How I got my agent
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Depending on the culture, crows can either be seen as an omen of good or of ill. Some folks believe they are harbingers of bad luck; still others believe they are symbols of transformation, change, rebirth, and rejuvenation.
I mention this because my querying journey ended—quite dramatically—with the cawing of a crow. While sitting in an empty sixth-floor office waiting for my first agent call, a crow alighted on the windowsill, looked straight at me, and cawed. I remember goosebumps rising along my arms—I had never seen birds landing that high up. A few minutes later the phone rang, startling me; the crow took flight and was gone.
I’d prefer to think of that crow as being a herald for change, because that phone call did change everything. Before the call, I’d been querying for exactly one year (to the day! Eerily, the renewal notice for Query Tracker Premium came the night before my agent call). After the call, I was an agented author, no longer in the query trenches.
So what happened over that one year? Well, in late 2020 I wrote a speculative sci-fi thriller novel, queried that novel, but never got much traction. Despite beta readers (mostly) loving it, it only ever had one full and one partial request (out of fifty queries), and one publisher R&R. The full request resulted in a rejection and I never followed up on the partial or publisher R&R. In the end, I realised I hadn’t written the book to market. It was a weird mish-mash of genres, making it difficult to pitch and position. Not only that, I’d fallen out of love with the book. My feelings for it ranged from active hate to lukewarm appreciation, depending on the day—I certainly didn’t love it enough to try and make it my debut.
So I shelved that book, wrote a middle-grade novel that I never got around to querying, and then, late at night, got the idea for my third. It was this book—an upper YA fantasy based on a Chinese mirror myth—that ended up getting me an agent.
This is key, because when querying authors ask, “how do I deal with rejections?”, my answer is always, always: work on something else. This is because the number one thing that saved me from sinking into despair was the epiphany that I could actually just…write another book!
Back when I wrote my first book, I was surprised that it was actually… relatively easy? For so long (decades!) I’d put off writing a book because I believed writing a book was hard. The hard part. The hardest. (Cue maniacal and slightly hysterical cry-laughter). It was only after querying that first book that I learnt the actual writing bit is the easy part. It’s the editing, the killing of darlings, the sending that book out to readers to be dissected and critiqued, and— worst of all—querying, that were the hard parts. (I’m sure being on submission, earning out royalties, and writing subsequent books are all very hard too, but I haven’t reached/suffered through those milestones yet). When the rejections for book 1 started coming in, I was crushed at first. What if all I had in me was ONE good idea? What if all I had in me was ONE book?
The moment I uncoupled myself from the idea that my first book had to be THE book, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. No matter, I thought, if this book doesn’t get me an agent. I’ll just write another one. And another. And another, if it came to that.
So anyway, back to book 3. I first came across this mirror myth late at night, browsing the internet. I also happened to be in a dark room, sitting in front of a full-length wardrobe mirror. I also happen to be pretty scared of mirrors at nighttime (ever since I heard that Bloody Mary story as a child). And almost all my writing is done at night. I have no idea why I like to torture myself writing things that scare me, but there you go.
Still, I persisted, and after a few months managed to write it, polish it, and send it off to my amazing beta readers, before revising and polishing it again. Then, at the very end of July 2021, I decided to send off my first test query, to an agent I knew gave lightning-fast rejections, as a way of ‘ripping off the bandaid’. By now, query rejections didn’t sting so much, since I’d gotten so many from book 1.
That first query did end in a rejection (as expected, although the agent took longer than usual to reject it which made for some angst-filled discourse within my writers’ group). But once I had that first rejection under my belt, I felt psychologically ready to throw my book baby out there.
No, I didn’t just throw it out to the wolves, even though by this stage I was so sick of querying that I really wanted to. I was a good little author and sent off an initial batch of ten to test out my query letter and first pages. I didn’t expect too much (remember how badly querying the first book had gone?), so I sent the query package out and then went back to writing flash fiction or self-indulgent poetry or whatever.
Well, things started happening. Requests started rolling in. Then more requests, and more. Each time a request came in, I sent off another query. It was an exhilarating couple of months. At one stage I was receiving more requests than rejections. At the peak I had something like a 60-70% request rate, which later dropped to an average 35% request rate as I sent more queries out (I can’t even remember anymore, it’s all such a blur).
Once I hit that level of requests I figured my query letter and first pages were working, so I went ahead and query-bombed the rest of my list. I really wanted to move on from that book, psychologically, so I could start working on something new. And the best way to do that was just to throw everything out there so I could figuratively close the door on that chapter of my life. So I sent off a HEAP of queries, sent off all the full manuscript requests, and waited.
And then the full rejections started rolling in. People always say that full rejections hurt worse than query rejections, and you know what? They’re right. Part of it is just knowing you were so much closer, and had gotten your hopes up to no avail. But it’s also because full request rejections aren’t normalised like query rejections are. Everyone knows query rejections are pretty much just par for the course. Full rejections, on the other hand, are not talked about nearly as much.
At first, I could believe the full rejections were just due to different subjective tastes. But the more I clocked up, the more I became convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with my manuscript. By the time I received my sixth full rejection, I was sure that while my manuscript was solid for the first ten or so pages, the rest was just a massive pile of trash. (I’m also a short story writer, so I did question whether I was only capable of writing 1000-3000 words really well). Even when my pitch did really well at #DVPit, an annual Twitter pitch event, I was convinced that while my ‘hook’ was fabulous, my execution… was not.
So, when I received that sixth full rejection at around 3am one night (I live in Australia, so writing-related emails always come in overnight), I decided to feverishly revise the opening. I was half delirious with exhaustion, adrenaline, and grief (full rejections number 4, 5, and 6 were from absolute dream agents), so I furiously wrote for more than an hour, deleting chapters and adding dialogue and basically hacking my manuscript to pieces while trying to concentrate through fatigue and mental fog.
At around 4:30am, I hit save, happy I’d made my manuscript stronger, resolving to come back the next day and edit the shambolic mess of words I’d slapped down on the page. And, because I couldn’t resist, before I went to sleep I checked my email one. last. time.
I’d received an email response to a full, which due to how little faith I now had in my manuscript, I fully expected to be another rejection.
It was not.
This one was from an agent… who wanted to schedule a call!!!
Yep. It was 4:30am, I had work the next day, and now there was ZERO chance of sleep.
It’s worth noting that this agent had read the exact same manuscript as the other six, but the difference was she actually… loved it?
(Which just goes to show how subjective these things really are!)
Anyway, the next few weeks went by in an absolute rush. Within days I had a second offer from an agent I hadn’t even nudged yet (meaning I had two separate, independent offers). Following these two offers, I nudged all the remaining agents who had my full as well as most of the agents I’d queried. I got loads of requests: in the end I had 24 full requests/2 partial requests before receiving my first offer, and a total of 49 full requests/3 partial requests after. This was quickly followed by some lovely passes with nice feedback, many step-asides due to inadequate time, many many rejections, and a few more offers (I ended up having calls with five different agents). A couple of agents congratulated me and said if I didn't already have an offer they would have offered R&Rs.
I won't lie, making the decision was HARD. But after a lot of thought, making of pros and cons lists, discussion with my writer friends, and a whole lotta hand wringing, I’m thrilled to have signed with Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency! She just ‘got’ my book right from the start—she loved it so much she emailed me as soon as she’d finished to rave over it and set up a call. Not only that, as soon as we began our Zoom call, Tricia explained (without me even having to ask) how she’d be working to protect me as an author of colour. And that just made me feel like she was the perfect person to have in my corner.
I still don’t know what that crow was trying to tell me up on that sixth-floor window. But as I prepare to go on submission with FAUNA OF MIRRORS, I can only hope it was a herald of good things to come.