How I got my agent
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
My path to finding an agent has been a long one.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Before I could write, I would fold sheets of construction paper in half and draw pictures-as-stories in them. The first words I learned to write, I put into stories.
My room was filled with spiral notebooks that I used to write books. I remember when I was eight, I wrote an entire chapter book about a marine mammal park, and all the animals rising against the humans and breaking free? (like some weird mash up of Free Willy and Finding Dory?) I put it in a manila envelope, addressed it to the publisher’s address I found inside, and gave it to my mom, asking her to send it for me. I was absolutely convinced this was how books were published.
My mom threw it in the garbage.
My parents weren’t exactly thrilled with my passion for writing. “It is not something you can do for a job.” “Only one in a million get the chance to do this.” I remember having to hide my writing because my parents quickly realized that I wasn’t going to listen to their reasoning, so they tried other ways to get me to stop. I have none of my childhood writings left, because they were all thrown away.
I entered a writing contest in elementary school…. And when I didn’t win any placements, my parents used that as further proof that I needed to give up the dream. I didn’t.
In high school, I wrote punk rock love stories and made collage-art photo-copied covers for them (‘zine style) and gave them to my friends. I found local record stores that would sell them. I was hoping that someone would be wowed by the covers, blown over by my writing and offer me a publishing deal. That’s how people get published… right?
When I graduated high school, I spent a lot of time on different adventures. I spent six months hitch-hiking and traveling around the country. I sang in two different punk rock bands. I got an internship at the Adler Planetarium and finally settled down in the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago and started to go to school. Through it all, I shared everything with my boyfriend-eventual-husband, who taught me the greatest lesson a person could teach – that I was worthy of love, and also! That I was worthy of chasing my dreams. I kept writing, sometimes writing fanfiction (Lord of the Rings and X-Men were my big ones!), and tried my hand again at original fiction.
I sent out a few pages to literary agents, one who was so gracious enough to give me loads of feedback and encouragement. I dedicated myself to practicing, practicing, practicing (fanfiction really makes for the greatest space to practice writing! You already have characters to explore, with instant feedback from readers!) I felt like I was on my way.
I graduated with honors, focusing on history and anthropology, but a new adventure was waiting for me on the horizon.
I enlisted in the US Army. It was a chance of a lifetime, because my first duty assignment was at Caserma Ederle, Vicenza… Italy! I got to live in Italy for three and a half years! (and I used to be able to speak Italian, but I’m so afraid I’ve forgotten it all!) I recall how very terrifying culture shock can be, but also what an absolute joy it is to live in a different culture!
After that, I attended language school and was paid to learn Arabic! Which starts the period of my life in which I had to put writing on hold. Language school was seven hours a day of learning a foreign language – you started on day one with “so you’re learning Arabic!” and a year later you had to be fluent or you failed! (there’s a very, very, very high fail out rate, just in case you were wondering!) Even though Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn for a native English speaker, I fell in love with the culture and language, and dove into my studies with as much enthusiasm as I could. It was the beginning of a period in my life when I stopped writing altogether, but I was about to land a job that would take my concept of “high work load” and absolutely crush it.
I got an email saying “Congratulations! You’ve been selected from among your peers to attend the Drill Sergeant Academy!” Me… a drill sergeant!? I excelled at the school, even earning a spot on the commandant’s list (honors!), but I began one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever had to do.
Being a drill sergeant meant working for 18 hours every day. It meant walking miles and miles and miles, sometimes without ever leaving a building. It meant lots of stress on the body – we would pack up bags with all of our stuff – sometimes up to 35 pounds – and walk, for miles, to get to a training site. And I would work every day for seventy days in a row without a day off! For two years!
Yet through it all, I would find time to write. I mostly spent time in fanfiction (upgrading to Star Wars!), but I didn't forget the dream of being published. Sometime during all of this, I decided to give querying another shot.
My problem was, somewhere along my journey, I had decided that if I read too much, my writing would lose my own distinct voice. Do not do this!! It absolutely does not help your writing! I wrote a middle grade story, tying in every aspect of my life so far lived – and sent out queries.
I got crickets in return.
When I got a request for 50 pages – I even remember which range I was at because I was still a drill sergeant! – I mentally signed my fate. I was going to get that offer of representation! I was going to be able to gush to all my drill sergeant buddies that I was about to be a published author! The agent passed.
But that was okay because I got a full request! From a DREAM AGENT! Again, I mentally dreamed of my future. I was going to sign with this agent. I was going to be able to live the dream! The lifetime dream I had to so often put on hold!
That agent also passed.
I remember how crushing that was. I had poured my soul into this book, and I didn’t think the pain was worth the dream. I remember imaging each of my characters, imaging them in my mind, and then telling them to leave. I couldn’t write anymore. I had lived so long, written so much – at that point, I had written probably twenty novel-length fanfictions, and if I include the books I wrote in high school? Seven original fiction books! If I hadn’t been able to figure this out by now, then maybe my parents were right. Maybe I was deluding myself. Maybe the dream wasn’t meant for me. That it’s so far out of reach that I should draw my hand back before I started to look like a fool. I was married. I had two kids. I had a steady job and thanks to my punk-rock past that glorified anti-materialism? I was able to save money - the Army pays incredibly well, but also, by not splurging on technology or status items... I bought a house and - I told myself that maybe? This was good enough for me. Maybe dreaming to be a writer was something I would just do by writing fanfiction?
I dedicated myself to reading. I loved middle grade. It’s the only genre I wrote in, and the only genre I read in (with few exceptions). I loved stories, maybe I wasn’t meant to write them but read them? I read like, 60 books in the span of a few months. And it ignited so much activity in my brain. Suddenly I could see where my book had been failing. I had started at the wrong spot. My main character reacted to things instead of making choices that drove the plot. I was starting to believe that I could save my dream. Save my book. I started learning everything I could. Read blogs about how to improve queries. I got a lot of mentorship from published friends. I learned that it's not about how badly you want it, but how badly you're willing to work for it. I didn't have any new ideas yet, but I was on my way.
I had to move across the country (for the third time!), and while in a hotel outside of Mesa Verde, I had a vivid dream. I dreamed I was a kid vampire, who’s brother had snuck out and eaten someone. Framed with the murder, I had to find out who really did it.
The rest of the drive, I was obsessed with the idea.
I couldn’t wait to unpack my laptop, and I furiously began writing. I wrote the first draft of YOUNG BLOOD in four months. I began to have hope. I was so excited that I started to write draft emails I planned to send to agents when my beta readers were finished. One of those draft emails, I accidentally hit “send” instead of drafting it. I cringed so hard, but whatever! It was one agent! They were going to reject me anyways! Nothing I’d done so far had warranted much agent attention and-
I got a request for a full manuscript only four days later. And another. And another after that. I couldn’t believe it. I had to keep telling myself it wasn’t real. That this wasn’t really happening. I kept getting full requests. One full I got THREE MINUTES after I sent it! And granted, rejections came back too. But I was so inspired that it never slowed me down. I got revise and submit requests, that inspired me so much I stayed up all night tackling the ideas. Finally. One day. It happened. I opened an email and it had those magic words in it. “I would love to set up a call to discuss possible representation.” I screamed. I crumpled into a ball of overwhelmed emotion and sobbed my face clear off. I never thought I would be doing it, but suddenly I was sending out emails with the bold “OFFER OF REPRESENTATION” in the subject line. I called the agent in question, and while she was wonderful and enthusiastic, she said something that made me pause. She thought my book was perfect. I knew it wasn’t there yet. I had been getting lots of rejections, and they all touched on a similar problem in the plot. I just about nearly pulled my book from all consideration so I could rework it. I knew the book wasn’t perfect. Fortunately, I got another email almost right after that. It was an offer for a call, too. No “possible offer of representation” but I eagerly agreed to make the call. Emily Forney was so absolutely wonderful. We had the same energy, the same enthusiasm, and she said what I needed to hear. “I love the characters, but the plot isn’t working.”
And she gave me the opportunity to think of a different plot. I emailed her two days later, and I got an email back almost immediately. She LOVED the new idea. And she asked to set up another phone call. Sometime during that call, I asked in a shaky voice “Is this an offer?” “Yes!” Emily said and I started to cry. An entire lifetime. Almost forty years. And it had all been worth it. Through everything, every doubt, the fire that consumed me was to write. To create stories. And despite every set back, I knew what I wanted. And that’s the thing I will leave you all with: The dream is bigger than the pain. There will be rejections. There will be struggles. But the dream is worth it.
And now, for the stats: Books written: 8
Rejections : 201
Full requests: 18
Revise and Submits: 2
Offers of representation: 2