I can’t even begin to say how excited I am to share my friend Heather Preusser’s “How I Got My Agent” story with you. You see, Heather is a real-life friend who lives right here in Colorado, and we’ve been in a critique group together for four years. I’ve loved Heather’s writing since Day 1, and trust me when I tell you she is going to be a SUPER star. Not only does she write heartfelt and hilarious picture books, but she’s also on submission with a middle grade novel. She does both high-concept and humor, and quiet and meaningful, equally well. Please welcome… Heather!
How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
I started writing children’s picture books in the spring of 2011 when I enrolled in a class with Linda Ashman at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. (If you ever have the opportunity to work with Linda, I HIGHLY recommend it.) Of course, that summer I made the rookie mistake of sending out manuscripts too soon. Crickets. I attended my first SCBWI Rocky Mountain conference that fall and realized just how much I had left to learn.
True story: While my query letter was being critiqued in one of the conference sessions, I actually put my coat on in an attempt to cover up my nametag; I didn’t want anyone connecting me with that awful query letter, the one where I sounded like a high school English teacher applying for a teaching job rather than a writer trying to capture the tone and style of a picture book manuscript. That humbling learning experience helped me see that I had no idea what I was doing; I wasn’t ready to submit my manuscripts. I spent a few years focusing on craft, going back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing, joining critique groups, and participating in both online and in-person workshops. Almost three years later, some of my stories were placing in little contests, and the critiques I was receiving from agents participating the Writer’s Digest webinars I’d signed up for encouraged me to submit to them through traditional means. I was getting closer.
What kind of research did you do before submitting?
While focusing on craft, I started following blogs, like Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information About Writing and Illustrating for Children and Chuck Sambuchino’s New Agency Alerts. Every time they mentioned a new agent who fit my criteria, I added the information to my Excel spreadsheet, which I cleverly titled “Dream Agents.”
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
In the winter of 2014, I queried eleven agents. Three responded asking for additional manuscripts (My soon-to-be agent Janine Le at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency got back to me in one week!). I received a form rejection from one agent and never heard from the others.
Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?
I wasn’t looking for an agent who focused solely on picture books. As part of my MFA, I wrote a middle grade novel, so, ideally, I wanted an agent who represented picture books through young adult; however, I didn’t think my novel was submission-ready, so I didn’t mention it to Janine initially.
How did you know your agent was “the one?
In addition to Janine’s patience and understanding (a family emergency came up shortly after I contacted her, which meant we had to postpone our first phone conversation), I appreciated every piece of editorial feedback she gave me. Every comment rang true. When she told me she was also a wordsmith, I knew we’d be a perfect fit.
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 )
Although I didn’t find my agent through 12×12, the community most definitely helped me, particularly when I was living in Germany with my new husband and his family. I felt isolated and uninspired; because of the language barrier, I couldn’t glean story ideas by eavesdropping on conversations or checking out books from the local library. (My husband, however, did translate and read picture books aloud to me whenever we went in bookstores.) That year my husband and I rented an apartment in Berlin, and after throwing our own Thanksgiving feast, I sat down determined to make the 12×12 Winner’s Wall. I entered what Donald Graves calls “a state of constant composition” and managed to write eight first drafts between Thanksgiving and Christmas, eight new stories I wouldn’t have birthed then and there without that Julie-imposed deadline. They were far from elegant, but at least I had something down on paper, something to work with. Sadly, I have yet to make the Wall; that year I was one manuscript short.
There’s also a wealth of knowledge that’s shared in the 12×12 community, which was instrumental as I researched agents, how to write query letters, etc. It was through 12×12 that I learned of other wondrous kidlit resources, such as Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, Miranda Paul’s Rate Your Story, and Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic” class.
Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?
I’m still exploring what it means to have an agent and how that affects my writing process. Janine has encouraged me to run ideas by her in any genre, and – more importantly, I think – she’s encouraged me to work on projects I’m passionate about.
What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
Take your time. Learn your craft. Of the four picture book manuscripts I submitted to Janine, two were the 18th draft, while the other two were drafts 12 and 20. And we’re still revising!
In the process of revising, you’ll need to kill some of your proverbial darlings, but you’ll also need to stay true to the story and yourself as a writer. In her first email response, Janine said I caught her attention with a particular line that many people told me to cut (either they didn’t understand my humor or they didn’t understand cow anatomy or both), but I liked it so I kept it in draft after draft after draft. I’m learning over time to trust myself as a writer.
Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?
Although I wrote and recorded reviews for Katie Davis’s podcast Brain Burps About Books, and Katie recommended that I create an author website, I didn’t have much of a web presence when I contacted Janine, and I only dabbled in the Twitterverse; however, in our first conversation Janine referenced my query letter, asking if I was still reviewing MG and YA novels for Katie’s podcast. It made a difference that I was involved in the industry, that I was actively participating in the online kidlit community (blogs, webinars, podcasts, etc.).
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 )
I’ve always wanted to learn another language. Despite living in Germany for almost two years, right now my German only consists of useful, fun-to-remember words, like Formfleischvorderschinken (ham), Eisenbahnbetriebsordnung (railroad rules) and Taschenfederkernmatratze (mattress with springs in it). Like David Sedaris, I hope that I too will “talk pretty one day.”
What’s up next/what are you working on now?
After finishing another round of revisions on my middle grade novel, we sent it out to editors. I’m also currently revising a handful of picture book manuscripts.
Heather teaches high school English in Colorado. When she’s not teaching, reading or writing, she enjoys telemark skiing, rock climbing and learning ridiculously long German words. You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherPreusser.
P.S. Are you looking for an agent who represents picture books? Four of them are participating in the Picture Book Summit online conference October 3rd, and will be accepting submissions from attendees! Registration closes Friday at midnight though, so act fast if you’re interested!Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Brain Burps About Books, Children's Books, Guest Blogging, How I Got My Agent, PiBoIdMo, Picture Books, Queries, Writing · Tags: Brain Burps About Books, Chuck Sambuchino, Heather Preusser, How I Got My Agent, Kathy Temean, Katie Davis, Linda Ashman, Making Picture Book Magic, Miranda Paul, PiBoIdMo, Susanna Leonard Hill, Tara Lazar