How I Landed an Agent (part 1)

This is the story of how I landed a literary agent for my book, now slowly becoming a series of books. I’ll start with the book itself, and then go through the long process of getting her attention, then meeting with her, then the rest of the process.

Why go through this long exercise? First, because it’s something that other writers ask all the time. And second, because I think my story, while not at all typical, does say something useful about the writing and publishing biz.

In November of 2004, I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time. It didn’t go too badly at first, and I wrote 14,000 words in the first week; then I ran out of steam, and ended up with only 15,000 words for the whole month, 35,000 short of the goal. But I had a new novel underway, and I was pretty sure it was a good one.

Over the next couple of years, I worked at it, bit by bit. I was also editing my novel LMF, which I had finished in the spring of 2004. I also joined a local editing circle, which helped me to focus my work a little better, because there was an audience for the book and I had to stay ahead of them. By the time LMF was published, in the spring of 2006, I had finished about 100 pages of the new book.

It took another year, including a stretch of writers block that lasted from November that year to the following April, to finish the book. The last third I wrote in a single week, while Mei and I were away at a resort in the Dominican Republic. Each morning we sat on the beach and read; each afternoon and evening we sat in the bar and I wrote. The staff brought the gin and tonics and I got the words written. The last day of the trip, at about six in the evening, I laid the pen down. I was done.

That June, I was invited to attend a week-long workshop in Bayfield, Ontario, hosted by Dennis Bock. I and five other writers met and had a group critique, led by Dennis. That was the first run anyone took at the finished book, and it was very useful — not only did I have a lot of encouraging feedback, I also had a new approach to editing the book (which I’ll probably post about here eventually). We also talked about the title; my working title up till then was Senz Umbrell’, but Dennis advised me to stay away from obscure phrases like that, as they can turn readers off. That week, I changed the name to The Famiglia and I was done.

I edited the book for the next year, rewriting some parts, adding some scenes, and generally improving the book. One of the last things I did was to completely change the first chapter, which was a problem for many of the readers. That done, I felt ready to start submitting the book.

In the summer of 2008, the Canadian Authors Association conference was to be held in Edmonton. One of the highlights of the conference (and indeed most of the CAA conferences since 2005) was a ten-minute meeting with an editor or agent. I looked at the list of available publishers and agents, and the one that stuck out to me was the Canadian literary agent, Carolyn Swayze.

Why did she stick out? Because she is one of only a handful of Canadian agents. I had been researching Canadian agents, and really, it’s a tiny pool. I signed up right away for Carolyn.

The next step was to send my material in — we were able to submit in advance, so that our meeting would be as efficient as possible. There were no clear guidelines set by the conference, so I went with Carolyn’s submission guidelines as stated on her website. She wanted only ten pages, I think, and a cover letter. I can’t remember whether I rewrote the first chapter at that point or not, but I put together the ten pages, had a friend, the talented Karina, look it over and apply the Withering Criticism, and then packaged it up and sent it off.

About a week before the conference, I got an e-mail from Carolyn herself… asking whether I had finished the manuscript, and if so would I be able to bring a copy with me to the conference? Er, yes, I replied, I might be able to swing that, I suppose. We arranged that I would leave it at the registration desk the night I arrived (Thursday), and then we consulted the schedule. As it turned out, my appointment was at one o’clock Friday — I had apparently been the first to sign up for her. Unfortunately she was on a panel all Friday morning, so she wouldn’t have much time to read the manuscript in advance after all. Ah well.

On Thursday I was in CAA national executive council meetings all day, so around four p.m. I dropped the manuscript off at the registration desk. The next morning I attended Carolyn’s panel; she was extremely good on it (and I’m not just saying that — they were all good!) A couple of things Carolyn mentioned: she was looking for thriller series these days (was mine a thriller? probably not). And she was as interested in the person who wrote the book as much as the book itself; she didn’t want some drunk jerk who made an ass of himself at conferences as one of her authors. Sobering words, to be sure.

The panel ended, and I fretted all through lunch, wondering what she would say about the book. I was at the meeting room well before one, and was led to the table at one on the dot. And then…

And then part one ended, and part two began.

  1. Very interesting process, Matt. How could she not love you? And that getting drunk at signings thing? You can get over it! KIDDING!!! I know you are very professional when it comes to your writing and I’m proud to have you as a friend and a writer-friend. Can hardly wait to read the rest.

  2. 🙂 Thanks, Sandra. Next part of the agent story will be up soon!

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