Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How I Landed My Agent - The Meta-Story

Reading how other writers landed their agent may be the pre-published author’s national pastime. Every once in a while, you read one of those stories that make writers’ hearts simultaneously soar and crumble. (Yes, simultaneously. Writers are a haggard lot.) It goes something like this:

celebrationOne day, this idea came to me that was so compelling that, even though I’d never thought of myself as an author before, I had to write it down. A few months later, I sent it off to a handful of agents I’d heard were really hot. The next day I got a request for a full; the day after that I got a phone call with an offer. I couldn’t believe someone had read my manuscript so quickly! Anyway, I ended up getting six offers. Agent Awesome and I clicked the moment we started talking on the phone – I knew she was the one. And now my best selling trilogy’s being turned into a movie series. It just goes to show, it pays to dream big.

Gee, thanks, right? These overnight successes seem to worm painfully down into your brain. But they do so because they stand out – they are outliers. The process of landing an agent for most people (mere mortals, you might call them) is very different. And, while no two tales are exactly alike, they tend to have a couple of commonalities: 
  • obsession
  •  the ability to smash one’s head into a brick wall over and over again

I hyperbolize, perhaps (blogger’s license), but only to shine light on the truth. Most people, innately talented and skilled though they may be, are neither talented nor skilled enough to warrant being published until they’ve put a lot of time and effort to learning and honing their craft. It takes a bit of obsession:
  •  obsessively reading the genre(s) you’re interested in;
  • obsessively reading up on the art and craft of writing (which may involve one, or usually more, of the following: joining a critique group, taking classes, joining writing challenges, going to writer’s conferences, joining a professional writer’s organization); and
  • obsessively pouring all that new-found knowledge into new manuscripts -- writing, critiquing, revising ad nauseum

Most successful “debut” authors are actually seasoned writers – they wrote and submitted one or more novel-length manuscripts (and perhaps dozens of articles and picture book manuscripts) before achieving their current level of success. And that requires a certain level of tenacity or obsession, if you will. Particularly in light of:


The path to publication is strewn with rejection. The haggard writers’ haggard hearts simultaneously crumble and soar upon hearing of all the best sellers who received a ridiculous number of rejection after rejection. A similar story holds for many, if not most, “midlist authors.” To be a writer, you must be sensitive enough to weave a world, and tough enough not to let this one beat you down. Because part of your job, if you want to get published, is to slam into that brick wall. Repeatedly. This is only a fool’s errand if you learn nothing from it.  Otherwise, it may just lead to smashing success. (I know, I know -- horrible pun.)

Okay, Ella, you are saying: obsessive brick slamming, got it. But how do people actually land an agent?  Well, that’s where things turn a bit Choose Your Own Adventure.

Read enough stories and you start to realize there isn’t much of a pattern. It happened with the first agent someone queried on their third manuscript. Or the thirty-third on their first. They’d met the agent at a conference. They’d never met the agent before. The agent made an offer on the spot. The agent made an offer a year after the initial submission. The agent took it on after a huge revision. Another agent asked for a huge revision, which lead to a new path. An editor was involved. An editor wasn’t involved. There was a pitch fest. A chance mention on Twitter. A referral from a fellow writer. It was a good old-fashion slush pile find.

How will you land your own agent? It’s hard to predict – you’ll just have to wait until that particular story has been written. The good news is there are a myriad of ways it could happen. But only if you put yourself out there. After all, luck favors the prepared.

Good luck. And good write. 


  1. I see a recurring theme here: obsessive! ;) Obsessive people are dedicated people. And only dedicated people will make it (in the long run) in the publishing business.

  2. Ah, I love the total randomness of it all. Keeps me on my toes. Great post, Ella!

  3. Thanks for the great reminder, Ella. Persistence, tenacity and obsession!

  4. A little bit of crazy is always good. Who in their right mind would go for it knowing the odds standing against their efforts? I do not write because I always wrote, but once you get the bug it is intoxicatingly fun and that is a huge component of why I am still at it!

  5. Absolutely -- dedication, persistence, tenacity, and passion are much more accurate descriptors.

    A quick note about odds: ignore them; they are much too impersonal to apply to you (and by "you" I don't mean Julie; I mean any unagented/prepublished author). AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT, a writer may have close to a zero percent chance of being traditionally published or repped. (Harsh, but true. The key here is at *that* moment. The writer may choose to work to improve their personal odds.) Or they may have very good odds. Just because an agent or publisher picks up, say, 1 in 1,000 submissions, doesn't mean YOUR odds are 1 in a 1,000. They could be zero. They could be 1 in 15. They could be... 100%. ;)

  6. Great post, Ella! A perfect blend of the reality of writing, as well as what a person can do to become better. I love "To be a writer, you must be sensitive enough to weave a world, and tough enough not to let this one beat you down." Lucky for me, I'm sensitive, and coming from theater, know a little about that running into the wall thing!

  7. Thanks for this! The timing is perfect. :-)

  8. Thank you,'ve put into words exactly what many of us feel when we hear these 'how I got my agent' stories. Delving deeper, one usually finds that the writer submitted DOZENS and DOZENS of times before 'lady luck' struck. It's kind of like when an actor or actress has mega success...if you look into their past, you'll almost always find MANY years of studying their craft, small, seemingly insignificant roles and huge sacrifices. Passion, perseverance and patience WILL pay off, no matter what your dream. :) :) Kudos to all who have achieved theirs!

  9. Good one, Ella, as was your prior diversity post. Hence, therefore, and because of that (not that I would ever be redundant), just joined your email list.

  10. Awesome post! Passion, perseverance and patience intertwined with self doubt and the occasional meltdown (for me anyway). Thanks - it is encouraging.

  11. Wonderful post! You really nailed it!

  12. Thank you, everyone for all your calm words. And Sheri, it's definitely not just you -- almost all writers wrestle with self-doubt, frustration, and more. It's not the absence or presence of those negative factors that determines success or failure, but how a person reacts to those feelings..

  13. As I read your post Ella, I heard Natasha Beddingfield singing "Unwritten." You and Natasha, both wise!

  14. Ooh, love that song and that sentiment. Thank you, Wendy, for reminding me!

  15. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.> how do you motivate yourself


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