While I was querying, I wanted to read stories of others’ journeys. I was trying to divine by comparison whether I would succeed or fail. On the other side, I can assure you that it always felt like I was failing, right up to the moment I succeeded.
Here’s my story:
I finished my MFA in the spring semester of 2020, with lots of encouragement from mentors that my thesis novel was something special. I started querying that manuscript (a Victorian Gothic Romance called ON GOOD AUTHORITY) in May of 2020. I did my research on who to send materials to, and what each individual agent wanted in terms of specifics, and sent queries in batches of 10 every couple weeks. I also queried on the fly, to replace any rejections as I received them, so that I always had at least 10—but usually 15-20—queries on the go at a time.
From May to the end of September (5 full months), I received 42 rejections, and 49 non-responses (for a total of 91). The rejections were mostly form, with language about how the manuscript wasn’t the right fit for the agent, or else that the agent liked the concept but didn’t fall in love with the voice as much as they’d hoped.
A few of the rejections included language that the agent was “sure other agents would feel differently,” and I hung a LOT of hope on that word, “sure.” Other than that, all I had to spur me on was one or two personalized rejections about liking my book’s milieu/the relationship between the protagonist and the love interest, but ultimately passing. I got 1 partial manuscript request, but it turned within a week into a one-sentence rejection.
Something was clearly wrong, either with my query or my beginning pages (or both!), and I was at a loss for how to fix it. I turned to my former MFA mentors for guidance. They were very helpful, and I revised all my materials based on their notes that summer, but as you can see it didn’t make much of a difference to the way my querying journey was trending.
I decided that I would apply for Pitch Wars come September, and that if I didn’t get in then maybe I would shelve this manuscript and work on something else. During the waiting period before Pitch Wars mentees were announced, I all of a sudden got 2 full manuscript requests from agents, which I sent with a note that, if I should happen to get into Pitch Wars, I would have to withdraw and resubmit.
Long story short, I did get in to Pitch Wars, and promptly withdrew my full manuscripts from both agencies with a note. Both agents were fine with it, and excited to see the revision on the other end of the program. From November 2020 to January 2021, I revised the manuscript under the guidance of my mentor, bestselling author Elizabeth Little—and meanwhile, I received 1 more full manuscript request from a very old query, for a total of 3. I let them know I was in the thick of Pitch Wars, shaking my head the whole time because, well, where was this attention when I’d felt lost and hopeless?
Pitch Wars ends with an Agent Showcase for participating mentees’ revised manuscripts. So, in February of 2021, a refined pitch for ON GOOD AUTHORITY went up on the website, along with the first page of the manuscript. These netted me, by the end of the showcase, 17 agent requests (I know what the website says; 2 came in late, post-showcase). 4 of the requests were for partials, but 13 more were for the full manuscript!
That’s a LOT of attention, way more than I could have gotten on my own. I don’t flatter myself that this had as much to do with the revision (though it was extensive, I promise) as it did with the platform of Pitch Wars and what it suggested to considering agents: that the work had been vetted and vouched for by a commercially successful author (that’d be Elizabeth Little), and that by virtue of participating I’d proven myself to be a writer who could stick with a project through extensive revision, while on a deadline. And yes, my pitch this time around was better by a lot, as was my first page.
But mostly that other stuff, because a lot of that initial attention fizzled out fast. I got quick passes on the partials, as well as on some fulls. More worrisome, I was getting a lot of the same language in the passes, about not being the right agent for the project, or not connecting with the voice, plus new stuff about characters or pacing. February was a dark time, until Liz told me a secret about the language of the rejections:
They just didn’t like the story.
Nothing more than that, nothing less. The issues they were raising were not deal-breaker things, but things that an agent could work with a writer to improve—if they liked the story. Thus, the passes were just about them, about what they wanted, or what they were looking for in the moment. It wasn’t about me. It didn’t mean the book was bad. It didn’t mean anything except that they, personally, didn’t like it, so they couldn’t be the ones to help me polish and/or market it.
Liz was confident that the right agent was out there, however. In fact, she was so convinced that an offer was coming literally any minute that, far from allowing me to be discouraged and mope, she actually encouraged me to query every agent I could think of—RIGHT NOW. To treat this as their last opportunity to catch me and my book, and shoot my shot, all or nothing.
Crossing my fingers that she was right, in addition to sending full manuscripts to some of the folks who’d requested while Pitch Wars was going on, I queried an additional 25 agents—some that I’d never queried before, but many of whom were the best bets who had already rejected me once, with a note about the revision I’d just been through. A few of these turned into partial requests, and one turned into an immediate and enthusiastic full request. But many of these queries were never responded to, because…
On February 24th, I got an e-mail from an agent requesting a call with me. A good agent, with a strong record and a lot of enthusiasm about my book–who wanted to help me build a whole career! That call turned into an offer of representation in March. I had two weeks from then to make my final decision. I notified everyone with whom I had queries out, as well as folks who had my full, that there was an offer on the table and what my deadline was (NB: I fibbed a bit about what the date was, so that in the case of another offer I would have a couple days for more phone calls, to help me decide).
The news of an offer made 2 agents who I had only recently queried ask for full manuscripts to read quickly, but most agents at the query stage stepped aside for lack of time. Meanwhile, many of my other Pitch Wars fulls were still out at that time (over 10), and most everyone who had fulls promised to be back in touch within the timeframe I’d given. Some folks asked who the offering agent was (which is totally normal—it means they’re interested, but they want to know whether their offer of representation would be able to compete against the one you have).
One agent asked me for more time to make his decision, which I was able to give because I’d built in a cushion for myself (see?). In the end, he stepped aside around noon on the day my decision was due (and was very kind when he did). Over that two weeks, I also received 2 very sweet notes from agents: one the immediate, enthusiastic full request I’d queried cold with Liz’s urging, the other from one of the agents who had requested a full manuscript during the Pitch Wars Showcase. Both e-mails were full of heaps of praise, gushing over with details the agents had loved from the book. I saved these in a folder I have for when I doubt myself as a writer, because they were so clearly from people who had connected with my story, and enjoyed it deeply as readers.
That said, in both cases, these agents didn’t have a marketing vision for the book. They knew who the offering agent was (because they’d asked), and felt I would be better served by him, so they were stepping aside. Both of them signed off by saying that if I ever needed representation in the future, they wanted to know, and by saying they’d be watching for news of ON GOOD AUTHORITY and cheering me on from the sidelines.
I gladly accepted my agent’s offer on March 15th, hardly capable of understanding that this was real. After all of the rejection, all of the uninterested silence? How could it possibly be true that I had an agent? A really freaking awesome one? It seemed somehow wrong. Let’s review:
(Cumulative) Querying Time: ~6 months (5, then 1 post-PW)
But here’s the take-away: in much the same unfortunate way that whatever you’re looking for (keys, phone) is bound to be in the last place you look (because logic), that one yes that you need (from an agent, or an editor) must come at the tail end of aaaaaaaaaall your rejections. That’s just how it is. It’s a bummer. But also–it’s ENCOURAGING! It means that all that doubt you feel doesn’t mean a damn thing.
Did Pitch Wars speed up the whole process? Yes, of course. And I’ll never know how things would have gone without getting a spot in the program, or without all that revision work. What I do know is that, if I had quit after 50 rejections, or 100 rejections, I certainly wouldn’t be here.
With my 1 yes.
I hope, wherever you are on this admittedly rough road, you keep traveling toward yours.
What an inspiring story, and something that more writers should read. This is the typical process we all have to go through, and if we’re only in it for the money or fame, then we’re definitely in the wrong field. Amazing post. Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks for saying so! Yes, it’s a long slog for most folks, except for some rare exceptions, and I think accidentally we judge ourselves by those exceptions. And absolutely, publishing is designed in such a way that we’ve got to fight through many months (or years) of not seeing more than token (if that) compensation for our writing!
It’s ROUGH out there!