On Writing Something New (or, How I Got My Agent)

[Warning: This is a long one!]

I have all those stories from my childhood that I think most writers have—little poems and magazines and books I wrote for my mom, the wild stories I made up off the top of my head as a kid (ask me, sometime, about Strawberry Shortcake—the doll—and Brussels Sprouts—the food), my prolific junior high years where my friends and I wrote book after book after book, feverishly trying to emulate R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike—but I was halfway through my Ph.D. before I took real strides towards becoming a published author.

After a year of cramming for my comprehensive exams and reading everything with a pen, notebook, and highlighter handy, I headed off to the beach for a few days with nothing to read. NOTHING. My office was full of books but none of them were for fun. I wasn’t taking The Canterbury Tales or The Monk on vacation. As soon as we reached the cottage, I rushed over to the tiny little indie bookstore in the center of town and swiftly bought the book with the most intriguing cover (I know, I know, I know…). It was the first paranormal romance I’d ever read, and I was immediately fascinated by the genre. Sitting in the attic bedroom of my husband’s family cottage that night, flashlight in hand and sheet over my head to keep from waking anyone, I started brainstorming my own story. I left the beach two days later with a notebook full of intense scribbles and a whole host of characters screaming in my head.

It would take me six years to turn A LIGHT IMPOSSIBLE (ALI) into a book. The first three were spent writing and rewriting the opening hundred pages. When that didn’t get me anywhere, I wrote the second half of the story first (since it was clearest in my head). I wrote between adjunct gigs and tutoring sessions, as a warm up for dissertation drafting, as a cool down from dissertation drafting. I used speech-to-text to write during my commutes. I wrote instead of sleeping. I wrote instead of eating. I wrote when I should have been dissertating.

Eventually I had a full story. 217,000 words (I wish I were exaggerating). Possessing every cliché you could imagine. But for the first time since I was fourteen, I’d written a real, honest-to-goodness book with a beginning, a (very bloated) middle, and an end.

From there, I made every possible mistake you could imagine. EVERY. ONE. Since I didn’t know many other people who wrote fiction (and no one who wrote YA), I didn’t seek out any feedback (beyond asking my husband and a few other people to read it to ensure it “made sense.”). I didn’t know where to go for publishing resources, so I googled “young adult word count” and absorbed the advice of the first random page I clicked. (For the record, 160,000 is not an acceptable maximum word count for debut YA.) I wrote a two-page, single-spaced query letter and never gave it to anyone to review before sending it off to agents.

I only doubled-down on those mistakes when I started querying.

Querying a manuscript with a ridiculously high word count? Check.

Choosing agents at random without researching them? Check.

Querying agents closed to queries? Check.

Sending pages with queries when agents did not ask for pages? Check.

Sending a sample chapter from the middle of the MS instead of the first chapter? Check.

Over the next two years, I would whittle the word count down below 100,000 words. I would wrestle my query into a decent pitch. I would join Twitter and learn a ton about query etiquette. I found beta readers and critique partners (TEAM G, THE LATIBULE, CHICKEN HUGS, my new Pitch Wars peeps, I adore you all).

People rooted for ALI. Got invested in Gwen and Sully and their romance. People I’d never met loved my words. I still hardly know what to do with that feeling. But after over a hundred queries, ALI only got one partial and one full request.

I wrote and rewrote my query. I revised that manuscript over and over and over. I told myself that YA paranormal romance was just a hard sell. That the right agent was out there, I just had to get ALI in their hands.

By the summer of 2015, I was desperate. I’d cried more times than I care to admit. I’d threaten to give up on writing. I’d done everything but consider shelving this project. Putting it aside felt too much like FAILURE. After six years writing and two years querying, the thought of starting over made me sick. I couldn’t spend another six years writing a book. I couldn’t go through the pain of getting rejected on a brand new project. I’d never love any characters the way I loved the ones in ALI.

I’d tried writing something new before. SO. MANY. TIMES. I had another paranormal project stall after two chapters. I conceptualized a zombie book I loved but could never figure out the right structure. I named and abandoned at least a dozen characters. Nothing stuck. I only wanted to write ALI.

Or, if I’m being honest, I just didn’t want to fail. A new story felt like failing. I couldn’t fail. I didn’t know how to fail. I refused to fail.

Not knowing what else to do, I submitted ALI into Pitch Wars in the summer of 2015. (For anyone who doesn’t know, Pitch Wars is a writing contest that pairs writers with mentors who help them to revise their manuscripts.) If I got in, it meant that I would keep querying. If I didn’t, I would consider shelving the project. I’d let Pitch Wars decide the fate of ALI.

Probably, you can guess what happened.

I didn’t get in.

Instead of shelving the project, though, I stopped writing altogether. For four full months. I was crushed. I’d lost whatever little confidence I’d had left as I’d hit SEND on my materials for Pitch Wars. I was sure this dream was never going to happen for me. That it was time to give up.

But while I’d been waiting to hear about selections for Pitch Wars, I’d done the (seemingly) impossible. I’d written something new.

It had started as a random vignette about a girl engaging with her friends online. I’d written it as a way to work through a flare up of my own social anxiety. But then the story grew threads. I started seeing ways it intersected with other half-formed ideas I had lying around in brainstorming notebooks. And when I came back from that four month writing hiatus, after sending ALI out ONE LAST TIME with a new query and a new slim (lol) 91,000 word count, I dove into this new project.

DAMAGE OVER TIME (DOT) was the book I had always been afraid to write. It’s about video games and online communities and anxiety and friendship and falling in love when you are still figuring out what that means. Even if the central story is not autobiographical, there’s so much of ME in that book. So much about the way I see the world, about what it felt like to be seventeen and, in some ways, what it feels like to be me now, many, many, many moons later. Letting other people read it feels like putting my soul out there on a silver plate (Ssshhhhh…I love a mixed metaphor).

Instead of taking six years, DOT took me six months to draft. Two months instead of two years to revise.

Everything about it was different. The query letter was shining and polished after a few hours and three drafts. The first agent to see the query requested the full. And though that request ended in a rejection, it gave me hope. It reminded me that this story was different. That its path would be different. It helped me see I had more than one story to tell. It told me something I hadn’t really been able (or willing) to hear until I’d started DOT: I needed to keep writing new things.

A few weeks later, I submitted DOT into Pitch Wars 2016. The next day I got my first request. In the next two days, I got two more. I made my husband take me to a movie the night the Pitch Wars selections went live, remembering how it had crushed me the previous year. After so many requests from mentors, I knew that a NO this time around would hurt even worse. But when I turned my phone back on after the movie, I had piles of Twitter notifications and DMs and text messages. Everyone was looking to celebrate with me. I’D GOTTEN IN (Thank you, Phil, forever, for that first YES I needed so badly).

Two months of intense revisions followed. Panic. Anxiety. Certainty that the agent round would lead to nothing. My book was so quiet. Everyone else’s was so unique, so swoon-tastic, so full of stakes and tension. I prepared myself for no requests. But when the agent showcase happened, DOT got one. Then another. And another. I couldn’t even breathe as I watched two, three, four requests stack up below my pitch within a half hour of it going live. I ended up with twelve total. DOUBLE DIGITS. What was happening??

Four days later we were free to send our materials to requesting agents. As I hit SEND, I tried to ignore the pessimism cultivated from years of querying ALI, all those voices whispering everyone will say NO.

I sat on my couch that Friday watching TV, trying not to pay attention to my silent inbox. In my peripheral vision, the screen on my phone lit up. A new notification stared back at me.

From Caitie Flum. “Jenny, I just finished and would love—” the first line said.

It had been two days. TWO DAYS since I sent her my full.

My hands were shaking so hard I couldn’t even swipe open the app. I had to go to my desktop computer to check my email.

AN AGENT WANTED TO TALK TO ME.

I wrote her back. My hands fumbled with the keyboard like I’d forgotten all the typing games I’d played as a kid and the semester of typing I took in high school (Yes, that’s how old I am…lol). A few back and forth emails and suddenly I had THE CALL scheduled in fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES. My brain stopped working. I tried to pull up some resources on questions to ask on THE CALL and our WiFi dropped. When it came back two minutes (though it felt like two HOURS) later, I sent my Pitch Wars mentor a bazillion frantic DMs but he was on a plane (PHILLLLLLLL). I panicked that I’d sent the agent the wrong phone number.

I didn’t.

She called.

I wrote down every word she said in that half an hour we talked, out of fear I’d forget everything in my panicked cloud of nerves. I’d been following Caitie on Twitter for a while, and I knew we liked a lot of the same books. Hearing her talk about how much she loved DOT, about how she loved MY story, it was its own kind of magic. Better than fairies or spells or wands. I couldn’t stop shaking, but I also couldn’t stop smiling.

Even as my brain screamed WHAT IS HAPPENING WHAT IS HAPPENING WHAT IS HAPPENING, as I listened to Caitie talk about my story, I realized how much she understood DOT. All the parts she loved were the things I loved. And her thoughts on revisions immediately resonated. Before I hung up the phone, I was already making connections and seeing ways I could implement the changes.

A few more offers came in before my deadline from other lovely, amazing agents, but in the end, I chose Caitie. From the moment we’d started speaking, it had been so clear that she “got” my story. She got my writing. She got me. DOT looks a lot different now than it did eight months ago when she offered to represent me. I know, thanks to her input, it’s a better book. And I know every book I write moving forward will be a better book with her help.

It’s been about nine years since I first started scribbling down ideas for ALI while on vacation with my husband. Sometimes I feel the length of every one of those days, but I also know it had to be my path because it led me to the right agent. And if my journey taught me anything, it’s the importance of writing something else. Don’t put all your proverbial eggs in one basket. No matter how much you love it, don’t let one story be your only story. You are made up of so many stories. Let yourself tell them.

The first thing I did when I finished DOT back in April of 2016 was start writing another project. I should finish SUN’S SHADOW in a few weeks, and this story, even in its messy, dumpster fire, WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON, first draft form, has kept me afloat through a lot of difficult times in the past year. It’s so much easier (as much as this process can ever be easy) for me to shoulder rejection when I am working on something else. Something new. It reminds me that there are other chances. That one stumble is not falling off a cliff.

So, friends (assuming you’re still here after this long, meandering post), if I have any advice to offer you, it’s this. Every book has a different journey. Every story will forge a new path. And one of them is going to get you where you want to be.

Go write something new. Always be writing something new.

<3 <3 <3

P.S. For anyone who likes numbers and that sort of thing, here are my stats:

I sent out 105 queries for ALI and received 1 partial, and 1 full request. For DOT, I sent out 8 cold queries, 8 full requests from Pitch Wars, and 2 partial requests from Pitch Wars. Of the 8 cold queries, 2 received full requests.

 

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