Forewarning, this will be long and filled with gifs. The stats are at the bottom, feel free to skim!
I still cannot believe I am writing this post. Not in a cute, faux-humility way, like when supermodels say they can’t believe people actually think they’re pretty (just shut up Gisele.) But in a “I’ve been dreaming about this for so many years while racking up SO MANY REJECTIONS that now that it’s actually happening it doesn’t feel real” kind of way. Someone slap me.
While I’ve been writing my whole life, leaving a whole wake of started and stopped novels, novellas, short stories, and even an embarrassingly horrible screenplay, I never considered myself a “writer.” I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world, and for a long time I thought I had to do this through other means, because I was too scared to give myself that title I didn’t feel worthy of claiming. “Writer.” It wasn’t until 2009, when the author of a book I loved replied to an email I sent her with, “why aren’t you writing?” that I allowed myself to dream. It’s sad, but I needed someone else to confirm the longing I’d always had. I was a writer. I needed to write.
So I did. It was like the first twenty-four years of my life were the warm-ups and now I WAS OFF.
The author of the book, Susan Isaacs, became my mentor, and helped introduce me to a writing community I owe a huge debt of gratitude to, The Burnside Writers Collective. Within a year, I had a handful of articles and essays published online, a blog, and the thing I most wanted, an idea for a book.
Because everything happened so fast and so (relatively easy) I had a false sense of confidence. I’d been writing my whole life, everyone said how talented I was, surely I didn’t need to do a ton of research or prepare myself for rejection! I was unique! It would be different for me!
What followed was one of the hardest years of my life. While building an online platform and dealing with a crisis of faith and identity, I received over 100 rejections from agents and indie publishers. That first manuscript might have been written well (said the lone agent who read some of it) but it was not sell-able in a market already saturated with books like mine. If I had done any research, I would have known that. After querying it unsuccessfully for a year it became a niche book for my friends and the small community of writers and progressive Christian activists who supported me. My dream of being published traditionally still seemed far out of reach.
I took a year off to sulk and question what I wanted in life.
Then, in late 2014 I realized a couple big things. 1) I couldn’t not write. It was killing me not creating, and 2) I didn’t want to write non-fiction, or memoir. Novels were what I loved to read, where I became most enamored. Fiction gave me life. While I enjoyed writing essays and non-fiction pieces, I cared much more about telling engaging stories with imagined characters. So I got to work on my first novel, WHERE HE SENT US. It was a YA contemporary about a teenage girl harboring a huge secret, taken captive by her strict religious family, who set sail across the ocean for a fundamentalist encampment.
I started it during NaNoWriMo 2013, and it took me about a year to finish, edit, and receive beta reader feedback on. Reader, I loved this novel. I still do, although I can now see that, despite the positive feedback I got, it was very much a “first” novel. Almost there, but not quite ready.
In 2015, while I was querying and getting (encouraging!) rejections for WHERE HE SENT US, I began to do something I should have been doing all along. I read as much as I could about querying, agents, and the publishing industry. Prior to my first book I’d only focused on building my craft (taking writers workshops, joining critique groups, reading writing books) but after that experience I realized I needed to learn the business side as well. Something unexpected happened then. I started to gain perspective. It became apparent to me that the biggest secret I needed to succeed wasn’t a secret at all. It was just persistence. Research taught me that it was totally normal to not get agented until my third, fourth, maybe even fifth or more manuscript. Success takes time! I needed to be in it for the long-haul.
So, undeterred by my growing stack of rejections, in the middle of querying WHERE HE SENT US I began writing my 2nd YA novel, JUSTIFIABLE, about two 17-year-old girls whose worlds collide when their fathers are on opposite ends of a racially charged fatal police shooting. Since I wanted to see if I could “win” NaNoWriMo (I’d only made it 1/2 way in 2013), I entered in November 2015 with JUSTIFIABLE, completing my first draft of the novel and “winning” the event. I loved JUSTIFIABLE even more than WHERE HE SENT US, and the main characters, Bree and Madison, seemed more real to me than any I’d written before. By this time, I only had one full still out with an agent for WHERE HE SENT US, and I stopped querying. After a month of edits, including some wonderful beta and sensitivity reader feedback from L.D., a new critique partner I’d met through NaNoWriMo, I began querying JUSTIFIABLE, in January 2016.
I tried so hard to be objective, and level-headed, but when the requests came pouring in, I gave into hope.
A handful of agents had requested WHERE HE SENT US and passed, but enthusiastically asked for my next project, so I first just sent queries for JUSTIFIABLE to them. Almost all of these agents requested the full manuscript. I was ecstatic. This was going to be it! I’d be able to report my stats and be one of those obnoxious writers who sent like, six queries and gotten three requests, and as many offers! Remember that objectivity I said I had? Yeah, neither did I.
Slowly, rejections to my requests trickled in.
These rejections were even more encouraging than the ones for WHERE HE SENT US. I got very used to seeing the words, “I think you’re an excellent/very good/fantastic/etc writer, and I love this concept but…..” Many, many nights were spent lamenting to my husband and family and writing friends. I began to wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong with my style, that made it impossible for agents to connect with my writing. Even though plenty of people told me I just needed to get my work in front of the right person, I struggled to believe them.
When I’d sent around 50 queries and gotten close to a dozen rejections on my requested fulls/partials, I decided to move my focus to the next book. I started on my 3rd novel, a YA thriller about a girl who begins a dangerous obsession with finding the man who kidnapped her younger sister. The advice everyone gives to start something new while you’re querying is absolutely true. Getting excited about this new manuscript took a lot of the anxiety out of, what I was convinced, would be the eventual rejection of JUSTIFIABLE.
After I’d sent around 75 queries, I told my husband I was going to shelf the rest of the ones I’d planned to send. I only had about ten left, and I didn’t think it was worth it. But he (and my father) convinced me I had nothing to lose, so, begrudgingly, I sent another batch of five.
One of these queries was to an associate agent at an agency I’d gotten rejections from twice in the past. I had planned to query the same agent who rejected me before, until I saw the profile for this new agent, Ashley Collom. Her interests seemed to line up perfectly with mine, and the manuscript, so I crossed out the name of the agent I’d planned to query, and sent her an email instead. This was on May 8th, 2016, almost four months after I began querying JUSTIFIABLE.
A day later she requested the full. At this point, full requests barely elicited any excitement from me, since I’d gotten so many rejections on them. I sent it to her. A day later, on May 10th, I got this email from Ashley:
Just wanted to let you know I’m only a bit into your manuscript, but you already had me crying on the train. Bravo! 😉
I started to feel that little tingle of something I’d almost forgotten how to feel. Hope. I’d never gotten an email like that from an agent before. I told my family and my husband and they all got incredibly excited, even when I tried to convince them this didn’t mean anything.
Then, a day after the above email, I got another one from Ashley that said, “Offer of Representation” in the subject line.
I have gmail notifications set up at work, so I saw a little preview pop-up in the lower corner of my monitor, before I even opened my inbox. I’m pretty sure all of my co-workers heard me gasp. I was shaking while I read her email, which was unbelievably enthusiastic. She loved JUSTIFIABLE. Better still, she got it. Even the subtle things I’d been trying to get across, she loved them all. It needed some work of course, and she wanted to talk to me about it, but she was passionate about making it shine.
Once my hands stopped shaking I called my husband and parents, and commenced the freaking out. Then I emailed back Ashley, and let her know I would need at least a week to decide, since I had fulls and queries still out with several agents. I wanted to be professional, and all the advice I had read said not to accept the first offer, since you needed to give the other agents still reading a chance to respond.
That’s when things got real. When I queried Ashley, I had eight fulls out, and around a dozen pending queries. Now, if that sounds like a lot, remember I already had eleven full/partial rejections, so in my mind, those eight fulls were just rejections-in-waiting. But within minutes/hours of sending my “Offer of Rep” email, I had four more requests for fulls, from agents who only had my query. So all of a sudden I had an offer, and twelve other agents reading my full, at least half of them with the direct purpose of seeing if they wanted to make a counter offer within the week.
This was SO surreal. For seven years, I’d been dreaming, hoping, fantasizing, crying, lamenting, and thinking of little else than getting an agent. For four years, I racked up nothing but rejections. So much of the past four years was sitting in silence, days and weeks going by with no responses. And then in what seemed like a blink of an eye, my inbox was FLOODED with responses from agents. Very interested agents! Complimentary, friendly, really impressive agents.
At the end of the week, I had five offers of representation. Five(!!) No one expected this less than me. It’s not that I didn’t believe in JUSTIFIABLE, it was just that everything happened so fast. It felt like I had the literary makeover equivalent of having my glasses and ponytail removed, and now I was the most popular girl in school. I’m not used to being popular. It was incredibly stressful.
The worst part was, because I’d done so much research before querying, all of the agents who offered I would have loved to sign with. I was mad that they were all so nice, and professional, and friendly, and that I felt like I “clicked” with all of them. The idea of disappointing any of them caused me so much anxiety and stress that I woke up one night literally choking on stomach acid. Which was a first.
But in the end, I went with my gut. After a lot of thought and consideration, I accepted the first offer I received, from Ashley Collom
at DeFiore and Company
. Even though I’d have been incredibly lucky to sign with any of the agents who offered, Ashley was the most passionate, and the one who had the clearest vision for my manuscript, that best aligned with my own. I could not be more excited to work with her on getting JUSTIFIABLE ready for submission.
From querying my first book, to accepting the offer from Ashley, it took me almost four years, exactly, to land an agent. But it feels like it took a lifetime. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Now, to what everyone really cares about. The stats! (I’m just including the novels):
Book 1 (WHERE HE SENT US):
4 full requests.
2 partials (one upgraded to full)
Time queried until put in drawer – 7 months
Book 2: (JUSTIFIABLE):
19 full requests.
5 offers of rep
Time from first query to offer – 4 months
Time from full request to offer – 3 days*
*The quick turnaround How I Got My Agent stories always killed me, because whenever I got a full request, I never heard back until at least two months went by. But there ARE success stories that took a few months from request to offer, I promise! I’ve read them! Don’t give up hope!