Finding a literary agent!
It took me four years of writing query letter after query letter and receiving rejection after rejection.
I started in February 2008 and found AgentQuery.com, a database of agents around the US. I also very naively e-mailed famous authors to ask if they had any tips! Some were helpful, but most probably thought I was nuts.
For every ten query letters I sent out, I received one or two requests for a few chapters (called a partial; the whole manuscript is called a full), three to four rejections, and the rest I never heard from.
This went on for a year and a half. The thing is, if agents are asking for a few chapters or the whole thing, that means the story has appeal. It’s also what kept me hopeful. Around this time I started working with a few independent editors, one after the other, to help improve my writing.
In 2009, an assistant at a small agency found my query letter and asked for a few chapters. She was by far the most enthusiastic of the agents who had requested a partial.
But after reading them, she thought the chapters still needed polishing and suggested I hire a ghost editor she knew. I was game and was certain it would lead to signing with this agent. (As a sidenote, agents used to sign memoirists based on a proposal and the first 50 pages. That seemed to change during the four years I queried agents. Now they mostly prefer the full manuscript.)
Months later when I sent my revisions to this agent, I heard nothing back. A few months and e-mails later, still nothing. (All this time I had stopped querying other agents.) So I did a little investigating and learned she had switched agencies and was no longer in a position to sign new authors.
Back to the drawing board. After many more rejections, I started working with another independent editor, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. I had read and loved her novel, Midori by Moonlight (St. Martin, 2007), a couple years earlier. Wendy not only helped me polish those chapters, but encouraged me to complete the manuscript. So I wrote the rest of the story in my office (see photo above), AKA my living room chair.
Wendy also helped polish my query letter, which had gone through many incarnations over the years. By December 2011, we were both happy with the manuscript and the letter. So I held off until just after the new year to send out a batch of 15-20 query letters.
(Here’s a secret: people say you can’t query the same agent twice, but that was never my experience. I queried some a second or third time if they had shown earlier interest in my story. Most asked for another partial. Ultimately that didn’t matter in my case, but it’s something that can be done if you’ve made significant revisions.)
By mid-January of 2012 I had half a dozen requests for partials and fulls! Instead of waiting for these replies–I had learned my lesson in 2009–I continued to send out more letters every time I received a rejection from my query letter.
I was a regular follower of the Guide to Literary Agents blog and found some listings for new agents. Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency was featured one week in mid-January. I found an earlier interview with her on another blog, which mentioned that she loved Adeline Yen Mah’s YA book, Chinese Cinderella. Mah’s adult version of this memoir, Falling Leaves, is one of my favorites. So I sent Carrie a query letter and the first 30 pages per her submission guidelines.
That’s when things started moving fairy-tale fast. By the end of the week, Carrie offered representation! I had set out to find an agent that January and that I did.
From the beginning, Carrie has been a dream agent. So much more than a dream agent, though, because in my dreams they were never this fabulous. My gut said to go with her because she seemed so eager to work with me, and not to wait for the replies of the other agents who had my partials and fulls.
Carrie has been an agent, editor, friend, sounding board, warm shoulder, den mother, and business partner all rolled into one.
If you are planning on querying agents, I highly recommend doing so in January or February. The holidays are over and the new year is just beginning.
And if you would like advice about querying, I would be happy to answer questions in the comments field.