How I Got My Agent: Lessons from 18 Months of Querying

This post deviates from my usual lit/film analyses because writing can be a lonely endeavor, and it’s important for writers to know they’re not alone. The setbacks, heartbreak, and moments of breath-seizing hope I experienced will be familiar to anyone who’s ever closed their eyes, said a prayer, and hit SEND on a query.

I’ve wanted to be an author since I found my mom’s ’80s-era electronic typewriter, dragged it up to my room, and diligently banged out a literary masterpiece (a rip-off of the most recent R.L. Stine book I’d read). This dream got considerably side-tracked as I realized you have to actually, you know, work hard to write a good book (can you imagine?).

And then the dream died in undergrad (or so I believed for a long while), when I shared it with my creative writing professor; he wasted no time explaining my chance of ever being published was rounded down to zero. I sighed, nodded, and applied to graduate school for speech-language pathology.

Fast forward five years, and the story that’d been rattling around my skull since high school was starting to feel like a splinter in my brain. I returned to writing in earnest, spurred by an unfortunate combination of cock-sure confidence and utter ignorance as to what the hell I was doing.

I muddled my way through about a hundred pages before I realized 1) I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and 2) just how deep this ignorance ran. A few stellar craft books* set me straight, and I finally managed to write the story I’d always wanted.

Note: For anyone worried whether they’re writing their novel “fast enough,” I started my MS April 1, 2015 and didn’t finish until July 25, 2017. Quality is more important than any arbitrary deadline. If you believe in your story idea, spend as much time as you need making it the best version of that idea.

Manuscript complete, I was ready to query.

Except that I wasn’t.

And as a debut author, I had no way of knowing that. Most writers are reluctant to open themselves up to critique and failure (with good reason: it hurts. Like, ugly-crying hurts). But at the risk of sounding cliché, failure was my best teacher.

Did learning from this failure make it hurt any less?

No.

But did it get me an agent?

Also no.

At least, not right away. For a year and a half, I queried over 100 agents. After each round of rejected submissions, I researched and revised, trimmed and tightened. Gradually, form rejections evolved into personal rejections, and a few manuscript requests trickled in.

Waiting to hear back from those agents was the hardest thing (as a writer) I’ve ever had to do. Sometimes the uncertainty felt unbearable. Sadly, a couple of those who requested fulls never deigned respond, even after a full year or more passed (I sincerely hope this isn’t typical of what other writers experience).

Just when I’d started to give up hope, I got another full request from an agent who waxed enthusiastic about my writing quality. She promised to respond within a month, and I spent those next four weeks in agonized anticipation.

And then I got this emailed response:

“I think you are a very solid writer, and that you have the voice and nuance for YA and for fantasy both. At the same time, to be entirely honest with you, [your MS] read to me like the manuscript of a writer almost-there in terms of the possession of your craft: almost entirely tight and compact writing, but not quite; almost entirely sharp world-building, but not quite; characters that came alive, but not quite enough for me to internalize their personal stakes and to feel connected enough to drive forward.”

Cue the ugly-crying.

This was it. I became convinced I’d never cross the threshold of “almost there” to “there.” I moped around for days; for the first time, I seriously considered giving up writing.

Exactly one week from the day I received that rejection, an agent texted me to request a quick phone conversation about my query. Heart in my throat and a frog in my gut, I called her back. She said she absolutely loved my voice, but couldn’t offer representation until some revisions were made. She spent the rest of the call detailing her recommendations. I agreed to give them my best shot and send her the revised MS ASAP.

Remember those first 100 pages I wrote? Some of the story structure from my early days of not-knowing-what-the-hell-I-was-doing had lingered in the first quarter of my MS. Subconsciously, I’d always known something had to be fixed; but it took this agent’s patient explanation to realize I had to completely abandon the original story I’d envisioned.

A month later, I sent her the new MS. I felt hopeful and reinvigorated; even if she declined, I was certain the improvements would eventually snag an agent. Another month’s wait rewarded me with the phone call I’d toiled nearly a year and a half to hear: she absolutely loved my MS and wanted to represent me!

That agent is Ali Herring of Spencerhill Associates. I feel so lucky she took the time to call and talk me through potential revisions; I feel luckier still that my project has her unbridled enthusiasm bracing it through the current process of editor submissions.

For anyone who feels broken by the querying process; for anyone who fears their dreams are forever “just” out of reach; for anyone who’s contemplating chucking in that writer’s towel– this post is for you.

Keep fighting. Keep fixing. Keep learning.

And keep writing.

I’ll end on this quote that got me through some of my roughest days:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”  – Calvin Coolidge

*My favorite writing/story-craft books:

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
  • The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

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2 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent: Lessons from 18 Months of Querying

    1. moliverio97

      I never thought this post would be read by more than a handful of people, so I’m thrilled to hear it’s helped so many querying writers!

      Like

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