I first want to say that a lot of what got me my agent boiled down to luck. I had the right book, at the right time, for the right person. But there are some elements that had nothing to do with luck, and I’ll try to pinpoint them as best I can for those in the query trenches. I used to scour posts like these when I was in your shoes, and hope that I can be of some help.
My relationship with writing is a circular one. I wrote nonstop through high school. Completely dropped off in college. Decided I’d missed my shot after graduation. And then eventually resurrected my publishing dream about three years ago.
The first book I wrote was complete crap.
It’s very important for new authors to understand that crap first books are the norm. It was a practice book. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought beautiful words were more important than plot. Sometimes they are, but usually not. No one will ever read that first book except for me—I queried it and got nothing but form rejections—and that’s ok. I’m a firm believer that every book, and every pass through a book, teaches you something new about your style and your craft. That book taught me that I need to write better books.
Moving on to my second book. I love villains. Always have. The first time I saw Snow White, I cried when the Evil Queen was pushed over a cliff because she was the most interesting character and why did I even care about the story anymore if she was dead? So I decided to write a villain origin story. I wrote it. I polished it. I decided it was time to query.
I cannot stress enough the importance of rewriting your query. Read QueryShark. Pick yourself apart. In a shop full of delicious-smelling donuts, yours has to be the most glorious. There’s no such thing as too much revision.
Two weeks after sending out my first batch of queries, I had a couple of full requests, a partial, and only one form rejection. After the disaster of querying the first book, I thought “this is it—I did it.”. And then the rest of the rejections started rolling in. Like a lot. Enough that I rewrote and rewrote my query. And my first chapter. And sat, feeling sorry for myself, thinking that this book was the best I could do and it was getting rejected, so why was I even trying?
This is a good time to remind querying writers that publishing is a business. An agent has to CHAMPION your work. They have to read it, offer notes, send pitches, negotiate a contract—there must be love for a piece behind their work, otherwise efforts will fall flat. Rejections are good things, though they don’t feel like it. Passes mean you and that agent wouldn’t have worked well together. In the end, a no from that person saves you time and heartbreak.
What should you do while querying? I don’t recommend frantically checking your inbox (inevitable), vague tweeting your frustration (agents–and editors–check your Twitter), or comparing your wait time/journey with others’ (I see you). Write. The. Next. Thing.
During my time waiting on agent responses while querying, I wrote another manuscript. It also needs a lot of work and is not yet publishable. I hope to circle back to it one day. But writing it took my mind off the waiting at the time. I also started drafts of two other manuscripts.
Four months after I began querying my villain book (second completed manuscript, if you’re counting), I was about ready to abandon it. My request ratio was crap. I thought the book needed a rewrite. And I had exhausted a big chunk of my agent list (which I should not have done, queriers. Query in small batches and don’t automatically send out a new query when you get a rejection. Look for trends). Then, to my great surprise, I got THE EMAIL. I was eating lunch and almost choked on meatloaf.
Best part: the offer was from one of the first agents I queried. One of the first three, actually. Yes. One of the ones who received the first query I wrote, and which I had since deemed ineffective and terrible. Goes to show you—you need a good query. But when a project clicks with an agent, it clicks.
After the Call (have questions! You are selling your brand. Be discerning.) and letting the other agents know about my offer, I waited some more. And then I ultimately signed with my agent. If you’re wondering what pushed me to choose her, there were a number of things. We got along really well on the phone. She was interested in my other work. She seemed to want to rep me, not just the book. Almost two years later, all those gut feelings are more than validated. Trust yourself.
But we still had to sell the book.
This is the biggest thing I wish I could get in my time machine and tell querying Heather: the golden gates of publishing do not magically open once you get an agent. There is still much more work to be done. My new agent and I spent another four-ish months revising the manuscript—you read that right. I went on sub eight months after I sent the query that would get me my agent. That amount of time is normal. Expected. This is a long game, friends.
And then, in the next eight months on sub, the book didn’t sell.
We had some bites–some amazing, generous editor feedback that I am still more than grateful to have received–but ultimately no takers. That’s ok. I learned. I wrote. Another novel, in fact, which brings my running total up to three completed novels and two partials.
I sent my agent what I thought was a ready draft of this next manuscript in February of 2019. She sent back her notes. She loved it, but, Reader, it was not ready. In an eight-week whirlwind, I powered through about an eighty percent rewrite of the book. Note, this is not because my agent told me to, but because she asks brilliant questions and points out weak spots and knows when a piece has legs and when it doesn’t. That’s what you need in an agent. Flattery does not sell books.
I sent the revised draft back in June of 2019. It was finally sub-ready. About a week later it went to editors. And three weeks later it sold in a two-book deal to Del Rey.
This is probably a good place to reemphasize the need to believe in yourself. When I was querying my first villain book, I truly thought that manuscript was my best. It wasn’t. Nowhere near it. The version of MALICE that exists today is better than the draft that sold. As a writer, I’m always pushing myself to do better. To learn. There’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript. These days, when I get stressed about a deadline or a plot point or an unfinished novel, I remind myself of how far I’ve come. Three years ago, I didn’t have an agent. In that time, I’ve written three complete novels—two in less than a year. I’ve come so far. And it’s really important to keep that perspective, because this industry will chew you up and spit you right back out if you let it.
Having survived the query trenches and gotten a deal, sometimes I’m asked for my advice. I’m not sure that I have anything particularly inspiring to share. But this is what I’ve learned:
- Be professional: Querying is just like a job hunt. Will an employer hire you if you don’t present yourself (both in person and online) as a professional? Be discerning about which posts are good for the general public and which are better suited to closer friends.
- Be patient: Overnight success is a myth. It took me nearly a year and TWO books to get an agent. It took me a year and a half AFTER I got an agent to get a book deal—for a completely different book. Do not stake everything on your success in this field. It will let you down.
- Lift others up: You’re going to be jealous of other people’s victories. I get jealous. Do the best you can to focus on your own work and offer them congratulations. They earned it. Hopefully it circles around to you, too.
- Be respectful: Don’t slip into the DMs of a person you don’t know because you want an agent connection or unsolicited advice (unless you KNOW that person is ok with it). Don’t harass an agent online (or in person)—they’re people and they deserve lives. They deserve weekends and holidays and lunch. They don’t get paid until their clients do, and they won’t want to work with you if you don’t respect their humanity.
- Be wary: I didn’t spend a single cent on getting published, and I don’t recommend doing so. Fine if you want a professional copyeditor or whatever–do what seems right. But be wary. Again, agents don’t get paid until their clients do.
- Listen to feedback: I one-hundred percent believe the reason I got my deal is because of feedback. I looked for trends in what editors said in their passes on the first book that went out. I took my agent’s notes to heart. That doesn’t mean I wrote a book for them, but I looked at my manuscript with new eyes and an open mind, knowing that it could be better. It would be better. But not if I couldn’t admit its flaws.
I hope this post was at least a little helpful. If you’re in the trenches—sub or querying—don’t compare my journey to yours. Things happen when they happen. Often unexpectedly. Almost always slowly (actual slow, not millennial slow). If you want to be a writer, then write. I have several manuscripts that will likely never be published. They weren’t a waste of time because I’m better because of them.
Good luck, and I sincerely hope to see you all on the shelves one day.