How I Got My Literary Agent – Part Two
Right…continuing from Part One.
I got my first rejection a few days after I sent that first query…and I was thrilled!!! Someone actually responded to me! This shit was real! Forgive me, but remember I had never gotten a response from the sole agent query I had sent months before. This agency promised to respond to queries within a week, so queried another agent at the same agency, and squealed when the rejection came back the next day. These were real people!
Don’t judge me…
Let’s backtrack a bit…
I’ve never been a conventional writer. I thrive in breaking rules and experimenting with form and style.
I still don’t know how to summarise the plot of my first manuscript, Getting Back at Jack Taylor, in one line. It has two narrators: 10 year-old Nikita, and Jack Taylor, her aunt’s abusive boyfriend. It’s genre bending – too literary to be mainstream, but then too mainstream to be literary. It can’t be middle-grade because of the adult content and language, and it’s a stretch to say it’s young adult, since the story explores a combination of point of views, from tween to adulthood. I’m still trying to figure out how to categorise it.
Two weeks after I started querying for My Fishy Stepmom, I saw a call for submissions from a small press in the UK, specifically asking to see unagented work by women and writers of colour, and “experimental work in places rarely explored in mainstream literature”. I anguished over a short summary of Getting Back at Jack Taylor, and then sent off a query with the full manuscript attached.
Now this anecdote is relevant to my “how I got my agent” story, because it’s important that I demonstrate that when I sit down to write, I only think about the character, and their story that I want to tell. Back then, I wasn’t concerned about rules for the genre or word count or how marketable the plot was, nothing. It’s all about the story and then I’d figure out everything else afterwards.
So imagine my horror, after doing research that I should have done before I started querying, when I realised that my 28,000 word manuscript narrated by a 10 year-old girl was not actually considered Young Adult! By this point I was two weeks into querying, and had sent queries to eight agents and two small publishing houses that accepted unsolicited submissions.
Yea…don’t do this lol
Thankfully I had known that it was best to send queries in batches, so I hadn’t mass spammed all the agents on Writer’s Digest.
I immediately stopped querying and did some more research, not only about getting agents, but about genres and classifications for children’s books. This is when I found out that my book was definitely considered middle grade (aged 8-12 years) and not young adult (aged 12-18 years). I took a moment to mourn for the CODE Burt Award for Young Adult competition I had entered, thinking that there’s definitely no way the book could be shortlisted, and cursed myself for not doing more research into the children’s literary industry.
It took a while for me to figure out whether my book would be considered urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy or magical realism. This five-part series exploring ‘What is Magical Realism?’ by literary agent, Michelle Witte, was so informative.
I realised that finding the right agent for your work was more than “I represent MG” in a profile, and that I needed to look at the agent’s wishlist and favourite books. I searched for agents who specifically asked for diverse stories in unfamiliar settings – very important for my book set in Barbados. I got very excited when I found agents who stated that they loved reading about folklore. By December 27th, I felt confident enough to send out queries to four more agents and another small press. I hadn’t read those “don’t query agents around Christmas because they don’t respond” posts yet lol. But I did stop querying publishing houses when shortly afterwards, I read that agents prefer that authors don’t query publishing houses since they wouldn’t be able to submit to them if they signed you.
You see the trend, right? I learned all about agents and querying while querying. I shared my journey with my close friends, but most of them aren’t writers themselves, so they mainly cheered me on but they knew even less about the process than me.
I started to look for writing communities online and found the Absolute Write forum and Query Tracker. It was so refreshing to read the posts about other people’s writing journey, but I didn’t feel confident enough to post and interact with them. I was never a group chat gal and I prefer to talk to people one on one. Still, I learned even more about the querying process. I found out about looking at agent’s sales records on Publisher’s Marketplace, checking to see if they were editorial or not, reading past interviews etc It was really overwhelming and all-consuming.
As much as I loved getting the information, I also absorbed the negative – how hard it was to get an agent and the best ones only signed 1-3 authors per year, what was a good agent manuscript request rate (mine was 0% at the time), all about schmagents, doing revise and resubmits for agents for months, maybe even years, and still not being signed. I gotta say, ignorance is truly bliss because I’m not sure I would have bothered to start querying had I known all of this stuff. I was already insecure about how appealing my Bajan book, chock-full of Barbadian dialect would be to a US agent. I decided to stop querying until I really understood what I was getting myself into. After all, I’d queried 14 agents and three publishing houses at this point, and gotten either rejections or no responses.
Then on January 22nd 2018, an agent from the first batch of queries I sent in November responded to me. I opened the email expecting to see the standard form rejection – but it wasn’t!!! She loved my writing sample and wanted to see more! It was my first full request! I squealed and danced around, messaged my friends and celebrated. Then they asked, “what does this mean?”
What does it mean?!
*Cue end of celebration and start of frantic google searches*
I read, and re-read the entire manuscript for the rest of the day, and then with shaking hands, forced myself to send my manuscript to the agent. Afterwards I just stared at the ceiling for a while, waiting on the anxiety to pass.
Then the answer to their question hit me. What does this mean? A highly reputable agent with a ton of experience in the industry loved my sample enough to want to see more. It meant that there was still hope for my book!
Ironically, a few days later I got a response from that UK Small press for Getting Back at Jack Taylor. It was a personalised rejection, and this one hurt, not only because I felt like it was a good place for my unplaceable book, but the editor called it “a stunning piece of work”. Ugh, if it was so stunning, why can’t you publish it??? Sigh. Still, it gave me even more motivation to find a good agent for My Fishy Stepmom.
I started my agent search again with renewed vigour, and found what I considered to be the best website for finding the right agent – Manuscript Wishlist!
I typed in “Caribbean” first, just to see what came up, and I got three hits. One of those was literary agent, Marietta Zacker from Gallt and Zacker agency. I actually went “ooooooooooooh” when I read this line on her profile; “The Caribbean is home (out at sea, in particular — I might have been overheard saying that I was a mermaid in a former life!)” If you don’t know, I write most of my stories on the beach, and at one point adopted the tag ‘shoreline storyteller’. She seemed like a perfect fit for my book, and I hadn’t planned on sending out queries that day, but I immediately sent her a query, and then three other agents that I also found on the site, using the search term “Folklore”.
A week later, I got my second full request!!! This time from one of the four agents I queried in December! It was all so exciting! Another reputable person liked my work!! I spent the rest of the day singing “I got twooo, babyyy!” in Marvin Gaye melody.
It was like an addiction – the more full requests I got, the more I wanted. I went back to Manuscript Wishlist and realised that a lot of the agents advised that you checked their #MSWL tweets on Twitter.
I disliked it most of all social media platforms. Remember I said I hated group chats? Twitter felt like being in a group chat with the world.
And it didn’t help that I didn’t know many people on Twitter. I literally had one close friend who was active there. I’d used the platform before when I was active on getWrite! but I just used to schedule automatic tweets, and I had over 1000 followers on that getWrite! account. My personal account had about 500 followers and I am not sure why… I didn’t know anything about ‘writing twitter’, or finding fellow writers using the #writingcommunity hashtag. BUT, if agents said to check out their twitter feeds, then that’s what I was going to do. I reset the password, and started reading #MSWL tweets.
And that’s how I discovered Twitter pitch parties.
Basically #pitmad was coming up on March 8th – an event where writers composed tweets about their books, with tags like #ownvoices, #MG for Middle Grade etc, and interested agents would ‘like’ the tweet if they wanted you to send them a sample of your work.
This would be such a big step for me. I was afraid to put myself and my new work out there in such a large, public, unknown space. I was unsure about doing it…maybe I should watch and see how the event goes, and then try my luck with the next one.
Then I got another full manuscript request! From Marietta’s assistant, Erin Casey! *Cue celebrations and loud ‘I got threeee, baby!’ singing*
I wanted mooooorrrrreeeeee!!!!
I’ve taken so many risks so far, right? It couldn’t hurt to take one more. I composed a tweet, which I now realise is a HUGE spoiler lol… I should probably delete it, but I described the book as “My Stepmom is an Alien meets My Little Mermaid”.
Then I closed my eyes, and pressed “Tweet”.
To be continued…
Part 3 will be the last one I promise 🙂