bring her introverted 4 year old along with some coloring books and juice boxes also costs nothing. Yes, children can be disruptive at a professional conference — but so can adults. Disruptive people should be asked to leave, regardless of age.

Inherent in BinderCon’s policy is the idea that mothers/parents can’t be trusted as professionals to respect the needs of their colleagues. Newsflash: other than nursing mothers, most of us would PREFER fly solo at a professional event.  An open and inclusive attendance policy won’t somehow transform BinderCon into a birthday party at Chuckie Cheese. What it will do is allow a few more parent writers to attend, especially nursing mothers, single parents, and low income folks.

The twitter campaign protesting the attendance policy is capturing attention. I’m told that BinderCon organizers interrupted the Reproductive Justice panel today to announce they’ve just added a moderated discussion on the childcare policy, set for Sunday at 9:30 am. Will the session prove to be a meaningful exploration of the issue, or simple damage control? We’ll see. But there are plenty of talented Binders standing by, eager to help craft a creative solution to the dilemma of childcare at the conference —  IF the folks in charge actually want to find that solution. How many moms will actually be in the room for that moderated discussion? Only the ones with childcare. Britni de la Cretaz asked organizers if she could bring her baby to the session and was told, “Probably not.”

Many of the writers speaking out about the BinderCon policy feel a little guilty. We love and appreciate The Binders, but sometimes you have to make waves or you’ll be stuck in that binder forever.





Oct 212016

So your project feels ready. You’ve compiled a list of literary agents you want to approach, and you’ve drafted a query letter. Now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, the shit to hit the fan, and for similar cliches to apply…it’s time to start querying!

But wait…Should you submit one query at a time, or should you carpet bomb the entire literary agent community with your pitch? How long do you wait for a reply before moving on? Should you follow up with agents who ignore you? Here are some thoughts based on my own recent search.


Start by reviewing and ranking your prospect list:

Consider the names on your agent list. Maybe you heard an agent speak at a conference and walked away smitten. Perhaps one of your prospects represents your favorite book of all time. Or maybe your novel is set in Boston, so you really want an agent with ties to the city. Whatever the rationale, you’ve likely got some favorites, so rank your targets accordingly.

I sorted my intended agents into three groups: Platinum, Gold, and Silver. I had about ten agents in each category, with Platinum my top choices. My Platinum agents were: women (because I thought a woman would be more drawn to my memoir than a man;) well-established and/or well connected (because I’m hoping for a deal with a major house, not a small press;) agents with a track record in memoir; and agents I thought I had a reasonable shot at attracting. Only you can determine who qualifies as a top tier agent for your unique project — but trust that there are lots of excellent people out there who might not look perfect at first glance. Finding THE ONE may take time. Perseverance is key.


Test the waters with a reasonable sample size:

I wasn’t planning to do a major agent search this year. Here’s what happened: in January I met an agent I liked at a writers’ conference from a respected boutique agency. This young woman was new enough to the business to be scouting for clients, but she’d recently sold a book of parenting essays to a major house — and she asked to see my material!  I tried to seize the opportunity.

After revising and polishing my work, I sent my proposal to  The Conference Agent in April. Then I waited around and daydreamed about working with her. Her boss had represented one of my competing titles, so the agency seemed like a perfect match.

After a few weeks of post-submission silence, I followed up. The Conference Agent promised to get back to me within a week. Two weeks passed. I stalked her on twitter and saw she’d gone on vacation, so  I waited some more.

After nearly three months of no movement, I got impatient. I understand that the publishing industry operates at glacial speed most of the time, and I still hoped that this woman would fall in love with my project, but at this point I realized I needed to take charge of my career.

I’d been compiling a list of agents for a while in anticipation of an eventual search. I asked a friend if I could query her rep, an agent who happened to be a top choice for me, and got the green light. I sent my book proposal off to My Friend’s Agent and prepared myself to wait again. Then I stumbled upon this video from The Book Doctors, about creating a competitive environment for your manuscript.



I felt inspired. I’d worked really hard to make my proposal the best it could be and felt my query letter was solid. I decided to cast my net wider.

By now it was summer. Conventional wisdom says that summer is a bad time to reach out to agents because of rampant vacationing, but The Book Doctors video had me wound up. I shot out seven or eight query letters to Platimum prospects on a Friday afternoon in July with the subject line: “MEMOIR QUERY from a writer published in NYT, Washington Post and more.” Maybe  a lot of agents were in the Hamptons, but a few had to be working, right?

Indeed they were. Monday morning,  I woke up to a request for my memoir proposal from The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. I was THRILLED, but I knew what I had to do next.


If you’re certain your query is attracting interest, send out more feelers:

Three agents now had now shown interest in my work. A completely cold query had prompted a request for material from an agent I’d be humbled to work with. Inspired by The Book Doctors video, I resolved to maximize my chances. I sent The Agent of a Super Famous Writer my proposal, and then spent the rest of that Monday morning sending 8 or 9 more queries to folks on my Platinum and Gold lists. I also continued researching agents to see if there were hot prospects I’d missed, adding more names to my target list so that I’d be prepared to keep the search going as long as necessary.

Thankfully, by Tuesday, additional requests for my proposal were rolling in. One agent even requested both the proposal and the partial manuscript! Each time I got an additional request, I sent out two or three more queries. Every time I got a rejection, I sent out two or three more queries. I told myself it was a numbers game and I needed to keep hustling while cultivating as much detachment as possible (though by now I felt gobsmacked by the the prospect of working with The agent of a Super Famous Writer. OMG!)


If you’re getting real traction from one agent, let others know:

At this point, about five agents had my proposal, and one had also asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. To keep the momentum going, I sent follow up emails:

Hi Agent of a Super Famous Writer,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review my memoir proposal, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve had some interest from other agents, including requests for the first 50 manuscript pages. Please let me know if you’d like me to send along the partial manuscript, so that you have the pages handy should the proposal spark your interest. I’m quite interested in working with you should you feel the same.

Thanks so much!

Guess what? The Agent of a Super Famous Writer got back to me within 24 hours to let me know she loved the proposal. Yes, she wanted to see the manuscript! In fact, I heard back from almost everyone I nudged, and all who responded asked for my manuscript.

I also followed up on all the Platinum prospects whom I hadn’t yet heard from yet:

SUBJECT: Follow up due to agent interest

Dear Agent,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review the query letter I submitted on July 12, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve  had multiple requests for my proposal and pages from other agents. I’m sure you’re terribly busy, but I’m  following up with a fool’s optimism because your name was at the top of my query list.

My original query is included below. Please let me know if you’d like to see my proposal or manuscript. Thanks so much.


Some of these follow ups were ignored, but many prompted replies with requests for material. I also got friendly, personal rejections from many of the Platinum agents due to the follow up, a courtesy I preferred to being ignored.

Next, The Agent of a Super Famous Writer told me she wanted to schedule a call as soon as she finished reading the partial manuscript. She even suggested a specific time for the conversation. I jumped up and down with joy!! This could be it!!! After I calmed down, I sent a couple more queries, praying I was being overly diligent; I hoped that an offer of representation was around the corner.


Don’t let dashed hopes slow you down:

I never did talk to The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. She finished reading my partial manuscript and sent a message saying the manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the proposal and was “overwrought and overwritten.” I was shocked. I’d hired a former acquisitions editor to go over all my material prior to submission, and the editor had felt the manuscript far stronger than the proposal!This was par for the course. Getting an agent so quickly would have been way too easy. But “overwritten” still hurt. And what if she was right?

I shared my distress with my husband and a professional networking group, got some pats on the back, and then I tried to shake off the heartbreak. I decided that if I got similar feedback on the book from other agents, I’d suspend submissions and regroup.


All you need is one:

The day after The Agent of a Super Famous Writer rejected me so harshly, I got an email from another agent who said my manuscript actually had moved her to tears! The Agent Who Cried wanted to schedule a phone call, so of course I said yes! Then I sent out one more round of follow ups and immediately heard back from a second agent who also wanted to chat. I scheduled both calls for later in the week. I knew it was possible that I could have those two calls and not get an offer from either agent, but there was  also a good chance I’d end up weighing two offers — and all you need is one!

I’m so thankful that I saw The Book Doctors video and had the courage to apply their strategy. By keeping my submission energy active and moving, I felt more in control of my fate. Perhaps some agents were turned off by my follow ups, but if so, nobody told me. EVERY rejection I received was personal, and included a thanks for querying and following up. In the end, the numbers broke down this way:

Total queries sent: 29

Queries that went ignored even with follow up: 12

Personal rejection letters received to query: 8

Requests for proposal and/or manuscript: 9

Personal rejection letters from agents who read material: 7

Requests for a phone call: 2

Offers of representation: 2


As you can see, almost half of the queries  I sent were never acknowledged, despite the fact that my search went incredibly well! To me, this proves that if you and your project are truly ready, it’s a matter of persistence. Don’t be passive and don’t give up!


In my next post, I’ll talk about preparing for an agent call, what to do when you finally get an offer or offers.



 Posted by at 10:09 pm

Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and Personalizing the Query Letter

 Finding a literary agent, Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and Personalizing the Query Letter
Oct 012016

In my last post about finding a literary agent, I talked about compiling your list of targets. Once you’ve developed a list of 15 – 30 agents you’re interested in (and yes, I think you should create a list that long), you can start drafting and/or polishing your query.


I suggest doing some separate research on how to write a query letter. I’m not going to offer a complete how to, since there’s already tons of info out there. You’ll find query writing tips in many of the same places I recommended for finding agents’ names: articles in Writer’s Digest and Poets and Writers; literary agent blogs and websites; YouTube tutorials; and samples on author websites. Be sure to google “query letter” + your genre i.e. “query letter narrative nonfiction,” “query letter YA novel,” “query letter historical romance” etc to find the most relevant samples.

For me as a memoirist, this post from writer Alexis Grant, in which she shared her travel memoir query proved very helpful:

Example of a query that worked

I don’t know Alexis — I just found her blog via search engine — but I give her some credit for my successful agent search because of her sample intro paragraph:

“I’m seeking representation for my travel memoir, [Withholding Title to Surprise You Later]. I’m querying you because [personalize here for agent…]”

I really loved this straightforward approach, and the reminder to PERSONALIZE THE QUERY. This is so important — don’t we all want to feel special and chosen? Of course we do! Agents are no different. Here are a few query intros I actually sent, using Alexis’ template:

I’m seeking representation for a memoir provisionally titled [Also Withholding My Title Like Alexis Did]. I’m querying you because, many years  ago, when this memoir was still just an idea, I met [Editor] at a writers’ conference when she was still with William Morrow and she advised me to query you with this project when I was ready. It’s taken quite a long while, but here I am.

I’m querying you because you represent [Super Famous Writer] and I’m a longtime fan. Also, you’ve said that you wish that you’d agented WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? and I wish I’d written that book! Finally, I suspect that my book may align with several of the editorial interests you’ve highlighted on your website.

I’m querying you because you’ve expressed interest in voice-driven work as well as books strongly rooted in their setting, and I feel that my memoir aligns with those preferences.

I’m querying you because of your track record in publishing, and also because of this blog post that I found, which indicates that you advise writers to seek out agents who possess “humility and a willingness to be wrong.” I found that refreshing. Also, your client [Debut Novelist] told Writer’s Digest that you’re easy to talk to, which is so important — and you’ve obviously helped her forge a successful career!

None of the above agents ended up signing me, but two of them requested and  read my material promptly. The other two sent personal and friendly rejections explaining why they didn’t have time to read or represent my work right now. Finally, here’s the intro I sent to Bonnie Solow, who is now my agent:

I’m querying you because your name came up in a discussion of great literary agents in an online networking group I frequent. Also, your website indicates that you’re interested in memoir and cultural studies, and my book touches on both categories.

There are other ways to structure your query, of course — fiction writers may want to drop the agent right into the plot of the novel, and nonfiction writers might choose to grab the agent with a startling fact — but I think you can’t go wrong by simply saying “I’m querying you for a specific reason because I’m a professional who does her homework.” (And it doesn’t hurt to be more succinct than I was in a couple of those cases, either, but note — I got positive responses despite imperfection.)

Now, here’s an element I included in my query I haven’t seen recommended by anyone else:

I included links to a couple of my published essays that related to my memoir as part of my bio section, like this:

My essays on parenting and family have appeared in print and online at Adoptive Families, Brain, Child, The Sun, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, and many more publications. I’ve written humor for Scary Mommy, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and espnW, parenting advice for Esme and, and I’m a frequent contributor to The Kitchn, a food/cooking site. Here are a couple of recent essays I’ve published that relate to the subject of the memoir:

White Rice: a Love Story, at The Kitchn

Is she happy? Is she loved? Remembering the girl who was almost my daughter, in On Parenting at The Washington Post and also recorded for Audible

My thought was that maybe a busy agent or agent’s assistant might click those links, enjoy my writing style, and thus be more inclined to request my proposal and/or partial manuscript. Clicking a link wouldn’t cost the person reading my letter much time, and if they disliked the essays, they didn’t have to bother requesting more material. I think the key here is to include links that are directly relevant to the project you’re pitching. The most popular pieces I’ve written are my Scary Mommy posts, but to link to them here wouldn’t have made sense, since the memoir I’m pitching is more of a heartbreaker (though I did highlight the popularity of those posts in my book proposal.)

My final bit of advice about query letters is to take time to personalize them at the end of the letter too. Many agents like to receive a sample of your project with the query itself, so I always specified what I’d enclosed and why. This is another opportunity to show that you’re a careful, savvy pro. Here’s a few actual samples:

I’ve attached my proposal here, in accordance with the guidelines on your Publishers Marketplace page. Please let me know if you’d like to see the partial manuscript as well. Thanks so much for considering my work.

I’ve pasted the first ten pages of the memoir below, in accordance with the guidelines on the [literary agency’s] site. Please let me know if you’d like to see the proposal and/or the partial manuscript as well. Thanks so much for considering my work.

And for agents who didn’t specifically ask for samples, I tucked them into the bottom of my email anyway, below the signature line!

I’ve pasted the first ten pages of the manuscript below for your quick review, should you be interested. Please let me know if you’d like to take a look at the proposal and/or the partial manuscript. Thanks so much for considering my work.

What did I have to lose if an agent glanced down and liked what she saw? Finding an agent can take MONTHS. I’m not getting any younger so I tried to gently push the envelope.

I apologize for not sharing my complete query here, but I want to keep some details about my book under wraps until my agent and I have taken it out on submission to editors, but I hope these tips on personalizing the query will help in the meantime.

I’m getting ready to take off on a two-week writing residency to prepare my book to go out to publishing houses, so I may defer my next post on finding an agent until I return mid-October. Sign up for updates to make sure you don’t miss the next installment, when I’ll talk about strategy: How do you know if your query is working? How many agents should you query at once? How long should you wait for a reply? And how do you keep yourself from going crazy during the process?????

Finding a literary agent: how do you decide who to query?

 Books, Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a literary agent: how do you decide who to query?
Sep 232016

Ok, I promised to share some tips for finding a literary agent and negotiating the query process, but I’ve decided to break things up into manageable chunks, since I do tend to go on…First up, how do you identify  agents that you should query?

Choosing the right targets is key; you can have the best memoir query ever written, even the best memoir itself, but if you query an agent who’s interested in prescriptive nonfiction and cookbooks, you’ll be rejected or  ignored, which also feels bad. Let’s try to limit how much rejection we have to absorb, shall we? Here’s how to find your marks.

Check the acknowledgements sections of books similar to yours

Most writers will thank their agent in the acknowledgements. For example, if you’re looking to turn your blog into a book, check out titles written by top bloggers to find those names. Chances are you’ll have some books similar to yours in your personal collection already, but you can also visit your local bookstore or library to take notes, or use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I did all of the above.


I queried Jillian Lauren’s agent because she wrote a memoir related to international adoption, which is similar in some ways to my memoir. Also, Jillian Lauren is awesome. Her agent sent me a polite form rejection.


Find out who represents writers you admire

Often we have something in common with the writers we love: an obsession with a topic,  aspects of style, or a certain sensibility. Agents who rep your favorite writers can be good, if somewhat lofty, targets for you — but hey, shoot for the moon!

Case in point: Ruth Ozeki. She is a GENIUS. I am not. Her novel A Tale For the Time Being is one of the best books I’ve ever read (and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize!) I’m not in her league — but I might find things in common with other readers who love her work —  like her agent!


I queried Ruth Ozeki’s agent, who seemed like a good match not only because of her literary sensibility, but also because my research revealed her to be a mother by adoption like me, (something in common!) Ruth’s agent sent me a chatty and personal rejection explaining why she couldn’t take on my book right now. She’s a “big” agent, and I felt encouraged that she bothered to write back at all — proof that my careful targeting was working.


don’t be surprised if you find out that your favorite author’s agent isn’t taking on new clients. In that case, consider querying a new agent at the same agency — he or she will be familiar with your fave writer but hungry for fresh talent, and will be able to go to the senior agent for advice about your project if they agree to represent you.


Use Google and Twitter

Maybe that seems obvious, but if you’re nervous about starting a search, you may forget to do the simple stuff! Be sure to employ a variety of search terms — not just “literary agent narrative nonfiction” but also “literary agenCY narrative nonfiction”  and “literary agents looking for narrative nonfiction.” Also try looking simply for “literary agent” and “literary agency” and be prepared to dig into agency websites to see what genres particular agents represent.

Check out the site Manuscript Wishlist and search twitter for the #MSWL hashtag to find agents who’re accepting new clients. You can add your genre to your Twitter search, for example #MSWL YA (for Young Adult) to narrow things down even more. Also search for pitch contests to discover more agents who are looking for clients. Try searching on #pitch, #pitchcontest #pitch + #agent etc

And don’t forget to Google “literary agents seeking new clients.” My own quick search yielded this  helpful September 2016 blogpost at “Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity.”


Peruse Reference Books and Databases

Back in the day, looking for a literary agent meant buying an expensive hardcover edition of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents — and you can still buy them! The problem is that books take a long time to produce, so info can get outdated even before the book hits the store, especially info about newer agents who tend to have more career fluctuation. However, Writer’s Digest often offers package deals that might make the purchase worth your while. The 2017 edition of their agent guide comes with the following extras:

  • A one-year subscription to the literary agent content on (which might mean access to real time updates on book entries.)
  • The secrets of query-writing success: Learn 5 common mistakes that make an agent stop reading–and how to avoid them.
  • “New Agent Spotlights”: Get targeted profiles of literary reps who are actively building their client lists right now.
  • Informative articles on writing a synopsis, pitching your work online, defining your genre, utilizing writing peers to better your craft, and much more.
  • Exclusive access to the webinar “10 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent” by Marisa Corvisiero of Corvisiero Literary Agency.

Writer’s Digest is a tremendous resource, especially for newer writers. Even if you don’t want to spring for a book, look for the magazine on the newsstand or in the library to see if they’re featuring a story about an agent you’re planning to query. Ever issue has good agent and query advice.

Another resource that costs some $ is Publisher’s Marketplace, which I mentioned above. The fee is $25 a month, and in my opinion it’s WELL WORTH IT to subscribe to the site for a few months if you’re serious about your agent search and can afford it. The site has SO MANY FEATURES, like the “Who Represents” database I mentioned above. Also on PM, you can look up the self-reported sales history of an agent, and find the names of the editors  and publishing houses they’ve sold to. You can search agents by genre to find out who’s been selling lots of mysteries or historical fiction — in fact, if your agent is top-ranked for sales in a particular genre, PM will tell you! You can also see how many clients an agent has; a big client list may mean less interest in you, newbie writer, so you can weigh your options. PM offers more features than I can list here — just go to the site and check it out! I’ll be discussing more ways that I used PM in subsequent posts.

If you’re a writer who leans literary,  Poets & Writers magazine has a FREE searchable database that is fantastic. The magazine also publishes an annual literary agents issue and has tons of resources on the website. I relied on the PW site heavily while looking for someone to rep my memoir.

There are lots and lots of additional databases out there, many of them free, including:

Association of Authors’ Representatives — professional association for agents. FREE

Query Tracker — Allows you to find  and research agents, and organize your agent search. FREE but requires you set up an account. Video tutorials show you how to make the most of the site.


Attend a Writer’s Conference

If you have the time and money to go to a writer’s conference that has agents in attendance, it can be a great opportunity, especially if you have your eye on a particular professional and would like to pitch him or her in person. Most conferences sell pitch slots for an extra fee ie pitches aren’t included in your registration, but if you meet an agent during lunch or in line at the bar, you may have the chance to pitch for free. Sometimes you’ll meet an agent you absolutely don’t click with, or you get a hurtful rejection to you your face. It might feel like a waste of $$$ and time if you paid to pitch, but consider that a dress rehearsal for the moment you have a phone call with an agent who might be the one. Also, most agents who go to conferences do so because they like talking to writers, they like hleping writers, and they’d love to discover a great project. Every encounter won’t end in an offer of representation, but there’s a lot of value in learning firsthand that agents are just people!

Even if you’re not quite ready to pitch, or your in-person conference pitch goes nowhere, at many conferences agents and editors give presentations and join panel discussions about the business of publishing, how to query, how to write a book proposal etc. The better informed you are about the business, the better prepared you are to approach agents the way they prefer. Knowledge also empowers you to make smart decisions about your career.


Look for Agents on You Tube

If you don’t have the money or time for a conference, there are webinars and online courses to take, plus a wealth of FREE information on YouTube. Search YouTube for “literary agent” and you’ll get thousands of video results: panel discussions at conferences that have been taped, individual agents sharing submission tips on their own channels, query letter clinics and more! Even if your budget is tight and you live far from a major city, you can access a wealth of info and get a look at an agent before you query with just an internet connection.


Ask other writers for recommendations

Hopefully you’re networking with other writers, both in person and online. Maybe some of your friends already have agents. Don’t hit up ever writing aquaintance you’ve got for an intro, but if someone offers to make an introduction, accept —  IF YOU’RE TRULY READY. An intro may get your material read faster, but it doesn’t guarantee an offer of representation. The work has to stand on its own and be a good fit for the agent’s needs, interests and list. Networking is also a great way to find about agents who maybe aren’t as good. It’s valuable to know who doesn’t answer their clients emails and phone calls because you probably don’t want to work with that person.

I found my agent, Bonnie Solow, through online networking. Writers in a private Facebook group were discussing great agents, and Bonnie’s name came up. Prior to that, she hadn’t been on my radar, so I’m so thankful I found her!


Finally, compile your list as you go

All this research sounds like a lot of work, and it is. I recommend drafting a long list of agents, and I don’t think you can just create a list like that in an afternoon. Start now,  even if you don’t know when you’ll be ready to approach agents. If you read a book you love, find out who agented it and write the name down. If you go to a conference, or even if you just look at a conference website but decide not to attend, make a note of the agent who caught your eye. If you read a how to article by an agent in Writer’s Digest that piques your interest, write the name down now. When it comes time to send queries in earnest, you’ll need to do some additional, deeper research, but at least you won’t be starting from scratch.


Ok, I’ll be back with more on the agent search next Friday. If you missed my previous post, On Being a Late Bloomer AKA “I finally got a literary agent” you can read it at the link.



On Being a Late Bloomer AKA “I finally got a literary agent”

 Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on On Being a Late Bloomer AKA “I finally got a literary agent”
Sep 172016

This summer, one of my writing dreams came true — I signed with a literary agent!

I’ve been writing my entire adult life, so this wasn’t my first attempt at attracting representation, but this time, I  succeeded. I thought I’d share some reflections on the process that might help other aspiring writers out there. How do you know when you’re really ready to pursue and work with an agent?


The Early Years AKA “Maybe I’m just not good enough”

The first time I ever met a literary agent in person, I was a 22-year-old MFA student studying fiction writing. One of my professors brought his agent to campus to introduce her to students. The prof made a big deal about the fact that only the BEST students would be offered this opportunity. The chosen ones would get a private, written invitation to a dinner; we weren’t to tell the other students if we received  a note. It was a nasty mind game that had me shaking with anxiety as I entered the restaurant. This agent represented Nobel Prize and National Book Award winners. I was just a girl who’d written for her high school paper who wasn’t sure how I’d gotten into grad school with such a crappy GRE score in math, let alone invited to this important gathering.

I ended up seated next to the agent, a quiet older woman who asked if she could finish the apple pie I’d left on my dessert plate. (I said yes.) But our professor wasn’t done with power plays: at the end of the meal, one of the men in my class, widely acknowledged as the faculty favorite, reached across  the table with a fat manuscript in a manila envelope — a hand off the prof had clearly arranged in advance and wanted everyone to see. The rest of us sat there in awkward silence, sick with the realization that we’d been good enough to  score the dinner invitation, but not amazing enough to be annointed for representation.

Then one of my other male classmates piped up.

“So, Agent X,” he said, “can the rest of us send you our novels when we’re ready?”

“Of course,” she replied. But even though I could have opened a query to her with the best line ever — i.e. “Perhaps you remember that time I gave you the rest of my apple pie?” — I took what I perceived as the professor’s lack of confidence in me too deeply to heart and never contacted her.

I wasn’t ready.


Finding My Voice AKA “Maybe I should write nonfiction?”

As a teenager, Thomas Wolfe had been one of my favorite writers and  his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, one of my favorite books. I longed to write emotional autobiographical fiction like Wolfe, but as I began sending my short stories out after grad school, I got consistent feedback that my work needed more action and less intimacy (and honestly, it did.) I got many personal, helpful rejection letters from editors, but I didn’t know how to apply their advice — how could I tweak the plot when writing autobiographical fiction? I focused too much on the rejections and not enough on the encouraging fact that busy pros were taking time to give me feedback.


I started reading memoirs — again by men named Wolfe — ha. I devoured The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolfe. Next I read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolfe. The fact that two brothers had such different true stories to tell fascinated me. I sensed that memoir, not fiction, might be a better fit for the stories I had to tell.

So I started writing a memoir. I attended some writers’ conferences and met some agents and editors. I sent my partial manuscript to a few of them. The pros told me I needed more narrative structure. Some told me I should fictionalize my story. I tried, but  autobiographical fiction just didn’t feel right anymore. I’d fallen in love with memoir and creative nonfiction, which wasn’t even a popular term for the genre yet.

In the meantime, a yoga master asked me to help him write a yoga book proposal in exchange for free yoga classes, and I jumped at the chance to figure out how to write one. I met a Doubleday editor at a writer’s conference and told him about the yoga book, and ended up discussing the proposal at the Doubleday offices in New York. I became so nervous during that meeting that my mouth dried up completely and I had to ask for water. The paper cup of NYC tap water the editor gave me stuck to my dry, trembling lips. The editor kindly pretended not to notice.


Some part of me felt I didn’t deserve to see the inside of a New York publishers office. Doubleday said no. We never sold the yoga book. And I never cold queried any agents about that book or my memoir. If the agents and editors who’d met me didn’t want any of my projects, how could a cold contact lead anywhere?

Despite getting encouraging feedback, I wasn’t persistent. Also, I’d choked in that New York meeting.

Which meant: I wasn’t ready.


Finding the story I had to tell AKA “Don’t you dare tell me not to tell it.”

I got married. My husband encouraged me to give up my copywriting job and focus on my memoir full-time. I didn’t quit completely, but I reduced my workload with gratitude and a little guilt.

Then my grandmother died. I’d grown up with her, and in my grief I was left to sell her house and arrange care for my elderly uncle who’d been living with her. I didn’t know how to do these things.

My husband and I decided to adopt a little girl from India, and everything went wrong. I spent over a year in India fighting for her, only to have to let her go. I didn’t know how to do that either.

I stopped writing. For months, just getting out of bed felt like an accomplishment. My husband and I decided to try to adopt again. Slowly I started writing the story of everything that had happened in India. We adopted three toddlers in quick succession, and I lost ten pounds chasing them around. I wrote during preschool hours or after they went to bed. I started blogging, knowing I needed a “platform” to sell my memoir, but I wasn’t good at it. I decided to focus on the memoir.

I wrote a book proposal for the memoir of our failed adoption and hired a professional writing coach I trusted to review it before I sent it to agents. She told me the book would never sell, and that I was wasting my time.

“Maybe it could be an essay,” she said.

Her words felt like a sucker punch. I cried, and then I got mad. Looking for a sign that I should continue with the book, I entered a Pitchapalooza contest at a local bookstore and won. The prize was having Arielle Eckstut of  The Book Doctors review my proposal and introduce me to an agent.  Arielle offered clear advice and warm encouragement on making the proposal better, but I held off on the agent contact. A writer friend wanted to send my proposal to her agent, and I thought it should be an exclusive submission. My friend’s agent turned it down, explaining the book needed to have a more emotional depth if it was going to work. I knew she was right. I started rewriting the proposal and the sample chapters to reflect that.

I wasn’t there yet, but I was finally fixin’ to get ready.


The writing is the hardest part AKA “Susan Orlean told me to start over”

I signed up for an online memoir course with Kelly McMasters through Media Bistro, and took the class three times. (Sadly, MB no longer offers the course.) I had one hundred pages of the manuscript complete, and I was proud! I decided to kick things up a notch by finding a really good master class to hone the material, so that I could start approaching agents with my proposal and partial manuscript. Kelly loved what I’d written so far and thought I could get a deal before the book was completely written. That sounded good to me.

Thanks to Google, I discovered the world’s most amazing writer’s conference: Sirenland, founded by Dani Shapiro,  her husband, Michael Maren, and writer Hannah Tinti. I couldn’t believe it! Dani’s memoir Slow Motion was one of my favorites. I wanted Dani Shapiro to help me with my book! I needed her help!! I applied to the conference assuming I wouldn’t get in. Plus who would take care of my husband and kids while I ran off to Italy? I had no idea but I applied anyway.


I  got in. My husband urged me to attend. My mother-in-law offered to come and help with the kids.

Sirenland is a week-long conference held at one of the world’s most beautiful hotels, La Sirenuse, in one of the world’s most beautiful places, Positano, Italy. I was gobsmacked. And I was assigned to Susan Orlean’s nonfiction workshop.

Susan is one of the most charming and witty people you will ever meet, not to mention a brilliant writer, but after reading the first 20 pages of my manuscript, she told me something that was hard to hear: You can’t tell your story this way. Now just because a famous writer who’s had Meryl Streep play her in a movie says something doesn’t make it true, BUT some other things Susan said to me during our conference also made a lot of sense. You need to claim your authority on the page. And Imagine you were telling a friend this story over a glass of wine, and write that down.

As crushed as I felt (I’d already written 100 pages!) I knew Susan was right. Even though other readers has praised my work in progress, the tone and voice needed tweaking. Susan also said, It’s going to be a great book. That gave me hope.

I put those hundred pages aside and started over. I wasn’t ready.


An encouraging no is still a no AKA “Know when to take a pause”

This saga is already so long, even though I’m leaving tons of details out! But keep in mind, unless you write a viral essay or your name is Kardashian, the path to representation or any other literary accomplishment is almost always long and winding.

I went back to Sirenland a couple more times to get feedback on my new and improved draft, taking workshops with Dani Shapiro and Andre Dubus III (whose memoir Townie will forever be on my favorites list!) Even though starting the book over had been painful, the new version hewed closer to my vision of what I wanted the book to be.


I rewrote my book proposal AGAIN. I signed up for a retreat with Linda Sivertsen, who calls herself The Book Mama, and had her review my proposal. She gave me a few edits, then encouraged me to start querying. She recommended me to some agents. Arielle Eckstut suggested some agents too, part of my ongoing Pitchapalooza prize. I sold my first big essay, to Motherlode at The New York Times, and sent out my queries shortly after it published.

Out of respect for Arielle and Linda, all the agents they’d connected me with responded quickly. A few spoke with me on the phone and talked me through the issues in my proposal: my competitive titles were wrong. My audience was wrong. My platform wasn’t big enough. My writing was beautiful but they didn’t think I could sell it. One suggested I approach a small press without an agent so I wouldn’t have to share the teeny advance. One agent asked me to come back to her once the book was completely written. I think I queried about 8 agents in all when I decided to stop and regroup. Agents liked my writing, they liked me, they thought the book was worthy of a small press.

I decided to write more of my book and try to grow my platform before trying agents again.

I was almost ready. I could feel it.

Deep down, you’ll know when the time is right AKA OMG I did it!

I spent two more years working on my manuscript. I took a classes with memoirist Wendy Dale and novelist Ellen Sussman. Wendy helped me understand how to structure a chapter (each one needs a mini-arc!) and Ellen was especially helpful in explaining how to organize and wrangle a project as unwieldy as a book. Both Wendy and Ellen were enthusiastic about what I’d written, which was encouraging.

I joined some online networking groups for women writers and learned a tremendous amount about freelancing. I put my head down and cranked out tons of submissions to connect with potential readers of my book. I published work in more than 20 online magazines, placing essays related to my memoir at The Washington Post and at The Kitchn.  My memoir still wasn’t completely written, but I’d worked my ass off, and I knew I was as ready as I’d ever be to query agents. Also, I wasn’t 22 anymore.

This time, I queried widely and garnered many positive responses. Within six weeks of starting the process I was considering TWO offers of representation, and ultimately signed with the wonderful Bonnie Solow.

In my next post, I’ll share the details of how I organized and strategized during that final, successful query process. But for now, let me sum up what I hope you’ll take away from this long, tortured saga:

Believe in yourself — people will tell you to quit. You’ll tell yourself to quit. But don’t give up.

Never believe that you’re too good to be better — I kept taking writing classes even with an MFA because I still had more to learn. Not everyone has the money for master classes, but if you can identify what you need to learn, there are ways to get what you need. The incredible advice I got from Arielle was free because I entered her contest and won. Scholarships, barters, free classes at your local library, writing groups, craft talks on YouTube.  If someone takes time to give you feedback, consider it. If you’re getting similar feedback from multiple sources, it may be time to regroup, rewrite, reflect.

When you’re ready, it will feel right — we all have different levels of confidence, different levels of anxiety, but I think what was true for me will prove true for most: when you’re really ready, you’re going to feel pretty calm about looking for an agent. By the time I finally succeeded, I felt certain that I had something to offer. Building my freelance career made all the difference in my confidence. I felt like a pro who was looking for another pro to be my partner, not a nervous hopeful who needed an agent to tell me I was deserving of the opportunity. That doesn’t mean there weren’t low moments and disappointments during my search — of course there were — but I felt differently about them. Instead of taking a particular agent’s rejection as a measure of my worth as a writer, I recognized that person wasn’t THE ONE. My agent was still out there. And I found her!

To make sure you catch my next post about structuring your agent search, click the Get Updates button to get an email when I publish a new post, or just check back soon.





 Posted by at 12:14 am

Inspiration and Joy at the Vortext Writers’ Conference

 Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on Inspiration and Joy at the Vortext Writers’ Conference
Jun 242016

I love writers’ conferences. My grandmother bought me a ticket to my very first writer’s conference back when I was in my mid-twenties —  her way of both supporting my career aspirations and encouraging me to get out of my apartment and maybe find a husband! Grandmother had no idea that men tend to be scarce at these gatherings, but thanks to her, I did discover that hanging out with folks of any gender and orientation who are as passionate about writing as I am feels pretty great.

Last month I attended the VORTEXT conference on Whidbey Island for the second year in a row. Organized by the nice people at Hedgebrook, VORTEXT offered a superstar faculty line up including Dani Shapiro, Hannah Tinti, Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Baszile, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Laurie Frankel, and Kate Gray. Every single one of these ladies delivered an inspiring keynote address that both made me cry and made me want to write  and write and never quit.

VORTEXT is only for women writers, which may account for the extra caring, super supportive energy crackling in the air. I spent a lot of time with a couple of friends I made at the 2015 conference: Rebecca Wallwork, author of Hangin’ Tough, a fun book about The New Kids on the Block, and the very witty Kira Jane Buxton, whose McSweeney’s pieces probably landed in your Facebook feed if you have the right friends. Here we are:


In addition to the faculty keynotes, there were writing workshops, panel discussions, and an open mike for attendees. Rebecca, Kira, and I forced/encouraged each other to read. Unbeknownst to me, Kira taped my reading and sent the video over after the fact with a note to put it on my website, but so far I’m technically challenged. We’ll have to save that video for another post.

For now, here’s a little something I wrote during my workshop on “Mystery and Necessity” with Kate Gray. She gave us a prompt — “If I could tell you…” and the room filled with the sound of  ink scratching on paper.

If I could tell you that it would be all right, I would.

But I can’t.

There are no guarantees. But I can tell you this: your life will be beautiful. Beneath the pain, beneath the struggle, beneath the words, beauty lives.

You are here, which means you get the fleeting joy, the moment of understanding, the flash of love. You are here, and you get to have it all if you open your eyes — the pain, the struggle, and the love.

Whatever you have right now, wait. Something else will arrive soon, neither too early nor too late, but perfectly on time.

You are here with the trees and the rocks and the ocean and the wind. You are here with the birds and the squirrels and the snakes and the dogs.

You are here. The trick is believing that’s enough.