How I Got My Literary Agent

I have a literary agent! This is bonkers.

In February of 2018, I finished the novel I’d been writing, off and on, for five years. I was in Paris, because the novel is set in Paris, and if you’re ever going to really lean in to a cliché, why not choose the one about being an American writer in Paris? I came home and set about finding an agent to represent it and shepherd it to publication. Here’s an excerpt of a post from August of 2018, when I was only six months into the query process:

Friends, if I had known this part of the game was going to be as difficult and stressful as it has been, I would’ve hurried the fuck up with the writing and devoted more emotional energy to querying. People warned me! They warned me this would suck! They were not wrong! Writing a novel is only half of the battle.

I sent somewhere around 55 queries between March and December of 2018. In August, I received a full request from an agent who eventually asked me to revise and resubmit the manuscript, but only if I paid an editor for a developmental edit. (In hindsight, this ought to have set off alarm bells; querying authors shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket to secure an agent. They can if they so choose, but it shouldn’t be a requirement to landing representation.) I contacted four editors, two of whom the agent recommended personally (this should have been another red flag), and all of them came back with quotes for their services between $3,000 and 4,000. I’m sure they’re worth every penny they charge, but it was money I just didn’t have and I didn’t think my precious book child needed that much heavy lifting. That’s not to say I disagreed with/refused to be receptive to the feedback the agent gave me, or that I was too protective of my novel to change even a single comma. I’d been editing as I wrote, revising and condensing and polishing; I even had my dear friend Samantha, who had worked in publishing, proofread it. This wasn’t a first draft manuscript by any means.

I undertook the edit myself, which took me a month. I deleted roughly 11k words, changed the ending, and addressed a bunch of other plot and pacing points. I liked the book more. It still felt like the book I set out to write, just better; I didn’t sacrifice my vision for it in the pursuit of one agent.

I resubmitted it to the agent in December, and when they got back to me in January of 2019, the answer was still no. Disappointing, but not surprising. All of the things I’d read about finding the right agent (including many of the rejection emails I got from other agents) reassured me that it’s a subjective industry and it only takes one agent to fall in love with it and champion it to publishers.

Between January and June of 2019, I sent another 10 queries, sporadically at best and with none of the initial enthusiasm I had displayed early on. Every rejection, especially ones that came from full requests (and I received 11 full requests total over the life of my #amquerying journey), hurt. Querying isn’t for the faint of heart. It also takes longer than you expect, and you learn to be very, very patient. It’s basically the chorus from Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping,” in that you get knocked down, but you get back up again and keep sending your novel out to other agents.

In June, an agent I queried in February requested the full manuscript. In November, I sent a gently nudging email. She responded saying she hadn’t had a chance to read it but promised she would. In December, she reached out to me to let me know she had started my novel and was enjoying it, and that she hoped to finish it over the holidays and get back to me after the new year. Surely that was a good sign, right? An agent not only showing interest but keeping me apprised of her process? I was like a wounded puppy by that point, though, and refused to get my hopes up.

I had, also, ceased querying entirely. I love my novel, but figured it wasn’t its time. I set it aside in the summer and decided to focus all of my creative efforts on writing another one, maybe one that wasn’t so niche, one that didn’t straddle two genres. An unraveled art heist that is neither a straight mystery (we know whodunnit from the first page) or straight literary fiction is a hard sell, I was told over and over again.

So I started writing another novel. And then I abandoned that novel for another one. I was convinced the best course of action would be to write a second novel more firmly planted in a salable genre, go through the querying process all over again, and hope to sell not only the second novel but the first novel in a two-book deal with a publisher. (The universe, it should now be apparent, had other plans.)

On the second Friday in January 2020, I received an email from that agent that said: “I finally had the chance to read VANISHED in full, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I loved it.” (!!!!!!!!)

I screamed and Tom Cruise’d myself onto my couch, which wasn’t medically advisable given that just that afternoon I’d been diagnosed with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. To say it was a day of ups and downs isn’t entirely accurate; it was a day of listing to one side and then being shot into space with glee. I was dizzy in more ways than one.

We set up a time to talk the following Tuesday. This, of course, is “The Call” querying authors hope to land, the endgame step that leads to an offer of representation, but which I refused to allow myself to believe was actually happening. Maybe it was another revise and resubmit! Maybe I would get hit by a bus before Tuesday and die immediately and never actually get to have The Call! My brain can’t let me have nice things!

At the appointed time, I made myself a cup of tea, sat on my bed, and tried very hard not to pass out. She called, we spoke, she raved about my novel, said she wanted to represent me, the bed opened up beneath me and I fell into my grave. She loved it! She *got* it! She was surprised and satisfied by the main plot twist. She had a few minor suggestions on two or three plot points, all of which made sense to me and I agreed with. I asked her questions I’d googled in advance, like: What is your submission strategy? What happens if you don’t like my next book? And then, because we were getting along so well and the conversation had never felt like a formal interview, I asked her what books she was reading for fun, and it turns out we’d both recently read and loved “Fleishman is in Trouble.” If writing a whole novel is only half the battle, then finding an agent who believes in it enough to sell it to publishers is only the next quarter; the remaining quarter is finding an agent you get along well enough with to maintain a (hopefully!) long and fruitful working relationship.

Everything I’d read online told me to play it cool, that the agent expects you to take a week or two to think about their offer before accepting. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know the amount of chill I have when I am excited about something is zero. Precisely none. I have no chill. So when she ended with, “Do you want to take some time to think about it or are you ready to move forward?” I said I was ready to move forward. To my credit, I didn’t holler! It felt right to accept; the feedback she gave me about my book was all sound and enthusiastic and was made with deference to my vision as its author.

And that is how, a little under two years from the day I finished writing the novel, I landed my literary agent. I am now represented by Stacy Testa of Writers House. I know how hard I worked for this and how many times I wanted to give up (both at writing and at querying), but I also know how lucky I am.

And speaking of lucky, the next day I left for Paris. I’d had the trip booked for a few months, and planned to work on my new novel while I was there. I got to work on my first novel, too, addressing the edits we’d discussed. A week after I got back, the agency agreement was signed and countersigned, and it was officially official. I did it. And I am so, so proud.

Thank you all for sticking with me all these years, from the earliest days of this novel. I cannot wait to bring this book into the world and hold it in my hands, and I can’t wait for you to read it.