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How I Got My Agent

I’ve been sitting on this post for almost two months, because life went off the rails for a bit. One of the reasons I am passionate about disability inclusion in my writing is because I have firsthand experience with it, but the heavy downside is that sometimes I can’t write, or blog, or work, or be any semblance of my usual self. But I’m recovering from a bout of illness now and happy to share a bit of my journey, for what it’s worth! I always love reading these kinds of posts, because it shows how many paths there are to publication and that 80% request rate/overnight bidding wars are far from the norm.

My querying journey began with a delusion that my partner implanted in my brain. “Surely, very few people finish the books they set out to write. Of those, most will be terrible. Our chances of getting published are probably pretty good.”

He uttered this prophecy over ten years ago, before we got married, found jobs, had kids, changed jobs, adulted etc. We were living in England and I was completing my Masters and also finishing my first manuscript, a middle-grade portal fantasy called THE MOON KINGDOM. It took me ages to complete, but I never would have written it without my partner’s naïve optimism, hardened pessimist that I am.

I sent out a query or two, got one full request, one full rejection, then shelved it. This is such ancient history that I don’t have a spreadsheet to prove it happened. I’m not even sure which year this was, because I’ve since deleted that email account.

Luckily, I had the good sense to invest in some training. I signed up for a creative writing course at the University of Toronto and that’s where I met my writing group. We met monthly for many years, until babies and a global pandemic conspired to pull us in different directions. Even though I worked mostly on short stories with them, I have to give my writing group credit for helping me hone my craft and giving me the camaraderie of like-minded people. They encouraged me immensely to continue writing and dreaming.

Fast forward one child later and I had completed my second manuscript, a YA Norse-inspired fantasy called THE THIEF OF WINTER. This one was a Struggle, probably because I had the brilliant idea to write it during my first delirious year of motherhood. I edited it on and off when I went back to work (as a lawyer, so you can imagine my ample spare time), then queried it in 2017.

A picture of the author on a couch with a laptop, a baby sprawled sleeping on her lap. She looks tired.
“It will be easy to write a book in my ‘year off'”, she said.

I leveled up to an Excel spreadsheet. According to my sketchy records, I sent out eight queries, got zero requests, then buried it.

Here’s the problem with these two early novels. I put years of work into them and ended up with manuscripts that I was dissatisfied with, full of plot holes and threads that led nowhere, but that I didn’t have the heart to fix. I couldn’t write regularly (see photographic evidence above), so whenever I returned to my writing, I felt the need to re-read the first few chapters and review the plot, and by the time I actually put new words on the page, I’d be at the end of my writing time. I would read and revise the first chapter 100 times and every time you read a thing, it gets chiselled deeper in stone and the words start to feel Thanos-level inevitable.

So after my brief stint of querying in 2017, I put aside novel-writing to focus on short stories and other life happenings.

The author smiling and holding up an anthology called Those Who Make Us. People and a bar in the background.
Me, holding a book I’m in, at an actual place with humans, like I used to do pre-2020

I came back to novels around 2019 and this time I came armed with the Stephen King approach.

Do Not Look Back.

This changed my writing life.

Don’t reread what you last wrote. Don’t edit previous chapters. Just sit down and write more, then write some more, and keep on writing until you have a book.

Editing is a whole different journey.

I also came prepared with books on plotting, mom-level organizational skills, and an investment in Scrivener. My next book flowed much more smoothly. I wrote it in a year, sent it out to friends and family, and joined an online writing group to find beta readers. For the first time, I truly invested myself in the querying process. I leveled up my spreadsheet to include colour coding and four extra columns. I punished myself on Twitter. I made an author website. I figured out pitch contests.

I thought CHIMERA was incredible – it was a boarding school story pitched as Percy Jackson for a YA crowd. It had unconventional shapeshifters, monstrous girls, roommate crushes, queer rep, and … it failed to stand out in a crowded market.

I queried CHIMERA during the pandemic, from 2020 to 2021. I sent 81 queries and got ONE partial request from an agent. I had three full requests from small publishers as well. Two of these ended in rejection and the third in a strange quasi-offer, which I ended up turning down because …

Because.

Of Agent X.

I had neared the end of querying CHIMERA. I was waiting on my partial and the full from the quasi-offer publisher, and it was September 2021. I was at a sheep farm with my son, petting sheep, as one does on a Saturday morning.

A boy with a face mask patting a white sheep over a fence

Agent X emailed me to say that, while CHIMERA wasn’t marketable at present (confirming my suspicions), she loved my voice, had checked out my website (note to all of you querying authors … have a website), and wanted to see my WIP.

My WIP was barely IP. At the end of August, after a conversation with my Twitter support group (hullo Spaghetti Throwers!), I had decided my next novel would feature a MC with Crohn’s, as this rep is missing in the YA space, and knowing the joys of an intestinal witch, I felt strongly that this book was needed. I put a blurb on my website about this WIP, which I titled THE FANTABULOUS ADVENTURES OF BRIONY PARKER (clearly a joke title because clearly no agent was going to be reading my website) and then along came Agent X.

Let me tell you, nothing puts a fire under a writer more than an agent saying I WANT TO READ YOUR BOOK WHEN IT’S DONE.

I wrote the book that I re-named NORMAL INSIDE at (for me) lightning speed. Four months. I sent it to Agent X in December of 2021, right before the Christmas holidays, and Agent X read the full (EEEE) and rejected it (MY HEART) within three days.

Sigh.

But also, I was so proud of this book and committed to getting it out in the world. It is a wonderful feeling, the start of the querying process, with your head like a helium balloon, full of optimism and self-confidence.

I had learned SO MUCH from my previous attempts at querying. I had learned CONDITIONAL FORMATTING in Excel. I participated in #PitMad and #PitchDIS and #CanLitPit and more. I was selected for the #CanLitPit showcase and received a couple of requests through these various events.

Throughout my querying journey, my request rate hovered around 20%. I knew that I had hit on a story that was marketable and a voice that caught people’s attention. Then … the full rejections started rolling in. Seven more.

My helium-filled head started to drift downwards.

Some of the rejections were form, but a couple had specific, actionable feedback. I implemented this feedback in the spring of 2022 and ended up with a stronger manuscript.

At the start of my querying journey, I would open every agent email with a bubble of hope and a thin mantra, please be an offer. By the end, I was taking the Stoic approach and preparing myself for the worst, in the hopes I might be pleasantly surprised. My mantra shifted to another rejection, and that way, I didn’t feel so let down.

I never lost hope for NORMAL INSIDE because, again, a 20% request rate is huge and I was getting quite a bit of traction on Twitter pitch events. My querying slowed down, though, because I did the thing that everyone says you should do, and I started to focus on my next book. I had May and June of 2022 off my full-time job and I threw myself into my current WIP, another YA romance featuring chronic illness.

In June, I happened to see a tweet about Disability in Publishing, and that’s how I came across Ismita Hussain of Great Dog Literary. She was looking for books about health and disability, along with YA, which seemed promising, but I knew better than to fall for the siren song of #MSWL compatibility. I queried Ismita on June 29. On July 25, Ismita requested a full, so I did the next thing, which was updating Query Tracker and compulsively checking her stats every so often (a.k.a. daily).

On September 2nd, the last Friday of summer, with the kids heading back to school and my partner off in the mountains out of cell phone range, I got The Email.

I did my usual thing.

Another rejection.

I read the first sentence, which was, “I’m so glad you decided to query me …”

And then I skipped ahead, scanning for the “but” …

There was no but.

Instead there was this sentence that I will never forget. “I wish I had a chance to read this when I was 15, because it would have helped with a lot of what I was going through.”

Those words went right to my heart and gave it a hug. I knew this agent got it.

We set up a call for the following week and thankfully I had a friend over, because I needed someone to bounce and scream with who was over the age of ten, and this friend happened to be one of my first readers who knew the path I’d traveled to get to that moment.

On the call, Ismita set out her vision for edits to the book and her initial thoughts on submission, and I was sold. Much of the changes she wanted to see were things I had considered and then put aside, because you reach a point in editing when you don’t want to play with things anymore. The thing you cut might be the thing Mystery Agent would have loved most, so it’s best to just stop at a certain point and put yourself out there.

Ismita’s vision resonated, but I still had four fulls out, so I took my two weeks. There were two agents I wanted to hear out, if they decided to offer, but one withdrew as her list was packed and the other ended up not having time to read. Both had very nice things to say about the book, so it worked out for the best, because here’s the thing.

My mantra had shifted.

After my call with Ismita, every agent email I saw, my gut reaction was please don’t offer.

And that’s how I knew.

It wasn’t anything to do with the other agents who had my full at that point – they were all at highly reputable agencies and seemed like awesome people to work with – but I loved Ismita’s ideas for the book and her professionalism and passion had won me over on our call. I’d already started implementing her changes.

I just wanted to get to work.

So, for those who want stats, here they are:

Book #4

12 years writing if you count the first two books (but let’s not count the first two books, okay?)

8 months querying

68 queries

12 full requests

1 offer

6 celebratory cupcakes

A picture of cupcakes with blue icing and rainbow sprinkles lined up
Not the actual cupcakes
Uncategorized

How to Be a Mom and Write

The title is a bit misleading. I’m not going to tell you how to mom or how to write or how to do both at once. I will tell you what works for me, as someone who has written a few books and several short stories during my eight years of motherhood.

Save the Hippopotamus Dude for later

However you feel about the adage “write what you know”, now is really the time to write what you know. It is far easier to jump into a character that is familiar than to write about a time-traveling choirmaster from Vienna who thinks he’s a hippopotamus (unless that’s you. I’m not here to judge).

So save the choirmaster for a quieter time in life. Choose a character that is familiar, whether there are elements of autobiography in them or they’re based on a person you know. At the very least, pick a character whose desire line is relatively straightforward.

The same goes for world-building. It is very hard to keep the threads of a universe-spanning, multi-novel space opera in your brain box when you aren’t able to write consistently or for lengthy periods of time. That beautiful idea will still be there in three years when your kids are older. Give yourself permission to come back to it.

Don’t Look Back

When you can’t write every day, it is tempting to re-read the last thing you wrote to remember where you left off. If you can make one tweak to your writing, I suggest you end every session with a note about what you’re going to write next. Some people even stop mid-sentence, so they can dive right back in. Whatever you do, don’t waste your precious writing time getting sucked into re-reading or, worse, editing.

It’s a trap. Trust me.

Be Easy on Yourself

This might sound trite, but it’s the most important thing on this page. Your kids will only be little for a short period of time. One day, you’ll have an empty house that you can fill with the sounds of tapping keys and you’ll miss the constant “mom mom moms” and … I’ll stop there.

Don’t Listen to Anyone Else

I see a lot of threads on Twitter and elsewhere, with people explaining what works for them.

Waking up at 5 am. Writing until 5 am. Drinking coffee. Drinking beer. Having a buddy. Having a stuffy. Post-it notes. Binders. Plotting. Pantsing.

You’ll find the system that works for you, but remember not to compare yourself to others. The truth is, anyone who is writing volumes while parenting probably has some privilege on their side, whether that’s a supportive partner, or a partner who works enough that mom-author can author, or a trust fund. Or, maybe they worked ten years in a soul-crushing job so they could take a year off to write.

Whatever their support system, it may not be yours. So find the system that works for you, with your limited time and resources, and remember that your mom years are not likely to be your most productive years, and that’s totally okay.

Be easy on yourself. Choose the simpler project. Write when you can. Don’t look back and don’t listen to anyone else.

Except me. You’re allowed to listen to me. 🙂

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We need to talk about titles …

Objectively, titles are the worst part about writing. I don’t care how you feel about beginnings, endings, or middles.

Titles.

The Worst.

Crafting titles for high school or undergrad essays was one thing. The only stakes involved with your Hamlet pun was whether or not you’d bring a shred of joy to your jaded English teacher’s existence. It was a low bar.

Stories and novels are a different beast.

It is hard enough to draft 3,000 clever, original, and engaging words to fill a short story, let alone 60,000 + words to form a novel. Accomplishing the same feat in one to five words is an unforgiving task.

I have three methods for coming up with titles.

Title First

Rarely, I will be hit with the creative inspiration for a title before the substance of the story coalesces in my brain box. This happened with my story The Bog Season. I was walking in the post-winter woods, half-drowned in dead pools left behind by the receding snows. It put me in the mind of Baba Yaga and the title The Starwood Witch came to me. I sat on that title and the seeds of a story for over a year before I finally wrote it and changed the title to its current iteration.

Captain Obvious FTW

Most often, I will write a thing and the first title that comes to mind is the one I roll with. Chimera, the book I’m currently querying, is about a girl who fears she is a chimera. So, in a fit of inspiration, I named the book Chimera. Yeah.

Title? Who needs a title?

I throw in a placeholder, write a thing, and then wrangle endlessly with the recalcitrant title. This is the process I am currently muddling through. I have almost finished the first draft of my work-in-progress and all I have so far is the ridiculous placeholder I chose for this website. I went for a walk today to try to drum up a name, and I have … not much to show for it. Outside In? All of Me? Inside, I’m Normal? Normal Inside?

If you have another method, please let me know. Better yet, just send me an oracle AI that I can feed my story into in return for a title.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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Five Things I Don’t Miss from 90s SFF

A lot has changed in the past twenty years. Is that statement ever not true? My next sentence should probably be something like: “nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of speculative fiction”. But that would be a lie … we’ve seen far more important changes in the past couple of decades than the evolution of genre literature (climate change, smartphone addiction, the steady erosion of mainstream media).

I digress.

The point of this blog post is not to list all the terrible things. The point is to list terrible things that are no longer terrible things in science fiction and fantasy books. I am currently reading a pre-2000 fantasy novel, one that is on many people’s “best of” lists. It’s a great read, with incredible world-building and a plot that keeps me turning pages.

But.

A lot has changed in the past twenty years.

Let’s play “top five terrible tropes” – here is my list of things that ought to have withered on the spec fic tree during the past couple of decades, courtesy of the Nameless Nineties Novel I’m currently reading. Had enough alliteration yet?

1. Wry smiles. It was mandatory in 20th century fantasy novels to have one rogueish character who delighted in nothing more than throwing off wry and sardonic smiles. I’m looking at you, Jimmy the Hand.

2. Non-consensual kisses. It was also mandatory for said rogueish characters to get away with kissing intelligent, confident, successful women who, instead of adding the asshole to their #metoo list, would be somehow charmed by getting law-of-surprised on the mouth.

3. Titillating m-m / f-f action. There are lots of examples of genre fiction from this time normalizing queer identities and relationships. There are also lots of examples of lines such as: “Guilford Aelfoldeas bedded a few ladies (and, it was rumoured, a few men) in his day.” Mro ho ho, you don’t say! Colour me titillated, my dear 90s author!

4.  Nice guys. No elaboration required on this one.

5. Chivalry. Pre-2000, it didn’t count as fantasy if an honour code wasn’t a central plot device. Even the rogueish characters were bound by them. I’m all for honour, and I understand why we need to fantasize about it when we live in a world seriously lacking in it, but I’m also glad to see modern SFF characters experiencing motivations that I can identify with (e.g. existential dread).

I could go on. Don’t even get me started on feast scenes. What’s your favourite / most hated SFF trope? And how many of these are still going strong? Drop me a line!

Eagle Nebula, Pillars of Creation
Ruminations

Optimism: Nihilism’s Best Friend

 

New Years can be a dsepressing time. There is pressure to change and there is the weight of all that needs to be changed. I read that the world will be without chocolate in thirty years, that the oceans are filling up with plastic, that glitter is killing fish. I see in my children all that they do not know, and feel complicit. When they are my age, will the lack of chocolate in the world be the least of their concerns? It’s no wonder that billions are spent to make movies about superheroes – we devour those movies, because we feel so helpless ourselves.

When I feel a spiral of ecoanxiety looming, there is one thread I reach for, which might be called optimistic nihilism. I’m no physicist and I’m no philosopher, but here is what makes sense to me.

We are far less than a millisecond on the universe’s timescale. We are a grain of sand on a beach vaster than we can imagine. We are one inhale in the life of an eternal beast.

We can take this knowledge and be depressed. If nothing means anything, then self-destruction, global destruction … they’re all the same thing. We could decide to live our lives eating Big Macs and launching nuclear warheads.

Or, we could see the potential for meaninglessness as a deep well of comfort. If we truly are just an inhale, then it’s up to us to create a world that has meaning. Optimistic nihilism is freedom and opportunity. It’s up to us to find and create as much kindness, compassion, joy, love, and meaning as we can wring out of this life.

The “things” that make up “Everything” are always changing, but there has always been an Everything, and Everything will go on whether we are here to bear witness or not.

Anyways, these guys can explain it much better than me:

A photo of The aMAZEing Labyrinth board game, now called Labyrinth
Writing Inspiration

The Labyrinth Story Prompt

How many speculative fiction nerds out there played this game as a kid? I loved Labyrinth – it sparked my imagination in a way that few board games did, and I spent a lot of time imagining with board games. I have this distinct memory of lining up all the boards in my basement, from one end of the room to the other, then taking the pieces from all the games on a journey, from the first square of the first board to the end of the last board.

Usually, they would end up on the board for I.Q. 2000, which was an awesome space-themed trivia game for kids from the 80s. The pieces would all find their way back to their home planet (it was the 80s, so either E.T. was an influence or my future as a spec fiction writer was set from an early age).

Now that my oldest kid is 4, we are starting to introduce real board games to him. We played Labyrinth yesterday (formerly known as The aMAZEing Labyrinth) and it stood the test of time for sparking my imagination. Since he’s only four, we played a modified version (i.e. zero competition), which involved collecting four items, then telling a story to link them together.

A picture of gourds and four cards from The Labyrinth board game

My first four were a map, a sword a dragon and a lizard, so my story went something like this (again, remember my audience is four!). One day, my hero was walking through the forest, when he came across a folded paper, tucked within a hollow tree. He opened the paper and found an old, crumbling treasure map. The map led him into the depths of a labyrinth. Deep in the labyrinth, in a dark room, he found the treasure. It was a sword in a stone (again – four – I can get away with it for now!) and on the stone it was written that whoever could pull the sword from the stone could defeat the dragon. He pulled the sword from the stone and as it came free, he heard a roar from deeper in the labyrinth. It was the dragon! He followed the sound, and as he traveled deeper into the maze, the heat grew stronger. At last, he found the centre of the maze, and there stood the great dragon. He tried to creep closer, but the dragon spotted him. He could not get close enough to use the sword, and as the dragon opened his mouth to breathe fire on him, he squeezed his eyes shut and held the sword above his head. But then, instead of hearing the dragon’s roar or feeling the heat of its flames, he heard a tiny squeak. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the dragon had turned into a harmless lizard. He realized that the sword was a magic sword and had defeated the dragon using magic, not steel.

I’m not submitting that story anytime soon, but it was really easy to come up with on the spot. If you don’t have a copy of the game, you could use an illustrated deck of cards or a tarot set just as effectively (if not more so – see this blog for some great resources on using tarot cards for writing inspiration). On a non-writing day, it’s great to have some tools for inspiring quick stories or sparking your imagination.