How I Got My Agent

I’ve been writing for pretty much as long as I can remember. I started with self-insert fanfics and thinly veiled riffs on all my favourite shows and books, and then started writing original stories that I would pass around in notebooks to my classmates or email them new chapters like a subscription. My best friends not only read everything and shipped my characters fervently but also, at the ripe age of 12, told me I should send my books to Penguin.

It didn’t happen (thankfully) but I did get on Wattpad, then drifted away from it a few years later. Between the ages of 11 and 16 I wrote over 10 complete books ranging between probably 30k to 80k words, and even started revising some of my older manuscripts. I started realising litmags were a thing I could submit to when I was about 17 or 18, and I started actively trying to learn short fiction (an entirely different ballgame from novels, as I figured out the hard way), but my novel-length WIPs were mostly left in my files to be poked at every now and then.

Ultimately, the Serious Publishing story starts in 2020. Un/fortunately, these were pandemic books.

how I got on writing twitter

In the simplest yet most opaque terms:

Domino meme with "my brother liking anime" leading to "me getting an agent"

To clarify:

Early 2020, uni shut down, borders were closing, and I left London to go hide out back home. Once my exams ended, I had literally nothing to do. At this time, my brother was getting into digital art, and had joined Reddit to post some of his pieces online. Drawn by the inevitable need to stalk him, I also skittered onto the lawless land.

I ended up instead on publishing subs, where I started realising that genre expectations were a thing, word counts were a thing, agents were a thing, queries were a thing, and–significantly–they were a thing I could do. Writing professionally was the kind of dream that I was very sure of when I was 11, before it got gently trunked onto the hobby shelf for “more important priorities” (cue perfect grades kid burnout). Especially coming from outside of the US/UK, the big SFF industry seemed out of reach, and I guess it never really occurred to me that there was a relatively structured and accessible* process to go about it. 

*I say accessible cautiously. Querying is opaque and frustrating. But here I mostly mean that it was not a magic land entirely out of reach.   

While learning about publishing by osmosis, I picked up one of my old WIPs. Since 2012, it had gone through round after round of conceptual changes: from pseudo-American contemporary fantasy to Singaporean contemporary fantasy (at this point I’d started wading into the tide of ‘I should be proud to write from my own background, actually’) to secondary-world fantasy. I set a goal of completing the new version that year, with the aim to eventually try querying it.

Amidst this, I offered to beta read another Singaporean writer’s manuscript after seeing her query on Reddit. We chatted a bit, and realised we were almost the same age. It was my first beta-reading venture and I was way too harsh about it tbvh, but somehow she didn’t run away from me–we ended up becoming friends and she encouraged me to join Twitter, after which I ventured onto the bird app on her proverbial apron strings. 

(That writer was Kyla Zhao, and that manuscript was The Fraud Squad, and you can find it on shelves in January 2023!!! We love a combined origin story.)

book 1

Although this wasn’t my first novel, it was the first manuscript I was writing with the serious intention of trying to get it published. So we’ll call this Book 1. I worked on Book 1 all throughout the rest of 2020, while also catching up on Book Twitter Discourse and meeting new people. Through a couple breakdowns and major plot rehauls, I managed to get it done just a few days after New Year, and in early January I sent my draft to my first and only beta reader.

They didn’t like it. They liked parts of it–setting, atmosphere and prose, which were also things that agent rejections would later compliment. But they hated my protagonist, the plot had a thousand holes, the worldbuilding was immersive but not clearly explained, the structure didn’t land. Cue panic and another big overhaul. Thanks to the panini I had more free time to write than I had in years, but god forbid it was relaxing.

I revised like mad and then started writing a query. I struggled to put one together, not just because of the general difficulty of query-writing, but because I didn’t actually have a hook. This really should have been my first sign; I didn’t have a clear inciting incident or character motivations; the whole first act was a structural disaster. But cheerfully I didn’t realise that quite yet. I managed to string together a semblance of a decent query, and sent off my first test queries in mid February.

Having read up as much as I could, I went the recommended route of querying in batches and trying agents with faster response times first. Nonetheless, I still spent so much time obsessing over Querytracker (premium!) that I had to install a webpage blocker to preserve my sanity.

Book 1 was, and is still in many ways, a book of the heart. Beyond certain character arc reasons, I was also trying to step more strongly into writing from my own background–I was researching, learning about, and falling in love with all these things from local mythology and history I hadn’t known before. Because it was the first proper manuscript I’d written in a long time, I felt like I had to put every single thing in my brain into it. A lot of themes and ideas were wound in that were very close to my heart; that manuscript was the most potent snapshot of me at the time, but in hindsight, for how much I was trying to fit into it, it was amazing it came together in any coherent way at all.

It was also on the longer side–about 112k–had a mess of comps, and the aforementioned issues with the hook. Surprisingly, I still got a few requests, including a couple of likes from my first-ever pitch contest. (Ultimately, I’d honed my pitch and the sample pages, but the issues were bigger picture–the rejections on the full manuscript said as much.)

That was the first round, because, dejected by the rejections and with a fresher eye on the overall manuscript and the query process, I decided I was going to change the premise and inciting incident almost entirely–which meant I was going to have to revise nearly the entire book to make the changes stick. This was early March 2021, and I remember it blindingly clearly, because it happened after I’d had to fly home early for a second time, and my uni journey was effectively over with the wimpiest of whimpers. I was sitting in my quarantine hotel room, alone with my thoughts for two weeks. I was also in the midst of trying to do final year coursework, and my dissertation. So all in all, I had a major breakdown over the thought of that big a revision, but I knew I wanted to do it. With the support of my friends (who witnessed me spiralling), I withdrew my existing materials. That was nervewracking in itself, but all the agents were incredibly nice about it and told me to send the revision when ready.

I revised like mad, neglecting my dissertation while I was at it, and in April I resent my materials and started querying again. I didn’t get more beta readers (don’t do this). I was both scared of finding out I had to do more revisions and of waiting any longer–graduation and adulting was looming, and the only thing I felt like I had a handle on at the time was writing. So, sans beta reads, I sent it out again. 

I got a couple more requests, a couple partials upgraded to fulls, a few more pitch likes that went nowhere. I also applied for Author Mentor Match, but didn’t get in (but I’m now a mentor!). Round 2 had a slightly higher request rate than Round 1 did, and overall Book 1 had a decent request rate of about 20%. But it’s a marker of both my own doom spiral and the speed at which I was learning that by about May, I was pessimistic about even the revised version. While I was still proud of it, I could see big structural problems that I couldn’t fix in a short span of time. They would require a ground-up rewrite.

book 2, aka THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN, aka my rebound

I did get some wins while I was querying: I miraculously scraped a first class degree, I added my first few paid spec fic publication credits to my resume, and one of the stories was even featured by Tor. It gave me something to add to my querying bios, but didn’t change anything otherwise. Though, as a result, something interesting did happen at the tail end of querying Book 1: in May, an agent followed me on Twitter. It was completely out of the blue, but even the hint of professional validation had me running to the group chat. My friends were equally excited and encouraged me to query her, and I added her to my list. But I decided to shelve Book 1 soon after, and never ended up sending that query. 

Meanwhile, I distracted myself from my ongoing trenches gloom by attempting to write another manuscript. I got a couple thousand words into that one before, on May 27, I tweeted this:

I’ve been a huge fan of Spring Awakening since I fell in love with the 2015 Deaf West revival. I’d meant to produce a production of it in my final year of uni, which just so happened to be November 2020. With theatres shut and the show cancelled, I was wallowing in a Spring Awakening mood. A couple hours after tweeting that, it occurred to me that if I wanted it, I should just write it. There was one particular scene in the original show that had my speculative retelling bells going haywire; I sat down and had a query pitch and opening pages by that evening. (Another thing I learned: figure out the hook before writing 80k.)

THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN was the product of a lot of things, but in that moment a lot of it was grief. I’d lost my last grandparent the previous year without really having enough of a relationship with him. That June, I’d also been abruptly, physically removed from the most freeing and healthy period of my life thus far, as well as separated from the community I’d built there. I don’t want to be insensitive about real death, but it does feel a lot like the same kind of loss. At the same time my friends and I and half the world were throwing hands with their mental health, and it was just a particularly unstable, uncertain time.

The writing process itself was mostly fuelled by that aforementioned need to feel like I had a purpose and grasping for catharsis. (In hindsight I would strongly not recommend embarking on querying in the most unstable period of your entire life, because it will ruin any remaining fragments of your sanity.) I spent my unemployed days writing like a maniac until 3am. I took a break for my 22nd birthday and then went back at it. By the end of June I had a draft of 62k words; a couple weeks later I sent betas a revised draft of about 69k. (I had learned from my mistakes. I was also a lot less close to this manuscript, and a lot more sure, craft-wise, that it was a stronger manuscript.) They got back to me with no major criticism and a lot of gushing. I was giddy from the response and also slightly high on burnout, so after minor revisions I did what you’re generally not supposed to do: I sent off test queries at the end of July, less than two months after I started writing.

(I do feel like I have to say here, though, that I accomplished this with a considerable amount of privilege. I didn’t need to pay rent or get a job instantly out of graduation; for the first time in my life I had literally no commitments and no responsibilities. I spent literally almost every hour in that month thinking about or writing that book. And this book was also just one of those things that possessed me and refused to let go. I’m saying this because I’ve gotten discouraged seeing how fast other people were working when I was on a rough patch–my circumstances were unique, and I don’t want anyone to read this coming out feeling like they’re doing something wrong.)

(Another thing that I learned: what they say about learning off shelved manuscripts is completely true. As I wrote, I realised I was writing some of the same themes that I’d tried to fit into Book 1. There were character beats I could re-use almost entirely. But without all things competing for attention, with room to breathe, these arcs became so much stronger.)

My early batches actually seemed promising–I got a surprise partial request from a long-shot agent, and another agent passed for genre reasons but with a referral. But the agent with the partial passed in days, and eventually, I was beginning to see similar numbers that I had for Book 1. I was worried (and, on bad days, extremely sad about it, because I’d been convinced this manuscript was so much stronger) but I also knew the manuscript was solid.

the call

At the end of July, I entered SFFPit. I got a couple of likes and queried them the next day. Pitmad rolled around in early September, and with new pitches I garnered a few more likes. I queried them too and shoved the whole project into the recesses of my mind. At that time, discouraged yet again by my request rate and with a shiny new WIP in the works (I cope with rejection by running headlong into a new thing), I had my sights set on freezing querying for Pitch Wars.

A week or so after Pitmad, one of the SFFPit agents responded with a full request. I sent it off and went back to feverishly trying to polish the new project for Pitch Wars. I also figured that rather than rush out all my queries like I’d done with Book 1, I would make myself wait for any feedback from the agents who had my manuscript before I sent out more queries.

Six days later, the SFFPit agent asked for a call.   

I had just woken up. It was late morning and I was sitting in my bed on Twitter commiserating with my friends about PublishingTM. In the midst of offering encouraging replies, I idly went to check my email. When I saw it was from the agent with my full, I sort of sighed internally and clicked it. By that time I’d perfected the art of skim-reading, acknowledging the rejection, and closing the email. It was, however, not a rejection. 

I went back to the group chat, apologised for undercutting the heart-to-heart, and sent the news. A lot of screaming later, I emailed back to set up the call. Then I dug up my list and spent the next several hours firing off queries to the remaining agents on my list. 

Because life loves its timing, I took the call the day I started a new job. Needless to say I wasn’t entirely focused, but I got through it, got home, and jumped on the call. I loved the conversation and I was honestly overwhelmed at hearing anyone who wasn’t a friend talk about my book like it actually existed, much less talk enthusiastically about it. I left that call in a buzz and with an official offer of representation, and spent the next couple hours debriefing my friends and nudging the rest of the agents I’d queried.

At the time I received the offer for THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN, however, I still had materials for Book 1 out with four agents. They’d had it for a few months, and I also knew by this point that I wasn’t interested in an offer for the manuscript they had. But I had checked out their wishlists again, and realised they might also be a good match for THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN. When I sent out my nudges, I told these four agents that I had an offer on another project and would like to withdraw Book 1. However, based on their wishlists, I thought they might be a good fit for the second project, and would they be interested in considering that instead? I squeezed in a short pitch, pressed send, and desperately hoped I hadn’t somehow gotten myself blacklisted.

Within twenty minutes, two of those agents responded with enthusiastic requests for THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN. One of them even came with some of the best words I’d ever heard for Book 1. All this to say: shoot your shot, as long as you’re polite about it. You never know. That said, I only queried simultaneously because I knew I wanted to pull Book 1 regardless. I would not recommend querying two projects just to hedge your bets on both. (But here’s a story from Gabi Burton about getting offers for two separate books, unintentionally.)

Everything was suddenly 0 to 100. With the nudges, other full requests came flooding in. A few hours after acknowledging my nudge, an agent with a full tweeted about loving a manuscript. I didn’t want to believe it was mine, but then two days later that agent sent an offer email that was lowkey better written than the book itself and had me yelling in the DMs and figuring out how to get emails tattooed on my back.

Within the first week, I received emails from 4 agents wanting to set up calls. I was thrilled, horrifically jittery, and also dreading it a little bit now, because how was I going to choose? Also, 3 of these emails came in within about 3 hours of each other, while I was at work. I spent my lunch break hunched over in a Burger King replying to the emails to set up calls, messaging my friends screaming, and failing to finish my food because I felt a bit nauseous.

I spent the next week sleep deprived, because thanks to timezones, the only times that worked for calls ended up being around midnight. I slept like 5 hours every night, dragged myself to work every morning, and drank copious amounts of tea and coffee. At the same time, I read through my notes, read contracts, researched sales, talked to clients (including one of my favourite authors, who told me she couldn’t wait to read my work sometime?!) and discussed pros and cons with my friends. One of the agents who’d wanted to call eventually pulled out because of unexpected circumstances, but she was so incredibly nice about it, and it made my choice that much less difficult.

(Note: As it turned out, in my haste to forget I was querying, I conveniently also forgot I hadn’t finished tidying up the manuscript. The version I sent to literally all these agents had line edit notes in the text, in different colours, that was supposed to be so eye-catching I couldn’t miss them when reading through. Reader, somehow I missed them. My now-agent actually mentioned it on the call and I basically crumbled on the spot. But she offered rep anyway! So don’t worry too much about minor mistakes in the manuscript. It’s not a deciding factor whatsoever.)

I won’t go into the details of the final decision, because it is a personal and (again) subjective choice. All the offering agents were amazing; I loved talking to each of them, and I hated having to pick just one. But among other things, I considered what I wanted in terms of editorial style and vision, general vibes, and who was best aligned with what I wanted to do with this manuscript and future works. I also thought a lot about what Chloe Gong mentioned in her own agent post: about which agent I would most think “what if”.

For me, and in a beautiful turn of events, the best agent ultimately turned out to be that agent who’d randomly followed me back in May, and also the agent whose email I wanted to frame: Isabel Kaufman at Fox Literary, who’d had me on her radar since the Tor article came out. I’m glad I never sent that first query, because that manuscript wasn’t what it needed to be, but THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN was. I’m thrilled to be working with Isabel, and for whatever comes next!

stats

Book 1: 
Queries: 42
Requests: 10 (3 partials, 7 fulls)
Offers: 0
Time spent querying: 3.5 months (not counting materials out)

THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN
Queries: 42*
Requests: 16* (1 partial, 15 fulls)
Offers: 4
Time spent querying: 1.5 months
(*) 2 requests rolled over from Book 1 agents

So the book I had marinated for 9 years went nowhere, and the book I wrote in a manic fugue of a month got multiple offers. It was a bit of an exercise in learning to let go, getting distance, learning from what went wrong the first time, constantly improving, and the subjectivity of querying. I held on to the first because it felt like my heart book, but after writing THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN I realised that was a heart book too, in different yet overlapping ways. You have more than one book in you! And so much of the process is really luck, circumstance, and timing. If you’re in the trenches–all the best! I’m lighting manifestation candles for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.