HOW I GOT (THE RIGHT) AGENT. AT LAST. IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING.
This story has a happy ending, but it’s a bit of a cautionary tale, too.
Part of the reason I write is because it scares me silly to deal face-to-face with bosses, editors, agents, anyone in power.
Even with trusted friends, I’m not a great conversationalist. I rarely win an argument. I can’t tell a joke. When someone makes me uncomfortable, I babble. Writing feels safer because it lets me edit what I want to say.
In the early days, I was comforted by the fact that manuscripts were submitted and returned by mail. No one could see if I burst into tears after a humiliating rejection. There was a (to me) critical and essential privacy in this. I wasn’t being judged by the way I looked or how well I could think on my feet. I was being judged solely on the writing.
My first agent came to me through the recommendation of one of his clients (still the best way to get an agent, in my opinion). He sold my first novel, Safe Passage, and helped broker the deal that made it into a movie starring Susan Sarandon. We talked on the phone so many times before we met that I didn’t feel intimidated. If I babbled during our first face-to-face, he pretended not to notice. We stayed in touch for years.
But then he was gone, and it was the era of writers’ conferences – hundreds of them, always with agents and editors to pitch to, as well as writers like me who gave the craft seminars. The agents tended to stick together (or so it seemed to me), more anxious to talk to each other than to not-yet-published wannabes or not-yet-famous staff, except during scheduled appointments..
Was I going to sit across the table from one of them and give my two-minute pitch?
Not a chance.
But one day at lunch I sat next to a man so pleasant and unthreatening that I didn’t realize he was an agent until halfway through the meal. Disarmed, I shed my anxieties and phobias long enough to tell him about my work. A few weeks later, I became his client.
He was a nice man, but as it turned out, not a very good agent for me.
I write complex women’s fiction. He sold mostly romances. If I’d done a little research, I would have known that. Instead of following my own advice to judge by the work and not the personality, I’d formed a binding relationship with someone I trusted simply because he was easy to talk to.
From the beginning, we weren’t a good match. The sales he made for me weren’t what I was looking for. I stuck it out longer than I should have because it was easier than a personal confrontation. Finally, I put my current project in a drawer and said I had nothing to show him.
The only one who got hurt by this was me.
So there I was, agent-less, with a finished book sitting in a drawer, when I began hearing about Jenny Bent. She’d made good sales for several writers I knew, including my friend Donna, who invited her to be on a panel about writing effective first pages. On the program, Jenny was articulate and intelligent, and clearly knew exactly what she wanted. Donna urged me to introduce myself to her. But when she finished speaking, she was surrounded. No wonder. She was capable, tough, hugely in demand, exactly the kind of agent I wanted. I fled.
Donna had seen my cloistered novel and pronounced it ready for market. “You should query Jenny,” she insisted. “You don’t have to face her in person. What are you afraid of? All you have to do is send an email.”
Bullied into it, I did.
Jenny was every bit as tough-minded as I’d imagined – but tough in the gentlest way. She made lots of suggestions. They always struck me as thoughtful, helpful, right. She spent hours thinking up just the right title for the novel. She seemed, truly, to care about it. Months later, after I’d made the changes we agreed on, she sold THE ART OF SAYING GOODBYE to HarperCollins in less than a week.
I finally met Jenny in person on a trip to New York for the terrifying task of being introduced to my editor. It was a warm, rainy day. My hair had frizzed into its distinctly un-suave natural state, a kinky bubble around my head. Jenny arrived looking sleek in a khaki raincoat, her short blonde hair elegantly cut, elegantly tidy. She seemed not to notice my disarray. As we walked together into the massive HarperCollins building, I realized how much having the right agent at my side was taking the pressure off.
Even so, I was nervous enough to fear I’d jabber aimlessly when we got upstairs – and as memory serves, I did.
They published my book anyway.
Ellyn's website is: http://ellynbache.com/