Opportunity Knocks: How Nat Sobel Became my Agent

Thursday, May 15, 2008, 9:23 PM

As promised, here's the story of how I managed to get one of the most respected literary agents in the business without sending a query. I didn't realise how long this would be when I started writing it an hour ago, but I've wanted to post about the experience for so long, you're getting a great big burp of it in one go.

Exactly a year ago I was writing the third act of THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST's first draft, then titled FOLLOWERS. If you use the menu on the left, you can even read my journal of the process, along with some other nonsense. At around the same time, I sold my first short story, and my beloved Northern Ireland formed a proper government. In the blog, I wondered if it would stick - it did.

I finished that draft the following June, and did a couple of quick revisions before sending it off to my kind beta readers (waves at Bets and McK).

While they were hacking it to pieces, the novel's protagonist Gerry Fegan kept nagging me, wanting to come out and play again. Just for a little while. As with the novel, I woke from a dream one night with the story in my head. I grabbed the PDA by my bed, started tapping away with my stylus, and knocked out a short story over the next couple of days. I called it THE LAST DANCE, and posted it over at Elektra's Crapometer (which seems sadly neglected these days). It got a mixed reception, from the negative, to "meh", to glowing praise.

I got the notes back from the critiques. A couple more revisions took until the end of August, then the dreaded synopsis needed doing. I never queried very widely on this novel - I'd say half a dozen at most. I'm not sure why. Largely, I think it was because I knew this book needed not just an agent, but exactly the right agent. You see, it's a dark, dark novel with about as troubled a protagonist as you're likely to come across. It's violent, visceral and foul-mouthed. Clearly, this wasn't going to be every agent's cup of tea, and I needed someone who knew how to sell a dark thriller.

We're often told to look up the agents who rep our influences, so because James Ellroy is one of my favourite writers, and one I know I've been shaped by, I found my way to the Sobel Weber Associates website. But I looked at that client list, and thought, woah, way out of my league.

So, still wondering who to turn to, I started other projects (I've got a hard drive full of first chapters here), including submitting a couple of the short stories I had knocking around my computer. One of those was THE LAST DANCE, which I submitted to Thuglit. Lo and behold, on my birthday (was that a portent?) I got an email from Lady Detroit telling me I'd be in the next issue. Cool. So, the story appeared at the end of February. I updated my website, got a few shout outs from other writers, felt pleased with myself, and got back to a particularly busy time at work.

On March 10th, as was normal at the time, I was working late at my office. I casually checked my personal email, and there was a message from a Nat Sobel. The name was familiar, but it didn't click just yet. I read the message, and I remember certain words popping out: "I read your story … literary agent … Followers … interested in reading the work … James Ellroy … Joseph Wambaugh."

*Nat, if you're reading this, I'd ask you to skip the next few paragraphs as I fear it might diminish the cool and professional demeanour I've presented you with so far*

I've quipped to various friends that I fell off my chair, but it's not far from the truth. I had to read the email several times to get it to sink in. I spent about an hour pacing, re-reading it, hyper-ventilating, and Googling Nat Sobel. Turns out his favourite way of finding new writers is through short story publications. He found Richard Russo and FX Toole that way. Hmm, thinks I. So much for query letters and slush piles.

So, I sent off a partial, fully expecting Nat to reject it. To my shock and delight, he expressed some reservations, but requested the full (and in record time). I duly sent it off, again fully expecting Nat to realise it was all a terrible mistake, and reply with a thanks, but no thanks. Instead, and again to my amazement, he came back in less than 48 hours and said, given some substantial revision, he would like to represent me.

At this point, I felt a mixture of excitement and terror I've never experienced before. On the one hand, here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snag one of the industry's best agents, and on the other, a chance to blow that opportunity. I don't mind admitting, I was scared. Thankfully, I had some great friends to turn to for support and encouragement (including talking me down from a fit of madness that almost saw me stripping out the novel's central premise), and I can't thank them enough.

So, this is the reason I dropped off the radar around mid March. The revision took the guts of two months, and throughout the process Nat was available for advice, and the occasional stern warning that the results better be good. Working under Nat's guidance has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, and as the local saying goes, he is a gentleman and a scholar. What's more, even as I worked on it, I could see how much better, bigger, and deeper Nat's input was making the book.

Three critiques from my blogging friends and another bit of polishing later, the manuscript was turned over to Nat. Cue exactly one sleepless night. Less than 48 hours later, I have one of the most respected publishing professionals in the world representing my book. How does that feel? Strange, and scary, but terrific.

Now things are moving fast. I already have a holding page up at www.theghostsofbelfast.com, and more revisions and general business to do, so it'll be a hectic few weeks. Once again, I want to thank all my blogging friends for your encouragement and support, not just in recent weeks, but throughout my brief writing career. I would never have gotten this far without you. And thanks to everyone who has stopped by to congratulate me, I'll be visiting you all in the coming days.

There'll be a few more blog posts in the near future, if I have time, where I will pontificate on the importance of short stories, my view on finding an agent that "fits", and how absolutely essential getting good critique is. Thanks for reading. :)

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Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Conduit's version:

I woke from a dream one night with the story in my head. I grabbed the PDA by my bed, started tapping away with my stylus....

Josie's version:

I woke from a dream one night with the story in my head. I grabbed the pencil and yellow legal pad by my bed, started scratching away with by itty bitty booklite to guide me. The cat blinlked against the glare but was lulled back to sleep by sound of lead appiled to paper.

That new website with the flashing title sure is snazzy. Me? I can't even get my computer to download the latest version of flash player. Can you tell I'm technically challenged?

Glad to see you were able to catch your breath long enough today to create that website.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Wonderwood said...

What a great story, Conduit. I'd call you Stuart but I don't want to seem overly familiar now that you're about to be a big shot.

Thanks for sharing your story. It gives hope to the rest of us that, yes, it does happen, the dream does come true for people. You're certainly deserving of this, you've got great talent. Enjoy it, wallow in the feeling, and keep getting better. Good job, Conduit!

2:22 AM  
Blogger jjdebenedictis said...

*bounces around in happiness for you*

Congratulations again, and what a great story!

(My agent only takes snail queries, so I had roughly the same reaction as you did when I found her email in my inbox one day. "Hmm. That name rings a bell. Who is this? Didn't I... Oh. Oh? OH!")

8:37 AM  
Blogger Linda said...

Hot damn, what a great, great story. I can see you (on Oprah? Naw, somewhere better...) telling it and I get goosebumps. And did I see 'respected publisher' in this post. Yoo-hoo, I am thrilled for you. Peace, Linda

12:15 PM  
Blogger Karen L. Simpson said...

Cangradulation!!! And yes it is your writing buddys who will get you through and keep you from murdering your work. I so happy for you can't wait to read the novel

1:39 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

A hell of a story, Stuart. I remember reading "The Last Dance" on the Crapometer and being captivated by the voice; there was no doubt in my mind it'd find a good home. But holy shit, nobody could have predicted this!

1:47 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

Wonderwood: You can call me what you want, so long as you don't call me Margaret (sorry, an old in-joke, there). Thanks for your kinds words today and yesterday. How is your novel coming on? Is it finished? I remember liking it a lot when you posted chapters over at Crapometer - it had a nice, laid back voice.

Linda - I think I phrased that sentence badly. I'll reword it.

Lafreya - Thanks for stopping by. :)

6:44 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Wow. Congratulations!! Wishing you lots of success in your future career. :)

9:07 PM  
Blogger Julie Weathers said...

Conduit, I read your story on recommendation from JJ I think. Anyway, I was really impressed with your talent and I am so glad to hear this has turned out so well for you.

I'm really looking forward to more.

Julie, officially not lurking anymore.

3:05 AM  
Blogger Wonderwood said...

In that case, I'll call you Stuart. Thanks for asking about my novel. It isn't finished yet, but I'm getting there. Thanks for your kind words, as well.

I look forward to keeping track of your career, and can't wait to read The Ghosts of Belfast. I'll be checking in frequently. Good job, man!

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Conduit! May the next leg of the journey be just as blessed!!

1:09 AM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Conduit: Did you get my email, the one where I asked you about your new website and blogging plans?

1:10 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Tag! You're it!


4:04 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

Josie - yes, I've meant to reply for a couple of days, but things got on top of me. I've still loads to do this evening (including getting a website online), but I'll get back to you when I can. Oh, and I'll do the meme tomorrow if I can.

4:52 PM  
Blogger cindy said...

truly awesome, stuart! what an amazing and inspiring story! YAY!!!! you deserve it! congratulations again!

11:18 PM  
Blogger Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I am so happy for you! I have known since the first time I read your story that you were not long for the unagented. I'm kind of in awe here to be knowing you right at the beginning. Right before you make it big. This was the most amazing and awe inspiring story. But you totally deserve it and I can't wait to get my copy of your book!

You totally rock!

7:58 PM  
Blogger John Guzlowski said...

Hi, I got a similar letter from Nat at about the same time. He said, give me the rest of the novel by next Wednesday. I said, "I can't finish this off in a week. I'm a slow writer. How about 2-3 weeks?"

A month later I turned it in to him. By then, his ardor for the novel had cooled.

I wish I had just written anything and sent it to him.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

John - I'm sorry to hear that. But remember, catching his attention is an achievement in itself.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Sylvia said...

That's such a great story!

Congratulations and well done.

6:35 AM  

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