How I got an agent

So before Movie Title Typos, I wrote novels. Plural, because I wrote two. The first I finished three or four years ago. It was about sidekicks in a world where superheroes had been wiped out. I got more than 20 rejections from agents, all with the same feedback, “You’re a good writer and we like your voice, but this won’t sell.” I was also told at least a half dozen times to turn it into a graphic novel. That had me like:

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Which, yes, fine, it would make more sense as a comic, but at the time I really wanted it to be a novel. Still, I had been to enough writing conferences to see more than a few of those mid-50s writers holding on to that one manuscript they’d written over 20 years ago, convinced it was just one more revision away from getting published. You know the type. Just this in repeat:

I didn’t want to be that, so I shelved that book and considered my time spent on it a learning experience.

Then I wrote another novel, this one a contemporary take on Aladdin. It’s set in high school, and there’s no princess, or magic carpet, and the genie is kind of an ass. I finished this one in late 2012 and started sending it out to agents.

Quick aside, I’ve been asked how I found agents and how I queried. I used agentquery.com, which would often lead me to Publisher’s Marketplace or an agency’s website, and then to a specific agent’s twitter feed or personal site. I would look for agents that represented work like mine, then I’d send out personalized queries, no more than five at a time. It’s a long process, and it can take months to hear anything back from agents, but that’s how it goes. 

I had some early readers going through my Aladdin book while I was sending it around, and one of them came back to me and told me I needed to change the perspective from third to first. That would mean rewriting the entire book. At first I was like:

But then I rewrote the first chapter and was like:

So I spent the next year or so slowly rewriting the book. Turns out it’s more than just doing a find and replace on pronouns. Every description was now coming from the main character, so if it wasn’t something he’d say, it had to be changed to fit his voice. It took a while. 

While I worked on that, life happened. I left Red Ventures, then went back three months later. I had another kid, I took a bunch of art classes online, and then there was this:

I’ve always been a writer who liked to draw, but for many, Movie Title Typos swapped my talents. People thought of me as an artist who could write, despite writing being my main profession for nearly a decade. I bring that up only because it’s still crazy to me that my first published book was a bunch of illustrated jokes, not a novel.

So I got through the book launch, finished off that novel rewrite (and totally included a link to Chronicle Books' Movie Title Typos page in my query, to show I'm a legit maker of things), and started sending it out again in October 2015. This time I was trying to be even more deliberate and picky with who I sent it to—I wanted an agent who could rep me as an author and an illustrator. Normally when people see author-illustrator they think children’s books. While I’d definitely like to do those, I didn’t want to be pinned to them. I needed someone who could rep me as a creative person, someone who could support my whole career, not just my current project. 

That’s where Allison Devereux of Wolf Literary Services comes in. I sent her a query immediately after getting a rejection from another agent (protip: when you get a rejection, immediately send out a new query, or at least start researching who you’ll send it to next. For me, it helps me move on and not take it personally. An agent has to be pumped about your book, and if they’re not, you don’t want them anyway).

Allison liked my query and my sample pages and requested the full manuscript just a day or two after the initial query. I got her request right after landing in Arkansas for a visit to my brother’s house. I got off the plane like:

I sent her the full thing on a Thursday night, then on Sunday night got an email from her. She’d bumped my book to the top of her to-read list and blew through it over the weekend. She loved it! She wanted to talk on the phone Monday morning! I did a bit of this:

Then responded all cool like:

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The next morning I borrowed my brother’s office and talked to Allison. She really did love the book! If it seems like I was surprised it’s only because the only people that had read it so far were the people who rejected it. I mean, I thought it was good…but I’m biased. Allison loved all the things I’d hoped people would love, and she also totally nailed the themes I was going for. For the first 15 or 20 minutes of our phone call she told me all the things she thought were great and I just sat there with a mixture of this:

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And this: 

Then we got to talking about her and her agency and how we might work together. As thrilled as I was to have someone pumped about my book, I needed to make sure this would be a good working relationship. 

Allison had no problem with my “do all the things” approach, in fact she said I was her favorite kind of client to have. She said the agency would be happy to help with illustration stuff if I wanted them to, they’d even help me with big contracts if I needed some assistance. This was looking pretty good, but what sealed the deal was when I asked Allison about herself and career and she told me the first book she ever sold was a book of illustrated parodies. 

Huh. Where have I seen one of those?

I told Allison I’d like to work together, and she said she’d get right to work on line edits of my novel. She said my book didn’t read like it was my first, and that most of her suggested edits would be small—no big sweeping structural changes. That’s pretty cool. 

Once I get those back and make the revisions, we’re off! Allison will send it out to editors, and hopefully we’ll get this book sold. Then I’ll have a novel AND a book of goofy illustrations on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

No big deal.

Wanna Be in the Book Biz? Do These Things

Occasionally I get emails from people looking to get a book published. They usually go something like this:

“I have an amazing idea for a children’s book and I’d love if you illustrated it. My daughter/nephew/grandchildren love when I tell it. I’m sure it will make tons of money. If you will illustrate it we can split the profits.”

Or something like this:

“I see you write. I’ve written some stuff too. A full novel actually. Would you like to edit it for me? Do you have any contacts I should send it to?”

The answer to both of those emails is no. It’s not because I don’t care about what you’re doing, it’s because I’m not the man to do it. I’m super busy working on my own stuff over here. Plus I’m pretty selective about the projects I take on because my time is limited (husband, father, day job--that kind of stuff). What I can do is provide you with a handy checklist. A place to get started if you haven't done so already.

You Should Do These Things

The following is a list of things you should strongly consider doing. They won’t guarantee your book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but they will help you create meaningful connections and teach you a thing or two you might not have known otherwise.

Join the SCBWI

If you write children’s, middle grade or young adult books or illustrate, this is a must. It’s a goldmine of information. Join here.

Go to a SCBWI conference

Regional conferences are everywhere. Go to one. Meet people, attend lectures. Learn. I guarantee you will walk away from your first conference with a headful of things you didn't know before.

Join a critique group

They aren’t hard to find or get in to. You might be able to find one through SCBWI connections (which you've already established right?). Some are conducted in person, some over email. Get people that aren’t related to you looking at your stuff. People that know more than you and/or are striving toward the same thing.

Read!

With the Kindle app available for just about everything with a screen, there’s no reason to not read books in your genre. You learn through osmosis with this stuff. It’s easy and enjoyable education.

Practice

You should be writing or illustrating as much as you can. Write short stories, scribble out doodles. You will get better just by doing it. Practice might not make you perfect, but it will make you confident.

Diversify

Don’t write one story or draw one picture and cling to it as your only project. In other words, put those eggs in multiple baskets! You never know where the market will go next. That amazing vampire romance novel you just finished is probably going to need to be shelved for a while. That’s okay, work on something else.

Stay in the loop

You don’t have to have a blog or a Twitter account as long as you follow those that do. Get online and follow some authors and agents. Keep an eye on the world you want to be a part of. Join the conversation—the book world is full of friendly folks.

Research

When it’s time to submit to agents or editors, take the time to do your research! Make every query letter unique. Send only to people you know would be interested in what you do.

There you go. I’ve been seriously working on the things in the list above since late 2008. Yep, that’s four years of work on top of a day job. Two written novels and two illustrated books and I feel like I’m almost there. For some people it’s a faster process, for some it’s even longer. Like I said, you don't have to do these things, but you should. Be warned, they'll cost time and money.  If any of the above seems like too much work, then bad news bears: you don’t really want it. For reals. There are no shortcuts. I’ll leave you with my favorite Thomas Edison quote:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

My Influence map

This is a meme that's been around for a while, but one well worth participating in. We all have different creative influences in our lives. These are mine. They aren't in any order--some influenced me more than others depending on where I was in my life at the time. Some of them continue to influence me, even inspire me at times. What does your influence map look like?

Update: Jim asked if I’d explain my influence map, so here it is:

Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, and 11 are my art influences. You may notice some stylistic similarities between them. They all have a cartoonish, heavily stylized look to them, and they all emphasize smooth flowing lines and detail through simplicity. Number 1, Bobby Chiu, is the most practical influence because I took a class at Schoolism.com taught by him. He gave me personal instruction and tips that helped improve my art a great deal. The art of Penny Arcade influences and inspires, mainly because I’ve been reading the web comic for years and I’ve watched it improve, which is cool. The artist at Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik, has mentioned Stephen Silver (9) and Ben Caldwell (3) as influences for his art as well. As for Disney’s Aladdin, that was just a watershed moment for me when I was a kid. The animation, the story, the computer animated magic carpet ride (which hasn’t really aged well); it was all amazing to me. I was the only eight year old raving about the quality of animation and design in a movie.

Number 5, video games, influenced me in a number of ways. From the music I listen to, to the stories I’m interested in. I’ve been playing them since I was old enough to grip a controller, so I’m deeply ingrained in game culture. Video game magazines like EGM and Next Generation got me interested in writing and journalism. Watching the technology, storytelling opportunity and industry grow over the years has been a lot of fun. Video games inspire and excite me and it’s great to be a part of the culture as it grows and matures with me. 

That leaves my writing influences.

Number 2 is Stephen King and particularly his book, “On Writing”, which I consider a must for would-be writers. I’ve also always admired King’s characterization skills. He can craft some amazingly deep characters, especially villains.

Number 7 is Christopher Moore. He writes humorous novels, and I’ve read most of them. I like Moore because he writes comedy with heart. He can pull off crass and heartfelt on the same page. His book “Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” is hilarious, well-researched, sad, heartwarming and, like many of his books, a tad bit insane.

Number 8 is mythology in general. I took a course on mythology in grad school and it shifted my entire worldview. There’s a weird connectivity in mythology that spans cultures, classes, religions and continents. It’s fascinating. Joseph Campbell, the author of “The Power of Myth” and other influential books on mythology, spent his life drawing meaning from and interpreting mythology. His work has influenced numerous storytellers, most famously George Lucas and the original (as in, not the crappy one) Star Wars trilogy.

Finally there’s number 10, “Life of Pi”. It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times, and the only book I have more than two copies of. I think I read it at an important time in my life, because Pi’s journey struck a chord that continues to resonate. I enjoy his quest for spirituality—with his earnest and honest mixing of religions—in the early part of the book as much as I like the harrowing journey at sea with the tiger.

There are other influences I could have included, but I tried to narrow it down to the biggest influencers. I also had to really think about which things influenced me and which inspire me. My inspiration map would be much larger and feature some of the artists and writers above.