364 days passed between the morning I sent my query letter to JABberwocky Literary Agency and the afternoon Joshua Bilmes emailed me to chat on the phone; a call that ended in an offer of representation.
To those surprised it took so long: that’s publishing for you. Any literary agent worth their salt receives hundreds of query letters each month, which results in a pretty mean slush pile. My rep journey also involved multiple requests for edits, where Joshua dedicated hours of unpaid time to give feedback so I could strengthen my story and send him the latest draft. Round and around we went for several months.
But what did that journey look like from start to finish?
Starting summer of 2018:
1. Sent a query letter May 7th
2. Received a reply asking for the first ten pages June 16th
3. He upgraded the ten pages to fifty pages July 31st
Ho boy, was I excited when I found that email in my inbox at the end of July. The thing is that as a querying writer, you deal with rejection on a depressing scale – over eight years of querying five manuscripts, I’d received hundreds of those sad little emails, some of them after an agent had read part of or even all of my manuscript (to those unfamiliar, it’s a small win if an agent reads past your query letter and opening pages). Agents rarely take on new clients – they can receive thousands of queries in a year and only end up signing with a few writers. Many agents aren’t open to submissions at all. So when Joshua asked for fifty pages, he graduated from Another Agent Who Will Definitely Reject Me to An Agent Who Will Probably Reject Me.
Upon further research, I discovered he was going to WorldCon (a popular sci-fi/fantasy convention), which was being hosted in San Jose that year. The convention was only three weeks away, and that’s when I knew I would kill if it meant I could go. My mission: establish a baseline rapport while not coming off as one of those writers clamoring for a minute of a publishing professional’s time. My level of awkwardness is like Russian roulette; I never really know if I’m going to bomb a conversation with a stranger until I’m in the thick of it. I knew a fair amount about publishing and I’d been writing for several years, so I had some vague idea of what to talk about, but the Intimidation Factor can still be a bitch.
I ended up running into Joshua a number of times at WorldCon, and I managed to only butcher the first conversation I had with him, scrape by the following two, then act like a normal human being by the end of it. All that culminated in an invitation to dinner before the Hugo Awards on Sunday. We ate Indian food and he critiqued my fifty pages, and at the end he asked me to send the pages back to him once I was done editing.
I was ecstatic. Not only did I get to sit down and eat dinner with a New York City literary agent, but his feedback was really good, and I was now champing at the bit to dive back into writing.
Here’s what happened in the months following WorldCon:
1. Sent him my revised fifty pages September 2nd
2. He emailed even more notes on my fifty pages November 8th, requesting the next draft when it was ready
3. Following draft was sent November 18th
4. He got back November 25th asking for the rest of the book!
The stakes felt much higher at this point and my hope was really percolating, and off my book went to Joshua’s inbox on November 27th. I knew this would be the second biggest hurdle I’d have to jump (the biggest came later). There’s a big difference between writing a strong beginning and writing a strong book, and a dozen things could go wrong with my story between page 51 and the rest of the manuscript, which was about 450 pages long. But I forced myself to settle in and proceeded to spend my days frantically checking social media for any hint he was reading my book. Thank you friends and family for all the emotional support, as well as holidays to distract me (well, not really), and then there was a New Years Party in the Bay Area to look forward to.
I woke up first thing New Years Day to a blasting headache and an email from Joshua – he wanted to talk on the phone about my book! It was obvious from the get go that it wasn’t an offer of representation, but the fact he wanted to talk was a good sign, because agents often reject over email. And so I took the call surrounded by hungover friends and empty beer cans, and Joshua went over his thoughts on my story.
He spent roughly forty-five minutes offering feedback, then emailed the notes he’d typed up, all with the expectation I would send him a revised draft in the coming weeks. It took a week or two to figure out how the hell I was going to rewrite the parts he wanted – after all, agents don’t typically (as far as I know) tell you how a story should be told, but identify the weaknesses for you to solve. They can offer suggestions, but it’s the author’s story to tell.
I sent him the revised manuscript March 2nd, and at this point I felt like Dr. Strange acknowledging to myself that I’d finally entered the end game. The way I saw it, the chance an agent would donate their time reading a non-client manuscript again after this seemed unlikely, and this draft was where I needed to prove I could take feedback and properly edit a story. I did it with my first fifty pages, but rewriting an engaging beginning isn’t like writing a good, complete story arc.
At this point I’d like to mention that I’ve been writing nonstop since 2010. No matter how stressful querying would get over the years, I’d always be working on the next project, allowing a new story to help soften the blows whenever rejections rolled in.
But for the first time since 2010, I couldn’t write.
Every time I’d work on a new book, I would stop after 10 or 20 pages. I’d start dwelling on how horrible rejection felt until I turned into an anxious ball, and writing would feel pointless, like I was just setting myself up for more failure. I’d queried five manuscripts at this point, and I couldn’t see myself dealing with the heartbreak of a sixth. My cup of motivational juices had runneth dry.
It was a dark couple of months. I mourned my ability to write and wondered if I’d become one of those people who’d given up on their passions. I felt insignificant. I was depressed. I wondered if maybe dreams couldn’t come true.
Then the day before my initial query’s one year anniversary came around, I received an email from Joshua asking if I could jump on the phone. I responded immediately, saying I was available at any point to talk (despite being at work), because I needed to know. So he called right away, and the first words out of his mouth were that he wanted to formally offer to represent me as my agent.
I barely remember the phone call, and when it was over, a surreal fog chased me the rest of the afternoon. In fact, my brain managed to convince me that maybe the phone call hadn’t really happened, until Joshua sent his formal offer over email. It took a full day to process the information and to actually start enjoying the news that I was about to take the next big step in my career.
Two weeks later, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Joshua at the Nebulas, where I signed all the paperwork. During the conference, while he introduced me to editors and authors, while we ate more Indian food (this becoming a new tradition, I think), and while we saw John Wick 3 at AMC, I actually felt like an agented writer. It was a good feeling. It still is.
There’s still a ways to go. The next step is for my manuscript to go on submission to editors at publishing houses. Those editors will decide whether or not they want to purchase my book and turn me into a bonafide published author. But no matter what happens, I’ll always have this: The ability to say that I set out eight years ago to accomplish something, and that I succeeded. And no one can take that away from me.