How I Got My Agent (IT’S REALLY HAPPENING!)
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:
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!