Strange as it may seem, my story actually starts in 2008. I was querying my first book Fallen (which will never ever see the light of day again). On my shortlist of agents was a guy named Ted Malawer who worked at an agency called Firebrand. I submitted and then, lo and behold, he wanted to see more! He read more and enjoyed it enough to bring it to his company’s acquisitions meeting only to find out someone had just signed a similar project. He couldn’t represent the book.
Disappointed, but also hopeful, I went back out into the world. Until I finally realized that I had written myself into so many corners with the structure of the plot and the world and the characters that the only way to fix it was to scrap the whole project and start over. Which I tried to do. And it got even worse.
That book went away. I worked on other things, projects that may or may not ever see the light of day. I haven’t decided yet. Also, not the point of this story.
THEN, I wrote Sing Sweet Nightingale. This book spoke to me. It possessed me for an entire month and forced me to write it all down. I won an award. I met the editors from Spencer Hill. With this interest, I sent out a round of queries.
Ted Malawer had left Firebrand and now worked at an agency called Upstart Crow. He was also closed to submissions. However, someone else at his agency was accepting queries and she was interested in young adult! Yay! So, I put Danielle Chiotti on my list and queried her along with a few others.
They ALL rejected the book. In very polite, nice ways. But…
I STILL didn’t have an agent.
Happy and slightly confused, I tried to figure out what to do from here. I had a book deal, but no agent. Did I need an agent anymore? Did I want one? At this point, I knew I could survive without one for a while, but I did want representation in the long run. I want to be a full-time author. I want to be able to support myself and whatever size family I end up one day having from the sales of my novels. I want to write in a wide range of YA subgenres and I want someone to help me navigate the market to make the best decisions I can both for my books and my career. I want an agent.
I just didn’t know how to get one. How do you query someone with a book that’s already sold? I didn’t have any other projects completed and I highly doubted anyone would want to sign an author who didn’t have anything they could sell in the near future.
In the meantime, I revised a ton based on Danielle and Patricia’s suggestions. Entire subplots and even a character was removed from the story. It was a lot of work, but I came back with a better version of the book when I was done. Didn’t think it would be possible to get an agent with it, though. Because, you know, it’s still been sold.
Then, in January, I went to the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Miami. While waiting on my edit letter for Sing Sweet Nightingale, I’d started writing this fantasy novel. Totally different from anything I’d ever tried, I wasn’t sure if the story was working or not. So I signed up for a 10 page critique. Luck and fate paired me with Michael Stearns, co-founder of Upstart Crow Literary where–for those who’ve lost track–both Ted and Danielle work.
He loved the pages. He said only kind things, gave me a couple of notes for expansion/revision, but generally just kept telling me how much he enjoyed the pages and that he would have willingly read more. He asked me about where I was in my career and I explained my slightly odd predicament.
“Send me your book,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it and maybe I can pass it along to one of my agents.”
Literally grinning from ear to ear (seriously. Ask some of the people who saw me that night. Muppet flailing ensued!), I went to the end of the night party and sat down while the music was blaring to email Michael my book. I was giddy enough to ignore the little voice in my head telling me, “Shouldn’t you wait until the morning when the adrenaline wears off?”
I didn’t listen to that little voice. I emailed away and sent out several other queries the next day. And then I waited.
In the next couple of weeks, I gathered a couple of rejections (all very polite ones). I kept Michael up to date on some news I received while I was waiting and he promised to get back in touch soon.
And then I got an email from Danielle Chiotti. Michael had passed the book to her and she’d started reading it immediately. Fifty pages in, she emailed me to set up a call. Four days later, we had an hour and a half-long phone call during my lunch break and talked about everything book and career and agent related. She was awesome. She even laughed when I told her she’d actually rejected this very same book last year.
“Really?” she said. “I can only think it may have been one of the interns who read this one because I don’t remember seeing it.”
So an old draft of the book couldn’t get past her intern gauntlet, but my new version she loved. Which I was totally okay with! Possible moment of awkward passed by without a blink and in the middle of the conversation she assured me that this was an official offer of representation.
“I would love to work with you!” Danielle said. “I think you have a very strong career ahead of you.”
Considering that those words were almost verbatim what I’d always hoped my future agent would say to me, I was hooked.
In just the few short weeks after signing with her, Danielle proved herself invaluable. Not only for career things, but for sanity things. Talking me down from crisis moments and making sure I kept my eye on the important things. I’ve heard it said that agents are part therapist and I can only say YES. They are. And I couldn’t be happier with mine!
So, there you have it. We’ve caught up with today and now the world knows my very strange story of how I queried and cajoled my way through almost an entire agency. What my experience with everyone at Upstart has taught me over the past couple of years, though, is that they’re all knowledgeable, passionate, funny, and kind. And I am lucky to be working with them! It also goes to show you that you never know how things may work out and that just because you get rejected by an agent doesn’t mean the doors leading to that path is closed forever. You may just have to figure out how to jimmy open a window!
Erica Cameron knew that writing was her passion when she turned a picture book into a mystery novella as a teen. That piece wasn’t her best work, but it got her an A. After college, she used her degree in Psychology and Creative Writing to shape a story about a dreamworld. Then a chance encounter at a rooftop party in Tribeca made her dream career a reality. Sing Sweet Nightingale will be published in March 2014 by Spencer Hill Press. It is her first novel.
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