"How can I get an agent?” 

It’s the question every writer wants to know – the one posed most frequently at book-signings, and the one readers always email me about.  It’s an important one, too.  After all, you can’t get a book published without one.  Not really.

For most writers, however, trying to find an agent is a bit like asking how to get an audition at Carnegie Hall.

Years before my book, The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, went to "auction," with three major publishing houses bidding for the rights – and long before it snagged a USA Best Books Award, I dreamed of being a writer.  I had been the editor of my high school newspaper.  During college and graduate school, I wrote short stories and essays, in exchange for As and paragraphs of professorial praise.  A wisecracking Australian prof even wrote that I had made him cry with “The Curate,” a short story I wrote about a young pastor who accepts a call to St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, where he discovers a viper’s nest in their historic monogrammed pews.

I was in seminary at the time. And unfortunately, I knew of what I wrote.  But that’s the first rule you should follow when trying to get published: “Write what you know.”

I’d also practiced international law in Switzerland, working for the United Nations and as corporate counsel for an American bank, during which I freelanced and honed my writing skills.  And I read everything I possibly could on the craft – at least 50 books about dialogue, narrative, plot, voice and style, to name just a few.

Of course, I didn’t think I was Pat Conroy or anything.  Far from it – he intimidated the heck out of me, in fact.  But I figured I could at least write a book and get it published.  How hard could it be? 

Well, a lot harder than I ever imagined – although not nearly as difficult as what came later (and not even remotely as challenging as losing weight…so hang in there, y’all – it’s all possible). 

To start, I knew I needed discipline.  So I taped a sign above my desk that said, “Writers Write.”  I placed fans throughout our dingy Atlanta walk-up and prayed that my computer wouldn’t blow up from the heat.  And then I wrote – five nights a week, from 9 to 11 p.m., and all day Saturday.  Week after week after week.  I even wrote on vacation.

Two years later, I called my husband into my home office as I typed those greatly anticipated words, “The End.”  I was thrilled.  And I figured I’d have an agent within a few months – a year at the most. 

It took me five.

What I didn’t realize was that no matter how talented a writer is, every first draft is bad.  Usually very, very bad – and mine was no exception.  In her excellent Bird by Bird book about the writer’s life, Anne Lamott calls them “sh*&y" first drafts,” and as any good writer knows, they truly are.  But for some reason, we writers tend to have blinders – big ones – when it comes to our work.  We want to get to center stage as fast as possible.  And, we tend to believe, rather naively, that writing is something which can be mastered easily and quickly.  Just look at those concert pianists!  They make it look so easy!  As Rita Mae Brown says, however, “It takes as long to learn writing skills as it does to become a neurosurgeon.”