May All Your Conference Dreams Come True (How I Got My Agent)

A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down…   – Edna St. Vincent Millay

My first writer’s conference critique still stands out in my mind, probably much in the way one’s first colonoscopy leaves a lasting and visceral impression, except that people undergoing a colonoscopy have the advantage of being sedated.

I can still feel the odd melange of sensations I felt as I waited for my critique with a well-respected author: The Mojave-like dryness of my mouth. The tiny, irrational flutter of hope in my chest. The apprehensive pit in my stomach…

OKAY. Before we go any further, let me say: I KNOW. I KNOW. You’re not supposed to go into conference critiques with any expectations. You’re going there for the knowledge of craft, for the connections, for inspiration, blah blah blah. But let’s get real. We’ve all been newbies, and newbies (before they’re initiated into the cold, hard world which is publishing) all dream. We’ve all read Thirty-Four Shades of Purple* and thought, “Man, my book is totally better than that, so it’s guaranteed to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.”

So, anyway, I walk into the cavernous conference room in which my critique is going to be held, wishing that I had asked one of my colleagues for a Xanax. Or at least a beta-blocker to slow down my heart, which is seriously approaching defibrillator levels. I find my critiquer, and sit down.  She is very sweet, and says hello like I’m a normal person, and not a huge loser wannabe who wasted her time. This is a good sign!

It’s all downhill from there. Next, Lovely Author asks me whether this is my first conference (Um, is it that obvious?), and we talk a little bit about whether I have a critique group (I have to say no, but not for lack of trying). She tells me that my manuscript is very “unique,” and very kindly points out some areas I could improve, adding some nice words on specific lines just to throw me a bone or two, and encourages me to keep at it.

And that’s it. No, “Let me introduce you to my agent/editor right NOW because they’ll totally love it!” No, “You won’t need my help selling this.” Just a polite smile and a very sincere “good luck.” It was all very civil, really.

Who knew that civil could be so deflating? I remember walking aimlessly around the conference center for a little while, trying to tamp down the irrational disappointment I felt. I went over my notes, and did that thing that you do after a date where you try to parse out every word of every conversation: When Lovely Author wrote “I think you are covering new ground!” did she mean that my topic was marketable because it was so SUPER-SPECIAL, or did she mean that no editor would touch it with a ten-foot-pole because it was so kooky? Next, I did that thing that authors do, which is ignore all of the nice things that critiquers say, and replay all of the negative comments over and over, kind of like a little kid picking at a scab.

(Let me just say that in retrospect, I want to take my newbie conference self and give her a smack in the head. )

But you know what? Going through that first conference critique was a necessary evil. It was an important diagnostic test, just like a colonoscopy. But instead of learning that I needed to eat more fiber, I learned that I needed to grow a thicker skin. After an obligatory period of moping and venting to the new friends I’d met at the conference, I found a critique group and revised the heck out of my manuscript. The next conference I went to, I wore my big girl underwear. And had no expectations.

You know what happened? I got a request from an agent! Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite done with the manuscript yet, but a year later when I finished it, that very same agent ended up offering representation. Which you would think is a happy ending, except that my first novel didn’t sell, and that agent and I ended up parting ways (on good terms, thankfully).

[insert two years of walking in the authorial wilderness]

Last year, I made a vow not to attend any more conferences. At that point, my writing had fallen into a major rut. I had a new manuscript that I knew was promising, but after a round of querying I realized that I had to do a significant, practically-from-scratch revision to change it from dual-narrative to single POV. I figured that since I knew how much work needed to be done, my time and money were better spent writing than travelling.

By Thanksgiving of last year, my revision had slowed to a snail’s pace. That month, I decided to step away from writing – to get off of the publishing hamster wheel. I was completely daunted by the seemingly endless path in front of me, and not at all confident that I would be able to do justice to my story. I cancelled my subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace, to avoid the episode of minor depression that occurred every Sunday when I got their weekly deal email.

In January, I went on a retreat with my amazing critique group, which finally jumpstarted my writing. Shortly after, I received an e-mail from New Jersey SCBWI about their annual conference. I was immediately impressed by their lineup, which included one Wonderful Editor who had given me a very detailed “nice rejection” for my first novel, and a Lovely Agent who represented a book that I had recently read and adored.** More importantly, NJ SCBWI’s registration allowed you to choose who to have your critique/pitch session with. (I’d learned early on that the most important variable in conference critiques is getting the right “fit” for your manuscript.)

One of my friends had decided to go to the conference, too, so I said what the heck. Now was as good a time as any to vet my new revision and see what Lovely Agent was like, and whether she’d be remotely interested in my book, which was, impossibly, even more “unique” than my first.

Because I tend to be anxious and poor company when anticipating a critique – even with my thicker skin – I scheduled my critique with Wonderful Editor first thing Friday afternoon, even before the official conference had started. Might as well get the inevitable disappointment over with, I thought, and have a night to sleep off my neuroses. Just before I walked in to my critique session, I reminded myself again that low expectations are the key to a happy life. That my goals for the conference were to get ideas on how to strengthen my manuscript. And that even if Wonderful Editor didn’t love it, there were still plenty of other editors who might be a better fit. 

And you know what happened? She loved it! She asked me to send her the manuscript when I was done (and when I had an agent). When I asked her what agents she thought would be a good fit, she listed Lovely Agent, among others.

“That’s perfect,” I said. “I have a pitch session with her tomorrow.”

“Oh, great,” she said. “Tell her that your manuscript is the one I talked to her about.”

!!!!!!!!

At next morning’s pitch session, I had barely sat down and introduced myself when Lovely Agent said that she had been looking forward to talking to me, and asked for the full manuscript. When I told her it wasn’t finished, she asked me to send the first 50 pages. I told her that it was a draft revision that hadn’t been vetted by my amazing crit partners yet. She still wanted it, and said she would have time to read it in the next hour. So I practically ran back to my session, booted up my computer, and frantically reviewed my manuscript for typos before sending it off.

(cue an hour – two actually, not that anyone was counting – of anxious refreshing of the email and looking up her clients).

Later that afternoon, I went for my last manuscript critique, which happened to be in the middle of a large waiting area flanked by small offices where critiques were being held. Lovely Agent was in a room nearby. She caught my eye and told me that she’d read my partial and that we should talk after we were done.

I tried to listen to the very thoughtful critique that I got, I really did. But can you blame me if I can’t remember more than a handful of points that my critiquer made (thankfully she gave me some very helpful written notes)?

Lovely Agent actually finished giving her critique a minute or two before mine was done, so she stood around waiting for me.  And offered representation on the spot when I was done!

(cue happy dance, and the very strange instance of a pregnant woman being unable to eat dinner).

Two weeks later, after talking to some of her wonderful clients, including Katia Raina, emily danforth and Realm Lovejoy, I signed with the truly lovely and amazing Jessica Regel, whose enthusiasm for NONE OF THE ABOVE gave me the wings to fly through my remaining revision. You can read a interview with her here, at my agent-sister Realm’s website.

All this could never have happened without three things: 1) my amazing critique group, 2) SCBWI, which taught me so much about writing, how to accept criticism and how important perseverance is in this often fickle business, and 3) a lot of luck – so much of success in publishing is getting your work into the right hands at the right time. I remain perpetually thankful for all of the above.

The question, of course, is whether this tale has a happy ending. Stay tuned to this blog to see!

*Title has been changed to protect the innocent

**The fantastic, brilliant The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth

About I.W. Gregorio

Mother. Surgeon. YA writer.
Posted in Agents

5 Responses to May All Your Conference Dreams Come True (How I Got My Agent)

  1. Congratulations!! Ah, I just want to hug your first conference self. I relate quite a bit to what you’ve written here – I was a ball of nerves my first conference, and I’m still plugging away on my own manuscript. It’s always great to read an SCBWI success story, they encourage me to keep writing. Thank you for sharing this. Best of luck to you!

    • Thank you so much, Nilah, and best of luck on your journey as well! We are so lucky to have SCBWI in our corner :) I don’t know what writers did before the era of support groups and bulletin boards!

  2. I have never been to a conference. Not one. I kind of feel ashamed about that. I really ought to, but I always find some excuse not to sign up. That has GOT TO change when I (hopefully) take my sabbatical next year.

  3. Joanne Fritz says:

    Congrats again, Ilene! And I totally had this feeling at that June conference that you were going to come home with an offer of representation. Seriously.

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