I could tell you, truthfully, that I got my agent from my first book that I wrote in a month, that I sent out seventeen queries over the course of three weeks, and signed five weeks after I started. That’s the hook-y, pitch-y version.
The longer one is this:
Once upon a time in 2013, I graduated university with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, moved countries to be with a cute girl I met through fanfiction, and promptly had an identity crisis. My first months in Austin, Texas were spent reading Game of Thrones and wondering why I couldn’t write. Writing has all I’ve been any good at, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, but up to that point it had been limited to angsty fic and wordy shorts that didn’t say anything. I had no stories, only pretty words. There’s a big difference.
I had heard about NaNoWriMo from a few people on my course but had snuffed the idea the same way I had spent several years snuffing YA. In 2013, the cute girl I’d moved countries for suggested we do NaNoWriMo together Because Why Not.
Me being me decided that not only was I going to try but I was going to succeed, and if I didn’t win, I’d never write again.
I didn’t have any ideas, but on November 1st 2013, I remembered the crumb of an idea I’d had when I was sixteen: A friend told me, casually, that when she closed her eyes, she couldn’t see anything. She couldn’t imagine. For her, that was fine. For me, it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever heard. And I wondered what would happen if someone like me, who depended on their imagination, suddenly lost it.
I went for it hard.
Before that month, the longest piece I’d ever written was 7k, and I’d spent nine agonizing months on it. That 50k was one of the hardest, most exciting things I’d ever done, and I came out the other side exhilarated, validated, and with a baby novel alive in my hands.
I thought it was the best thing ever.
But the important thing is that I believed it was.
I rewrote that novel six times. There are more drafts than I can count, but six distinct versions, and I have loved every word even when I felt like I hated it.
The first, the original, was about Joanna who found herself trapped in Laurie’s — her imaginary friend’s — world and realised she was the figment of his imagination. They had wings, I believe. Some darlings need to be cut!
The second was hand-written Because Neil Gaiman Does It and was scribbled between countries, which held its own problems because DID YOU KNOW that UK and US paper sizes are completely different and the hole-punches don’t line up?? Anyway, that draft was born of the comment from my grandmother of ‘oh, this is really a story about the brothers’, so I sent it backwards six years to explore their origin story, what happened with their mother, adjusting a character who had previously been a villain, really defining the world and their lives. It was pure exploration, and the draft that took me the longest at nine months.
The third was the inevitable write-up and very much about getting the plot in-hand from one end to the other. Everyone was given a voice and an opinion. Seven, in total. Adults’, teenagers’, children’s’. I had no idea what it was supposed to be, but I loved it.
Then I rewrote it in present tense because of course I did.
I thought it was pretty good. My new writing friends thought it was pretty good too. I was NaNo’ing every year and had found my people. I shared unapologetically, and I was encouraged to start querying.
That was 2015 and I had no idea what querying was.
I’d had a little agent feedback — a friend of my aunt had read my first pages and saw potential, though when she asked me the dreaded ‘what is this?’ had no answer. It had never occurred to me that I needed to know who it was for. It was for whoever wanted it! That was how I had always chosen my books throughout my life — children’s books, YA, grownup books —I didn’t know it was an active thing I was supposed to decide.
Maybe it was an adult book. There were plenty of adult books with younger protagonists. I frantically researched, trying to validate myself and my book, trying to find comps to prove that I was doing the right thing. I finally settled on YA. It wasn’t a middle grade. I didn’t know anything about middle grade. it must be YA!
I emailed the agent with my manuscript and promises that it was definitely at least 90% YA. She wrote back loving it. When I visited my family in England, I met up with one of her assistants in London. I was living the dream and certain I’d be rep’d within the year (2016) and it was feeling so gloriously easy, and and and—
But there were things the agent wanted me to work on. It wasn’t quite YA enough.
We talked about my book for two hours over tea and I left feeling inspired.
I just needed to make these tweaks quickly and then we could sign and get going.
I made the tweaks quickly. Too quickly. I loved what it was and I was loath to change anything too much. ‘Start it earlier,’ she said, so I set it back five minutes.
Yes, five minutes.
Friends, five minutes isn’t enough to change anything.
I sent the MS back two weeks later and I waited for my offer.
And I waited. And I nudged. And I waited. And I nudged, and finally I got a call.
“It isn’t YA enough.”
I was broken. I was so tired of this story. I’d spent so many years reworking, drafting the sequels, editing editing editing, and I was done. It was as good as it could ever be and it was time to move on. My queries were going nowhere, the handful I’d tossed into the world without really caring.
I shelved The Moon Path late September 2016.
My grandmother says that the best way to get over a breakup is to sleep with someone else. Well, the best way to get over a book is to write another one.
That NaNo, I wrote a new YA, a real YA. It was good. It was fine.
I went back to fic and rekindled my love of story-telling.
I revised my YA.
I missed The Moon Path. I missed my boys.
in 2018, my best friend told me she was doing PitchWars. As someone who has pretty chronic FOMO, I decided I was doing it too. Except the only finished MS I had was Moon Path.
I coaxed it out of the the drawer and tried to breathe life back into it. I laboured over my query and agonized over my summary for weeks. It was excruciating but I loved it. I loved being back in that world, and I loved sharing it with new CPs. I still thought it was pretty good. I still think that version is pretty good.
I picked my mentors carefully. One of those mentors was Megan Manzano. I was struck by her request for angst and siblings and atmosphere and and AND! It felt like she was asking for Moon Path in not so many words and I felt like, finally, it might be picked up.
Not a single request.
But I wasn’t devasated this time. I was energized.
I had made new friends who loved the story, I had talked to kidlit writers who saw potential in the idea, and I realised when I was writing the pitch that I wanted to start two thirds through.
That was a sign.
I wasn’t starting too late, I was starting six years too early.
And it wasn’t about the brothers — well, it was, but that wasn’t the hook — it was about Laurie and Jo and imagination and being a kid and it’s a FRICKIN’ MIDDLE GRADE!
It was a revelation.
January 2019 I set to work.
Start in Act 3.
I wrote it in three months, I edited it, I sent it so my CPs, I edited again.
I spent a month compiling my PW package. I was validated again, but this time by Big Scary Authors Who Knew. I was on the right track. I submitted, certain I’d at least get a nibble.
In September I went to the workshop where I got specific feedback on my first pages and learnt how to write a query that focuses on the hook. Meanwhile, no PW nibbles. It felt Moon Path was flopping and I was trying not to be miserable. This was our last hurrah. The end of the year was approaching. I was ready to think about leaving it behind again.
I went home and I edited according to my feedback. It was as good as it was going to be. I didn’t get into Pitchwars. I knew I wasn’t but it still sucked. A lot.
I felt like I hadn’t made an ounce of progress since 2018. All the hard work, the 4am mornings revising and writing before work, all for nothing.
My plan was to query in January, send it out and forget about it. I was going to rewrite my ‘18 NaNo during the submission period and just wait until that book was ready.
I knew it wasn’t going anywhere, but I’d done my best and I’d learnt a lot, and that had to be enough.
Then Cat Bakewell said, “Just send one.”
We were drinking wine in late October and I was feeling blergh, and I remember the distinct sensation of rolling my eyes too hard.
But I was tipsy enough to think ‘heck it’, and Cat is Very Convincing and promised me a gift if I did the Big Scary Thing.
So I did the Big Scary Thing because heck it, I wanted my gift. Which I got.
I also got a request two days later.
My first request.
I remember scaring my dog who was standing next to me when the email popped up.
I was off sick and dying of snot but oh my gosh something was happening!
So I made myself human and I grabbed Cat for emergency lunch.
Querying-friends, find yourself someone who has been through this! Find yourselves a pre-agent agent! I couldn’t’ve existed without her!
She told me to start querying in earnest because what if this leads to something and I haven’t sent it out to anyone else. We also decided that I would do the upcoming PitDark which I was not expecting to participate in because imposter syndrome and also preparation?? No time for that, it was tomorrow. I drafted a pitch that would have to do and sent out a handful of other queries.
I got more requests and I cried a lot. We watched Schitt’s Creek three times all the way through.
I did PitDark and all of the wonderful people I’d met throughout this process came out in support. I got likes. Agent likes. A like from an agent I was going to query that evening when I got home. The mentor from PW ‘18 who had recently become an agent.
I sent my query to Megan immediately.
Almost as immediately, she requested my full.
Holy crap, validation!
I did DVPit and got more requests. I sent off my book to the scariest, most exciting email addresses in the industry because Heck It. I pinned all my emails beside my desk A La Steven King. I had more emails on one side than the other. The good side.
I was in a daze. I waited for my world to crumble.
On November 4th, two weeks after I sent my first query for this draft of this book, I was driving to work to set up for a coworker’s birthday the next day. There was a red light and I was jamming to Taylor Swift’s Lover. A notification popped up. It was Megan.
This was it — my life was going one of two very different directions. It was either the first rejection of my full which was going to crush me and I knew I had to mentally prepare for that, or it was… the other thing. Both were huge. The drive the rest of the way was hell.
When I parked and opened my email and saw ‘call’ rather than ‘sorry’, I called my wife and sobbed. I knew it might not be That. I’ve been very careful with my expectations this time round in that I reject them completely. But it could be that. There was still hope.
I promptly sent the screenshot to everyone in my writing circle to both scream with me and convince me that it was something other than That because That felt WAY TOO BIG TO HANDLE AND WTF???
It took several hours before I had the mental capacity to be professional enough to email Megan back and say ‘yes please thank you please’.
It was the longest week. Cat’s advice was: QUERY EVERYONE ELSE YESTERDAY but I’d pretty much queried everyone I was remotely interested in working with the day before yesterday and, though the list was small, I didn’t want to query for the hell of it.
I researched frantically. I didn’t expect to maybe be here EVER let alone at that point. I spent most of that week on Youtube watching The Call videos and convincing myself it was something else.
It was scheduled for 11/11, my wife’s birthday, a lucky day, and thankfully it was reasonably early in the day.
I had an extensive list of questions.
I was as ready as I could be, including my biggest, luckiest mug of PG Tips.
It was amazing. I was just so excited to talk to Megan, regardless of my book. I felt we had similar tastes in books and interests, and I just love talking shop with anyone who’ll put up with me.
But we got to talk about my book. My impossible soul-book I’d given up on and was about to give up on again.
We got to talk about my career.
My author career.
And she offered on us. Me and my kids. She wanted us. She saw potential. Real potential.
I was ready to go for it but I knew I couldn’t. Two weeks to see if anyone else was interested. Two more weeks of waiting.
I really didn’t think it would be, but those two weeks were the hardest of them all. I received emails and feedback I will treasure for my whole life, but I was ready to get going. I had Megan’s comments on revisions growing fast in my mind and I was desperate to work on them. I did work on them, angsting over ‘what if I don’t work with her and don’t get to put these plans into action?’ I think that’s when I knew, for certain. More than selling it, I wanted to keep working and keep making this book better, and Megan was already an integral part of that.
My deadline was the 26th of November.
On the 25th, I was ready.
I spent most of the day trying to decide whether I’d send her a meme or a Very Professional Email.
I ended up doing both.
And now I have an agent.
And now the exciting stuff’s happening. We’ve already got a plan, it’s already underway and I am still so excited for this book! It’s thrilling having someone beside me who is as passionate and dedicated to making this story the absolute best it can be.
I went into this year no expectations, only a pocketful of hope. Sometimes that’s all you need for your dreams to blow up.
Here’s to the next decade!