Saturday, November 1, 2014

Getting the Call with Tasha Cotter

I'm happy to have Tasha Cotter here to provide inspiration right before the big agent round starts for Nightmare on Query Street! From poet to commercial writer. You need an agent in your corner.

There are a lot of things I never realized back in my MFA days. For one thing, I didn’t understand what an agent actually did (no one talked about agents), and I certainly didn’t know when you might need one (if you plan to query commercial projects) and when you don’t need one (looking at you, Poets). It was only after I got an MFA in Creative Writing that I began to shift from poetry to fiction. And after checking out lots of library books and reading lots of blogs I began to sort of connect the dots: Agents are there to serve writers. They help writers get a foot in the door. They are deal-makers. They are an advocate for the author.

I got my first agent at a young age, and the experience didn’t go so well. It did, at first. I was told my work was great. I was informed that editors were reading my work and they were very interested (whatever that meant). I was told a lot of things. Years passed and I began to feel like the relationship was not working the way it needed to: there were too many unanswered questions. I was in the dark a lot, and getting no feedback on my work (editorial, or otherwise). Looking back, I was young and na├»ve and I didn’t know what was to be expected and what wasn’t. In the end, I had to part ways with that agent, which was a very scary experience, but, looking back, a necessary one.

I decided to venture into the publishing world on my own. I discovered that there were lots of indie presses and open calls for new work. If you were writing fiction, especially literary fiction, you could get your work read by small-to-medium sized indie publishers. But in order to get a more commercial project looked at by a big house, you still needed an agent.

I felt a little burned by my whole experience with an agent, to be honest, so I didn’t look for another one right away.  I focused on my writing. I did a lot of online research and reading about the publishing industry. I began to query for a book I co-wrote with my friend Christopher Green. The book, Us, in Pieces, began as an idea back in 2010 and it was completed in 2011. We’d been continuing to work on it over the last few years and I knew the book was something special. We kept the most up-to-date version in Google Drive, and continued thinking about the book, re-writing sections, and emailing each other about the book. Each time I opened the manuscript I began to feel like it needed to be out there, circulating. It felt like the most wonderful secret. Us, in Pieces is a love story across time. It’s a novel-in-letters (and e-mails, and text messages, and chats). It’s a whip-smart love story born out of silence that follows two old friends into the unforgiving and wild terrain of the heart.

I began to send the book out. At one point I think I emailed Chris to say, hey, here’s a list of where I’ve sent our book!  

There was some initial interest. One agent in particular seemed to match our level of passion about the project. Her name was Alice Speilburg. I found out about her from a friend. She opened her literary agency, Speilburg Literary in Louisville, Kentucky in 2012. After reading her website, I liked what I saw. I also liked that she clearly had placed books, and had a background in the business.

After sending her a partial, she got back to me almost right away that she’d like to read the full manuscript. I sent it to her immediately, then waited.

A little over two weeks later I got an email from her that began: I love this story.

I was eating lunch at the time, squinting to read the email on my phone. After rereading her email, I got up and threw away my lunch, half-eaten. I was grinning from ear to ear, stunned. I re-read her email again then forwarded it onto Chris. I loved how interested she seemed. I could sense her passion for the project right away and I appreciated her observations about the manuscript. It was clear that she had experience in the industry and saw a lot of potential in the book.

Two days later I spoke to her on the phone and after talking for about thirty minutes she offered representation. I loved how open and transparent she was about how she works. She knew I’d had a bad experience in the past and she was willing to be detailed about how she worked, how she preferred to communicate, and what I could expect if we were to work together.

The tricky thing about working on a collaborative project, and then shopping the project to agents, is that there has to be an open line of communication. I knew Chris had started querying agents himself, so I sent an email to Chris letting him know about the discussion and letting him know that he’d likely be getting a call from her, too. Since he didn’t have an agent, she may be offering him representation, as well.

It was a good day. Scratch that. It was a very good day.


Tasha Cotter's first full-length collection of poetry, Some Churches, was released in 2013 with Gold Wake Press. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared in journals such as Contrary Magazine, NANO fiction, and Booth. Her debut novel, Red Carpet Day Job, is forthcoming in 2015 with Bookfish Books. A graduate of the University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Writers Studio, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she works in higher education.

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