How I Got My Literary Agent

In the past nine years, I've been rejected by agents:

  • 11 times for my current novel
  • 64 times for two previous versions of this novel
  • 31 times for a completely different novel.

Add them all up and what do you get? 106.

106 times my hard work earned me a firm and resounding "No."

I'm not going to lie. After some of those rejections, I dropped into the throes of misery. Once was after a prominent agent with a sky-high literary agency went through three rounds of revisions with me, then decided, after months of work and friendly emails, not to offer representation after all.

But, after each one of those "nos," I did four things:

  1. I typed "KEEP TRYING" onto the spreadsheet next to the rejecting agent's name.
  2. I read Chuck Wendig: "What kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?”
  3. I read Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
  4. I gave it another go.

Again. And again. And again.

I'd wake up early and revise. I'd stay up late and craft. I'd give it my all, failing hard and fast as novices often do, but falling forward and failing better each time, until my years of dedicated, heart-wrenching toil finally – FINALLY – produced the first bud of promise.

In September of 2015, I attended the Algonkian Pitch Conference in NYC. Not only did I meet some wonderful critique partners and fellow authors – Heather Christie and Penelope Jane Jones – I managed to secure a full manuscript request from an editor at the William Morrow imprint of Harper Collins.

However, I still didn't have an agent and didn't want to submit without one.

So, I got to work and queried again with that editor request in the subject line, but kept getting the same feedback as I had before, although with much, much faster response times.

"Your writing is amazing, but this story isn't for me."

"I'd love to represent something else you've written! Send me your next project!"

"Your plot is solid, but I’m not sold on this idea."

After a couple dozen of those, I knew – knew – I needed to overhaul the book with a completely different premise, one that had been beckoning to me from the sidelines for a year. I'd pushed the idea away because of the sheer amount of work involved in completely trashing a book I'd come to love, but after the agents' rejections despite the editor request, I knew what I had to do.

I spent the next year completely rewriting the book with my shiny new premise. I chopped out redundant characters I'd fallen in love with, and hacked through a storyline readers weren’t going to buy. I pulled my book from a YA historical into a historical fantasy adding a level of spookiness even I wasn't sure I was capable of.

Then, after polishing and scrubbing all the edges off, I queried agents.

In two weeks, I got six requests for full or partial manuscripts. Excitedly, I shipped them off, and refreshed my inbox fifty-seven times a day. Then one day, while browsing through Twitter, I saw a tweet from Kari Sutherland, former Harper Collins editor, saying she'd joined the Bradford Literary Agency, a firm I'd queried in the past. I did a little research on her and discovered that she'd edited RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard, and had written her own highly successful novels, too. An author, and editor, and an agent all rolled into one? WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER.

I checked her requirements for submissions, and on March 30, queried her with a synopsis and first 25 pages. Four hours later, I discovered a reply from her in my inbox requesting the full! Two weeks later, she emailed me to ask if we could schedule a phone call.

I nearly burst out of my skin.

That next Monday, we chatted, me sitting in my car parked in the cul de sac down the road so I wouldn't be interrupted by my maniacal kids and barking dog. While we spoke, something just clicked. We talked plot and future projects and laughed at the weirdness of life. At the end of the call, she offered representation, and I barely managed to accept because my throat was so tight.

So, if you are thinking of throwing in the towel, I want you NOT to picture me with my agent contract in hand dancing around my office because that was just one moment from the thousands I put into securing a literary agent as amazing as Kari.

Instead, I want you to picture me sitting at my desk, wiping tears off my blotchy face after yet another rejection, pulling those tentacles of woe from around my neck, and trying again.

Because I've found that the harder you work, the luckier you get, and nothing can stand in your way if you're willing to discipline yourself enough to fail better, and humble yourself enough to be receptive to change.