Wednesday, January 26, 2011

8 WOW Weds: Michelle Leigh Brown on Writing in the Cracks

Michelle Brown, our guest blogger this week, is another success story we were lucky to witness during one of our contests, where she pulled her entry because she'd found the perfect agent. Michelle has won several writing awards for her humorous middle-grade fiction, most notably Highlights Author of the Month, February 2010 and Highlights 2009 Fiction Contest Winner. You can find her web site, her blog, or on Twitter.

In the Cracks

by Michelle L. Brown

Something wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure it out. Lame premise? Query too cliché? Title off-putting? (C’mon, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to rep a book called, REVENGE OF THE PINK GRANNY PANTIES?) I didn’t think it was my writing sample. My book had been beta read, published author read, group critiqued, contest commented on, freelance edited, and secret agented . . . twice. The last of that list did result in a partial read, which led to a pass. Most of my readers loved it, and I weighed each suggestion. I tweaked every syllable until it sang and queried twenty-five well-researched agents in small batches, but no real bites. Something wasn’t working. But that something wasn’t me. I was bustin’ my bootie with this book. I revised some more.

Then came writeoncon. I posted my query, thinking it was as good as it was going to get. A couple blessed critters on those boards got to the heart of my problem, which was lack of heart in my query. I saved my latest version in a folder and waited. I had my eye on an agent, but I wanted this pitch to be perfect.

I’d seen a new agent interview with Bree Ogden of Martin Literary Management. She was looking for funny middle-grade novels, and I put her at the top of my to-be-queried list. I followed her blog and tweets. I followed all her clients’ blogs and tweets. I loved how her clients loved her. She was cutting-edge and passionate about getting middle-graders reading. Then Bree judged a one-sentence pitch contest, and I made mine as clever as I could and entered.

Two things happened while I waited for the pitch winners to be announced. First, another agent at one of my “dream” agencies asked to read a partial of a different book (the one I’d posted here for the pitch-to-query contest) that I’d entered in a secret agent contest. This was the first book I’d written, and it hadn’t been as widely critiqued.

Note: I don’t advise querying two books at once. I was “testing the waters,” which I should have done through my betas and critique group.

Second, Sue Ford, the fabulous Kansas SCBWI Critique Coordinator, had asked me to moderate an online magazine critique group. We scheduled an initial in-person meeting, which only one member could attend. That meeting changed my life.

I had a three hour drive to the meeting place, and drove through torrential rain most of the way. The other person who showed up was a very nice fellow named Ron Rutler. He listened to Sue and I go over the magazine story I’d brought and banter about agents we’d queried. Then he said I should query his agent. Bree Ogden was her name.

After I freaked out sufficiently, I told him she was judging the one-line pitch contest I’d entered. I didn’t end up winning. I didn’t even get a nod. And I wanted to be her client more than ever, after all the great things Ron had said about her.

Bree then posted the query that her client, Kate Grace Bacheller had used, and highlighted what she’d done right. I decided to try Bree again, using that query as a pattern. I mentioned meeting Ron Rutler in the letter.

Weeks went by, and I heard nothing from either agent. I distracted myself with preparations for the birth of my daughter. Then came the email from Bree, apologizing for the delayed response and asking to read the full “at my earliest convenience.”

I squealed, sent her the full, and asked her (still can’t believe I did this) if she could delay telling me if it was a pass, since I’d be having my baby over the weekend. I didn’t want anything to cloud my joy!

My sweet Sarah was born, and we returned home from the birthing center. When I checked my email, there was a note from Bree. Oh, great. Here it is. Another rejection, I thought. I sighed and opened it.

Bree loved the book and wanted to represent me! After another massive freak out, I emailed her back. I reminded her about the other agent (I’d informed her of the other partial out in my initial email) and told her I’d get back to her in a week.

Here I must give credit to the “other” agent. When I informed her of my offer, she read BOTH full manuscripts, and sent back her thoughts within days. She said some extremely kind things about my characters and writing but said she’d need to see some revisions before making an offer.

Now, this agent had sales behind her and was at a terrific agency. But I’d read (and this agent said herself in so many words) you need someone to rep you who absolutely adores your work. I felt like her suggestions would change the tone of the book. I wanted to hear what Bree would say.

We had a three hour phone conversation. Bree talked about my characters like they were kids she knew. Her enthusiasm totally sold me. I asked her all the proper questions, (most of which she answered before I asked) and explained my ideas for the future. Here is the actual list of questions I had in front of me while we talked (from author Hannah Moskowitz (via Kathleen Ortiz's blog):

And here is an even more comprehensive list of questions:

Bree told me to take my time and think it over, but I’d already made up my mind. She was the agent for me!

This is just the latest chapter of my writing journey. It started a decade ago, when I signed up for the Institute for Children’s Literature basic course. I had five kids at that time. Now I have ten. I’m very short on the solitude writing requires. But along the way, my mentors kept daring me to dream, and my husband took vacation time to watch the kids while I went to conferences and retreats. People often ask me, “When do you find time to write?” As the wise and wonderful Eileen Spinelli (mother of six) once told me, “Write in the cracks.”

If I can do it, anyone can!


  1. Thanks for sharing your amazing story. So glad you got the happy agent news right after your baby was born.

    You should let the WriteOnCon organizers know how the conference helped you. They like hearing success stories.

  2. That's awesome! Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Thanks, Natalie! I will let them know. I gained so much from those critiques!
    Laura, thanks for all your input and encouragement, especially when I was feeling down. You helped me get this far!

  4. What an awesome, inspirational post! And 10 kids? Wow. Now I won't freak out about juggling 3. Congratulations on the representation.

  5. Such an inspiring story! Yeah!! And it sounds like a wonderful book!

  6. I loved reading all the details, Michelle. What an inspiring story. I loved Eileen's quote about writing in between the cracks. You can accomplish a lot that way ... you are showing them how! Congratulations!!!


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