I love 'How I Got My Agent' stories, so I figured others out there might be interested in my own journey to representation and a two-book deal! So, here goes... PSA: this post is a looooong one ;)
THE BACK STORY
In 2007, I sent my first query ever to an agent at Trident Media Group. At this point in my career, I had quit my full-time job to pursue writing full-time, earned an MFA in Creative Writing, and was a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's (SCBWI). I had spent about a year writing and polishing this picture book manuscript and had a critique group (a group which fizzled quickly, btw, a testimony that sometimes critique groups just aren't the right fit and to keep trying) but the aforementioned agent didn't quite click with the submitted PB manuscript. She interested in what else I was working on though, so I submitted a partial of a (very rough) WIP middle grade.
Cue nice rejection email.
I queried a few other agents with this book (more rejection letters), eventually shelved the PB manuscript, kept writing, and time moved on...
Years passed. In my spare time, I worked on new manuscripts and read as many books as I could get my hands on. I continued to attend SCBWI conferences/events whenever I could afford them, in both NY and LA, and had more one-one-one critiques first page panels and networking dinners with editors/agents/authors. I made a conscious effort to focus on my freelance writing career, nourishing client relationships, building my portfolio, and honing my craft (you can read my bio here, if you're interested in my past work). I traveled a lot, moved to two different states. At one point, I submitted the beginning of the middle grade novel (mentioned above) to a one-on-one critique session at an SCBWI conference.
I can't even tell you the excitement I felt when I was paired with a big-time editor at a major imprint. I thought it could be my big break. I secretly hoped I could be one of those amazing legendary discovery stories that you hear about at these conferences....!
The editor was encouraging and kind, but she pinpointed a billion holes in the story, voice, characters... I was heartbroken. I remember going back up to my hotel room and crying on the bed. I'd never been afraid of revision or rejection – In my line of work, it was an almost-daily experience – but after that meeting, I just couldn't connect with the book anymore.
After some distance with the text, I realized the Editor was right in her analysis of its problems... I couldn't hold my words too precious. I needed to get my hands dirty. But I couldn't figure out how to fix the book. I'm still not sure if fixing it is possible. I will always have a soft spot for this story, and I've opened up the document from time to time over the years, wondering if I could give it some surgery and bring it to life in a new way.... But it may live in a folder on my hard drive forever.
SEASONS OF CHANGE
Things began to change for me when we moved to New York City in 2011. I'd been writing professionally for five years or so and was grateful for the opportunities and experiences that had come my way... but it was often lonely. I craved creative community. In New York City, I connected with an amazing group of SCBWI-affiliated writers and was paired with my critique group (by chance via email!), who are still my trusted readers/friends, years later.
Moving to New York felt like coming home. I surrounded myself with kidlit writers who were as driven as I was, who wanted to tell beautiful stories, who read widely, knew the industry, and were kind, encouraging, and truthful with each other. This community was an answer to my prayers. These writers made me a better writer. They challenged and encouraged me, and I hope I did (and do) the same in return. I became very active in SCBWI, attending events/panels/readings/workshops/dinners on a regular basis. A handful of us established a weekly 'Write Nite' in New York City – a little band of kidlt writers who met up one evening every week to just write. It wasn't a time to critique each others' work, it was just accountability. Dedicated time that we'd show up and work. (You can read more about Write Nite through the years on my blog post, 'Holding the Umbrella: Thoughts on Writing Community').
I finished a new middle grade novel that I'd been working on, one with a voice I couldn't get out of my head. My group critiqued it, I pawned it off on other beta readers, revised the book, and sent queries off to agents during summer and fall 2011. I think I queried 20 agents or so and got form rejections, partial requests, full requests in response, which in turn led to both form and personalized rejection letters, and one or two revise and resubmits, if I remember correctly.
During an SCBWI one-on-one critique session with an editor, she wrote in the 'Next Steps' section: "If you don't already have an agent, I'd suggest you get one!".
It made my heart swell with hope.
Maybe I wasn't as terrible at writing as I feared.
Maybe I was getting better... and I truly wanted that.
I revised this manuscript a bit more, read more in the genre, and then eventually, after all the agent rejections came through, I shelved the book (but I kept this note on my fridge for years for encouragement...)
Something major happened to me in 2011: I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I had been married for over 9 years at this point, and we were so thrilled! I spent a lot of time reading fast-paced YA books and decided that I'd like to try my hand at writing one. While my middle grade was out in query land, I focused my "free-time" energy in writing a high-concept YA fantasy, revising it, yada yada (FYI I had a job to help pay bills and my husband was enormously supportive in all ways possible, but yes, financially too, which allowed me some freedom to focus on my creative writing work). I did a lot of research on agents and queried widely in early 2012 – almost a full year from the date I started writing it (btw I adore this website for agent research). I got some interest on the book – No offers, but three or four revise & resubmits, and from my 'top tier' agents too. It felt like I was getting closer but, in truth, I was a bit terrified of the work required to complete a solid revision of the book... I needed to think through the edits more before embarking upon them. I had deadlines for my other-writing clients, some travel on the table, and soon my son was born. Life got chaotic and busy, and I didn't touch this YA fantasy for many months... half a year, or even longer.
Rejection always hurts and, like many writers in the querying trenches, I shed a lot of tears, talked about giving up, whined to my friends, and wanted to crawl in a hole. It's painful to work so hard, get your hopes up, and feel like you're failing over and over again. I began to question where I should direct my creative energy. But I didn't want to give up... not really, not ever. My love for words and the written experience is beyond deep... It’s in my cells. It’s everything about who I am, and what I want to be, and the impact I want to have on this world during my short time here.
In December 2012, my sister sent me this blog post written by best-selling author Kristin Cashore (you should definitely read it, no matter what stage you're at in your writing journey). The fearlessness required by the writer... the perseverance... Her bravery blew me away. I felt like I'd been paralyzed by fear and rejection for so long, and my work was suffering because of it. The wheels began to turn in my mind on that YA fantasy. Finally early in 2013, I was brave enough to shelve the entire YA book except for the logline. I literally opened up a new project on Scrivener and totally started over from scratch, making it a contemporary thriller. It was a new book, totally unrecognizable from the previous version... but better. It was terrifying and hard as hell to say goodbye to all those words, but I held dear the wisdom that many writers have shared with me..... 'no words are lost' and you must write because you love it. Because you are a writer, whether you 'make it' or not. You write because you must. Because the stories and characters are only ones you can tell, and they're bursting to escape your skin, even if that means you'll make no money, never see your name on the printed page, or have a legion of supportive readers.
In 2013, the YA Muses asked me to join their ranks (you can read my introduction if you want to learn how I teamed up with them), and for one year, I blogged regularly with an intimate group of dedicated, encouraging writers on craft, book reviews, etc. It was another growing experience for me because I was consistently reading, listening to advice, studying craft, and experimenting. (Update: in 2014 we decided collectively to take a break from regular blogging so we could focus on our own projects, but the full archive of posts are still available to read online.)
In early 2014, I queried the finished and now-contemporary YA manuscript, and I started working on a new picture book based on one of my past wildlife expeditions. The new YA thriller got a lot of interest from agents... a lot more than when it was the fantasy version. At one point I remember 10 full manuscripts being out in the world with agents and jumping every time the phone rang, wondering if it would be 'The Call'..... but I never got The Call.
The feedback on this book was all over the place – too trendy and it might be a tough sell, too similar to another client's manuscript, binding voice but some plot issues, interested but wanted to learn what else I was working on, wasn't for them, revision ideas that didn't match up with my vision, and so on and so on. I even met some of the agents and had chit-chats in person, thought it might happen. I was this close. But no.
At home in New York City, our little Write Nite grew into an even bigger group, with sometimes ten or 12+ people showing up on Wednesday nights (in the beginning, there were only four of us). We had to change locations several times to accommodate a group our size.
Some of us got agents. Book deals. Then, more book deals, and suddenly there were book launch parties, and it was awesome — and an honor — to witness the reward of hard, honest work! What an incredible, dedicated, talented, encouraging group of women writers! We went to conferences together, critiqued each others' work, and read widely and discussed books, craft and the like, encouraged regularly, networked often, and wrote our butts off in New York, at our homes, and various spots around the country...
I'll be honest – the all-over-the-internet pep talk on 'the gap' given by Ira Glass got me through this tough season of creativity and rejection. For many years, I had to remind myself that I was still learning and growing and representation/publication in the children's market just wasn't in my cards yet. It can be really hard not to compare yourself to other writers. I've had to do a serious check-in with myself countless times. I can't even tell you how many days I set the alarm for four, five o'clock in the morning, because that was the only time I could get my writing done before the chaos of the day. I had a baby, and clients (I have to pay bills too!), and a busy life, like so many of you out there. I made difficult sacrifices with my time and money to devote to this wild, big dream of being an author. It hurt deeply to get rejected on things I'd worked so hard on, and to wonder if I was just wasting my time towards something that was "never going to happen."
If you've ever felt afraid of being sub-par to your creative peers, that your ideas will never be original enough, your characters are cardboard, everyone thinks you're a failure, and that despite all your bleary-eyed all-nighters, industry knowledge and genuine attempts to grow in your craft, you are talentless and don't have what it takes to become a published children's book author, I'm here to offer a virtual hug and say that I've been to that dark place, and sometimes fear swallows me back in.
But I chose to grow and find joy in the process and not give up on big dreams.
In 2013, I attended several SCBWI conferences, had a few writing retreats, practiced yoga and went running, read a ton of books, prayed to God for clarity about my purpose, listened to music and did free writing exercises, and took regular inspiration days to keep myself creatively fueled. I received uplifting handwritten messages from friends, family, and colleagues who understood my struggles, even when I was retreating into myself and not wanting to talk about it all, and those little boosts meant the world to me (so THANK YOU, all, especially my family, for dealing with me). For more reading, check out Holding the Umbrella: Thoughts on Writing Community.
At the end of 2013, something wonderful (and totally unexpected) happened to me.
Molly O'Neill, well-known past editor at HarperCollins/KatherineTegenBooks, then Head of Editorial at Storybird (and now she's a wonderful literary agent!) reached out to me regarding a potential middle grade project. I had first engaged with Molly on Twitter back in 2011 or 2012 – we had DM'd a few times , and then we met in-person at an SCBWI conference. I was invited to pitch a serialized middle grade proposal for Storybird's long form debut. I was terrified and thrilled. This was an exciting new venture with millions of potential readers and a great opportunity to experiment in the digital space with an all-new, ambitious platform. They accepted by proposal, and during the first half of 2014, I wrote the book called SOME PIG IN THE CITY, a story loosely based on an experience from my childhood. I truly loved writing this story and working with the talented illustrator Katy Betz. This experience helped me fall in love with writing again. Storybird held the rights for one year, and while I embarked on a new serialized story with them (The Wristwatch Time Machine), I continued my pursuit to break into traditional publishing.
Over the summer in 2014, I had another wake up call.... I read a blog post by Robin LaFevers on surviving the 'Nearly There' phase. She wrote: "One of the hardest stages of your writing journey—one that will take the most dedication, commitment, and self exploration—is the ‘nearly there’ stage. This is the stage where your critique partners love your work, you’re getting personalized rejections from agents or editors and highly complimentary reports from your beta readers, and yet . . . no sale or offer has materialized... But the nearly there stage is a vital, absolutely critical part of our writerly development. In fact I know many agents and editors who would argue that this is exactly the stage that is missing from so many aspiring authors’ journeys and that lack has held them back." [Read this amazing blog post in full here].
It felt like Robin was talking directly to me. I was in the Nearly There stage and reading this blog post made me feel less alone. Her wisdom also ignited my writing fire. I'd taken a summer break from creative projects, and by the fall I was ready to look at my newest picture book manuscript with fresh eyes. My son was 2.5 years old, and we read *many* picture books a day. I adore picture books and always have (Allyn Johnston's presentations at SCBWI conferences have been some of my favorites through the years) and suddenly had this renewed, invested excitement in the project...
By the time winter rolled in, I was ready to enter the querying trenches again, seven years after I first started querying agents (and nearly two decades after receiving my first rejection letter from a publishing house at age sixteen). Truthfully, I really didn't expect anything to come out of it, but... What if?
At this point, what's a few more rejection letters?
I loved this picture book – and not just the end product, but I enjoyed the process of writing it, too. I spent quite a bit of time researching agents, trying to figure out who might be a good fit for representing me + this book + future manuscripts. I revised some more. I polished a shiny new query letter.
I gave myself permission to dream big dreams, but I kept my day job.
I finally hit send.
And then... I got my first offer. Fast.
Then another one.
All from respected agents with whom I had no personal connection – I was total slush pile. I was ecstatic! Bugging out! Could this really be happening.... to me? After all this time? After all the no's?! I scheduled in-person meetings if possible, had phone chats, shared more of my work, and asked them all the questions you're supposed to ask. I talked with clients and pinged my writing friends for advice. I did more research online, reviewed agency agreements, and spent over a week weighing the decision.
Finally, while on a call with an agent (who was not the first agent to offer, or the last, might I add), I just knew.... He spoke so passionately about my work (he'd read a few of my things by this point), had captivating ideas, and just seemed to 'get' my writing and me.... I suddenly knew I wanted him as my literary agent.
Just before the holidays in 2014, I accepted an offer of representation from Alexander Slater at Trident Media Group! I was FREAKING. OUT. EXCITED. and SO grateful (and still am, eighteen months later!!) and ready to work hard to build a career as a children's book author. Over the SEVEN years I queried agents with SIX different manuscripts, I received OVER A HUNDRED rejection letters... until finally four offers of rep came my way. And, although it played no bearing on my final decision, it's a bit poetic that I ended up signing with Trident Media Group, the very first literary agency I queried seven years earlier.
FROM AGENT REPRESENTATION TO BOOK DEAL
Over the first few months of 2015, we polished and sent out the picture book manuscript, with various responses from editors. About eight, nine months passed, and finally we decided to regroup.
That pig book came back my way.
The one that had made writing fun again.
The one I poured my heart into, a story I knew only I could tell.
I kept my day job (we all have bills to pay!). In the wee early morning hours, late at night, and on the weekends, I worked through some revisions with beta readers and my agent before we decided that PIG was ready for submission.
And, dear friends, I still can't believe I get to type this, but.... I am beyond thrilled to announce that Jocelyn Davies at HarperCollins Children's Books has bought, at auction, The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City, my debut middle grade novel, a version of which first appeared on Storybird, pitched as Charlotte's Web meets The Penderwicks. In the story, 11-year-old Josie makes it her mission to save the piglet named Hamlet that her brother brings home from college, as she and Hamlet each struggle to find their place in a crowded, chaotic family. Publication of the first book is planned for fall 2017, with a second to follow in 2018; Alexander Slater at Trident Media Group did the two-book deal for North American rights. Read the full announcement on Publisher's Weekly here and add the book to your Goodreads here.***
So what's that mean for my life right now?
I'm in edits with my PIG book.
I'm working on an outline for Book #2.
I've got a few other ideas up my sleeve. I kept my day job. I hold tight to big dreams.
I hope this glimpse into my journey thus far is a little umbrella of hope for you in any way, should you be in the querying trenches and that difficult "nearly there" stage. Press on, friends. Everything happens for a reason – each obstacle and milestone, every relationship that comes into your creative life. Nothing is lost, no time is wasted – For a writer it all can be used. Write. Read. Connect. Grow. LISTEN. Put in the time and effort. Don't give up. You've got this. Be brave.... xo