How I Got My Agent

I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M WRITING THIS POST.

Seriously, cannot.

I’ve been walking like in a dream world for the last week, not even able to process this is real but I’m told it is so I guess I’ll try to tell you how I got here.

I recommend getting snacks. This is a long story.

In the spring of 2014, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin finishing grad school and I was utterly miserable. I lived in a terrible place, I had an internship I felt lost in, had a job I didn’t enjoy, and was sick with a mysterious neurological illness that left me weak and unable to rely on my body in any way, shape, or form.

I had been writing seriously for about 1.5 years by then, with an eye toward maybe someday possibly trying to get a book published, and I’d written six full length novels in that time- 2 MG, 3 YA, and 1 adult. There might have been a few others in here too, at the time I whipped out drafts and then spun right on to the next one so it’s impossible to say. All but two of them were terrible. The MG I’d entered in a contest and won a place in it, and even took through an R & R with a wonderfully kind agent who ultimately ended up rejecting it. For incomprehensible reasons, I never queried that book much- maybe 10 queries total, five then and one here and there whenever I got discouraged about other projects.

Hey, I said this was my story about getting an agent, not about making good life choices.

But I digress.

Pen and Muse, a writing website, ran a showcase that year on their blog and I decided to enter it. I wrote a short story called Strings and Shadows about a girl who played the violin and a boy who might have been a ghost. You can actually still find it there if you look hard enough.

That story blossomed into a book.

It shouldn’t have worked, because I am notorious for dropping projects in the face of major life transitions, and over the course of writing that book I graduated with my master’s degree, quit my job, moved back in with my parents, went to Florida, got a new job, attended the Midwest Writers Conference, and bought a house. I couldn’t stop writing or talking about the story though, and by the time it was done it was a full fledged book, almost 90k long, and it was a retelling of Phantom of the Opera set in a modern day Southern youth orchestra.

It was not good.

But it had good bones.

In Fall 2014 I entered Pitch Wars and was chosen by the lovely Brianna Shrum as an alternate. She helped me polish up the query and first chapter, and Margarita Montimore, my PW mentee teammate, helped me write some amazing pitches I used in multitude of contests to come.

I had a few bites in PW, but ultimately they came back as rejections. I had a finished book though, so I dove deep into the querying trenches. Again – this is all about what I did, not what I should have done. Don’t try this at home.
Along the way, I wrote a book about a girl who ran a radio station and a boy taking a cross country road trip to meet his dying grandfather.

Y’all, I tried to piece together that stretch of time from late 2014- mid 2015 and I can’t even. All I can say for sure is I sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 queries and had an even mix of rejections, partials, and full requests. Every single one eventually was rejected, but I was fortunate enough to receive some fairly specific feedback along the way and decided to tear the whole book apart and start over.

I mean, why revise when you can just write a new book?

On my birthday in summer 2015, I received a request for a partial from an agent I was wild over. She loved musicals and even played the violin so I knew immediately I wanted to query her, plus from her Twitter and interviews she seemed really fun and like someone I’d be comfortable with.

An aside- as a cantankerous medium-anxious introvert, finding someone I think I’ll be comfortable with is a MASSIVE cause for celebration.

The trouble with this birthday request was that I had just ripped my book all to shreds and was doing my best to paste them all back together. Having stalked, um, done my research, I knew this agent had specifically mentioned not always enjoying when people said they had a new version of a book as that was often an indication of not being prepared when they queried in the first place. Side note: I probably wasn’t ready. This will inevitably happen to you, because unfortunately, querying is the kind of thing you only get good at as you go, so you won’t know how bad you are until you do it for awhile. Anyways I sent the amazing agent a nervous email saying since I had so much feedback from so many agents, all indicating the same thing, I was revising, but I’d be happy to send it to her when it was done.

Waiting was agony.

She sent me an email just a couple days later saying she’d be happy to wait and see what I came up with. Two weeks after that I sent her an email with my revisions and settled in.

Y’ALL. I had no idea what the next year would bring.

I sent that email in August and continued querying, with the same kind of success- partials and fulls in fairly steady rates with my rejections, but never an offer. There was always, always a but: liked but not loved, enjoyed but didn’t connect, liked prose but not character, couldn’t get into it, didn’t love enough. I went through really rough periods of wanting to give up completely- on that book, on writing in general, on everything everywhere.

I read all the blogs I could find – call stories, posts about the Almost But Not Quite stage, quotes about the gap between knowing how you want your writing to be and how it is when you’re first starting out. Some days I successfully managed all my feelings, and some days I ate a LOT of cookies.

Earlier that spring I’d written an alternate history about a girl who led a revolution, so to take my mind off my troubles I polished it up and tried to enter PW 2015. I didn’t get in.

I spent the fall racking up all the rejections, both on my Phantom book and on another pair of projects I queried haphazardly, desperate to feel all the work was worth it. I literally. cannot. Tell you. how many rejections I got. It is a number well over 100 but after that they all blur together.

I told you this was not a story about making good choices. Don’t do this, kids.

For NaNo 2015, for a change of pace, I wrote 50k of a beautiful, complicated adult fantasy full of politics and intrigue and beautiful dresses. I took all of December off and decided to start new in 2016.

2016 was not a good writing year.

I started fresh with an amazing idea I loved, about a magical garden and an angry boy and a Spanish-speaking girl with a terrible addiction to knives. The first draft fizzled out slowly, painfully, at 40ishk. I shook myself off, racked up a bunch more rejections on various projects, and tackled the knife book again. The second draft failed miserably at 30k. Remember, in the past I’d written 3-7 books per year. Granted I never revised a word and they were all terrible, but I was a finisher. And now I couldn’t finish anything.

I took a break. I wrote a short story for spring showcase again. I wrote a short story for an anthology, about a pizza shop in space. I did anything and everything to try to feels single shred of hope but mostly I was in despair.

By then I was running out of agents to query with PHANTOM. I had promised myself I’d shelve it, but it kept sneaking back out, a query here, a query there. I kept dragging it back out for every pitch contest. Everyone I’d been friends with in the beginning had agents now. Some had book deals. Some were mentors in contests I couldn’t even get into. I was certain I was done. I was wasting my time and when the infinitely patient and long suffering Rena Olsen told me I wasn’t, that the work would pay off and the ability was there, I politely informed her that she was insane and I was done.

SO DONE.

But PHANTOM was still there, lurking. I joked that this book about ghosts and obsession was my ghost, haunting me all the time.

Finally I threw up my hands and said FINE ONE LAST TIME YOU STUPID BOOK LET’S TRY IT ONE MORE TIME.

I was fresh off of a second R & R getting rejected and just as I was starting to revise, a third R & R didn’t pan out. I was absolutely positively certainly convinced I was the worst writer in the entire universe. WHO LOSES THREE OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THAT?? I was so close, always so close, but never quite there. I finished the revision and felt like it might be stronger but was so disillusioned and sick of the book and sad of spirit I couldn’t even tell anymore if it was good at all.

I set it aside for what I swore would be the last time. It was time to accept this book, that I had poured two years of my life into, wasn’t my book.

I tried knife book again, full of despair and certain I would fail.

I also traveled a bajillion miles down to Tennessee to stay in a cabin clinging to the side of a mountain surrounded by perfect strangers – I went to the 2016 Madcap Aspiring Writers retreat.

It changed my life.

It was the most terrifying, horrifying, what have I done experience ever. I’ve mentioned I’m an anxious and cantankerous introvert, and I was at the lowest point of my entire writing career. When I arrived, I thought I was going to pass out of sheer terror and What Am I Even Doing Here I Can’t Write I Need To Lay Down And Eat Cookies. It’s a real condition I promise.

However, there was one thing that made walking through that door easier. The day before I left for Tennessee I got an email.

Remember that agent? The one I’d sent my partial to 13 months before, the one who was so utterly perfect?

She wanted to know if I’d do an R & R.

I took a few days to answer, distracted by sheer terror and by huge questions. Did I really want to dig into PHANTOM again? This book was RUINING MY LIFE. I COULDN’T WRITE ANYWAYS! Not to mention it had been so long that I’d already been through two more drafts in those 13 months.

Madcap was absolutely amazing. It made writing feel real, and the community that grew up in that cabin happened so fast and so well that even I was at ease and felt like I belonged. Most importantly, every writer there talked about failure. They told real, humble stories of their struggles and their failures and all the sweat and tears and hurt it took for them to achieve their dreams.

I emailed the agent and said yes. I went out on a limb and shared with her all my hopes and dreams for the book, everything I wanted it to be and knew it wasn’t yet. I was terrified I was being presumptuous or needy or way too bold. I almost fainted when I hit send.

But a few days later she told me she was excited and she’d get me a letter, and a week or two after that I had my R & R letter from her.

By that point I was up to my neck in knife book and desperate to finish *something* in the hell of 2016. I read her letter almost every day, meshing it with changes I’d already made, digging deep into things I needed to make better and big questions I needed to ask, letting the back of my brain work away on that project as I labored through and finally at long last finished the third draft of the knife book. The agent’s letter for PHANTOM was perfect, hitting on things I knew I needed to fix and approaching issues in brand new ways that somehow, impossibly, got me excited about this ghostly albatross of a book again.

Then I went to work.

October 2016 came and I’d made all the changes I could think of. The pacing, always a huge problem for me, was much tighter, the relationships were more real, and the main character was her fullest self. Instead of making her easier to relate to, more likeable, or less intense as so many past rejections has suggested, I made her 1000% herself. I felt good, or at least as good as I knew how to feel then, but I hadn’t quite solved all the issues in the letter and I was stalled out.

Oh, and by the way, I also threw an MS in the ring for PW 2016. I didn’t get in.

Y’all. 2016 was not a good year. Can we all just agree on that?

Then I got an email.

This amazing agent who I so loved ASKED ME HOW THE REVISION WAS GOING. She liked me and my book ENOUGH TO CHECK IN. After all the leaping and flailing, I set about the heart-in-throat task of telling her I had a new and much more powerful draft, but was struggling with a few aspects.

I thought for sure she wouldn’t want to help me anymore. I couldn’t expect her to, just the R & R alone was such a great opportunity. I was in despair, certain I’d let a fourth R & R slip through my hands and hating myself for all my faults, as a writer and as a human, real and imagined.

Then I got an email.

THE AMAZING AGENT OFFERED TO READ WHAT I’D WRITTEN EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T TOTALLY RIGHT.

I sent a number of joyous and awed texts to friends, ate a bunch of cookies, then with my heart in my throat (all my vital organs kind of rearranged themselves around that time) I sent her my draft.

And then there was silence.

For NaNo 2016 I channeled all my angst and failure into 50k of an adult thriller about a woman who returns to her small town after years away only to find she must work to cover up a crime she committed a decade ago.

I took December off, as is now my routine, and when 2017 arrived I started with the audacious goal of writing every single day. I had an idea, a flash of a scene involving a valley of bones coming alive, and a woman driving a cart of bones through a wild, fierce land, and a book that took place in war but wasn’t necessarily about war. For the first time ever I outlined the book before writing it, and then I set to work. After a horrible year of failures and anger and grief and every word being agony, this new book slipped into the world like actual magic. It was everything I wanted it to be, a true book of my heart, and while it has definite issues and needs work, I finished it in less than two months.

At last, writing and I weren’t enemies anymore. I was at peace with having shelved PHANTOM, and yet, not quite ready to query again. I knew the agent might have forgotten about me, after all, it had been four months and wouldn’t she have responded right away if she’d actually liked it? Wasn’t it stupid to put all my eggs in one basket? I knew I should query and try things, but I just wanted to work with her so much. And besides, I couldn’t be any less agented than I was…

While I tried to decide what to do, I threw my hat into the Pitch Madness ring with a different ms. I started a chapterbook about a girl named Peach who has ADHD and lives in a trailer park and tries to figure out life, an updated Junie B Jones basically.

Then on March 2 I got an email.

It was from the dream agent saying she’d read about half of Phantom so far and she loved it. SHE. LOVED. IT. She was still reading but wanted me to know she was pleased with the revisions and she’d talk to me soon.

Cue all the panicking and flailing and excitement and befuddlement.

I finished the first chapterbook and started a sequel. I played with some words about a girl who controls the weather with her moods and the hapless boy who loves her. I checked my email 187 times per day. I reread all her interviews I could find, checked her Twitter for any sign.

In many ways I was waiting for the let down. The almost but not quite. The thanks but no thanks.

After all, this agent had never read the end before and WHAT IF SHE HATED IT SO MUCH I JUST NEVER HEARD FROM HER AGAIN?

Then came St. Patrick’s Day.

I see about 100 kids per week at my day job, and Friday was an epically difficult day in an epically difficult week. I was exhausted and stressed and dizzy with trying to keep track of deadlines and meetings and behavior approaches and curriculum writing.

As I was wearily packing up to finally go home, my phone – ever at odds with the thick cement walls – registered a 2 hour old voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize.

Immediately my hands started shaking. I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize even when I do have service, but why would this one leave me a voicemail? I opened my computer back up and googled the number.

The area code was the agent’s area code.

I immediately grabbed all my stuff and galloped out to my car- last one in the lot on a late Friday afternoon.

My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I dropped the phone twice. I decided to take it slow.

I went on the agent’s Twitter and saw a tweet about a sub making her buy a new violin case.

My book is very very violiny. But still. It could have been anyone’s.

Then I opened my email.

There was a message from her saying she’d left me a voicemail and would like to talk as soon as I was available.

By this point I legitimately thought I was going to have a heart attack. My pulse was about to explode out of my wrists and the SHAKING like FULL BODY TREMBLES. My head was clinging to a last shred of logic but my body was full on emotion.

Finally I listened to her voicemail. She was looking forward to talking to me at my earliest convenience.

GOOD LORD ALMIGHTY I WAS GOING TO DIE IN THE PARKING LOT AT WORK.

My brain was spinning. I told myself it could still be a rejection because we’d worked together quite a bit and maybe she wanted to explain “in person” why she couldn’t take it on.

It could be anther R & R. More fixing, more polishing and tightening, maybe adding the things I hadn’t figured out how to add from the letter.

I knew if I didn’t call her right then I was just going to never ever ever find the courage and also that I might actually truly have a heart attack.

So I hit call.

And waited, holding one hand up with the other because of the shaking.

And then when she picked up, it wasn’t to reject, and it wasn’t to talk about the work it still needs, though it does need more work.

It was to offer representation.

1.5 years after my original query, I am absolutely dizzyingly overjoyed to say I am now represented by Moe Ferrara of BookEnds Literary. And she signed me for a ghostly albatross of a book I thought nobody but me would ever love.

It all still feels like a dream, like it’s happening to someone else. I can’t BELIEVE that I’ve been given the incredible privilege and honor of achieving the huge first step in reaching my dream of holding my own book in my hands someday. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to way more people than I can ever name. Moe gets my book, and she makes me feel comfortable, and I can’t WAIT to see what we’re going to accomplish together.

If you’re out there and you feel like a failure, like it’s just a series of hurts and mistakes and like this weird, wonderful dream you have is something you have no right to, no hope of achieving, I hope this story- all it’s craziness, all its unexpectedness, all its anxieties and sadness and thrills and twists, gives you hope. Every road has a bend in it. You have NO IDEA what might be just around the very next one.

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Favorite Things 17-1

Mondays always need more good, so I thought I’d make a quick list of things I’m liking and/or inspired by lately. It’s my last week of work before I take a vacation, and I have approximately 15.779 thousand meetings so lists are about all I can do right now. I just really like lists, okay? I like them maybe even a little more than my planner, which I love. So. Now you know.

1)These cookies from Victoria Schwab’s blog. They taste like pure magic which makes sense considering the recipe source.

2) This picture, which may or may not be related to a new project of mine.
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

3)The Settle Your Glitter app, which is free and spectacular if you are a generally nervous sort of person or if you happen to be going through a nervous-making time.

4)Hickory Hearth candles – I got mine at Target and it’s the perfect storytelling kind of smell.

5) My new May Designs planner. I’m still deciding if it’s the perfect fit – I’ll have to use it for a few months before I’ll know for sure but it’s functional and pretty which is my favorite mashup.

6) Hawaii Five – O. I’ve been on a binge for weeks and I can’t get anything else done, good thing I’ve only got three episodes left on Netflix!

7)Work This Body by Walk the Moon. It’s just a really danceable song and sometimes you just need a super danceable song, you know?

What’s on your list this week?

NaNo Prep and Who Are You?

Hello my fabulous and lovely friends. How’s things?

Today I thought I’d dive into my most favoritest time of the year – NaNoWriMo! If you don’t know what it is, basically every year a bajillion people take on the challenge of writing 50k or, basically, a short novel, in one month – November. You can read more about it here.

I am doing it this year, as I have for the past three or four – or however many – and, as every year, I am SO EXCITED about the book! You can read a synopsis on my user page here, but basically what you need to know is that it’s a YA fantasy retelling of Robin Hood from the perspective of “Maid Marian”, though her name is Giselle in my book. And I’m so happpyyyy to be writing this, since I’ve been thinking about it forever, but I’m also terrified, and I’ve learned that the best books to write during NaNo are the ones that terrify you because the speed helps eradicate the fear.

Anyways, that’s not the main point of this post. What is the point, is that to get ready, I’ve been doing a lot of freewriting. I’m still not one hundred percent sure where the right starting point is or what the main plots will be,so what I’ve been doing is filling one notebook page per day with my random thoughts and questions. I’m focusing on really developing the characters, so that out of their interactions with one another will arise the plot. I’m hoping that the better I develop this girl who was raised as a warrior and may need to allow herself to feel feminine in order to achieve her goal, and this soft-hearted prince terrified of inheriting his father’s madness and determined to defeat the brother who has always bested him, and this boy who once was a prince and now fancies himself a commoner, but may just be manipulating everyone to his own ends, will become so powerful and so real that they must take certain actions, and that these actions will create a story.

Maybe this will go horrible. It’s quite likely. But it also might not.

So here’s my suggestion to you, whether you plan on doing NaNo or you just are developing a current project: start from the present and work backward. Right now, she’s a princess in a castle with blood red walls. But what if she’s not a true princess? Where did she come from, then? What’s her history? How did she grow up? Why then? Why in that manner? Let the stories develop roots, and let the trunk and branches form naturally out of those roots, and see what it does for your story.

I’ll keep you posted on whether my story tree grows big and strong or shrivels up like Jonah’s bush.

The Serial

Okay, you guys. This is one of the scariest and most adventurous things I’ve ever done with my writing, but I’m going to give it a shot and see how it goes.
I’m going to write a serial.
It might be more of a novella than a novel because hello, books take like a bajillion words and so forth. But as of this very second I don’t even have an idea for one, let alone have an outline or anything ridiculously organized like that!

So I’d like to hear from you – what kind of a book should I write? Urban fantasy? Poorly-researched historical? A contemporary, like the sitcom of little-known Internet stories?

Give me any thoughts you have, anything you’d like to read, and let’s see what we can come up with together 🙂 First installment will appear right in this spot next week…stay tuned!

We Share With Friends

This is a conversation I have literally every. single. day. at work. Yes, you’re correct, I do spend a lot of time around kindergartners! Anyways, that’s definitely not the point.
The point is, for this Thursday’s* post, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’m finding inspiring as I work on my new WIP – I hope they spark something for you too! There’s always enough inspiration to go around!

1) This song The video is incredibly weird, but I love the music!

2) This image

3) And also this one:snowy wood

4) This quote: “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
― Edith Sitwell

5) Thinking about how easy it is to create idols out of things we don’t understand and people we have never met.

Happy words and Happy Friday!

*I now know it is Thursday today and will be Friday tomorrow when you read this, but I thought it was funny so I left it. The end.

Back To School: WrapUp Edition

Well, here we are at the last day of our Back To School feature. I’ve had a lovely and fabulous time hanging out with you guys a little extra and with a little more focus than usual, and I’m so glad you’ve been willing to hang out with me for this month!

I don’t have much to say – we’ve had some amazing guest posts, featured some outstanding authors, reviewed some absolutely glorious books, and dived into a bit about our favorite characters and stories. Now there really isn’t much more to cover, except to talk for a moment about promise.

Not just any promise. The promise of tomorrow. The promise of getting better. The promise that this year is going to be our best year yet, that these next words will be our most beautiful, that this page, this pen, this story, is going to change the world.

Is it now? Maybe not. But soon. One day soon. You’ll get where you’re trying to go and you’ll become who you’re striving to be.

For now? Sit up in the morning. Watch the sunrise. Sip your coffee. Let the puppy sleep on your feet as you watch the mists dissolve and the sunbeams pale from gold to lemon to snow.

Take a breath in the afternoon, when the pressure of your work or family are pressing heavy on your temples. Stretch your arms, arch your back, think about possibilities. Have a snack, ask yourself what stories the people around you can’t reveal, and then focus in again on these secondary passions that pay your bills and keep the ones you love going.

When you come home at night, listen to your steps echo on the pavement. Watch the shadows crowd in close, feel the lick of first cool breezes, watch your fingers tap across the keys. When you cook, savor the textures of the ingredients under your fingers, when you’re doing laundry watch the plot swirl into the water too, and as you vacuum and sweep and help with homework and finish up extra projects, be thankful that you’re here, that you’re breathing, that every sense is alive and every moment is a precious and fleeting thing.

Before you go to bed, stand in the window and watch the stars pinpointing out, silver streaks of history blazing with singular purpose. Hold hands with your loved ones, sip something warm, watch the words formulate, slowly and then all at once, and realize that breath by breath you’re creating a living thing, independent of you, something with existence that may, that will, outlast you.

Now is the time for you to be gloriously alive. Now is the time to find faith, abiding faith, in your stories. Now is the time for you to believe. To step forward. Now is your time.

Back To School: Magic and Mystery

You guys today I am SO HONORED to have an OUTSTANDING guest post for you from my gorgeous and joyous and wonderful friend Marissa Fuller. Marissa is an editor over at Anaiah Press, where I did my publicity internship, and she is a hilarious, passionate, and genuine person I consider myself very lucky to know. And YOU can all consider yourselves lucky today, because as this week’s Back To School Guest Post author, she’s going to take us on a trip to a place almost everyone adores: Hogwarts!

Ahh, September. The beginning of a new cycle of learning for most grade school hooligans. Perhaps the most iconic back-to-school day of all time is September 1st. The day that the Hogwarts Express leaves Platform 9 3/4 of Kings Cross Station, winding its way through the Scottish countryside, through our hearts, and finally stopping at Hogsmeade Station. From there, Hagrid shepherds the ickle firsties across the Black Lake, and, well, you know the rest.

Perhaps the greatest part about Hogwarts, in the heart of the reader, is the magic beyond the magic. What I mean is, what is Hogwarts without magic? Still unflinchingly magical. So much so that we all wish we could attend. Why is that?

Well, J.K. Rowling has said herself, when asked why the books were so very British, that the idea of a boarding school, while necessary to leave the children able to get in to all sorts of secretive behavior, there is also a particular feel in a place like that. A place where youths are without their parents, with teachers as the only adults in their world. It fills the castle halls with the magic of youth—can you remember feeling limitless, unstoppable as a child? Imagine several hundred children living together, feeding off of that special kind of magic. A magical mindset in which all things are possible.

Which is, I feel, how we all go (or went) into a new year of schooling. A fresh start; the open cover of a book, just waiting to be read.

Reading a book is a wonderful metaphor for going through life. It’s a great book—truly monumental. You want to tear through the pages with a wild fervor. But we all know the best way to enjoy the very best books is to savor them. To restrain ourself and read only a chapter or two at a time. To live in that world just a little bit longer. To live in this world.

So, savor this book. Savor this next chapter of your lives, be it a school year, or just another year of searching the deeper parts of yourself—though I wholeheartedly suggest sneaking at least a few books in there, as well. Live on. Read on. Write on.

After all, as a great man always said, words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.

Isn’t Marissa fabulous?! You can follow her here 🙂

Stay tuned the rest of this week for more Back To School goodness!