It still feels a little weird to say, or write, or even just to think to myself, but a couple of months ago, the miraculous happened: I got an agent!
Considering the fact that I sent out my very first query when I was sixteen years old, this feels so momentous to me. And since it is such a huge thing, I liked the idea of writing out the whole story, mostly so that I would have something to look back on someday, so that this experience isn’t lost to the annals of time — though of course, if my recounting of the process helps anyone else, I would love that!
The book I got my agent on is one I’ve been working on intermittently for about three-and-a-half years now, since the summer of 2017. Actually, though, in some ways it’s even older than that.
My first semester at my MFA program, I was in a rut with my writing. I had this really stilted idea of what I should be writing, what I was supposed to be writing, this very literary short story kind of concept about jaded middle-aged moms (which I was not) doing things like getting drunk in the afternoon and, I don’t know, having affairs with their babysitters.
I was 23, I’d been out of my undergraduate school for a year, and I’d just moved back home to Maine after living in Florida working at Walt Disney World since graduation. In short, I had no experience with any of the things I was trying to write about, and I had no real sense of investment in them either, but I couldn’t break myself out of this habit because it felt so surely like what I was supposed to be doing.
It was obvious to me, and it was obvious to the mentor I was working with that first semester. He called it, and me, out. He told me to just write something weird.
I don’t know why that particular piece of advice worked, but it did. I went to a bookstore-café, and I brainstormed a handful of basic story concepts on a little pastel blue Post-It note. I don’t remember what any of the ideas on that note were, except for one: a group of kids dig up a treasure chest in the woods.
The concept grabbed my attention immediately, and I started writing about these kids. There were a whole group of them in that first draft of the story, which was not just about the kids, but also about two of them in particular, after they grew up. Two of them who reconnected, years after the little scene in the woods, when the girl at the center of their childhood group died at an early age.
The story was told in two parts, one about the kids digging up this treasure chest in the woods, and one about the two adults reconnecting years later. The story ended just as the adult versions of the characters agreed to bust open the treasure chest they found all those years earlier.
I loved that story. It was the first one I wrote in my MFA that I felt truly proud of, and excited by. It also went on to become my first published short story, other than one early piece which my undergraduate magazine published.
A couple years later, my program was ending, and I still thought about that story sometimes, the characters who I loved, and who I felt had so much more to them than could be seen in a single short story. So when, in the class I took with the rest of my cohort about the publishing industry just before graduation, I heard that short stories weren’t doing so hot and I started to think about novels, that first good story was what came to my mind. It occurred to me that if I could finally decide what those adult characters found in the treasure chest, that wouldn’t be a bad inciting incident. It came to me right there in class: what if it was a letter inside the box?
I think I actually started writing the very first draft of the book the day after I graduated. It had been years since I’d even tried to write a novel, and years more than that since I’d finished a full draft of one. As a result, I felt completely free — free to mess up, free to abandon the project. But I didn’t abandon it. I wrote wildly for two-and-a-half months, with only a brief break when I traveled to Ireland with one of my best friends, and by the end of the summer, I had a first draft.
It was, of course, a mess — but I loved it. I felt like it had real potential, the potential to be truly good. Quiet, yes, and weird, but good.
For months and months, I revised. I spent far, far longer revising than I had spent drafting. I cut entire chapters, rearranged things, changed the placement of the opening (something I continued to do for years afterward), and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked sentences.
It was important to me that I make the book as good as it could be, that it be as strong and as beautiful as possible before I sent it out into the world. I had made up my mind to query it, and after about a year, I believed it was ready. I had some reservations — when I’d been reading back through the whole book, out loud to myself, over a couple of days, I realized that the pacing was pretty slow in places — but I thought it was in good shape, that it had a decent chance. Over that time, my critique partner Mary and several friends also read the book, and I revised more with their feedback.
I got myself an account on Query Tracker, I researched some agents and built my list, I determined that I would send out queries in small batches, and with this plan in place, I got started.
My first batch of queries went out on July 27, 2018. I sent out six queries that day. Three of them I never heard back on, two of them were rejected, and one resulted in a full manuscript request. I was delighted. My first round of queries, and I already got a request!
I kept querying in the meantime, and by the end of a few months, I got a rejection on that full. I was disappointed, especially since I hadn’t gotten any more requests after that one, and I know I cried when I got the email. But the agent gave me some kind words and some useful feedback, so I tried not to take it too hard, especially since it was a case of the agent only taking limited projects in my genre and simply not being in love enough with the project to represent it.
By the end of 2018, I had queried 19 agents, but that was the only full request I had gotten. According to my spreadsheet (which I resisted making for so long — if you’re looking for querying advice, here it is: make yourself a spreadsheet), I queried pretty consistently through the second half of that year, a few queries a month.
I kept it up into 2019, sending out five queries in January. After that, though, I took a significant break from it. I still hadn’t gotten any more requests other than the one early one, and the new novel I had attempted to start drafting toward the end of 2018 wasn’t going well. I was feeling discouraged and, perhaps even more than that, I was starting to see flaws in the manuscript that I hadn’t really noticed before. I wanted to work on it some more before going out with it again, so for several months, I did more revision, taking what distance from the project had given me and attempting to improve it.
Finally, by the summer of 2019, I was ready to try again. June 8th, I sent out five new queries. One of them resulted in a partial request, so I knew I must be on the right track. Come September, nothing had really panned out, and I decided I would try my hand at PitMad on Twitter for the first time, which resulted in one full request from a newer agent I was excited about.
After about a month, he rejected the book too. He gave me some super useful feedback though, so again, while I was disappointed, I tried to make the most of it. I did another revision with his feedback in mind, which took some time. By that point, I was also actively planning my wedding, and still trying to draft another project, so it became harder to find the will to query, but I decided that, by my next birthday in mid-March, I wanted to be querying again.
The query from PitMad was my 28th query for the book, and since those 28 had spanned such a length of time already, I was feeling like I didn’t have much opportunity left, and I was determined that I wouldn’t give up without trying my absolute hardest.
I sent out a couple queries in February when I came across agents on Twitter who I thought might be a good fit, but in the meantime, a new idea was working in my head. I wasn’t convinced my query was particularly strong, and by that point, I was afraid I was overworking it and making it worse, rather than better. I decided that, as a sort of birthday present to myself, I would get myself some help. I reached out to #amqueryinghelp on Twitter, and I paid for a query and opening pages critique, which ended up being invaluable.
I got the help I needed to get my query in good shape — which it hadn’t been before — and I got the advice that the novel wasn’t starting in the right place. I wasn’t ready to hear that advice, but I got it.
One thing I can say for myself is that if I set a goal that’s within my own power to achieve, then achieve it I will. So nine days before my birthday, I sent out five of my new and improved queries. The day before my birthday, I sent out five more.
And then — well, you all know what happened mid-March of 2020, other than the fact that I turned 28.
Yes, just as I was getting on a roll, COVID happened, I went into isolation, started working from home, and promptly abandoned all well-made plans and routines. My 2020 planner still sits at the bottom of my work bag, untouched since March 16th, to this day.
I fell completely off the querying wagon for months. I didn’t think about my novel. I was writing a fantasy to take my mind off of things, but then I stopped working on that too and wrote nothing but fanfiction for weeks and weeks.
Finally, though, for reasons that — I’ll be honest — I don’t really remember (what even is time anymore, anyway?), I managed to get myself together enough to realize I still wanted this book to have a chance. In June, I began querying once more.
I sent out ten queries within two days toward the end of June, and then ten more in the first couple of days of July. I must have been in some sort of deeply productive fugue state, because I don’t even remember doing it now.
Of those 20 queries, I received three full requests, two of which came from fairly well-known agents, and this — I was convinced — was going to be it, one way or another. By this point, over the full life of the book, I had sent out an even 60 queries, and this was the most success I’d had so far. If these agents didn’t want my book, surely what would mean that no one would want it.
I sent out another round of five while I waited to hear back, but my heart was fully with those agents who had the book at that point. One of them in particular, I had convinced myself was The One (a concept I have never embraced or accepted in any other aspect of my life, but for this agent, it felt true in the moment).
Then the rejections started coming in, one after another after another. What was worse, the full rejections I’d received before had come with feedback on why the agents had to pass, but these ones were form rejections — which is, of course, perfectly understandable and reasonable, but at the time, it seemed to magnify my devastation. And I was devastated, especially when I got the rejection from the agent I’d managed to convince myself was The One, that if he didn’t want my book, then no one would.
I took it really hard. Harder than I’ve ever taken a rejection before. I’m sure the whole quarantine thing wasn’t helping, nor the fact that it was looking more and more likely that I would have to postpone my wedding (which I did).
It was rough. But even then, I couldn’t stop thinking about the book, even as I was writing other things and coming up with a new novel I wanted to write. I kept thinking of ideas that would make the book stronger — a chapter I could cut from the first act that would improve the pacing, and yes, finally changing the opening scene (again). And this time, rather than simply moving the opening, I would add in a new character interaction, to introduce the conflict earlier on in the draft.
With these changes made, it didn’t make sense just to sit on the book. At the same time though, I felt I was running out of options for agents to query. I’d queried 65 over the full life of the book by that point. But for the first time, I was starting to use Twitter regularly, and so I was finding agents there who I thought might make a good fit.
I queried three agents in the first week of September, and then, just when I thought I might have found everyone I could, I stumbled across someone new, someone who sounded like they might be a genuinely amazing fit. They were just about to close to queries at that point, so I asked them if they would mind one more, or if I should wait. They told me to go ahead and query them, so I did just that on September 6th, 2020. The very last query I sent.
They requested the full fairly early on, and I was hopeful, but I think by that point, I’d had fulls rejected several times, and that was all I really expected. Even as they expressed more interest, I tried not to let myself get too carried away.
In the end, though, that was the agent that offered me representation, and after such a long trek through the hills and valleys of my experience, it truly felt like such a gift to know that I had found someone who loved my book as much as I did, someone who could see in it everything that I could see.
I feel like, overall, my experience is such a middling one. What I mean is, it didn’t take me many, many years and several books, but I wasn’t a unicorn either. What it did take was patience, perseverance, lots of help from others, the privilege to get professional help when I felt I needed it, and also time away from the process when I needed to rest or heal from my disappointment. And luck, to find the right person at the right time.
I’m so grateful to everyone who read my query or my opening pages or my manuscript, everyone who had a hand in helping me reach this point — my friends and critique partners, but also all of the professionals who took the time to read my material, who offered me their consideration and their interest.
The writing community is truly a community, and while finding an agent is often a private play between working and waiting, there’s so much that goes into it. Now, I don’t think it would be possible to be happier with my agent, and as I find myself here on the other side of this process, what I feel primarily for the whole thing is gratitude — and, of course, excitement for what comes next.
4 thoughts on “My Querying Experience”
I truly cannot wait until I can finally, FINALLY, go to a bookstore and see your book on the shelves. It’s just going to be the best moment ever, and I’m going to take an absurd amount of pictures and send you endless all caps messages with a stupid amount of exclamation points. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU! And the world deserves to read about these weird, wonderful characters.
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Oh Mary, your championing of me and this book has been so bolstering to me through this entire process. I truly can’t thank you enough for believing in me and these characters and their weird little story, and for pouring so much of your time and energy and talent into trying to make this happen.
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Thank you for sharing! And congratulations!
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Thank you so much!
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