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April 18, 2013

The How-I-Landed-My-Agent Story

Before I was a freelancer, I worked in the editorial department of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, for two imprints, Margaret K. McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Down the hall, a woman named Alexandra Penfold worked for Paula Wiseman Books in a similar capacity (and also shared delicious cakes she made).


Alex and I were both pregnant with our first children at the same time. During the time between her maternity leave and mine—which I didn’t come back from—we met up a few times and talked about work, motherhood, books, and food. After I left S&S, Alex and I stayed in touch. When our boys were old enough, we started getting together semi-regularly for our kids to play.


At one point, I mentioned I’d been working on a novel. At another point, Alex offered to read it. Free professional editorial feedback? Yes, please! From the recognition her books had received, I knew she was a good editor, but to see her editing first-hand—she’s brilliant. Totally opened up doors I couldn’t even see existed.


Fast-forward, and Alex tells me she’s leaving S&S to become a literary agent. In the middle of the playground, she said I could submit to her, if I wanted to. I’d already worked up a list of agents to submit to and drafted a query letter, but now these seemed gloriously unnecessary. I said that would be great, and then tried to maintain composure for the rest of the morning. I was so excited later that I couldn’t write a thing for something like three days.


I tried to remind myself that she’d offered to have me submit to her, not to officially represent my novel. I continued editing, and a few weeks later, asked if she was serious or if it was just an offhand comment. I didn’t want to take advantage of a friendship or read too much into anything . . . but why in the world would she suggest I submit to her if she wouldn’t be willing to take my manuscript on? She had read the whole thing before I even knew she was crossing over to agenting.


Turns out, she was serious. The papers have all been signed, and I am officially represented by Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary (an agency on my shortlist to start with!).


Yes, having worked in the industry did give me a serious advantage in landing an agent. I won’t deny that. But I think there are some lessons here that just about anyone can apply:


  1. Take advantage of situations that present themselves to you, but don’t force anything. Alex offered to read my book, then she offered to represent me. I never put her on the spot (good for her) and I know her interest is genuine (good for me).
  2. Don’t stop working on your writing while you’re figuring out the next steps. Apart from the three days I was so excited I could barely breathe, I kept editing and editing and getting perspectives from other readers and my writers’ group. Success still comes down to a solid manuscript.
  3. Finally, and this is the most important, in my book, but I guess it won’t apply to everyone: Life does NOT stop once you have kids. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first son that I started writing regularly ( It wasn’t until I lost a child in miscarriage that my husband and I carved out Saturday mornings in our family’s life as my writing time. And it wasn’t until I was pregnant with another child that I pushed myself to finish and edit this manuscript. To top it all off, those playdates with Alex and her son helped us keep in touch, and I think played a crucial role in landing me where I am now.


My story is a little out of the ordinary, but I was prepared to play the game the typical way. I polished my manuscript as best I could. I researched agents. I wrote a query letter. Life took me in another direction. Something good came of it because I took my time, didn’t rush into anything, and was ready for whatever happened next.

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