I am not sure why I am feeling so shy about this, since I love reading other writer’s “how I got an agent” stories. Please bear with me as I warm up into this. It’s not a simple story; and it’s not a single event that brought me to this place. It’s been years of work, full of trial and error, and interrupted by a few years off for personal growth/recovery. But even though I feel very fortunate to have the agent I do, Kelly Sonnack from Andrea Brown Literary, I don’t feel like I got lucky. I feel like I put the work in, grew up, and was then offered an incredible choice. I also have some wonderful, supportive friends who share dreams that are similar to mine—and I don’t know where I’d be without them.
Years ago, when I was but a baby writer, I had a great idea for a book. And so I started writing it.
I was also super lucky (yes, this was luck), because I had a friend who worked for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She was able to get me a job working behind the scenes at the SCBWI International conference for three years in a row. It was a priceless gift. I was still in the midst of writing the book at the first SCBWI conference, and so I was able to sit in the backs of meetings with a notebook and pen, taking notes and drawing maps, letting my head fill up with tips on plot and craft. I worked two more conferences, got critiques, met editors who liked my work, even got an agent… And then? Nothing.
Nothing happened. Well, I wrote another book. And another. But there was no sale.
I won’t go into too many details, but my then-agent was not a good fit for me. It took me a while to realize it. And when I did, I was crushed. I won’t say it’s like divorce, because I’ve done that—severing a contract with an agent is nowhere near as devastating. But it’s still painful: there are so many hopes and dreams wrapped up in the relationship.
Then there were the years of personal growth. Ya know, those tough years when real life drama makes fictional drama extremely unappealing. But I made it. On my own. To a place where I was able to ask myself “What do I most want in life? What am I going to pursue for myself?” And it always came back to that childhood dream: I want to write books. I want to tell stories, make worlds, and explore beautiful bits of human truths through fiction.
And so, it was time to get serious.
I started attending conferences again. The Western Washington SCBWI conference that happens every spring was my first step back onto the path. My wonderful boyfriend came with me, to stay at the hotel and cheer me on. I was working a very demanding job at the time, so I wasn’t able to put as much time into the book as I wanted. But I still put some time in and kept putting myself out there. In the fall, I applied to the Western Washington SCBWI Weekend on the Water writing retreat with Arthur Levine and Linda Sue Park—and got in!
The response I received to my writing that weekend lit the fire even brighter. I started putting more time into the book, even with the demanding job getting even more demanding. (An hourly breakdown of the expectations for my job revealed that we needed three people to do the work, and there was just one of me.) But it was what I wanted, and the book kept growing.
Then in January, last year, my friends April Henry and Laini Taylor gave me a huge boon. They were both working to publication deadlines that were 2 months out. They both had at least 30K words left to write on their manuscripts. And by my estimation, so did I! They let me join them for daily/weekly check-ins on progress. They shared tips for getting work done, even when it doesn’t seem like anything wants to come out of your brain. They showed me that I could work full time and write 1000 words a day, sometimes.
And then my boyfriend gave me another gift: He offered to carry the bulk of the bills if I wanted to quit my job. I have been able to spend the past year working part-time and writing books. (Yes, bookS!) I began querying agents seriously last summer, when I finished the first manuscript. I got a steady stream of requests for the full manuscript, and stacked up a short stack of lovely, personalized rejections. Clearly, the book was not bad, but I had yet to find the agent who would truly love it. As each rejecting agent said, “I’m just not enough in love with it, but I am sure another agent will be.”
I was getting used to the steady pace of sending, waiting, sighing, shrugging, and wondering who would actually fall in love, when a critique partner of mine, Kate Branden, interrupted this pattern. She was going to a conference. A really amazingly cool conference. One that was in California, one that was only three weeks away. They still had spots open. Did I want to go? My first response was that it was too expensive, and too short of notice. But my boyfriend stepped in again, giving me another gift: “Go, I’ve got it. You have to go.”
And so I went.
The Big Sur conference, put on by Andrea Brown Literary. So many agents I admired, a fantastic set of editors and authors, and the chance to find out if I was way off target with my latest manuscript. The conference was wonderful. The best conference I’ve ever been to. I’ll definitely recommend SCBWI International to anyone—you should go at least once, if you’re serious about the business of children’s lit. But Big Sur? Big Sur is where you get to work on your craft. Where you get to talk to editors and agents in a relaxed setting. Where critique groups led by experts give you direct and helpful feedback on your work. And where you also fall completely in love with the ABLA agents, because they are all so sharp, so very willing to be approached, and so ready to be helpful.
But if you are part of the children’s writers community and stalk conferences a little bit, you’ll know that Kelly wasn’t at Big Sur this year. I didn’t actually meet her there. Here’s the truth: I had queried Kelly about a month prior to the conference, having no idea that I would be going. (And another truth? If she hadn’t been on maternity leave this summer, I would have queried her then.) When someone expressed interest in my work, I let them know I’d already queried Kelly. I was told to not let that connection drop, and to get in touch with Andrea herself when I was ready to query with the book I’d brought to the conference. Or if I received any offers from other agents.
Then the amazing happened. I got an offer! From a fantastic agent who loved my work. I knew that I would be in trouble with my connections if I didn’t at least give ABLA a chance, so I emailed Andrea. Who prompted Kelly to skip ahead a bit in her query queue. Who then emailed and said she’d be interested in reading, too, based on the ten pages in the query. And then, because there were actually two books in play at this point, Kelly read two books in less than two days in order to get back to me in a timely fashion. (I don’t want to downplay the other agent, though, she put in just as much effort, reading around her trip to Bologna. Another incredible feat.) And then there were two offers on the table.
What does a little writer who’s gotten a bit too used to rejection do when two fantastic people offer? Panic a little bit. Especially after having been burned by an agent in the past. Maybe accidentally run a red light and get a ticket because she’s too distracted by the choice in front of her to be safe on the road… And then sit and weigh the pros and cons.
The fact that I had been to Big Sur, had met the other ABLA agents and seen how they worked together as a team, was a big part of the deciding factor. Another was Kelly’s vision for my books and her very personal response to my characters. Also, when I look at Kelly’s list, I see exactly where my style of books fit. I can articulate why she likes my (two very different) books, and know that I’ll most likely continue to produce books that appeal because our imaginations line up in this way.
There’s more work to be done. Some minor revisions, some decisions about future projects, and the actual submitting to editors process. But do I feel like I’m in good hands at this point in time? Yes. Absolutely. And I am so glad Big Sur helped me choose an agent with my eyes wide open this time. (And that my boyfriend made me go. I couldn’t have gotten this far without the incredible support.)