I am so thrilled to announce that after 16 years (Yes, you read that right, SIXTEEN YEARS) in the query trenches, I am at long last an agent-represented author! For those of you thinking, “Oh look, another obligatory-how-I-got-my-agent-blog-post, what makes this one stand out?” Well, better buckle up for a roller coaster ride, because unlike other posts you’ve read, this one involves:
- 16 years in the query trenches
- 7 novel manuscripts completed over the course of those years
- 3 full requests in Pitchwars 2020, which was UNHEARD of, but ended up in rejections from all mentors (with a happy plot twist I never saw coming).
- A call that was supposed to be THE CALL, but didn’t end in a verbal offer (I promise you there’s a happy ending, it did turn into a contract)
Growing up, I was that kid who created my own “books” by stapling computer paper together and writing and drawing all over them. Whenever there were creative writing and book-creating projects in class, you bet I was all over them! When I found out that it was possible for kids to be professionally published, and that books didn’t just appear out of thin air, I made an ambitious goal to be traditionally published before graduating high school.
This is where my adult self gives my oblivious kid self a knowing smile. In hindsight, there’s a HUGE difference between publishing and sustaining a career. There’s also a difference between being an adult who can more reasonably set boundaries and being a kid who gets industry buzz as a writing prodigy, only to be wrung out dry and cast aside when a shiny new young author comes along. But that’s a whole other story. Fair warning, I tend to digress a lot.
My querying journey started in 2005, when I had finished my first novel. I guess if you know my age, or an estimate, you can do the math to figure out how old I was back then. Yes, I have been querying for more than half my life. This was back in the day when many agencies required snail-mail queries with SASE (if you have to google what this is, you’re too young lmao). Email was gradually catching on, the term “young adult” wasn’t widely used, Macbooks and smart phones didn’t exist, and I scribbled all my novels in notebooks before typing them up in Microsoft Word and made my mom print out my manuscripts on her work printer so I could read through my manuscripts, highlight edits I wanted to make (I thought I was being SO professional and mature with a highlighter, and scribbling notes in my margins instead of doing assignments in class), and also send hard copies of queries and sample pages to agents.
To make a long story short, for my first novel, I got a partial request from a well-known agency. Screenshot pasted below, with agency name and full address blacked out for privacy:
Kid self: But I got rejected in the end! *ugly cries*
Present-day self: You know what, kid? I am hella proud of you! How many kids your age can say they get a partial request from a prestigious agency? If no one else is going to be proud of you, just know that I am!
Fast-forward ten years later to 2015. I had spent a year in college querying novel #5, which was in the new adult age category that was trending at that time, and never really became a thing the way young adult did. After failing the goal of traditionally publishing in my teens, I thought, “Hey, let’s get published while I’m in college!” Fate had other plans for me. In case you’re reading this and wondering, “What in the world is going on with this girl’s mental health and why is she trying to push herself to such lofty goals?” just know that my present-day self decided to haul my butt into therapy to discuss these past ambitions in a safe and healthy environment, thankyouverymuch. I’ll also be mentioning my therapist quite a few times, because she is awesome, and I believe in breaking the stigma against mental health care.
Although I shelved novel #5, I learned A LOT from that novel, especially with why no agent would pick up that project. After a demoralizing 4.5 years of college, which involved me nearly flunking out of my major in college, on top of other upsetting experiences (whoever tells you your college years are the best years of your life are selling you a scam), from there, I decided to go on a writing hiatus. Once I graduated college, for the first time in my life, I had no grades to worry about, no GPA to upkeep, and I was eager to live my life and experience the world in a way that I never had the opportunity to do before! Which was why I cosplayed and sewed for a good bulk of my time after graduating college because it really got me to go out and interact with people and see more of the world, but kept my creative juices flowing.
5 years later, in 2020, I just came back from cosplaying at Katsucon and seeing my brother in New York when the nation shortly went into quarantine. I was ridiculously lucky I left New York when I did, but that’s another story. I went back into writing after seeing all the violence against Asians due to Covid and lockdown. I was so upset with how Asians were being treated, how the Cheeto was spreading hate speech and endangering my community and loved ones. To seek comfort, I dove back into some of my favorite books that I read growing up. When I dipped my toes back into Twitter waters to see what were some of the latest news going on in the publishing industry, I have to say, I was shocked to see the surge of Asian authors that had sprung up in the past 5 years. I’m not going to lie, I did feel disappointment with myself, and there were many times I thought to myself, “If I hadn’t stopped, if I hadn’t gone on a writing hiatus, would I have published a book by now? Would I be receiving some of the accolades and praise that some of these writers are getting?” Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy for the successes of these authors, especially since they have paved a way for me, but publishing has a long gross history of “there can only be one” mindset when it comes to marginalized writers. Many Asian authors know what I’m talking about, when publishers say something like, “Oh, we already have a book coming out by one Asian author on our list, we don’t need more,” or a literary agent saying something like, “Oh, your book is too similar to another client I have who’s exploring Asian mythology.”
*side-eyes the waterfalls of Euro-centric fantasy books that come out every year*
Well, according to the Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” I pulled many late-nighters to complete novel #6 in ONE MONTH. I love middle grade because of the magic and sense of wonder that my favorite books have given me when I was growing up. Now was my time to create that not just for myself, but for future readers. It was time to smash white supremacy, and write fantastical, magical, hopeful stories filtered through my experiences as an Asian American who’s damn loud about being my unique self. I had to fight that negative voice in my head that said, “Who the hell are you, to think you’re important enough to write something that could make an impact? There are plenty of other writers who have already accomplished what you want to do.” and I had to retort, “Why not me? Why can’t I contribute?”
I attended Twitter pitch contests and generally was pleased with the amount of manuscript requests I got from agents, including one from a dream agent who kindly turned me down in 2014 with helpful feedback, so I was shocked and delighted that she wanted to see the full manuscript of novel #6. I got a handful of full requests, and when I entered my novel into Pitchwars, 3 out of 4 mentors requested my full manuscript.
As expected with any query journey, rejections will always happen. Despite my confidence and the thought that I was more emotionally mature to weather the storm of query rejections this time around, I’m not going to lie, after being told by writer friends that it was UNHEARD of to get three full manuscript requests in Pitchwars, it kind of stung that no one chose me. On top of that, I got plenty of rejections, and 4 R&Rs (revise and resubmit requests). At least out of the four R&Rs, one of them was bound to turn into an offer, right? Anakin and Padme meme I created below:
NOPE. They all became rejections, despite being told by the agents that the revisions were improvements.
To make matters worse, in February 2021, the dream agent ultimately sent a personalized rejection letter despite me keeping her in the loop about the R&R requests I received from other agents, and her expressing interest in the revised manuscript. She was incredibly kind, and pointed out what she enjoyed and what worked, but was so sorry that she didn’t have better news after all this time. I will never forget that day. For the rest of the day, when I wasn’t distracting myself with work calls and emails and meetings, I just felt numb and moved like I was wading through a deep pool of sadness. My boyfriend even commented that he could feel the waves of depression just rolling off of me and spreading through the air. If you’re one of those writers trapped in the notion of having a specific agent as your “dream” agent, let me tell you, do yourself a favor and throw that out the window. A few months later, I ended up feeling grateful it didn’t work out for reasons I will not disclose here. I still think she’s a lovely lady and agent. But your dream agent should be someone who will ultimately champion your writings and help you build your career to the best it can be and whose vision aligns with yours.
At this point, I posted in a few of the writing groups I’m part of, sharing my disappointing experience and apologizing for feeling like a Debbie Downer, and just wanted to see if anyone could offer advice for what I was going through, especially since an experience like mine is not uncommon. Author Julia Vee was someone who I’m so happy to call a writer friend now, and she was super encouraging and we even hopped on a video call to discuss writing and publishing.
Remember those 3 fulls that turned into rejections from Pitchwars? Here comes a happy plot twist: one of those mentors saw my post, said she recognized me, and had me reach out to her via email. She let me know that I was in the running among the last 5 authors she had considered out of 350ish authors, and even though she had ultimately chosen another author to mentor for Pitchwars, she had meant to get back to me and offer to unofficially mentor me. So, while I was never an official Pitchwars mentee, I did get a mentor! Working with Gail Villanueva was so wonderful, she was such a dream mentor to work with! I was tired of feeling like I was stumbling in the dark, and it was so great to be mentored by an experienced BIPOC agented author who knew what I was trying to do with my story, how to best guide me with my publishing goals, and navigate the white-dominated industry as an Asian author. She said she saw a lot of herself in me when she was a new author trying to get published, and our zoom calls ended up taking HOURS despite the fact we were both in completely different time zones (she’s in Manila, I’m in California).
We rehauled my manuscript, and she even referred me to two agents after rehaul was deemed a success. Both of those agents requested the full. On top of that, I decided to cold-query as many agents as I could, thinking, “At this point, I might as well just exhaust my list of agents and agents who represent middle grade fantasy who seem like they would be a good fit. It’s now just a numbers and waiting game, right?”
3 months of mostly silence went by. More rejection letters came. Some full requests came, which are always lovely, but then a few fulls turned into rejections as well. One of the rejections came from one out of two of the agents that my mentor referred me to. Writing this now, 3 months really is not a long time, but to me, it was agonizing. I threw myself into writing and completing a first draft of novel #7, and workshopped the first 50 pages of that in Futurescapes. Wrote short stories that got rejected. When I was sick (as if I wasn’t already sick) of the never-ending purgatory cycle of writing and receiving rejections, I crocheted, played video games, worked out, cooked, spent quality time with my boyfriend and friends, talked to my therapist, read, made it to 20k followers on TikTok, made it to legendary level in Mandarin Chinese on Duolingo, started learning Korean, and thankfully had summer weekend trips to Seattle and Utah planned, which were welcome diversions.
After Labor Day weekend, that was when I got an email asking for the call. It came from the other agent that my mentor had referred me to, the one who can only be queried through referrals and conferences. Yes, THE CALL. She asked me if I could set up a call this upcoming Friday. She had emailed me on a Tuesday. I confirmed her on my calendar, and for the next 3 days, I tirelessly researched questions to ask agents, exchanged excited messages with writer friends and my mentor, roleplayed the call with my therapist, and counted down the hours.
On Friday, my phone rang 3 minutes earlier than the scheduled time. The call was MAGICAL. 2 hours flew by. Even with that much time, I didn’t get to ask all the questions I wanted to ask. Which was okay, because the agent answered the most important questions, like her vision for my novel, her editorial style, her working style with clients, her submission strategy, her stance on cultural sensitivity and #publishingpaidme, how she would defend and fight for me if an editor and I were to not see things eye-to-eye and wanted to whitewash cultural aspects of my work, and agency contracts and rights. We even geeked over Lovecraft Country and Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass. At the end of those two hours, this is where everyone else would say, “…Aaaaaaaaaand she offered!”
PLOT TWIST: She apologized for the fact that her personal policy is that she doesn’t give verbal offers over the phone, and asked until Monday to process our conversation.
I swear, I literally am the only person I know of who received no verbal offer after a long call with an agent that went well with plenty of laughs. Even when I talked with all my agented writer friends, they all said it’s customary to get a verbal offer on the phone. So, if any future agented authors are reading this wondering if anyone else didn’t get a verbal offer on the phone, well, now you know you’re not alone!
The weekend was HARD for me. I figured if I had waited for 16 years, I could wait for one more weekend. Everyone told me to chill. Even my tarot cards (Eight of Swords) told me, “Bruh, chill.” One welcome distraction was watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in theaters with my mom and boyfriend, and we absolutely loved it.
Monday morning came. Agent sent over the contract for the offer of representation! I screamed, danced, wondered if this was a hyper-realistic dream (over the years, I’ve had such realistic dreams of agents telling me “I want to represent you!” only to wake up with disappointment), messaged my boyfriend so that he would be the first one to know, and sent 2-week notification courtesy emails to the rest of the outstanding agents in my pipeline. I was DYING to sign the contract, but I had to practice more patience for professional courtesy with other agents. Even as I did my due diligence and spoke with other agents, and feel incredibly blessed to receive another offer, I knew in my gut that this first agent was going to be the one. As Amy March said from Little Women, “You don’t need scores of suitors. You need only one… if he’s the right one.”
I set up a zoom call with the first agent 4 days before my hard deadline. Ten minutes into the call, I told her, “I’m going to cut to the chase. You’re the one!”
It was so great to see her reaction on zoom! She was like, “WHAT?!” at first and then it took a few seconds for her to let it sink in as I said, “I’m choosing you to be my agent and I’m sending you back the contract.”
It feels so good to finally make this official and say it: I am now represented by Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
Gail Villanueva is a goddess for connecting us. I don’t think I’d be here writing this if it wasn’t for Gail. Bless Gail, go read her books please.
I am so excited for what’s to come next. Yes, 16 years sounds crazy. It’s easy to get caught up in a flurry of unicorn success stories of authors who get agented within a matter of months or a few years of writing their first few novels, but it is humbling to know that there are writers out there who have been in the trenches for just as long, or longer, than I have. For every success story you hear out there, there’s at least twenty other stories buried and overlooked. Truly, every path is unique, and I’d wager my story wouldn’t resonate as much with you if I had been just another “I got an agent within two years of querying my first novel” sort of story. 16 years was riddled with so much difficulty, so many feelings of imposter syndrome, so much wondering what was the point of me trying anymore. But I kept going. I guess 16 years was a testament to my persistence and tenacity. I felt like Mulan (the 1998 Disney animated version, the best version hands-down) climbing the pole to retrieve the arrow, or Samurai Jack searching for a time travel portal to get home, only to have the portals destroyed by Aku and other adversities each time he found one. If you made it this far, I thank you deeply from the bottom of my heart for sticking it out. I only hope this is the beginning of what will be a fulfilling and magical journey, and that there’s a seat on this magical flying train for you to join me in this new adventure.
FINAL STATS FOR NOVEL #6 (I don’t want to bother hunting through 16 years of email rejections, and digging up snail-mail rejection letters)
Offers of rep: 2
What a way to end the final Friday of September 2021. October, here we come!