How It Happened by Allison Leotta

When I got engaged to the man who’s now my husband, the first question friends asked was: “How did he propose?” Now that I’m a writer, the first question many folks ask is: “How did you get your agent?”

My story of getting an agent is one of incredible good luck and unexpected tragedy.

The most important thing I did was refine my manuscript until it was in the best possible shape I could manage. That took a while. I was a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C., so my day job was pretty intense. I wrote in the mornings before work.  My story featured – surprise! – a female sex-crimes prosecutor in D.C., named Anna Curtis. After two years of pre-dawn writing (and re-writing), I was satisfied that my novel, Law of Attraction, was a compelling story of love and violence in the nation’s capital.

At that point, I knew I needed an agent. One how-to book suggested contacting everyone in the publishing industry with whom you have the slightest connection. I understood that I’d probably send out 1,000 letters and get 999 rejections. I prepared. I bought reams of paper for query letters. I created a spreadsheet for rejections. I had several bottles of booze ready.

Before I sent out query letters, I thought about any personal connections and networks I had. I knew some folks in theater and children’s books; I sought their advice. I made a mental list of people I didn’t actually know, but with whom I had something in common.

Along those lines, I’d recently read a charming novel called The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum. Julie had graduated from Harvard Law School a few years after I did, although we’d never met. I shot her an email, and, to my delight,  she emailed back, then called me. Julie was kind and generous with her time. She said her agent might be interested in my manuscript.

Julie’s agent, Elaine Koster, was something of a legend in the publishing industry, credited with “discovering” Stephen King and pulling The Kite Runner out of a slush pile. I sent Elaine my manuscript, glad that it was truly ready to be judged. A week later, Elaine called. She said she loved Law of Attraction and she wanted to represent me. I couldn’t believe my luck! It was one of the most exciting moments in my life.

Elaine and her colleague, Stephanie Lehmann, suggested some changes to Law of Attraction. It was amazing to have professional hands help craft the story. Then Elaine sold my book to Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I was over the moon.

That was one of the last deals Elaine made. She died that summer, after a decades-long battle with breast cancer.

I was devastated. Elaine had been an advocate, a teacher and a friend. After her memorial service, I went home and cracked open one of the bottles of booze I hadn’t needed to use for rejection letters. I used it, instead, to toast solitary toast the agent who launched my career but didn’t get to see my novel hit the bookshelves.

After Elaine died, I felt very much at sea. I called an author whose novels I’d loved since I was in college. Earlier that year, Barbara Delinsky had given me some heartfelt advice about balancing writing with mommying and working. Now I asked her what to do in this situation. Barbara is a wise and generous advisor. She offered to put me in touch with her renowned agent, Amy Berkower, who at that point was the president of Writers House. When Amy eventually offered to represent me, I felt like someone who’d been paddling in a life raft, pulled aboard the Queen Elizabeth.

Amy has since negotiated two two-book deals for me, all with my original publisher, Touchstone. My crime novel turned into a crime series featuring that fictional sex-crimes prosecutor. I’ve been thrilled with the response. This June, O, The Oprah Magazine, named my fourth book, A GOOD KILLING, one of the best thrillers of the summer.  My fifth book, THE LAST GOOD GIRL, will be released this May.  I hope that in some book-lined office in the sky, Elaine Koster is smiling with approval.

A version of this essay was originally published in Sleuth’s Ink (11/18/2010).

Allison Leotta is a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor who now writes thrillers about a fictional sex-crimes prosecutor. She also reality-checks TV crime dramas on her award-winning blog. A Harvard Law graduate, Leotta has provided legal commentary for CNN, MSNBC, PBS and others. Her thrillers have earned starred reviews appeared on a number of “best of” lists by publications such as Library Journal, Strand Magazine, Romance Reviews Today, Suspense Magazine and, most recently, O, The Oprah Magazine.

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