Prequel to Querying:
It sounds cliche to say but some of my earliest memories are of writing. When I was a kid, I lived at the end of a long gravel road in the middle of nowhere, our house on the edge of a river and most of our yard a dense forest. Even then, the woods felt strange and magical to me, but comforting too. I remember summer days eating apples from our tree until my stomach hurt and writing stories about the fairies that lived in our garden and in the forest. I would find flowers and leaves and tie them with pieces of grass around toothpicks and popsicle sticks to make the fairies I imagined. Yeah, I was that kind of kid.
I completely blame my overactive imagination on my love for books. The shelf in my room was crammed full of Goosebumps and Magic Tree House, fairytale collections and anything by Roald Dahl. We didn’t have much money but I remember my parents going to our local used bookstore as often as they could afford and bringing me home a surprise book or two. In that way, books became precious to me, the most valuable things that I owned as a kid.
I kept writing through the years, stories of misunderstood monsters in my closet and secret worlds tucked away between the trees of the forest outside my bedroom window, jotted down in those furry journals with the little padlocks. I was private with my stories until middle school, when I found friends who loved books just as much as I did. Then I was staying up late and waking up early to scribble down chapter after chapter of stories that were usually just Twilight knockoffs that we would read and giggle over in the back of science class. Until I got bored with them and killed off the love interests, much to the horror of my friends.
I remember the first time I realized I wanted to be an author for real—it was eighth grade and I was taking some class on learning life skills. We had to pick a profession, the one we saw ourselves pursuing, and send letters to people in that field asking about their experiences, salary, advice, etc. I loved animals and always thought I wanted to be a vet but for some reason, I found myself picking author. My teacher spoke to me after class about how I might want to choose something else, something that was a real career. She asked if I’d told my parents that this was what I wanted to pursue, and how they felt about it, making it clear that she expected them to have an issue. She wasn’t cruel or mean about it, which almost made it worse. I stood firm but told all of my friends later that it was just a ruse so I had an excuse to send letters to my favorite authors at the time. And yes, several of them did respond and I still have the letters—looking at you, Holly Black.
The discovery of fanfiction was a life-changing event for me. It was the first way I ever met other writers, the first way I ever got feedback on my work. I wrote a lot of mortifying things, a fair amount of things with potential, a few that might have even been good, and learned all about first drafts and editing. I fell in love—seriously in love—with some of the stories I was writing but always felt like a cheater. Like I wasn’t truly writing, like it didn’t count because the characters weren’t mine. I loved it but I felt like a fraud, like I wasn’t allowed to have pride in what I was doing. So, I started working on original stories and posting them online as well, eager to hold onto that sense of community and connection. And when my stories did well, it was the sweetest validation of my life. It was the first time that I sat back and felt like I could really become an author if I wanted to.
Spoiler alert: I decided that I wanted to.
The Last Few Years:
I wrote steadily through my teen years, filling an absurd amount of notebooks with frantically plotted stories, jumbled character sheets, and badly drawn fantasy world maps. And over the years, I had an on-again, off-again relationship with fanfiction. A relationship that finally gave me the push to sit down and finish a manuscript with the intention of querying it.
I worked on this book casually for a year—affectionately calling it Curse Boys—and then the pandemic hit. At the exact same time, I decided to leave my fiance a few months before our wedding—it sounds crazy but it was one of the best decisions of my life—and throw all of my future right out the window. Not the best plan for someone with chronic anxiety and the self-worth of a dumpster fire at the time, but I did it. With the pandemic, I had no job, no partner, no home, no idea where I wanted my life to be in five years. It made me feel more scared and hopeful than I ever had.
After some soul searching, I decided to sit down and give this author thing a real shot. I had money saved up, the world was in a pandemic hell anyway, and I literally had nothing to lose. I pulled out Curse Boys and got to work.
Several drafts later, I got beta-reader feedback, did a few more edits, then sat at my desk and stared at a list of agents that I’d casually been compiling over a few months. I knew that the next step was to put together a query letter and start sending it out.
I made a lot of mistakes in those first few weeks—my query letter wasn’t anywhere near as good as it should have been and I convinced myself that going for my dream agents first just made sense. I definitely wish I’d waited a bit before querying them, long enough to figure out what was and wasn’t working with my query. But, you know what they say about hindsight…
Getting my query to a good place was a lot of trial and error. I looked over loads of examples of ones that had landed the writer agents and got feedback from other friends who were querying. I think it’s all about balance, sharing enough of the plot while holding enough back to create intrigue, following the tried and true format while still adding your voice in to make it your own. For the first few months, every time I read it over, I found something to change. That willingness to be critical and make edits helped me get it to a place that I was genuinely proud of.
The other biggest challenge I faced—and I’m sure most other writers in the query trenches can relate to this—was narrowing down my options of which agents to query. I’d love to say there was a method to my madness but it was mostly just a combination of lots of research into their history/experience/clients and following my gut. The best advice I can give is to put in the time to thoroughly check an agent out before you query because if you get an offer and accept, you’re putting your dreams in the hands of that person.
Querying was rough, as querying usually is. I believed in Curse Boys, even with people telling me that you usually ended up shelving the first book, and I’d convinced myself that I was just dipping my toe in the pool to see what happened. Just casually throwing my manuscript at agents like I wasn’t serving them my heart on a platter and hoping they didn’t toss it on the floor and stomp it. I told myself that I was prepared for rejection and pain and wouldn’t let it get me down.
Spoiler alert: It totally got me down.
The Final Stretch:
I lasted about eight months before giving up. Or, as I told everyone, “taking a break to get my energy back.” But yeah, looking back, I was definitely giving up, I just didn’t want to admit it yet. I had a first-class ticket on the denial train.
My break consisted mostly of copious amounts of self-doubt. I mean, what was I doing? The state of the world was still pretty shit but I’d done nothing to get my act together and start pretending I could be a real adult. I was living in a tiny house on wheels with my two cats, pursuing writing like I actually had a real chance. I couldn’t shake the fear that I’d wasted all this time and all I was going to have to show for it was a manuscript that no one wanted and a lot of excuses that wouldn’t make sense to other people.
At this point, I had queried roughly seventy agents. Yep, seventy. A good amount of them were partial or full requests and I’d been getting a decent amount of agent attention during pitch events on Twitter, but it didn’t matter. Every time an agent got back to me, it was a rejection. Some of them were nice, some of them were generic, but they all stung.
When I gave up, I still had a handful of queries and manuscript requests out. I left them alone while I tried to sort my brain out and figure out what my next step was. A month went by without me making any progress there. I genuinely felt stuck. I’d taken a chance and gone after my dreams and it hadn’t paid off. What do you do next where you’re facing that?
And then, in the middle of a trip to visit family in Tennesse, I got an email. One of the agents who’d had my manuscript for a few months enjoyed it and had some questions about the second book (I was pitching Curse Boys as the first book in a duology), so if I had any of it written or an outline, could I send it over. We went back and forth for a bit—I didn’t have my computer with me on my trip but would happily send over my embarrassingly messy outline for book two and some random scenes I’d written as soon as I got home—and ended with her asking if we could set up a call.
This was it, I knew it. My moment.
Or was it? I’m not going to lie, imposter syndrome hit me fast and hard. What if she read my outline for book two and hated it? What if this was just a call to discuss it further? What if I forgot all of the plot and made a fool of myself and she hated me?
Going into it a week later, I had no idea what to expect and had completely convinced myself that it wasn’t an offer of representation call. Anxiety had a chokehold on me and I was certain that even considering an offer was going to jinx the whole thing. So I sat down for the call, nervous and anxious and refusing to be excited.
And then, in the first few minutes, she and her assistant told me they loved Curse Boys and all of the doubt and anxiety vanished. I could hear it in her voice and see in her face that she meant it. She complimented my story, my writing, my characters, the plot, she remembered the name of side characters and pointed out things that I was proud of. This was an agent, a real agent, who had read my manuscript and loved it.
Even now, typing out those words blows my mind.
Needless to say, she was delightful. Her assistant was delightful. I smiled so much that my face hurt only a few minutes in, I probably embarrassed myself at least a bit stumbling over my words and trying to explain how much the story meant to me, and it was one of the best things to ever happen to me. By the time she said she wanted to represent me, I knew it was coming because I could feel her passion.
We ended the call and I sent out the two-week deadline to the other agents who had my query, then ran around my house in excitement and concerned my cats very much. It was actually happening and in two weeks, I was going to have an agent. I honestly can’t put into words what that felt like.
Then, the unthinkable happened—a second agent reached out to me. She loved my manuscript and wanted to set up a call to make me an offer.
I’m not going to lie, I couldn’t believe it. I went into the call just as excited as the first, though maybe a smidge less nervous. We started talking about Curse Boys, about my inspiration behind the story and the characters, and I was immediately struck by some of the comments she made. She saw and understood the heart of what I was trying to capture. She got me as a writer and the kind of story I was trying to tell. That feeling of connection and encouragement was immediately apparent to me, on a professional and personal level.
As we talked more, it was clear that she was enthusiastic and passionate about her clients, willing to go to bat for them, to put in the work and make things happen. Communication was important to her, something that really matters to me. And she was invested in my journey as a writer, my brand, and future stories.
I took a few days to consider every angle, but in the end, she was the agent I went with and I know she was the right choice—Kat Kerr at Donald Maass Literary Agency.
A lot of people say that getting an agent is mostly about luck and timing and I don’t disagree with this. However, I think it’s also about hard work and perseverance in the face of so much rejection. Give yourself some credit because you deserve it.
And so, I’m going to end this by saying that I am so proud of myself. Proud of my book, my passion, working through my fears and anxieties, and taking a chance. And I couldn’t be more excited to take this huge step towards getting my book published.
Curse Boys (YA magical realism)
Queries sent: 72
Partial requests: 9
Full requests: 21
Offers of representation: 2