Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How I Found My Agent: Karen Dionne

By Karen Dionne

My “How I Found My Agent” story is one of those rare cases in which the author does everything wrong, but things still turn out right.

The things I did wrong:

Mistake #1. I was querying agents with my first draft.

Mistake #2. I didn’t check agents’ reputations at sites like Writer Beware (www.writerbeware.com) and Preditors and Editors (http://pred-ed.com/), and thus queried agents I later learned were scammers.

Mistake #3. I waited six months for an agency to make a decision on representation before querying other agents.

Despite those mistakes -- any one of which could have been enough to ruin my chances (and should have, in the case of Mistake #1) -- after querying 53 agents, I signed with Jeff Kleinman (then of Graybill & English, now one of the principles of Folio Literary Management). How did this come about?

After the agency mentioned in Mistake #3 finally passed, in February 2009, I decided to give these new-fangled "e-queries" a try and emailed 19 agents on an optimistic Thursday morning. Within the hour, I had two requests for the full. One agent’s email began, “Dear Ms. Dionne: I would be pleased to consider your novel.” The email from Jeff began, “Dear Ms. Dionne: Your novel sounds wonderful!”

At the time, I didn’t know anything about Jeff (see Mistake #2), but I loved Jeff’s enthusiastic response. I printed the manuscript per his instructions and sent it off. The following Monday evening, I received an email. Mr. Kleinman had begun reading the manuscript as soon as it arrived, but the manuscript was running into some snags. (See Mistake #1.) Would I call him the next day at my convenience?

I fretted all night. Is a snag bigger than a problem? I wondered. He said “snags” plural. Does that mean there’s more than one? If you’re a writer, you know the drill.

I called the next morning at 9:00. Jeff assured me he loved my novel’s premise, and thought my writing was strong. The plotting, however, was a mess. As he explained where I’d gone wrong, it quickly became apparent that he was being charitable when he called the problems “snags.” However, I knew immediately that he was right. So when Jeff said he wanted to take me on as a client if I was willing to rewrite the book in line with our discussion, I immediately said yes.

It was a bittersweet moment. I’d gone from having a book but no agent to having an agent but no book. However, I now knew what I needed to do and couldn’t wait to dive in.

But it was early days for me. I still had to learn how to write a novel. Jeff has a marvelous editorial eye but, even with his help, it took me three and a half years and three rewrites to finish.

Ultimately, that novel didn’t sell. But eight years later (yes, you read that right -- eight years!) the next novel did and, lucky me, so did the next.

Boiling Point, my second environmental thriller -- about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher and a radical scheme to end global warming -- will be published by Berkley on December 28.

And, yes, I’m still with Jeff!

Karen Dionne is the author of two science thrillers. Her first novel, Freezing Point, was nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. She is co-founder of the online writers community, Backspace, and organizes the annual Backspace Writers Conferences in New York City every year. Karen, online at www.karendionne.net , is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the Board of Directors as Vice President, Technology, and as Managing Editor of ITW's monthly publication, The Big Thrill.


Pauline Alldred said...

Receiving criticism from an agent must be great. It's hard to deal with a rejection when I don't know the reason. Is it not to the agent's taste? Have they too many projects with similar plots to mine? Or is my novel a disaster? You were lucky to find someoen like Jeff.

Helen Ginger said...

Fabulous story Karen. What I love is your honest telling of your road to success -- and the happy ending. Even though it turned out your manuscript wasn't ready for publication, you found the "perfect" agent and I bet Jeff feels like he signed the "perfect" writer.

Karen Dionne said...

Thank you both! Pauline - I consider myself the luckiest writer ever. Having Jeff's guidance as I rewrote that first novel was a real blessing, but at the same time, it was also one of the hardest things I've ever done. Jeff has a terrific editorial eye - the problem was me, and my not yet knowing how to write a novel. I'd send him something, he'd send it back. I'd send it something, and he'd send it back. It truly is thanks to Jeff that I learned how to write.

I hope everyone finds an agent as wonderful (and as patient!) as mine!

Msmstry said...

Congratulations on being willing to re-work your manuscript over and over until it was ready to go! And thanks for telling people about Mistake #1. That's a biggie!

vp chandler said...

Thank you for your personal story. It's nice to be reminded that although the process can take a long time, a writer can reap the benefits of perseverance!

Mark Terry said...

This really is an unusual story. Have you ever asked him what he saw in that work that made him go out on a limb?

Karen Dionne said...

Thanks for the comments! I preach against Mistake #1 now ALL the time. I honestly don't know why Jeff decided to sign me even though the ms wasn't ready - at the time, he said he'd never done it before (and I suspect after our experience, he never has again!). I think he was just really taken with the premise - which is the other half of interesting an agent. I know a great many agents now because I organize the Backspace writers conferences, and I hear them all say over and over again how discouraging it is when a promising story idea ends up being only competently written, or when the writing is excellent, but the idea just doesn't quite sing. An author who nails both has an excellent chance of snagging an agent.

So yes, I'm the classic example of "do as I say, and not as I did"!

Polly said...

Even snagging a terrific agent doesn't guarantee publication these days, so good for you. Great story.

Ricky Bush said...

You MUST have written one heck of a story for Jeff to hang on for a re-write. Congratulations, and Backspace certainly has been successful for you.

Suzanne said...

Karen, you're so modest. To research Boiling Point, you traveled 7000 miles to climb an active volcano in Chile. Not many authors have the means (or guts) to do that. If I were an agent, you betcha I'd devote some quality editing time to that author. Your success is well-deserved. Congrats!

Suzanne Adair

Karen Dionne said...

Thanks, Paula and Ricky, and Suzanne - I'm amazed you remembered about the trip to the volcano! Thanks so much for the kind words!

Diana Orgain said...

What a great story Karen! Thank you for sharing!

DeborahB said...

Thanks for writing on this subject. It gives me hope. AND, I want a Jeff! Well done and congrats on book two.