How I Got My Agent

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

I can’t believe I actually get to write one of these posts. I can’t believe it’s going to pop up in someone’s Google search as they’re looking for guidance/solace/inspiration while on their own querying journey.

I can’t believe how much has changed in the past ten months.

I’m not going to go all the way back to the beginning when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and writing my first book. If you want to read about my writing journey, my self-publishing career, or any of part of this ten-year process not covered in this post, feel free to peruse this blog, which I’ve been keeping since 2012.

What I will say about self-publishing is that while it was a great choice for my earlier works, especially my paranormal romance series, there was still something about the dream of seeing my books in an actual bookstore that I just couldn’t let go of.

So when I finished the initial version of Pen & Xander and realized that it was by far the best thing I’d ever written, I started to feel this spark, this itch to take a risk. To try something new. When the initial feedback from beta readers was resoundingly positive, I knew for certain I was ready for the next stage of my career and that this was the book that was going to get me there.

I spent a couple of years completely re-writing the story, interrupted constantly by the demands of my new teaching career. By year three of teaching, I finally found my footing, and as a result the time to write. By October 2018 I felt ready to query.

I didn’t do a ton of research. Instead, I focused on agents who were very vocal online about the inequities in publishing and who were also actively working towards addressing these inequities by signing clients from marginalized communities and championing books from diverse voices.

That October I sent out two query letters to two agents of color who I really admired. One sent me a form rejection. The other gave me some incredibly helpful feedback about my opening chapter and also commented on the overall word count being too long for YA. She was right. I knew I needed to cut several thousand words but I was still underestimating the amount of revisions I still needed to do.

Between November and December I re-wrote the opening chapter using the agent’s feedback and slowly began the process of making cuts.

December was a revelatory time for me. I’d been feeling like I was stuck in limbo in terms of my writing career, not sure if I was still on the right track; if I was actually talented enough to keep doing the work. I doubted myself. I doubted my life’s choices. I realized that most of them had been made out of fear. But I didn’t want to keep doing that. All of the sudden I felt this desperation to be brave. To make a declaration to the Universe that I was ready to go full force after this dream.

By January I took another step forward. Another agent who I was interested in querying, but who was closed to submissions at the time, was offering a manuscript critique through The Manuscript Academy.

The price for feedback on the first 100 pages was pretty steep. It felt like this enormous risk. But declarations to the Universe are no good without action behind them. Dreaming requires doing. And I’m so glad I did.

That agent’s feedback and encouragement lit a fire under me and I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript in two months. Then, in March, I stumbled across some information about DVPit, a Twitter pitch contest created by agent Beth Phelan to highlight writers from marginalized communities. My manuscript was ready just in time to participate and the whole thing felt meant to be.

I had one week to come up with my pitches and I used the videos and resources on the DVPit website to help me craft each of them. It was my very first pitch that got the most likes.

I made a list of all of the agents who’d liked my pitch, narrowed it down to agents who I thought would be a good fit, and then waited for the weekend to start querying.

Meanwhile, I was still working on manifesting my dreams. On setting specific goals and giving the Universe a specific timeframe by which to deliver them. For weeks, I kept a sticky note on my computer at work forecasting that I’d have an agent by Thursday. Why did I pick Thursday? I’m not sure, but like I said, it’s important to be specific.

As you can see below, several Thursdays passed before I got my wish. But I got it!

After querying, it didn’t take long before agents began requesting the full MS. Then an agent wanted to schedule a phone call.

That agent was Andrea Morrison at Writers House!

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I want to pause here to say that I really didn’t know much about the differences between specific agencies. I couldn’t name any offhand, which meant I certainly didn’t know who represented which authors.

If you’re interested in doing some of this homework before you start querying (which, you probably should) I would suggest checking out the following resources:

  • Query Tracker: This provides detailed agent info, as well as how long they typically take to respond to queries.
  • Manuscript Wishlist: This profiles agents’ tastes and what they’re looking for.
  • Publishers Marketplace: This shows how many deals an agent has represented, what kind of deals, and sometimes for how much.

What mattered most to me in an agent was working with someone who wanted to champion work from diverse voices and someone who was kind. Other authors may prioritize the business side of things more and that’s totally okay. But I wanted to feel safe in the relationship, safe to be vulnerable with my work, and supported emotionally as much as professionally.

What really helped me make my decision was speaking with Andrea’s current clients, who all adored her, and talked a lot about how kind and patient she is. I had a rough year concerning my mental health and there were times when my symptoms felt really out of control. So kindness, and especially patience, mattered a great deal to me. I’ve been doing better lately but I will deal with mental health issues for the rest of my life and I’ve yet to attempt to manage them under the stress of traditional publishing. For that reason, feeling emotionally supported was at the top of my list.

After signing with Andrea, I celebrated with cake, of course. But it still felt very surreal. I knew my manuscript was polished but I wasn’t expecting to get an agent that quickly after the contest. At first, my anxiety tried to convince me that it was a total fluke. But now I realize that it just meant I was ready. That the Universe had been waiting for me to get out of my own way so it could start to deliver those things I desired. Like a team. Connection. An awesome agent. Oh, and a book deal!

Just four months after #DVPit, I got an agent (a dream come true), and I got a book deal (my biggest dream come true). Was there luck involved? I’m sure. But was the entire thing a fluke? Absolutely not. Because I decided in December of 2018 that this would be my new reality. And from that moment on, I didn’t just wish for it. I ran towards it, arms out wide, scared but still reaching. Until those things I longed for reached back.

 

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Finding Joy in Writing While on Sub

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

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Being out on submission with a book is a strange thing. On the one hand, you’ve reached a huge milestone by just having something that’s actually in good enough shape to send out. But it’s probably something you’ve been working on for a long time; something that feels finished even though it’s nowhere close (more on that in a later post).

I decided that during this process, it would be best for my mental health not to know much unless there was serious interest. I thought it would be easier to focus on my WIP this way. For a little while, this tactic worked.

But then there was interest. Suddenly. Shockingly. It all happened really fast and the next thing I knew I was on the phone with editors. Actual editors at actual publishing houses. And each one had a very different vision for my book. This thing that felt finished to me, was just a starting point for them. It was a little jarring and the more I mulled over the options, the harder it was to think about anything else.

I woke up every morning at 3:30AM, my mind racing. And not just about the book out on sub that now had the potential of being reincarnated into a million different things but also my WIP, the companion novel to the book on sub.

I tried desperately to re-enter that world, to continue getting to know these other characters, to flesh out a plot that made sense. But then I realized that significant changes to book one would inevitably lead to significant changes to book two and if I didn’t even know what those changes were going to be yet, how could I possibly keep forging ahead blind?

I’ve been struggling with this manuscript for a long time, and being that I’m the type of person who’s always looking for signs, I decided that this must be one. This book hasn’t been working because it wasn’t supposed to. Because things are going to change and I have to let them. I have to let go of what I thought these stories were supposed to be in order to make room for the stories they’re meant to be.

But I also need to write. In the midst of all of this uncertainty, I need to work on something that returns me to the joy of writing, that reminds me why I do it in the first place.

Right now, my middle grade WIP is that happy place. It’s about witches and magical burritos and prophesying horny toads. It’s about friendship and bridging cultural divides and families that function as one beating heart.

Trying to write something new while receiving critiques of something old is hard. It can mess with your head and make you second guess every creative choice you’ve ever made. But instead of avoiding the work, I’m trying to find a way to use it as an escape. The way writing used to be when I was in the midst of grief, when I was struggling financially, when I was experiencing an existential crisis (or two).

Maybe part of being a writer is figuring out what you need out of it every single day. What needs healing? Where can I go; what can I explore that will bring me closer to that healing?

Right now, I need to heal from my own expectations, from my inability to accept my own limitations. I need to find joy and feel good. So I’m getting back to what I know–that the world is magic, that when we love, fearlessly, wholeheartedly, we become magic too.

How I’m Avoiding Book 2 Hell

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

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Book 2 Hell is where writers typically flail about, trying to write something new with the added pressure of reader expectations. It’s a place where imposter syndrome has you in a death grip and getting words on the page feels like pulling teeth. And every day you don’t hit your writing goals makes you question your very existence.

So I’ve heard.

I’ve listened to enough podcasts and read enough blog posts to know that Book 2 Hell is not a pleasant place and therefore one I would like to stay as far away from as possible. Which is why, even though I haven’t sold my first book yet, I’m already thinking about how to avoid it.

In publishing, there is a seemingly endless amount of waiting. You wait for agent responses when you’re querying. You wait for editor responses when you’re on submission.

And again, because enough authors have been generously transparent online and therefore I have some kind of an idea of what I’m getting myself into, I can look at the time between each publishing milestone as a curse or a blessing. In other words, I can let the hours that tick by drive me mad or I can use them to actually make this journey a little easier.

Right now, no one is waiting for my next book. No one is asking me what it’s about or how far along the manuscript is or if they can read a few pages. No one cares and that’s actually a good thing. It means that I can toil away on it with zero outside influence. I can make a mess. I can clean it up. I can write with no one’s voice inside my head except my own.

Is writing still difficult? Of course it is. But probably not as difficult as it would be if hundreds or even thousands of people were waiting for me to deliver a product perfect enough to satisfy them all. Which is why my greatest motivation for finishing my next book is to finish it BEFORE a significant number of people know I exist.

If I stay focused and use my summer wisely (in between summer school and an externship with the ADL) I might just be able to have a strong draft of this thing by the end of August. I might also be able to have a semi-decent draft of my new middle grade MS. Which means I might just be able to completely side-step Book 2 Hell and just head straight for the promised land.

Or it might mean that Book 2 Hell actually becomes Book 4 or 5 Hell.

Either way, finishing something (or maybe even two things) at least by year’s end means that I’ll have another project queued up and ready to go if and when my first book sells or doesn’t.

In addition to soaking up all the info I could about being on submission and writing the dreaded book 2, I’ve also been listening really closely to author’s advice on finances. It seems like most of the writers who’ve been able to transition to being full-time authors staggered their projects in a way that made their income a little bit more predictable.

If author X knows she can finish a book in 8 months or knows that she has Y number of drafts in her queue, she can better anticipate when/what she might be able to sell and when those payouts might happen. If they’re staggered evenly enough, she can see months in advance by when she’ll need to finish the next project and by when she’ll need to sell it. The math probably isn’t ever exact–there’s a lot of unpredictability in this profession–but there is a way to make it work.

So finishing the next book isn’t just about avoiding Book 2 Hell, it’s also about setting up my entire career. It’s about planning for the future I want and taking the necessary steps to getting there, no matter how dark and obscure the path may seem. I just need to trust that it’s beneath my feet, carrying me closer to the place I’m meant to be. As long as it’s not hell. Please don’t make me go there.

 

All or Nothing

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

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When I think about perfectionism and creative work, the first thing that comes to mind is writer’s block. For most of us, it’s caused by this desire to avoid failure at all costs, which in turn makes it impossible to even get the words on the page. Perfectionism is never being able to finish a project. It’s endless tweaking and a sense of never being satisfied.

For the longest time, I thought that I had beaten back my own perfectionism because I knew how to finish. But perfectionism doesn’t just dictate the final product. It also dictates every step to getting there.

This week I read an article in a financial newsletter that talked about something called “0-100 thinking.” It refers to a type of perfectionism that causes people to have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to their goals. For example, if I set a goal of writing every morning before work but one morning I wake up late and only have twenty minutes to write instead of the hour I’d originally planned for, and this derails me psychologically to the point that I just give up on the endeavor altogether, then I am a 0-100 perfectionist.

Y’all, I am a 0-100 perfectionist and I didn’t realize it until now.

In my twenty-seven years, I’ve experience so many things that have literally beaten into me how unpredictable life is, how little we actually have control over. Teaching has forced me to be flexible, my long-term relationship with my partner has shown me the importance of being able to grow and change. Did I often seek out opportunities to control as many aspects of my life as I could? Absolutely. But did it derail me when things didn’t go exactly as planned? I didn’t think so.

I thought that I had learned how to go with the flow. How to fall on faith. How to take things as they come.

But in my work, I am still struggling with this beast called perfectionism that I thought I had slain long ago.

That example I mentioned earlier? That happened to me Thursday morning.

See, I was on a high last week from DVPit and all of the agents who had requested my full manuscript. It lit a fire under me to make even more progress on the rough draft of the companion novel. Waking up at 5AM to write is not new for me. I often do it at the tail end of projects or when I’m trying to build up momentum. So I decided I would work that extra writing time back into my routine, starting on Monday.

Monday through Wednesday things went really well. I woke up early, got ready, ate breakfast, and had between 45 minutes and an hour to write before heading to work. Then Thursday came around and I accidentally woke up at 4 instead of 5. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there, exhausted.

That exhaustion followed me out of bed, slowing me down every step of my morning routine. My writing time dwindled down to thirty minutes. I was so discouraged I couldn’t even begin.

Then Friday morning I checked my email (which I really shouldn’t have done before getting my writing in) and there was this article all about the 0-100 mindset. I thought about how I’d totally self-sabotaged Thursday morning and then I thought about all of the other times I’ve done the exact same thing.

This 0-100 mindset has robbed me of so much progress. Of so much growth. The very things that may have fortified my confidence and given me the strength to push through my own perfectionism. The perfectionism I didn’t even think was still a problem for me.

But it is a problem. A BIG problem.

Luckily, it’s a problem I actually know how to fix. Not overnight and not all at once. That 0-100 mindset is poison even when we think it’s helping us find solutions. Instead, this is a problem I can only fix twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes at a time.

Friday I had exactly twenty minutes to write before work. But instead of saying, screw it, that’s not enough time, I opened up the Word document and dove in. For twenty minutes. I revised four pages of the manuscript. Four pages. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s four more pages than I’d done the day before and it’s four pages closer to the end.

That is what’s most important. The End.

If I can’t get there, I can’t do this professionally. But I know I can get there. I have gotten to the end eight times before with eight different novels. The question I have to ask myself now is how. Am I going to get there in weekend binges that may get wiped out by other plans? Am I going to get there by only writing when conditions are absolutely perfect? Or am I going to get there using any means necessary and with whatever time I can find or steal, whether that’s an hour or five minutes?

You can create as many versions of the perfect routine as you want. But there is no such thing. Life will always get in the way. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still do the work. Just like we have to embrace when a story takes an unexpected turn, resulting in something we never saw coming, we must also embrace a “writing routine” that is less routine than we’d hoped.

It’s okay to carve out time to write, to set boundaries, to have goals. But every time we let disappointment drive us off the path, we get farther and farther from our original destination. Whether you have all the time in the world to write or almost none, your identity as a writer does not change, and you can still make meaningful progress towards the things that matter. Telling the stories you long to tell.

Getting to the End

Writing Process

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I’ve spent the past six weeks cutting over 30,000 words from my restaurant book MS. I changed the antagonist, cut out several characters, and majorly altered one of my MC’s story arcs. But I’d been picking at the last two chapters for several days, trying to figure out how to tie everything together, and nothing felt quite right.

Because the ending I was writing, the one full of hope and triumph and restorative justice was not real.

Specifically, the bad guy getting brought to justice by a working criminal justice system…was bullshit.

I wanted it to be real. I wanted every problem to have a solution. Every thread to be neatly tied up in a bow. But that feeling that was nagging at me, gnawing at me and driving me nuts, was the stronger desire to tell the truth.

This story does end on a hopeful note but it’s not because these characters and this community were rescued by the police or the government or a more powerful “white savior” character. It’s hopeful because, after everything we see these characters go through, all of the pain and injustice and every day prejudice that exhausts the mind, body, and spirit, that beats it down to dust, we also get to see them rise. We see them save themselves and each other.

One of the characters tells my male MC that “resiliency is its own reward.”

It’s not what the MC wants to hear. It’s not what any of us want to hear. We want to hear that when you work hard, when you do the right thing, you have earned the right to happiness, to safety, to the bare basics of a beautiful life in this country. But that is not the truth. And this story does not lie and say that it is.

That is why I love the ending of this book so much more than I loved the previous fifty versions. Because it does not lie. It is heartfelt. It is heroic. But most importantly, it is honest.