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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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. Many 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:
12 years writing if you count the first two books (but let’s not count the first two books, okay?)
8 months querying
12 full requests
6 celebratory cupcakes