by Naseem Rakha

True story. I had never attended a writing conference, and had not given much thought to finding an agent other than occasionally looking at debut sales onPublishers Marketplace and keeping a list of the names of people who seemed to represent the type of book I was writing.

Other than that, I just focused on writing day in, day out. Somewhere along the way I found out about Backspace – one of those, I need a break, let’s surf the web moments. I signed up for the Backspace newsletter, but promptly dumped each issue in the trash without ever opening the file.

Then one day, as I sat in my favorite chair TRYING to edit what I thought was a pretty good version of my novel — PING — I had mail from Backspace. Here is the scene: I am reading, editing, trying to think; my son is poking some mechanical toy in my face asking me to fix it; and, my husband is crying for help from the kitchen — he can’t find the mayonnaise. So what do I do? I open the mail from Backspace and find in big, bold, beautiful writing: AGENT AUTHOR SEMINAR NEW YORK CITY.

I read the announcement — looked at the manuscript on my lap – took the toy from my son, smacked it against my leg so that it started working again, picked up my computer, went in the kitchen, took the mayo from the refrigerator, handed it to my husband, and then pointed to my computer screen.

“I am going to this,” I told him.

Then I went upstairs and took a shower.

I met my agent during Backspace’s noon hour read-a-thon in New York City’s Radisson Hotel. This, I was told by Karen Dionne, is Backspace’s alternative to the one on one meetings with agents that other writing groups and conferences market. At this slightly masochistic event, a group of writers sit at a big round table with two agents. Each writer then proceeds to read as much of the first two pages of their manuscript as they can get away with before the Agent yells “CUT!” or “STOP PLEASE or “YIKES!” or whatever, and then proceeds to tell them why they would have dumped your MS in the trash had they actually had it in front of them. To say the process is brutal is an understatement. But it is also real. And informative. And, incredibly valuable for anyone wanting to know just what agents look for when they have your “precious” in front of them. It is also VERY subjective.

My first day I was told — point blank — “Nice writing, but NO WAY.” “It’s too dark.” “No one wants to read about the death penalty.” When I tried to explain that the book was really about redemption, I was told to be quiet — after all, I wouldn’t be able to say anything if I had sent the work in.

I felt frustrated and deflated. But I also learned a lesson. The agents I went to were looking for more commercial stuff than what I had produced. All the rest of the afternoon I sat in the back of the conference room not brooding but researching. I googled each and every agent in the room — reading anything I could about them. That is when I read that Scott Hoffman from Folio liked “dark” stuff.

I approached Scott as he was leaving, pitched my book. “Not for me,” he says. “But tomorrow — go to Laney Katz Becker. She loves that kind of thing.”

Needless to say, that is just what I did. I was first at her table, read my two pages, she asked for fifty more and well, let’s just say the conference was in November and I signed on with Folio in December…..

What I learned, though most people don’t find their agents this way, is it can be done. What’s needed? Research into the agents, a story you really believe in, and tenacity.

Naseem Rakha is an award-winning journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace Radio, Christian Science Monitor, and Living on Earth. She lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and many animals. When Naseem isn’t writing, she’s reading, knitting, hiking, gardening, or just watching the seasons roll in and out. Her debut novel, THE CRYING TREE, published this week from Random House.

THE CRYING TREE is a story of things not being what they seem, family secrets and how they reverberate through lives, and being submerged in loss, yet finding ways to go on. It’s a story of forgiveness and redemption and of the difficult decisions that lead people through life and that ultimately give life meaning.