How I Got My Agent

Look. I’ve written and rewritten and hidden and deleted this post countless times. I’ve read every other How I Got My Agent post out there, and they’re all set up like a story. “Here’s the journey” is the gist of these posts a lot of the time. I find them both inspiring and deeply intimidating. You mean you trust that other people are going to read through all that? I’ve never thought anyone would care enough about my journey to read it on the internet for free.

So if you want stats, click here to skip the whole story. I’m not going to guilt you into sticking around. We don’t do that here. But if you’re interested to know a bit more about *gestures* all this, read on:

The Very Beginning

Oh hey, you’re here. Okay. This shouldn’t be hard. I’m moonlighting as a professional, right? So, sure, we can go back to The Beginning, if you want. I promise to try to make it interesting.

This tale, if we go alllll the way back, starts somewhere in the mid 2000s. Years are a blur to me; I measure time more in landmarks. For instance, this was after the Big Divorce and before the Violent Intro To Social Hierarchies (you must be level 4 friend to unlock my tragic backstory, so I’ll leave it at that). I remember that my mom had gone back to community college to try and get her degree at last, and I was shadowing her for the day. Though I tried my best not to draw attention to myself, since I very clearly didn’t belong there, seemingly everyone kept sneaking glances my way, with wry little smiles, like “oh look at how cute this tiny little scholar is,” making me want to melt in a puddle and never regain sentience.

Anyway, I was doing an assignment that involved writing a myth all my own. It had to have a story and it had to have a moral. I was a bookish kid, so I was determined to make it my very best. I remember typing it up on my mom’s big computer at work as I continued shadowing her for the day; I remember changing the Word Paperclip Man into different characters when I was stuck; I remember saving it onto a floppy disk at the end of the day and hoping I wouldn’t break it.

It was the first story I wrote. Wrote, as opposed to all the little fantasies I played out silently with paper dolls as a kid that were a weird mix of Animorphs and The Boxcar Children (to this day I maintain that storyline was a masterpiece and shall therefore never live anywhere other than my own blurry memories). The assignment I submitted didn’t receive any particular praise that I remember; all I know is that I enjoyed it, so I continued writing scribbled little half-finished, no-formatting-at-all-how-is-this-legible-where-are-your-dialogue-tags stories for myself.

Fast forward to my eighth grade English class, where I found out my teacher (the incomparable Mrs. Ciardullo, to whom I owe so much) had written and published a novel that was sitting somewhere in the depths of our little school library. I fell utterly in love with it, and from there came the first spark: could I do this, too?

She also introduced me to National Novel Writing Month, and one of the assignments in that class was to write a novella. During this time, I discovered that I struggle with keeping things short and simple (if my agent is reading this she will surely laugh to know this is something I’ve struggled with since the beginning) in favor of going well beyond my assigned page count for the sake of another plot twist. That first attempt at a novel also fell prey to the Great Data Loss Mistake (back up your work, friends!) when I overran my allotted time at the public library’s computer and it auto-locked me out with my flash drive still caught inside but with me unable to log back in and retrieve my work.

See, some lessons I learned young.

I hadn’t really finished anything, nothing that I was prepared to query anyway, but I love knowing everything about things, so I…well, I got ahead of myself. For my birthday that year, I got the giant tome that is Writer’s Market Deluxe (back when those cost what felt like a thousand dollars, I don’t remember) and annotated the everloving shit out of it. I was going to be ready to query now that I knew everything there was about querying, about literary agents, about how to sell your work. I knew all about SASEs and shipping your manuscript to agents who requested and…

That’s kind of where I gave up the dream.

How does a school kid who rummages around in a change jar for spare quarters to print a single three-page document at the public library scrounge up enough money to print out an entire 350-page manuscript and ship it across the country?

Well, that school kid doesn’t.

That school kid hangs up her publication dreams.

She focuses on being a star student so she can maybe one day have a job good enough that she can afford to ship a manuscript across the country.

That school kid forgets she ever dreamed of being published at all.

So that sounded kind of sad, didn’t it? Oops.

But it didn’t stay that way. I kept writing. I made some online friends who were also writing, and who are, somehow, still friends with me. We critiqued (that’s generous to say) each other’s work and did NaNoWriMo together every year and cheered each other on. Though I still wasn’t at a place where I thought anything I wrote was good enough (I had never edited anything before, for instance; first drafts were the beginning and the end for me, to my detriment), I kept writing for the sake of it. For my own entertainment, to find out what happened next; for my friends, who reminded me every day they were eagerly awaiting the next chapter; for the thrill that, wow, people were reading this and telling me it was good.

I wrote more. I got better. My confidence stuck around.

I went to college. I had difficulties. My depression made it all feel like nothing.

Things got sad again.

The Beginning for This Book

It started with a dream.

I’ve always had vivid dreams, the kind with recurring locations and callbacks and coherent plotlines. I almost always wrote them down – not for story ideas, but more because I found it fun.

This dream seemed pretty mundane at first: it was me just walking down the street outside my college dorm. Only there was a set of train tracks there, ones that don’t really exist. And a train was waiting, right at the crossroads. And a conductor standing in the door, palm held out, beckoning.

The moment I reached the train, I woke up.

From there, a second spark: I wanted – no, I needed to know what happened next.

It became a story that was indulgent wishful thinking: a train that would take me away from all the difficult things that were looming in the background of my tired reality. I fell in love with the fantasy I’d created, but it was too entangled in my heart to truly separate it from all the little pieces of myself I’d snuck into it. Maybe I showed it to someone, maybe I wanted to, but I don’t remember if I ever did.

I got stuck about halfway through and only had a vague ending in mind. My brain stopped talking to me about this story, stopped coming up with little dialogue snippets or shiny “what if” teases. I told myself I’d come back to it eventually, but didn’t believe it.

So I put it away. Traveled. Graduated. Traveled some more. Running away and running towards in a sweet amalgam of not quite knowing where one started and the other ended but wholly, completely invested in starting the hell over. In making a life for myself that was mine more than it was my desire for people to like me or my need to perform social niceties in order to weasel my way into what I perceived as a safety net.

A vague way to say I was deeply dissatisfied with my life and my surroundings and left to go build something that wouldn’t make my heart hurt.

The New Beginning for This Book

I moved to Prague. It took me two years before I finally got my bearings enough to take on the challenge of trying to put down real roots. I joined the Prague Writer’s Group, tackled NaNoWriMo again. The local workspace was hosting write-ins (you know, back in 2019 when that was still A Thing) on the weekends, and they also hosted the local critique group. I sat in on a session and ended up deciding to join. Local introvert gets a little bit of accountability, as a treat.

That meant dusting off my weird magic train book that I’d started in college and had allowed to collect dust through depression and job uncertainties and an international move. I spent a year putting it through the group, getting feedback, and revising.

Yeah, revising. That thing I still didn’t really know how to do. But with all that in mind, we made it to NaNoWrimo 2020: Full Mad Dash Rewrite.

It was on Twitter where I heard about Author Mentor Match for the first time…right as announcements were going up for the next round. Submissions would open up in January, and if I essentially did two NaNos in a row, I’d have rewritten my whole book from scratch just in time to participate. I didn’t think I’d get into AMM, really. My goal was a full request. I’d received RevPit #10queries feedback on my query and first 5 pages, and the feedback was glowing! If I didn’t make it in, I’d be happy to start querying right away.

But I did get in.

And I rewrote my book from scratch. Again.

Chelsea was the best mentor to me over that year (go order THE STARDUST THIEF!!! Right now!!!), and in her defense, she did NOT ask me to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. Didn’t even mention it! Just a few tweaks here and there for clarity and fleshing out character motivation so everything would really shine – but I got an idea to solve one of the problems she’d mentioned in her edit letter to me, which involved me switching two events around, and that domino was enough to launch a full from-scratch rewrite. Again.

Oops. Leave it to me to create more work for myself.

But I did it.

The Beginning of the Great Agent Search

I started querying in June 2021 after getting the green light on my submission package from Chelsea and my somehow-expanding network of peers. I got some rejections, pivoted my query, and kept going.

I’ll sidebar here, because this is important:

I never would have made it this far without the shining stars of community members who’ve turned into trusted friends, of people who have proven that they truly believe in me.

Moving abroad is sometimes so lonely. Even for me, an introvert who craves connection as much as I fear it. I toe the line of joining the online writing community, even now; I rarely feel like my voice contributes anything useful, so I stay silent; I cringe at curated groups because I never quite feel like I belong; when people talk over me or ignore my posts, I sigh and nod because I feel like that’s normal and even deserved. To this day, because of Things That Happened That I Only Hint At To Strangers, I’m not really sure I know how to make friends.

And yet? I’ve put down roots in quite a few different groups with people who actually get me. My friends are the most valuable part of this entire experience. I need them: the kind bullying to go freaking write already, the heated protests for days when giving up sounds like the most logical course of action. People to remind me that my work is worth something.

It is deeply, deeply weird. Weirder still that I like it.

Anyway, back to querying proper.

Query Tracker is a great tool to keep track of queries sent and responses received. I also had my own spreadsheet that I’d update regularly, because what else did I have to do while I was waiting for responses? The paid version of QT gives insight into the self-reported responses by other querying writers, which is how I’d noticed something of a pattern:

A bunch of rejections above me. A bunch of rejections below me. And then little old me smack in the middle, with no response.

Most of the querying advice out there didn’t prepare me for being skipped. I was ready for rejections, naturally even more ready for requests. I was prepared to wait around a bit, becuase all I heard about on Twitter was that agents were really behind because publishing as a whole is really behind and it trickles down to the querying writers who sometimes sit around for months before hearing a response.

Not to say those things didn’t happen – they totally did. But seeing other people get responses while I was waiting in the dust? Weird. Uncomfortable. Did my query get lost? Was I in some nebulous maybe pile? Was my query so awful that it got deleted immediately?

I’ll never know. But it kept happening. I was getting skipped more often than I was getitng responses.

And I couldn’t make any jokes about it, which is the real tragedy here. You can’t very well go on Twitter and tell the whole world how utterly skippable your work is. I mean, you could, but it doesn’t exactly leave the best impression for any agents who may decide to have a looksee at your social media. So I dubbed myself Queen Of The Maybe Pile among friends, laugh-cried at each new skip that came along, and kept going, thinking to myself that one day, you can make this joke for real.

Is that the weirdest motivator of all time? Maybe. But I’m fueled by humor and spite, so it’s incredibly on-brand for me. And, well, here I am now, making that joke.

Querying is a heart-wrenching process sometimes. I needed the jokes, and I needed the support. I got a lot of traction in pitch contests, but many of those subsequent queries went absolutely nowhere. Skips turned into apologetic rejections along the lines of “I sat on this for a while because I wanted to love it, but ultimately it’s not right for me.” Each rejection that came in was like a little punch straight to the gut, a near-physical thing.

There were a lot of rejections like that, too. “It’s not right for me.” Which was frustrating because, like, come on, I did so much research about who might be good fits for this weird little ghost train book! I picked you because you’ve written things implying you’d love it! You liked my Twitter pitch!

It hurts, doesn’t it, not to be chosen back?

When The Dream Feels Like It’s Ending

Finally, finally I got a full request! And it was like a shield for all those other rejections that would come in, because at least someone wanted to read the book.

Summer was quiet; fall was where things picked up. Pitch contest likes from agents I really admired! A full request turned into an offer quicker than I’d dared hope for! The agent had read the book on vacation and wanted to talk to me right away! We had a 3 hour long call and clicked super well! We tossed back and forth revision ideas that I thought made a lot of sense! I thought This Was It.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

Long story short, I asked to see the contract, and the agent said no, not until I agreed to sign it.

Everyone begged me not to take it any further from there. It made sense: I’d been in a situation like that for one of my first jobs, and it’d ultimately blown up in my face – I didn’t get paid for any work I did, no one communicated with me, and I ended up being let go for not working up to standards I hadn’t even been aware existed. I knew the right thing to do was to walk away, for my own safety. I would not let myself get in the same awful situation because I was desperate for a shot.

So I responded and said the contract thing was a deal-breaker for me, and tried to move on.

I was devastated. So close to that dream! All for nothing, it seemed. All the while, more rejections poured in – on fulls and partials this time.

And then when I thought This Was It, I didn’t mean it in a good way.

I’d jumped the gun and nudged my fulls with that first offer before I’d thought to ask any follow-up questions, so I’d assumed those were all dead in the water because no one had responded yet. I hadn’t nudged my queries, so those were still in play, which gave me a glimmer of relief, followed by anxiety that I Did Everything Wrong And I’ll Get In Trouble For It.

The brain raccoons were unkind to me. And it went further:

Maybe this book was too weird to click with agents and editors, even though I’d had readers adore it and tell me it was their favorite thing they’d read all year. Maybe it wasn’t going to happen for this book. It’s not unheard of for writers not to get an agent with the first book they’ve queried, after all. And I was writing a new thing that I was super excited about, and if I worked hard enough, maybe I’d be back to querying the next year.

I didn’t physically give up: I didn’t withdraw any queries or fulls. But I was two-thirds of the way to giving up in my heart. Most of the remaining fulls I had out were with agents who had a huge backlog of manuscripts to read, and a lot of the queries I had out were with agents notorious for not responding at all. 2.3% response rate and 50 unanswered fulls? Good luck.

And then I got really, really sick. No-strength-to-check-the-inbox, can’t-look-at-a-screen, dizzy-just-trying-to-drink-water sick.

By the time I got better, the deadline I’d given my fulls was days away, and everything was about to close down for the holidays. I was finally doing okay enough to have conversations without my voice giving out, and at last, I checked my query inbox.

It was empty.

I thought it would be rude or it would make me look bad if I re-emailed my nudged fulls with something like “my original offer didn’t pan out” or even “I was sick so here’s more time”, so I didn’t. By then, I didn’t think I’d hear anything back at all, so I resolved to let the timer run out and keep querying in the new year. I thought I deserved that; I’d made a mistake, after all, so this was the consequence I needed to live with. And anyway, there were a few agents I’d had on my list who’d been closed to submissions all year but who hinted they’d reopen in 2022. A glimmer of hope, but dim.

Hope, Restored

And then my inbox lit up.
An agent had read my book.
And wanted to set up a call with me.
Right before the new year.

Reader, I cried.

During our call, I understood all the little things that were missing in my first offer call, most important of which was the sense of security, a balm against my anxiety. While both agents I’d spoken to were newer, the first offer gave me a sense of, “I’ll be swimming in the storm with you,” whereas the second offer was, “I have a boat. Let’s go.”

One of the most important things she said to me on that call was, “I’m here for you and I’ll never ask you to do anything to compromise your mental health.”

I’d like the record to reflect that I’m historically not much of a crier. But I’d definitely cried more in those last few months than I had all year.

January rolled around, and I nudged the rest of my queries and re-nudged my remaining fulls with my new deadline. I got a near-immediate full request that ended in the kindest rejection I’ve ever received. A few agents replied to ask me to resubmit my original materials and they’d look at it ASAP. Most just…never responded.

Which kinda hurt, honestly, but I was already committed to my offer, especially after she sent me the kindest, most encouraging, yes-I-cried-again follow-up email a few days later – it took all my self-control not to accept her offer immediately. But I was determined to do everything Right This Time, and that meant waiting out my nudge window. Even though I already knew what I wanted.

So here I am to announce (finally, lol) that I’ve signed with Emelie Burl at Susan Schulman Literary Agency!

And in a fun little coincidence, my AMM full request came in on the same day that, one year later, would be the date I signed with my agent.

ALL THE ELSEWHERES is a book I started writing in 2014-ish amid a tidal wave of overwhelm and desperation, and it was the solace that helped me through those hard years. It’s far from the first book I’ve written, but it IS the first book I’ve thought had more than a glimmer of a chance to make it to publication, and definitely is the first book I’ve committed to revising and querying.

If you’ve read this far, thank you and I’m sorry. Your reward of statistics awaits.

Time spent querying: 6 months
Queries: 66
Rejections: 51
No response: 13
Skips: 27
Pitch likes: 19
Partials: 2
Fulls: 7
Offers: 2

I am no longer Queen of the Maybe Pile. Someone please come take my crown.

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