Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Getting the call: My fiction agent story

I didn't have this blog yet when I signed with my first agent, and I promised readers while telling the nonfiction agent story that I'd tell the fiction agent story when I got around to it . . . and today seems like a good day to tell it!

So here's how I came to sign with my current fiction agent and what the call was like.

The book idea

Bad Fairy began as a short story. I wrote it in response to a prompt from a friend who'd decided we should all write retold fairy tales, and what came out for me was the Sleeping Beauty story from the bad fairy's point of view. I posted the story on my website, got a lot of good reviews, and had one reader tell me he thought it would make a good novel. I decided to find out if he was right.

The short story was written in 2000 and I started writing the novel version in 2003. It was one of those projects that snowballed for me, going in all kinds of directions and ending up at a bloated 255,000 words at the end of five weeks. (I don't mess around when I'm writing.) I was very busy and had a time-consuming job, though, and a lot of editing to do, so it wasn't ready to query for a very long time. I fiddled with it, cutting, adding, editing, changing, revising, for years. And I finally decided--despite its ridiculous length--that this was going to be IT. This was going to be the book I was going to approach agents with. For the very first time. And I sent my first query on January 31, 2006.

The querying process

Querying went very well for me. I had a couple writer friends who had been down this road before, and they had warned me to get ready for rejection. But instead of the smackdown I was half expecting, four of the seven agents I queried requested material from me. I must admit I got a bit overconfident at that point. What were they even talking about? I asked myself smugly. This is easy! I fulfilled the partial requests and was rewarded with a full manuscript request from one of the agents. And I'm sure she spit coffee all over herself when she saw the word count. (I hadn't exactly advertised it in my query. I'd been hoping the agents would get hooked on the story first, which apparently worked, but yeah, that was deceptive.) To make a long story short, the full manuscript request was an easy rejection for that agent; she told me no one would take a book this large, but encouraged me to keep writing because she thought I had a "wonderful voice."

I jumped to another project after that, unwilling to admit that I would need to do some serious work on Bad Fairy before I could get taken seriously. I wrote a shorter book in the YA category, started querying it throughout 2008 and 2009, and almost never got nibbles from agents. I just couldn't seem to hit the sweet spot, and it was all the more maddening because I knew I knew how to query. Given the depressing state of affairs, I went back to the drawing board and dove into a full rewrite: I reconceived Bad Fairy as a trilogy. The first volume's first draft was 171,000 words. It was just as unlikely to hook an agent at that length as its previous 255,000-word version had been. So I trimmed and trimmed until I got to 146,000, and was overjoyed to have written a fantasy novel under 150,000 words.

Querying began again in late 2011. I got the same kinds of responses as the first round: Lots of interest, lots of full requests, etc. But then two agents reading the full manuscript came back with rejections and complaints about pacing or a saggy middle, leaving me wondering if after all that tightening I still had a flabby book.

Finding Michelle

In June of 2012, I went after a new crop of agents and ended up querying agent Marisa Corvisiero. Her profile said she accepted "well developed plots and rich characters with unique voices," as well as fantasy and science fiction, so she was my pick. And Marisa wasn't the one who answered me. My response--an enthusiastic reply just four days after my query--came from Michelle Johnson, a junior agent. I found out later that Michelle had swiped my query from her boss because she had just seen Wicked, the musical, and had fallen in love with the tale of the supposed villain portrayed sympathetically. With my story bearing such a resemblance to Wicked, she was immediately intrigued, and she asked for my full manuscript. . . .

With one huge caveat. My word count was 146,000 words. She said she'd be thrilled to look at it if I could cut it down between 85,000 and 115,000 words, because otherwise it'd just have too much against it in getting published.

A tough choice, to be sure. But after rejections calling me out for pacing problems, I knew there had to be some chaff to find. I figured this must be the kick in the butt I needed, and proceeded to take on the edit of my life. And it was quite a process, I'll tell you. I was enthusiastic about the chopping because I could see where I was going, but at the same time, it was an exhausting and painful process. It wasn't long before I'd been through the whole book once and still needed to lose words, and soon every cut I made was bleeding.

When I posted this online, its caption was
"Don't mind me, just having my soul amputated, thanks."

But I did it. I went in there with a hatchet, then with scissors, and then finally with the tweezers, and at the end of it all I had a manuscript of 115,000 words. No more, no less.

Michelle later told me she opened the document, saw that word count, and howled with laughter. I'd taken her quite literally.

The 30,000+-word slashing had taken me just two weeks. I sent it to Michelle, and she acknowledged receipt and began to read on July 2. By the end of July, she wrote me to apologize for the delay, saying she had been prevented from finishing my book due to rush read requirements for other potential clients. It had annoyed her because she was enjoying my book so much, and she was excited to be getting back into it now. Obviously, I was flattered.

Not long after, I was skulking around on Twitter and saw this tweet from Michelle:

Considering the fact that Michelle's profile picture featured her with coffee, I figured that must be a pretty damn good book she was reading. And I had a sneaking suspicion that she was talking about my book. After all, she'd just told me she was about to start reading it again.

Then it happened. On August 8, Michelle wrote me to ask when we could talk, and the next day during a morning phone call, she said, "I would love to offer you representation for Bad Fairy."

Talking with Michelle

Most authors talk about being nervous during the phone call. I can definitely say I was not at all nervous, but that's probably just my personality. I was excited to talk to Michelle, but I was unsure if I was going to be able to sign with her--I still had others considering my work--and her responses to my questions were going to be what determined that. When I first heard that literary agents were required for most mainstream publishing, years and years ago, I researched the questions I'd want to ask and added to them now and then. I had a whole bushel of questions for Michelle, and some of them were pretty important to me because Corvisiero seemed like a small agency without much publishing history and Michelle had been an agent for a comparatively short time. But as Michelle told me her background, it became clear that she had more experience than showed on the surface. She'd been in the book world for years, managing businesses, editing, consulting, and performing some agenting duties without an official title before she interned with any agencies. She was still being mentored at the time, but she was also a self-starter and had managed to get Big Five publishers to look at her clients' work within a week of signing them.

But beyond her professional qualifications, we connected personally. She began our phone call by immediately launching into the compliments, telling me how in love she was with my book, and occasionally quoting from it throughout the conversation. She praised the cleanness of my manuscript and we discussed our shared editing background. And she had easy answers ready when I asked her what the submission process would be like and who we'd be submitting to. She assured me that I'd be as involved as I wanted to be in developing the pitch package and that she would maintain up-to-date communication with me on the results.

(And yes, the tweet was about me.)

Paraphrased are some compliments and thoughts she offered me:

"I have to tell you it's probably the best book I've read in many many years."

"I can't wait to read the second one and the third one."

"You should have no fear. You will not be a new author long."

"I don't want to give you this hugely inflated ego, but you should have one, really, honestly."

"It was just an incredible work of fiction. It was just incredible what you've done with that story. Okay, I'll stop, I'll stop doing that." [I was like, no, don't. Haha.]

"I have to guard myself because the first thing I want to say about your book is that this is the next Harry Potter, and EVERY publisher and agent has heard that so much our ears bleed."

"I've never read anything that I've been so excited about. And I've been reading really exciting things all my life. But this just transported me. I don't know how else to say it."

"It's so incredibly well-written, and the character is so incredibly intense and real. I don't know anybody who will not associate that, with Delia."

"I usually have a lot of feedback as far as edits and stuff go, but yours was the most pristine manuscript I've ever read. Not just from the really-awesome-story standpoint, but it was really really clean."

"As I was reading it, I was thinking there wasn't a thing that I would cut, and usually there is. There just wasn't a thing, and I really enjoyed going to school with her. You really just nailed it."

"I love Delia. I think she's my new favorite hero."

[On the second volume:] "I can't wait to see it. I can't. Can you please just write it? Now?"

I knew she wouldn't be offering representation if she didn't think the book was great, but it's still really flattering and exciting to get that kind of praise from a publishing industry professional, and to think she must really mean those things if she wants to take a chance on me. After the nice conversation, I told her I'd consider her offer and asked if I could look at the contract. I did more research, thought about the pros and cons (feeling encouraged by this article on signing with a newer agent), did the homework you're supposed to do with other considering agents, and signed the contract on August 20, 2012.

Discussing the particulars of submission isn't really a good idea (unless you're doing it retroactively, maybe), but I will say my submission experience has been great with Michelle. She's always been very communicative and supportive, and she lets me be really involved in the process. In addition, Michelle doesn't just sit around looking at Publishers Marketplace to find people to submit to. She has pitched my book to people she's met at conferences, at events, and even through Twitter-based editor wish lists. She's got her eyes everywhere and I think she's really in that perfect spot between knowing how the industry works and knowing where it might be going. There was a bit of a delay and red tape in my submissions process when Michelle decided to leave Corvisiero Agency and start her own new agency, which is now a three-lady team.

Inklings Literary is doing well, with books selling to large and small publishers and occasional additions to the client list. Michelle represents a broad range of adult fiction genres and a couple specialized nonfiction genres, while her other agents fill in with YA and MG of many genres and a couple different nonfiction genres. I've gotten to know a few of my agency siblings and I follow their blogs and Twitter accounts. It's been a fun ride, and I'm just waiting to have my status changed on my client page from "on submission" to publishing details and a release date. And I think Michelle can make that happen. Fingers crossed!

Watch this space for good news. :)


  1. It's always so cool to hear about the process of getting your novel accepted for representation. I always get hit with a twinge of jealousy because I have a long, longgggg way to go before anything of the like can happen to me D: But I'm also glad to hear things are going well for you after working so hard for it.

    I can't wait for Bad Fairy to get put up in bookstores :D

  2. Yay! I can't wait for it to hit shelves either.

    You know you can always feel free to ask me for guidance or opinions on your materials whenever you get to the querying stage!

    1. D: thank you so much for offering! It...might not be a stage I'll reach till another thousand years, but once I'm ready (or think that I am) I'll definitely seek some advice from you :D

  3. It's always fun to read these how I got my agent stories. I also think it's cool BF started as a short story. I wrote a novella and have thoughts of turning it into a novel, but I have other projects I want to work on before that, so maybe someday.

    1. I've got a couple other short stories that have novels in them! My most recent novel was a short story first, too, and I have a couple other previously written short stories that I think need to become novels. :)