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How I Landed an Agent (part 5)

It took about two months.

I got an e-mail from Carolyn’s assistant sometime in April, saying that Carolyn was still looking at the manuscript but would get back to me about it soon. She was going away for the next week and would contact me when she got back.

I was pretty sure at this point that it was in the bag. If not, why wouldn’t she just say no? But I was also pretty sure that, if she was taking this long, it must be positive — sure, she’d probably have things she’d want me to change,

It took another long, tense week or two before she finally e-mailed me with the verdict.

First, she thought the second half of the book really “galloped along” — which was great to hear! I was happy with how I’d worked the pace of the second half, and thought it was pretty good myself.

Second, she enjoyed the experience of “reading what seemed to be a ‘book’ rather than a ms with potential.” HUGE praise — I think the highest compliment I’ve received for my writing.

And finally, if I was “willing to take a chance,” she would send me an agency agreement.

Er, yes, I do believe I will take that chance!

From thereon things went just fine. I’ve started (and nearly finished) the sequel, and Carolyn has started to try to sell this little series I’ve got going. Everyone seems to be happy with the whole arrangement — and of course we’ll all be happier when the book, or the series, gets sold.

I’ll follow up soon with a bit on what I think this whole experience has taught me.

How I Landed an Agent (part 4)

It took Carolyn a week or two to reply. She said it was more immediate, and that it definitely brought us closer to the main character. Very positive!

She also pointed out two issues — one unchanged pronoun (a “he” wasn’t changed to an “I” in a fairly complex construction) and a typo. This threw me for a loop as well; I don’t have a problem with being corrected, but she zeroed in on two minor mistakes instead of talking about the big picture stuff that I expected. It was a little surreal and unnerving.

Finally, she said “Let me know when the rest of the manuscript is done.”


So obviously I was expected to carry on with the rewrite, all the way to the end of the book. This was a huge task, and would probably take several months to complete. And what if, at the end of it, she decided that it wasn’t good enough after all? The huge task of rewriting would have been for nothing.

I mulled it over for a week or two. I talked about it with… well, probably anyone who would listen. But my real saviour was a friend of mine from grad school, who has since left Canada and moved to England to become a literary agent. The talented¬†Isabel White also happened to be returning to Canada around that time, meaning I could call her and beg for some advice! (Note that this was not the first time I had begged her for advice, and wouldn’t be the last. But she’s a wonderful, wonderful person and puts up with that kind of thing.)

Isabel gave me the verbal slap upside the head that I needed. She said that she’d mentioned my case to the top agent at the agency she worked for then, and they both agreed that they had never heard of an agent asking for a full rewrite, and promising to read the entire thing after it was done. And they both agreed that I should get the thing rewritten, pronto.

So I e-mailed Carolyn to tell her “it’ll be a few months but I’m on it”, and I got to work.

It was easier — not easy, but easier — to get going on the full manuscript, but it still took a while; I think it was about the beginning of February when I finished it. And then I asked my friend Karina (did I mention her before? I think so. Did I mention she was nominated for a Nebula award? I don’t think so. She’s a really good writer!) to do a full technical edit, specifically for the first/third person thing but also for any grammatical or stylistic flaws she found. It didn’t take her long and I paid her some money and chocolate and probably lunch too. She deserved it all!

I e-mailed it back to Carolyn. I fretted about this e-mail for a while, to be honest. I wanted to start it out with “I don’t know if you remember, but…” — but I didn’t want to sound like an idiot, or vaguely insult her by implying she wouldn’t remember me. I think I settled on something like “well, you asked for this a while ago, so… here it is.”

She replied fairly quickly and said she was very happy to get it, and — she had mentioned to her assistant just the week before that they should remember when setting her schedule that they would probably see something from me pretty soon, so they should keep that in mind. (I was pretty amazed by this. Does she know writers or what!?) And she said she’d get back to me soon.

…and this has become a longer segment than I expected. I promise part 5 will be the last one!


Carolyn forwarded me a rejection e-mail from an editor yesterday. The editor’s response was that while he read it and liked it, the voice wasn’t right for him — too light. He wanted something darker, maybe disillusioned.

Of course, my first response was to worry. Is it too light? Should I be looking for ways to make it more of a noir book? Carolyn didn’t suggest it, but should I?

But that was just a reaction. I’m not going to worry about it unless this is the reaction I get from multiple editors. And I trust Carolyn will figure out when that time comes.

And there’s the opposite argument, too. There could be an editor out there who likes the thriller/crime type of novel, but wishes they weren’t all so bloody and dark. And that editor might love this book.

So I’m going to stay the course, and try not to think about it. Carolyn will be at BEA next week and will be seeing many, many editors there. I will sit tight and cross fingers, slaughter doves and calves, the usual stuff.

But I will admit to one bright light from this editor: he liked the book, and considered it. That he said no is one thing. That he didn’t just dismiss it as not good enough is another thing entirely. I might not be playing in the big league yet, but I might be drafted in an upcoming round! That’s a really, really good feeling.

In the meantime, back to writing.

How I Landed an Agent (part 3)

One more event from the conference got me very excited about Carolyn’s interest. The keynote speaker there was Ian Ferguson, a Canadian writer and a really nice, funny guy. His keynote speech at the gala awards dinner was fantastic, and I laughed throughout.

However, one downside to the gala dinner was that there was no wine served with it. You had to go outside the main room to buy any kind of alcohol, and bring it back in. This had to do with the funding and sponsorship for the conference, so it was a necessary annoyance, but it was an annoyance nonetheless.

So as soon as the dinner concluded, most of the members of my table, and a few friends from other tables, agreed to go off and find a pub where we could have a drink together. And on our way out of the conference building, we ran into Ian Ferguson and invited him along, and he agreed. Off we went!

As it happened I ended up walking beside Ian for a few blocks and chatting with him. I told him about my success with Carolyn, and he told me that she was a great agent, and if I could sign with her I’d be very happy with her. His brother, Will Ferguson, is one of her clients, and Ian said she’s got a great rapport with many publishers, but was a lawyer and takes no nonsense from them either. Will is apparently very happy with Carolyn.

Of course, we couldn’t talk shop all night, but Ian had said enough; I would do whatever I could to prove myself to Carolyn. I’d already gone a long way and hopefully, on the strength of the rewritten section, she’d say yes.¬†Once I was done with the conference, and the flush of pride and new-found confidence wore off a little, I got to work on the rewrite.

I had never written fiction in the first person before, or at least nothing novel-length, and nothing for about 15 years or so. This book was written in third person limited, so the point of view was already okay; it was a question of perspective.

It wasn’t easy at all. I had to re-think each scene, to understand it as the direct reported experience of the character. I had to find ways to assume the character’s reactions to the scene into the narrative; by that I mean I had to think about how his reaction could be reported, subtly and interestingly, as part of the factual reporting of the scene. The problem was compounded by the fact that the I completely rewrote the first chapter, so it was now quite new to me.

I also had some more fundamental questions about writing in the first person. In a third-person work, the narrator is telling the story; even a narrator who is involved directly in the story is arm’s-length enough to be a surrogate for the author, and no further explanation is required. But a first person narrator is by definition self-conscious. I asked myself, why would the narrator be telling the story at all? To whom would he be telling it? In what form? And should that be part of the story itself?

A good example of what I mean is H.G. Wells’s The Time Traveller. The story is bookended by a host who has a guest, the time traveller, to dinner. And the meat of the story is the time traveller’s tale, which is told in first person to the host. All very logical and sensible, though the host is in the same position as my first-person narrator — whom is he telling the story to, and why, and how does he remember so much detail? I definitely didn’t want to make an explicit reference to the narration itself (like establishing that the guy was writing the tale down years later.

In the end, I decided to forget about the question. I figured that I would have to trust to the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and to do that I would have to get the story going quickly and interestingly.

Once that was decided, it wasn’t a huge task to go through and change all the pronouns, and at each change (especially where the main character’s reactions and observations were described), consider whether something could be done better or more seamlessly. It took about a month — I was working full-time so it was mostly weekend work — but I finished it and sent it off.

Continued in part 4. (Will it ever end? Possibly.)

How I Landed an Agent (part 2)

A few minutes after one, Carolyn came in. Her panel had gone long and she had had to run around gathering her things for the afternoon and just didn’t have enough time. Not her fault, but it always seems to happen to me at these things!

Ah well. First, she said, she really liked the book. Whee! So.

She had read the first six chapters in her room the night before. And she had ended in a scene where the gangster bringing the main character into the mafia world appears — suspense! — to have been shot. (SPOILER ALERT: he wasn’t.) And Carolyn realized she was very disappointed that the character was gone. And that led her to realize that she was far more interested in him (the gangster) than the main character.

“So I have a suggestion,” she said. “And you don’t have to do it. How would you like to re-write a couple of chapters in first person, and then I can take another look at them at that point?”

Erm, yes, I believe that such an event could come to pass. Such a thing could be arranged. One could see how — “Yes,” I said. “I can do that.”

Then Carolyn started talking about series potential. She saw the book as one that I could develop into a thriller series; did I think that was possible?

She liked my book! Anything’s possible. “Sure,” I said, nonchalantly you know, as if I talked about series potential with agents all the time. I pointed out that because of the shady and relatively unknown past of the main character, all kinds of possibilities existed — long-lost relatives, his own family’s connections.Not a problem.

At this point, one of the conference people began hovering around the edge of the table, suggesting, I imagine, that we had had our twenty minutes, even though we had had only about ten.

Carolyn told me to e-mail the rewritten chapters to her when they were done, and I said I would get them to her in a few weeks. And that was it.

I called my wife and my parents to tell them the good news, and that was that.

Coming up in part 3: the rest of the conference, and the rewrite.

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.

Today’s Progress

I’m working on some items for my agent today, as well as–guess!–that’s right, my website.

My agent signed me on the strength of my first book, The Famiglia, about a year ago. Since then, I’ve been working on the sequel, On the Heat. I recently sent her the first few chapters of OtH, and a synopsis of the book–I’m around the 75% mark, so I am finally ready to commit to an ending.

Well, she liked it, and she thinks she’ll get some interest in it. So I have to give her a bio, an overview of the series, the synopses for both books, and my changes to the first book’s manuscript. So armed, she is ready to start talking to editors about it.

It’s exciting, yes. But it’s daunting, too. The bio is supposed to be germane to the series, which means it is different from all the bios I’ve written for myself in the past–and I hate writing bios for myself. And much as I think I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m heading with the series, it’s not so easy to commit it to paper.

So that’s what I’m up to. I’m also going to be spending an hour or two writing this afternoon; my current target is 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 a week, and last week was about half of that. But this week is what matters.