March 28, 2011

It's Agent Appreciation Day!

Okay, I'm dubbing it Agent Appreciation Day although the "real" day created by author, Kody Keplinger, happened December 11th.

You can read lots of really nice posts about lots of literary agents here.

Since I missed the big day, my Agent Appreciation Day is, um, right now.

Tina Dubois Wexler, this one's for you . . .

In 2005, I wanted so badly to be on the other side of the divide between unpublished and published children's book authors. It's a dream that began when I was ten and wrote my first short story. There was nothing I wanted more.

By 2005, I'd published hundreds of greeting cards, funny essays for adults in major magazines and a story and poem in Highlights for Children, but selling just one children's book proved to be elusive. I have piles of rejection slips and six unpublishable children's novels in a drawer to prove it.

Then agent extraordinaire with I.C.M. (International Creative Management), Tina Wexler, came into my life.

Tina put out a call for writers on the SCBWI message boards in 2005. (If you don't belong to SCBWI and want a career writing or illustrating for children, stop reading this post and join immediately.)

The night I read Tina's call for new writers, I sent a book I'd written called How to Be a Naughty Kid and mentioned a "book" I was working on about a shy, gawky spelling bee champ whose mother was running for president in my query letter.

While Tina didn't think she could sell the Naughty Kid book, she liked my writing and loved the idea about the girl whose mother was running for president. In a letter, she told me to send her that book.

* Choke. Cough. Gasp. *

Oh honey, there was no book. There was a short story and the thought that it would make a good book. Someday.

I don't know where I got the courage, but I picked up the phone and called Tina, then Tina Dubois, and told her I didn't have a book, only a short story. I thought she might call me a big liar and hang up, but she responded differently. Tina said, "Take your time. Write the book and send it to me. My interest in this won't go away."

My interest in this won't go away.

So I wrote the book. I sent it to her.

She sent back MAJOR revision suggestions.

I quit. (Applied for a job as a children's librarian and didn't get it.)

Then I unquit, threw out all but the first two chapters and spent four months immersed in research and revisions.

I sent Tina those pages.

She loved it and sent it to seven publishing houses!

Three weeks later (Yes, three weeks.), Stephanie Elliott (then Stephanie Lane) at Delacorte Press/Random House acquired that novel.

The book came out in 2008 and went on to win the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. The weekend I flew to L.A. to accept that award at the SCBWI Conference was the best of my life because I was surrounded by my husband, Dan, dear friend, Jill, and agent/friend, Tina.

After As If Being 12 3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! it was time to write the next book.

So, I did. I wrote a 400-page book with four different perspectives and sent it to Tina.

In a very nice way, she told me to put that book away and start something else.

I'd spent a year writing and researching that book. And I would have been devastated by Tina's assessment had she not been 100% right. Cliched characters, dull story, etc.

The next book I wrote was How to Survive Middle School. And I would not have written it if Tina hadn't very gently told me to put the other book away and start something else.

That's what Tina does, what every good agent does -- looks out for your whole career, not just one book. A good agent doesn't tell you everything you write is wonderful. She keeps you from putting junk into the world. And for that, I'm eternally grateful.

Being between books is an uncomfortable place for me. I've learned that it takes time for me to let go of one book and fill the well before I can write the next book, but I don't like it. I get antsy and frustrated. I write junk. And I write more junk. I decide I need to do something constructive with my time and check out the want ads.

During this crazy-making time for me, Tina reminds me that I don't need to become-a-librarian, write-a-chapter-book-series, cure-cancer . . . She gently guides me down from the ledge and whispers, "All you have to do is write the next book."

All you have to do is write the next book.

Notice, she doesn't say, "You have to write the next high-concept, best-selling, vampire/ghost/wizard/zombie book." She simply says, "All you have to do is write the next book." And because she's funny, she usually follows that up with, "Easy for me to say."

With Tina's wise words in my head, I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, which was enthusiastically accepted by Stephanie Elliott at Delacorte -- our third book together. It was a bonus to learn that Stephanie, like my main character, is a big fan of Jeopardy!.

Tina had done a great job pairing me with Stephanie. I adored Stephanie's subtle wit and wicked way with a blue pencil on my manuscripts. (That's another thing a good agent does -- tries to match the right book/author with the right editor/house.)

So I was knocked right off my axis when Stephanie called to tell me she was leaving Random House for another job.

"But, but . . ."

It didn't help that I'm in that wonky place of letting go of one novel and gathering, gathering, gathering for the next one.

And while amazing things are happening for How to Survive Middle School -- landing on both the Texas and New York state reading lists and being picked up by Scholastic for book fairs and clubs -- that felt like pressure that my next book had to be out-of-this-galaxy spectacular, which of course made it impossible to write the only way that works -- allowing oneself to write a lousy first draft.

And there was Tina, with her calm, wise words. "All you have to do is write the next book."

My sister once asked me why I would give someone 15% of my earnings. I told my sister that without my agent, I'd get 100% of nothing. I would not have the career I have without Tina's guidance and wisdom. Tina earns her 15% by giving me and my career 115% of her time and energy.

Even though Tina has many wonderful clients, she always makes me feel like I'm her only one. She answers my questions promptly and is excellent about communicating during every step of the process.

I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have an agent who is also a friend, but I do. And today, I want to thank my friend, my agent for all the wonderful things she has helped bring into my life.

Thank you, Tina, for being my career partner, the person who ALWAYS has my back, my business guru, my champion and advocate for each stage of each book, my pre-editor and most importantly, my dear friend.

Tina, words can't convey my appreciation for all you've done for me (and my family) over the years, but maybe these seven simple ones will do: I'm off to write the next book . . .


Kurtis said...

Hear hear! Go Tina!

Laurel said...

Yes, this, exactly! I cried, reading this. Tina is why I had health insurance for my second pregnancy. She's why I didn't give up when PENNY DREADFUL was a disaster. She makes it all feel unscary, somehow. Maybe we should ALL write these posts, and rename today (whatever today is) Tina Day.

Sara said...

Yes! Yes! All true, and more.

Audrey said...

You and Tina are both so lucky! Great post.

Amanda Coppedge said...

Yay for Tina!

Unknown said...

What a great team the two of you make. This kind of relationship makes for great writers and great agents.
Working together for the whole

Unknown said...

Awesome post, Donna! I was thrilled to hear Tina speak at the SCBWI Miami 2009 conference. Her talk was so inspiring. She is clearly a class act.

Now,two years later I am so excited to have won a short critique with her through Write Hope. I can't wait for her wise words! Thanks for sharing all of this with us. And cheers to you for your awesome writing team!! Jennifer Swanson

Wild About Words said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone.
Laurel, your comment nearly made me cry!
Jennifer, sounds like a win-win situation for all!

Unknown said...

I love hearing about an awesome writer/agent relationship! Something to look forward to.