Thursday, April 16, 2015

How I Got My Agent

When I was in the query trenches not so long ago, I tortured myself by reading How I Got My Agent stories. If you’ve arrived at this page to feed your own masochism, then sit up straight. Yes, you. No, not that person beside you at Starbucks. I’m talking to you. Sit up and listen, because I’m going to tell you the secret to getting a literary agent. 

(Spoiler alert: You can scroll to the end if you just want the secret.)

It took a while to get the guts to write this post. Partly because a snippet of my story was already posted in Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars Success Interviews here. No need to be an attention hog. But mostly, I dragged my feet because I know the emotional impact these stories have on querying writers. That made it a heavy responsibility.

After reading How I Got My Agent posts, I always felt either:

A) More depressed  “I sent ten queries on my first manuscript and got eleven offers in a week!”


B) Uplifted and determined to make my own success.

I hope this story has the latter effect on you.

Instead of rambling for days about my journey—believe me, I could do it—I will focus on timeline and stats. Because that’s what writers really want, right? Cold, hard numbers. 
And gifs. Always gifs.


1988: I wrote a story in my third grade writing journal, detailing the summer I spent with Kirk Cameron at his mansion in California. Look, I was a Growing Pains fan, okay? Mike Seaver was going to marry me someday, he just didn’t know it yet.
Liar! My friends cried. Nay, I said. Fiction writer.


1999: My senior English teacher applauded a short story I wrote and asked me why in the world I wasn’t pursuing a writing career. An aptitude assessment had scored me highest for medical professions, so I assumed that’s what I was supposed to do. Though I shrugged her off, Mrs. Ann Looper planted a seed that wouldn’t stop growing.

2000-2007: I started and stopped post-secondary education multiple times. Got married, had my first child.  During this time, I wrote short stories, bad poetry, and journaled. I worked a few different jobs, still unsure of my career path. Finally, I decided to go back to nursing school and finish my degree.

2008: While on a break between clinical rotations, I sat down and wrote the opening lines of what would become the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever written. AKA my first novel.  Seriously, the Kirk Cameron story was better. Thankfully I had the self-awareness to know better than to query it.

2009-2011: I graduated nursing school and began working a hectic third shift schedule in the hospital. I had my second child. While on maternity leave in 2011, I began sketching another story idea. During late night feedings I started writing with a baby attached to me. It wasn’t until I returned to work from maternity leave that I realized just how unhappy I was with my job. I wanted to write. But my education wasn’t in a creative field. Maybe I was kidding myself to think I could make it doing something I’d only pursued as a hobby. But too bad! I’m stubborn, so I pressed on. 

I wrote between shifts, while my kids slept or played. I scribbled scenes on my lunch breaks. On napkins and post-it notes, and in emails to myself on my phone while I hid in the bathroom after dinner. At the end of 2011, my hubby accepted a great job that would relocate us, and he made a suggestion I couldn’t resist: When we move to Texas, stay home with the baby and finish writing your book. He believed in me, and since he’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, I started believing in me, too.

2012:  I finished the rough draft of my second manuscript, an adult fantasy, and began researching agents. I revised. I shared with friends who loved it and encouraged me to pursue publication. One problem, though: it was nearly 180,000 words long. Yep, it was the length of three novels. I started sending queries, anyway. In my query, I called it a "tri-genre amalgamation." *FACEPALM* Oh, rookie mistakes! Though I did get some positive feedback from agents on the sample pages, the consensus was the same: This novel is much too long.

That's what she said.

2013: I got my first full manuscript request. This agent said she loved my opening pages! Clearly, this was it. Told everyone and their cousin’s monkey’s younger brother’s roommate's uncle. I bragged to family in a group email. Two weeks later, I received a kind but generic rejection. 

To pick myself up, I joined The Writer’s League of Texas. I networked on Twitter with other writers. I heard about a contest called Pitch Wars, for unagented writers seeking a mentorship. Then I did something that changed my career: I followed Brenda Drake on Twitter. Though I’d whittled my adult fantasy word count down to 125k, I knew it could still use work. After all, the assistant of my dream agent was going to be a mentor! And since DREAM AGENT was closed to queries, I thought landing this mentor would put me in the agent's field of vision.

I had only sent about 25 queries, so I stopped querying and put all of my eggs in the Pitch Wars basket. I revised until I got my word count under 100k. I attended Writer’s Digest seminars on query and pitch writing. When the Pitch Wars submission window opened in December (on my birthday! It had to be a sign!), I entered, with Lady Lioness—assistant to Louise Fury—at the top of my mentor list. Though I felt confident when I clicked send, disappointment soon followed. I did not get in. Womp womp. 

However, I got one hell of a consolation prize: critique partners. Also known as life-changers. These three women--Janet, Sonia, & Kristin--have read every flaming piece of garbage I’ve ever written, and they've given me tactful, tough love to help me grow and improve. Also, I get to read their books before everyone else for life so HA. Be jealous.


January-February: My CPs read my manuscript and gave me some constructive advice and encouragement. I read for them, too. I learned how to critique, how to apply feedback, and how to pace my plot so it didn't turn into a word-count monster.

March: Entered Pitch Madness. I realized one of the hosts was tweeting about my story a day before the reveal. There can't be another entrant with the same name as a former Miss Universe, right?

Got my hopes up so far they needed a spacecraft to reenter the earth’s atmosphere.

Did not get in. 

Cue tears, beers, and irrational fears. I later found out I was a finalist, but didn’t make the cut.

April: I entered Nest Pitch, either because I’m tenacious or insane. Guess what? I GOT IN! I even got some requests! Kept my optimism in check, though. Joined my local chapter of RWA. Distracted myself by surrounding myself with other writers with similar goals, reading books about writing (I highly recommend On Writing by Stephen King and anything by Angela Ackerman) and learning as much as possible. 

At the end of the month, I won an honorable mention for a short story I submitted to a Writers' Weekly contest.

May: As the rejections on the requests I got in NestPitch poured in, I started writing the outline for my third manuscript—a YA contemporary with a twist of magic called FALSE START.

June: I sent my final query for the adult fantasy manuscript (which turned into an R&R by December—more on that in a minute) and held a memorial service for it. I was ready to move on.

July: I wrote my third manuscript hard and fast. It took me 6 weeks, start-to-finish, to write FALSE START. Much faster than the 18 months it took me to write the previous one. 

Meanwhile, one of my short stories was accepted for publication in a literary journal. I joined SCBWI.

August: My CPs encouraged me to enter the new manuscript in Pitch Wars. So because I’m basically this Chumbawamba song, I took their advice.

September: Kes Trester, one of the Pitch Wars mentors I submitted to, emailed me and asked for additional pages and a synopsis. Not gonna lie, I peed a little.  I hadn’t heard a peep from any of the mentors the year before, so I knew this was a great sign. A few days later, Kes emailed me with her thoughts and made some suggestions that would mean rewriting a big portion of my story. Was I willing to do that? I wanted a mentor and I wanted to have the best possible manuscript before I presented it to the agent world, so it only took me a minute to respond with an emphatic YES.

For the next 10 days, I waited for the mentee picks to be announced. Self doubt is a beast. I slowly spiraled into a pit of despair. She wouldn't pick me, I just knew it. It was going to be another dream crusher. But then on September 15th at midnight, the picks were announced. That brilliant, glorious, flaxen-haired goddess had chosen me! I was IN.


Mid September-November: Kes did not go easy on me. She made me make hard decisions. I revised. And revised. And revised some more. We ended up with a story that was so much better than the one I submitted. When the agent round went live, I got multiple requests. But did DREAM AGENT request from me? Sadly, no. She passed my entry right on by.  

I queried more agents on my list while the Pitch Wars agents were reading. Requests began to trickle in faster than they had for my previous manuscript. 

I joined a secret society of Pitch Wars mentees on Facebook. Made lots of new friends and gained more CPs. They kept me sane as we all waited together.
(I am still pretty fond of them. Pitch Wars Class of 2014 4EVA.)

December 7: Participated in #PitMad on Twitter. Thanks to Janet, pitch-critiquer-extraordinaire, I got several favorites (requests). One of them happened to be DREAM AGENT WHO PASSED ME BY IN PITCH WARS. After two years of trying to find a way to get my words in front of this closed-to-queries-agent (including applying for her intern position a couple of times, haha I’m SHAMELESS y’all), it was finally happening.

December 12: I got an out-of-the-blue R&R on my adult fantasy manuscript from an agent who’d had it since June. She'd been busy and was also closed to queries during this time. I was ecstatic! We corresponded a few times, and I mentioned my new YA story. During this correspondence, we talked cordially, and I got a little too comfortable, so I made an inappropriate joke about balls. Not the sports kind. Because apparently, optimism flips my dumbass switch. She opened the door for the joke, and I blasted through the wall like the Kool-Aid man. Lucky for me, she was totally cool with balls jokes. She wrote back and asked to see the full for FALSE START, so I sent that one to her and crossed my fingers. 

*Note: I do not recommend making jokes to agents about genitalia. I just got lucky that it didn’t backfire.*


December 17: As I sat in Chili’s eating dinner with my family, my email dinged. It was a response to one of my full requests for FALSE START. Another rejection, I assumed as I skimmed it. But wait… no. This one was different. This one wanted to talk to me on the phone. Sweet Lord and all the heavenly saints, it was THE CALL. That magical unicorn that only exists in dreams was finally standing right in front of me. A Christmas miracle come early!

I read the email at least 10 times in shocked silence before my husband finally asked me if I was okay. I looked up at him, burst into tears, and handed him my phone, because I couldn’t speak. The Chili’s patrons probably thought we were having a fight. I was crying, and he kept screaming, “What! WHAT?! WHAT!!!” as he read the email himself. Our children stared at us like we had nipples on our foreheads.

December 19: I stuttered and bumbled through THE CALL with offering agent. It was all I could do to keep from jumping through the phone and spooning this woman for the flattering things she said about my story.  Since the holidays were near, I asked for ten days to consider her offer, so I could respectfully let other agents with the manuscript know and give them a chance to offer as well. She agreed.

That afternoon, I nudged all of the agents with my manuscript, and the ones I’d queried but hadn’t heard from. A flood of full requests came in after that.  One of them was from DREAM AGENT, who already had a partial from #PitMad.

Over the next ten days, I received more offers. What would I do? How would I choose? They were all wonderful!

There is no greater validation than having literary professionals champion your work. I had been starving for this validation. Starving like a premenstrual woman doing a juice cleanse across the street from Ben & Jerry’s.

December 29: DREAM AGENT followed me on Twitter. Cue the freakout, since she was still reading my manuscript on deadline day. Soon after, she emailed me asking for a call. I’m not gonna tell you what I did, but it may or may not have involved a furniture trample that would make Tom Cruise’s couch dance look like tea with Her Majesty.

You’d think I would’ve been ready to talk to her after all the calls I had that week, but nope. I was still a blubbering idiot. She offered anyway. She was funny and smart and just as lovely as I always imagined she would be. Not only did she get my characters, she had specific revisions in mind that resonated with my vision for the story. She told me, in no uncertain terms, she would expect me to work hard. In return, she would work hard for me. We would be investing in each other. I was sold.

December 30: I accepted an offer of representation from Louise Fury. For two years, I had been trying to weasel my way into this lady’s good graces, and it finally came to fruition. I was on top of the world!

Then came the not-so-fun part: I had to write five separate emails letting the other agents down.
Y’all. This was hard. So hard.
I saved the hardest one for last, and I sobbed all the way through it as I wrote.

Though I know without a doubt that I made the right decision for my career, it’s very hard to reject people who believe in you. That’s when I finally understood why agents send form rejections. Man, form rejections used to piss me off. But I get it now.

December 31: Got a seventh email asking for a call if I hadn’t already made a decision. I got the immense pleasure of responding with a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, then breaking the news that I had accepted representation from Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.

Louise Fury

Now for stats!

First novel:

Never queried. Trunked for life unless I decide to burn it. Although I like to glance back at it from time to time so I can appreciate how far I’ve come.

Second novel:

Queries sent: 110 (including contest requests)
Full requests: 11
Partial requests: 6
Rejections: 87
No response: 22
R&R: 1

Third novel:

Queries sent: 82 (including contest requests)
Full requests: 19
Partial requests: 4 (later upgraded to fulls)
Rejections: 36
No response: 23
Offers of representation: 7

So if you’ve made it this far, you deserve to know the secret to getting an agent.
The secret is….


Surround yourself with supportive people. Write like you mean it. Take criticism from CPs with grace. Make changes. Take chances. Be brave. Your time is coming. Anything is possible if you believe.