This is it… the time to finish your novel. [Man rows through a shipwrecking storm]Hilary Allison
I signed with my literary agent in late 2022, after querying through the pandemic. My journey was both so unusual and so boring I decided not to post about it. But then I realized every choice I made, every opportunity I had, overlapped with someone else going through it, and querying is weird for everyone right now.
I hope this helps somebody.
About me: I’m a licensed mental health worker who’s worked through some nasty grief and loss, and I regularly push back on anxiety so as not to be a hypocrite. I make enough money to afford some travel (not everyone does) and my health is good. I’m both an optimist and defensive pessimist; I’m okay with the coin-toss but keep my hopes tightly contained so as not to be crushed by disappointment—this means I rarely go 100% effort on anything, but can and will sustain 75% for a long time. Not very American exceptionalism of me.
I’m also neurodivergent, but have little/no rejection sensitivity, leaving me bizarrely open to feedback. I’m light-skinned, able-bodied, and more extroverted than many writers.
None of these attributes/whatever were necessary to get agented, but they either helped or failed to prevent me from doing the thing.
- A DEADLY VIRUS SWEEPS THE GLOBE (2020)
- THE MANUSCRIPT ACADEMY (2020)
- NORCAL WRITERS RETREAT (2020)
- QUERYING ROUND 0.5 (2020)
- TWITTER PITCHING (2020-2022)
- PITCH WARS ATTEMPT (2020)
- QUERYING ROUND 1—AND TOUGH DECISIONS (2021)
- AUTHOR MENTOR MATCH (2021)
- QUERYING ROUND 2 (2021-22)
- LUNCHING WITH TWITTER/RANDOS (2021-)
- THE WRITING CONFERENCES (2022)
- THE CALL (2022)
- INTROSPECTION AND ADVICE
- QUERY STATS
I. A DEADLY VIRUS SWEEPS THE GLOBE (2020)
I finished my first draft in the early pandemic, through teeth-chattering terror. At the time, I didn’t know about literary agents—or that science-fiction was the hardest genre to publish. A delightfully nightmarish time was had, learning how much I didn’t know.
CONS: All of them
FINANCE NOTE: Incalculable costs to mankind
II. THE MANUSCRIPT ACADEMY (2020)
I had no idea whether I was ready to query, so I bought a 15-minute e-consultation from The Manuscript Academy with Kiana Nguyen (DMLA) critiquing my opening pages. Her recommendations were direct and extensive, focused on moving the start of the story to a later time point. Almost all my betas preferred the revision.
Functionally, the new beginning got me agented 2 years later. Incidentally, I’ve ‘reversed’ those changes since. Unbelievable, I know.
Worth noting, I know writers who didn’t have as meaningful an e-consultation as mine. On a lighter note, TMA also offers workshops/classes and author presentations, some of which are free; I obtained a $10 coupon by attending one.
PROS: Professional feedback at your fingertips, potential invitations to query; neat free workshops
CONS: E-consultations are not necessary to get agented; some agents also offer free queries or critiques through other events and platforms
FINANCE NOTE: Potentially expensive (prices start at $49 per e-consultation as of today)
III. NORCAL WRITERS RETREAT (2020)
I’d been tentatively accepted to the Northern California Writer’s Retreat a few months before lockdowns. Specifically, I was wait-listed, which tracks because I’d submitted a first draft with glaring errors. My class was the first to go virtual, a wise decision by the inimitable Heather Lazare. In Fall 2020, I knew so little about publishing that it didn’t matter the retreat was cross-genre. Luckily, many ‘classmates’ were SFF enthusiasts and gave great critique.
Memorably, I asked literary agent Sarah Bowlin of Aevitas Literary Agency twice in two different settings, “When do you know you’re ready to query?” The answer was basically, once you’ve checked the boxes (i.e., have a query letter and a few beta reads) all you can do is try batch querying and hoping for feedback.
Listening to author-in-residence Rachel Khong (GOODBYE, VITAMIN, out now) was also fascinating in that she mostly forewent beta readers (though she worked as a professional editor). Paraphrasing: she focused on privately developing her own voice, then queried and obtained an agent when she knew the book still had problems, but ones she didn’t know how to fix by herself. I’m the opposite. Different approaches are valid.
PROS: Learned a lot about traditional publishing, and corroborated existing knowledge from blogs; networking with publishing professionals; yoga (which I am bad at)
CONS: Costs money, and the benefits are probably limited if you have disparate genre interests, more vulnerability
FINANCE NOTE: Retreats are rarely free and can be extremely expensive, but some, including NCWR as of the past couple years, offer need-based scholarships
IV. QUERYING ROUND 0.5 (2020)
Querying was confusing. I read a lot of Jane Friedman guides, and reviewed successful query letters in my genre/age category on QueryTracker and Reddit (r/Writing, r/PubTips). Joined writing Twitter. Immediately learned I default to too much therapy[-informed] speak to do well on Twitter. Sad. Terms I had to learn:
- Query letter (related: personalization, metadata, bio)
- Traditional vs. self/indie publication
- Pitch contests
- Partial/full request
- All the response acronyms (FQ, EQ, FR, CNR), blah blah
You probably have to know what all these mean before querying. Word count limits and agent salutations are also helpful to know. I paid for QueryTracker ($25/year), but not Publishers Marketplace at this stage.
For my first query, I used an agent’s BIPOC-specific form because they promised feedback. The rejection came noting they were not interested in dead/resurrected characters, which was helpful insight into—you are probably sick of hearing this, but—”how subjective the process can be.” I lowered my expectations from the ground floor into the basement.
PROS: You might get a literary agent, you will see your story in a different way, and learn more about the way your story is currently structured and what you could potentially trim
CONS: You most likely will not get a literary agent and feel impatient, confused, and disappointed often
FINANCE NOTE: Free
V. TWITTER PITCHING (2020-2022)
I did about five contests including PitMad, DVPit, SFFpit and APIPit. This helped me learn to condense my hook. I realized my concept “pitches well,” but paradoxically, I also realized my subject matter might not work in trad pub, as sci-fi audiences (possibly others) often want fictional conflict without real-life controversy.
I accrued about nine “likes'” from literary agents and large press editors (I didn’t count smaller pubs). I never went viral. Of those I queried, I received 3 rejections with feedback (and potential to re-query), one of whom was exceptionally helpful. Most ghosted, even for diversity calls, which reflects larger systemic problems in the biz with superficially performing activism.
Unfortunately, ChatGPT, data scraping, individual thieves, and Melon Tusk may have harmed pitch contests. So that’s just great. I recommend research before participating.
PROS: Possibly gain skills related to pitching (synopses, concision, highlighting conflict, etc.) in an even smaller space than query letters; obtain agent/editor interest; evaluate hook/pitch
CONS: Most stories do not pitch well, and because this is a different skillset from story writing, it can feel/be frustrating and superfluous; also, thieves
FINANCE NOTE: Free
VI. PITCH WARS ATTEMPT (2020)
Now defunct, PW was once the biggest writing mentorship program online. Writers who already obtained agents help unagented writers revise. I applied in 2021 and didn’t get in, but Clay Harmon (FLAMES OF MIRA, out now! magma! murder!) provided me feedback and a referral to his literary agent who is kind of a big deal in the business. I took this as a vote of confidence. Knowing the referral was unlikely to work out, I proceeded to query other agents too.
From then onward, I’ve sent Clay random publishing questions every few months. He’s a very good sport. Sadly, his exact path to success was hard to replicate as I do not have a charming, hot wife (joke voice!).
Pros: Meeting cool people, polishing pitching/querying skills
Cons: Rejection, waiting, emotions thundering around in your sympathetic nervous system, the dissolution of personality structure under compounding, chronic stress, etc.
Finance note: Free
VII. QUERYING ROUND 1—AND TOUGH DECISIONS (2021)
I fired off a few more queries in early 2021. On my sixth query (of 9), I received requests and then a call, from an agent who was quick to clarify on the phone that it was not the call. We had a long chat about goals and critique, ending with ‘Let’s chat again in a week.’ A day later, I got accepted into Author Mentor Match. My potential mentor also gave me a lot of positive and specific feedback.
Cue freak-out. It was a good problem to have, but still a problem. Should I wait for an offer that might never come? Revise with AMM? Follow up? When?
I spent the day hammering Clay, Alexa Donne (creator of AMM), and my would-be mentor, Melissa Work, and Heather Lazare with questions about what I should do. I was so stressed I pushed some boundaries with my panicky questions, but the people in question forgave me. I ultimately chose to revise with AMM, despite the vast uncertainty about whether I was setting my book back or moving it forward. I notified all the agents and received some encouraging messages expressing interest in reading more once AMM was done.
PROS: Good problem to have
CONS: Losing my shit
FINANCE NOTE: Everything was free including the panic
VIII. AUTHOR MENTOR MATCH (2021)
Let’s make Melissa Work blush. She is one of the most resilient, clever, radically honest, psychologically-minded and hilarious people I’ve ever known. I like to think I rubbed off on her as much as she rubbed off on me. We’re still friends. More about my AMM experience here.
Not everyone who joins a mentorship program has good luck. Across multiple programs, I’ve heard stories of personality clashes, clearly unethical or negligent mentors, poor communication from leadership, and so on.
AMM helped my book a lot, but I’ve been back and forth on many of those changes since—something Melissa warned me about. And yes, we went back and forth on the Manuscript Academy critique even then, too.
PROS: Made lifelong/friend(s), polished revision and pitching/querying skills, learning a lot about the industry
CONS: For me, none! But putting yourself out there means rejection, more work and time into an already consuming project, increasing (the already constant) risk of irrelevant or harmful feedback without guarantee of signing an agent/publisher
FINANCE NOTE: Free
IX. QUERYING ROUND 2 (2021-22)
It took me about a year to revise with AMM. In Late 2021, I sent about 8 more queries/Twitter pitches, and got more rejections with feedback. I revised more. Sound exhausting? It was!
I knew my book was getting better, especially after a prominent agent who exclusively signs “submission-ready” books requested a full manuscript, but that still didn’t mean much. It was frustrating and exciting that so much feedback came back to the chronology/structure of my first 50 pages—a problem dating back to 2020, though different agents phrased it different ways. It took me months to crack the issue, to stop seeing only how the story was, and instead how it could be. (Again: I’ve changed it more since.)
In this batch, I submitted about 40 cold queries, bringing my grand total to 50-60. I received detailed rejections on about 3-4 of the batch (6 total). In sci-fi, there were probably less than 80 viable agents total. I’d never hear back on some of those queries/fulls.
PROS: crying laughing
CONS: the light is fading though never gone
FINANCE NOTE: Free (not emotionally)
X. LUNCHING WITH TWITTER/RANDOS (2021-)
It’s hard to describe why it’s helpful to meet local writer friends who are at different stages of publication. If you’re a chronic misanthrope or have strictly transactional interests, it won’t be worth the effort. It always helps to like reading similar books (sup, Bookcrawlers!).
Mind you, most of us are a little guarded on the internet. Not everyone can and should be friends. The ‘hierarchal’ vibe of any industry under capitalism never fully goes away. I liked learning industry knowledge so I could set expectations. But it’s so emotionally replenishing to simply be ‘seen.’ You meet a writer you click with, and it alleviates some of that pressure on the pass/fail, ever-moving goalposts of publishing.
Take for example, Hana Lee (ROAD TO RUIN, out 2024, with complete with a lead throuple, dinosaurs, and intrigue). Early on, I asked why she bothered hanging out when I couldn’t teach her anything. She told me she remembered being in my shoes, that we all slogged through the same journey. I still try to pay that humanity and humility forward today.
PROS: Meet cool people; boosts self-esteem; gain insider knowledge; delicious treats; kills time; addresses the crux of existentialism endemic to conscious existence
CONS: May trigger social anxiety/rejection sensitivity; risk of being axe-murdered/thought an axe-murderer
FINANCE NOTE: Coffee/etc. usually not free. Relatively affordable
XI. THE WRITING CONFERENCES (2022)
At some point, in the despair of waiting, I freaked out again and decided to expend resources to regain some sense of control. I reread Clay Harmon’s blog post, where he described going to meet his agent at a conference after a partial request. Then I E-mailed Clay asking if it’d be weird for me to do the same, though the agent hadn’t requested yet. Clay was immediately supportive. Clay is a good bro.
And so I slapped a mask on and embarked on my journey to Balticon 2022. SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t end up signing with him. Some details are included so as to be instructive.
- Meeting an agent on May 28, 2022 whilst cosplaying Kimiko from her first episode in Prime’s The Boys, except I didn’t use fake blood so I just looked like a random dirty weirdo (don’t do this)
WHAT WENT GOOD
- I assertively marched up, shook hands and introduced myself as the author referred by Clay Harmon (ok)
- Kimiko wears pajamas in her first episode of The Boys, so I was very comfortable (but don’t do this)
- The convention programming was excellent for craft and networking (good)
- I got a partial request and R&R (revise and resubmit) (solid)
I’m trying to resist going into too much detail. The main thing is, I received encouragement and learned a lot. I agreed to meet the agent again at WorldCon in September, 2022; incidentally, Clay was going too.
At the con, Clay introduced me to Meredith Mooring (REDSIGHT, out 2024, super gay, super bloody, super… scaly, gotta read it). She was immediately the loveliest, most welcoming person, sharing insights into her activism and even offering to read my work. After taking a look, she provided a referral to her agent, Ernie Chiara at Fuse Literary. She also invited me to meet some other writers.
I ended up leaving WorldCon 2022 with a second R&R and this new referral. And more friends!
PROS: Meeting cool people including ‘celebrity’ authors; discovering new books; costs can sometimes be mitigated; learning lots about craft, industry (like TV adaptations), etc.
CONS: Taxes human courage; probably not free; most likely won’t lead to representation; note, some writing conventions offer scholarships especially to students and lower income individuals or opportunities to offset ticket costs with volunteering (e.g., the Nebulas)
FINANCE NOTE: Variable costs, potentially extremely expensive; if you’re self-employed, I’d recommend multi-purposing the trip for tax purposes
XII. THE CALL (2022)
I signed with Ernie Chiara of Fuse Literary in December 2022. The most bizarre full-circle-y aspect of this event is that I’d been Twitter mutuals with him since 2021, but I’d assumed his lack of interaction with my Twitter pitches meant I shouldn’t bother querying. Realistically, he probably just didn’t see them!
Don’t make my mistake.
After I queried Ernie with my referral, he requested my work very quickly. I had an offer within a month. Ernie was a class act, generously giving extra time for other agents to compete given the holidays, offering a full 3 weeks. I received about 4 last full requests only after notification of offer (9 total). All the other agents either ghosted or graciously declined, including the one I’d met at the cons.
Half a year later, we had lunch.
CONS: Submission is also full of rejection, so that’s just fantastic, I’m really excited about this
FINANCE NOTE: Signing a literary agent is always free
XIII. INTROSPECTION AND ADVICE
I know two years is nothing. One book? Pff. In the words of my therapist, publishing is the slowest sport in the world and no one wants to watch. I’m sure I could have kept querying for years if I’d had to, like a camel in the desert, but the process changed me. I normally have decent self-esteem and I’m gracious about compliments. But in one conversation, a literary agent had to gently confront me about over-focusing on editing without taking any time to celebrate the praise they’d given my ideas.
The fact is, it’d become hard to believe good ideas were worth anything when any flaw/disagreement of execution resulted in “No.” Some of the industry’s best—agents representing the most successful authors in the world, artists I admire—had taken the time to compliment my concept when such feedback is increasingly rare. But those compliments came with rejection. I remember an image caption by painter Justin Cherry, how he hadn’t finished the details but “the soul [of the piece] was there.” Until Ernie signed me, I felt like agents couldn’t afford to look for ‘soul’ anymore. I occasionally wondered if my story had none.
It took a lot of mental gymnastics to convince myself the project could still be meaningfully revised after 2 years of persistent work. I did it. But it subtly reshaped my understanding of art.
Many have said querying has become exceptionally difficult since 2020. Some of my challenges pre-dated COVID-19, such as sci-fi having fewer agents than any other genre, but the pandemic made everything harder. From agent burnout to publishers’ ever-driving incentive to maximize profit with minimum venture, it’s tough. I had the privilege to travel to conferences, which gave me hope, access to craft info that improved my manuscript, and coincidentally led to the agent referral that stuck. I’m not discounting that.
But I probably could have signed my agent through cold querying. I just hadn’t sent Ernie my materials before meeting Meredith. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d approached him earlier.
There’s a lot of “don’t give up” talk in the writing community. My experience was more about not giving up—too much of my time, my energy, my other interests, in the process. I’m actually a huge fan of giving up. For what is taking a break, if not eventually giving up on giving up? I also encourage
- Find other writers safe to be open and vulnerable with
- Accepting help when it is offered
XIV. QUERY STATS
|Queries (includes Twitter pitches)||58 (grand total)|
|Rejections (initial query only)||43 (74.1% of grand total)|
|Requests (partial/full/reply to AMM notice)||15 (25.9% of grand total)|
|Estimated Twitter pitch likes/queries||9 (15% of grand total)|
|Estimated requests only after offer||4 (26% of requests)|
|Estimated 1+ lines personalized feedback||9 (15% of grand total)|
|Revise and resubmit||~2, including ‘piggyback’ (3.5% of grand total)|
|Offers of representation||1 (1.7% of grand total)|