How I Got My Agent
For anyone (the few of you) who follows me for freelancing tips, thoughts and complaints, this post is likely not for you. Keep scrolling.
See, while my main writing gig is all blog posts and content marketing, lifestyle journalism and listicles, I dabble in a bit of fiction on the side. And by dabble, I mean I spend hours and hours of my nights and weekends writing, editing and revising. Yes, it’s unpaid and, yes, I realize how it sounds to someone who isn’t already in the lifestyle — absolutely f**kin’ crazy. So this post is for those who know me primarily as Holly Riddle the Wannabe Author versus Holly Riddle the Workaholic Freelancer. And for the former, we’re going to get into stats first, because I know that’s what I’ve always trolled these types of posts for, to compare myself and my querying ratios to others’, for better or for worse.
Without further ado…
I signed WITCHCRAFT & WHISKEY, a 115k adult historical fantasy novel, with Laura Crockett at Triada in mid-October 2021. I started querying in early June 2021 and W&W was my second dive into the query trenches. The stats are as follows:
- 45 queries sent
- 23 rejections
- 8 full requests
- 3 offers of rep
Hopefully those stats make you feel better about your own querying journey, but if they don’t, please know that I was lucky — exceedingly so.
Here’s how it happened…
Like most little baby writers, I grew up thinking my journey into the literary sphere would be quick and painless. I would be the next Christopher Paolini! (Go ahead and laugh at me; I do.) That’s what I told myself as I mailed off sample pages, query letters and SASEs to agents back in the good ol’ days of querying via snail mail. That first book (okay, okay, it was actually an MG trilogy about pirates and I shudder when I think of it) gained me a few full requests, but, as was no surprise to anyone, not an actual agent. So, I continued writing just for my teenage self, including a good bit of self-insert Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction. (Most of us wrote fan fiction or still write it, okay? Don’t judge me.)
Still, throughout college and my first early career years, I stopped writing. I considered getting my MFA in creative writing, but my college advisor basically told me that it would be impossible for me to get into an MFA program since I’d never had anything published prior. So, I decided I’d become an editor and work at one of the big publishing houses.
Spoiler: That didn’t happen.
Instead, I graduated in 2014 and found a job in marketing at a travel magazine. I started freelancing, made it known that I wanted to work in editorial and was eventually promoted to assistant editor. I continued working in editorial roles for various magazines and other publications for a few years, before I basically said “screw working for the man” and became a full-time freelancer in 2018. Best decision I ever made for my career. But I digress. If you want to know about that, read some of my other stuff.
It was in 2018 when I found myself with some extra time (guess what — if you stop working 40 hours per week for the man and 20 hours per week for yourself, and just work 30 hours per week for yourself, you get some extra time; it’s amazing) and I picked up a new fiction project.
It was atrocious. ATROCIOUS. GOD AWFUL. Filled with meandering storylines and no action and very little description and absolutely zero deep POV. (I will always be thankful to Jenny Marie for reading that one draft and not absolutely destroying my confidence.)
But yeah. I knew it was bad. So I moved on to another one. Finished it. Still bad.
In 2019, I tried this revolutionary thing called outlining and actually managed to complete a novel that wasn’t horrific. It was actually kind of okay. By that point, I’d become more active in the writing community on Twitter, so I decided to follow my fellow writers’ examples and try out for the various writing programs that feature heavily there. Applying for RevPit in the spring of 2020 was actually one of the best things I could’ve done, as it introduced me to a whole slew of new writer friends and connected me to the writing community in a way I’d been missing out on. And, after I didn’t get into RevPit, I decided, what the hell, I’ll query it.
So I did. I queried this little, adult gothic, Wuthering Heights retelling that was woefully under word count. I sent 43 queries and received 2 page requests and no further interest. (Though I did get some very honest and appreciated rejection feedback from an agent at my current agency, ironically.)
I still love that book. There’s so much I love about it. The MC plagued by ghosts and her love for her adopted brother. Her rambling, falling-apart mansion and comic-relief drunk of a sibling. The endless string of vengeful spirits. The rural village setting filled with rain, fog and superstition. The new suitor come to town with his love for Victorian Spiritualism and taxidermy.
But the book was, as mentioned, just okay. So no agent for me.
As I was querying this book, though, and right when the pandemic shutdowns were in full force, I started writing W&W. This book, I thought, would be something special and I would use everything I’d learned in the past to help me. I outlined. I revised. I used alpha readers. I used beta readers. I revised some more. And some more. For once in my life, I wasn’t terrified to slash scenes and rework characters. I made those drafts bleed. This book, I knew, had something important to say and I wanted it to be fantastic.
I ended up just missing the deadline to apply for that year’s Pitch Wars class (I did send in my previous MS, just for kicks, as a last hurrah before shelving it, but you can probably guess where that went), but I was right in time to apply for Round 8 of Author Mentor Match and, much to my surprise and delight, I received word that I’d been accepted, in early February 2021.
Sophie Williamson was my fearless mentor and she completely changed the way I revised. I thought I was being thorough before, but Sophie’s instruction, guidance and methods have made me thorough. Every character? Has a backstory, a motive, a meaning. Every scene? Serves a clear and definable purpose. Every setting? You should know it down to its atoms. Many spreadsheets and several rounds of revising later, Sophie sent me off into the wide world of querying for my second go-around in early June.
This time, things worked out in my favor. Sure, they didn’t work out well at first. Those 23 rejections stung. Much whiskey was consumed.
After my first unsuccessful querying journey and seeing how long it took to get just one book out the door, I’d started keeping a few projects going all at once (one querying, one revising, one drafting) and so I tried to focus on my other two books, but… Let’s face it. It’s difficult to focus on future projects when you have one book baby out in the world being rejected every Monday with little more than a “not for me.” Still, I put on a brave face and began plotting my next steps.
Then, I received my first offer in mid-September. I immediately wanted to puke. What did I do now? I never thought I’d make it this far. I scheduled the call, is what I did, and learned more about the agency and its process. After some deliberation, I decided they might not be for me, but I had an offer now, and I could use that offer to nudge my other full requests and hopefully get a few more.
My nudges resulted in those two other offers, including the one from Triada and I signed with Laura on Oct. 14.
I make this process sound easy and simple, but it was actually one of the most stressful times in my entire life. Years of work and dreaming hinged on this decision. And what if no one responded to my nudges? What if I ended up with no agent at all? And when things actually did turn out really, really well, everything was entirely surreal. I’m still adjusting to the idea that, yeah, I have an agent. I’m going on sub. W&W was good enough to get this far. I, as an author, was good enough to get this far. WTF kind of world am I living in?
I got my agent… But I also got very, very lucky
I realize that my experience, as stressful as it was, and as long as it felt, was actually not that bad. I started writing with the intention of landing an agent in 2019, only two years ago. It feels a lot longer than that, but two years is nothing in the world of publishing.
Additionally, I had some amazing friends who helped me along the way, reading and pointing me to resources and encouraging me, as well as bitching with me as needed.
I also have an amazing husband who accepts that I might spend my entire weekend working on “the book” or that I might spend entire days wrapped up in Writing Twitter drama. He supports my passion and I’ll be eternally grateful.
I’m also lucky that I work for myself, so I’m not tied to a 9-to-5 and can increase or decrease my workload as needed. My work in editorial also means I have experience in areas that help me in my fiction; I can turn around a high volume of content in a short amount of time (my average drafting rate is 2,000 words/hour, which I feel is none too shabby) and I know how to edit, at least for things like grammar and punctuation, if not always for the big-picture stuff.
I also have relatively few responsibilities outside of my work. I don’t have any kids. The only things I care for are two dogs and a house. All our relatives live out of state and I, at least, am a home-body and introvert by nature (in other words, my in-person friend circle is small).
So, yeah, I got my agent, but I got lucky, too, and that helped a lot.
So, what have I learned from this experience? And what could possibly help you as you also try to get your own agent?
- Learn your craft. Don’t be like Teenage Holly who thought she could get by without outlines and extensive revisions. Outlining isn’t for everyone, but crucial story elements, like plot, are.
- Ask for feedback. Find those beta readers! Find alpha readers! Find CPs! Ask for someone to read your query letter! Your synopsis! Your pitches for Twitter events! Most of my readers are literally just random folks I’ve found on Twitter.
- Ask questions. There’s no such thing as a stupid one and, if there is, I’ve already asked it, so you’re in the clear.
- Shoot your shot. The answer is already “no” if you do nothing, so just do it. That very first offer I received? It was from a “test” draft query that I sent out on a whim. If I hadn’t sent that query, things could’ve gone very differently.
- Just keep going. I know it’s the absolute worst thing to hear when you’re deep in the pits of despair as a writer, but if you want to be published, it’s literally the only way. You just gotta keep writing something. Even if it’s only a few words a week. Even if you have to scrape and crawl and scratch for every word. As for me? Most of my writing is fueled by pure spite, because, believe me, when I’ve written 5k in a day for some of my most needy, unappreciative freelance clients, the last thing I want to do is write on an unpaid book that might go nowhere. But how else will I prove everyone on my shit list wrong? Spite is an excellent motivator.
My journey is just beginning. Everything could go downhill from here. I hope not, but it still could. For now, I’m filled with hope (and still a little bit of spite; gotta keep the fire burning), but I know the writing life is one giant rollercoaster until you die or give up. I won’t be giving up any time soon, though.
Holly Riddle is a freelance travel, lifestyle and food journalist and copywriter who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her Twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.