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  • sarahashleymaclean

How I Got My Agent

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

How I Got My Agent

I read a lot of these posts while I was in the query trenches, trying to learn – trying to map out the currents of the publishing industry as anything more than a twisting labyrinth. I spent a lot of time dreaming of what I’d say if I ever got to write one of these blogs myself.

Now, here I am.

I debated whether to keep things short and sweet, or to go about the long way. A silly question, if the lengths of some of my books are any indication. But ultimately, I want to share the lengthy road I took to get here, because it feels more genuine. This is a long path. A hard path. An endeavor of love and creativity and, oftentimes, soul-crushing defeat.

I know writers who got agents far faster than me. I know writers who’ve been querying far longer than me, and still haven’t found their happy ending yet. There’s no single timeline or words of advice that encompass every person’s writing journey, but I hope in mine, I can at least offer encouragement to those who are still fighting.

Let’s get going.

The Early Years c. 2010

Aka Writing as Therapy, Part 1

I can’t say when I first started building stories in my head. Those were always with me, it seems, played out in muddy backyard gardens or staring out windows on long car rides. But I can say, to the date, when I first decided to put those ideas on paper.

TW: Parental Loss It was summer 2010. I’d just finished my freshman year of college, and that same spring, my dad lost his four-year battle with cancer. He never finished high school. He saw his daughter accepted to an ivy league university. To call him proud would be an understatement.

That summer, as my mom and I drove a carload of my dad’s possessions back across the country, I spent hours staring out the window, fleeing grief and lost in my stories. And for the first time, I started talking about them. I spent hours telling my mom about my worlds and my characters. When our trip ended, I started writing. I wrote and I wrote and I finished drafting my first fantasy novel that fall.

We turn to books for all sorts of reasons: to explore, to dream, to escape. To find parts of ourselves when the real world seems to be crumbling.

I spent the next eight years writing, on and off. I wrote three full books and never showed them to another living soul, beside my mom. I explored. I experimented.

I drifted. There were months, even years when I didn’t write a single fictional word as I pursued my undergraduate biology degree, then my PhD.

All to say: there’s no rush. It takes time to learn. To practice. To build confidence. To find the right moment.

The Wattpad Era c. 2018

Aka Writing as Therapy, Part 2

The books are gone now. Don’t bother looking. But yes, I was a Wattpad author, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that tremendous learning experience.

From undergrad, I moved straight into a PhD program. I stopped writing fiction almost entirely, in part because a wretched part of my brain told me fantasy was a foolish endeavor distracting from my “real” job, in part because I was steadily careening into a bottomless pit of mental health. My PhD nearly ruined me. I hated where I was. I hated what I was doing. I hated watching the last decade of my life slip through my fingers because I couldn’t seem to tough it out in academia.

This is a “How I Got My Agent” post, not a “How I Conquered the Deepest Depression of My Life” post, so I’ll summarize as: lots of therapy, a career change, a city change, an ex boyfriend.

And writing.

The day before I defended my PhD dissertation, as I sat sobbing in my room feeling like my life had fallen to pieces, I decided I needed to do something to reclaim myself. I needed to start writing again. I’d drafted three entire books at this point. I’d never shown them to anyone but my mom. Of course she said they were brilliant. What if they were garbage? What if I had no talent and never would?

So I forced myself to make a Wattpad account. And I started posting my stories where strangers could see. Scary, judgmental strangers.

I wrote an entirely new prequel book for my series. I rewrote the next two books almost completely, plus half a novella. But most importantly, I gained confidence. I found people who loved my words. I found people who were willing to give me constructive criticism. I learned how to revise and critique and dissect stories in ways I’d never thought of before.

Everyone has a different approach to writing, but my advice: working in a bubble leaves no room for growth. Reading other work, critiquing other work, opening yourself to the pain of receiving critique, are all essential to not only improving your craft itself, but also your mindset toward your craft.

Wattpad was good to me. My books accrued over 800k reads, I had a story featured twice and was shortlisted for the Wattys Awards. I was a Wattpad Star account and invited to the paid authors program … but I declined.

Because I wanted to be traditionally published. Different people have different goals, and that was mine. To do that, it was clear to me I had to move on from Wattpad.

I had to start querying.

Query Book 1 c. 2020

40 queries, 3 full requests

I look back at the first query letter I ever sent, and I feel like withering into dust and bones. That’s fine. We’ve all been there.

To attempt the big leagues, I rewrote the first book of my Wattpad series (the fourth book I’d ever written, seventh if we count near complete rewrites). I wrote what I thought was an appropriate query letter (lol, past Sarah, what were you doing???).

My advice here: read other query letters. Read A LOT of other query letters. Dissect their parts. Understand the formula. We’re all creatives and we hate putting ourselves in boxes, but when agents are combing through hundreds or thousands of query letters, a query formula helps you hit all the points you need in a compact space. Have other people critique your query letter. Understand your age group, genre, comps. Be specific in what makes your story unique!

Somehow, my materials pulled off three full requests. But this was my learning experience. I knew I could do better. I had to do better.

So I did.

Query Book 2 c. 2021

80 queries, 11 full requests, 2 partial requests 1 offer of representation on query #43

Ok, you’ve probably figured out by now that I keep a lot of writing statistics. Sue me.

I’d spent the last ten years writing books in one series, one world. It was time to write something new. To apply everything I’d learned about storytelling and truly grow.

The second fantasy book I queried was new, fierce, epic, the best thing I’d ever written. I finally had proper beta readers. I had sample pages that followed industry expectations. I had a solid query letter. The going was still slow, dozens of rejections, but the requests trickled in: two partials, another three fulls. I was doing better than my first book. I was improving.

And then I got the email. THE EMAIL.

An agent wanted to have a call.

We did it, friends! Pop the champagne! Scream to all your critique partners! I read and reread the email a dozen times, not believing it, unable to comprehend that this wasn’t another rejection, it was a real agent saying beautiful things about my book.

We scheduled the call. I did all my research on questions to ask. I was nervous. I was giddy.

And then … I was devastated. I had the call. And I knew as soon as it was over, this wasn’t the agent for me.

Wow, that was hard to wrap my head around. The agent was kind. Professional. Laid out a vision for my book and my writing career. But I never felt the click. The chemistry. I never felt the excitement I needed for someone to represent my stories. And the agent was very honest about directions they wouldn’t be able to support me leaning into – directions I knew I wanted for my career.

Shit. What now?

Panic, obviously. Some lingering hope. After this first agent offered, I received eight additional full requests. Surely, one of them would counter offer? One of them could be the agent for me?

As the rejections rolled in, as I read kind words about my writing and characters followed by regretful stepping aside … I broke a little. I was going to have to turn down this agent offer. I wasn’t going to get another offer for this book. I’d reached the last agents I wanted to query. This was the end. What should have been a time for celebration ended with another book heading for the shelf.

My friends comforted me, assured me there would be more opportunities. I’d gotten one offer. There’d be more in my future, better ones.

But we never really believe that optimism, do we? I was terrified this would be my only chance, my pinnacle, the opportunity I should have taken but threw away because of my own inflexibility. After so much rejection, an agent wanted my book. And I had the audacity to say no?

I declined the offer. I put another book away.

Query Book 3 c. 2022

68 queries, 6 full requests, 1 R&R 1 offer of representation on query #64

I think some of the best advice for surviving the query trenches is to start working on another project. Give yourself a way to gain distance, to keep your creativity flowing.

While book 2 was querying, I quietly set to work on my next book. I needed a break from the sprawling epic fantasy, so I tried something new: a cozy fantasy romance set in a magic zoo. The story dug into my ecology and conservation background in a way I’d never played with before. It featured a protagonist battling anxiety, modeled after my own experience. It leaned heavy into romance, a genre mashup I finally realized I craved in both my reading and writing.

I gathered my courage and started querying again.

I don’t know that we ever truly learn what to expect from querying, if there are meaningful trends to extract from this absolute rollercoaster of an experience. Within my first week, I got two full requests – excellent. One of those swiftly turned into a form rejection – less excellent. A separate R&R – helpful feedback, but I had mixed hopes. I completed it anyway.

And then, three months of rejection.

One more full.

Two more months of rejection.

I keep spreadsheets. Statistics. I was painfully aware that this, my third book in the query trenches, was in fact doing worse than either of my first two books. Worse than the book I queried when I had no idea how to write a query letter. Worse than the book I’d turned down an offer for. Cue the pained laughter and existential dread.

In a two-day span, I received one query rejection that loved the characters but couldn’t vibe with the prose, a second that called my prose incredible but couldn’t connect with the characters. I screamed into the void and kept sending more queries.

I’d never done incredibly well at pitch events – one or two likes perhaps, but nothing to turn the tides of the rejection tsunami. DVpit approached, and there was no reason not to try. One of my critique partners helped me analyze and rework my pitches. I pulled in five agent likes, my best performance ever. I sent out the queries.

Twitter Post: queer FANTASTIC BEASTS sapphic romcom  An anxious bi zookeeper of magical creatures must save her job from a glamorous college rival in the griffin show, her heart from a scheming dragon keeper next door, and her endangered phoenixes from thieving poachers #DVpit #A #F #R #LGBT

One of those queries turned into a full request one day later.

Which turned into an offer of representation one week later.

Cue my brain short circuiting. An offer. Another offer.

Now this is the point where a normal person jumps up and down in excitement, right? Right?

Hi, John. Hey buddy. If/when you read this, you ought to know: I was so fucking terrified for our call.

Here I was once again. I’d never heard of this agent – no shade intended, there are way too many agents for me to know all of them, especially UK agencies. After my friends with PM subscriptions assured me the agency was legit and was not, in fact, going to steal my book and/or my organs, I felt mildly reassured.

But I was terrified that this was happening again. I was going to have the call, and it wasn’t going to go well, and I’d have to turn down another offer, and I’d have to shelve another book, and did I mention the protagonist of my book has anxiety?

Then we had the call. And two hours flew by.

I’ve read a lot of blogs that insist in frustratingly vague earnesty: you’ll know when you’re talking to the right agent for you. And I did. I knew from the excitement, and the hand waving, and the meandering rants that picked up every little detail I’d crafted for my characters. I knew from the suggested edits, the way they meshed with my vision while proposing new additions that were so spot on I had to kick myself for not thinking of them sooner. I knew from the submission strategy, and the talk about the industry, and the support for future projects I wanted to dive into.

On the call, my now-agent asked if I’d just started querying this book, if DVpit was the opening number. I remember laughing. I laughed because the exact opposite was true. DVpit was the closing number for this book, my last pitch contest, my last batch of queries I planned to send out before shelving this project and moving on.

I got two additional full requests, but none turned into offers. I didn’t need them.

I had an offer I was eager to accept.

Where Are We Now?

The only way to succeed at querying is to keep going. It’s hard, and demoralizing, and there’s a stupid amount of luck involved in getting the right story in front of the right person at the right time. But I’ll also add to that: value yourself. Don’t settle, even if it’s scary. Trust in your growth and trust in your work, and you’ll find your home one day.

It only took one yes.

I know, I know, we’re all so tired of hearing that trite phrase. But I’m here to shout from the rooftops that it’s true. My first offer of rep came on query number 43. My second offer? Query number 64. Sixty-seven other agents looked at that book and said “no, thanks.”

One agent read it and fell in love.

That was all it took.

Flying phoenix with a fiery tail.

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Apr 27, 2023

Where do you suggest I find good sample query letters to read? Thanks!

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