Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Did You Get Your Agent?

By Allison Leotta, member of The Writer's Center and author of Law of Attraction (published in October 2010) 

When I got engaged to the man who’s now my husband, the first question friends asked was: "How did he propose?" Now that I have a book in bookstores, the first question folks ask is: "How did you get your agent?" My story is one of incredible good luck and unexpected tragedy.

The most important thing I did was refine my manuscript until it was in the best possible shape I could manage. That took a while. I’m a federal sex-crime prosecutor in D.C., so my day job is pretty intense. I wrote in the mornings before work. I took a night class at The Writer's Center, where my book got better and better as I bounced ideas off of other aspiring writers and a very talented instructor. After two years of writing (and re-writing), I was satisfied that my novel, Law of Attraction, was a compelling story of love and violence in the nation’s capital.

At that point, I knew I needed an agent. One how-to book suggested contacting everyone in the publishing industry with whom you have the slightest connection. I understood I’d probably send out 1000 query letters and get 999 rejections. I prepared. I bought reams of paper. I created a spreadsheet for rejections. I had several bottles of booze ready.

Then I thought about any personal connections and networks I had. I knew some folks in theater and children’s books; I sought their advice. I made a mental list of people I didn’t actually know, but with whom I had something in common. In that vein, I’d recently read a charming novel called The Opposite of Love, by Julie Buxbaum. Julie had graduated from Harvard Law School a few years after I did, although we’d never met. I shot her an email, and she ended up calling me. Julie was kind and generous with her time. She said her agent might be interested in Law of Attraction.

Julie’s agent, Elaine Koster, was something of a legend in the publishing industry, credited with "discovering" Stephen King and pulling The Kite Runner out of a slush pile. I sent Elaine my manuscript, glad that it was truly ready to be judged. A week later, Elaine called. She said she loved Law of Attraction and wanted to represent me. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Elaine and her colleague, Stephanie Lehmann, suggested some changes to Law of Attraction. It was amazing to have professional hands help craft the story. Then Elaine sold my book to Simon & Schuster. I was over the moon.

That was one of the last deals Elaine ever made. She died this summer, after a decade’s-long, secret battle with breast cancer.

I was devastated. Elaine was an advocate, teacher, and friend. After her memorial service, I went home and cracked open one of the bottles of booze I hadn’t needed to use for rejection letters, and used it, instead, to give a solitary toast to the agent who launched my career but didn’t get to see my novel hit the bookshelves.

After Elaine died, I was at sea. I called an author whose novels I’d loved since I was in college. Earlier that year, Barbara Delinsky had given me some heartfelt advice about balancing writing, mommying and working. Now I asked her what to do in this situation. Barbara offered to put me in touch with her agent, Amy Berkower, the renowned president of Writers House. When Amy eventually offered to represent me, I felt like someone who’d been paddling in a life raft, suddenly pulled aboard the Queen Elizabeth and handed a winning lottery ticket.

Law of Attraction was published this October. So far, so good! I’ve been gratified to receive many wonderful reviews. In December, The Washington Post featured me and my book. I’ve also had a great time on my blog, where I critique what Law & Order: SVU gets right and wrong, from my perspective as a real-life sex-crime prosecutor. And, last month, I signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write two sequels to Law of Attraction.

I hope that in some cozy, book-lined office in the sky, Elaine Koster is smiling approvingly at the numbers 
on BookScan.

Allison Leotta is a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C.   She has been a federal prosecutor for ten years.  Like her heroine in Law of Attraction, Allison started out in the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases.  She now handles the most serious sex crimes in D.C.  Allison is a graduate of Michigan State University and Harvard Law School.  She lives with her husband (who is also a federal prosecutor) and their two sons in Takoma Park, Maryland.  

No comments: