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


  1. I actually let a few people read my story before I decided to submit it. I made sure to use people who I knew would not blow sunshine up my butt and I told them that I wanted an honest critique. I think that is very important to get an unbiased opinion, which it sounds like Jenny gave in this case.

    Unfortunately for me, after being told that aside from a few grammar errors my story was unbelievably good, I still get rejection after rejection. I'm starting to get discouraged.

  2. Fabulous story, Marta! A wonderful idea for a book (or several), hard work, determination, and a sprinkling of luck. Magic!

  3. This is a wonderful post. I'm actually more jealous of you having such a cool aunt than her having an agent

    There are no real short cuts in this business and knowing you put in the time and work to accomplish your dream just makes victory even sweeter.

  4. Jenny is exceptionally cool -- and talented. If only I could claim some credit toward her genetic makeup. But alas, we are only related in-law. Now she is making me Twitter-literate. Now what is that about old dogs?

  5. This is a great story about determination--and not being tempted to give up when we're told we have to go the extra mile. Jenny could have short changed you by telling you what you wanted to hear, but she was honest about what you were trying to achieve. Between you, you've delivered a successful outcome. You must be thrilled to bits, Marta. Congratulations.

  6. What a wonderful story of tenacity and bull-doggedness! That's the way to work for a dream. Jenny must've been so proud the day your book sold! Congratulations, Marta. :)

    Now I'm off to order your book and check out your website. You nailed two of my fave subjects: Emily and Gardening. I'm in heaven. :)

  7. Marta, wonderful. Congrats.

    Otin !
    When my readers read mine, same comments. One, a teacher who teaches writing at the college level said my book would make me famous. head would'nt fit through the door that day. So far I've gotten a few partials, no fulls and a few rejections.
    Yes, Jenny Bent rejected.
    Am I discouraged sometimes yes, was Marta, maybe, but she hung in. I am too and so should you. Hey that rhymes.

  8. Nepotism? Wow, I didn't know there was a term for that. I learned something new today. Congrats!

    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  9. I enjoyed this post about how your aunt with you as her agent had 2 garden books published. I am a garden writer getting ready to begin the agent quest.