Okay, since a couple people asked, I will tell you the story of How Ursula Got Her Agent.
I will say first, however, that this is not normal.
In fact, it was such a stroke of stupid dumb luck that I kinda feel bad telling this story because it’s sort of like telling the story of how you found a suitcase full of small unmarked bills and went out and bought a car with it–-it’s amusing, but it’s also such bizarre and undeserved good fortune that anybody in the audience is more than welcome to hate me for it, and I will understand and sympathize and add that I probably deserve such.
It is, however, rather typical of how my life goes, particularly since the dominant note in the whole thing is my profound ignorance of what was going on.
Way back in 2006 or so, Sofawolf Press was publishing Digger collections, and I was paying the rent as an illustrator. They were also working on publishing Black Dogs, but–I want to stress this–I had no plans of being a writer. I was an artist. I had done a little writing in my youth–-didn’t we all?–-and I had written my Obligatory Fantasy Novel back then, but I was not a writer. I had done nothing to seek publication from anybody but Sofawolf, who I’d known from doing cover art and generally being buddies. I did not know anything about mainstream publication. I had heard of literary agents in much the same way I had heard of garials and king-of-herring–-I knew they existed, but I didn’t know anything much about them.
I knew writers. My buddy Deb, aka Sabrina Jeffries, was a writer. I knew a couple more people who wanted to be writers. It seemed like a nice job, but, y’know, I could sort of draw and this comic thing was kinda workin’ for me, and I was very clear on what writers did, which was write a lot, which I did not do.
One day Deb goes to a romance writer’s convention, where at a high-powered dinner of authors and agents, she tells an amusing anecdote about her Wacky Artist Friend.
She is sitting next to a very nice woman* named Helen, who, after the laughter dies down, says something in passing like “Artist, eh? Does she do graphic novels? That’s what everybody’s asking me for right now…”
Deb wracks her brain, remembers something about a wombat, and says “I think so. I’ll send you a link to her website when I get home…”
A couple of weeks go by, and Deb calls me up as I am in the middle of packing the house to move and says “Ursula, do you want a literary agent?”
I said–-and I know I said this, because Deb has never once let me forget it–-”Huh. Sure. What the hell.”
Deb facepalmed on the other end of the line and said “Ursula, when somebody offers to get you an agent, you do not say “Sure, what the hell.” You say “Wow, Deb, that would be amazing! Thank you so much!”
I repeated this dutifully, and then asked “What do I do with an agent?”
“We’ll worry about that later,” said Deb. “You do that webcomic, right? Have you won any awards?”
It had. I named them.
I wracked my brain and said “Uh…it was mentioned in the New York Times?”
There was the sound of another facepalm. “The New York–-you never told me–-that’s huge!”
“So I’m told,” I said, another line which Deb (who tells this story given any shred of opportunity, and has much better delivery) has never, ever let me forget. (Look, I was trying to pack at the time!)
“I’ll put all this in the e-mail,” she said, and hung up.
I thought “Huh,” and went back to work and thought no more about it, because what was I going to do with a literary agent? What did they do, anyway? Also, as I said, I was packing, and you have to wrap each of the plates in newspaper, and you KNOW what that’s like…
A few weeks slid by, we moved into the new house, we did a lot of re-painting and one day I got an e-mail from Helen saying “I have been to your website, I love your art, the little descriptions are so zany, can I call you, do you have an agent?”
I sent back a polite e-mail saying “I’ve never even spoken to an agent, but here’s my number.”
About thirty seconds later, the phone rang, and when I picked it up, she said “You are now speaking to an agent.”
“I will update my resume!” I said brightly.
There was a brief pause while she down-shifted her expectations of my intelligence.
Then she explained that she really really liked the art, she particularly liked the weird little stories, they were vastly entertaining and quirky, and had I written anything longer and could I send her samples?
So we went back and forth for a bit, and I sent her Digger and I think Irrational Fears. She found them interesting. She would call while flipping through my gallery and throw out random questions involving what we could do with this or that idea in the way of turning it into a book of some sort.
This was all very flattering, and it was an exciting couple of conversations, but I had no real idea what to make of it.
She was particularly interested, however, in the painting I did ages ago of Nurk the shrew, though, and I’d said I was going to write a children’s book about it someday–-had I?
“Sure!” I said, with the optimism of the completely ignorant. I still had no idea what you DID with an agent, but this woman seemed extremely excited and she had called THREE TIMES and had a very forceful personality and was also extremely complimentary and I hated to disappoint her, since apparently there was a chance she could be my agent, and I had picked up from Deb that this was probably a good thing even though I still wasn’t real clear on what they did.
“How soon can you have it?” she asked.
I panicked. Um. What was a good time frame? How long did it take to write a book? Oh god, what if I asked for too long and she got bored or got hit by a truck or I proved that I was some kind of irrational prima donna with no work ethic?
“Can I have six weeks?” I asked finally.
There was an unidentifiable noise from the other end of the phone, and she said, very generously, “Take eight.”
I wrote it in six weeks, and then spent the next week having neurotic fits about it, and then finally sent it out at seven weeks, in case she wanted to make any revisions, because that’s what you do in the illustration biz, which I was used to–-optimally you send it in before the actual deadline so that the revisions also come in under deadline. (This was really not that super-human a feat–-Nurk is a VERY short book. I wouldn’t try to do a regular novel in that time frame. Probably. Well, if Helen asked, I might try.)
Then I fretted for about two days, and she called say that it was great and she was very happy with it and would send it out and I plucked up my courage and asked “Does this mean you’re my agent now?”
There was a splutter on the other end of the line and she said “Yes! Of course I’m–-WHY? Did another agent contact you?” (I think that’s the tone she uses on recalcitrant editors. It is alarming.)
“No–-no, I’m just–-I wasn’t sure…I mean…is this how it works?”
There was another pause while Helen again down-shifted her notion of my intelligence. “Yes,” she said. “I am your agent. If anybody asks if you have representation, you send them to me. I can write up a contract if you want, although generally I don’t, since we both know it.”
“Cool!” I said.
…and that is how I got an agent, without having actually written a book, based on Deb’s anecdote, weird little blurbs at the bottoms of my art and a couple of samples of Digger, and despite my own absolute and total ignorance of what they did, what they were for, and why I wanted one.
Helen has been my agent for four years now, has sold nine books for me, flew me out to California for the Eisners, and has generally been very kind about my continued abysmal ignorance of normal author-agent behavior, and has not taken more than minimal advantage of my frequently unrealistic work ethic, although I hear that she once told an editor “You don’t understand! If you tell her to write a book, she goes home and writes it!” which apparently is not how it normally works, although I’m still not clear on alternatives, but apparently it surprised the editor too, so god knows how other authors do it. (If you can do this, though, it’s a good thing! I think! I have no idea!)
I eventually went on-line to research how you get an agent and that’s when I learned that this is absolutely not how you get an agent, and then I started to feel guilty, like I’d jumped the line, but about that point she sold Nurk and then I was too busy revising and getting divorced and moving all over hell to worry about it again for awhile, and Deb made a lot of soothing noises, and has also been very helpful in unraveling the vast mysteries of publishing. And also other friends of mine got agents by conventional means, so, y’know. It’s possible.
I still feel a little guilty, now that I try to tell the story, because this is totally NOT how you get an agent. (It’s a lot easier when I’m telling this story in front of a live audience–-it comes up a lot in Q&A, and my delivery is better and I can do funny voices and I know people are laughing at it because I can HEAR them, so I don’t feel like one of literacy’s greatest monsters.) But that’s how I did. I am aware that it was an absurdly unlikely stroke of luck. And now that I have one, I am very glad I do, because she has totally and utterly changed my life, which I tell her now and again, and if you can get an agent by whatever method, they are absolutely worth it.
And now I guess I’m a writer.
*This is true for the value of “nice” that defines agents, which means that in the line of duty she is ruthless, savage, and has the tenacity of a terrier, but is generally quite a decent human being.