An Agents Conference Success Story from Author Karen Benke

The Writers’ League is proud of the fact that our annual Agents Conference often results in authors landing agents and getting book deals. This week author Karen Benke and agent Stefanie von Borstel of Full Circle Literary both tell the story of how they met at the 2008 WLT Agents Conference and went on to publish Karen’s book, RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambala/Trumpeter, July 2010). Karen’s look behind the book is the feature of today’s Scribe post; Stefanie’s take will be posted on Thursday.

Karen’s Success Story

As a sensitive and imaginative child, I’d longed for a book that could offer me encouragement to record my wild mind’s wanderings.  Flash forward 30+ years, and though I found my calling as a poet-teacher working with 8- to 12 year-olds in California’s Poet in the Schools’ program, I still longed for that fun and magical book that incorporated a little bit of this and a whole lot of that, to unlock the dreaming-doodling side of my and my students’ brains.  That’s when my friend Norman suggested I stop looking and simply wade through my file folders brimming with prompts and zany ideas and write the book I was looking for.

So I did.   I started my short chapters of “Try This” writing experiments and “Definition Decoders,” zany Word Lists, and “Suddenly a Story” blasts.  I was halfway finished with my manuscript but was having a hard time staying focused.  Between leading creative writing workshops, seeing private writing clients, and parenting a lively seven-year-old, finding time to sit at my desk was proving a challenge. 

I decided I needed professional help.  What I needed was an agent.  If I could sell my book based on the first half, I knew I could finish the second half.  And no sooner did I make my needs known to the muse, did a notice from my county’s art’s council arrive in my mailbox.  They were awarding a $1,500 grant to a writer who needed help getting to the next level of her career.

I knew I couldn’t purchase an agent, but I could use the money to attend a conference and possibly find an agent who believed in my book.  The first conference that caught my eye was the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference in Austin.  I’d studied with Billy Collins and Naomi Shihab Nye in Austin a few years earlier and remembered liking the vibe of the town.  The conference was at the end of June 2008, after my schoolyear was over, and I’d accrued what my friend Lynn refers to as enough “Mommy Miles” to take a few days off.  So I got busy and wrote my grant proposal.  A month later, I found out I’d won.

The grant allowed me to purchase my airline ticket, pay for the conference, and book a room at the Sheraton Austin Hotel.  On the plane I studied the names of the agents I wanted to talk with.  Next to their photos was a list of their fields of expertise.  I planned to pitch both a picture book and my how-to creative writing adventures book for children.  The agent I had starred in yellow and wrote exclamations next to was Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

At the pitch session, I was nervous.  But Stefanie welcomed me to the table in a calm and friendly manner.  She listened with kind brown eyes and genuine interest, and she asked excellent questions.  I pitched my book idea as a poetry handbook; Stefanie encouraged me to expand it to include fiction and nonfiction, too.  I got up from our meeting feeling energized and focused.  Stefanie wished me luck and invited me to submit a full-length proposal to her agency soon.

So I flew home, polished my proposal, and submitted it.  Stefanie sent it back with suggestions.  (Stefanie offers great suggestions.)  I made changes and sent it back.  Stefanie must have believed in it, because she kept suggesting I fine-tune certain areas of the proposal, the comparison book category, my platform, etc.  I followed her advice.  I wrote and re-wrote.  OK, I spent hours upon hours on that proposal.  She was going to be my agent, after all.  And on May 5, 2009, less than a year after meeting Stefanie Von Borstel in Austin, at a small square table in an upstairs conference room at the Sheraton, I was offered representation at Full Circle Literary Agency.

The following month, my son and I were standing at the kitchen counter eating graham crackers and planning an afternoon activity that involved a basketball when the phone rang.  I decided not to answer it, but then noticed an email pop into my in-box, my laptop open on a nearby table.

“Oh my gosh, Collin,” I said.  “My agent just emailed with important news about my book.”

“Oh my gosh, Mommy,” he said.  “You should call her back.  I think she sold it.”

And she did.

By the following month, I was under contact with Shambhala/Trumpeter Books to complete RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing, a title Stefanie helped me dream up.  I’d received a generous advance and a clause in my contact that gave me input on my book’s cover.  Stefanie skillfully negotiated all the terms and explained everything to my poet-teacher’s ears in an easy-to-understand manner.

It’s now a few days after my book’s publication date, and I sit at my desk with my book within view.  The front cover’s yellow background with the lively brushstroke lettering by artist Joy Gosney makes me more happy than I can convey.  My name is in red at the bottom; the back cover alive with blurbs by three writers I admire, Jane Hirshfield, Julia Alvarez, and Susan Wooldridge.  Not to mention all the famous authors and poets who so generously agreed to write notes directly to the kids the book is intended for.  Signed notes from Lemony Snicket, Annie Barrows, Gary Soto, Avi, Patricia Polacco, Naomi Shihab Nye, and more.  It’s finally the journal for inward-bound adventures I’d dreamed of for so long that can be used to write in, brainstorm, explore, imagine and, yes, even ripped—but only if it’s your book!

My editor, copy editor, and designer did so much to get my baby to look so polished and ready to be read.  But I never would have met them had it not been for Stefanie Von Borstel, who listened to a poet-teacher’s dream and believed in a half-finished manuscript.

We hope that Stefanie will join us for the 2011 WLT Agents Conference, which promises to be our best one yet! Look for agent profiles in futures Footnotes and on Scribe. For more on the Agents Conference, click here.
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