There are many ways to find an agent. I know, because I’ve tried most of them. In the past decade, I’ve queried over sixty agents about two different books – and had contracts offered from three. No question, the agent search has been the most frustrating part of my writing career. But part of it’s my own fault.
The book I sent out in 2001 was still rough. Of course, I thought it was brilliant, and so did an assistant for an agent who was hot at that time. The agent said, “It needs work,” but gave the assistant permission to take me on. She didn’t know what she was doing any more than I did, and after collecting rejections on my behalf, she lost her job.
By then I’d written another novel. One agent who read it sent me a one-paragraph evaluation and said he’d look at it if I revised. I did. Six months later, I received a standard rejection. I’m still grateful for the editorial advice.
What I learned – very slowly – was that my work was good, but not yet good enough, so during the next seven years, I’d go through stints of revising followed by spurts of researching agents and sending out queries. Some agents sent form rejections, some never replied, and some wrote letters telling me I was a “splendid writer” and that “someone else will snap up these lovely pages.” I also received letters rejecting someone else’s novel – the first glimmer I had of what a nightmare record-keeping might be at the agents’ end.
In between bouts of submissions, I’d engage in bouts of revision. Each time, both novels improved. I published some of the chapters as short stories, even winning a prize. But I was so demoralized that I stopped sending the books out. Even after I learned about a new, independent, micro-publisher interested in regional fiction, it took me eight months to muster the courage to submit. A month later, my book was accepted, and a year after that, Into the Wilderness was in print.
Having a published novel was thrilling, and I still hear from readers, which is absolutely the best. The novel won a prestigious award, but marketing it was incredibly hard work. I spent a year on the hustings, and sold nearly 2,000 copies. I learned a lot – including the limits of my reach as a solo publicist.
I decided to give the mainstream route another try, and pitched the unpublished book to an agent at a writer’s conference. It was six months before I heard from her, but she loved my work and wanted to represent me. Then she disappeared. Twelve months after we met she sent me an agency contract and said she could send my book out the following week. I was leery. We talked on the phone. I asked for some time to think. In the end, I saw too many red flags: One was she worked by herself, and I found myself worrying about her safety and health. I decided I needed an agency, not just an agent. Then, after several weeks of flattery, she insisted I had to rewrite the book – and told me how. In the end, I didn’t feel confident that she was reliable. With considerable regret, I turned her down.
Meanwhile, I tried another tack. A friend of a friend of a friend gave me the name of an agent who only represents cookbooks; she suggested three agents who handled literary fiction. I used her name in my query, and they all asked for a sample. Two asked for more, and one called to talk. This agent spoke as an advocate for the reader and told me where she stumbled while reading the story. She’d look at it again if I cared to rewrite. I did. I also looked her up.
She’s a principal in a well-established agency with a handful of agents. Every time I submitted, she’s replied within the promised six-week timeframe. Every time she’s read the book, she’s said, “This is where I have a problem with the story,” leaving me to write my own fix.
We’ve signed an author-agent agreement, and she has the book now. I’m crossing my fingers – but not holding my breath. Literary fiction is a hard sell, and Elegy for a Girl is a dark story. But that’s her problem. Mine is writing my next book.
Deborah Lee Luskin often writes about Vermont, where she has lived since 1984. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com