Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My First Agent Crush

My first and only agent crush hit me during the summer of 2008 at the Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s Conference. My dream agent had bangs and cool nerd glasses and walked in wearing hot-pink, strappy, heeled sandals and sat next to me. She led our workshop with friendly authority and insightful comments; she was encouraging but critical. I got to talk to her during the break. I said I liked her shoes and managed not to drool. She was smart and sarcastic and funny and I decided right then she was going to be my agent.

That afternoon she was on an agent panel—that was why she’d worn the fancy shoes—and I wrote down nearly everything she said in my notebook. The three other agents had good information to share, too, so I took pages of notes about how advances work, what percentages to expect for royalties and commission, what to say in a query letter, what to ask an agent before signing, but most of all their message was clear: make the writing shine before you submit and find an agent who loves your work. Or, as my dream agent said, “If you’re not physically nauseous at the sight of your book, you’re not done,” and, “If your agent loves your writing, she’ll fight for it and for you.” 

I wanted her to fight for me. When I gave her my pitch after class—palms sweaty and my pulse in my temples—she said what every agent-struck author wants to hear: “That sounds interesting. When you’re ready, send me your query and the first two chapters.” OMG! I practically twirled. She was interested!

So I left that conference all flutter-hearted and ready to make my work shine, to make it sing from the rooftops that it was good enough, that it was ready to be represented. I revised for months. I won the Maurice Prize in fiction that fall but I kept revising. All my friends said I was waiting too long, that I should send it to the agent I’d met, but I wasn’t nauseous at the sight of my book yet. I had to follow her advice to the letter or hate myself for rushing and ruining my chances.

I revised for a few more months and finally, finally, I sent my query and the first two chapters just like we’d discussed. I was sure she’d love it. She was perfect for me. She had to see we were a match made in heaven, right?

She rejected me. Very nicely, but still, I was deflated. I’d put myself out there, poured my heart into this relationship only to get dumped with a line that sounded like a bad TV break up: “it just isn’t right for my list at this time.” It’s not you, it’s me. What a cop-out, and a lie, too, because even in teen movies the kid knows that phrase really means something is wrong with you. If this were a real camp crush story, now would be the part where I ran into the bathroom and locked myself into a stall to cry in gasping hiccoughs.

In real life, I mourned for a few days, then I stewed in the bitterness of being scorned, and then I got over it. I emailed my no-longer-dream-agent and asked for more specific criticism. She was kind enough to write back with more feedback, and though she thought the writing was strong and the book had potential and promise, it was just not a “perfect fit” for her.

What I realized is that it wasn’t a clichéd break-up line or a cop-out; it was the truth. I had been so sure she was the one, but she didn’t love my work, and we were, therefore, not a match made in heaven. I didn’t know that the right agent who was the perfect fit for me, who would fight for Hand Me Down in a way ex-dream-agent couldn’t have, was just around the corner, but she was. Just like people say when you get dumped, there are indeed other fish in the sea.

Our first crushes are rarely the relationships that last, but if we’re lucky, we learn from them. I will forever be grateful to the cool agent with the hot-pink heels for her valuable advice and for motivating me to get my manuscript in gear for submission. It was this heavily revised, nausea-inducing manuscript that my actual agent fell in love with just a few weeks later. If I hadn’t been rejected first, I might not have met my true agent-mate, the one who really got my book and my writing, the agent who responded to my first email in a day and believed in me from the start.

We are still happily working together today. 


  1. Love your honesty! Great post, Melanie.

  2. Isn't it so funny how what first seems like a total wrong turn can turn out to be the right direction the whole time?

  3. Great post - wonderful lesson. Thanks for sharing both, Melanie!!

  4. “If you’re not physically nauseous at the sight of your book, you’re not done,” --I love it. Maybe that means mine is done.

  5. Thanks, ladies! I think things really do happen for a reason. Marcille--that was my mantra for years. It's great advice.

  6. I really like this! It takes an interesting turn when you shift from the crush to the one who ended up marrying.

  7. Oh…I'm feeling the warm fuzzies for my agent right now! And celebrating the fact that yes, having just finished my page proofs, I am physically nauseous at the sight of my manuscript.

  8. Great post - it's what publishing is all about. Finding the people who love your work and want to sing about it!

  9. This is SUCH a great and important post - and so true! I talked with a number of agents during my early years as a writer. I even thought some of them would be REALLY AWESOME to work with ... but in the end, I wouldn't trade my agent for any of them.

    My agent was the first one I queried on the mystery series that will be my debut (in 2013!) and she signed me within weeks. She then turned around and sold the series within 3 months, in a 3-book deal. I could feel her enthusiasm for the project and for me, and I believe that enthusiasm contributed mightily to her success.

    For me, she's the best agent in the world, and I'm thrilled to be working with her. Like you, I'm SO glad things worked out the way they did - and I heartily second your advice to writers to hang in there until they find the agent that truly loves the writer's work.

    It truly makes all the difference.

  10. Ah, yes, that first crush is painful, but helps point us in the right direction. So glad you found the true love you deserve. Great post, Melanie.

  11. Melanie! Great post - and congratulations on your good news. (Can I link to this on the Community of Writers Facebook page?) - Lisa Alvarez

  12. Thanks again, ladies! Lisa, yes, absolutely! Please link away.