Whew, boy! This might be a long one, so buckle up 😉 I know everyone says this in their How I Got My Agent posts, but I truly cannot believe I get to write one of these after all this time! If you want to just read about my querying journey for TOUCH OF STONE, scroll to the end, because this post has it ALL, from beginning to end.
I’ve always loved reading and making up stories, but I never tried to write a whole book until NaNoWriMo 2011 (I had just turned 19). I only managed about 20,000 words of a book I’m pretty sure was MG fantasy, although I didn’t know that at the time. Let’s just say that book will never see the light of day 😂 It was all over the place, riddled with cliches, and just Not Good. But after that, I knew I wanted to write books. In 2012-13 I experimented with a few different stories, some short stories and a couple over the next 2 NaNoWriMos, but nothing stuck with me enough to want to fully draft/revise it.
In 2013-14, I worked in my first true YA fantasy, about an assassin with empath powers, called SOULREADER. This time, I actually finished an entire draft! It had a prologue, and clunky dialogue, and weird sci-fi elements for some reason, but I FINISHED A BOOK. Then I got a few beta readers, and revised until I thought it was perfect.
It…was not. Little did I know that around the time I started querying (2015), agents were burned out on assassins. I clearly didn’t understand the market yet. Also, the book was just not good, something I can see NOW, but definitely couldn’t then. I did get 3 partial requests though, which was super exciting for my first foray into querying! One of those was from my dream agent at the time, and I definitely started daydreaming about getting signed with my first book, and while I was still in college, too!
Needless to say, that’s not how it went. None of my partials got upgraded to fulls, and I got lots of the same feedback: “this is just too similar to other books on the market right now.” I shelved it in mid-2017 after querying off and on for 2 years.
Around the same time I started querying SOULREADER, I had an idea for my next project: SHADOW OF THE NECROPOLIS. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of mythology, and this project was largely inspired by Mayan and Aztec mythology.
Caveat: I was 23, and still learning about the publishing industry. Knowing what I know now about the industry, and how hard it is for BIPOC creators to break in, including Latinx writers, I would never have written this story, even if it is fantasy. I understand now that isn’t my place as a white writer, when that space could be taken by a Latinx writer. I’m glad this project didn’t get picked up in retrospect, but I am grateful for SHADOW’s role in teaching me more about writing!
I drafted and revised SHADOW from 2015-17, and queried off and on from 2018-2020. I did a little better this time, with 2 partial requests and 2 fulls. Again, I thought This Was It. Again, it was not.
Towards the end of revising SHADOW, and while querying, I worked on a space fantasy called MUSIC OF THE SPHERES. I’d originally had the idea in 2013, and worked on it off and on over the next 4 years. I’d already completely drafted it at least twice, but it didn’t feel quite right. During COVID, I finally sat down and finished a new draft, if only to keep myself occupied. It was 98,000 words, with 3 POV characters (4 if you include the handful of 1 page interludes by a sentient black hole). It had space sailing ships, music magic, and a platonic bond that holds the universe together.
I loved it. I thought for sure, third time’s the charm, right?
I don’t know if it was the length, the weird genre blend, or the fact that I queried right in the middle of COVID - likely a combination of all 3 - but I didn’t get a SINGLE REQUEST in 70 queries sent. It was devastating. I felt like I’d taken a huge step back in my writing. How could my first 2 books get requests and not this one, which was objectively a much better book? It’s been a couple of years, so I don’t quite remember, but I think that was probably the first time I considered quitting writing. At least, for publication. By the time I finished querying MUSIC in 2021 (minus the handful I sent in early 2023 because I couldn’t let go), I had been writing and querying for 6 years. All my original critique partners had agents, book deals, or both, some of them with several books out. It didn’t feel like that was ever going to be me. If I couldn’t even get an agent, 3 books and 6 years into querying, maybe it was just never going to happen for me.
But around that same time, I started drafting my fourth book, POISON MORE DEADLY. This project went back to my comfort zone - regular secondworld fantasy. It was a sapphic Beauty and the Beast retelling set in a French-inspired world with a baker MC who has made a terrible deal with a forest monster to poison her pastries and keep it fed with souls. I drafted and revised that from 2020-21, in the middle of querying MUSIC, and it helped. I felt hopeful about writing again. I knew this was a strong book, and I loved the characters and the relationship I had crafted. It taught me a lot about myself.
Right away, I knew this project was going to be different from MUSIC. The second query I ever sent for POISON came back with a partial request! Over the next year and a half (late 2021-23), I racked up an impressive (for me) 11 requests: 5 partials and 6 fulls. A couple of the fulls came back with very kind notes about why the agent was passing, and there were at least 2 close calls, I think. But ultimately, it was the same story: no one loved it enough to sign me. Something in the opening pages especially just wasn’t working. Looking back, I can see that, since none of the 5 partials were upgraded to fulls.
If I thought I was devastated with MUSIC’s 0 requests, POISON’s querying journey almost broke me. I wrote out a Twitter thread about how I was seriously considering giving up. Getting so close, only to be told for a fourth time I wasn’t quite good enough, hurt. I had drafted TOUCH OF STONE by then, and was working on revisions, but I started to spiral. Why should I bother? What’s going to be different about Book #5? Scrolling through Manuscript Wishlist, it seemed like every agent who was interested in myth retellings specifically said “No Greek or Roman myths.” YA Fantasy was more saturated than ever. Maybe I should pivot to a different genre altogether? In February 2022, I actually tried to write a YA romcom called PLAY THE GAME. It was fun, but I fizzled out around 20,000 words. It just didn’t feel right. And I couldn’t stop thinking about TOUCH OF STONE.
In July 2023, I finished revising TOUCH OF STONE to a level I was happy with, and participated in QueerPit on Twitter on August 1. I thought that would be a good launching point for TOUCH, which I had already been gushing about for months on Twitter. I got a couple of agent likes, which I was excited about, including one from Jamie Vankirk at Rainbow Nerds Literary.
Funny story: I had been following Jamie for a couple of years on Twitter. At the time, I was working on revisions for POISON MORE DEADLY, whose working title then was THIS POISONED HEART. Imagine the look on my face the day her client Kalynn Bayron’s new book THIS POISON HEART was announced. It was just one of those crazy coincidences in publishing!
On August 3, I sent Jamie and the other requesting agents my query, and sent a handful more queries at the same time. I wasn’t expecting much, especially since I’ve never had much luck with pitch contests, but I thought I was as ready to query as I’d ever be. The next day, I had a full request from an agent who’d requested my last book. Once again, I started thinking This Could Be It!
Every time I got a pass, I sent out another query, so I had roughly 10 out at all times. The waiting was torture. Even 5 books in, it didn’t get any better. But at the same time, waiting for my inbox to ding was also…fun?
On August 27, Jamie reached out with a partial request, which I sent right away. Then the next day, August 28, she upgraded to a full! Something must have been working with TOUCH OF STONE that wasn’t working with POISON MORE DEADLY. I sent off the full and crossed everything.
Two days later, Jamie emailed back. She loved TOUCH OF STONE, but there were a couple of things that weren’t quite working in the story. She sent about a page and a half of notes, mentioning if they resonated with me, she would love to see a revision.
My first ever R&R! Now, I normally HATE revising. Drafting is my favorite. But the moment I read Jamie’s notes, they felt RIGHT. I was actually excited to revise! Her main note was that my love interest felt out of place in the story, and would work better if she was a girl. It was one of those notes that felt so obvious when I read it, but when I was drafting, I was so focused on bringing in real figures/moments from Greek myth I hadn’t even thought about it. I almost laughed out loud when I read it at my own foolishness 😂I emailed Jamie back the next day and enthusiastically accepted her R&R ideas. I let her know, since the revision wouldn’t be extremely extensive, I could probably get it back to her in eight weeks. In the meantime, Jamie asked if I had anything else finished she could read. I sent her POISON MORE DEADLY. Why not?
After that, I pulled the outstanding queries I had, and sent a note to the other agent with my full that I was about to start working on a revision that wouldn’t change a lot about the story itself, but would significantly shake up some subplots. Then I got to work.
And by “got to work” I mean I re-outlined, brainstorming new scenes and rearranging others to address the other facets of Jamie’s R&R. My first instinct was to make an existing character my MC’s new love interest, to make it easier on myself. I spent almost 2 weeks agonizing over that, and it just didn’t feel right. I got myself stuck, and I couldn’t figure a way out of it. I finally realized the love interest needed to be an entirely new character, which meant every scene would be impacted, even if only in a small way, because there was suddenly another competitor on the scene.
But it worked. The new outline came together after that, and I had such a fun time crafting Bas’s character! Revising had never felt so rewarding, because not only did I have a roadmap and concrete goals that came from someone besides myself, I could tell every time I sat down to work that the book was noticeably improving. I made myself a goal to finish the revision by DVPit on October 11.
That…didn’t quite happen. By the time DVPit rolled around, I was ALMOST finished, but not quite. I had about 4-5 chapters left. But I pitched anyway. Why not? I could always wait a couple of days to query if I got any likes, and after that, it could take a while for agents to request pages. I did end up getting one like on a pitch, so I saved the agent’s name and revised faster 😂
On October 27, I FINALLY finished my revision on TOUCH OF STONE. I sent Jamie the new version, and sent my full to the requesting agent from DVPit (yes, I sent the new query letter before I was completely finished, and sent the partial a few days earlier. No, I do not recommend this if you have anxiety, but it definitely motivated me to finish LOL). So, at this point I had 3 fulls out, a shiny new query letter and synopsis, and I was ready to dive back into querying. I had done the research: I knew only about 1/3-1/2 of R&R requests come back with an offer of representation, but I felt SO GOOD about this revision. Apart from that moment of doubt in the first 2 weeks, the entire process had been so much fun and so rewarding. It just felt different, even from the 11 requests POISON MORE DEADLY racked up.
So I blasted queries out. 20, to be exact. If I did happen to get an offer, I wanted as many queries out as possible.
And then, 4 days later (on Halloween!), I saw an email notification pop up on my phone while I was at work. It was from Jamie. The preview only showed the first line or so, and all I saw was: “Hi Jenna! I just finished reading your revision of TOUCH OF STONE, and I thought you did a fantastic job.”
I’ve been in the trenches for 8 years at this point. I didn’t want to get my hopes too high. I knew all too well the next line could be, “Unfortunately, it just didn’t quite pull me in enough to make an offer.” I grabbed my phone and went outside to read the email. I knew, whether it was a pass or an offer, I would probably cry. With shaking hands, I opened the email and read it under a tree:
I just finished reading your revision of TOUCH OF STONE, and I thought you did a fantastic job. It’s not easy to jump into a revision of this magnitude and pull it off, but you did, and I think the story is so much stronger (and I do love Bas!).
I’d love to schedule a phone call for us to get to know each other and see if we’d be a good fit to work together. If that sounds good, can please let me know some times this week that work for you?
I did manage to hold myself together until I got inside, where I promptly went into a bathroom stall and burst into tears LOL. It was both surreal and not at the same time, somehow. Every step of the process with Jamie had gone better than I ever could have hoped. I even told her, when I sent the revision back, that even if it didn’t work out, I was so grateful she pushed me to do this revision, because it made the book SO much better.
I really don’t know how I got through the rest of that work day. I don’t remember it at all! I did manage to reply to Jamie’s email and coordinate a call for the following afternoon. I was a little nervous for the Call, but I printed out some questions and had a notebook ready for notes. Everything went great! Jamie was just as kind and supportive as she’d always been on our email thread, and she had great plans for another round(s) of revision for TOUCH OF STONE and future submission.
After I got off the phone with her, I spent an hour and a half nudging all the agents who still had my materials: 3 with the full (including one who had requested that morning before my call with Jamie), and 21 with just the query and first pages. I set the deadline for November 17, so 16 days after my call. It was a little longer than the usual 2 weeks, and I knew I would be going crazy until then, but I was going to YallFest from the 9th-12th, and I thought a Friday deadline made more sense than midweek.
I’ve read so many How I Got My Agent stories, I assumed the 2 weeks would be absolute chaos, but it really wasn’t so bad! I did get 2 more full requests after my nudge, so at one point I had 5 out, but most replies were very kind step-asides due to lack of time. Which is totally valid, since everyone is busy!
In the end, I did receive another offer of rep, but ultimately decided to go with Jamie. I already knew her editorial style and vision because of our R&R together, and everything she said on the call about how she handles client edits, submission, how quickly she responds, and her enthusiasm for my writing was a dream come true. I’m so excited to see where we go from here! Editors, keep an eye out for TOUCH OF STONE sometime in 2024 🙂
Books queried: 5
Total queries: 357
Total requests: 26 (12 partials, 14 fulls)
Time in the query trenches: 8 years, 10 months
TOUCH OF STONE
Queries sent: 38
Form rejections: 12
Partial requests: 2
Full requests: 6 (4 initial fulls, 2 upgraded from partial)
Offers of rep: 2
Full requests post-nudge: 2
Query passes post-nudge: 16
Query referrals post-nudge: 1 (eventual pass)
Queries withdrawn due to deadline: 4
Fulls withdrawn due to deadline: 2
Request rate: 15.8%
Average response time: 13 days (this is definitely skewed from normal since most responses came after I had an offer in hand)
Time from initial query to offer: 3 months (but almost 2 months of that was working on the R&R)