Fifteen years after I began writing, and five years after actively searching for an agent, I landed at Red Fox Literary and am thrilled to announce that I am now represented by Sara Stephens! This is a dream come true for me, and while there is no cookie-cutter method to this process, this list represents the strategies that worked for me.
First, take a look at my path to acquiring an agent breakdown.
84 agent submissions
15 years writing
5 years subbing to agents
10 different manuscripts/12 if you count the major rewrites
6 nice rejections with helpful feedback
5 requests for more work
4 subs to agents at my current agency
3 oopsies (name snafus and misread guidelines - it does happen!)
I hope this is encouraging! Hang in there and keep moving forward!
1. RESEARCH AGENTS
Stay on top of which agents are open to submissions the genre you write by checking out sites such as Query Tracker, MSWL, agency websites, and agent interviews. Sometimes there are nuggets of information in interviews that are not readily available anywhere else. I also subscribed to professional magazines such as Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace to track which agents were making deals regularly.
2. STUDY AND PRACTICE HOW TO WRITE A PITCH
There are many samples online! Seek out the ones you like, study how the author crafted their sentences and emulate them using your own words. I recently began using a new formula based on advice from another agent (the name escapes me). It goes like this:
Character is X until Y which leads to Z.
I like this model because if I can fit my pitch into one or two sentences, it helps me leave out unnecessary words and zero in on the theme of my story. Here is an example of my pitch that caught the attention of my agency.
As Susumu begrudgingly learns the secrets of koji-making, the magic ingredient in miso, mounds of rice capture his imagination and take him to play in the snowy mountains. But the demanding process works its magic in other ways, creating a delicious transformation between Papa and Susumu—full of umami!
Don't forget to show the voice of your manuscript when writing your pitch!
3. STUDY AND PRACTICE HOW TO WRITE A QUERY
Yes, they matter to some agents. Unfortunately, we don't know which agents skip the first page and go right to the manuscript. Again, use a mentor text. Find one online that you think sounds good. Study. What did the author write about in the first paragraph, the second, and the third? I follow a format similar to this:
Paragraph 1: Include one or two sentences about how you became aware of the agent, important details such as title, genre, word count, and intrigue the agent with comps.
Paragraph 2: The pitch.
Paragraph 3: Bio.
Look at how the author of your mentor query letter crafted their sentences. Vary sentence structure. Trim any words that don't matter - just like you do in your picture book! When writing comps, include why you chose them, and what inspired your manuscript. State why your story matters. Here is how I wrote out my comps and inspiration. And don't forget to keep it as concise as you can.
Children ages 4-8 who enjoy the relationship in Drawn Together (Le), the imagination in The Paper Kingdom (Ku), and the world-building in A Different Pond (Phi), might like this story. STEM backmatter (170 words) is included for kids interested in science. Research into my mother’s youth working for her father in Japan opened up a conversation about the process of miso-making and inspired this manuscript.
Some time has passed since I wrote this paragraph, and I still see ways to improve it. Always revising; a writer's work is never done! ;)
3. JUMP RIGHT IN
This suggestion may be controversial. But I believe that you can't wait forever to test the waters. It's kind of like having a baby - you never feel quite ready. I think it's okay to start submitting after you've polished your manuscript. Chances are- and we've all been there - we hit that send button, and a few days later, we realize the manuscript wasn't as polished as it could be, and the query letter could use improvement.
That's okay. It is part of the process. Next time you will have knowledge that you didn't have the first time. And so it goes ...
4. SUBMIT AND FORGET
I am not a fan of nudging, but some writers do. Some agents say it's okay to nudge, but I didn't do this unless I had a reason. (interest about my publishing deal) I found the method that worked best for me was to keep looking at what I should be doing next.
5 CREATE A SPREADSHEET OF AGENT CONTACTS
This is a very important step. You want to be organized and keep a list of who you submitted to, complete with dates, agency info, and notes in the event you do or do not want to sub to particular agents in the future. Sometimes an agent may not respond to the manuscript you submitted, but they will invite you to submit to them in the future. You will want to document this information!
6. ACCEPT OPPORTUNITIES
Attend conferences! Now that many are happening on zoom, it is easy to target the ones that will benefit you. Research the agents that will be attending. Do they seem like a good fit for your manuscript? Are they usually closed to submissions but will allow conference attendees to submit for a period of time? Are they offering critiques? Take the opportunities to get your work seen!
Participate in pitch events! You never know which agents might be lurking on Twitter and will want your story. Some of the popular events are #pbpitch, #pitmad, and #dvpitch.
8 JOIN MULTIPLE CRITIQUE GROUPS AND POLISH THREE MANUSCRIPTS
Life gets busy as you get close to representation. You should have three; ideally, four manuscripts polished in the event an agent asks to see more work - and they will! At this point, you will need more than one critique group. Having four stories in rotation with constant revisions will require more eyes on them. You also want fresh eyes to read your stories, and you may need a quick turnaround for the agent. Seek out other groups. If you can't find one, consider private groups such as 12x12 or Sub It Club Critique Partner Matchup to get quick feedback.
9 BE PROFESSIONAL, AND DON'T LET MISTAKES SLOW YOU DOWN
You will hear that the agenting/publishing industry is a subjective business. This is absolutely true. Rejection brings up insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Do your very best to scream your disappointments in the pillow and not online or to the agent. Maintain public composure and professionalism! Online tantrums will land you in a long timeout!
When making a submission mistake, send a quick apology and/or ignore it. There usually is nothing you can do about it. Given a few months, while you're still fretting about it, they will have forgotten. So, learn from it and move forward.
10 DON'T GIVE UP!
If you need encouragement, refer back to my path to acquiring an agent breakdown at the beginning of this post. You will get rejections, lots of them. But you won't get an agent if you don't try. So if you want it, don't give up! I wish you success on your path to acquiring an agent!
Would you please leave a comment below if this post was helpful or if you have a question?
Every writer's path to publication is different, but that doesn't stop the questions from being asked. "How long did it take from your first draft to publication?" "How long did it take for the editor to get back to you?" "How long did it take the publisher to find an illustrator."
If you've been following this blog, you have read about my path. Now I have organized the important dates into a timeline. I consider my acquisition and the production of THE STAR FESTIVAL to be fast comparatively speaking in the publishing world. I've heard of books that had faster turnarounds and books that took years to make. This timeline serves as a reference for the curious. It is not meant to be the standard. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section!
The piece of writing below is a set of rules by Corita Kent, also known as Sister Corita. I was turned on to her work by a distant cousin, unknown to me until recently, who is the daughter of Henry and Mona Lovins of the now historic Hollywood Art Center School.
I became fascinated with Sister Corita because of the dichotomy that she represents, a nun and a creative. I'm not religious, and what little I do know about nuns doesn't usually include the word "artist." Corita is known for her 1985 USPS "Love" stamp. In addition, she created pop art, silk-screening advertisements juxtaposed with verse to bring awareness to social issues. Equally important, she worked with students at the Immaculate Heart College Art Center in the 50's and 60's, encouraging them to play, see the world from a different perspective, and create.
Corita's rules remind me that everything is an experiment. I hope you get some value from her list too. Be sure to read to the very end!
In 2018, I traveled with my daughter and husband, whose musical journey took us to wine country and then to England. As I celebrated his successes that year, I think about the experiences along the way that made this trip memorable, the awe-inspiring walk around Stonehenge, the local pizzeria in Notting Hill (Yes, we did eat pizza in England!), and the resonating performance of my husband and his band in the halls of the Barbican.
While I was there, I received a bit of good news from the SCBWI (Society of Children's Books, Writers, and Illustrators). They honored my manuscript as runner-up for the Sue Alexander Grant, a prestigious award given by the organization. But there were other achievements and failures that year - all worthwhile.
A mentorship that I did not get, but I gained practice in writing cover letters.
A course with the Lyrical Language Lab, a rhyming class that helped me with rhythm in my prose writing.
Reaching out to people I didn't even know for extra critiques and made new friends in the writing community.
And writing a new chapter book turned graphic novel, which has gone nowhere except to hone my character-building skills.
I can't discern which of these stepping stones that year made the biggest impact on my overall goal of getting traditionally published, but I do know, collectively, they all mattered.
In the moments I felt low, I asked myself this question and tried to put my thoughts into this perspective.
If I were published, what would I be doing right now?
The answer. "The same thing I am doing right now--
Failure: def. Disguised success.
Set goals, big and small.
Enjoy the journey.
What goals have you set for yourself this week? Did you have any disguised successes? (Personal goals accepted! ❤)
Please share a comment, and celebrate!
Click here to read past posts.
This might be the shortest post ever, but 2017 was packed full of life experiences, marrying my now husband and moving my mom more than a thousand miles across states, into my home, right after my honeymoon! Yes, I do have a husband with a big heart! There was some writing sprinkled in there too, but I had my priorities in order!
Fun fact: My mom later inspired my book, The Star Festival!
Joining my first online critique group gave me the boost that I needed to start writing again. It felt great to be critiquing and to be critiqued! My only regret is that I wish I had created new stories at that time. Because I was in a new group, I chose to get fresh eyes on older manuscripts. Looking back, I see the importance of challenging myself to keep writing new material.
Speaking of critique groups, I will share a bit about listening to critique partners. If this sounds preachy, please know that I AM speaking to myself! But I'd like to share my experience and advice, TAKE OUT THE DOGS!
In a manuscript that I am currently working on, I wrote in a pack of wild dogs to create tension in the story. About 50% of the critiques said to take out the dogs. They were too scary for young kids. I resisted. Instead, I tried replacing the word "wild" with hungry, mangy, and dirty. I even added a puppy!
I felt the manuscript was in pretty good shape. But there was still that nagging, it-can-be-better feeling. I was not able to revise at that time. It needed space. So I put it away for a while. Later, after several more critiques, I experimented with adding a sibling, changing the POV, and adding metaphors. Through this process, the dogs miraculously disappeared! They really weren't necessary! My story went under a significant transformation.
Now, I feel it. My manuscript is submission-ready!
Listen, even if it's advice you don't think you will need.
Try a new approach.
Take out the dogs! Or, as they say, kill your darlings!
Every writer needs that someone. That someone that inspires you and encourages you to keep writing when you feel you can't, or when you've lost steam.
In 2014, I was well into a new relationship with my now-husband. The absence from writing, a couple of years prior, had created space for romance. ❤ Although my stories never left my mind, dating took time, and there were only so many hours in a day!
Words were not flowing. Well, maybe spinning circles in my head, but definitely not finding their way out. Lucky for me, my friend, Marlene, my writerly someone, began sending me her picture book manuscripts to critique again. This invitation reignited my interest.
In 2015, she formed an online critique group and asked me to join. Although commonplace now, they weren't back then. I was thrilled! It was my first online group. Ideas were put into words. Words became sentences that did find their way to my fingertips, and new stories were written. I was BACK!
Take a break if you need it.
Say YES to opportunities.
Treasure your friends.
In honor of my long-time critique partner, please check out Marlene Susan's picture book!
"This is a beautiful, sweet, smart book about breastfeeding and weaning. There is no reason in the world not to buy this book for yourself and your breastfeeding friends. I loved it."
Dr. Jay Gordon
In the years 2009-2013, my life had taken on new form. I liken it to Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold. A separation from my ex threw me into a trajectory I had not anticipated. I continued to write for a couple of years while relearning what it was like to be single. But in the next few years, my attention focused on friendships and even dating again. There seemed little time to write. I sometimes wonder - If I had continued writing through those years, would I have been published sooner? There's no guessing. Let bygones ...
The truth is, life breaks us sometimes, and when we are broken, we do what we need to do to get through the days. We are fragile and feel that our scars are visible for the world to see. We acclimate and begin to glue our shattered selves back together. The wounds heal and reshape us. They make us stronger, more confident, and definitive. Some observe and whisper damaged, but others recognize resilience and understand that beauty is not in perfection.
Every bit of air I grasped out of frustration,
Every argument I suppressed,
Every smile I wore to disguise worry from my daughter,
Every goal I put on hold,
lead me to this exact moment in time,
the time that counts down four months to be a published author.
I'm not broken. I'm golden.
Life will always intervene.
Take the time to take care of yourself.
Face the world in whatever state you are in ...Keep moving forward!
NEXT ISSUE: 2014 - Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
PHOTO: "The cleaned seams (inside)" by Pomax is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I recently read an article by Scientific American about how the brain becomes more creative as it relaxes. It explains why inspiration comes to me in moments such as these.
I have more time to explore these moments now, but back in 2008, I wrote during small time-outs of being a mom, teacher, and wife. It was more difficult back then, and my writing started to slow.
I required a half an hour to shift from thinking about laundry, lesson plans, and major life changes to writing stories about an elephant with big problems, poetry inspired by A.A. Milne and preparing my short silent film for an LA film festival. That doesn't leave many minutes of the day for creative time.
I spent a large part of my time traveling in my car, traveling from one student's home to the next. Piles of notes with scribbled ideas accumulated, which eventually made their way into a lengthy google document. And while 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there wasn't ideal. It was what I could do at the time.
Inspiration kept me moving forward. It helped me handle a full-time job, my four-year-old daughter, the want of a second child, and pressing pause on my marriage. (This last part is not a recommendation, but it is what happened!)
Recognize the ebb and flow.
Keep scratch paper everywhere!
Find small moments to press pause and let inspiration happen!
NEXT ISSUE: 2009 - The Year of Break-ups.
How are you inspired? Please leave a comment.
A friend of a friend was a published kid lit writer. Her first suggestion was to join the SCBWI (Society of Children's' Books Writer's and Illustrators). So I did. My first real critique group came together after a couple of failed attempts, which is important to mention because finding the right critique group is like fitting into the right pair of jeans or bathing suit. Personalities, dependability, commitment, flexibility, and proximity all factored in.
Di and I found each other through the SCBWI online forum in 2007. A fledgling group of eight met in Pasadena in attempts to flesh out something permanent. A wide variety of manuscripts made this attempt a struggle, but we all sat together at a crowded table, reading and critiquing each other's pages. I wrote in a minimalistic fashion even in the early days, and it was passed around with very few comments. I didn't know how to interpret that! Good, bad, lukewarm? The last person to speak was Di. She had a LOT to say, and it was then and there that I knew I wanted to work with her.
Craving constructive feedback on my stories, we decided to meet on our own. My home being close in proximity to hers might have been the catalyst for her reaching out to me. (Those were the days before online critique groups exploded) She was a far experienced writer, but that didn't stop me. In one of our first meetings, I recall advising her to cut out the entire beginning of a manuscript and begin at another spot. I wasn't confident about my critiquing abilities so early on, but when we attended a conference in Santa Ana and the professional critiquer suggested the same, I felt I was faking it a little less.
At the end of the conference, we were approached by Ben, an aspiring YA (young adult) author. At a later date, Steve, a screenwriter friend working on picture books, joined us. And so it went, every two weeks, the four of us, two picture book writers, and two YA writers met at the Coffee Table for breakfast and writerly babblings.
Di was an English professor, and I learned more about writing from her than from any of my high school or college classes. I'm not saying that those classes and teachers were terrible. It was more about my willingness to learn the craft, which didn't ignite until I was well into my forties.
In this group, we didn't sugar coat anything. We told it how we saw it. We probably used a variation of the sandwich method of critiquing, the outer layers of bread, suggesting the positives about the manuscript, held the middle goodness, the hard critiques. Ours was more like an open-faced sandwich. One layer of what we liked about the story and a pile of hard critiques. We usually spent our time defended our writings and asking questions about why segments of our manuscripts didn't work. We debated, went home, mulled it over, and usually returned to the next meeting agreeing that the group was right. I'm still guilty of using the open-faced sandwich method sometimes, something I'm trying to improve in my critiques, but we sure did learn a lot, and this group propelled me forward in so many ways.
That year offered another first, acceptance of a piece in Highlights Magazine. Cool! I read that magazine as a kid. That was the encouragement I needed at the time. I wrote almost a dozen stories that year, none of which became anything except a notch on my learning ladder. But I am grateful to this group for getting me to show up, making me accountable, and giving me a foundation in which to grow as a writer.
We did eventually split up, each of us following new directions. It took some searching to find groups after this one that felt right, and life definitely intervened at times. Luckily, I had another friend that kept pulling me back in.
Challenge yourself to improve!