Friday, July 29, 2011

Even Nepotism Isn't Enough

Here is a new post in the "How I Found My Agent" series, by author Marta McDowell, who, full disclosure, happens to be my aunt.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, "How annoying. If I were lucky enough to have an agent in my family, I wouldn't be trolling the internet reading agency blogs." BUT. There is something to learn here, something very important about writing non-fiction. If you read this post you will see that nepotism only goes so far. When Marta approached me with her idea--to write about Emily Dickinson's gardens--I had to tell her it was a no-go because she was missing two things: credentials and platform. I am approached all the time by authors who want to write non-fiction about topics like parenting, business, health, travel. But just because you have an interest in a certain topic doesn't mean that you get to write a book about it.

In Marta's case, she liked gardening and she liked the topic of gardens in history, so she wanted to write about it. But that wasn't enough. And so, what's amazing about Marta is that when I explained to her about credentials and platform, she didn't get discouraged. No, she went right off and started DOING. I love this about her, and not just because she's my aunt. She started small, writing for smaller gardening publications, and worked her way up to the New York Times. That's the credentials part.

She went back to school for garden design and then started teaching at the New York Botanical Gardens. She traveled and did lectures. That's the platform part. All of this took her five long years, but she never gave up on her dream. And yes, we sold her book.

The moral? Determination, my friends. You might certainly get one lucky break along the way, like having an agent in the family. But one lucky break does not a book deal make (hey, that rhymes!). Are you having trouble getting an agent/book deal? You must keep trying. You must keep learning. You must keep DOING.

And there's a postscript. We just closed a new deal for Marta's next book, Beatrix Potter's Gardens, with Timber Press.

Here's Marta:

When I was well into young adulthood, my father advised, “make money the old fashioned way: marry it.” While the money part didn’t quite work out, it is the way I met my agent. Jenny Bent’s father is my husband’s brother. In short, my niece.

At the end of the nineties, tired of a career at Prudential, I thought it was high time for my mid-life crisis. Why not trade in the corporate ladder for the family tree?

As I’d always been a gardener and written mountains of memoranda, reports and marketing literature, I thought I might try my hand at garden writing. So picture me, the queen of naïve, off to meet with Jenny at her office on West 53rd Street in New York.

I remember a few things from that day. First, Jenny wore great shoes. Being functionally unable to balance on spikes, that stuck in my mind. The pilot episodes of Sex and the City were just showing on HBO, so there was that Carrie Bradshaw connection. The second was Jenny’s solar plexus punch of honesty. “To write non-fiction, you have to be somebody. So go be somebody and come back and see me.”

Stunned. Jenny softened the blow, explaining that my resume was great if I wanted a new job in my current line of work. But if I wanted to be a garden writer, I needed credentials in gardening. If I wanted to sell a book, I needed a platform from which to promote it.

So I did. I started writing garden pieces as a volunteer for local newsletters, worked up to national magazines like Woman’s Day and got an editorial published in The New York Times. I earned a certificate in Landscape Design from the New York Botanical Garden, then started teaching there. I lectured, I wrote, I consulted, I gardened, and, about five years after our first meeting, I went back to see Jenny.

I knew what, or in this case whom I wanted to write about: Emily Dickinson and her gardening interests. But other than doing background research, I really didn’t know how to proceed. Let me introduce the next incarnation of Jenny – as teacher and sounding board.

She asked me questions. “How would you structure the material? What do you want to tell the reader? Who is your reader?” We settled on a seasonal approach, intertwining information about Dickinson’s gardening interests and plants with her life story. Jenny led me thorough the sections of a proposal and gave me a sample from one of her other successful writers. We discussed marketing strategies and audience draw, comparable titles and the importance of a detailed chapter outline. Then back I went across the Hudson to my desk in Jersey to begin.

Fast forward, the proposal is finished. I send it off to Jenny, and I’m feeling up. “Not so hard, I think. This could work!” Then Jenny’s marked up copy arrives. Let’s just say that my underlying copy looked like the victim of a teen slasher movie. And, dang, her questions and comments were on point. Rewrite!

We went through several gory rounds until, suitably humbled, I produced a far better proposal than I had at the start. Then Jenny went into high gear, that mysterious process of creating a submission list (how does she know so many publishers?), making contacts, and selling the book. She was my representative, a better me. While there were a number of rejections, there was one happy acceptance. McGraw-Hill Contemporary published Emily Dickinson’s Gardens in 2005.

Jenny was my toughest editor, and I’m fortunate that she was my first. She got me ready, suitably armored for the marathon gestation period that is writing a book. Her standards are so high that I compare every editor against her yardstick. That she is part of my family is a great stroke of luck or divine intervention. In fact, when in doubt about anything writing-related I just think, “What would Jenny do?”

Marta McDowell's website is:

Follow her on twitter: @martamcdowell

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fall-Winter-Spring Conference Schedule

Here's a schedule of the conferences Susan Hawk and I will be attending, through May 2012. More will probably be added later. Also, not all of the conferences have updated information on their websites yet, so in those cases I've included links for the organization's home page.

Jenny’s Conference Schedule

September 9-10, SCBWI Eastern PA, First Looks and Critique Fest

Lancaster, PA

October 22, Write Angles

South Hadley, MA

November 11 – 12, Atlanta Writers Conference

Atlanta, GA

April 16-17, SCBWI Western Washington, Book to the Future

Redmond, WA

May 5-6, Grub Street Muse and the Marketplace

Boston, MA

Susan’s Conference Schedule

Oct 14-16. SCBWI Canada East Fall Conference

Ottawa, Canada

April 20-22

SCBWI Eastern PA Pocono Retreat

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Not for the Faint of Heart

A new post by Jennifer Archer in the "How I Found My Agent/How I Sold My First Book" series. I should preface this by saying that everything about Jenny's story goes against conventional wisdom. I'm sure I have counseled people against switching genre on panels, for example. But Jennifer has made it work for her, and there is a continuity of voice that is present in all of her writing which I believe has helped her bring readers with her as she's moved across genres. As well, all of her books have contemporary settings and the paranormal elements are "light" paranormal elements; she's not switching from women's fiction to heavy world-building. I think Jennifer's career has been about perseverance, really. She's stayed true to herself creatively, and I think that's the most important thing. Plus, she's a remarkable writer and a true joy to work with and that always helps. Her professionalism, talent and grace never cease to amaze me.

Over to Jennifer...


As a writer, I am constantly reinventing myself. I’m not certain if it’s because I have eclectic taste in stories, I’m easily bored, or if I just can’t make up my mind. Maybe it’s a little of all three.

My first novel was called SHADOWS OF DOUBT, and it never sold despite being nominated twice for the RWA Golden Heart Award and winning or placing in various other contests. SHADOWS OF DOUBT was a romantic suspense novel. I loved the romantic suspense genre (and still do), but while I was shopping my book to literary agents and publishers, another story idea took root in my mind and refused to wither and die. That book was BODY AND SOUL, my debut, and it is a quirky, funny paranormal romance. When BODY AND SOUL sold to a publisher, I thought I’d found my niche – my brand: I would be the Queen of Quirky Romantic Comedy with a Paranormal Twist. I could be happy with that. Or so I thought at the time.

I wrote and sold a second novel in the same quirky genre, and it was after that book’s release that I found my agent, Jenny Bent. Jenny liked my zany paranormal romantic comedies. In fact, I had decided to query her after seeing her listing in the Romance Writer’s Report, stating that among other genres, she was looking for just the sort of books I was writing. After I signed with her, she made two more romantic comedy sales for me. We were a good fit. I wrote books that she liked and she was able to sell them.

Then something happened. My writing changed, and so did I. I wanted to write a different kind of story. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what kind of story, I only knew that it wasn’t a quirky paranormal! I was at loose ends. I called Jenny, worried she’d decide that we should part ways since I wanted to walk away from an offer from my publisher for the sort of book she’d signed me to write. She would’ve had every right to let me go, and I would’ve understood, but class act that she is, Jenny did no such thing. I still remember that phone call and what she said: “Take some time to experiment and when you decide what you want to do, I’ll be here.” Every writer should be so lucky to have such an agent – one who understands the creative ups and downs that writers sometimes experience.

Over the next two years, I worked on two different novels – a women’s fiction and a young adult. Occasionally I sent pages to Jenny, but I began having serious doubts that I’d ever sell again. I asked myself if I’d made a mistake by walking away from a contract for another romantic comedy with my prior publisher. Then, quite unexpectedly, Jenny called one day to ask how much of the women’s fiction novel I had finished. How quickly could I write the synopsis? Harlequin was starting a new women’s fiction line of “light lit.” Jenny said my novel was exactly the sort of story they wanted. That novel, SANDWICHED, became one of the launch books for the Harlequin NEXT line and my debut in women’s fiction. I had to set aside the young adult novel I’d been sporadically working on to write five more books for Harlequin NEXT.

When the NEXT line folded, I knew that the best move for my career would be to write more women’s fiction and market it to a different publisher. I loved writing women’s fiction, and my books for NEXT had been well received by readers – one of them, THE ME I USED TO BE, had been nominated for a Rita. But although women’s fiction was a perfect fit for me, the story of sixteen year old Tansy Piper and the seventeen year old ghost named Henry who haunts her stayed on my mind. Once again, I followed my heart instead of logic; I pulled out that young adult novel that I’d set aside, finished it, and sent it off to Jenny. She said it was the best thing I’d ever written and began shopping it to publishers, all of whom promptly rejected it!

Devastated, I put the book away again. I ghostwrote a business book and hated every minute of it. Then my prior publisher asked me to write a women’s fiction novella. I happily complied, convinced it would be the last piece of fiction I’d ever publish. The week that the anthology with my novella in it was released, I heard that my publisher was starting a new Young Adult line. I emailed Jenny and asked if she thought we should submit my book. She said ‘yes,’ but that enough time had passed that we could do another round of submissions to other publishers, as well; many of the editors at the publishing houses we had submitted to before had changed. Hopeful again, I did a light revision. Jenny sent the book out. More rejections followed. And then came two offers! I signed a contract with Harper Teen, and I rejoiced. My story had a home! My characters would live!

THROUGH HER EYES was released in April, 2011. Whenever I look at it, I think of the persistence it took to get it published. Persistence on both my part, and Jenny’s. And I thank my lucky stars that I have an agent who believes in my work and never gives up.

I have a second YA novel coming out next year, and I’m working on an idea for a possible third. And then there’s that other idea . . . the one that creeps up on me from time to time lately, the one whose characters have started whispering in my ear. The story is different than anything else I’ve ever written before – but you already guessed that, right?

Jennifer's latest release is THROUGH HER EYES, published by HarperTeen. Her website is and you can find her on twitter at @jenniferarcher1