[SWP: Behind the Book] My First Agent (and My Second and My Third)

My first agent, Elizabeth McKee, had been Flannery O’Connor’s agent. In the 1970's she was also J. R. Salamanca’s (best known for his novel Lilith). Salamanca was then teaching creative writing at the University of Maryland, where I was enrolled in the master’s program in library science, and I was fortunate enough to take two of his classes. This kind man even agreed to read a novel l’d written over the summer.

It’s a good read, was his somewhat curt assessment, which I interpreted to mean: it won’t win you any literary prizes. He then asked if I’d like for him to send it to his agent.

Of course, I said, completely dumbfounded.

Elizabeth McKee didn’t ask me to sign a contract before she began sending my manuscript out to publishers. The polite rejection I received from Knopf was hand-written by Robert Gottlieb. Other rejections followed.

It occurred to me that this well-respected agent was simply doing a favor for one of her authors, and most likely she was. But several years later, when I sent her another novel, a short one, she wrote back saying that of course she remembered me, I wrote about interesting characters with complicated dilemmas. In her experience, she went on, novellas were extremely difficult to sell; this was why she was declining mine.

In the early 1990's I acquired my second agent as part of a package deal with an editorial service. The fees I paid for editing included, once the novel was deemed publishable, an agent. Yes, I remember the agent’s name, and yes, she did send my novel out to editors, one of whom complained: another marriage down the drain, who wants to read about that?

When this agent no longer returned my calls, I wrote to her, enclosing a stamped postcard and asking her to check the appropriate box: 1) I’m still sending the novel out or 2) I’ve completely given up on it. Well, I asked for it, didn’t I?

I began a new novel, about a forty-something art history librarian named Vrai (short for Vraiment) and a ten-year-old boy named Jonathan. A friend here in Baltimore, who read several early versions, suggested an additional scene or two at the end. But, after working on it for five years, I was confident that the novel ended precisely when and where it should. So, keeping detailed logs, I started sending query letters to agents.

Two and half years later, in May of 2003, an agent I’d found online told me a novel couldn’t have more than one point of view and asked me to eliminate Jonathan’s. With reluctance, I complied. She then gleefully insisted on further changes. Of my ending she proclaimed, “Yes! Now Vrai has it all figured out.”

We signed a contract at the end of June. I was excited but also apprehensive. My full-length novel was turning into a novella. Elizabeth McKee, with all her experience and contacts, hadn’t wanted to try to sell a novella. Did this third agent, who’d never sold anything, know what she was doing?

In July she hand-delivered my shrunken manuscript to big-name editors at Random House, Viking, Bantam Dell, Anchor, and a few others. “It’s so short,” she complained to me.

In mid-August she sent me an e-mail proposing that we part company. That night she called and refused all further contact with me. She cursed at me and said I was “nasty.”

The part of me that had hoped she might actually find a publisher was so upset that I called my ex-husband. The rest of me was glad it was over. I soon learned, from a chat room or two, that I wasn’t the only writer she had dumped in exactly this way.

Revising had never been so much fun. I restored a lot of what she’d taken out. A novel can, of course, have multiple points of view, but I decided to stick with Vrai’s. Score one for the third agent.

During 2001-2004, I sent out 126 queries. Twenty-three (18%) of these agents responded with a request either for sample chapters or for the entire manuscript. The only contract I was offered, however, was the one I should never have signed.

Discouraged, I started yet another novel. I took the first chapter to John Dufresne’s workshop at the 2004 Taos Summer Writers’ Conference and the completed novel to his 2006 Master Class in Taos.* I also received a critique from Richard Peabody, legendary editor, teacher, and publisher in the DC area.

Fortuitously, the feedback for this new novel opened my eyes to a major problem with the novel about Vrai and Jonathan. The third agent had been wrong about the ending. My first reader had been spot on: the story wasn’t quite finished.

Chagrined, I began working on what is now the final third of True Stories at the Smoky View. I took the new, improved version to John Dufresne’s 2010 Master Class in Taos. Between October of 2010 and March of 2012, I queried 103 agents, of whom only eight (7.8%)–two of them referrals from John–asked to see more.

I’d been hearing that publishing was changing. I felt like the living proof.

In 2013 I enrolled in the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program’s One Book Semester and spent six months working with Jenna Johnson, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, on revising and polishing my novel. Based on her final critique, I added two new scenes.

Of the sixteen agents I queried in 2014, only one intrepid soul expressed interest. My novel was in the best shape ever, but traditional publishing was going in another direction.

I, too, changed course. On December 23, 2014, I sent off a submission to She Writes Press.

Having joined She Writes, an online community of women writers, the previous year, I had been keeping an eye on She Writes Press. As a former librarian, I wanted the opportunity to have my book in libraries, the usual prerequisite for which is a review in Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, or Publishers Weekly. With She Writes Press, such a review was at least possible.

Despite the holidays, the publisher, Brooke Warner, got back to me in the promised two weeks. On January 6, 2015, an astonishing e-mail arrived in my inbox. True Stories at the Smoky View had been accepted for publication in 2016!

It was a long and winding road, but I feel that I’ve ended up in exactly the right place. My experience with She Writes Press and with my publicists, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, have made me realize that the kindness, courtesy, trust, and professionalism extended to me decades ago by my first agent, Elizabeth McKee, still exist in the world of publishing.

And did I mention acceptance?

That bitter-cold night in January, I celebrated the red-hot news at my favorite Chinese restaurant. What wisdom, on this long-awaited occasion, did my fortune cookie dispense?

The effort have the potential to pay off handsomely today.

I’m still smiling.

*  The UNM Summer Writers’ Conference has now moved to Santa Fe.




This was originally posted on The Quivering Pen on April 18, 2016. 

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  • Ann Anderson Evans

    Thank you, profoundly, for writing up your experiences. I had an agent whose husband fell ill, and she retired. Another had a disagreement with her business (and possibly personal) partner, over my book, Daring to Date Again. I am thankful that they shared their emails about the book, though they included their reservations ("publishers aren't taking memoirs any more" was one) so I could see the flaws they perceived. One complimentary phrase stuck with me, though. "There's some pretty good worksmithing in these 50 pages." Even rejections can provide a pillar for you to stand on, and I could then claim what I thought was true -- I was a "pretty good wordsmith." 

    You prove that persistence is indispensable -- the wordsmithing, the plot crafting, the knowing some people all are needed, but without pushing through the disappointments it would all be in vain.

  • Loraine Van Tuyl

    Congrats and thanks for sharing! You've affirmed that I want to skip the headache of that process. How long does the publishing process with She Writes Press take and when will your book be available for sale? 

  • Michelle Cox

    Wonderful story, Jill!

  • Congratulations, Jill! What a journey!

  • Lori A. May

    Thanks for sharing this, Jill. You've shown perseverance and persistence in reaching your goals and it sounds like SWP was/is the happy ending you've been seeking all along. Good for you!