Before I Got My Agent
Lots of writers when they sign with an agent write a lovely, helpful, awesome blog post about the experience. They’re often titled “How I Got My Agent,” and contain query stats, timelines, and tons of gratitude and encouragement. They’re a great way for writers to become familiar with what to expect when an agent offers and how to handle the emotional roller-coaster that comes along with it. I posted my own “how I got my agent” story last Friday, but I wanted to write a follow-up this week.
Why? Because when I was querying, I’d see someone else’s agent story go around, and as completely thrilled for that writer as I was, sometimes I– confession– got a bit jealous. Maybe jealous isn’t the right word. I was happy for them, thrilled with their success, willing to cheer them on, aware their success didn’t make mine any less likely. But sometimes it hit at a bad time, when I was particularly frustrated by a rejection or a tangle in my WIP or things that had nothing to do with writing, and it made me 80% happy for the writer and 20% sad for myself. I’ve heard some of my close writer friends make similar confessions, too. It’s hard to watch others succeeding when we feel like we aren’t. It’s hard when their story looks easier than ours. It’s really hard when some writers get multiple requests in contests or multiple offers or there’s a flurry of querying news immediately after they start querying, and it looks like the whole of the publishing industry is launching themselves at Fabulous Writer A, and we’d really just love to have one agent interested in us.
So, because I am so familiar with those feelings, I had a few quick thoughts I thought I’d share.
It looks easy from the outside. No one’s story is ever as easy or glamorous as it looks. I’m tempted to write out that line and hang it above my computer, because it’s so true. It’s not fair to yourself to compare the worst parts of your story to the best parts of someone else’s. I know it looks easier from the outside, because my “how I got my agent” story barely scratches the surface. There was definitely a “before I got my agent” story.
I wrote a novel in high school. I was deadly serious about it. I researched hours every week, wrote almost every day. I wanted to be published by the time I turned seventeen. (I have no idea why; it probably wouldn’t have been good for me.) It was a sprawling plotless wonder, but I loved it. 400 pages of a tangent-prone Mafia-western. It was completely unmarketable, and if anyone had told me that, I would have been crushed. I probably would have quit. But no one did, and so I figured I’d keep trying even though I gave up on the plotless wonder when I went to college. I wrote short stories in college, but felt like I’d never come up with another good novel idea again. My short stories got so-so reactions from my professors, so I figured that wasn’t for me. 4 years went by, during which I read and wrote and tried to figure out how to become an author. By the time I graduated, I’d been working at it for seven years. I really had no connections with anyone published, and no novel I was working on, but I still wanted to be an author.
I kept looking around for ideas, kept reading, and 8 months after graduation, found an idea I thought was marketable. I loved the idea, and started writing it. Unfortunately for the timeline but fortunately for my skill development, it was a research-heavy, historically based urban fantasy with a frighteningly large cast of characters. Of course, it was the first of a series and took over 100k to wrap up the first book. It took me two years to get it ready to query. I had joined Twitter, learned a lot from agent and author blogs, and poured sweat and tears into my book. I queried it, revised once I learned a little more, queried again, revised, wondered if I should start the second book while I waited, wondered why no one loved this book as much as I did, and received mixed reactions from agents and authors and critique partners. I’d been writing for nine years, by this point. I wasn’t working on a novel the entire time, but especially in those last two years, I learned a lot about story structure, and even now I can see it’s a pretty solid manuscript. It had unique elements, but wasn’t unique enough. It was adult, but had some YA elements. It had a twist on what was already out there in urban fantasy, but the twist wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t have enough something, and I knew I could do better.
I swore I wasn’t giving up on that MS. I wasn’t trunking it. Some day, when I’d learned how to turn the so-so elements into something awesome, I’d go back to it. I spent a year querying and revising that MS, and while I was doing that, I started a new MS. I’m so glad I did. (Incidentally, if you’re writing a series I don’t recommend starting the sequel right after you finish writing the first. You never know what’s going to happen with that first book, and it’s usually better to start a different project next so you don’t spend five years writing a series that never sells.) I didn’t want to sign with an agent on my second book, because I thought my first one was good (it’s decent) and it was unique (it really wasn’t) and I had worked so hard on it. I’d written it while working a full-time job plus a publishing internship, which I’m surprised didn’t drive me to a breakdown.
If someone had told me that that MS would get trunked, and still needed completely rewritten, and wouldn’t land me an agent, I don’t think I could have started a new MS. But I’d started a new one while I queried the first, and hey, it was awesome. I loved that new story. And you know what? It didn’t take me two years. It took me five months. And I could see it was better, so much better, than my first. I started seeing the issues with my urban fantasy– things I had looked for and tried to address before, but just couldn’t see what the problem was. It made sense to me why that manuscript wasn’t getting the agent attention I wanted it to have. (I’m so glad I didn’t self-publish the fantasy MS out of frustration, because it’s still not the story it deserves to be. I can probably get that urban fantasy where it needs to be, because I have tools now that I didn’t before. This is a prime example of why there’s so much waiting involved in writing and publishing–I was waiting on my skills to develop.)
That second manuscript was faster, less frustrating, and got me my agent. But there’s a backstory there of two other manuscripts, twelve years of writing and hoping to be published, sweat, tears, juggling three jobs, and lots and lots of rejection. My querying stats from MOON RIVER, my second MS, look like this:
Requests: 23 (6 partials, 17 fulls)
But… yeah. The backstory. Here are my stats from that urban fantasy:
Requests: 8 partials (5 from pitch contests) and 3 fulls
Writing is fun and exciting and worth every minute to me. But I didn’t know it would be this hard and I had no idea how much work it would be. I still think it’s worth it, and just because the work is hard doesn’t make the time doing it miserable. But it can sometimes make it a bit easier to know other people aren’t skating by us on the road to success while we toil away with no one noticing. Finishing a manuscript or signing with an agent or landing a book deal or reaching a bestseller list is almost never as easy as it looks. It’s true with our characters, and it’s true with writers: there’s always a backstory.
And here’s the encouraging part: your current situation is not an omen of where you’re going to be next month or at Christmas or next year. Rejection and discouragement happen to everyone. Focus on your successes, keep going, and keep in mind when someone else succeeds in an area you’re trying to, that it probably took them years and a lot of work. It wasn’t easy, but if they did it, there’s no reason you can’t. Love your book. Give it your best. Start a new one and let the process sharpen your skills. Be a writer, because that’s the whole point. You already are succeeding, just by continuing to write. The rest will happen along the way.
As always, if you read my blog and need help or advice, let me know. Pay it forward, right?