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  • Paul Cumbo

How I Met My Agent in Scotland...Sort Of


Hiking on the Isle of Skye, 2005

My agent, Sheryl Shade, found me--not the other way around. Our connection didn't emerge from my persistent series of carefully crafted query letters, sent out mostly in a steady trickle, though punctuated by occasional bursts of ten or twelve simultaneous tries over the course of more than twenty years. My agent found me in the same place where I found my writing voice: on the rugged coast of the North Sea in the beautiful university town of St. Andrews, Scotland.


Twenty-two years ago, when I was nineteen, I finished the first draft of a roughly-constructed first novel called The Second Brother. It was a heartfelt effort with an amateur result in keeping with the age of its author. Nonetheless, the core of the story was good, and I began what would become a two-decades-plus, four-books-long quest to secure a literary agent.


A little ways further along in that quest, I had the good fortune to spend an academic year living in Saint Andrews pursuing a Master's degree in writing and literature. Saint Andrews is best known globally as the birthplace of golf. I don't golf, but I do drink whiskey, and I enjoyed drinking it best in the pubs that line the cobbled alleys of this medieval town.


It was in Saint Andrews, in the company of a small cohort of fellow students and aspiring authors from at least four continents, that I first achieved the focus and discipline necessary to discover my authentic voice as a writer. That couldn't have happened earlier. I was too young and too inexperienced; moreover, I was just too damned busy teaching and living in a boarding school. But there, I did the hard work that led to my first "real" novel, Boarding Pass. A dozen years later, I took what I'd learned at St. Andrews and started my second novel, which would become Wilderness Therapy.


Every young author aspires to get an agent, and every young author quickly learns just how elusive a goal it is. Most learn this through the frustrations of continual failure to find one. A lucky few learn it even as they bask in their success. For me, like most people who end up fortunate enough to land an agent, it happened only after hundreds of queries. That's how many I'd sent out for Wilderness Therapy before I gave up the ghost and published it independently.


Ironically, it was during a virtual "Meet the Author" event hosted by St. Andrews that my agent found me. Shortly after viewing that event (you can watch it here), she reached out to me. The rest is history, and now I have an agent. It's serendipity at its best, and this son of St. Andrews should not have been surprised that the beautiful place that embraced him for a year had at least one more gift to bestow.


As for what's next, she's got a manuscript of mine for a new book, and she's shopping it around. This is a new stage of my writing journey, and I'm so grateful to have a companion, guide, advocate, and partner who knows the industry landscape as well as she does. My hope for mainstream publishing success is real, and that hope is built upon the gratitude I have to everyone who has read my stuff and believed in my work.


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