Jessica S Olson
How I Got My Agent - A PitchWars Story
I spent a lot of years querying, and I read a LOT of "How I Got My Agent" posts. They were always my favorite things to read because they reminded me, every time, that there was hope. That even though it hadn't happened yet for me, it still could, because every author who has ever embarked on this crazy publishing journey has had to put in the time and the work and the tears.
And now it's (finally!) my turn. (SQUEE!) So buckle up, cuz this might get a little long.
I started querying for the first time back in 2009. I was a sophomore in college, and I had in my hands a manuscript that I thought was AMAZING. It was a YA contemporary issue novel, and I loved that bad boy with all my heart. While I had written small books throughout high school, this was the first one I'd invested time on revising and polishing and learning how to pitch.
Spoiler alert: it was NOT good.
BUT if I've learned anything over my years of mingling with authors, it's that we all think our first novels are gold, so at least I was in good company. :)
So I sent that bad boy off, dreaming of massive, million-dollar deals and having my book listed next to Laurie Halse Anderson's. As you do.
When I got only a truckload of form rejections, I was crushed. I thought the world was out to get me, that agents hated me, that no one UNDERSTOOD my story. Heaven forbid I take a look at my work and realize that IT was the reason it was rejected. I pointed the finger at everyone but me for the reason why I couldn't get an agent.
And I quit. For a little while. I was in college, I was busy, and I was convinced the publishing gods hated me.
Over the next couple of years, I dabbled here and there in writing, and I kept up with the publishing industry a bit. I read.
But getting a book published was still the dream. It never stopped being the dream. It was just on the back-burner for a bit.
And then I read "Throne of Glass" by Sarah J Maas, and I was like, "THIS. THIS IS WHAT I'M SUPPOSED TO BE DOING."
YA Fantasy, y'all.
I hadn't read much fantasy in my life, but for some reason, it was like God was slapping me across the face with my answer. This was what could pull me out of my funk and help me find the magic again.
And it WAS like magic for me. It was like someone lit a fuse under me and I was head over heels in love with writing again. No longer was I toiling away working on books that made me feel depressed, but I was writing about explosions and romance and revenge and STUFF THAT SET ME ON FIRE.
I wrote a new novel, my first fantasy. And I revised that bad boy and sent it off to agents, begging them to love me.
This time, I got some requests! A few agents liked my query and first chapter enough to want to read more! I thought FOR SURE it was gonna happen this time. I was gonna be the next Veronica Roth. People were going to be fighting for my book, throwing money at me, making movies of me. It was going to be amazing.
Until those agents rejected it, too.
So, I did what any self-respecting person when faced with soul-crushing rejection does: I ate my weight in peanut butter and ice cream.
And then I got back in the seat.
Because I'd tasted that tiny glimmer of hope, and I wasn't about to give up again. Not when there was a chance.
So I read. A lot. I read a billion fantasy books. (Okay maybe not an even billion, but it was a lot.) Reading those books opened my eyes to the fact that I'd been trying to write in a genre I didn't know. I didn't understand the tropes or the expectations. I was trying to build a car without ever having seen one.
Reading those books taught me SO MUCH. I threw out that manuscript and started over from scratch. Not a single line from the first version made it into the second. The story got stronger, the characters got deeper, the magic got cooler... and I thought THIS. THIS IS THE STORY.
So after revising that and polishing it up (and learning more about queries, of course--because, make no mistake, learning to write a good query is an ART and it is HARD... harder, sometimes, than writing the novel itself), I shot that baby into the world and pleaded for this to be it. Surely this time an agent would want me.
I was over my delusions of brilliance by this point. I had my head bowed, and I was ready to WORK.
And the requests started to pile in. Full request. Partial request. Another full. Another full. Another partial.
I was elated. I was SO SURE.
This time, the rejections were long. Paragraphs about things the agents loved, things they thought were really well done, comments on how much they enjoyed my writing and my style. But there was always a "but."
I wasn't quite there yet.
I was sooooo close.
While I was querying that one, I got an idea. An idea for a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera. What if the story were told from the POV of the Phantom, instead of Christine? And what if that Phantom was not a creepy, stalker-guy, but a girl with a dangerous power that people would kill her for? And what if the guy whose voice she became enamored with awakened something in her magic, something powerful and maddening and deadly?
I wrote that book in less than a month.
You guys. It POURED out of me. Isda, my Phantom character, was more real to me than any other character had ever been.
You guys. I'm not kidding. I cried ACTUAL TEARS about this character. Many times.
The PitchWars submission window was looming. I knew that this book was in rough shape--first drafts ALWAYS are--but what did I have to lose?
I submitted that first draft to PitchWars 2018, praying and hoping and crossing my fingers that SOMEONE would love Isda like I did.
The requests came in, and when I was chosen, I screamed.
Kim Chance and Megan LaCroix had fallen in love with Isda just like I'd hoped somebody would. They sent me a 16 page edit letter, which outlined the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses.
I read through that document, practically bouncing with excitement, and instantly my mind exploded with possibilities. I KNEW where this story needed to go. I KNEW what I needed to do.
I threw out that draft and started over from scratch. I put together a 50-page, single spaced, scene-by-scene outline of what the new draft was going to be. And then I pounded that baby out in less than four weeks. It was insane. It was scary. It was FUN.
And I watched Isda's story come to life.
We did a bit more tweaking and revising, and then it was time for the PitchWars showcase.
Guys. The showcase. I don't know if there's another time in my life up til that point where I felt more like I was going to explode from all of the nerves. I couldn't take it. It was insane.
But then the requests started rolling in. I got a decent amount of requests. About 16, which was pretty much average. One of those requests was from Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, whom I had queried with my last novel. (She was one of the ones who requested, too!)
Within 48 hours of sending off all of my requests + a bunch of cold queries, I got an email from Christa. It was a long email, and it said THE NICEST things about my book. I read through the whole thing waiting for the "but."
There was no "but."
And then I saw "I am, without hesitation, offering you representation."
I screamed and immediately burst into tears.
My toddler ran from the room to hide, it was that scary.
I tried to call my husband to tell him the news, but was crying too hard when he answered and wasn't able to say anything. He legitimately thought one of the kids was seriously injured, and started freaking out. It was an incredible moment.
I let all the other agents with the manuscript know that I'd received an offer of representation, and I gave them a deadline to get back to me within the next two weeks. I ended up receiving more than that one offer, and was just gobsmacked. Someone liked my novel! Multiple someones! Those two weeks were a rollercoaster, and I spent so much time crying that I'm not sure how I didn't get dehydrated.
But then, on February 28th, I signed with Christa. She seemed like the best fit for me, my book, and my working style, and no matter who I talked to, I always just kept coming back to her.
It felt like it took an eternity to get here. Hundreds of thousands of words written and revised and scrapped and rewritten. Hours upon hours spent learning how to craft the perfect query. Tears and heartbreak and hope and stubborn persistence.
I'm so glad I didn't give up, y'all. SO GLAD.
Because that book? The one that poured out of me and went through the craziness of PitchWars and got me my agent? It got a book deal, too. In March of 2021, my little Phantom book will hit shelves, and I'm still pretty sure this can't be real life because stuff like this doesn't HAPPEN to me.
I seriously can't stop pinching myself.
Dreams really do come true sometimes.
And they can for you, too. All you have to do is show up. Put in the work. And don't make excuses.