One of Those “How I Got My Literary Agent” posts

 

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

 

I am pretty obsessed with reading people’s stories of how they got their literary agents. I liked reading them before I got my agent and now that I have one I am still pretty interested in what seems like a semi-mysterious process. So I am now adding my own contribution…

The TLDR answer is: through cold querying.

Here is the longer answer…

I’ve heard many tales of writers being contacted by agents after viral pieces, and these stories are very cool, but alas, did not happen to me.

Query history

I first queried a book project over 10 (maybe even 15?) years ago. It was for a travel narrative about a trip I had taken through Asia that felt unusual at the time. I got some requests for the full proposal and some nice rejections, and then let that idea go. In retrospect, it’s one of those things that I’m glad never came to fruition because it was kind of straight travelogue and probably not all that great.

A few years later, I tried reworking the same basic idea into a book of humorous travel essays (naively not realizing how difficult it can be to sell a book of essays). I sent out a few more queries/proposals, but when those didn’t pan out, I threw in the towel on the travel idea.

Then life happened (mainly the having kids type) and I shelved the book idea for a while and just focused on submitting shorter pieces here and there where I could. Post-kids, I actually picked up a lot of momentum and got a lot of stuff published and then one day I got a new idea for a humor book. I also read a bit about platform and listened to things like #AmWriting podcast and knew that building up publications could help with platform.

Current project

In 2017 I decided to really try to buckle down and write the proposal for the new idea. I worked on it on and off for about six months.

During that time, I also researched agents through things like Twitter, MSWL, and Publisher’s Marketplace. Around month four of working on it, I wrote a query letter and set up a 10 minutes with an agent chat with an agent through MSWL, just to make sure I was on the right track. I had a nice chat with an agent who offered some small tweaks and said she would also look at the full proposal once it was done.

A couple months later, I finished the proposal. I sent the full to the MSWL agent and then queried about 12 other agents who looked like they were good fits and then obsessively checked Query Tracker to try to determine when they would reply. A few days later I got a couple more requests for the full proposal and checked Query Tracker some more to try to calculate how long it would take them to read it.

During this process, I also revisited a series of helpful blog posts my writer friend Sharon Van Epps wrote about how she found her agent, so I had a vague idea what to do in the event that I was offered representation.

Two agents got back to me with declines about two weeks after I had sent the full proposal. Both sent really helpful personal notes and they declined for different reasons (one thought the idea was better suited for magazine articles and the other liked the idea but thought the approach should be different).

I was still waiting on a response from the third agent but decided to keep up the momentum by sending out a few more query letters. One of the agents I queried requested my full proposal later that same day and then a couple days later emailed me to say she had read it and wanted to set up a call. Later that week we talked and she offered me representation. She gave me a couple weeks to think about it and tie up loose ends with other agents I had queried.

So I emailed all the agents that I hadn’t heard back from and said I had an offer and to contact me within a week if they were interested. With my email “nudge” about the offer, I got one more decline and one more request for the full. The agent who requested the full ended up politely declining it.

In the meantime, I did some research on the offering agent and talked to one of her clients. I liked everything I found out and I also liked her enthusiasm for the project and I felt like she really understood it. So after thinking about it for about a week, I decided to sign with the offering agent.

After I signed with her, I ended up getting a couple more requests for the full proposal, but I told those agents I had already signed.

Now I’m in the midst of revising my proposal and hopefully can write on of those “How I got a book deal” posts at some point in the future!

So, here is how the final numbers broke down on the querying for me:

Number of query letters sent (3 of these included the full proposal too, per the agency guidelines): 16

Number of requests for the full proposal: 5

Number of actual declines: 7

Number of no responses (assumed declines): 6

Number of queries I withdrew after offer: 2

Number of offers: 1

 

 

 

My So-Called Freelancing Life in Review: 2017

 

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Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

 

It’s that time of year where I like to take stock of where I got/failed to get writing-wise. This is my third annual report of this nature, and you can check out last year’s report here.

So, first the stats. My numbers actually look somewhat similar to last year. Here is a side-by-side comparison for your viewing pleasure:

I would have guessed I pitched/submitted a lot less than the previous year, but turns out, it was pretty similar. I did bundle two or three pitches into one email more than I have in the past (to editors that I knew were open to it), and the pitches/submissions weren’t unique (so sometimes it’s sending the same thing out multiple times). My acceptance rate looks like it is slightly improving, but it really depends on the type of pieces and publications you are sending, so I don’t know that it says much.

I tend to focus on lowlights, so it was good to look back at some highlights from the year:

  • National print pieces. I had 3 pieces appear in Parents print this year — my first national print pieces. I had been trying to break into national print mags since pretty much forever, so it was great to hit this goal. I think one of my most shared pieces of the year was this digital version of one of the articles.
  • Goal pubs: I also published in some goal pubs this year like Real Simple digital and The Rumpus.
  • !!! acceptances: When I enter a pitch response on my Excel tracking sheet, if it’s a yes I am particularly excited about, I sometimes put an exclamation point by it. See how I make Excel sheets fun? In any event, I had six “yes” responses that I put the “!” by this year, which is pretty cool because some years I have one to zero. One such piece was this humor piece for the Wash Post.

LOWLIGHTS:

  • 2017 rejects: I got rejections (or silence) from 3 of the 4 pubs I had on my goal list to submit to in 2017. All of those pubs also had the words “New York” in the title, so next year I should probably try pitching to pubs with a different location in the title: Nebraska? Delaware? Manitoba? The 4th pub was not able to reject me since I never pitched them — so that was smart.
  • More visual work: I had set this as a goal and didn’t do the best with it this year, although I did create the above stats chart. Impressive, I know.
  • Research pieces: I had set a goal to do two, and I only did one.

2018 GOALS:

  • Pubs to pitch: I am going to just go ahead and transfer over the same goal list pubs to pitch to in the coming year: New Yorker Shouts, New York Times, and New York Magazine. I dropped The Atlantic because I didn’t manage to pitch them in 2017 and think I just don’t have time for the longer reported pieces right now. It’s easier for me to fit in the short pieces around my day job and family commitments currently, but The Atlantic is still a long-term goal pub.
  • Finish my proposal: I have been working on a book proposal and I want to finish it and start querying agents. I am hopeful that I can finish it earlyish in the year. We will see.
  • Visuals: I still want to do more visual work — possibly even try my hand at comics. I have looked into a couple classes and also bought an iPad in a Black Friday sale — so nothing can stop me now!

Additional Writing Notes on 2017:

  • Over the summer I started trying out the Pitch app, and have had fun pitching jokes on it. It feels like a good way to write a little bit each day and also to hone my humor writing skills. I’m also impressed with what other writers can do with topics. I’ve had 6 editor picks which turned into pieces like this.
  • I contributed to the live blog the Wash Post did for the total solar eclipse over the summer, which was fun, in a terrifying sort of way. I’m glad I got to be a part of it, but think I am too anxious for a lot of field reporting (something I learned in college when I had to report on the local swing dance scene for my internship).
  • I saw a total of 30 pieces actually published in 2017. Some were essays and travel pieces, and many were humor pieces. I still really love writing humor despite it not being the most lucrative writing endeavor, but it is semi-therapeutic and easier to do in short pockets of time, so I’m sure I will keep at it in 2018.

My 2016 Freelancing Report: 28 Pitches Disappeared into a Black Hole (but I’m okay with that)

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Image Source: Pixabay

I like reading other writers’ submission stats, so I started tracking mine last year when I started submitting more regularly again.

Last year I only submitted for the second half of the year, but this year I had a full year’s worth of numbers to look at. I freelance as a side gig, but I still got a fair amount out there this year.

Numbers Overview:
Pitches/Submissions sent: 96
Acceptances: 25
Straight-up rejections: 40
Black hole (no response, which is probably a no, but maybe they are just holding my pitch, trying to convince the powers that be to give me large amounts of money?): 28
Still waiting on responses: 3
Pieces assigned to me: 4
Total pieces actually published this year: 27 (Some of these were from pitches sent in 2015, and some accepted pieces in 2016 haven’t run yet, but you get the picture).

So assuming the black holes are actually rejections, that means I had an acceptance rate of 27%. Last year my acceptance rate was 19%, so it seems to be increasing, but there are so many factors that affect the rate — what you submit, where you submit, the alignment of the stars, etc. — that the rate seems somewhat arbitrary.

Highlights:
* I broke into some markets I had my eye on this year including Parents, AFAR, and Marie Claire.
* I wrote several humor pieces — 13 of the 27 published pieces were supposed to be for laughs. These included a Quiz (which taught me an important lesson — people don’t like trick questions), a Harper’s Index type list, and some conceptual humor pieces.
*I had set a goal for 3 new markets and I ended up publishing in 13.

Lowlights:
I failed to meet the 2016 goal of a New York Times byline and continued to get rejected by New Yorker Shouts. I also had wanted to do more research-based writing, but I find it really hard to fit in during my free hours of the day, so the quick hit pieces seem more plausible for me now. And I’m okay with that.

Goals:
Rather than focusing on byline goals, I am trying to set submission goals since I can control what I submit, but not what they accept! Some markets on my submit list this year include NYT, New Yorker Shouts, The Cut, and Atlantic. Should be really easy, right?

I also want to work on/learn how to do more humor pieces with graphic or illustration elements. Since my artistic skills are pretty much nonexistent, this should be an interesting challenge.

I’m sure I will continue to accrue rejections or complete silence, but so it goes. Onward.

On Submitting to McSweeney’s

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Photo from Kevin Ball Creative Commons

I developed a soft spot for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency when I first heard about the site when I was living in Brooklyn in the early 2000s. McSweeney’s had a small store which featured things like taxidermy and a book about how to care for your miniature donkey, and I liked the work they were doing, particularly on their quirky humor site.

I sent them my first submission in 2001, and it was rejected. A couple years later I took a humor writing class through Mediabistro, and was inspired to start submitting to them a little more. I got six more rejections. Then in 2005 my first acceptance — an essay about U2’s song “One Tree Hill” for a series they were running about songs.

Since I had accomplished my goal of getting a piece placed with them, I took a break from submitting there. Life got in the way. Then in 2015 I got back into writing and submitting more regularly. I read their site regularly for a while and then sent them a new piece, and it was rejected. Then I sent a second piece, and it was accepted. It was a piece that poked fun of all the contradictory rules that parents hear about how to discipline toddlers. It was my most successful piece for them thus far (and one of my most successful pieces at any publication) and has helped me get other writing assignments.

I decided to submit again last year, and that piece was also accepted. At this point I felt like I had cracked the McSweeney’s code and would have better luck with acceptances — so of course my next four submissions were rejected. But the fifth one was accepted — a imagined note to a kid’s college roommate about things he never grew out of (e.g. needing to be swaddled at night and sleep in an infant swing).

I still really like the site and will probably submit again. I don’t know that I have cracked the code in terms of acceptances — they can be a tough site to publish in. But reading what they regularly publish and being persistent seem to be the things that have worked for me.

 

Toddler Discipline Humor

This piece went up on McSweeney’s in July 2015 and it spent several weeks on the “Popular” list on the site. Apparently others are also confused by toddler discipline rules.

 

Do you have a toddler? Are you confused by all the advice on how to discipline him or her? Here is a set of guidelines collected from various experts and interweb pages to make your life easier.

Language

Your child just threw a shoe at your head. Ignore it. They just want attention. Don’t ignore it. It needs to be addressed. Your toddler deserves respect and to be treated like an adult. Use a calm tone to explain why you don’t enjoy having Crocs in your face. Your toddler is not an adult and doesn’t understand complex sentences. Talk like a cave woman: “No Croc in face.” A calm tone doesn’t convey how serious you are, so use a stern but polite Mom voice: “PLEASE, NO CROCS IN MY FACE!”

Food

Only offer your toddler what you eat for dinner. Don’t be a short order cook. When they refuse and claim they are hungry an hour later say, “You had a chance to eat that bone marrow and charred octopus at dinner time and now you are hungry. This is your natural consequence.” Be a short order cook. Continue reading.

Old School Gamify Your Household Chores

Writer’s note: I think I may have gone too niche on this one, but perhaps it will give fans of 80s arcade games a laugh.

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Do Fitbit badges motivate you to walk your dog around the block instead of taking your Segway? Did that work competition for a $5 Taco Bell gift card make you to fill out the best expense report ever? It sounds like you are motivated by games, and I’m guessing your house is a mess. Try these simple DIY ideas to gamify your chores!

Prep:

Buy a poster board, set of sharpies, and a sheet of stickers you are drawn to (gold stars, smiley faces, scratch and sniff dill pickles). Use the materials to create a leaderboard for members of your household.

Now, gamify!

Ms. Pac-Man:

Staple a pink ribbon to a corn tortilla and cut out a triangle mouth. Hot glue Ms. Pac man to your vacuum. Throw some Corn Pops and a pretzel on the floor. Vacuum them up.

Donkey Kong:

Borrow a monkey. Cut down a tree. Carve several small, intricate barrels from the tree trunk. Teach the monkey to stand at the stop of the stairs and throw barrels at you while you sweep the steps.

Tetris:

Pretend your dishes are Tetris blocks. Load your dishwasher.

Q*bert

Stack all the boxes from your recycling in your living room. Jump on top of every box. Clean up the boxes and the rest of your living room. Take out your recycling.

Frogger:

Get a frog (check a pond). Draw an intricate scene involving cars, logs, and turtles on your bathtub. Put the frog in the bathtub. Scrub off your drawings.

Check the leaderboard:

You: 5 stickers. Your cat: 0

Awards Ceremony:

Fashion a victory sword out of tinfoil and dance around with it in front of your cat. Ignore his disinterested look — cats are sore losers. Clean out his litterbox.

2015 Writing Year in Review

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Image from Pixabay

I love this post that Lola Akinmade Åkerström put together breaking down her stats for freelancing in 2015, and was inspired to write my own version of a year end writing review.

I started writing and submitting again in the summer of 2015 after a long break from it after I had my first son in 2011. I had tried submitting a little here and there in the intervening years, but hadn’t really made much of an effort.

The break seemed to help on a lot of levels. I looked at some essays I had written previously with fresh eyes — some I weren’t interested in anymore and others I still really liked and wanted to revise and submit.

Also, the amount of online markets to submit to and resources for submitting has increased dramatically. Resources I found like Beyond Your Blog and the corresponding podcasts and Facebook group have helped so much with submitting leads, tips, and a supportive community of writers.

I submitted to a wide range of markets in 2015 — lit magazines, print magazines, and websites. I did some pitching and a fair amount of submitting on spec since the latter is more common with essay and humor writing.

So here is my Harper’s Index type year in review of my 2015 writing stats:

Date of first submission for the year: May 11, 1015

Last time I had submitted a piece of writing prior to 2015: July 24, 2013

Date of first rejection this year: May 21, 2015

Date of first acceptance: June 18, 2015

Longest it took an editor to get back to me with interest in a pitch: 2 1/2 months

Total pieces published (or accepted and yet to run): 16

Total new markets published in: 10

Total pitches sent: 12

Pitches rejected: 6

Pitches never responded to: 1

Pitches still reasonably waiting on a response on: 2

Pitches accepted: 3

Percentage pitches accepted (total minus 2 still “reasonably waiting”): 30%

Total spec submissions: 87

Spec rejected: 43

Spec I withdrew: 9

Spec never responded to: 20

Spec submitted and still reasonably waiting for response: 2

Spec accepted: 13

Percentage spec accepted (total minus withdrawn and reasonably still waiting): 17%

So looking at the basic numbers, it seems like I’m having better luck with pitching percentage-wise. But some of these spec submission numbers are for lit magazines which I typically simultaneously submit to so that’s why the numbers are so high (and why the withdraw rate is high when something gets accepted).

I also write a lot of short satire pieces that often require spec submissions and often get rejected or accepted at shockingly fast rates, so that ups the numbers in the spec department.

Overall, I was really happy with the work I got out there in 2015. I published in some markets that had been on my wish list and in some new formats I wanted to branch out into.