I met David Oppegaard at the MN Writers Workshop where he shared a super interesting story about how he landed his literary agent several years back. I thought it would be a good, encouraging piece to share for those who feel like giving up. He’s a pretty cool guy with stuff to say, plus Stan Lee endorsed one of his books.
Okay, I always begin this story with a cautionary note-this is indeed how I came to acquire my literary agent, and it’s an interesting story, but nobody should ever take this as direct advice on how to go about acquiring an agent of their own. This story is more of a publishing curio than anything directly instructional.
So. Back around 2003, I started sending out query letters—they were mostly still letters back then, not website forms or emails—to a slew of literary agents, seeking representation for a novel called Knocking Over the Fishbowl. I did some research, wrote a short but sweet query letter, and sent out forty queries in one massive mailing barrage. Then I sat back and watched the “no thank you” form letters roll in, one after the other, until (I thought) I’d gotten all forty of them back.
But then…I received an email one day via my Hotmail account. It was from an agent named Jonathan Lyons at Curtis Brown, Ltd., in New York City. I’d sent a query letter to his predecessor, apparently, who was no longer with Curtis Brown, but Jonathan had read it and was actually interested in reading a sample of the novel (yes, I’d been picked off a query letter slush pile, amazing piece of good luck #1 in this story). Overjoyed, I quickly sent of a three chapter sample to Jonathan.
A few months later, Jonathan contacted me again and said he wanted to read the whole novel. So I sent him the novel, all a-tingle with expectation as I worked at my day job and went to grad school at night. A few additional months later, Jonathan wrote to say he really liked the book, but wasn’t totally in love with it, and couldn’t represent a work he wasn’t totally passionate about. Crushed, I said thank you for your consideration and soldiered on, querying a new batch of agents.
Cut to the following summer, where I attended a week-long writing workshop through my MFA program and received some very helpful editing notes on Fishbowl from the program’s director, Mary Rockcastle, who read my book as a personal side favor (amazing piece of good luck #2). I took her notes to heart and rewrote the novel entirely, improving it a good deal.
Eventually I got close to signing with a different agent, who pulled out at the last second for reasons I didn’t understand. Crushed anew, I thought back to Jonathan at Curtis Brown and how kind his notes on the book had been. Still a naïve publishing newbie, and more than a little desperate, I wrote him a new email stating that I’d rewritten Fishbowl with help from professional writers and asked if he’d be willing to read it again. Jonathan, to my amazement, said yes.
Let that sink in a moment.
A busy literary agent agreed to reread a novel he’d already turned down (amazing piece of good luck #3). This is not the kind of event that happens every day, if ever. This is the sort of luck you want on your side if you’re out walking in a lightning storm, or headed to the casino.
And, on top of this stunning luck, Jonathan loved the rewrite (!) and agreed to take me on as a client. That was back in 2004 and we’ve worked together ever since, even though Fishbowl never sold (our first sale wasn’t until my fifth novel, The Suicide Collectors, which itself made the rounds of some fifty some editors over the course of a year before finally selling to St. Martin’s Press).
Like I said earlier, this story is more of a curio than advice I’d give to anyone seeking representation in 2018. Jonathan’s generosity toward me really was beyond any reasonable expectation. If there’s any tangible takeaways from my story, I’d point out that I remained professional throughout our prolonged email conversation, kept writing and rewriting while I waited for the various replies, and showed a little gumption. You really never do know what will happen if you keep putting yourself out there, again and again.