From the moment I sent my first query letter to a literary agent in February 2016, I starting looking forward to writing one of those “How I Got My Agent” posts—the ones that show aspiring authors there is light at the end of the querying tunnel. This one is about six months overdue, which is a good reminder to me that even though publishing life seems to move at a snail’s pace, it’s often going by quicker than we think.
I’m going to try not to tell you my whole life story, but these posts are inevitably a little self-indulgent, right? So like most writers, I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. My first story was called “James Pond, Frog Detective.” In middle school I started writing bad poetry, and in college I wrote a lot of mediocre poetry and some short stories.
So I had always dreamed of being a writer, thought of myself as a writer, but I could never seem to settle down, put my ass in the chair, and write. Then, in December 2013, a few weeks after I finished grad school, my dad passed away. He was only in his sixties, had worked his whole life at a job he didn’t particularly relish, and was about to retire so that he could travel the U.S. in an RV. Finally see the world. And then he got stage-4 lung cancer and died.
Well, that’s the sort of devastating event that makes a person realize our dreams aren’t just waiting around for us, and if we have the means to do something about them . . . Well, as Mary Oliver wisely asked, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I didn’t want to see the world so much as write one. So I penned my first novel, which was a middle-grade high fantasy. It wasn’t terrible, but it was the sort of book you write to learn how to write a book. Of course, I didn’t know that then. So I dutifully started sending out queries to literary agents. Surprisingly, I got a dozen manuscript requests . . . followed by an avalanche of rejections.
But I learned from my mistakes, put my ass in the chair again, and wrote a second book, a young adult high fantasy. This one was much more original, tougher, more mature. I loved this book. I said to myself that this was The Book, the one that would get me an agent.
Cue the inevitable rejections.
Well, I thought, third time’s the charm, right?
And it was. My YA Contemporary Fantasy, GHOST WOOD SONG, was The Book. It had voice, atmosphere, lyricism—plus that all-important element: a commercial hook—a ghost-raising fiddle. I had never really understood what writers meant when they talked about “the book of their heart.” But GHOST WOOD SONG was the book of mine. I poured my grief over my dad’s death into it, my longing for a home that no longer existed, the nightmares that have woken me up screaming in the dead of night—and a whole lot of bluegrass music. I didn’t hold anything back. This book was honest and creepy and very, very Southern.
Soon, it was chosen for the mentorship contest Pitch Wars, which felt like winning the lottery. My mentor ripped it to shreds and helped me sew it back together into a powerful, compelling story. Over a few months, I rewrote over half of it, killed a lot of darlings, and added in scenes I never imagined I’d write. Sometimes I looked around at the dismembered corpse of my book and wondered how it would ever be whole and beautiful again. And then it was.
I was so proud of my book, so proud of the work I’d done. I hadn’t just written a good book; I’d found my voice and my identity as a writer. But when the Pitch Wars Agent Round arrived, I watched everyone else’s posts in the showcase blow up with requests while mine languished, overlooked, barely even middling.
Hmm, I thought, maybe my voice just isn’t what they’re looking for. But I shrugged it off and started querying agents the old fashioned way, one email at a time.
A few weeks later, a lovely, lovely agent wrote back, “WOW—I could not put this novel down! Are you available to chat today?” (That’s Agent Speak for, “I’m probably going to offer you representation once I make sure you’re not a serial killer or anything.”)
I’m not a particularly demonstrative person; some might call me emotionally reserved. But when I opened that email, I was standing in my kitchen, staring at my phone, and then suddenly I was yelling. My dogs looked on in mortal terror while I laughed and whooped and screamed.
But I finally pulled myself together, emailed the agent back to set up a call, and later notified the other agents who were considering the manuscript. And then, to my shock, more offers started coming in, each one from an agent I’d be lucky to work with.
After three books and two years in the query trenches, with over 100 rejections, I had five offers of representation. I was ecstatic, but I was also stressed. Not only did this introvert have to have five phone calls with Big Important People, but I also had to choose one of them, and that decision could make or break my writing career. I talked the decision over with my Pitch Wars mentor, made a spreadsheet comparing the agents, and did a lot of research.
But in the end I went with my gut. Lauren Spieller at Triada US Literary Agency was the one. She got my book, understood its heart, loved the same things about it that I loved, and had a clear vision for how to make it stronger. (Plus, her other clients raved about her so much I thought I might be joining a cult.)
On December 12, 2017—my dad’s birthday—I woke up from a rare, beautiful dream about him. We were laughing together over a Johnny Cash song, “One Piece at a Time.”
That afternoon, I emailed Lauren to let her know I would be absolutely thrilled to accept her offer of representation.
And that’s how I got my agent.