Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Got My Agent--An Interview with Debut Author Kathleen West

Kathleen West came to several of my online classes in the early days of writing her first novel.  She got structuring help and good feedback, and later we worked together privately to help her develop the character arcs for the multiple points of view in her woven narrative. After four months, she felt ready to finish revising on her own and start querying agents.

A few weeks ago, I got an excited email from Kathleen telling me she'd gotten an offer from not just one agent, but two!  She's on her way to publication and I thought I'd interview her for the blog, find out the steps she took to land two offers of representation.

Tell us about your book-genre, topic, how you came to write it.  
My book fits in the "contemporary women's fiction" genre. In the story, two women face simultaneous meltdowns in an affluent suburb where appearances are paramount.  Here's the set-up as I wrote it in my query letter:  Isobel Johnson, an English teacher, has spent her career in Liston Heights side-stepping the community's high-powered families. When she receives a mysterious, threatening voicemail accusing her of Anti-Americanism and a "blatant liberal agenda," she realizes she's squarely in the fray. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Abbott, a helicopter stage mom obsessed with the casting of the winter musical, inadvertently elbows the female lead in the gut while celebrating her son's mid-size speaking role. She's the instant star of a damning viral video. 
I'm a career English teacher, so Isobel came naturally to me. Elizabeth appeared in my psyche when my oldest child, a student at the school where I work, auditioned for the middle-school musical. My colleague asked if I planned to go check the cast list when it was posted. I said that seemed a little over-the-top, pushing kids out of the way to look at the list. She and I started to imagine who WOULD do that. Turns out, it was my character, Elizabeth.
What's your writing background?  Is this your first book?

I have been writing a blog for nearly fourteen years. The blog helped me reclaim a writer identity in my post-college, early career, new-mom years. Detention is my first finished book. I'd started another book and worked on it for a year before abandoning it for the current idea. In those shelved pages, I tried for a more literary feel in a story that spanned generations. It was too ambitious, but I'm hoping to resurrect the characters in another project.

How long have you been working on it?  What kept you going through the hard parts?

Your online classes motivated me to reach my word count goals and also connected me with my wonderful critique partners, Nigar Alam and Maureen Fischer. When I'd gone as far as I could on my own, I hired you for coaching. To be honest, investing in classes and coaching kept me motivated and accountable--I didn't want to waste the money I'd spent! It took two years to write the book to the query stage. 

What kind of support did you have while you were working on and finishing the manuscript?  Writers groups, classes, coaching, etc.?  
In addition to classes and coaching and coffees with my critique partners and other writing buddies (including a colleague who helped me identify my missing antagonist), I love following the #5amWritersClub Twitter hashtag. There are scores of early-morning scribblers out there who encourage each other with quick check-ins.
When did you know you were ready to begin querying?
I started querying too early. I'd finished the book and sent it to Nigar, Maureen, and two others for beta reading. Then I got antsy waiting for feedback. I sent five query letters to keep myself busy before Nigar broke the news that I should consider heavily revising my first chapter.

She was right on, so I did that between my first and second rounds of querying. My plan was to start slow, gauge response, and then make changes to my letter and manuscript as necessary. I didn't get any requests from that first round, so I should have waited. It turned out OK because I'd decided not to query all "dream" agents off the bat--I'd kept some that I thought would be more perfect fits for later.

Share your agent research process--what databases did you use, how many agents did you choose for the initial querying, and what was the process you used to keep track of responses?

I took an additional class through the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Query Comprehensive." The literary agent who taught the course gave two rounds of feedback on the letter itself and then offered advice on researching agents and keeping track of queries. Primarily, I used the "Manuscript Wish List" website. I searched it for keywords and comp titles.

I also bought the Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents and visited agency websites. Once I found agents that I thought would like my book, I read their Twitter feeds and searched for interviews with them. This helped me personalize each query. Finally, I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace. I looked at each agent's deals--what types of books they were selling and how often.

I kept a spreadsheet of relevant information, including the dates I sent queries and got rejections or requests.

Share your agent responses--yeses, no's, maybe's--and what you did about each one, internally and externally.  Rejections can be hard for writers.  How did you manage that?
Although the rejections stung a little bit, I wasn't too fazed by them. I'd already decided that I'd query the book until I had 100 rejections. I tried to re-frame each one as a step toward that goal. Some agents don't bother to send a rejection, but rather indicate on their submission pages that they'll only contact you if they're interested. I actually preferred that kind of rejection as the mini-roller coaster of seeing a reply in the inbox and having it be a form letter made me cringe.
I sent the initial queries in mid-January. In late January, I entered a contest called "Sun vs Snow" hosted on the blogs of YA writers Michelle Hauck and Amy Trueblood. I was thrilled to be chosen from 200 hundred entries to be in the agent round of 36 authors. As part of the contest, an agented writer helped me revise my query letter and the opening 250 words of the manuscript.

I got my first two requests for pages when the entries went live. One of the contest agents who requested the partial manuscript sent a thoughtful rejection with feedback about pacing in the opening chapters. I didn't act on that feedback, but filed it away in case others came back with something similar. 
Around the same time as the contest, I decided to invest in one more round of editing on the query and first ten pages. I hired Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Hyphen Craft, a former literary agent who represented books like mine. She helped me polish everything (including the synopsis, which was ridiculously hard to write) and choose comp titles. I queried two additional agents in February and three more in March.

How did the offers come?  How soon after you sent the full manuscript?  Did the agents call or email you?  How did you decide on the one you chose to sign with?

In the end, I chose between two agents of that final round of five. I queried my first offering agent on March 3, and she requested the full manuscript and the synopsis on March 6. On March 13, she emailed me asking for a phone call. We talked that afternoon for 45 minutes about what she liked about the book, as well as her ideas for revision.

There was an awkward moment when she said, "You must have questions for me," but she hadn't yet officially offered representation. I had to first ask, "Are you offering to represent me?" We laughed, and said she'd learned the hard way not to lead with the offer in case the phone call went poorly. I loved chatting with her, and we agreed on March 23 as a deadline for getting back to her with my decision. 

I then contacted the other four agents with whom I had outstanding queries as well as the agent who had my full manuscript from the contest. I got a lovely rejection (seems oxymoronic, I know!) from the one with the full manuscript. She complimented my writing, explained that she had a bit of hesitation about the book, and asked me to contact her with any future manuscripts should I find myself without representation.

Then another agent, Joanna MacKenzie at Nelson Literary, whom I'd queried in February asked me for the full manuscript and agreed to read it and get back to me by the deadline. On March 22, I wrote to her reminding her that I planned to honor the deadline. She wrote back asking for my patience and promising to get back to me later that afternoon. We talked a couple of hours later. The format of our call was similar to the first one I described. It was delightful, and I was over-the-moon thrilled to be in the position to choose.

I ended up selecting Joanna because I'd been targeting NLA from the beginning. They have a great newsletter and an interesting blog series for aspiring writers. I'd been reading it since I learned the word query. Joanna is a newer agent at the firm and works closely with Kristin Nelson who has a long track record of success. Further, she's heavily editorial, and I felt confident we could work together to improve my manuscript. I was impressed by the feedback Joanna's other clients provided when I reached out to them. It seems like this will be a great fit!
This is all so exciting!  You're launched!  So, what's next?  
I'm now revising to Joanna's specifications. It turns out we will do some work on pacing in the first 50 pages as suggested by that very first rejecting agent! We plan to complete this round of revisions by June, at which time Joanna will begin submitting it to editors at publishing houses. I'm excited and daunted by these next steps!

Connect with Kathleen on Twitter (@52BooksPlus) or via her blog:

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