The Obligatory “How I Got An Agent” Post

[SPOILER: It Wasn’t Quick Or Easy]


If you’re reading this now, you’re probably here because you saw an announcement on social media, or maybe just saw me ranting or commenting about something on a forum, or the aforementioned social media, or hey, maybe you even found me on Goodreads, in which case, you’re trying to find out more. One of the things I found useful during my process of trying to get published is the way others did it. Everyone is going to have a distinct road, though there are some similarities. Some will get an agent fast, experience quick publication success and generally enjoy a smooth journey. Others will walk on roads of broken glass, cross country, for several years. And, when publication arrives, just be thankful to be able to sit down. Maybe raise their feet and stop bleeding for a while, rather than think, “HOLY HELL, I DID IT! WHOO!”

The first step in getting published is getting a literary agent. Everything I’m discussing is about trade publishing, not indie/self-publishing which may be a better fit for some writers. Indie/self is not for me, but then I have no skill in marketing or promotion. I also harbored the dream of seeing my own books on a shelf in a bookstore someday. If that’s where your end goal is, then you want to go with trade publishing. And you’ll want a literary agent.

Deciding It’s Time

The biggest decision you have to make when it comes to getting a literary agent is first deciding whether or not you’re ready. It’s all well and good to want a literary agent to represent you, but you have to have something to show first, and it has to be something the agent believes can be sold to a publisher. I’m a Gen Xer, which basically means “Child of the 80s,” so there’s my admission that yeah, I’ve been at this for a while.

High school is when I gave much more thought to being a writer of fiction. But I viewed high school and university as “prep time”; just getting the learning and experiences I’d need to be a writer. My English teachers noticed the wonky stuff I wrote. That led to talks with a writer-in-residence, who pointed me towards a writer’s group for science fiction and fantasy, and even started taking creative writing classes in university. So I spent a few years just writing, talking with other writers, and absorbing as much as I could, while still reading.

Like most people, I started out with short stories first. I didn’t want to jump into something as monstrous a novel straight out of the gates, and short stories are perfect practice. You can still learn structure with short stories, but the length means you can quickly move onto new projects, and try very different things. After a few years of that, my first sale, a short story to On Spec magazine in Canada, made me think maybe I had a chance at doing this.

Several years had passed by this point. I’d gone through high school and university, had lived and worked in Thailand and was now living in Singapore. My first novel, which I had started writing in university on an Amiga, with WordPerfect, traveled the world with me on 3.5″ floppy disc. I didn’t yet have a computer of my own in Thailand, so I wrote it on an office computer at the place I worked. In Singapore, I finally bought my own laptop, while working in an ad agency, got back into the groove, finally finishing the novel. It was a monster; over 200,000 words in length, packed with every weird idea I’d ever come up with. It defied a lot of conventional wisdom for what was acceptable to a literary agent, but I figured “what the hell,” and started submitting anyway.

My Hopes Are Nurtured Rapidly

To my complete amazement, one of the first agents I queried to actually responded with wanting to see more. This was back in the 1990s, and querying back then isn’t what it is today. Services like QueryTracker didn’t exist yet, and email was only just starting to become really big as the standard form of querying. So when I got a request for a full, that meant, in 20th century terms, an actual print out.

When you’re living in Singapore, and a literary agent in the USA asks to see a full manuscript for something that’s over 200,000 words, there’s no way this is going to be cheap.

But I did it anyway, bringing the disc over to a professional printer near my office, seeing his eyes bulge when I told him I needed this huge file printed out, double-spaced, single-sided, so that I could mail it. Then I lugged that thing over to the nearest SingPost office, and waved my first, crazy, totally whacky novel goodbye. Weeks passed. The agent sent an email indicating he’d received it, and then he sat down to read it.

I still remember I was actually working very late in the office one night when I got the email–it must have been morning for him–saying he’d read it and he wanted to offer me representation. I was gobsmacked. My first novel, one of my first agent queries, and I’d already gotten an offer. I wasn’t even 30 yet, this was already shaping up to be a great, “And he defied the odds” success story!

My Hopes Are Crushed. Slowly

That, as you can see by the 2018 date of this blog entry, didn’t actually happen. I’m always going to be grateful to that first literary agent for taking a chance on something so unusual and weird. It was a big, rambling, horror/dark fantasy thing that was equal parts Neil Gaiman and J.M. DeMatteis, but I put everything that mattered to me at that time into the book. Maybe that’s what he resonated with.

However, the book didn’t sell. It took a long time for it to not sell. One of the Big Five publishers he submitted it to sat on the book for three years. They  finally said “No.” So I wrote another book. And another. Those didn’t sell either, although the comments were always the same. They liked the writing, but not quite what we’re looking for.  A lot of things happened; I met The One, fell in love, got married, and moved from Singapore back to Canada. But in all that time, no book sale.

We had tried. It was a good run. Maybe it was time to try something else.

Back In The Trenches

In 2007, I parted ways with that agent and started looking for representation again. I’d written three novels by this point, and had just finished a Middle-Grade novel for younger readers, just for fun, to see if I could even do it. By 2007, querying was a lot easier, and so much had changed in the landscape. Things like QueryTracker existed, and most agents now didn’t ask for a complete print out of a full request, they were totally okay with attached files! However, the sheer volume of queries being sent out was staggering. 21st-century agents dealt with an overwhelming flood compared to 10 years before.

I started by querying what I already had while writing new books. It got kind of crazy there for a while, with multiple books being queried to multiple agents. I wracked up a sizable list of near misses. The books got partial and full-requests from agents, but there was always something stopping them from offering me representation again. QueryTracker was essential for me during this phase, especially since I had multiple projects. So I bit the bullet and subscribed to the premium service, then held onto it for years. Believe me, if you’re as unorganized as I am, QueryTracker keeps you in check. A few more years passed, with querying and two more books written that also went into querying.

Staying in touch with the writing community in some fashion was important too. I joined and actively participated in the AbsoluteWrite Forums, something I still do to this day. I took writing classes, like attending the workshops of Brian Henry, and formed a small writing group with other SFF writers there to meet more regularly. I got help on my query and even attended events run by Chuck Sambucino, and though nothing arose from that, I somehow helped my wife to get an agent of her own this way. I also got developmental edits from editors I trusted like Jeff Seymour, to try and polish up my novels. I tried, and failed, repeatedly, to get selected as a mentee in PitchWars. All of this, over the years, resulted in slow, steady progress that continued to show improvement, but no breakthrough.

And Then The Breakthrough

I was, understandably, starting to feel a little discouraged. All these years, I had been able to make a decent living, full-time, as a writer for advertising, television, magazines, and even content provision for the Internet. But the one thing that kept eluding me after a quick start with my first agent, was a novel on a shelf. In 2016, I figured maybe I should give it one last shot. If that didn’t work, just relegate fiction to an occasional hobby, like playing video games, or reading my SFF novels. I’d chalk it up as a major life lesson learned.

If I was going to go out, I may as well go big. I had one concept that went all the way back in my college days. A crazy, whacked out idea about a cyberpunk world where magic had started to work. Then evolved into a future where fusion generators now co-existed uneasily alongside healing spells applied to cancer victims. I wrote a short story about it back in the 1990s, mulled the idea over for years, and always said to friends that “One of these days, I’m going to write that damn thing.”

So I did. If I was going to have a last book, I was at least going to get that one out of my system. So Cloke, Zee and all the rest finally got their chance in the sun. I wrote as best I could, got help with the edits from Jeff Seymour and my beta readers then put into the Query Grinding Machine. For months it was the usual. Requests for partials, even fulls, but nothing beyond that.

Then in February of 2017, I got a partial request from Jennie Goloboy off a query I’d sent in January. I didn’t invest much in the way of hope. She’d rejected me quite a few times over the years, but this was the first time she’d asked for a partial. I sent it off, and noticed that over the next few months, things were a bit different. There were requests, sure, but I was getting a lot of them, especially for fulls. By the time Jennie asked for a full in May, she was already in a crowded space. A lot of other agents asked for  fulls.

Then Jennie, who’d sent many polite form rejections over the last several years, wrote an e-mail asking if there was a good time for us to speak on the phone. I’d plugged away for so many years with so many near misses, personalized rejections and words of encouragement that I was “close.” Jennie changed everything when she said, “I’m offering you representation and I would like to try and get your book into print.”

Much hugging of cats and consumption of alcohol followed.

So the final stats on my journey to representation, round 2:

Total Books Written: 6

Total Queries Rejected For Book: 140

Total Lifetime Queries Rejected: 430+

Presidential Administrations Come & Gone: 3

You can take that a few ways. It’s a testament to the Power Of Not Giving Up. Or, an admission that some people are too stupid to know when to quit. Either way, the result is the same.

Next time: The Road To Publication

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

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