You know what is almost as exciting as announcing you found your own agent? Announcing that one of your writer BFFs found theirs (and I’m going to be doing a LOT of this in the next couple of months because so many 12 x 12 members are signing with agents!).
But today is Carter Higgins‘ day, and it’s one I’ve been anticipating almost as much as she has. From the first time I saw her wonderful, wacky, outrageously original writing I knew she was going to be a huge success. We became friends online through 12 x 12, but then in person last year at the LA-SCBWI conference. We have no photographic record of our meeting, but I’m here to tell you I was going through a very rough patch at that time and Carter not only propped me up but made me LAUGH and HAVE FUN and feel LOVED.
Since then, we’ve emailed, texted, and talked on the phone like schoolgirls. She’s now part of my online critique group, so I get to see even MORE of her stupendous writing. I knew her agent search was picking up steam, and couldn’t wait to host her in this series. She is the only person I know who would end up having an agent negotiation on the toilet! So ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Carter!
Carter, how long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
Once upon a time I was a librarian. I flung picture books left and right and to the rafters. One day, in a snowed-in-sized storm, I wrote my masterpiece. This was maybe 2003?! It lives in the trashcan now. Turns out being a librarian doesn’t make you an expert at writing. By 2011, I had changed jobs and coasts, but something was nagging at me from the bottom of that trashcan. I joined SCBWI, mostly because I read about this crazy awesome summer conference in LA where I could meet Jon Scieszka. Done. I definitely didn’t understand the magnitude of that snap decision at the time, but man that conference looked amazing.
(For real, people. This was a thing about bratty girls who run away from home and are plain old obnoxious. No arc, just attitude. And it was in limericks.)
So the summer of 2011 was when I really began to write, and it was just over a year before I felt like I was ready for an agent. I knew I wanted an agent because I do books, not business. I knew that partnership would be beyond valuable for me. In retrospect, that seems fast, but I’ve always been a writer. I just had to find the right words for the right-sized people. I had to find my voice.
How did you know your agent was “the one?”
In 2012 at SCBWI LA, I spent my last day at the Illustrator Intensives. Now, I’m no character illustrator, but I do love graphic design. I have a PB concept that is so design-y that I could maybe illustrate it. Visual storytelling is a real natural thing for me, and this Intensive seemed like the very best way to close out my conference.
That turned out to be a pretty big deal decision for me, because it was where I first quasi-met my agent, Rubin Pfeffer of East West Literary Agency. While he was speaking, he said something like this:
As he continued to talk about what he looks for, and what his tastes are, I added star after star after star. (I realize this looks like a 7th grader’s notebook with hearts around a dreamboat. Just go with it.) I had the guts to believe this was me.
In September of 2012, I sent my very first batch of queries. Twelve hours later, I had already sent Rubin more of my work and we had set up a phone call. And I was like: Man, what the heck have I been waiting for?! This querying thing sure is easy!
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t that easy.
Rubin worked with me on some revisions on two picture books in particular, and gave me fantastic feedback on some art for one of them. We collaborated for about six weeks via email after that initial phone call. Ultimately, he said he wanted to wait until there was more work to consider.
Did it sting? Yes. Did I wine and whine and wail? Yes and no and no. I kept writing. I wrote new picture books because of Addiction and Obsession. And I wrote a middle grade novel that is pretty much my heart sliced open and scattered over 42,000 words. Rubin had seen the first five chapters of it, even though I had only written seven. It was raw and rough and I had no idea what the story was even about yet. That story was the ‘more work to consider’ that he was talking about. He saw something special before I had even figured out what it was.
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
While I dove into my middle grade, I still had a batch of picture book queries flitting about in the flotsam. From that floating remainder, I got five rejections, two non-responders, and two additional requests for more work. One of those longer conversations resulted in a rejection, and the other was still in the ether.
When my MG was ready, I had to switch query-gears. I knew Rubin would welcome the work, but I wanted to query a bit broader in case this thing that I had fallen completely in love with was like…crickets…to him. Almost nine months had passed since my initial query flurry. I researched agents that were specifically looking for the kind of MG I had, and that would represent picture books as well. I had two partials out – that one from the PB-query-flit-about, and one from a contest win. And then I queried eight agents, including Rubin. Ten total.
I knew my query letter sparkled, thanks to a critique from agent Jennifer Laughran through a Writer’s Digest webinar. So, a side note: make those things shine. You might not know if it’s the story or the query that’s not working when you get rejections. Be sure!
This is where my fairly atypical agent-finding goes bonkers and bananas with a little mayhem on the side. It was exactly one week between sending the query and Rubin’s offer of representation. (True story: when this happened, I was sitting on a toilet. The glamorous life of a writer, no? I had just arrived on a red eye to a tiny island in NY for vacation. Small studio apartment, large Italian family swarming, and that was the best place to go for some privacy in a pinch!)
Before that offer, I got one form rejection and had sent four fulls. After the offer, I sent notes to the agents who had the full, the outstanding partials, and to the few remaining who had partials based on their query guidelines. Three more full requests came in, and came in quickly, and (womp womp) this tiny island had no internet!
And then there was a tropical storm, and a bit of a family emergency, and I sent my manuscript from the front seat of an ambulance, the ER, and the ICU. (Everything and everybody is fine, promise!) Because of the whole no-internet-thing, I sent the agents links to my manuscript on Dropbox and thanked my lucky stars that I was smart enough to have the querying version there.
I figured: 1) Query. 2) Go on vacation so you don’t think about the waiting. This was a stellar plan. Remember the 12-hours-later-this-querying-thing-is-easy bit? I should have known better.
One non-responder, one more rejection, and three of the most encouraging ‘congratulations and I love your voice and can’t wait to see your success but I’ll bow out with regrets’ emails. And then, five offers of representation. It’s nuts to even see that in print and say that out loud. I talked to agents on the toilet, at an empty waterfront bar early in the morning, and after I was back in the real world, in a gasoline-soaked parking garage. I had to write rejection letters, and hoped to fill them with as much kindness as I had been shown. It was thrilling and torturous and humbling that there was so much love for a handful of people that I made up in my heart.
I signed with Rubin on 0624, which is a huge day in my novel. That was his suggestion, and spoke volumes to me about how he would champion me and my books.
It’s a tough market for picture books. What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
I hope I would have ultimately had the same success had I stuck to just picture books. It’s harder to gauge progress when solely querying picture books, so keep that in mind. But they are a beautiful form, and lots of agents are picture book-crazed people, too. I think there’s a lot of panic surrounding rule-following for agent-finding, and while that is certainly important, it’s comforting to remember some truth. They are book people, too. Their time is priceless and their work is tireless, but they are as star-struck by a good story as you are. Take your time. Write something fantastic. Stay professional. Be intentional.
And always have your manuscripts on Dropbox.
If 12 x 12 helped you in any way during your agent search/development of craft, can you tell us how?
I absolutely wouldn’t have been ready for an agent had 12×12 not been a bastion of accountability and encouragement. It showed up in 2012 with a hug and a bouquet of balloons and at the ripest time. Without 12×12, I would have been floundering alone in a constant flailing procrasti-tailspin. Knowing there was an army of storytellers at my back was profound. It’s like encouragement and discipline wrapped up in a bunch of strangers, who are really true friends.
I think Julie Falatko touched on this in a lovely (and hysterical) way in her story. Not having these things would never have counted me out. But having a platform so solidly built on reading and sharing and being engaged with this community? A definite plus, I’d say. One agent contacted me first and asked to be queried. It happens!
Okay Carter, let’s pretend you’re the Little Mermaid and you have no voice. You see your dream editor at the SCBWI-LA conference and it is your ONLY chance to pitch your work. What would you do to get his/her attention before sundown?
Well, I suppose flaunting my long, flowing locks and teeny shells up top aren’t going to be all that impressive to anybody but the mirror. But, I broke my ankles ten times as a kid, so I’m really good at the body mechanics of awkward bobbling and balancing. I would hop around on that fin like a boss. Hips don’t lie, you know. Good thing I have a manuscript about a flighty, whirly bluefin tuna — those shiny scales might be a perfect selling point!
Carter Higgins was an elementary school librarian before becoming a motion graphics designer. Although they seem like vastly different careers, she attributes The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales to sparking her love of storytelling, both written and visual. Those two interests combine in her blog, Design of the Picture Book, where she celebrates picture books through the lens of graphic design principles.
She is the Children’s Book Editor for the wildly popular blog, Design Mom, and just likes to think it’s a cozy corner of the internet in which she gets to play librarian. You can find her on Twitter at @CarterHiggins.Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Authors, Children's Books, Goals, Guest Blogging, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Publishing, Queries, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writer's Platform-Building Campaign · Tags: 12 x 12, Agents, Author, Books, Carter Higgins, Children's Books, East West Literary, How I Got My Agent, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Publishing, Queries, Rhyming, Rubin Pfeffer, SCBWI, Writer, Writing