the agent from the black lagoon……


Gargoyle on Books

by Walter S. Arnold, Sculptor / Stone Carver, Chicago IL 2002

I did a rat-a-tat-tat on my knee.  Crossed my legs the other way.  Did a rat-a-tat-tat on the other knee. Didn’t help.  Wiggled my foot, making circles with it.  Helped a little.  It was a five-minute drive, and it felt like five seconds.  I popped out of the car, lugging my bag behind me, and slammed the door, ready for whatever fate had to hand me.

The UW-Milwaukee Spring Writer’s Festival.  My first time, and I had no idea what to expect.  As I faced the elevator doors, I thought about pushing the button to the 13th floor, and getting off in another place, infinitely less scary.  But I pushed seven, and the doors opened to a huge, carpeted expanse.  At the far side was a table.  A table that stretched on and on and on, covered with folders neatly lined up, name cards attached to each.  Folder after folder after folder, and mine was the first to be pulled, leaving a blank space in the neat line up.  First to arrive; was it a faux pas?

I fanned my face a little and looked inside the folder for the map of the building.  I had signed up for a special query letter workshop, with a real agent. Room 770.  The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and I froze outside the door.  Three participants walked in while I did my deep breathing – one inhale exhale.  Two inhale exhale.  Three inhale exhale.  I pulled my shoulders back, grasped the door handle, and pulled.

It was a large, bright room with tables placed in a square, and at the front table was seated a woman.  She glanced up.  It couldn’t be her.  I was looking for the curved teeth, fire breathing, hackles raised, wings unfurled, pointed tail, gargoyle.  Not this pleasant woman.

Her voice was soft.  She paused for a second before she spoke.  Thoughtful, not strident.  She greeted me, and the rest of the writers as they trickled in.  And then she began the workshop.

Sheree Bykofsky, founder of  Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Inc., Literary Agency,  originally located in New York, and now in beautiful Brigantine, New Jersey.


Sheree generously and graciously shared with us the six secrets of published authors:

1.    Persistence and perseverance – you really must have a tough skin.
2.    Keen sense of the market place – your book has to have a shelf in the bookstore.
3.    Professional attitude toward your writing – I am a writer and it is my job.
4.    Ability to meet deadlines.
5.    Understand the book publishing business.
6.    Be willing to promote your own book – in the modern market place publishers don’t have a lot of money for publicity.

And then she went into detail, and had us practice, writing a query letter and a three sentence pitch.  We critiqued each other, harvested ideas, learned a lot from Sheree and each other, and had fun.

On her website, Sheree wrote a letter to all authors querying her:

Dear Author,
I am Sheree Bykofsky, founder and President of Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Inc. Thank you for your interest in my Web site and my agency. Please call me Sheree.

I am a generalist and have eclectic and sometimes eccentric tastes. I represent all areas of non-fiction and commercial and literary fiction. I don’t limit myself to particular genres because I’m always surprised by what appeals to me. If I love it, then I’ll take it on. The only way to know is to try me. If it needs work and I want to represent it, I’ll tell you. If I choose not to agent you, you should know that I’m not judging you or your writing, or even your idea. I am saying that it’s just not right for me. Please also keep in mind that it is my strict policy not to give feedback when I pass on a book. What isn’t right for me may be perfect for another agent.

Yes, she really was that nice.  I will not be afraid to send her a query about my project, even though it is not strictly on her list of favorite things.  Who knows – it is worth a try.  And my skin won’t have to be too thick to receive a rejection from her.

The rest of the conference – Friday evening opening speaker and Milwaukee native Lori Tharp, through Sunday noon and closing reading by novelist Keith Donohue, was wonderful as well.

I recommend the Spring Writers Festival to anyone interested in writing, and I guarantee there is nothing to be afraid of!


5 thoughts on “the agent from the black lagoon……

  1. I concur with your assessment of the writers’ festival. I was really pretty helpful. It took some of the mystery out of the process and made agents seem human. I laughed though when I got to the section in Stephen King’s On Writing in which he makes fun of manuscript reviews at writers’ conferences, encouraging agents, and peer critiques. Basically he says they are way too positive, way too vague, and often ignorant. He describes his own method, if I remember correctly:

    1. He writes the entire first draft for himself without showing it to anyone or looking back (except to check names and other facts)
    2. He lets it sit a minimum of 9 weeks, until it looks strange when he goes back to it
    3. He revises (with the door open)thinking of his Ideal Reader, his wife
    4. He lets his Ideal Reader and 6-8 supportive others read the second draft. If they are all liking something, he keeps it; if they all have similar problem with something, he revises to correct it; if they disagree, he ignores both
    5. He sends the ms to his agent

    Personally I don’t work this way, but I think it’s a productive approach. He spends a lot of time protecting his self-confidence as a writer. Maybe that’s the most important thing we can do for ourselves. As King says, writing is mostly just AATC (apply ass to chair).

    You trying to burst my bubble, Doug? I have been working on the AATC, I promise.


  2. I am so proud of you. I was getting nervous just reading about it and know that I would have been a bundle of nerves there. I’ve never been a big fan of group work like you were doing in there and that more than anything would have made me uncomfortable. No one would have known it and I would’ve dived right in, but I still would have been a nervous wreck inside and honestly might not have even signed up to go if I had known that ahead of time.

    I’m so glad it was such a great experience and this agent seems like she really has it all together. It sounds like she manages to give really great advice and be really frank with people while being able to treat everyone as a human being. A rare individual in the business world.

    I’m really happy for your experience.

    You described my dilemma perfectly, Carl. I hate being shy, and I just put myself out there, even though I was terribly nervous. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! I really did learn a lot. The inspiration I felt coming away from it was the best part, however. Being surrounded by a huge group of people who had one thing in common – writing – was really powerful. I would definitely recommend it.


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