By Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center Maryland-based writer Steve Majors recently published his gripping, startlingly honest debut memoir, High Yella, with The University of Georgia Press. He talked with us […]20 Jun 2023
An Unconventional Journey to Landing a Literary Agent
In September of 2019, authors SHANON LEE and JODI SAVAGE paired up to encourage each other through the process of writing their first book proposals. By the following year, Lee was represented by Agnes Carlowicz of the Carol Mann Agency and Savage signed with Mariah Stovall at Howland Literary. In this conversation, they reflect on their writing journey and unconventional path to landing a literary agent.
Shanon Lee: When did you know you were a writer? I knew when I was a young child. I have always written poetry and songs. I remember going up to my parents and they were like “You didn’t write that, where did you get that from?!”
Jodi Savage: I was in Mrs. Steinburg’s 6th grade class and she told us to write a poem. My first poem was called “Confidence.” From that moment on, I was like “I am a writer. I want to be a poet, like Phillis Wheatley, and the editor in chief of Essence magazine one day!”
SL: I remember being obsessed with the library. I loved walking the aisles and looking at all the books. I was the kid that read the dictionary for fun. I always had a love for words and the English language. I either wanted to be a writer, or an attorney.
JS: It is funny you would say that. In 7th grade, I selfpublished a book of poetry. That was my first book, my collection of poems. Then, I wrote short stories and wrote for the school newspaper in high school. I wanted to be a writer, but thought I should do something more professional and responsible—like become an attorney.
SL: I did some of the same things. I wrote for my high school newspaper, etc. Both my parents pushed education, but my dad was a creative. My mom was never here for living an artist’s life.
JS: How did you decide to be a full-time writer as a career? Because that is a brave choice. Black folks feel like we need to pick a career that allows us to give back to our community and make a difference, and you are able to do both while writing about social justice.
SL: I went through various careers. I joined the military at age 19. I worked in insurance and human resources for a while. One of my earliest stories was about substance misuse, and it was syndicated in HuffPost. I was studying clinical mental health counseling in grad school, and I was able to see how my writing resonated with others.
JS: You end up having more of an impact than you thought you would. My first published essay was about my experience caring for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and our interaction with the police. That story resonated with so many people, whether they were caregivers, living with mental illness, or had a similar interaction with the police.
SL: How did you determine which of the topics you write about should be developed into a book?
JS: I look at topics I am obsessed with and stories I keep returning to and determine a common thread. I return to Alzheimer’s and grief, but I look at grief from so many different perspectives: community, individual, and political. I keep returning to grief as a topic that is most important to me. You do not see a lot of conversation around grief in the Black community and how Black women process grief throughout our lives.
SL: What was your biggest misconception about writing a book proposal and querying?
JS: I thought you needed to take a year or more to work on your book proposal and query hundreds of agents before you reached even one that would be interested in asking for sample pages. [laughs] I also thought I needed to hire a coach to demystify the process. I felt whatever it took—I needed to do a lot more work to get to that point until I got you as a friend and was encouraged to start the process.
SL: I definitely thought it was supposed to be a lengthier process, and that it was very complicated. No disrespect to anyone that is more methodical, but the conversation around attempting a book proposal is intimidating. I considered working with a coach, but the process seemed so straightforward I decided it was not a good fit for me.
JS: We drag out the timeline by focusing on the minutia. We obsess over details that do not matter, like what order our chapters should be in, how long our chapter summary should be—ultimately your agent will change the order and you will have to edit it before it goes out on submission anyway. A lot of it is self-doubt.
SL: It is definitely imposter syndrome. However, I see the value of coaching if you need an accountability partner. Just completing a consultation made my goals more tangible. What I knew would work better for me was pairing up with someone in the same step of the process—that’s why I posted on Facebook.
JS: That was the best idea ever. When you said we were going to get our proposals done in a month, I said ‘but don’t we need like three months?’ But, it was such a good process for us! Every week, we had an assignment—whether it was working on the overview, the marketing section, or the chapter summaries. Had we not partnered on this, I would definitely still be working on my book proposal.
SL: It would still be on my to-do list! I knew I needed a nudge and I was willing to put myself out there and see what would happen. But when you responded, not only did I not know you well—I didn’t like what I knew of you. [laughs]
JS: I know, we had to make up first. I had to be like “Look girl, I know we have history…” [laughs]
SL: I considered being petty, but ultimately—it was about the work. I had to consider, “Is this someone as serious about meeting her goals as I am?” You have to be in the headspace to write a book proposal. As writers we are always dealing with imposter syndrome. There will always be a more accomplished writer—whether they write better or have more access to opportunities. The bar is high. We are not going to be Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.
JS: Exactly, we can only be the best Jodi Savage or best Shanon Lee we can be.
SL: We were able to help each other. We set goals and we were not chasing perfection. The feedback I got from you was invaluable, it was practical and it gave me the perspective of a first-time reader. What was the process like for you?
JS: It is important to find your tribe, or create your own tribe if you have to. You need a community, and we tapped into that and got it done. We traded feedback on everything from possible comp titles to anything in the proposal that was unclear as a reader.
SL: Writing a book proposal reinforced my feelings that I had a book that should be on the shelves. I was not consistently seeing the level of discourse around the topic of misogynoir in pop culture that I wanted to read. Criticism is still male-dominated, but Black women are fully capable of thought leadership, leading critical conversations, and writing books.
JS: I became even clearer about my vision when I started writing my book proposal. I thought I was writing a book about one thing, but when I looked atmy chapter summaries—I realized it was a book about something else. Actually sitting down to write a book proposal and figure out what is going to go in each chapter and figure out how you want to structure it is totally different. It helped me clarify my vision, because there was refining that needed to happen in my head about what book I actually wanted to write.
SL: Did you walk away understanding your book has a place in the market?
JS: I did. I got to that place through all of the steps we took.
SL: I knew we just needed a draft and it didn’t need to be perfect. If I didn’t have a draft completed when I was referred to my agent, that would’ve been a lot of pressure. How did you eventually connect with your agent?
JS: I saw her tweet. She announced her first agent deal and I followed her on Twitter. A few weeks later, she tweeted she was open to queries. I sent her my query letter and she responded about a week later. She requested my book proposal and I told her I would submit it in a week. Because we had done all that work, I was able to just polish it and get it to her.
SL: I did the same thing. I took a week to submit my book proposal, not knowing if taking additional time would look bad. But, a one-week turnaround was realistic for me. What advice would you give to writers on the fence about starting their book proposal?
JS: Get your feet wet by writing about your subject. It will give you an idea of whether you are passionate enough to write a book about it.
SL: What was the last piece of bad advice you received before landing an agent?
JS: I spoke to an agent at a conference about my book idea. They told me if I was serious about writing I should take this super-expensive writing workshop I could not afford. It gave me an idea of how narrowly people define “real writers” and made me wonder why she didn’t view me as one.
I remember when you mentioned that experience. To be clear, we entered this process with a body of work behind us—we are not newbies.
JS: Right! I was at the conference to speak on a panel. You have to surround yourself with a community of people that remind you of your talent. You taught me to brag on myself and how I needed to highlight all of my accomplishments. Throw it all into your query letter because you need to impress agents.
SL: I remember meeting with an acquisitions editor that works for a Big 5 publisher. I was told I needed to grow my social media following in order to have any chance at landing an agent. My articles have always done well, and I am active on social media, but hyperfocusing on building followers seemed like a losing battle. For me, it has always been more about the work—the writing itself—not the image of being a writer. This is a lifelong journey for me. Realizing you have the rest of your life alleviates some pressure.
JS: We have to stop thinking we are not ready—we are. The fact that we got the agents we did is also due to that. It is important to know who you are as a writer. There are people out there who will see the value of your writing and your stories. ◊