Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Did You Get Your Agent? by Allison Leotta

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-crimes prosecutor in D.C., so my day job is pretty intense. I wrote in the mornings before work and the evenings after work. I edited on weekends and during my kids’ naptimes. After two years of writing (and re-writing), I was satisfied that 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 decades-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. 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 prosecutor. And, in December, 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.

How did you get your agent?

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. "Law of Attraction" is her first novel.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Allison,

Thank you so much for joining us today! Although wrapped around tragedy, your story is a true inspiration. Two phone calls = two agents. Does this give us an idea of how persuasive you are in the courtroom? :)

Good luck on your next two books!


Allison Leotta said...

Hi Tracey,

Thanks for having me here today! And thanks for all your work -- you're doing a great job of creating buzz and community with social media.

Luckily, I didn't have to make any oral arguments to my agents. Who knows how that would have turned out? :) It is a nice break from the adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom to have an agent who is just completely on my side. I feel very lucky.


Tracy March said...

Hi Ali,

Thanks so much for sharing your bittersweet story with us. I'm with Tracey thinking how incredible your experiences finding agents were. Having recently read Law of Attraction, I understand why any agent would be eager to represent you!

I'm looking forward to your next book...write fast!


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Ali,

I forgot to ask my question! At what point did you know that you had to write this story?

Lynn Sheene said...

Hi Allison,

What an amazing story! I love how you describe spending the time needed to write and refine your novel first and then putting the same level of preparation into your quest for an agent. The speed that the agent arrived (and a legend at that) points to how well and diligently you wrote "Laws of Attraction". I look forward to reading it.


Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Ali!

Thanks so much for sharing your story. Yours is one that shows how putting hard work and careful consideration into your work does pay off.

And for anyone who hasn't read Laws of Attraction - go read it. You will be very glad you did!


Nancy Naigle said...

Hi Allison
I remember you from Thrillerfest last year.
Thank you for sharing your story with us.

I'm sure Elaine is smiling :)
Best wishes,
Nancy Naigle

Al Leverone said...

Hi Allison,

It's amazing how it seems there are as many different stories of the route taken to representation/publication as there are authors. Congrats on your success and I'll second what Nancy Naigle said above - I'm sure somewhere Elaine Koster is smiling.

On an unrelated but perhaps more important note, thank you for your work in keeping us, and especially our children, safe...being a sex-crimes prosecutor has to be an incredibly stressful job, but as a guy with two daughters and now a granddaughter, I just wanted to express my appreciation...

M.E. said...

Thanks for sharing this story. It encourages me that other writers before me succeeded at finding their ideal agents. Work, disappointment, and networking are all part of the challenge.

Allison Leotta said...

Sorry for not replying earlier! I checked the discussion, but didn’t see any comments for a couple days. I just checked back again, and now I see all of your nice comments. Maybe my computer was going back to an older, cached page? Anyway – hello!

Tracey, I decided I had to write the story when I was 5 weeks pregnant with my first son. I had this feeling of impending – doom isn’t the right word – but this feeling that it was now or never. I had so many stories from my job, but if I didn’t start writing them before my kids came, those stories would never make it to paper. The strict biological deadline helped spur to write quickly.

Lynn, I’ve heard that the most important part of writing is re-writing. For me, that’s true. I suspect that there are some folks who are absolutely brilliant the first go-round, but I need that extra crafting. :)

Joelle, Thanks so much for the plug! That’s very kind of you. I’m thrilled to hear that you liked “Law of Attraction.”

Nancy and Al, I do hope that Elaine would have been proud. Al, thanks for the support for my job. It’s so nice to hear. Nancy, I remember meeting you too, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again at TFest again this year.

M.E., good luck with your own agent story. I think the most important trait for a writer is tenacity, so hang in there.

Thanks, everyone, for your support! I hope we’ll all get lots of time to chat and hang out at Thrillerfest this summer!