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.