I remember reading approximately three thousand “How I Got my Agent” posts while querying. Reading them made me feel so much less alone and more hopeful, so here’s my contribution to the genre.
Baby Author + Baby
Three years ago, and shortly after my son turned one, I decided I needed to do something empowering that made me feel like a creative adult (rather than the drained, sleep-deprived creature I had become in the first year of parenthood). I started writing again for the first time in a long time. Naptimes, bedtimes— whenever I wasn’t sleeping, grading, or changing a diaper, I sat down at the keyboard. When I finished my first book, I realized I had no idea what to do next. How in the world are books actually made, I wondered? Who do I send this gorgeous document to for publication?
I cringe at my lack of knowledge of the industry, but we all start somewhere. So I decided to get smart. I read a lot about how books are made. I started with Janet Reid‘s excellent blog and bought a few books about the process, including Writer’s Market and Your Novel Proposal. The latter is a great resource, but make sure to rethink the “physical mail” focus in the book, since it was written in 1999. I wrote a terrible query letter, then a better one, and a better one, and researched agents. Besides cold-querying, I jumped into query contests on Twitter, started connecting with CPs online, found an in person writing group to polish things up, and got requests for partials and fulls. I was elated!
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
But no one fell in love. The harsh truth was that, yes, it was a complete book. It had a beginning and an end and people said stuff and did things, but it didn’t hook. So I trunked it. How did I know it was time to trunk it? Well, I found myself Googling articles like, “How many rejections is enough?” . Don’t set a number for yourself, by the way. Just query all of the agents that YOU would feel comfortable having represent your work. For me, for that book, I queried nearly a hundred agents in a year– and to be honest, I shouldn’t have queried that many. All the same, I had eight full requests, fifteen partials, and one R&R, but no bites.
I also found myself Googling: “How do you know when to trunk a book?” It’s kind of like dating in that way. If you’re asking around whether something is a break-up-worthy offense, trust your gut. It probably is.
Shiny New Things
BUT, the skills I learned in trunking my first book taught me so many lessons about what I wanted to do next time. It took me a few months to get back to the keyboard, but I had a story what hadn’t been able to leave me alone since, well, before I had even written my other book. I trudged up all of the gumption I could and started again. (Fuel for getting going again included this post by VE Schwab). This time, I outlined the plot and tracked my daily progress.
When I got to the submitting step, I knew more of what I was looking for in an agent relationship and what kind of information belonged in a query letter. I understood more clearly how subjective the process is in some ways (not every book is for every person), but I also learned that my first novel really wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t. The more I read and the more I wrote, the more certain I was of that and I’m grateful for that ounce of objectivity that time and distance has given me.
By the time my second novel was ready to send out, I felt ready. The worst that would happen by my querying again would be a slew of rejections. No one was going to come break my knee-caps. While sometimes an empty inbox (or worse a big ole form rejection) can feel that way, I knew that I could survive it. More importantly, I knew that I could write again afterward. I learned the value of my time and my craft and developed a supportive community (on and offline) in the process.
So I hit the send button and crossed my fingers. I entered ALL of the Twitter contests. (#pitmad is SO much fun, btw, but also realize that not all agents participate!) The best thing to come out of Twitter competitions was seeing all of the great books in the work and chatting with other writers who were querying. Overall, I ate lots of cookies and watched my inbox.
Five months after starting the submission process, I had a run of full requests in a row from agents who made my heart race. I had a gut feeling that something was going to happen. I had to convince myself that I hadn’t had that feeling after every request… but I was right that time.
I had just dropped my kids off at daycare one morning when I saw a call on my cell whose area code came up as “New York, NY”. Ha-ha, I said to myself, inwardly rolling my eyes. Probably “the call…”
But it actually was. What followed was the call I had dreamed about for over three years. We talked about goals and what steps the manuscript had to take. And the best part? It felt right, and I felt prepared enough to ask at least half of the questions I should have. Seriously read up on those kinds of things before it happens, because just like fire safety, it’s good to be prepared. I had no idea I would be receiving a phone call that changed my life that day.
The biggest lessons I learned in the experience are as follows:
- Be professional. No one owes you anything, so be thankful for help when it comes. When agents give feedback on query letters, you can choose to take it or leave it, but it was generous of their time to do that. Feedback from Twitter contests can be invaluable! Volunteers take so much time to do this work, just to help you improve. Same goes for CPs and beta readers.
- Be alone, together. Yes, writing is a pretty solitary discipline, but find your people to gripe to about the days when the words don’t come and squee to about the good stuff.
- Be patient, with yourself and the process. You wrote a book! Take care of yourself while you let other people read it.
Much love to all of you in the querying trenches!