How I Got My Agent: Kim Oclon
The YA writer got by with a little help from her friends
Welcome to the first edition of my Q&A series “How I Got My Agent”, where I interview writers about, well, how they got their agent. This month, I chatted with my YA writing group friend and snack queen Kim Oclon about her experience.
With a BA in screenwriting and MFA in Fiction, Kim taught high school for seven years before becoming a mom to the best little girl and boy in the world. She also co-founded the school's first gender-sexuality alliance. A reader all her life, Kim's first literary loves were the Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club series. She now considers her favorite book to be The Things They Carried. Man Up is her first novel.
What can we learn from Kim’s journey? Here are a few notes that stuck out:
Professional organizations can be a great way to make those first connections that set you on your path.
We often put too much pressure on trying to schmooze with those “above” our professional station like the rock star author or the big agent. But it’s important to remember that those folks who are with you in the trenches can very well be the ones that eventually end up opening doors for you.
“Small” by no way means “less”. I like how Kim was very upfront about her own writing goals—finding the right reader was more important to her than finding A LOT of readers. This helped her with her agent decision.
Let’s begin with a simple question: Who is your agent and how did you get them?
Her name is Tina Schwartz of The Purcell Agency. It's a very small agency out of Gurnee, Illinois. Tina became an agent because she was putting her own books out there and helping friends put books out there. She realized she really liked the research, the organizing, and the connection with that, so friends were like, “you should be an agent.” So she started her own agency. It's this venture she started because she realized she enjoyed it and she was pretty good at it.
I met Tina almost seven years ago, when I attended my first SCBWI meeting of the Far Northern Suburbs network. I shared my first five pages of Man Up in the workshop meeting she led. People responded to it very well, which was great. She came up to me afterwards and said, “I would love to read this when it's finished.” We ended up exchanging manuscripts and we became critique buddies. Then we formed a critique group with two other women in the Far Northern Suburbs group.
She told me when the book was finished, she would like to read it and possibly offer representation. I did do a couple queries through events I attended. I didn't get anywhere that way, but I think I also didn't try very hard because I knew I had Tina interested in the background.
I remember doing this semester in LA through Columbia College after I graduated undergrad and they had all these guest speakers come in. One was the woman who wrote Bring It On. She told some really funny stories about being very sweaty in meetings with producers and being a twenty-something with no connections. We asked her, “How did you get your agent?” And she said, “Oh, it was my friend.” I remember feeling very defeated. I didn’t have any friends in the industry and I didn’t know when that was going to happen. I kind of feel like I have that story now but, on the other hand, I think Tina's the right agent for me. She knew a lot about the industry and was very good at researching the right places for the book.
Tina kept saying she would like to read the manuscript once it was ready and maybe offer representation. How did you know it was ready for her eyes?
I finished a draft and then I did another pass, to make sure it made sense. It wasn't a very thorough pass, but she was also in my critique group. She had already read pages. It was a unique situation because I knew she liked the story. As long as the story came together in a way that she felt was satisfying, we would go from there.
I think if you have a story and a voice, I think an agent would be willing to work with that, knowing they have something they'd be able to send out eventually if they're attracted to it. It's going to go through revisions anyway.
Once you sent it out to Tina and she offered representation, what happened next?
She created a submissions package to send out to editors. We did get some interest from a couple editors. One of them suggested a point-of-view switch. I did that and it was very close to being picked up but that didn't happen. By that time, I was also working on something else that I was getting ready to show her. Man Up was put on the back burner for a little while because I was getting another manuscript ready. She kept me in the loop. She let me know when an editor requested a full, she let me know if they rejected it, and if they offered any feedback. Sometimes there was some feedback that at least made you feel like it wasn’t a horrible book or was helpful.She was very good at keeping me up to date about that.
You ended up being the one to find the editor and the publishing house for Man Up though I was wondering if you could share that story and how Tina was involved.
Again, it's like that lady from Bring It On. The person who ended up publishing the book was a woman in my critique group that I met through SCBWI who founded her own press. She had self-published several picture books and was beginning to get a feel for how these things work. She and her husband decided to start their own small press. Because she was one of my critique partners, I knew that she was interested in the book and she had said a couple times, “I really want to put this out in the world.” The time finally came where her press was in a position to be able to put a novel out in the world.
Even though we were all friends, I know nothing about the business side, the fine print, the small details. So when the contract was sent over, there was a percentage of royalties received from eBooks. Tina was like, “usually the industry standard is this, I'm going to ask her about that.” Even though it was very much this circle-of-friends venture, there was still this business side of it where I needed her expertise. I did the light legwork but I need that from her, to know what's appropriate from a business standpoint. I appreciate that from her, even though this might not have been the most traditional way people find agents and editors.
What is it about Tina that made you feel she was the right agent for you?
She's very passionate, she's very personal. I really think she's doing this because she genuinely loves it and has an interest for it. I just want people to read my work. And you can become a best seller with a small agent and a small press, but it's not one of my goals. I know she's the right person to help me accomplish the goals I have.
What’s next for you in terms of your writing? What are you working on?
I just finished another small revision of a book that's coming out in the spring called The War on All Fronts. It's historical fiction. It takes place from the summer of 1967 to 68 about two boys in a secret relationship. One enlists in the army and one goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin, and how those two paths affect their relationship with one another. I am also in the very beginning stages of my next manuscript, which takes place in the early seventies about twin sisters who want to become runners when there weren’t really a lot of opportunities for girls to do long distance running.
September is here and so are the back-to-school vibes! After a creative funk in August, I signed up for two writing workshops in a fit of panic. The first is Modern Comedic Lit via Catapult and Sentence to Story through StoryStudio. I have lofty dreams of being able to finally, finally write a short story—a genre I love but find extremely difficult to pull off.
I have a query letter sitting in my laptop but I refuse to send it out until I do yet another round of line edits. My retreat at Highlights Foundation is next week and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s like a final blast of summer camp before the fall really sets in.
I’ve had a few translation queries that haven’t panned out but a few steady clients are either setting up phone calls or offering me projects/extended hours. Financially I feel very very stable, which makes me extremely fortunate. Now I just have to get my emotions in order hehe.
Plus, I’ve had a super supportive response the changes in the newsletter. If you’re new in these parts, welcome! And to those who are paying subscribers, you have my eternal gratitude.
Shameless Self Promo
For The A.V. Club, I’m recapping Impeachment: American Crime Story. Will the Clintons get mad at me? Will Ann Coulter catch wind of my disdain? Frankly, as long as Monica doesn’t hate me, I’ll be fine.
Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy
Wherein I recommend a bunch of stuff, with some justification.
Movie: Language Lessons. More movies about the importance of adult friendships, por favor.
TV: The Chair on Netflix. Once a grad student, always a grad student.
Song: “House Burn Down” by King Princess accompanied me on my final runs in Bed Stuy and will forever be associated with this past summer.
Activity: Going to museums in off hours and having the whole damn room to yourself.
Purchase: Josie Maran Argan Cleansing Oil. I have no idea if it works or if my skin now feels like a baby or what, but it does feel nice when I lather it on and that’s all I have to say about it.
Yummy: The babaganoush at Golda’s Kitchen began a whole summer of dips for me.
Draaaaanks: The rosé IPA at Talea is the perfect summer beer.
A quick reminder that my newsletter has a paid subscription option where I write personal essays, travelogues, cultural criticisms, and whatever else strikes my fancy about the freelance digital nomad life. Here is a glimpse at last week’s edition: