I love a good How I Got My Agent story. As a querying writer, they gave me hope. As an agented writer, they make me want to high five every fellow author who’s one step closer to publication.
Here’s the thing about these stories. While they’re all unique, they follow a certain pattern: writer gets rejected a lot, connects with the right agent via query, conference, or referral, gets an offer of rep (maybe more than one), and rejoices. When I sat down to write my own How I Got An Agent story, I realized I didn’t want to share my stats or the sequence of events as much as all the things that surprised me along the way.
As much as I thought I knew about publishing and the querying process, there were numerous unexpected moments and emotions I experienced (oh, the emotions!). So rather than sprinkle fairy dust over everything and offer platitudes about hard work paying off or dreams coming true, I’m going to share the very real ups and downs (and more downs) about landing an agent.
Ready? Let’s do this.
No matter how awesome your query letter or manuscript is, it can always be better.
I workshopped the hell out of my query. I thought it was perfect. I sent it out. I got some requests! Then I got some rejections. Then I got more rejections. I revised the query, convinced, now it’s really perfect, the best it’ll ever be.
Meanwhile, I polished the manuscript so many times, that sucker gleamed. Then I got agent feedback that had me scrambling to fix pacing issues.
That shiny new query? It was doing okay, but not raking in as many requests as hoped. It wasn’t until the third and shortest version of my query (which my fantastic critique partner helped me pare down) that I saw a noticeable bump in requests.
And the manuscript? It’s been revised seven or eight times. For all I know, it might get tinkered with some more. That da Vinci quote, “art is never finished, only abandoned” is especially true when it comes to novels.
However much faith you have in your book, you will lose it.
Oh man, I thought my book was the shit. Then the rejections started coming in, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my book was… just shit.
I oscillated between believing I hadn’t found the right agent to worrying something was lacking in my novel I couldn’t pinpoint. Most of the rejections were of the “it’s not you, it’s me” variety, but eventually I thought, maybe it is me.
I got to a point where I resigned myself to the fact that if I was going to get an agent on this first book, it would’ve happened by now. Which brings me to…
There’s no such thing as normal timelines.
I’m part of a writing group filled with many talented writers (Table of Trust shoutout!). We connected as 2014 Pitch Wars finalists/alternates. I’ve seen dozens (yes dozens) of them get agents since last autumn. I know writers who got offers of rep within a week of a contest ending. But for one, it was her third book that got her an agent, and another has been at it for a decade and wrote six books before achieving what looked like overnight success.
In my case, it took about six months of querying, which is on the shorter end of the spectrum, but felt like a lifetime while in the thick of it. And this doesn’t include the novel I wrote in my early 20’s or the non-fiction project that fell through just shy of a publisher’s threshold. Those six months are really the culmination of years of work. They still dragged out for me, though. They felt so long, I actually wrote a second book while querying the first.
Speaking of timelines, the same thing applies to agents responding to materials. Don’t assume if an agent hasn’t replied in a couple of weeks—or even months—it means they’re not interested. That’s what I believed when I saw writers around me getting offers, on average, within 2-4 weeks of their work being requested. It didn’t happen that way for me: the first offer I got came off of my first full request, six months after sending the manuscript.
it’s maddening, but there’s really no way to predict timing on these things. And it doesn’t stop with getting an agent. I’ve talked to writers who’ve had their debut novels sell in as quickly as two weeks and as others who waited years for their first book deal.
Rejections sting, but the nicer ones can hurt even more.
Despite any writerly delusions of grandeur I have (and boy, do I have many), I knew to expect rejections. I got them, plenty of them. They have a tendency to come in batches, and getting one after another over the course of a few days can feel like getting beaten up.
What really shocked me was how devastating the nice passes could be. I had one agent who called me out of nowhere to request a partial (that’s a heart attack for another time). She turned it down a couple of weeks later and her email was kind and complimentary. Here’s a line from it:
“I have a good feeling someone will make this fly and I hope you’ll send me an autographed copy one day!”
I cried buckets after that rejection. I was inconsolable.
I don’t know why, because a personalized note is much kinder than a form letter or silence. She wasn’t even critical in her email, she just knew she wasn’t the right agent for my book. Maybe that’s why I found it demoralizing. I wrote something agents were saying was good but somehow missed the mark with them. It was scary to wonder if this was as close as I’d ever get.
The silence can be equally maddening.
Agents can take months to respond to a query letter, to say nothing of a partial or full manuscript request. But many are no implementing a “no response means no” policy. Sometimes you get a time frame (i.e. “no response in 6-8 weeks means no”), but other times you’ll wait months and months and end up with nothing. I’d estimate 35% of my queries were CNR (closed, no response), which is disappointing, because there was no closure.
Nowadays, writers don’t just need to prepare themselves for a lot of rejection, but also a lot of indecipherable silence.
Beware of magical thinking and reading too much into things.
I’m superstitious by nature. I’m always on the lookout for omens and signs from the universe. In other words, I have a tendency to read way too much into things. Which is great when you’re writing (symbolism, subtext, and metaphor are my friends), but not so great when you’re querying.
It’s also dangerous when you follow agents online and check their tweets, blog posts, and comments/data on QueryTracker. Many agents tweet about their slush pile, so that adds to the paranoia. You want to believe every good tweet is about your work and every bad tweet is about someone else’s. One time, an agent requested my full minutes after she tweeted this:
“Q997 literary, a bit of an off-kilter read, not like Sliding Doors but gives me that vibe. Request. #1000queries”
Between the timing, the relevance to my story, and the fact that this agent requested very few fulls, odds are good this was about me. But still not 100%.
Another time, an agent who followed me on Twitter and had my full manuscript randomly unfollowed me. I was sickened and utterly convinced a rejection from her was on the horizon.
There’s a glitch in Twitter’s platform that sometimes does automatically unfollows people. And maybe that’s what happened with this agent. But even if she did so on purpose, she still ended up offering me rep.
In the end, I wasted a lot of energy on worrying. That’s something that happens frequently when you’re in the query trenches (and beyond them).The time between getting an offer and accepting is weirdly stressful and emotional.
After six solid months of queries, contests, requests, rejections, tears, stress eating, and riding the rickety roller coaster of hope, it finally happened: I got an offer. Then I got to send numerous nudge emails. I informed every agent who had my query or materials of my offer and gave them a two week deadline. Over the next couple of days, I felt like the belle of the literary ball as I got showered with full requests, some from agents I had CNR’d. That week, I had calls with two other agents, one of whom offered.
It was exciting and flattering to have this much interest, as well as enormously validating. It also frayed my nerves. I lost my appetite and had trouble sleeping during this entire limbo period. I was thrilled, but also scared. When the first offer came in, I worried it would fall through. When I got the second offer, I worried about making the right decision, and how each agent could potentially affect my writing career.
The entire time, I kept wondering, “Is this really happening?”
I braced myself for final hour rejections that would feel like sucker punches. I didn’t get any of those, but did get a couple of R&Rs (revise and resubmit) from agents who had different visions for my novel, which made me briefly question whether my vision was the correct one.
Many writers prefer to give other agents one week to consider after getting an offer, but I’m glad I gave it two. Even though it meant extending the bizarre torment of being in a nearly-agented-but-not-quite grey area, it also gave me a chance to cast a wide net. Many of the full requests wouldn’t have materialized with a shorter timeline. For some agents, even two weeks wasn’t enough time.
Make no mistake, I’m not complaining about the harrowing experience. It’s a glorious torture I would wish upon any aspiring author. But it does make you a wreck, and most people won’t understand why you’re being a basket case over something so wonderful.
Your dream agent may not be who you expect.
Nowadays, there’s tons of info out there on agents. Between what’s written about them online, what you learn from connecting with other writers, and what the agents themselves share on blogs and social networks, you can often get a good sense of their personalities. So good, you may get attached to one or more and decide so-and-so is your dream agent.
I did this. When I started researching agents, I struck gold with the very first one I came across. Thematically, she’s interested in the dark and offbeat. She herself is quirky, opinionated, smart, and knows a lot about the business. Someone I not only wanted to represent me, but could see myself being friends with. Behold, a Dream Agent was born.
Here’s the thing that makes me believe I was born under a crazy lucky star: she was the first agent who offered me representation.
When she and I spoke, we got along ridiculously well. Hearing her so enthused about my work was incredibly surreal and gratifying.
Meanwhile, I had a second offer, from an agent who’s been in publishing for decades, one who doesn’t even have a Twitter profile. When we spoke, I knew we were on the same wavelength in terms of the vision for my book. I was impressed with her experience and the relationships she’s developed with editors and publishers over the years. I also liked that she had an irreverent streak, which assured me I could be myself with her.
Then she gave me client references. One was a senator. Two were New York Times best-selling authors. All of them raved about her and gave me insight into how she’s helped their writing careers. Her reputation in the industry is stellar.
I ended up with a third offer of rep, but at that point it was too late. I accepted the second offer and signed with [name redacted].*
Whatever my notions of the mythical Dream Agent were before, [name redacted] is my dream agent now. I trust her wisdom and appreciate her honesty. If there’s a chance I’ll be a successful author, having [name redacted] by my side is my best bet.The writing community is EVERYTHING.
Writing is a solitary activity, but you can’t do it in a vacuum. Sooner or later, you need to come out of your writer cave and share your work with others (before you go back in and revise it, over and over again).
I’ve received—and continue to receive—endless support from fellow writers, who’ve done everything from lift my spirits to help me refine my manuscripts, pitches, and synopses, for which I am enormously grateful (my husband and friends deserve a shoutout here, too).
There’s bound to be a certain amount of competitiveness in any creative field, but I’ve been blown away by the generosity of countless writers. I continue to learn from them, which inspires me to pay it forward and share what I’ve learned. They show a solidarity for this quixotic dream we’re all following, and I’d be lost without them.
I have to include agents here, too. Many of them are active online and answer writers’ questions on Twitter and in blogs, or participate in contests. When they can, some offer personalized feedback on submissions. To the ones who have taken time out to read my work or provide any kind of guidance and insight: thank you. To the ones who have rejected me: no hard feelings.
I guess what surprises me more than anything is that there are still so many of us out there fighting to keep this form of storytelling alive. The industry is not as lucrative as it used to be, yet we continue to dedicate ourselves to the printed word, whether those words are read on paper or on a screen.
Let’s keep fighting the good fight.
Edited to add:
* The writing journey is never over.
After a year of working with my agent, I have decided to amicably part ways with her. More to come…