How I Got My Agent
My agent story is also a DVpit success story, so I’ll shout from the rooftops how absolutely wonderful DVpit is for marginalized writers and how much Beth Phelan is doing to help with the lack of diversity in publishing. And, no, I wasn’t one of those people who got like 4,000 likes on my pitch either. It only takes one “yes” if it’s the right one.
I messed around with writing when I was in elementary school, jotting little stories into cute notebooks I bought with the intention of filling them with words. But that never happened. I’d write a chapter or two then lose interest. So I wouldn’t really say I’m one of those people who have been writing my entire life and all that. Nah. About ten years ago, I was listening to a Katy Perry song, E.T., and thought it might make an interesting story to write about a girl who falls in love with an alien. So, I wrote a book about it. It was YA, it was entertaining to write, but I never thought about doing anything with it. I wrote it just for fun. For the hell of it. Then I got an idea for a sequel and a third after that. I wrote those, too. Just for fun. For the hell of it.
Once I started telling a couple of people about these books I wrote for fun, though, they asked the obvious question of, “Are you gonna try to get them published or what?” From the time I was a kid, the idea of being a published author fascinated me. I imagined it as this unobtainable thing reserved only for these special, mysterious people, though. It’d be cool, but it wasn’t something I could ever accomplish. Just the same, I started looking into how to get a book published, doing some research and decided I wanted a literary agent to represent me. I came up with a query letter (which was awful, I know now), and in January of 2014, I told myself I’d query the first in the series for one year. If nothing happened, I’d move on. And I did just that…queried for one year.
And nothing happened.
I mean, not a thing! Not even a partial request!
About the time I was coming around on that one year mark, my dad died. He was only 68. It was pretty devastating. I’ve been obsessed with anything having to do with the 1960s since I was little. Growing up in an interracial family (white mom, black dad) in a mostly white suburb, I’d watch stuff on T.V. and see pictures of black people being sprayed with hoses or lynched or being attacked by police dogs, and it’d make me cry. I had such respect for what they’d gone through in order to improve my life, I felt so much emotion toward them, but I never knew a thing I could do to thank them.
I’d had this idea kicking around in my head for a while about a biracial girl living in the 1960s, but there wasn’t much of a story there. Just fragments, really. While looking through old pictures of Dad with my mom in the early 1970s, I decided I’d try to write this biracial girl’s story, even if I didn’t know exactly where it was going. My dad was one of those people who lived through the turmoil of the 1960s, and I’d do this to show him my thanks.
I started. I still remember exactly where I was when I wrote the first pages of the book I’d call THE “OTHER” BOX, which has now turned into THE OTHERNESS OF BEING LO. I was sitting on the floor of my living room one night after my daughter and husband had gone to sleep, and after that moment, it just came to me. The whole story, it was right there, and I got it typed out as fast as I could. It was an adult book about a sixteen-year-old biracial girl named Loretta “Lo” who’s butt-crazy in love with her white best friend, Paul, in their small Ohio town in 1963, and she’s hidden it for years. They start up a secret romance and all sorts of racially motivated crap ensues.
I loved that book. I still do.
I started querying it in April of 2015, about five months after my dad died with the idea in mind that I was doing it for him, as a tribute to everything he went through as a black kid growing up in West Virginia, and my parents went through as an interracial couple who started dating in 1971. I got some interest right away…in fact, the third query I sent out got me a partial request! I thought I’d made it! The agent (I’ll never forget him) got back to me on the first 50 pages in two days. It was a pass, but he took the time to give me some very detailed feedback. He even pulled out specific sentences and explained why they didn’t work for him in the narrative. It was one of the best rejections I’ve ever gotten.
It sucked. I was pretty upset, but I kept querying. That summer, another agent requested the partial and then the full. She got back to me telling me she liked the characters and the voice, but thought it should be YA. She said she’d be interested in taking a second look if I decided to change it to YA. I thought about that, agreed with her, and got revising. I cut it from 105K to 80K words, did some other stuff, and sent it back to her. After about a month, she responded saying she still liked it, but not enough to sign it. It was definitely a tear-inducing rejection, but I kept going.
I joined twitter in September of 2015 and started reading about the lack of diversity in publishing. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. I can’t say I didn’t notice it…I just never thought about it. In fact, those first three books I wrote about the girl in love with the alien? She was white. I never specifically addressed her race in the books, but, in my mind, she was white. She was white because I never even considered making her biracial like me.
I’ll say that again…I NEVER EVEN CONSIDERED MAKING HER BIRACIAL LIKE ME.
Pretty much all the characters I read about ever since I was a kid were white, so it never even entered my mind to make the first character I ever wrote in the first book I ever finished biracial. I dug deeper into this lack of diversity in publishing, especially in kid lit, and realized the type of story I wrote needed to be told.
I wouldn’t quit on this book. I entered it into contests. I didn’t get in. I got a lot of interest from agents, a decent amount of requests…there were times I had ten or twelve fulls out at once. But they all turned into passes, and I couldn’t understand why. I figured I just needed the right agent, the ONE, and it would happen for me.
I queried that book into the ground.
Sometime during this whole process, I “met” Suzanne Park through a contest, I think. We decided to try out being CPs, something I had none of until then. I instantly loved the voice in her writing, and she gave solid feedback, too, so it was a win-win.
Then came DVpit. From the moment I read about the idea, I knew I had to participate, and I did, in the very first one. I got a total of 13 likes from agents. Now, I know that’s not some astronomical amount, but, I was pretty pumped. I queried those agents. I got some full requests, but they all turned into eventual passes, and I still couldn’t figure out why.
So, what did I do? I kept on querying. Sooner or later, I’d have to find that one agent, right?
While all this went on in my writing life, however, something else was going on in my personal life. In May of 2015, my daughter stopped talking, stopped playing with her toys, stopped turning the pages in her books and pretending to read, stopped being…her. We took our concerns to the doctor, had some testing done, and by the summer, she was diagnosed with autism.
Okay, I’m a teacher. I’ve worked with kids with disabilities for years. I’d do the same with my daughter. But all the therapies we tried, all the things that seemed to make such a huge difference in other kids with autism, they didn’t work for her. My husband and I grew increasingly frustrated, feeling like something else was going on, but one of the things that kept me going was my writing. I loved it. I adored my latest book. I WOULD find an agent for it.
In September of 2016, my daughter started holding her breath to the point that she almost passed out. We thought she was having seizures, so we took her to a neurologist who suggested we do a blood test for Rett syndrome. I’d heard of Rett. In fact, I asked, based on my research, that she be tested for it when we got her initial autism diagnosis, but the doctor didn’t think that she had Rett and told me it wasn’t necessary. We prayed it wasn’t Rett. Rett syndrome not only included some symptoms of autism, but those of epilepsy, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy…it shortens the life span of the people who have it.
We prayed it wasn’t Rett.
In October of 2016, we got the call from the neurologist that my daughter’s blood test had come back positive. She had Rett syndrome.
During all this, I queried my book. I got on twitter and started meeting people. I participated in pitch events like Pitmad and DVpit and got some interest, but not a ton. I leaned on my writing. It kept me going.
Around the end of 2016, I thought it might be time to change things up a bit.
So, I wrote another book.
This time, it’d be about a girl whose little sister has Rett syndrome. It’d be based a lot on my own frustration when I knew something else (even Rett) was going on with my daughter, but I was ignored by her doctors. It’d have to do with interracial family dynamics and how society can pressure people to act in certain ways and change the person they are. I remember starting that one, too. I was sitting on the couch in my daughter’s playroom, and within the first five pages, I was bawling my eyes out. I emailed Suzanne and told her I didn’t think I could do it. I just wasn’t ready.
But that only lasted a few days. Within the week, I got on it, and this one came to me as quickly as the last. It still had the same otherness factors, because the MC was a biracial girl living in 1969, but it had this whole late-sixties hippie vibe and fantastic music. I mean, part of it takes place at Woodstock! Not only that, but it included a character with Rett syndrome, this disorder impacting my family so much that most people had never heard of.
I finished it. I sent it to Suzanne for feedback. I started querying it.
I still kept querying my book about Lo and Paul, but less. At this point, I realized it needed some revisions, and I made them. I’d read some craft blogs while drafting my newer book, I’d improved my writing. But something I also realized was that I’d queried poor old Lo and Paul to over 200 agents without much revising at all. Which brings me to
PIECE OF ADVICE #1: SLOW IT DOWN!!! By the time I realized what revisions that book really needed, I queried it to so many agents, there weren’t any left for me to send it to! Yes, I did requery a few. And yes, I did get some requests out of that. But still, they all ended in rejections.
In the summer of 2017, I entered Query Kombat with my new book, and I got in! Huge thanks to Laura Heffernan for putting me on her team! I even made it to round three, but was ultimately voted out to the entry that won the whole thing. I got some great feedback on my query and opening page during that contest, plus met some amazing people.
My awesome CP, Suzanne, got an agent through Pitch Wars in 2016, so I thought I’d take a stab at it and enter my new Rett book in 2017. About two weeks before they announced who got in, I got an R&R from an agent. I liked her suggestions, so, I made the incredibly difficult decision to pull my entry from Pitch Wars to pursue the R&R. I kept in touch with some amazing mentors and other PW hopefuls I’d met through the contest, though.
I did the R&R. It took me about six weeks. I sent the revised version back to the agent. I waited for a month or two for her to get back. And it was a rejection. She liked the changes, but signed someone who wrote in a similar voice in the meantime, and just wasn’t interested anymore.
This was another major tear-inducing rejection.
I emailed one of the PW mentors I’d kept in touch with, Kip Wilson, to tell her about my disappointment, and she offered to work with me as an unofficial mentee. Her notes blew my mind. They got my wheels spinning immediately. She made suggestions that helped me to open a creative side I didn’t know I had, and I ended up crafting some of my absolute favorite parts of that book from her advice.
I worked on revisions. She took another look, even gave me line edits. She cheered me on if I needed advice. She was great. I finished revisions, and started querying it again in February of 2018. I needed something to keep my mind active, though. Something to do in the meantime.
So, I wrote another book.
This one also took place in the 1960s (I really like the ‘60s if you haven’t noticed), but it was in 1962 and a YA retelling of the movie All About Eve starring Bette Davis. It was just a fun write for me. I’d had the idea to retell that movie for a while, so I decided to do it. It wasn’t attached to any super deep part of me, like my last two books, and I think that helped to relax me a bit while querying my Rett book.
In April of 2018, I participated in DVpit again with my Rett book and my retelling…I’d participated in almost every one since they started, but this one, in particular, became important later. I entered this new book in Query Kombat again. I didn’t get in this time. I queried it, only very, very slowly. I got a decent amount of interest. I got good feedback from agents who rejected it, and even offers to take a second look if I revised. I geared up to enter Pitch Wars again at the end of summer and met some more wonderful people in the PW community doing Poe Prompts and hanging out on the hashtag. I found a couple more people to exchange pages with, critiquing each other’s work, which leads me to
PIECE OF ADVICE #2: GET SOME CPS AND BETAS!! I’ve been extremely lucky, and every time I swapped pages, even just a first chapter with someone, they’ve given me nothing but helpful, respectful feedback (well, almost every time), and I know that’s not always the case, so definitely be careful about sharing your work, but getting feedback and first impressions from other writers has done nothing but improved my own writing.
My retelling book was done, just working on a few more revisions based on agent feedback, and I had a new idea.
So, I wrote another book.
A YA contemporary (gasp!) fantasy (double gasp!) about a character dealing with her debilitating OCD, based on my own experiences, which leads me to
PIECE OF ADVICE #3: WRITE ANOTHER BOOK!! I know some people might disagree with this, but, take it from me, someone who beat a book they loved into the ground querying it, someone who refused to give up, someone who imagined the dedication on the front page, “For my dad,” and couldn’t let go of that dream…it helped me to write more books. My craft improved, it became less stressful to get a rejection when I knew I was working on something new and that rejection wasn’t the end of the road. And…AND…that Rett book, the fifth book I wrote, the third I queried, the one I wrote after two years of querying THE OTHERNESS OF BEING LO and refusing to give up on it, not only did it become the ultimate book of my heart, my #1 absolute favorite, but IT GOT ME MY AGENT!!!
Again, right before Pitch Wars mentees were to be announced (like seriously, right before), I got an email from Kat Kerr asking if the manuscript was still available. It was a full I’d sent after DVpit in April, so I figured she wanted to make sure I hadn’t signed with someone before she took the time to read it. The same night I responded to her, however, I got another email asking for a phone call with her and Marisa Corvisiero. I couldn’t believe it. I had my sights so set on hoping to get into Pitch Wars, I truly never expected it.
We had THE CALL on a Monday morning, and I knew right away I wanted to work with Kat and Marisa. I’d found someone who loved my book as much as I did—the music, the family dynamics, the music, the time period, the music, the sisterly bond…the music. : )
I had to pull my entry from Pitch Wars, again, but this time, with an offer of representation rather than just the hopes of one.
I signed my contract at the dining room table with my daughter sitting on my lap, snuggling into my neck, and my husband taking pictures.
I’m so thrilled now to start on the next leg of my writing journey. It took me almost five years since I started querying before I signed with my agents, but I learned a ton along the way. And, I’ve got three other solid books waiting in the wings. I won’t give any of that “don’t give up” advice, because I know every writer has heard it a million times. Instead, I’ll say go ahead and embrace the frustration and the tears. I did. Many times. Like a lot. There were a few times I thought “I can’t do this anymore,” and I did consider giving up. I even might have taken a few weeks off, focused on reading or watching movies or something else. But then I came back to my writing. It’s helped to get me through a lot of tough times, and I’m eternally grateful for it.
So here’s my list of advice after five years of querying and writing a total of seven books:
* Slow down! Don’t query too fast. Save some time for revisions.
* Get some CPs and betas
* Write another book, then maybe come back to that one you can’t give up on
* Maybe try another genre…as much as I would have loved to write book after book about the 1960s, I decided to stretch myself and wrote that contemporary fantasy, and I recently started messing around with a YA romcom. Triple. Gasp.
* Research agents well before you query
* Make friends on social media, if that’s your thing
* Read craft books or blogs. I got a lot of good advice from blogs.
* If you’re a marginalized writer, participate in DVpit! Do the PreDV stuff to get advice on your pitches beforehand. Don’t be afraid to ask the writing community for help!
* Also, if you’re a marginalized writer, don’t ever, EVER allow a rejection saying your concept isn’t interesting or it’s difficult to connect with the voice or the main character is too quiet in her fight for civil rights to stop you from creating. The world needs your stories and YOU know your own experiences, whether they’re loud or quiet. Write them.
Thanks for reading!!!