How I Got My Agent, Lessons Learned, and Why You Should Stay Hydrated
When I look back on where I was in August 2020, well, it was a very different place. I thought it might be worth a comprehensive look at the last year, because a lot more than just querying was happening. If you’re just here for the query stats, those are at the end, but I’d encourage you to stick around to hear the whole story. I’ll be answering questions I got from people on Twitter throughout.
Let’s start at the beginning…
I’m going to skip the part where I say I’ve been writing since I was a teenager and it’s been my dream forever and jump right to July 2019. This was the month I decided I was going to write my first romance novel and attempt to do this publishing thing. For real.
I finished that manuscript and met my first CP along the way, and I’m sure she’s still upset with me for never querying that book because I think she’s liked it the best of anything I’ve ever written. (Sorry, Sarah, I just wasn’t ready.)
Fast forward to the beginning of 2020 and the beginning of lockdown. I wrote my first RomCom TRIVIAL PURSUIT in a flash of inspiration, and it brought me so much joy in a time when, as a frontline healthcare worker, I definitely needed some. I also had the feeling there was something in TRIVIAL PURSUIT that wasn’t in anything else I’d written. Something more. Magic, maybe. But I felt like this book would be the one to make it, to take me to the next stage of being a “real author.”
On to the part you came here for…
I’d been incredibly lucky up until this point: TRIVIAL PURSUIT brought me a core group of critique partners and writing friends. People I trusted to help make my work better. So at this point, I had a book in hand that had been through my critique partners and beta readers, fully edited and ready to go. None of us had queried before, so I was about to jump into the big, scary unknown.
On August 27, 2020, I sent out my first batch of queries and my first response came back a few days later: a full request.
Question: What do you think you did well with your query, and what was way off? What did you use for query prep?
There’s plenty of great resources out there. I found the QueryShark archives and this post by Jane Friedman useful, as well as this database of successful query letters.
But I have a secret: I’m really not great at writing pitches, queries, or synopses. However, I have CPs who are, including one that stayed on a Google chat with me after her kids went to bed, yelling in all caps WHAT DO YOUR CHARACTERS WANT?? until I finally landed on a query that was halfway decent. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Did I change it as I went? A little. Did it ultimately work to get requests for my manuscript? Yes.
It was officially Pitch Wars season. I’d sent a few queries, but who knew if my story was even truly ready? No one I knew had done this before. So I entered Pitch Wars at the end of September, full of hope and excitement, along with the rest of my CPs.
Pitch Wars requests started flooding in…for my CPs, anyway.
My inbox, however, filled with query rejections, literally all of them arriving the same week my friends were squealing about requests from mentors.
Listen, that’s the way it goes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Agents weren’t interested, so my book must be broken. Mentors weren’t interested, so my book didn’t even have potential. And all my friends were going to leave me behind.
Does that sound a bit dramatic now? Sure. But in the moment, that’s exactly what it felt like.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I reached out for some more beta readers. I got lucky again, meeting some people that are still with me today and whose opinions I trust implicitly.
Question: Did you change your book or query in the process? What prompted revisions?
I tweaked my query and first pages, but I’ll be honest: the changes were small and I didn’t really notice much difference in my request rate after I changed them. The suggestions I’d gotten from new beta readers were small and simple, and I had no consistent feedback from agents to imply there was a major problem with my pitch or my story.
I thank my CPs for this–their ruthless questions and thoughtful feedback before I started querying saved me a lot of trouble later. You’re going to see a theme here; the friends you make along the way will change the game.
Not one, but two of my CPs were selected as Pitch Wars mentees.
No one really tells you about how something like this splits you in two: one half is absolutely over the moon for your friends, and the other half is angry and upset that it wasn’t you. I’m not an expert in the industry, but from what I’ve learned so far, that feeling never really goes away. If it’s not Pitch Wars, it’s a friend who got a full request from an agent who rejected you, or someone who got an offer for a similar book, etc.
Best advice I have for you: continue to show up for your writing friends and offer congratulations for their achievements. Sometimes it sucks and you’re crying behind the scenes, but one day it will be your turn, and those friendships mean so much more than the ups and downs of publishing.
This is around the time I changed my querying strategy from regimented batches to, well, sending out new ones only when I could stomach it.
Question: What’s the worst advice you received about querying?
This is one I heard a lot, and I’m sure you have too: just keep going. Sure, on the surface it’s good advice. Querying is a numbers game, so persistence matters. But there’s some nuance this statement misses.
I had a conversation with a writing friend the other day, and she described each rejection as a loss. Some feel bigger than others, but you grieve each one. Everyone is going to process this differently, but feeling sad and hurt and upset and angry is all normal and part of the process.
If your mental health is suffering–like mine definitely was during this time while I grappled with my emotions–please stop querying. It will be there when you’re ready to tackle it again, I promise.
Happy Holidays! Agents were cleaning out their inboxes for a fresh start in January, so I got more rejections than usual.
At this point I’d rallied and was determined to write a better book. So I signed up for craft and editing webinars, throwing myself back into my writing, chasing down a new plot bunny that brought me some joy again.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was also when I sent the query that would change everything.
Well, no Pitch Wars mentors wanted to work with me, but Author Mentor Match opened in January, and maybe one of them did. At this point, I was convinced my book was broken and needed a complete overhaul, so a mentorship contest seemed like the way to go.
Lo and behold–I got a request! Unfortunately with AMM, all requests are anonymous, so I had no idea which mentor wanted to read it. It could have been more than one, with the way AMM is structured, but it didn’t matter. I got a request, which was an improvement.
I also rounded out this month with a couple requests from cold queries, so things were looking up.
I went on a mini writing retreat by myself to recalibrate. While I was there, AMM mentee announcements were made, but I wasn’t among the chosen. I cried. Why did no one want to touch TRIVIAL PURSUIT? What was so wrong with it?
One of the AMM mentors I submitted my book to said she’d follow writers she requested from, and would email feedback to those writers. I got a follow, but never received any feedback. (Important: this is not a dig at the mentor! They’re volunteering their time, and there are simply not enough hours in the day. But to say this didn’t feel like another blow would be a lie. It sucked.)
Right on the heels of AMM announcements was the Pitch Wars showcase. My CPs immediately received attention for their pitches, and I felt split in two again. Both received offers from agents (this is their story to tell, with its own ups and downs, so I won’t go into it here), and I cried myself to sleep more nights than I care to admit. They worked so hard and deserved so much, but I’d been working hard too. It felt like it was never going to be my turn.
I decided I’d never enter Pitch Wars again, because this experience hurt so much. So you’ll never catch me pushing you to enter a mentorship contest. They’re not the only way, and I had to learn how bad they were for my own mental health to create a new boundary moving forward.
Of note this month: A partial request turned into a full request, so I sent it off, not knowing it would be the one.
My CPs announced their representation, and while I was immensely proud and excited for them, I was still crying myself to sleep.
So I threw myself into things that brought me joy: the Tournament of Tropes, hosted with one of those friends I made back in October. I began drafting a new project, one that still has my whole heart. It kept me busy.
At this point, the form rejections didn’t hurt anymore because I simply expected them (my book was trash, after all, and I’d gone numb). They just got filed away into a folder in my inbox. I knew TRIVIAL PURSUIT’s time in the query trenches was almost over–I was down to the last of the agents I wanted to query, and it was time to think about letting it go.
Question: How do you stay positive when the publishing industry sucks and hurts a lot of the time?
Truth? I don’t. I get sad and mad and cry and want to scream. I saw a quote somewhere that, paraphrasing, said our brains weren’t meant to be happy all the time; they were meant to help us survive. Wanting to quit the thing that hurts is your brain protecting you, and it’s normal.
But here’s the thing: writing is the only thing that has always felt right to me. For my whole life. It’s home base, in a way. And it brought me friends (see, a theme!) who feel much the same way about it. The lows suck, and they’re always going to be there. For what it’s worth, I’ve never worked a job or in an industry that didn’t have them. But they pass, and having friends who understand to lean on helps. Especially when they send you funny GIFs and check in even when you’re withdrawing because you don’t know what else to do.
At the outset of April, my mental health was tanked. I still couldn’t look at TRIVIAL PURSUIT because it all hurt too much. I had no more energy for interacting on Twitter. It seemed every single writer was getting representation and they were all showing up on my feed. It made me sick to watch (split in two again; I really am so happy for everyone who achieves their goals).
So I did the only thing I could think to do: took a Twitter hiatus for the month.
I told myself if I was still nowhere with my queries on April 30th, I’d pull them all and start getting ready to indie publish. There might not have been a market for my book in traditional publishing, but I knew there was a market somewhere. Maybe.
I entered my freshly-written, shiny new manuscript into RevPit, thinking it couldn’t hurt at this point. It was time to move on from the book no one wanted.
On April 14th, I was at work, and my job doesn’t allow me free access to my phone. When I finally got a break, it was blowing up. I’d missed a call, and my friends were screaming about how I’d been named a finalist in the VIVIAN Awards* and why didn’t I tell them? I’d only entered the contest hoping for feedback; no way could my broken book be a finalist. But it was.
I cried. This time the good tears. Because finally someone saw what I did in my book. Maybe I wasn’t crazy to query it after all.
The next morning I woke up, sent nudges to the agents with my full to tell them I’d just been named a finalist, and went to work at my day job, expecting the rejections to pour in again. It was all I knew at this point.
On my lunch break, I checked my email, ready to sort away rejections and try to not cry in front of my colleagues. Instead, I nearly dropped my phone to see an email from an agent saying we should talk.
What did it mean? Was it the dreaded R&R phone call? Or was it the real deal? I sent a reply so we could set up a time. Thanks to my day job and time zones, we couldn’t talk for ten whole days. Ten whole days of agony and anxiety is what it would be.
Or would it? Before I even got a chance to talk to the first agent, I got an email from a second agent. She wanted to talk, too. I began to wonder if I was in the Upside Down.
I ended up taking both calls on the same day, back to back. With my cat in my lap, of course. By 10 AM, I had two offers. Me. My broken book. I couldn’t believe how quickly everything had changed.
So I withdrew from RevPit and sent nudges to everyone else with my query. Some rejections came back, but more requests came, too. At this point rejections were kind: I can see why you got an offer, but this just isn’t for me.
*A note on the VIVIAN Awards: because I was on a Twitter hiatus, I’d missed the discussion surrounding one of the other finalists, who wrote a book glorifying genocide. More on this below.
I made my decision (which would need a different post entirely) and notified the agents I’d spoken with. I signed the paperwork. I had an agent.
I finally got to make my very own announcement on Twitter. It was so cathartic, I cried. (Really, you’ll need to stay hydrated when you’re querying, because tears happen.)
It was time to dive into the revisions my new agent wanted me to do. And guess what? They were pretty minimal because she loved the book I’d written as it was. All those months thinking there was something inherently wrong with my story…and there wasn’t. It just needed the right person to find it.
I got a query rejection from the very first batch of queries I sent back in August. This time I laughed.
I went on submission. It so often felt like a race, and like I was falling behind. You can tell by my numbers below that I queried a lot slower than quite a few people I’ve spoken with, but I ended up on submission with my Pitch Wars CPs. Even if I hadn’t, I still wouldn’t be behind. There is no behind and that was all in my head. I wish I’d been able to shake that notion sooner, but maybe I had to learn it the hard way.
The winners for the VIVIAN Awards were announced. If you’ve caught on to a secondary theme in this post, you’ll know I wasn’t among them.
There was a lot of fallout with the VIVIAN Awards, and I’m not going to get into it here. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I disagree with their choice to give an award to the book that glorified genocide. While the news of being a finalist came at a time when I desperately needed it, I’m still grappling with what the rest means.
I don’t know what’s next for TRIVIAL PURSUIT. This is a new ballgame, but one thing querying did prepare me for was the wait. Maybe one day I’ll get to write a post about how I got a book deal, but for now I’ll leave you with my query stats and hope all my rambling was helpful to you, somehow.
Querying by Numbers
Total queries sent: 41
Total manuscript requests : 12
Time from first query to offer: 240 days, just shy of 8 months
The monthly breakdown (because I love data):
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