Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How I Got My (First) Agent

[UPDATE 12/14/15: This agent is not my agent anymore. I debated deleting this post entirely. But signing with her and the time I spent with her is still an important part of my journey. It's a journey, folks.]

First I wrote plays for fifteen years. In this time, I amassed over 400 rejections, but I also learned writing discipline, how to take feedback and revise, how to research and track submission opportunities, and how to handle those rejections with a modicum of grace. Usually.

So when I transitioned into writing middle grade fiction, my first manuscript was not an unpolished mess.  It was also not publishable, and I understand why now, but I’d gotten feedback, and revised and polished, and researched agents, and written a good query letter. And I got four full requests, which isn’t shabby, but they all came back rejections (or didn’t come back at all).

So I wrote Manuscript #2. I’ve always started writing the next novel (or play) as soon as I start querying one. And the second one was better. I also got terrific critique partners during the writing of this one. Again I got four full requests. Three of those turned into rejections, one was a revise & resubmit from a fantastic agent. I worked hard on that revision, but ultimately it turned into a rejection.

I wrote Manuscript #3. My critique partners went NUTS. This was going to be it. I got 14 full requests, so I went a little nuts too. And…the rejections started rolling in. Never with feedback I could use to improve the manuscript—generally with feedback like, “It’s not right for me, but someone else is going to love it.” This manuscript also made the long list for the Times of London/Chicken House International Prize for Children’s Fiction, which was super exciting. But it didn’t progress beyond that.

I wrote Manuscript #4. This was quieter. I did not expect much agent response. But again, I got 14 full requests. These almost all came back rejections too. Generally along these lines: “This is really beautiful…but it’s too quiet to debut.” I had a phone call with one agent who requested a revision, which I did. Got amazing green lights from my critique partners before sending the revision off…and it got rejected. BUT this manuscript is currently on the long list for the Chicken House prize. Hope lives for Manuscript #4!

I wrote Manuscript #5. This one was a quiet contemporary story based on a real friendship I had in elementary school. I was sure it wouldn’t make any huge splash, but I didn’t seem to be able to win no matter what I wrote, so I was going to write what I wanted to write and damn the torpedoes. (Not that I’m calling agents torpedoes. But you know.) But I got eleven requests! And…then they started coming back as rejections. Mostly sounding something like this: “I like this…but I don’t love it.” Or even, “I love this…but I don’t love it enough.” And also, “This is kind of slow.”

I wrote Manuscript #6. It was very different. And critique partners were very enthusiastic. I was trying NOT to get excited because, well, see above. I was in a final round of polishing, about a week away from starting to query AGAIN when I got an agent email.

It was an overdue rejection for Manuscript #3. Then, five minutes later, another agent email appeared and I sighed. Here we go again, two in one day, terrific. Except…it said “I loved this! I couldn’t put it down!” It was for Manuscript #5, the school friendship story other agents had said was slow.

It was also from a crazy-amazing agent. You guys, I just can’t even. An agent who had been in my very first batch of queries for every single manuscript.

BUT she hadn’t said it was an offer in her email, and because of my previous agent phone call letdown, I was NOT GOING TO GET MY HOPES UP. (Except I totally did.)

So we had a phone call almost a week later because of scheduling issues. She offered (pause for kitchen happy dance), I nudged the other agents with materials despite deep temptation to accept the offer on the spot, but ultimately signed with my first agent.

I want to encourage anyone still on the querying road. Keep writing, keep querying, you WILL find the agent who is your perfect match [for that stretch of your journey]. Eventually. In the meantime, eat chocolate and write some more.

Okay, now for the numbers:

Queries sent (for the manuscript I got the offer on): 54
Requests: 11
Rejections on fulls before the offer: 6
Time from query to full request – 1 day 
Time from full request to offer – five months

Queries sent for ALL middle grade manuscripts: 290
Full requests: 47
Total Time in the Query Trenches: 3 years