Adapted from the 3 part series in my NEWSLETTER.
I actually signed with my agent January of 2015. And being the procrastinator I am, I put off writing The Post because I read a LOT of them while I was querying and I wanted mine to be perfect and helpful just like all the others.
(Perfectionism aside, there are some other reasons why I didn't jump on writing The Post. You’ll find out why if you stay around for my future, “how I got my book deal” newsletters.)
But it's high time I shared the whole process from start to finish, even if it ends up becoming a book in and of itself. So sit down with a cup of tea, and here we go:
A lot of writers say that they knew they wanted to be an author from the moment they could read. I didn't. Not even I read the beat-up copies of GOOSEBUMPS at my after school center over and over again, or when I wrote a fifty page "short story" for a fifth grade project that only required ten pages. To be honest, I didn't actually think of myself as a "reader", let alone a writer. Since I actually learned to speak Chinese before English, I had some pronunciation issues as a kid and always dreaded reading out loud in school. Besides, I was training to become a professional realist painter.That was supposed to be my calling.
Sometime during my middle school years, I watched Miyazaki's Spirited Away and fell headfirst into the world to fanfiction. I spent the summer after 8th grade (2010) sitting in front of the old desktop in the family study and writing the first few chapters of what would eventually become a 140,000 word long Spirited Away fanfic. It was the first time I was sharing my work with strangers, and the positive reviews from readers boosted my confidence.Still, I didn't think of myself as a writer, or even a storyteller. I was just a fangirl in a fandom, and it wouldn't be until 10th grade (2011) that I tried my hand at writing my own, original, novel-length work.
Fall, 2011. Nanowrimo was right around the corner, and with nothing to go off of but a dream (yes, I dreamed the premise of Manuscript #1), I wrote a ~75k length novel, inspired by said-dream and also SAT-related stress (since I took them in 10th grade). I classified it as "speculative with a slice-of-life" (whatever the hell that means) and sent out a total of ONE query for it to a very Special Agent whom I will forever think of fondly because that query was actual trash. Think I'm exaggerating? Judge for yourself:
Have a good laugh (or cringe. I mostly cringe.)
I though it was the best thing ever for a total of 15 minutes. And then I realized that it was trash, just like the book itself. So besides this one lucky agent, no one else saw the query. I shelved the book and decided to write A Slightly Less Terrible But Still Pretty Terrible Manuscript #2 the fall of my junior year of highschool.
We’re still in 2012. Notice the year, and take a wild stab at the genre MS #2 was. If you guessed Dystopia, then you're absolutely right. And spoiler: MS #2 wasn't "the one". But it did teach me how to write a slightly better query letter, navigate twitter, work with critique partners, and deal with rejection letters. The exact number I received?
At least, I think it was 85. I must have queried a hundred agents with MS #2, but I was quickly learning that there's something worse than a rejection, and that is the CNR, or closed/no-response in which the agent doesn't even reject you. It's just crickets on end.
Despite the book failing to snag me an agent, I gained a lot of new skills and insights. I was now working with critique partners. The amazing Jessie Devine had not only cheerleaded me into revising this book but also introduced me to twitter. Finding the writing community and learning more about the publishing industry was making me feel like a real writer. If you recall, I didn't come into this world knowing that I wanted to write books immediately, and for the longest time, most of my peers saw me as a visual artist. Not many knew that I was writing novels, and fewer probably knew that I had actually broken away from the professional art track in 2011. It was a fractious time for me because I no longer knew who I was, but by 2012, I was slowly but surely rediscovering my true passion in art--this time, the literary kind.
MS #2 introduced me to a lot of firsts. My query/industry research connected me with fellow young writers such as Julia Byers who remain, to this day, huge inspirations for me. I attended the NYC Writer's Digest Conference to pitch the book to agents, where I fumbled and sweated a lot. The book itself received a very long and complimentary rejection in the trenches (I also received a weirder response in which an agent said she loved the book, was taking it to her boss, and then I never heard from her again. Like I said, crickets). So despite spending most of fall 2012 to write the book and querying the book well into 2013, I never felt like that time was wasted.
I did, however, develop this bad habit of feeling like I'd missed the bandwagon.
You see, the book truly had it's flaws. I'm glad it wasn't the one that got me my agent. But it also happened to be a dystopia, and as I was quickly learning, dyspotia was a saturated genre. This didn't seem obvious at the time because all that was getting published was dystopia. But publishing usually buys books 1.5-2 years in advance to actual publication.
So when I threw myself into my next book, MS #3, a New Adult (NA) Contemporary, I wrote it over the course of three months, sent it to CPs and betas, and rushed the revision process. While the book had a lot potential, it was far from query-ready shape. But I queried it anyway, though not as extensively as MS #2. By the time I'd sent out roughly 30 queries, I realized that rate at which agents requested extra material from this book was roughly the same as the rate for MS #2. To me this meant that I wasn't improving, and I knew I had room to improve. And so I stopped querying MS #3 the very same summer I had started.
I was now a senior in high school who'd managed to write three full length novels. I'd drafted each in a relatively reasonable amount of time (~3-4 months), and so when I embarked on MS #4, a YA fantasy, I expected more or less of the same process.
Boy was I in for a nasty surprise.
You can read more in detail about the drafting experience HERE, but in short, this was the first manuscript that I seriously thought I might not complete. This shouldn't be confused with abandoned ideas--I have plenty of those, dozens of books with 5k-10k words to them, ultimately discarded for others. No, this was the first manuscript where I'd made real headway--65k words to be exact--but I was still struggling to finish. Senior year passed, as did summer, and before I knew it I was entering my freshman year of college. Like many other teen writers, I'd secretly harbored the dream of getting published in high school. Not only was this not the case, but I was left questioning if I could still call myself a writer. A writer should have been able to write, and I couldn't, not this book or any other ideas. For six months (SIX MONTHS, I repeat) I wrote a total of 0 words.
In October, I stayed in the college dorms for fall break and decided I had to try to finish this book. And I did. MS #4 clocked in at a whopping 96k, the longest book I'd written so far. I found a new critique partner and revised based on her feedback the entire spring of my freshman year. Then I started querying.
I was a query veteran. But the rejections for this book hurt more than the rejections for my previous books. Maybe it was because MS #4 was a labor of love and pain, and the first book I'd really "revised". Or maybe it was because I actually got quite a large number of partial and full requests from agents, suggesting that I had improved. Publishing is a black box of sorts--so much of it is out of your control--but I genuinely believed that this book could be THE ONE.
But it wasn't. Not at first.
Feeling optimistic as I sent out partial and full requests to agents, I decided to try my hand at contests. I entered Nestpitch. Got rejected. I entered Miss Snark's first chapter critique. Got feedback that made me rewrite the beginning of the book. I entered the Writer's Voice and received 70 comments on my blogpost entry. I thought I'd get picked for sure. Cue heartbreak when I wasn't. One of the kind mentors commented on my blog, saying that part of the reason why I hadn't been chosen was because she saw my book floating around in other contests. I was crushed.
I entered Pitchslam, a contest that will always have a special space in my heart because it was the first contest that I really got "into". The fantastic Kimberly helped me whip my pitch and first 250 words into shape, and when contest time rolled around, I ended up getting requests from agents!
I sent off those materials, and before long it was summer, 2015. I was teaching in Taiwan, and I remember waking up one morning in the humid heat and opening my inbox to four rejections in a row--on partials and fulls, too, not just queries. I came home from Taiwan feeling like this was it. This book wasn't going to be the one that got me my agent.
August 2015. I'd withdrawn a bit from the writing community to mope, and to this day, I don't remember how I heard about the contest PitchWars exactly. I also didn't understand the significance of this contest, where getting in meant receiving a two month long mentorship under an agented or published author. All I know is that last minute--literally fifteen minutes from the application deadline--I decided "why the hell not?" While other hopeful mentees probably spent hours researching which mentors they wanted to submit to, I did my research in the matter of minutes and submitted the query and first chapter for MS #4.
And then the waiting began.
I started getting requests. Which I expected--my query stats showed that the pitch and first pages were strong enough to hook agents into requesting partials and fulls. But the story itself needed a lot of work, and I wasn't sure if a mentor would love the whole thing enough to take it on and commit to it for 2 months (during the 2 month period you work with your mentor on improving the whole manuscript, and then you enter the showcase in the beginning of November where agents can take a look at your query and first page and request more materials from there).
Now that I've been a two-time Pitchwars mentor and sat on the other side of the table, I know just how lucky I was to get in. Luck is a theme in publishing. You obviously need to be putting out your best work, but being at the right place, in the right time is so, so important (and part of the reason why the industry is so frustrating).
I didn't submit to the mentor who ended up choosing me, Mara. Instead, another mentor I submitted to forwarded my entry to Mara, who was looking for YA fantasy. I don't know who it was, but thank you from the bottom of my heart. Had my entry NOT been forwarded, I wouldn't have gotten into PW, simple as that.
Mara requested the full, and then it was more waiting. Announcement night came, and I squealed when I saw my name among all the other 125 mentees who'd been chosen by mentors. We'd been selected out of thousands of hopefuls, and so celebrating was definitely in order. But after that, it was time to work.
From the months of September to November, I was juggling school, revisions for Pitchwars, and my college counseling job. Somehow I made it out to the other side and with Mara's help, I entered the agent round with a shiny first page and a pitch (Mara is a pitch queen).
The agent round was very stressful. When your entry is quite literally side by side with those of other fellow mentees on the same webpage, it's impossible not to compare. The book listed above yours could be getting 30 requests from agents. Yours could be getting 3--or 0. Luckily, I didn't end up with 0 requests, but I also didn't experience the same flurry of agent excitement that some of my peers did. But the stressfulness aside, I ended up connecting with the amazing Kristen Ciccarelli, Michella Domenici, and Michelle Tran because their books sounded amazing. We're all still friends to this day!
After Pitchwars, I again settled in for the long wait. Or so I told myself. Secretly, I was hoping for a fast response. Again, everyone tells you to not compare, but (keeping it real)...you compare. Several mentees came out of the contest with agents and book deals. While I wasn't hoping for a BOOK DEAL, I was hoping to finally, finally get an agent after querying for 3 straight years.
Surprise: I didn't. Not directly through the contest at least. Rejections from agents who'd requested during Pitchwars started trickling into my inbox in the following weeks, and soon I was back to wondering if this book might not be the one. Luckily, I'd started writing something new while I was in Taiwan, a light scifi chess romance that would become MS #5. I focused drafting this to take my mind off the waiting.
In the mean time, I'd also sent off a handful of queries to agents who hadn't participated in Pitchwars. One of them was John Cusick of Folio Lit. Funnily enough, I knew he was a "big fish" in the agent world but didn't think we might be a good fit because he seemed to books of the gloriously weird variety (look at me thinking my books AREN'T weird. Now I know better). So I wasn't thinking much of my chances with him, not even when he requested my full manuscript.
Pitchwars had ended early November. I'd sent my materials off to John right about then. Roughly a month later, as I was walking out of my positive psychology final exam, I received the following email:
SPOILER: this MS #4, titled HESPERIA, first drafted from 2013-14? That’s the same book as DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE. But that’s a wholeeee other story for another time.
Back to our current story: when I received that email from John coming out of my final exam, I might have giggled weirdly to myself walking out of the exam hall, amongst 200 other students. A week later, we'd scheduled the call. Before the call I'd forwarded the email to some writer friends, asking if they thought John wanted a Revise and Resubmit (R&R). Prior to Pitchwars, I always thought an agent asking to call was a sure sign that you were getting an offer. But going through Pitchwars and seeing the experiences of fellow mentees opened my eyes to the fact that this is NOT always the case. And agent could be calling to say that they loved the manuscript BUT needed to see revisions first before signing you as a client.
This wasn't the case for me. The call happened and John wanted to sign me. This was right before the winter holidays, so I quickly notified all the other agents who still had the manuscript.
A week later, I sent the following emails:
I accepted the offer of representation on Christmas Day. Early in January, I officially signed the contract and announced. While I didn't find my agent directly through Pitchwars, I wouldn't have traded my contest experience for the world. It was because of Pitchwars that I'd found an unparalleled community of writers all chasing the same dream as me. I had their full support when I announced. We've been through it all together, the highs and the lows.
To sum up my journey of finding my agent:
2010 - wrote my first novel-length work (fanficion)
2011 - wrote original MS #1, sent one query
2012 - wrote MS #2
2013 - queried MS #2 extensively, and wrote MS #3
2014 - wrote MS #4, queried
2015 - wrote MS #5, and entered PW with MS #4
January of 2016 officially signed with my agent, John Cusick of Folio Lit, with MS #4
So, there you have it. The super long story of how I got my agent. Some takeaways? Keep on writing. Write the next thing. Make it better than what came before. If something isn’t working, then work on it. Don’t keep on slinging the same quality books into the publishing void—use the free tools available to you, such as Query Tracker, to examine your stats and see if you’re improving. Work with CPs and, if you can, people ahead of you in the publishing game. Be humble; be grateful. Learn to revise—and keep on learning how to revise because every book is a new challenge and opportunity to level up, and the journey gets harder from here. But you can weather it. Some people will have quick book-to-agent-to-book-deal processes, but I wouldn’t trade my relatively long process for the world. And I’m not just saying that to be positive—the longer process 100% better prepared me better for debut year.
If you’re currently on the agent hunt, my heart goes out to you. It’s tough. Submission is worse in different ways, but at least you have an industry professional (your agent) at your side. With querying, a lot of times it feels like no one cares about you or your work. But remember, it only takes one yes. While you’re waiting, form connections and establish your social platforms. No time is wasted, and the patience you build during this stage will serve you well in the long run. I’m rooting for you, and I admire everyone who puts their work out there in spite of the rejections. You got this.
To read about how I got my book deal in the same, novel-length detail, be sure to sign up for my newsletter. The issue will go out before the end of March, and though I’ll make it available to the public eventually, newsletter subscribers will get the first look :)