How I got a literary agent

Since everyone else seems to do this…the story of How I Got My Agent:

About two years ago, early in 2016, I was at a rough spot in my professional life. I worked hard for years to earn a PhD in History, which I completed in 2015 at UCLA. (Go Bruins!) But despite several interviews that year, there was still no tenure-track academic job coming my way. I enjoy teaching, but I was not willing to work as an adjunct professor for years on end. In the meantime, I took on freelance writing and editing work and tried to regroup for the next application cycle.

Having experienced the soul-crushing rejection of academia I decided to try something that could only seem like an improvement: writing fiction. (Yes, writing fiction really did feel it had to be less soul-crushing than the academic job market. And it actually is, which is a subject for another post.)

For my first book, I didn’t stray far from my roots in U.S. women’s history. I wrote a YA historical fantasy about the 1909-1910 Philadelphia garment workers’ strike, spearheaded by fierce teenage Jewish immigrant girls. It was a very cool idea featuring golems, lesbian and bi witches, and a secondary character inspired by legendary labor organizer Clara Lemlich, who was brutally beaten for her pro-union speeches.  

Unfortunately, it was also kind of a mess. There were too many POVs, it was way too short for the genre, and I didn’t really know how to build suspense or create a believable magic system. I submitted it to Pitch Wars 2016, but I got no requests. Although I tried revising it on my own, I didn’t yet have the skills to figure out how to really turn this particular book into something good.

Realizing this, I quickly abandoned that book and started another one, this time a middle-grade contemporary fantasy. This book was much better, and I found that I really liked writing a middle-school age voice. I received a few agent requests from querying and online pitch contests. Yet something about it wasn’t quite clicking. I knew the beginning of the book lagged, but not how to fix it.

When I found out about Author Mentor Match, a program that matches new writers with agented writers, I decided to apply in the hopes that maybe a mentor could help me figure out what to do with the book. This time, I did get in and I was connected with the amazing Gail Villanueva. Gail sent me a wonderfully detailed edit letter with great suggestions, including the perfect solution to my pacing problem. I worked with her to get that manuscript into query-ready shape over the next several months.

By joining AMM, I also got the opportunity to connect with other AMM mentees, which has just been amazing. We have a Twitter chat that has been running for at least 7-8 months and is still active almost every day.

After several months of revisions, I sent the new version to Gail and she gave me the thumbs-up to start querying again. But she also mentioned an idea to me: What did I think about submitting the book to PitchWars? Gail was mentoring in PitchWars herself and thought the agent round could be helpful for getting the book in front of agents.

At that point I wasn’t really enthused about doing another intensive round of revisions on that book. I had already written a first draft of another book that I knew to be much stronger. This book, a strict contemporary story in epistolary format, melded my interests in baseball, disability politics, and feminism. 

The premise is this: Vivy, an 11-year old autistic girl, throws a knuckleball—baseball’s weirdest, most unconventional pitch. She wants to play for a baseball team, but her overprotective mother is reluctant to let her do it. During her first season, Vivy must prove herself as a ballplayer. She writes letters to her idol, a (fictitious) MLB pitcher named VJ Capello. It was a story about disability, yes, but also a story about sports, family, relationships, and growing up. Vivy’s story just felt special to me, more so than anything else I wrote before.

Gail, being an awesome mentor, asked to read the new book. I spent a week or so anxiously biting my nails waiting for her feedback. Fortunately, she liked it and told me I needed to submit it to PitchWars. She also had some helpful suggestions for revisions. Whew!

I sent out a few more queries for the fantasy book, but I focused most of my energies on getting The Book ready for Pitch Wars. When mentor wishlists went up, I read them obsessively and tried to deduce who might like my book.

Although there were many middle-grade mentors who looked fantastic, Mike Grosso immediately stood out to me. He said he was looking for middle-grade stories that authentically represented the experiences of neurodivergent kids. Which, hey, happened to be exactly my book. From other things he said I could also tell that we might have similar ideas about what kids’ books should be.

Mike was the first PitchWars mentor to request my manuscript, although a few other mentor pairs did so also. For about three weeks, I anxiously waited and stalked PitchWars-related hashtags on Twitter.

Then announcement day came. I managed to get on the website before it crashed and saw that Mike had selected me as his mentee!

For the next two months or so, I worked hard on revising the book and got to know my fellow PitchWars mentees. Again, I got a wonderful edit letter from a mentor who totally got my book and knew what I needed to do to make it  better. Mike, in addition to being the published author of the wonderful book I AM DRUMS, is also a parent and middle-school teacher. Since I am neither, it was really helpful to hear his thoughts on how to make sure this book was kid-friendly.

While my revisions weren’t quite as massive as some other PitchWars mentees, it was still a pretty major endeavor. I wrote new scenes, revamped old ones, and obsessed over my 300-word pitch and sample. Mike read my new draft and gave it his seal of approval.

Finally, on November 1, while I was watching the Astros beat the Dodgers in the World Series, the middle-grade entries went up on the PW website and a new round of anxiety began. (I was loosely rooting against the Astros, since they beat my Yankees in the ALCS, but the anxiety of PitchWars completely overwhelmed baseball-related feelings.)

The emotions of the PitchWars anxiety round are a little hard to explain to someone who has never done it. Knowing that your work is on the Internet and that agents are reading it right now is a special kind of scary. There are so many nightmare scenarios. What if no one requests? What if I do get requests but they all reject me later so OBVIOUSLY the entire world knows my book is terrible? Etc. etc.

Fortunately, I got my first request pretty quickly after the entries went up, which was a major relief. Several more requests came in over the next few days and I ended up with 8 overall, which this year was probably right around average.

The number of PW requests is a funny thing that can have a lot of emotional baggage. I knew logically that getting 8 requests was good, but when you see other people having 20, 30, even 40+ requests, it can’t help but mess with your mind a little. You wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with your work, if your concept just isn’t sellable.

Still, when November 7 came around I sent out my requests and was fairly hopeful when I started querying.

Then the rejections started coming. There were a lot of form rejections and a lot of “wonderful writing but this isn’t for me” comments. Even though academia had built up my tolerance for rejection, it was still hard. The PitchWars mentee Facebook group blew up with people announcing calls with agents. While I was thrilled for them, I also couldn’t help but feel a little dejected that it wasn’t happening for me, too.

I queried quite a few agents in November. I received some full and partial requests but no calls. Most of the agents who requested during PitchWars passed, along with several others who read the manuscript in whole or part. A lot of agents said the epistolary format didn’t work for them. A few others liked the voice, but said they couldn’t see themselves working on a sports-themed book. I began to think that the magical combo of an agent who liked the epistolary format AND baseball was an elusive dream.

Since I’d heard December was a bad month for querying, I didn’t send out any queries then. But I continued to get a trickle of rejections, most of which were along the same vein. I also tried to pitch it during #PitMad. I received exactly zero likes from agents. But I did receive likes from my husband (twice!) and a friend. (Thanks, guys!) I don’t know if I messed up my pitch with the new character limit or if this book is just inherently ill-suited to Twitter pitch contests, but either way it was a little disheartening. Still, I knew I had to just move on.

I revised the book a little based on agent feedback. I obsessed over my query letter and opening pages, and even changed the title to something a little snappier. PW ’17 mentees did query and first pages workshops that were really helpful to me.

When January came around, I was ready to start querying again. This time my request rate was a little higher, possibly a result of the changes I made. Then, in the second week of January, I got an email from an agent asking to arrange a call. The agent offered representation that day. The next two week after that were surreal, with more requests, calls, and step-asides. I ended up with three offers of representation in total. 

I truly would have been thrilled to sign with any of the three agents who offered. I talked with their clients, which confirmed my suspicions that all of them really were great. Now, after months of feeling like no one wanted me, I had an incredibly difficult decision to make. Ultimately, I signed with Jennifer Udden of Barry Goldblatt Literary.

I didn’t query Jen originally. Although I am a longtime listener of the Shipping & Handling podcast, I thought that Jen didn’t represent middle-grade. So I queried Barry Goldblatt instead. A week and a half later, I got an email from Jen explaining that she wants to build her middle-grade list and loves baseball. She asked if I was okay sending her the full, which of course I was.

As it happened, I had just received some excellent feedback from another PitchWars mentee so I was doing some revisions at the moment. So I waited a few days to send in the requested manuscript. By the time I sent Jen the newly revised book, I had just received my first offer of representation. Jen emailed me to set up a call four days after that.

In my call with her, I could tell that Jen really did love Vivy and her story just as much as I did. Her enthusiasm really swayed me, as did her clients’ endorsement of her agenting skills. She understood the disability aspects of the story and the baseball ones, too. An Astros fan herself, Jen mentioned her appreciation of the fact that Jose Altuve is referenced in the book. Everyone, including my mentors, told me to go with my gut and my gut was saying Jen.

So that’s the story of how I signed with my agent. (It still feels weird to type out “my agent!”) I hope recounting this in detail will be hopeful to other aspiring writers out there.

In particular, I hope this helps other PitchWars mentees both past and future. People say this all the time, but it really is true: The value of PitchWars is the mentorship, community, and improved manuscript. (“The true PitchWars is the friends we made along the way”?)

While the agent round can be great for some people, it’s definitely not the end of the road if you don’t find an agent right away. None of the agents who offered me representation participated in PitchWars (and several agents who did participate later requested a full or partial from me when I queried them later). Some books just don’t pitch well in 300 words or 280 characters. It doesn’t mean the book is bad.

I definitely encourage aspiring writers to participate in PitchWars and/or AMM because of the value that community and mentorship provides. I know the turbulence of a writing career is just beginning for me, and I’m so glad to have two great mentors and mentee groups at my back for it. That’s the real reason to join.

Numbers for the statistically inclined:

Manuscripts written: 3

PitchWar requests: 8

PitMad requests: 0

Queries: 43

Full requests: 12

Partial requests: 3

Offers of representation: 3

(I should note, though, that a lot of my full requests came after I received my first offer of representation, so those statistics are probably a little inflated.)

Sarah Kapit