Recently, as many of you know, I signed with a literary agent. (See announcement.) It’s a time a lot of writers dream of, a time highlighted with celebratory GIF tweets screaming, I did it! I did it! And I’m READY. It’s a lot of fun, definitely exciting, and often followed up with a “How I Got My Agent” blog post/newsletter/tweet thread. I’m a blogger, have been since 2012, so naturally I came here, wondering how I could share my experience and if sharing would help any writers out there. Theoretically, I could tell you about my use of QueryShark, QueryTracker, WritersDigest Agent Alerts, MSWL, PitMad, PitchWars, IWSG, attending conferences, joining competitions, and more. But let’s be real, isn’t that what everyone says?
There are a million articles out there about how to find the perfect agent for your book and career—and I didn’t want this to be one of them. Instead, I wanted to simply talk about my experiences. The real. The feels. The almost give-ups. The getting back up. The life lessons. Granted, if I were being completely honest, I don’t have enough room on the Internet to share every little detail. (Though, my poor roommate has had to listen to such excruciating monologues for the past couples years, but I digress.) Maybe, though, if I share what I can recall in the most sufficient and honest way possible, some querying writers out there will find some strength or hope or just get a few laughs while they march through the query trenches. Overall, though, I want to be clear about one thing that I said last week: This is my journey, and every writer’s journey is different. In a way, I don’t believe in giving advice on querying any more than I do giving writing advice in general. It can be helpful, yes, but ultimately, every writer must figure out what works for them. This is what worked for me.
If I went all the way back to my very first query letter, I would admit I started in 2008. Maybe earlier. I can’t even remember. But I remember sending out physical letters with a SASE inside for responses. The first agent to ever respond to me was Jodi Reamer. For those of you in publishing, you’ll know this is the agent behind Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. And yes, I still have that response tucked away in a super secret place. She, obviously, didn’t offer my 14-year-old self rep, but she did encourage me. And I continued writing and querying on-and-off for the next ten years. Granted, if I were being completely honest, I didn’t take querying seriously until 2016. That’s when I made the decision to query professionally. (Don’t judge me for all those terribly embarrassing queries before, I was in high school, and helpful publishing Twitter didn’t even exist. Lots of help didn’t exist.) Excuses aside, though, I still made a lot of mistakes.
The first book I queried seriously was a YA fantasy. See stats from QueryTracker on the right. If I were being completely honest, I’d admit this isn’t completely accurate. I only started using QueryTracker toward the end. So I probably have twenty more rejections and two more requests that aren’t logged. I learned a lot while querying this book. Mostly, how to write a query letter. I sent them out in batches, received feedback, and revised. But let’s talk about revisions for a sec. The main lesson I learned with this book? Don’t revise just because someone is giving you the time of day with an R&R. (See article here: Should You Revise and Resubmit?) I butchered this book (and that’s me being kind). It’s so ugly and sad and messed up that I haven’t looked at it in over a year. Maybe two. Who knows, I try to forget. Maybe one day, I’ll open it back up and give it another shot, but for now, I’m okay with it sitting in a dark corner on my hard drive. If anything, it was probably the most vital lesson I learned while querying. Why? Because everyone talks about how to get an agent’s attention, but rarely do we discuss when to walk away, especially when someone is being kind and believes in your work.
Getting an agent, ultimately, isn’t about getting just any agent, but an agent who sees your work for what you want it to be, and they also believe in that art. They believe in you. And you have to know who you are and what you want your art to be.
With my first YA fantasy, I was trying to desperately shape myself into what agents wanted me to be—rather than trying to find an agent who loved my work and wanted to help me succeed with it.
I learned that lesson, and it was hard, but I moved on.
I wish I could tell you that I wrote a bazillion books between that first book and the one that won my current agent, but my next book is the one that worked. Keep in mind, though, that I began writing it in October of 2016. It’s been three years of writing, revising, submitting, rejection, revising, submitting, more rejection, and revising/submitting again. In fact, I had one of the most crushing blows to my writer’s heart during that time. I’ve never come that close to quitting in my life. But I obviously didn’t. I kept writing, here and there, and querying when I could.
With my YA fantasy tucked away in a forgotten drawer, and my heart set on finding love for my YA sci-fi, I learned even more lessons. I learned to reach out, make friends, connect with fellow writers for fun and not just because you think it’ll help you get somewhere. This mainly happened by joining writing contests. Either I met writers by reaching out to them or mentors who had read my work connected me with writers they felt I’d get along with. Honestly, the best thing that happened to me while querying my YA sci-fi was meeting my beta readers. If I hadn’t connected with them, I can’t honestly say I would’ve continued through the hard months to come. And there were a lot of hard months. Not just from querying either. A loved one past away. I got really, really sick. I had to move. I found a new job. I changed jobs again! And recently, I changed jobs once more.
Querying isn’t this singular phase writers go through once. It’s a constant. And most don’t enjoy it, which can make juggling submissions with life craziness all the more harder. I’m a big believer in not making things harder than they have to be, though I often make that mistake. (I’m only human, K?)
One thing I would have done different is NOT spend money, especially considering how little I made at the time. While querying Immersion, I read tons of magazines and articles that got it into my head that the key to finding success was attending (expensive) conferences, paying for advice, and entering exclusive doors that, of course, cost more money. I would spend any savings I had trying to “make” it, and I think that’s kind of cruel to be honest. It’s something I don’t like about publishing. Though many claim all is fair in the slush pile, there is a helluva lot of pressure to pay to play. And I went through a bad phase where I fell for that, hard. My breaking point? I spent $350 to attend a conference (taking a day off work to do so) and paid $100 per agent to pitch for ten minutes, which honestly ended up being about seven minutes a piece, if not less, since the slots before me would go above their time limit. I spent $600 total to try to connect, received three full requests, and had all three agents more or less cancel the full without reading. (One left the business, one was fired, and one transferred.) I felt really disrespected. Worse than disrespected. I felt taken advantage of by an industry I’d loved my whole life. It felt like a trap. A lie. A sham. And it broke my heart.
After that (and a huge break in which I had an existential crisis), I called it quits on spending money. If I wanted to go to a conference for me, fine. But I was no longer going to invest in pitching when I could jump into the slush pile for free. (Spoiler alert: I got my agent through the slush pile.) In fact, I got most of my full requests through the slush pile. One thing I am eternally grateful for is the amount of agents who gave me fantastic advice after reading my full manuscript. Over time, I realized it wasn’t just advice either. I was making connections, friendships, and finding hope. That $600 conference for instance? The agents might not have worked out, but you know what I did walk away with? An invite to a local writers’ critique group I’m still in today. I look forward to it every month.
Querying is hard. There is no guarantee. And even if you sign with someone, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a book deal. Or get along. Or anything really. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean you can’t be sad or angry or excited or crushed or hopeful or anything. I say, ride those emotions all the way through. If you can, use them to create even more art. Me, for instance? I was starting to get so angry/depressed while querying that I began writing a rage-filled monster book for myself, and now I’m 60,000 words in, and I’m in love with it. It’s also the next book my agent wants me to focus on. (Though channeling that rage again might be hard when I’m feeling pretty dandy right about now.)
So what surprised me the most?
Honestly, a small bout of depression that happened after I signed with my agent. Not because she isn’t amazing or that I’m not excited about my future or anything like that, but because of one simple fact: I had defined myself as a writer in search of an agent for so long, now that I had one, I didn’t know how to define myself anymore. Not to mention the real-reality-feels that this goal automatically means there’s more challenge in front of me. I succeeded at something, but it’s only the next step, and this step almost killed my hope a number of times. Pair that with seeing some of my close followers talking about (or even to me) about how seeing success gets them down…and I’m just a mess of guilt. I’ve been there. I remember seeing others succeed and feeling left behind—which is why hearing others say that about me brought me down too. Made me feel like I was creating that pain for someone else’s journey. Granted, I know I’m not in charge of others’ feelings. But I doubt I’m alone in having moments like this, and yet I don’t see a lot of authors discussing it. Succeeding was great—and sometimes that means people will be happy for you. Other times, they’ll be mad, jealous, elated, confused, etc. at you. Most of the time, though, it’s not about you, but their own feelings, and that’s totally valid. But as someone who tries to help others succeed all the time, I have a hard time taking a step back and celebrating something for me. Yes, even a huge accomplishment I’ve been working toward for a long time. Definitely a personality flaw I hope to get rid of in the future (or at least get better at coping with). In that quest to cope healthier, I learned overall feelings of malaise after success is apparently normal, even though it still threw me a little bit.
It’s kind of amazing, though—if you think about it. How some of the most common emotions can throw you. Like meeting a goal. Or falling in love. Or having a baby. Or getting a new job. Most of these things happen to thousands of people a day—and yet it feels altering. Exhilarating. Poetry-inducing. Knee-buckling. Confusing as all hells. But that’s all I have to say about my emotions. (I clearly have a lot of them.)
In the end, I am beyond grateful my journey has brought me to this moment, and I am super energized now! I’m ready to finish my revisions and tackle my next project. (Which reminds me: I’m super glad I didn’t stop writing other books while querying, because now I have two other almost-complete works that I can dive right into if deadlines get tight.) So, if I recommend anything, I want to emphasize not to put all your hopes and dreams in one piece.
The formula that worked for me?
Have one book you’re outlining/daydreaming about, one you’re writing/editing, and one you’re querying.
In fact, I’m still living by this formula. I’m outlining my cyberpunk, writing my rage-filled YA sci-fi, and going on submission with the book that won my agent’s heart.
Wish me luck! (I’m already sending lucky vibes back to your goals too.)
P.S. Hey, Kansas City friends. I will be a guest speaker at Writers United on Wednesday, July 10th at 6-8 PM at the Central Resource Library in Overland Park, KS. I can tell you more about The Story Center. See you then! More info.