Today we are celebrating the story of how one of the most generous, gracious, supportive people in the kidlit community got HER agent. Vivian Kirkfield has lifted me up and inspired me for YEARS with her kindness, tenacity, and talent. Her desire to contribute to the lives of children and her fellow writers is boundless. That I have been able to play a small part in her success story is an honor. Please welcome Vivian!
How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
Coming from a background as a kindergarten teacher, I always loved picture books. But my baptism into the world of writing actually started out with a book for parents and teachers. When I self-published Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking at the end of 2010, I catapulted into social media. I knew nothing about Twitter (I thought a tweet was something a bird said), Facebook (I unfriended marketing guru John Kremer in my first week on Facebook because I didn’t understand how Facebook worked and when I got a bunch of posts from him in my feed, I panicked and thought someone was messing with my profile), or blogging. But it was through blogging that I connected with this amazing kid lit community—and by 2012, when the word went out that Julie Hedlund was starting a picture book writing challenge, I knew what path I wanted to take. So I hopped on board and never looked back. And, having already experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of the self-publishing road, I was determined to try the traditional route for my picture book stories.
What kind of research did you do before submitting?
In the beginning, I didn’t do any research. I really didn’t know what I was doing or what I was looking for. There are a ton of agents out there…but not every agent is right for every author. I think, for most of us, it takes time to understand what you need from an agent. Some people want a good communicator—an agent who keeps you in the loop with regular email updates. Others are searching for an editorial agent—someone who can help you polish your manuscript till it sings. I guess everyone wants an agent who is a great networker and salesperson—after all, the bottom line is that you need your agent to get in front of editors and sell your book. For me, another key ingredient is the passion the agent has for your writing. Once you know what you are looking for, you can refine your research and hone in on submitting to those agents who would be a good fit for you. Thank goodness for 12×12 which gave me the basics…and so much more…about how to submit. And the more I did it, the easier it was to write a query or cover letter. I talked to friends, mentors, and critique partners who already had agents. I asked them how things were going. I attended webinars featuring agents talking about getting an agent. I read blog posts that outlined what to look for in an author/agent relationship.
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
I guess we can do the math. In 2012, I wrote twelve picture book drafts and fleshed several of those into stories. I had joined two critique groups, one in-person and one online. I can’t emphasize enough how important it was for me to have other writers giving me feedback and encouragement. In 2013, when Julie started the submissions component of 12×12, I submitted every month. Some of my manuscripts got nice responses from the agents, but no bites…and truthfully, I’m not surprised. I don’t think my work was really ready. In fact, I KNOW my work was not ready. In 2014, not only did I submit via 12×12, I also submitted to a few agents and editors on my own. In addition, I took five different picture book writing classes. My May 2014 12×12 submission got a nod from an agent who asked to see more of my work. Oh my gosh…was I ever excited!!!!
But it wasn’t until this year, 2015, that things really started cooking. From January through September, I submitted to over fifteen agents, five editors, plus I entered six contests and sent twelve manuscripts to Rate Your Story. That’s a LOT of submissions.
Then in February, I heard back from the October 12×12 agent (word to the wise…never give up…sometimes agents are really busy and they will get to your work when they can) who wanted to see more of my work. In March, a friend tweeted that she had signed with Essie White from Storm Literary Agency. I had a lot of respect for that writer’s work so I went to Essie’s website and fell in love with her. On a whim, I sent her the manuscript that had peaked the interest of the other agent. And when I checked my inbox an hour later, there was a message from Essie telling me how much she loved that story. In June, I participated in #Pitmad (a Twitter pitching opportunity where agents are ‘lurking’ on Twitter and if they give your pitch a favorite, you can send them the manuscript – make sure you follow their submission guidelines which you can usually find on their agency website). That same story received a favorite from another agent! And then I checked the #mswl (Manuscript Wish List on Twitter where agents, and sometimes editors, tweet about what type of stories they are looking for – go to their agency website and follow the guidelines for submission) and noticed a different agent was looking for that type of story, so I sent it to her. She responded within a day or two!
At that point, I knew I needed to think carefully about what was really important to me. I wanted someone who was organized and a timely communicator. I wanted someone who was personable, easy to work with, and savvy about business. And I wanted someone who was passionate about my stories.
Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, there are some who do focus mainly on picture books, although I think that most agents have a wider scope of representation and will also be open to chapter books (CB), middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA). Usually you can find out about their scope of representation from reading their bio on their agency website.
Who is your new agent? Tell us about getting the news.
I’m thrilled to be represented by Essie White from Storm Literary Agency. As I mentioned, she had responded IMMEDIATELY when I sent her the Sarah story. She had so much confidence in it and passion for it that she even ran it past an editor she happened to be meeting with. Unfortunately, that editor passed on it, but Essie’s heart was in the right place…and I loved that about her. During the June #pitmad challenge, she noticed I had pitched a different nonfiction picture book and she asked if she could see it. After reading that one, she offered me representation…but I hesitated because I was slated to go to the WOW Retreat and I wanted to go with an open mind and no strings attached. When I returned from WOW at the end of July, I started getting lots of activity with those other agents. For two months, I had a chance to be a bit more up close and personal with how they worked. And they were a stellar group! Each had tremendous strengths. Was I looking for a big established agency or a smaller newer one? Would I be happy with an agent who had many clients and less time for me or did I want someone who would respond more quickly? Should I go with an agent who felt my writing was just about perfect or someone who had a different vision for my story?
In the end, I went with my heart and my gut. I emailed Essie and asked her to send me a contract and we set up a time to chat on the phone. I’m thrilled with Essie’s communication style. Every Monday, she sends an update of what’s going on. In addition, as soon as she receives feedback from an editor, she immediately emails me. And I can tell from the tone of the editors’ comments that they all think very highly of Essie—as do all of her clients. I spoke to quite a few of them before I signed with her. I would encourage those of you who receive an offer of representation to absolutely, positively, definitely connect with the agent’s authors. You know what they say about word of mouth—it’s the best advertisement and the way the agent treats her authors is probably how you will be treated.
Two weeks after I signed the contract, Essie had already formulated a submission list and Sweet Dreams, Sarah began her journey. And only a few weeks later, Creston Books editor, Marissa Moss, offered us a contract. Whoa! I realize that it doesn’t usually happen this way…but it’s been great validation. I am extremely grateful to Marissa for believing in me…and honoring a worthy main character like Sarah E. Goode. There were only a few minor revisions requested…and the manuscript is now in the hands of the illustrator, Chris Ewald.
Essie also has three other manuscripts of mine out on submission…one of them has piqued the interest of three different editors…so it’s back to the drawing board to address their feedback with a revision or two or three. You are all seeing a pattern here, I’m sure…research, write, revise, submit, repeat! As you can imagine, I am walking on air and over the moon about how things are going with my writing career.
How did you know your agent was “the one”?
I probably answered this question in the previous paragraphs. From the very beginning, I felt Essie would be a staunch supporter of my work. That is a crucial ingredient in the author/agent relationship, at least for me. The tone and timeliness of her first communication hit a sweet spot…and each succeeding email was no different. I’m thrilled that I’ll be getting to meet Essie in person at the WOW Retreat next July where she will be part of the esteemed faculty.
If 12 x 12 helped you in any way during your agent search/development of craft, can you tell us how? (P.S. It is TOTALLY okay if the answer is no. I am not trying to “lead” you 🙂 )
12×12 played a HUGE role in my agent search AND in the development of my craft. I’m a person who responds positively to challenges and accountability. You all know how easy it is for life to get in the way of what we want to do. I would never have accomplished so much in so little time if not for Julie Hedlund, her 12×12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, and the incredible kid lit community that has grown up around it. If I have a question or a concern about a character in a new manuscript, what editor is looking for nonfiction, or which software program would be best for writing, I can turn to the 12×12 Facebook group or hop over to the 12×12 Forum. And since I’ve connected with so many fellow writers (and illustrators even though I’m not one of them), I can reach out by email, chat, or phone.
Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?
Yes, it has. I can say that ALL the time and energy that I had given over to agent search has now been channeled to writing and revising…mostly revising. Over the last few years, because of 12×12, I’ve amassed a large number of stories. The ones I wrote in 2012 and 2013 might have nuggets of gold, but just like the miners of old, each story is a panful of water filled with sediment that needs to be cleaned and edited and polished to reveal a possibly marketable manuscript. I’ve got a notebook that is filling up with even more ideas. But now I have someone, other than my critique buddies (YES…you MUST be in at least one critique group…more if possible), to run my stories by. Essie will let me know if she feels the story has a place in the market today. Hopefully, she’ll also be able to give me feedback as to what the editors are looking for. And THAT may change my writing process as well.
What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
- Write what you love and what you know.
- Read agency websites/#mswl on Twitter/agent blogs to find out which agents are looking for the stories you are writing.
- Listen to webinars that feature agents.
- Talk with friends and acquaintances who have agents.
- Learn how to write a killer query letter – Julie Hedlund and Emma Walton Hamilton just did a stellar webinar all about that…they also offer an amazing package called The Complete Picture Book Submission System that will get you up to speed in record time.
- Submit your work to critique groups, contests, Rate Your Story, and of course, agents. You know what they say…you can’t win if you don’t play. Don’t send out work that is not up to par…but don’t hold it back because you think it isn’t perfect.
- Believe in yourself—you will succeed!
Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?
No, I don’t think my own platform helped per se, although I did hear about Essie from a tweet…and two of the other agents from Twitter-related opportunities. So I guess I’d say that it is helpful to be involved in a certain amount of social media so you can have your finger on the pulse of what is going on.
Tell us something that is on your “bucket list.” Something you’ve dreamed of doing all your life but have yet to accomplish (besides publishing a book, which is inevitable at this point 🙂 )
Inevitable? Well, I do love that type of positive thinking, Julie! I’ve never been to Europe. I’m hoping to go in 2017 with my son and his family…unless another opportunity pops up to go there before then.
What’s up next/what are you working on now?
I fell in love with nonfiction when I took Kristen Fulton’s Non Fiction Archaeology class last June, so a lot of my stories are nonfiction. I LOVE finding a gem of an event or incident that history seems to have forgotten and then I love bringing it to life for young readers. So I’m doing lots of research, lots of writing, and lots of revising. I keep saying I’m going to cut down on the insane number of critique groups I participate with, but I doubt that will happen because it is a joy for me to connect with other writers. They support and encourage me as much as I, hopefully, support and encourage them. I’m living my bliss…I couldn’t ask for more.Categories: 12 x 12, How I Got My Agent, Writing · Tags: #MSWL, Essie White, Storm LIterary, Vivian Kirkfield