Part two: How I got an agent and book deal!
Last week I began the story of my publishing journey. Settle in folks, because we still have a ways to go…
At the end of 2014, I’d shelved my first complete manuscript, DREAM OF ME, and turned my attention to a significantly better manuscript, my YA fantasy, SEASONS OF STONE. But I wanted help this time, I wanted to fix any weak points before querying. I signed up for a weekly writing workshop with Nicole Hayes (an amazing YA author) to highlight the holes in my plot and any weaknesses in my prose. Nicole was honest and insightful and my manuscript improved dramatically.
The more I revised SEASONS OF STONE, the more I loved the characters and world I’d built. Armed with my list of agents from querying DREAM OF ME, I was ready. I broke the list into groups of 10 agents. The groups were a mix of “dream agents”, those I’d admired for a long time or represented my favorite books, along with agents at smaller agencies or newer agents. If I didn’t receive any requests in the first round of queries then I'd go back and rework my query letter.
But the responses were different this time around. After sending off my first batch of queries, I received multiple full requests, including a request from a top agent at a dream agency. I couldn’t help but feel a buzz deep in my bones.
This is it. This is it.
Lesson five: Requests are not offers. They're merely a request to see more of your work. It's difficult not to get your hopes up but staying levelheaded takes the sting out of rejections. A little.
My writing space plus helpful assistant.
Requests continued to come in as I sent out more queries, but then, so did the rejections. I continued querying for over a year and when I breached 100 rejections, I had to accept that SEASONS OF STONE wouldn’t be the book to sign me with an agent.
It was one of the hardest lessons to learn. I’d written what I thought was a great story, one I was sure YA readers would enjoy. I’d worked hard on it, revising and polishing for over a year and everyone who’d read it had enjoyed it. And I’d read countless YA fantasies over the years and could see how easily SEASONS OF STONE would slot in among them. But that was the problem. It was too similar to existing YA fantasies, a sentiment echoed by agents in my rejection letters.
Lesson six: it’s not enough to write a good book, you have to stand out from the crowd.
I needed to write something fresh. Unique. Surprising. But how could I write something different when there were so many YA books out there?
I’ve always had a vivid imagination and memorable dreams, which is what led to my first book, DREAM OF ME, and while that book failed to hook an agent, there was plenty of inspiration I could find in my dreams. One of which was the beginning to FOUR DEAD QUEENS.
Like many writers, I keep a notebook of random ideas that float through my head, scraps of concepts, snippets of inspiration and chunks of dialogue. With the writing on the wall for SEASONS OF STONE, I looked to my notebook for a new book idea. I’d give this whole publishing thing one more go, one more book, one more shot.*
Notebooks upon notebooks
Lesson seven: no ideas are ever wasted.
In the beginning of 2016 and I started with a nugget of an idea; a world without time where eras mixed together, forming a unique, but also divided, culture. But that was just the setting. What would this book be about? I’d always loved murder mysteries so I thought, why not combine both? I’d never read a YA fantasy murder mystery before, so that meant it was unique, right?
I’m a pantser, which means I don’t know what will happen in the story until I start writing—or typing. This leads to very messy, confusing and unfocused drafts. And yet, the first draft of FOUR DEAD QUEENS (called THE MURDER DISK at the time) was surprisingly focused with the main character’s voice formed clear in my mind.
And there were other voices. Four queens, four dead queens, which demanded their story be told. But I’d never written a multiple POV book before and I didn’t think I was a skilled enough writer. I decided to push away the self-doubt and write the book. Just to see what happens, I thought. No pressure.
Lesson eight: don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. But do listen to those other voices. The ones with a story to tell.
Around April, I began seeing posts about Pitch Wars on Twitter. I’d heard about the writing competition the year before, but I hadn’t been in the right place to participate. I'd received such useful feedback and critique through my workshop group with Nicole so the idea of winning a dedicated mentor appealed greatly. I wanted someone to pull my work apart. I wanted someone to help me get the manuscript to that next step, the step of signing with an agent.
The Pitch Wars' August deadline, if nothing else, provided motivation to complete FOUR DEAD QUEENS in time to query by the end of the year. And boy, was I motivated. I wrote, every night, every weekend, every spare moment. By August I was ready, kind of, to submit. I selected the mentors I thought would enjoy my book and sent a query letter and my first chapter. I didn’t think my chances of being accepted were very high; FOUR DEAD QUEENS was still extremely rough.
Half an hour after clicking send, I received my first full request.