Short version: I emailed a query to an agent at Folio Literary Management. Next day she requested the first fifty pages of my book. A week later, she requested the whole thing. Two days after that, she called and asked if I was willing to make some changes to the manuscript. I thanked her for her astute observations, and promised to resubmit the revised manuscript exclusively to her. She said that wouldn’t be necessary, because she was offering me representation.
Extended version: Rewind to the summer of 2003, when Matt and I traveled to Ireland. We were work-weary and restless, in our late twenties, and armed with books by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the pubs of Dublin and Sligo, Westport and Kilkenny, we had long conversations about our marriage; our future; our deepest, brightest dreams. Many of these conversations included some version of the following exchange:
Matt: I can’t be a high school English teacher for the next thirty years. I just can’t.
Me (quoting a paperweight I saw in a Dublin bookstore): What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
Matt: Write books.
Me: Yeah. Me too.
We were both experiencing a quarter-life crisis. And our lives needed a major overhaul.
Over Guinness, we hatched a wild plan to sell our house, quit our jobs, and move from Jersey to Massachusetts, where I’m from. He’d write, and I’d work. Then we’d switch.
And so, after the ’03-04 school year, we moved in with my parents. I taught yoga and worked for the weekly paper while Matt pursued an MFA. He spent no less than nine hours a day in his “office” (my parents’ unfinished basement), hunched at his desk, writing, revising, reading, studying, emailing authors for advice and encouragement, researching agents. About once a week, I’d wake up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. and realize he wasn’t in bed next to me. I’d find him in the basement, working.
As our meager savings dwindled, we questioned the wisdom of our drastic life-change. Others did, too (“So, are you going to get a real job?” “Publish that book yet?” “Gonna get your own place soon?” “What are you going to do next?”).
Two and a half years went by, Matt graduated, and we planned to venture out on our own again. But this time we had no idea what we were going to do, or how we were going to do it. Then, on a Wednesday morning in April 2007, he came bounding up the basement steps to announce that a wonderful agent offered to represent his novel, The Silver Linings Playbook. And soon after, his manuscript sold in New York, the UK, Italy, Spain, and Hollywood.
We celebrated with Guinness, of course. And Rocky Patel cigars.
With enough money to allow us both to write, full time, for about two years, we tearfully thanked my parents and rented a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment outside Philly. That first year of on-our-own bliss-following, I wrote a 60,000-word spoof on the chick lit and fantasy genres. It had sword fights and Sephora, dragons and designer handbags. It was awesome.
It was rejected by more than 120 literary agents.
Oh, and five small presses.
Then, in 2008, I began All Come Home, a much different novel than my first. My goal was to write an emotionally honest book that demands to be read quickly and intensely, and that also demands to be savored and discussed. I wanted to write a book that book clubs would fall in love with.
I worked on All Come Home at least six hours a day, six or seven days a week. Full-time fury. I was determined. I also spent many hours researching agents and soliciting advice from kind writer-acquaintances.
Ten months and two revisions later, I calculated how many months’ rent remained in the bank. It wasn’t much. At the same time, I started pitching All Come Home to agents. Thankfully, I got a fantastic one: Laney Becker. She sold All Come Home to Penguin’s Dutton imprint. And she and her colleague, Celeste Fine, sold it to a German publisher too.
Matt and I picked up some Guinness and toasted a couple more years of bliss-following.
I tell my husband’s story in addition to my own because they’re inextricable; his success led to mine, and vice versa. But to get an agent, you don’t have to be married to someone who shares your dream. In fact, most writers aren’t.
You don’t need an MFA (although I greatly admire those who pursue graduate studies). You don’t need to quit your job, sell your house, or move into your parents’ or in-laws’ basement. You don’t need to “know somebody.”
Support from family and/or friends is nice, and if you have that, cherish it. Being open-minded and conducting yourself professionally helps.
From where I’m standing, what you absolutely need is tons and tons of persistence, and a little bit of luck.
Persistence + luck = Pluck. You’re going to need that, too, especially if, like many writers, you find yourself facing down rejections.
A final note about luck: One of my favorite expressions is, The harder you work, the luckier you get. That notion really resonates with some people. I’ll express it in another way, in case it gives your spine an electric flutter. Ready?
You make your own luck.
When it came time for me to find an agent, I did all the right things.
Except for one very wrong thing.
I figured there had to be a secret way to break into publishing – some special handshake or code word or magic door like the one Harry Potter flung himself through to get to the secret train to Hogwarts – but no one would reveal it to me. So I figured I had just one chance of breaking in: I had to write a really good query letter.
It took a while – as I recall, actually writing my novel was much easier – but finally, I distilled the essence of my book into a paragraph, listed my writing credentials, and spell-checked that sucker to within an inch of its life. Then I blasted e-mails to agents I found in the acknowledgements section of novels I loved. If an author raved about his or her agent, I figured it had to be a good sign.
I got back a few interested responses from agents – along with a note from the assistant to a big-shot agent gushing about my book and how eager they were to read it. This sounds more flattering than it actually felt, because the assistant mistakenly included her email correspondence with the big-shot agent under her note to me. (“Oh, I don’t know,” big-shot agent moaned. “Doesn’t it sound kind of boring?”)
So, I sent out copies of my manuscript by UPS and e-mail, then sat back and patiently waited. A few weeks later, I went to pick up my kids from school and checked my answering machine for messages remotely, which was completely natural since I’d been out of the house for seven minutes.
I’d gotten the call. THE CALL! Victoria Sanders liked The Opposite of Me. She wanted me to come to New York to meet her and her staff. In an effort to sound professional, I spoke in a voice several octaves below normal when I called her back — then became paralyzed with fear I’d have to talk to Victoria this way for the rest of my life.
But before going to New York, I decided to do a little research. After all, I’m a former reporter, I thought to myself smugly as I fired up my computer. I e-mailed one of Sanders’ most well-known clients and explained that she had expressed interest in my book. “Is she still your agent?” I wrote, congratulating myself on my moxie and still-sharp reportorial skills.
Minutes later, a reply dinged into my inbox.
“This is Victoria Sanders,” it said. “I answer [this author’s] e-mail when she is on her European tour. Yes, I’ve happily represented her for seven years… .”
If I’d been a cartoon character, all of my hair would’ve stood straight up on my head. Thank God, thank God, thank God Victoria has a sense of humor. Later, she told me later she’d laughed aloud when she’d read my note.
By the way, a while back I wrote a magazine story about breaking into the publishing world, and I interviewed agents. I asked them what writers shouldn’t do when approaching them – and got an earful. Agents often get letters addressed to rival agents (oops), emails that reek of despair (“I’ve queried 100 agents and been turned down by them all!”) and even abusive, foul-language notes from writers they’ve rejected (shockingly, this doesn’t make agents rush to reconsider).
One of the agents I interviewed was Jeff Kleinman of Folio, the agent for The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein—a Starbucks book pick— and Jeff revealed ways writers have tried to catch his eye. They’ve offered to give him massages, sent him a tiara as a tie-in for a book proposal, offered to hypnotize him, tried to buy him drinks at writers’ conferences and sent him box after box of chocolates. (For the record, he turned down the massage – I think that was a wise call – but took the drinks. Again, a wise call, in my opinion).
So there you have it: Do your research, skip the offers of a massage, and make sure you query an agent with a sense of humor, like I did.
I was in Berlin when I got “The Phone Call.”
For those of you who aren’t aspiring to publication, The Phone Call is when an agent calls to offer representation. (Or an editor calls to offer publication.) The Phone Call is a wonderful, stressful, don’t-ruin-it-by-saying-something-stupid freakout for a writer. It’s a chance for the agent to check if you’re high-maintenance, and a chance for you to find out how the agent views your book and your potential future career.
Now, technically, it wasn’t *quite* The Phone Call when I was in Berlin. It was the email to schedule The Phone Call. But it contained the words “discuss representation,” so it was as near The Phone Call as I could get when 750 miles away from my phone.
Actually, technically I didn’t *get* the email. My husband got the email. I was visiting Germany with my mom and older son, while he stayed home in England with the baby (and the computers). Since I’d started querying, I’d become obsessive about mail and email. Even though I’d sent out the full manuscript only two weeks before, and it usually takes an agent months to read a full, I asked him to check my email EVERY DAY just in case.
Good thing I did!
When he relayed the news, I dictated a carefully worded response, trying to exude enthusiasm and conceal desperation. She responded the next day, assuring me (my husband read to me) that we could wait until I returned to talk on the phone. That was a relief, because I was shy of attempting the balancing act of charm and caution that is The Phone Call with my mom and kid listening in, and besides that the phone situation where we were staying was complicated. I had ten days to wait.
A lot of my “bathroom time”–the only privacy I got–was spent acting out different clever, insightful responses to everything I guessed she might ask.
Luckily, there were lots of distractions: castles and Alps and trompe l’oeil, and helping my mom track down one of her childhood homes (she had to move a lot during the War).
When we got home again, I was happy to have my baby and husband back, happy to have my bed again, and PSYCHED to finally have MY Phone Call.
Cameron McClure of the Donald Maass Agency rocks. That is all.
Deb Sarah is thrilled to announce The Opposite of Me will be excerpted in Bethesda Magazine’s March/April issue!
Graduate Deb Kristina is looking forward to signing copies of Real Life & Liars for Midwest booksellers at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Cleveland on Oct. 3.
Thriller writer Karin Slaughter has the kind of career every author dreams about — a string of New York Times bestselling novels, glowing reviews, and she routinely tops the charts in Europe, too.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
I’ve been very lucky to have publishers in Europe and around the world who are really excited about my work. They “get” what I’m trying to do–that I’m not writing slasher books or romantic suspense. My characters feel very deeply when bad things happen. I honestly think that good crime fiction tells a universal story. Maybe that explains the success, too. I’m writing in a genre that lends itself to a larger conversation.
Tell us about your current book, UNDONE
The book opens with an elderly couple driving down an old country road. A woman walks into the street and there’s a very bad accident. The woman is taken to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where Sara Linton is her doctor. Sara quickly discovers there’s something else going on besides a car accident; the woman has been tortured. Will Trent and Faith Mitchell are assigned the case, and the plot goes on from there.
What would you do for a living if you weren’t a writer? And what did you do before that first book sale?
I’d love to be a master watchmaker. There’s a school in Amsterdam I visited many years ago and I was just fascinated by the bits and pieces that all go together to make a watch work. The precision appeals to me on an aesthetic level. So, my dream job other than writing would be working with time pieces. The job I had before I got published is very different from that–I owned a sign company. I am fairly artistic, and it was very rewarding to put together something with my hands and see it out there in the world. I love working with my hands.
Tell us about your process. Do you outline, make notecards, or just drink a lot of coffee?
I take lots of little notes to myself when I’m traveling or driving, and then I get home and think, “what the heck does that mean?” Lots of times an illegible note leads to a good story, though, because I have to get creative. The clues in the book are very important to me, so I tend to do clue-oriented notes, like, “the knife is hidden behind the toilet.” Of course, if I can’t remember why the knife was there in the first place, then I’m screwed.
Your novels depict violence against women (and some men), but the acts are graphic without being sensationalized. You’ve said before you hope to promote dialogue about violent acts — can you talk a bit more about how you hope achieve this through your books?
My focus is always on the survivors of violent crime–the families, friends and community around the victim. And sometimes the victim him or herself. According to the FBI, every year for the last ten years, 250,000 women have reported being raped. And that’s just women over the age of eighteen who went to the police to report the crime. It appalls me that this number is so high, because we only hear about these women if they die. No one wants to talk about the women who survive. And if we do hear about these dead women, there usually are three criteria come into place: she has to be pretty, wealthy and white. The one thing sexual predators depend on is silence. I’m not going to be silent anymore. I want to tell these womens’ stories. I want to start a dialogue about the fact that every single year inAmerica, a quarter of a million citizens have something horrible happen to them, and yet you never see it in the news.
How has the rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – and the increased pressure on authors to promote themselves affected you?
I haven’t felt any increased pressure, but perhaps that’s because I’ve been actively involved in the online community from the start. I’m not a Twitter person–I’m not sure I’m interesting enough to update folks 24 hours about my life–but I’ve found that Facebook is a good place to be. There’s a great sense of community there, and I can keep in touch with my readers more easily than with my website, which is very passive. Not that I don’t use my website a lot. I try to see what visitors are interested in and give them more of that. The puzzles, for instance, are a big hit. I also do newsletters around publication and I have lots of contests that people seem to love.
“Slaughter” can’t possibly be your real last name, right?
It really is. I guess it’s a good thing I’m not writing romances!
With Banned Book Week on the horizon, I’ve been thinking… While having a book banned is probably some writers’ worst nightmare, that’s what I dream of. What better publicity could you get than having your book banned? I have no interest in intentionally writing a book that raises people’s hackles. I mean, how hard would that be really? Just pick a few taboo subjects like witchcraft, sex, homosexuality and you’re there, right? And if you want to make sure, a series about gay witches having sex will definitely up your chances of being banned. Or burned. Or both.
No, I’m more interested in being banned for some strange and crazy reason. Like if there was an uprising of the Beef Farmers of America banning my book in a small town in Nebraska because my character is encouraging vegetarianism. That would be pretty cool. Because you know, if I convince one more person to become a vegetarian then I win a toaster. And that is my whole reason for writing YA in the first place…to turn teens into vegetarians (not to win another toaster).
Seriously, being banned is a pretty lofty goal. All of these books are in that category. And since I write YA, here a few that I wouldn’t mind being lumped in with someday.
Forever by Judy Blume
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Probably everything by Chris Crutcher
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Anyway, you get the idea. Not bad company if you ask me.
Next week, well all the time actually, you’ll catch me sporting my favourite “I read banned books” button in support of the American Library Association‘s fight for freedom (even though I live in Canada – we like freedom here too!).
So, what about you? Having your book banned…your dream or your nightmare?
And yes, those are my promo postcards in my backpack. Never leave home without them!
Ok, fine, you caught me.
I don’t really have a gerbil, but my son would looooove to have one, —and name him “Papi.” Don’t ask me why, but my child (who is 6) digs gerbils, and I think I traumatized him the other day by telling him I once had a pet gerbil who met an awful demise when my sister didn’t notice our furry friend nuzzled deep inside her sneaker and….squish! Yep, I still don’t know what I was thinking when I said that either, but let’s just file that under the “Silly Mommy File” and pretend it never happened.
So what do you think? Do gerbils dream? I think they do. They have brains don’t they?? Tiny, pea-shaped brains -like the ones we find inside male heads- but brains nonetheless. According to experts, mammals with brains who sleep, definitely dream. That’s the criteria, and yes, I looked it up. No need to get huffy about it.
Anyhoo, I happen to dream often. Sometimes in black and white, most often in color, and coming soon in H-D.
Call me crazy, but I remember MOST of my dreams, and boy are they a riot when I’ve had a little too much wine with dinner. Just the other day (after some particularly tasty Merlot) I had a dream that some nutty women were running this website for new authors and actually let me write my own blog! Boy, what crazy thoughts lurk in our unconscious!
Now as far as nightmares are concerned, I had a recurring one for years. It’s my wedding day, and someone lifts my veil to reveal….A GIANT SQUISHED GERBIL HEAD!! Just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Actually, the truth is I’ve never had a recurring nightmare…just your average ones where you’re suddenly naked in front of a crowd, being chased is a popular one, and finally my favorite—jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Why? Well, if I had all the answers, my name would be Yoda right?
All I can say is that my good buddy Sigmund Freud said dreams are the “royal road” to our repressed sexual desires, and if that’s the case, boy am I in big trouble.