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Thursday, November 18, 2010

How Did You Get Your Agent? 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 of getting an agent 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 Washington, D.C., so my day job is pretty intense. I wrote in the mornings before work. After two years of pre-dawn 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 that I’d probably send out 1000 letters and get 999 rejections. I was prepared. I bought reams of paper for query letters. I created a spreadsheet for rejections. I had several bottles of booze ready.

Before I sent out query letters, 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.

Along those lines, 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 – to my surprised delight – she emailed back, then called me. Julie was kind and generous with her time. She said her agent might be interested in my manuscript.

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. I couldn’t believe my luck! It was one of the happiest moments in 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 Touchstone Books an imprint of 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 had been an advocate, a teacher and a 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. I 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 felt very much 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 with mommying and working. Now I asked her what to do in this situation. Barbara is a wise and generous advisor. She 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 a guy who’d been paddling in a life raft, who was pulled aboard the Queen Elizabeth and handed a winning lottery ticket.

Law of Attraction was published this October. So far, so good! I hope that in some cozy, book-lined office in the sky, Elaine Koster is smiling approvingly at the numbers on BookScan.


Shirley said...

Allison, thanks so much for joining us today. I'd like to know if you had anyone edit your book for you before you started sending it out to agents. Or were you just confident enough that you knew you'd make it the best it could be yourself?

Allison Leotta said...

Hi Shirley -- Thanks for having me here! I did ask other folks to look at my story. I'm lucky to be married to one of the best legal editors in America. My husband (another lawyer) doesn't read much fiction, but he knows where to put commas, and he knows logic. He read my story multiple times and it got better each time. I also asked some trusted friends to read my manuscript and give me suggestions. Their comments were invaluable. You only get one shot at any agent, so you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.

RTHRBRTN said...

Allison, thanks for telling us about your book. It sounds fantastic. I'm looking forward to reading it. You have more experience in your field than many of us and also the backup of your husbands expertise. Most of us are not that lucky. Do we have a chance in the writing world?

Stephanie Jarkins said...

Great advice about preparing my mss to be the best it can possibly be. How do you balance being a Mom, lawyer, and author?

Shirley said...

Allison, I keep trying to upload your book cover, but my wireless internet connection really sucks!!!!

I'll keep trying though. In the meantime, I was able to create a link to amazon. So anyone want to see (or purchase) Law of Attraction, just click on the heading of this blog. It'll take you straight to Amazon.

Allison Leotta said...

Hi Rthrbrtn, Of course you have a shot! I know that I have a particular literary niche because folks are interested in the prosecution of sex crimes. But I think the most important quality for an aspiring writers is tenacity. Hang in there!

Hi Stephanie – I balance writing, prosecuting, and mommying like most women these days manage -- by juggling like crazy. There are always tons of balls in the air, and I’m usually catching them while trying not to trip over the Cheerios and matchbox cars at my feet. But I really love all of my roles. I think that’s the key. I also learned to turn off the TV. It’s amazing how much more productive I could be when I used those two hours a day to follow my dreams instead of watching someone else’s.

Thanks for all your efforts, Shirley! They appear to be working. :)

Shirley said...

I honestly have a problem with turning off the tv. At least for the first draft. Maybe I need to rethink my prioriites.

So I'm curious. You said you got up early to write. Did you write any other times too? Or just those two hours.

And did you base your book on any cases you had worked on?

Beth said...

What a story!!! And I don't mean your novel (since I haven't yet read it). Such extreme highs and lows. Amazing how you landed your agent and so sad about her death.

I'd say you are very lucky in the agent department--may I rub your keyboard or something?!!

I think it's incredible that you have the time to write a novel while being a prosecutor in D.C. Hats off to you. I can't wait to read your book.

Beth said...

I am so impressed by you. My goodness. How long did it take to write your novel? Do you have another one in the works?

And how many revisisions would you say it took before you were satisfied with your ms and ready to send it to an agent?

I can tell I would like your voice by your conversational style on our blog!

Also, you're lucky to have a hubby who will read your work! Mine won't. He doesn't read novels and only enjoys math books and engineering manuals. Yes, he's an engineer.

Beth said...

P.S. I do know how to spell "revisions." Sigh.

I plan to buy your book, although it may be hard for me to read right now because my sister is dealing with a prosecutor in Virginia Beach. Her daughter, Shana, (my niece), was murdered there in September.

Shana was a Navy wife, her husband was deployed, and another sailor has been arrested for first degree murder. If you have any suggestions about what we're going to encounter (the preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 17), I would very much appreciate hearing from you. My email is bethcarter@hughes.net

I completely understand if you don't want to contact me and I certainly don't want to jeopardize the case if this isn't appropriate. Thank you.

Allison Leotta said...

Beth, I'm so sorry to hear about your niece. That is so tragic and painful. I'm wondering, is there a victim advocate working with your sister's family? We have amazing advocates in our office. They are some of the most wonderful folks in the world, and their job is to help the victim and their families get through the process of the trial and the criminal justice system. I hope your family has someone like that on their side. They make all the difference in the world. I can't comment directly on any pending case, but assuming there is an advocate involved, your family will have someone knowledgable and kind in your corner, who can explain all the ins and outs.

Allison Leotta said...

And thanks, Shirley and Beth, for your comments about my book. Shirley, I wrote in the mornings before work until my babies were born. Then, I just wrote whenever I could -- naptimes, bedtime, whatever. I carried my laptop everywhere and wrote whenever I could find a horizontal surface (and preferably a latte). And, Beth, I can't even count the number of revisions I did! Such is the curse of the perfectionist. I might still be revising "Law of Attraction" now, if the book hadn't gone to press!

Beth said...

Allison, thanks for your kind words. My sister (also named Alison with one "l") is working with a victim's advocate. I think the prosecuting attorney put her in touch with that person who has been very helpful.

She's a wreck. We're all a wreck. My niece was here over the summer for six weeks, and while we managed to do all Shana's favorite things, little did we know that we were making such permanent memories. It's such a shock. I'm still in denial most days. That's how I cope--with bursts of tears at the oddest times. Thank you and sorry to get off track. I just couldn't resist asking you but today's blog is about YOU.

Beth said...

OMG. I'm a perfectionist, too. If I ever have a novel on the shelf, I'm sure I'll grab a red pen and have to force myself not to mark it up. Love lattes, too.

Come and see us in Springfield, Missouri! We have a grat writers' group and would support you at a book signing at our local Borders. (Sarah Palin and Dog the Bounty Hunter were there recently!)

Shirley said...

Definitely let us know if you're in Springfield, MO. We'll all be there to support you.

And thank you, Allison, for joining us today. If you'll stop by later this evening and see if there are any more posts, that would be great. A lot of people work days, so they can't always comment during the allotted time.

I can't wait to read your book! Love the cover.

I'll draw for the winner of the free book this evening. Check back to see if you won!

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

What a neat story. Sorry you lost a friend/editor. I liked how you looked around for someone you already had a link to, when searching. Then turning to a friend to find another editor.
Most of the time we don't consider who we do know that might be able to help us. Thanks for bringing to mind, people around us.
Thanks for blogging today.

Allison Leotta said...

Beth, my heart goes out to you and your family. I hope that you and Alison will find strength in each other, and that the criminal justice system will be able, at least, to bring your family a sense of justice.

To Shirley, Beth, Janet Kay, and all the Sleuth's Ink contributors -- thanks for having me here. It really has been a pleasure. I'll definitely let you know if I'm ever in Missouri. You seem to have a wonderful group there! Thanks for including me today.

Shirley said...

Congratulations to Beth Carter for winning the book, Law of Attraction.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Would be neat if Allison does come to Missouri for a book signing.

Congrats Beth on the book.

Beth said...

Wow. I'm excited and can't wait to receive Allison's book. Thank you for the book and for all the kind words and helpful tips.