I started writing towards publication sometime around 1999-2000. I had always written when I was younger - poems, short stories, even a romance novel when I was in high school. (It took up two notebooks. I still have it. It will never see the light of day.) But then I decided to be an actor (because, you know, writing is just such a difficult career to break into) and focused on that throughout college and in my first few years post-graduation.
I think I returned to writing to fill the creative void that I felt in between shows. To be an actor, someone has to give you permission to act. You have to audition and win the job before you can even begin the creative process. But to be a writer, you just have to show up to the page. The only person who has to give you permission to write is yourself. Yes, someone has to give you permission to be published (unless you self-publish, which is a whole ‘nother subject I’m not covering on this blog). But the actual act of writing - that’s all you.
So in those early days of finding my way back into writing, I wrote what I’d been reading: historical fiction. I love historical fiction. And I love writing historical fiction. I love the research and the mental time travel involved. So it was natural that I would gravitate towards that genre.
My first novel is an epic American historical that is like a female Huck Finn. You can read more about it HERE. It wasn’t good enough to get published but it was good enough to get me an agent. And here’s how that happened.
I met my agent, Irene Goodman, through a conference. I believe that conferences are, hands-down, the best way to find an agent. Yes, they can be expensive, but if you are truly serious about being published, they are a worthwhile investment.
In Spring 2005 I signed up to attend the Historical Novel Society’s first North American conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the sign-up packet was a sheet to fill out if you wanted to get a pitch appointment with an agent (Irene). Basically, you had to pitch your book on the sheet and Irene would decide from that whether or not she wanted to hear about the book in person.
I filled out the sheet, using the “back cover blurb” pitch I had formulated in Mary Buckham’s online Query & Synopsis class. (Mary’s an awesome writing teacher whose classes I highly recommend. Visit her website for more information.) I sent the packet off, thinking I’d find out whether or not I landed an appointment when I got to the conference.
A couple of weeks later, I got an email from Irene. She wanted the first three chapters and a synopsis. This was about a month before the actual conference. I sent those off to her, again thinking I’d hear back from her at the conference.
About a week later, I got a request for the full manuscript.
There was a problem. THE MANUSCRIPT WASN’T FINISHED. Yes, I had pitched an incomplete novel which is kind of a no-no but everyone does it anyway. I had half a manuscript of good stuff and half a manuscript of utter mess. And when I say utter mess, I mean it. I literally had fragments of scenes with bracketed notes like “[major moment with love interest].” But I had a request from an agent! I couldn’t ignore it!
Luckily for me, Irene was going on vacation, so I had about a week to whip the manuscript into shape. It wasn’t enough time. I got an email from her the day she got back from vacation asking where the manuscript was. At that point, I had to ‘fess up. I told her I had 250 pages I could send her while I was “tweaking” the rest. She said fine, send the 250 pages, which I did.
Two days later, she called and told me she wanted to represent me. This was all BEFORE the actual conference that had brought us together!
We met in person for the first time at the conference in Salt Lake City. She’s been my agent now for almost six years - through one rejected book, one abandoned manuscript, one major genre change and finally a sale. She was the second agent I ever queried. The first I had also met at a conference. He rejected it - good thing, too, because it REALLY wasn’t finished at that point.
I realize that this may be an atypical road to representation and that those writers out there who have gone through hundreds of queries probably want to throw tomatoes at me. Everyone’s journey is different. And while my journey to my agent was a relatively easy path, my road to the Call has not been.
If it wasn’t for that conference, landing an agent would probably have been a much harder path. So I’ll say it again - conferences are the best way to find an agent. Meeting them face-to-face gets you off the slush pile, which can help you immensely. It also helps you narrow down whether an agent is right for you or not; maybe on paper they seem like the dream agent, but in person they’re totally wrong for you.
So save up your money and attend a conference. It just might be the start of a beautiful friendship (with an agent).