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    Luck or Skill? How a Frist-Time Author got an Agent and a Six-Figure Advance!

    I've heard the rumblings, as I'm sure you have. On Internet writing groups, in writing chats, in e-mails with new writers, I am constantly hearing the same question: Is it actually possible for a first-time author to get an agent? Or is it true that to get published you must have an agent, and to get an agent you must be published?

    California author Peggy Vincent is proof that you do not need to be published to get an agent, although you must have a thoroughly researched project or a manuscript that is the very best it can be. Vincent's first book, Babycatcher: Memoirs of a Modern Midwife, was sold to Scribner for a six-figure advance by her agent, Felicia Eth, and is scheduled to be published on Mother's Day 2002.

    Amazingly enough, Vincent, a nurse midwife by trade, had only been writing for three years before her manuscript was sold, and had only published one piece of work, a non-paid essay to the San Francisco Chronicle. While it may seem to the masses of frustrated writers facing daily rejection that she merely lucked out, this is not at all the case. Rather, Vincent's meeting up with her agent came about because of hard work, dedication, and a good fit between her and Eth.

    Vincent started out writing birth stories, and segued into writing her experiences delivering babies. "I've been asked what my purpose was in writing Babycatcher. I wrote it as a celebration of the best years of nurse midwifery in California. There was a window of time, a decade when a few of us had everything: supportive backup doctors, hospital privileges, affordable malpractice insurance, and a patient population that wanted exactly what we had to offer. It was brief, and it may never happen again, so I wanted to document all that was so wonderful about it.

    "I wrote birth stories for six to nine months, then realized that wasn't the book that needed to be written, that I needed to turn it into a memoir, my story, not just a series of unrelated anecdotal birth tales," Vincent said. "I couldn't figure out how to do that. So I stopped writing about childbirth for a year, took a few writing classes, wrote lots of first person essays and some light travel articles, and finally saw how I could turn it into a book with national appeal, rather than just a book directed to a local audience. I worked on it for another year, maybe eighteen months before seeking an agent. From the time I found an agent to a finished product, ready to go out to publishers, it was another five months."

    The time Vincent spent honing her writing skills paid off, but she also took further steps to help her career along. She hired a writing consultant for $75 per hour to help craft a professional looking book proposal, but for the manuscript itself she used only an online writing submission and critique group.

    The writing consultant Vincent hired gave her a list of five agents she thought would be interested in the book, "and she starred Felicia's name. I sent the query letter to all five. Four asked to see the proposal, and some pages of the manuscript, including Felicia," Vincent said. "She called a couple of days later and said 'I'm riveted and want to read more. Send me another four to five chapters.'"

    Vincent sent the chapters, and she met Eth for coffee the following week and they agreed to work together. Two of the other agents also wanted to meet, but Vincent had already chosen Eth.

    Eth worked with Vincent on the manuscript for another four to five months after they agreed to work together, and after sending it to eight major New York Publishing houses in early October, four responded with interested. Three of those ended up bidding on the book, and it sold to Scribner on October 12, 2000.

    According to Vincent, the relationship between herself and her agent works because although Eth used to work in New York, she is not intimidating and very approachable. "She's not high-intensity New York go-go-go at all, even though she used to work in New York. She talks slowly enough for me to believe she's been a Californian all her life! Communication with her has never been a problem."

    For new writers seeking an agent, Vincent would offer these words of advice:

    "Hire a writing consultant to help with the query and proposal part of the process, and ask the consultant for agent recommendations. Without the insight of my consultant, Dorothy Wall, and her years in the business, I'd have undoubtedly wasted a lot of time."

    Vincent is currently working on another book of midwifery, along with some fiction. "Babycatcher chronicled perhaps twenty-five individual births, and I've delivered more than 2,500 babies, so there are still plenty of untold stories. And I'd like to try fiction. The seeds of two to three novels are germinating at this very moment."

    Most importantly to her writing, Vincent said, is contact with other writers. "I would find it impossible to write in a void and am continually seeking more ways to obtain feedback on my writing. I regularly exchange writing via email with several writing friends. I continue to take writing classes as much for the networking opportunity, and an excuse to get out of the house, as for the content of the classes. I participate in writing groups, and I am very, very active in an online critique group. All of these have been invaluable."

    So how did Vincent's writing catch Felicia Eth's eye?

    "In query letters and proposals, I look for a couple of key things," Eth said. "First, and most obvious, is the subject. Is it one that appeals to me, that I think is strongly salable? Would it appeal to others as well? Is it fresh and yet timely? Is it not something about which there's already tremendous competition, particularly some big books? Secondly I look for the author's credentials. Has she or he been published anywhere previously, and if so where? How prestigious are those places? Has she or he got a strong expertise from which to write the book?"

    Although Vincent had not been previously published, Eth liked what she saw in Vincent's query letter. "First off Peggy's letter came with the recommendation of several key people. She'd worked with a freelance editor whose work I respect a great deal and who knows my taste. Secondly she already had quotes from several writers who I know rarely give out quotes and so that indicated something special. As I recall Peggy did not simply send me a query, she sent a proposal and sample material.

    "Straight away I was impressed by what I read. The individual stories were very strong, very moving and made me want to read more, and then when I turned the proposal pages, though I could see where the weakness was in the presentation, I definitely thought this was someone with a point of view, an array of terrific raw material from which to draw, and the drive to make it happen."

    A key in presenting an agent with a good query letter, according to Eth, is to get the attention of the agent using your unique writing style. "If I'm captivated by what I read I take that as a good sign of the writer's abilities," she said. "A boring letter implies a boring manuscript, and vice-versa. Is there one particular formula as to how to write that letter? Absolutely not. The query should reflect who you are and what your project is. Beyond that anything goes."

    When Eth felt that Vincent's manuscript was ready to go, she began to call editors she knew, targeting women who either had kids themselves or were of childbearing age. Although Eth says she felt other editors would have responded to the stories, she felt that the best chances they had were with women who could relate to, and enjoy, birth stories.

    Eth said that most agents ask for a year to sell a manuscript. "I think that's appropriate, unless the writer is confident the agent is not working with the material and it's simply languishing in his or her office. From my point of view if an agent is tenacious and wants to keep working with a manuscript that doesn't sell quickly, that should only be seen as a plus by the writer. Better than the cut and run if you don't get a sale first thing."

    A relationship between an agent and writer is one of the most important bonds in creating and selling a successful manuscript. Eth said she liked to think of her relationship with writers as friendly, supportive, personal, and professional.

    "I try to be up front and honest with my writers, and respect their sensitivity but don't pander to them. If something's not working they need to know it, or they can't fix it. I tend to agree that the author/agent relationship is the primary one in this day and age. With the amount of mobility one sees on the part of editors, coupled with the fact that publishers don't want to keep publishing a writer whose books haven't done really well, regardless of how much the editor may like the individual writer, a good relationship with your agent can be a lifeline."

    Eth said that it is her hope that every writer she takes on will stay with her for each of their subsequent books, despite a new tendency in the agenting business to represent projects, instead of authors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

    "If a writer decides that she or he wants to write books outside my expertise, that's often a problem. For example, suddenly an adult writer wants to do young adult books, or someone who's a terrific nonfiction writer gets the urge to write fiction, and I don't see his or her novels as strong enough for the very difficult market. These kinds of things happen. But my hope is that if I do a good job with a writer on a first book, that our relationship will be an ongoing one, which will build book by book."

    Most important, feels Eth, is that writers and agents alike realize that "contrary to the big numbers one sometimes reads in New York Times and elsewhere, often being a good agent feels like a labor of love, as much as it does an exciting profession."

    Copyright © 2001 Natalie R. Collins

    Natalie R. Collins is the agent/publishing columnist for Fiction Factor -- an online magazine for writers, offering articles on the craft and business of writing, tips on getting published, free ebook downloads, author interviews, paying market listings, and much more! Natalie is also the author of SisterWife, a top ten pick for 2001 in the annual Preditors & Editors Poll. You can visit her Web site at http://www.nataliercollins.net.

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