One Author's Journey From Aspiring Author to Agented Author

by Sarah Rowlands

Some writers work on many manuscripts for several years before finding an agent to champion their project. My journey was different. I worked on one book for two years, then found my agent. What can I say? I’m monogamous.

My querying journey begins with a desire to write a great story, backed up with perseverance and the unequivocal need to succeed at something I believed in. I finished writing the first draft of my manuscript at age 15. It was 28,000 words and I thought it was adult fiction. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing or story and thought I had an undiscovered masterpiece. But I wasn’t even sure what to do with it, so it sat on a floppy disc for almost 20 years.

When I unearthed it in my 30s, I realized it was not, in fact, a masterpiece, but a pile of shit. But I had a soft spot for it. I kept thinking about it as I read published books and really got into young adult fiction. Something began to stir in my brain… What if my old manuscript was written for a young adult audience?

And then suddenly it was there – the idea, the drive, the home for my story. I wanted to write again. I wanted my story to be great. And I wanted to learn everything there was to know about writing a story and getting it published.

So I joined writing groups online (Twitter, Facebook) and found critique partners at sites like Agent Query Connect and Query Tracker.  I read books on craft: On Writing by Stephen King, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, to name my favorites.

I re-read and revised my manuscript every day, tweaking plot, character motivation, pace, etc. while following the advice of the above experts. When I felt I had something great, I shared copies of my manuscript with family members that loved to read. And while it was terrifying to show my work because I feared rejection, ridicule, failure, I learned that no matter their reaction, I had accomplished something. I was not failing even if they didn’t like it, because I had created something. I was proud of myself, even at this level of drafting. They did like it, though, and they encouraged me to keep writing. So I did.

I also researched publishing, learned what an agent does and how they champion your book by falling in love with it. I was determined to land myself an agent. So I made my first mistake: I queried agents too early. Looking back, I was about 2 years too early, because the manuscript was still in draft stages. I was too excited about my work to keep it to myself, and I hadn’t learned the valuable lesson of setting the manuscript aside and returning to it with fresh eyes. I didn’t yet know how to look at my work critically, how to think like a storyteller. I just wanted feedback.

In 2016, my querying stats were:

Queries Sent: 133
Partial Requests: 3
Full Requests: 4
No Response: 50
Rejections: 83

They’re not terrible numbers, but I see them now as opportunities wasted because my work was still too new to share. But it’s okay, because living is learning, folks!

Because I was on Twitter and readily communicating with the writing world, I became aware of #PitMad contests and Pitch Wars, among others. I participated in all of them, gathering interest from agents, but I also learned how to pitch my entire novel in 144 characters. It was a skill I still struggle with, but I learned the importance of the pitch -- discovering the marketability of your story with a succinct and interesting choice of words.

Here are some of my most popular pitches that garnished interest from agents:

1912. Teen heiress on run from fortune-hunting fiancé, teams up w/wild Irish fugitives to protect dark secret of her inheritance.

1912- Girl escapes conniving fiancé to a glen inhabited by Irish fugitives who reveal that her inheritance holds family secrets.

They’re not amazing, but they were interesting enough to spark attention. (Stats for those Twitter contests: 8 pitches, 15 “likes”) They all turned into rejections, but some were helpful and led me to more revisions….which is what I did for another year while querying.

Querying is hard. I both loved and loathed agent responses. I really wanted someone to fall in love with my writing, but no one was and I couldn’t figure out why. The subjectivity of querying is the worst part, because what one agent loves might be the reason another agent rejects. And that is excruciatingly frustrating!

I received this response to a query once: “Wow, what an opening! I love the levels of intrigue and mystery built in, and Estella is a girl after my own heart. Please send the full…” Dreamy response from an agent, right?! I was overjoyed and so, so hopeful. But the worst happened – it wasn’t even a rejection. I discovered that this agent was no longer working as an agent, and I had wasted a month waiting for her. It was a killer blow, and I remember spending most of that day listening to Adele’s “Chasing Pavement” on repeat just to wallow in self-loathing.

But the very next day, I pulled myself together because I was determined to fight for my dream. Remember the scene in A League of Their Own when Dottie whines about baseball being too hard? And Jimmy’s response is, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” You’re right, Jimmy Dugan. Let’s work harder. Let’s OWN this.

I buried myself in the craft of writing. I listened to writing/agenting podcasts, which I recommend for all writers, querying or not: Writer Writer Pants on Fire (of course!), Shipping & Handling, Writing Excuses, and 88 Cups of Tea.

I participated in more Twitter pitch contests, like #sonofapitch, #PitMad, and #revpit. I entered Author Mentor Match, Query Kombat, and various critiques from freelance editors.

At one point, I received an offer of representation from an agency I didn’t quite trust. When the agent offered representation, she also suggested I hire an editor to review my manuscript, which didn’t sit well with me. I’d read enough agent interviews and articles to know that no agency or agent worth anything will ever charge you. So I declined the offer, which was actually hard to do because I was afraid I was blowing my only chance. But I believed my book and I deserved better than “good enough”, so I trudged on.

At another point, I received an offer of publication from a new and local small press. While I was excited that someone found value in my story, what I really wanted was an agent to champion my career as a writer, beginning with this manuscript and moving beyond it. So this wasn’t the right path for me and, begrudgingly, I declined publication.

I continued to make revisions to my manuscript: discovered a new title, re-named and re-shaped my characters, rearranged scenes, developed back story, identified higher and stronger stakes, even changed the narration to first person. But there came a point when I wasn’t sure how else to make it better. I’d been giving my newest versions to my critique partners, but I felt the manuscript needed professional help.

So I hired freelance editors who provided me with edit letters that pinpointed specific issues that perhaps were the reasons agents were rejecting it. This was extremely helpful and I strongly suggest looking into freelance editors when you feel you’ve perhaps reached a stalemate in your writing and/or with your critique partners. Here is an extensive list of freelance editors who might be taking on new clients.

I entered PitchWars in 2017, including participating in the blog hops, the aesthetics, and the community chats on Twitter. These little contributions to the writing community boosted my confidence in my story by re-acquainting me with my main character. When I found out I didn’t get into PitchWars, it hurt, but I’d gained something. I knew my story inside and out. I loved it still and I loved writing. It was nearly two years into this querying process, but something was happening. Things were changing. Rejections were coming, but they were detailed and encouraging, which made me believe I was on the right track.

My querying stats for 2017 were:
Queries sent: 170
Partial Requests: 7
Full Requests: 13
No Responses: 58
Rejections: 112
Offer of Rep (declined): 1
Offer of Publication (declined): 1

In the beginning of 2018, I applied for a remote internship with a literary agent. I saw the opportunity and wanted to immerse myself in all aspects of publishing. (I applied to roughly 10 internships at that time, hoping to get my foot in the door somewhere.) The agent needed a voracious reader to help with her overwhelming load of unsolicited queries and manuscripts, and lucky for me, she saw potential in me. I worked hard, reading as many as three manuscripts a month, including producing detailed and thoughtful Reader Reports for each.

This agent had also requested my manuscript several weeks’ previous to the internship application. She was so kind and encouraging, and clearly wanted me to succeed, so she asked her other interns to read my manuscript and provide Reader Reports. Then the agent shared those reports with me and told me to take what I wanted from them and revise at will. It was such a wonderfully helpful opportunity for me, and I relished those reports and analyzed the feedback to create my own revisions.

I must admit that at this point in time, I’d been revising so much, it took a lot out of me to dedicate any real focus. I was torn; I wanted to write something new, but I also couldn’t turn my back on my manuscript. I realized the only way I’d get through more revisions would be to actually take days off from work and stay home to write. So I did, and it pushed me into the mindset I needed to be in – I WILL NOT FAIL.

I submitted my revisions to the agent I worked for and queried some new agents, too. One agent in particular was looking for “gothic novels with twisty narratives and dark secrets”, which was exactly my book.

In July of 2018, I received an email from the agent who was looking for gothic books. She loved my book, but there were a few items that didn’t work for her. She offered me an “R&R”, a Revise & Resubmit, which is an opportunity to make changes she suggested and resubmit for a second look.

Honestly, I was basically devastated that this wasn’t an offer of rep. I worked so hard on revisions and now an agent was requesting more revisions. I ignored the email for an entire day, because for the love of God, I was sick and tired of not reaching my goal! I complained to my critique partner, but instead of agreeing with me, she asked why the hell I was so angry. She reminded me that R&Rs are rare in the agenting world, and if this agent was asking for revisions, I should think about them.

“If you are asked to revise, it’s because your message is worth getting right.”
(Admittedly, I don’t remember who said this. But I love it anyway.)

I rolled this quote over and over in my head until I realized I was at a crossroads. This was a choice: give up now at a point where I might be inches from my goal, or take this opportunity by the balls and charge forward. I had charged forward for two years. Why on God’s green earth would I stop now? So I chose to CONQUER. And I wrote to the agent to tell her I’m taking on this R&R.

Here’s what my revision process looked like this time around:

1. Re-read my manuscript as it is. I downloaded my manuscript onto my Kindle and read it like it was a real book. I made notes as I read each chapter while keeping in mind the agent’s suggestions. And guess what? She was smart! Her suggestions made sense and I could see where I might incorporate those changes.

2. Make a spreadsheet of each chapter’s projected edits. Text in blue represented easy and quick changes. Text in red represented changes that would take a lot of time and thought. I always start with the lowest hanging fruit, so I dove into the “easy” edits. Once the blues were out of the way, I could see the big, red picture – the difficult edits. One at a time, little by little, I attacked.

3. Decide on a deadline. Highlight that date in the calendar and STICK TO IT. Pick a goal for each day (a chapter a day / a scene a day, etc.) and REACH IT. Note to self: If you find you’re falling away from the goal, get up at 5 a.m., go to bed at midnight – do anything to stay on this schedule. Sweat over it. Breathe it. OWN IT.

4. Get outside help. After two months of working the manuscript to the best of my ability, I hired a freelance editor who had ten years of experience as an agent. We worked out a schedule where she would get her edit letter to me well before my deadline. This meant I would have time to work on her edits before my deadline, too. She was worth every penny, because she provided more than helpful suggestions; she assured me I was on the right path with what the agent outlined.

5. Find the strength to push your book away. Let it go.

After I addressed what the editor pointed out, I sat on it, scared to let it go. This was my last chance.

But I had nothing left to give. A day before my deadline, I submitted my R&R manuscript to the agent who offered it and to nine other agents who were waiting for the revisions.
Twelve days later, I received an email from the agent who offered the R&R: Sarah, I just finished reading and would love to chat with you about it. Do you have any time today? Looking forward to it!

I was at work, and I ran into my friend’s office, shaking, shrieking, going crazy. This was it and I knew it. I called my husband. “Play it cool, Sarah,” I remember him saying. I called my parents, texted my sisters, emailed my critique partners. And then I read the email again. It was still there. It was still an agent wanting to talk to me about my book.
I spoke with the agent that afternoon and she offered me representation.

Stats for 2018 querying:
Queries Sent: 132
Partial Requests: 7
Full Requests: 15
No Response 38:
Rejections: 92
Offers of Rep: 2!

I actually received another offer of rep the next day, but ultimately I went with the agent who offered me the R&R, whom I really felt had a strong grasp on my book, who seemed to understand what I was trying to do with it. My agent is Karyn Fischer of Bookstop Literary Agency and I couldn’t be happier.

I would like to note that I didn’t necessarily “nail” the R&R, but I was close enough for Karyn to feel she could take it on. She and I have embarked on another round of revisions, but I have her guidance now, so it isn’t as scary as it once had been.

There are many morals to my tale:

1. When you think you are brilliant and your work is genius, you’re wrong. Keep working. Make it better.

2. Don’t give up on yourself or your story without a fight. Or just don’t give up at all.

3. As Mr. Stephen King says in his brilliant memoir, On Writing, “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Be brave.
Push yourself.
Be your own hero.