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How I Got My Agent

My writing journey, from drafting to representation

· Writing,Publishing,Agent,Querying,Journey

Like many writers, I first put pen to page for the purpose of storytelling when I was a kid. My earliest recollection is age nine: We were given AlphaSmarts in class and had an assignment for a short story. I wrote about a girl (possibly princess) named Golden who was rescued (probably from the evil Spencerasaurus) by a prince named James and his magic guitar (who probably put the Spencerasaurus to sleep). This might have been handwritten. I just remember the AlphaSmart because my brother had one.

I still have early drafts of the manuscripts that resulted from this short story; not the first draft, but ones as far back as 2004 or '5. I have two printed out copies with handwritten scribbles in the margins from me, my friends, my dad; I carry those with me from home to home as a reminder of what this series did for me. A ripped manilla folder, with the name of the five supposed books on it; my friend's drawing of weapons; timelines that spanned decades. This was an epic fantasy in the making that involved wars, god-like creatures, betrayal. I was going to be the next Christopher Paolini, published at eighteen, a bestseller at nineteen. Except younger, because a thirteen-year-old with a 35,000-word book was going to be an author.
I'm not disparaging my younger self; I think it's important to have these dreams, to want something so badly it's all you can think about. I look back on these moments and see the roots of the person I would become, see the truth in what I denied for so many years. I've always called myself a writer, but I didn't realize that that's what I am, at my core—that the scientist who took over for so long was only delaying the inevitable. I watch my husband read geology books for fun, keep up in his field because he's actually interested in it, and I can't help but laugh. That's something I never did for neuroscience, something I was never driven to do. But reading? And reading constantly and widely? It's in the fabric of who I am.
While I worked on this story, I was always a writer. I could tell people that I wrote novels, that I wanted to publish them. But it's funny to me now that when I worked on fanfiction and short stories throughout high school instead of this book, I felt like an imposter. Was I really a writer if I wasn't working on my books? Was I really a writer if people didn't know that I wrote? Now, my memory is too hazy to remember whether people besides my closest friends knew I wrote. I'm sure they did. I'm sure I was always drafting stories in the margins of my notebooks, scribbling away fanfic ideas to work on late at night.

Of course, I understand now that I've always been a writer, that the way I think about the world is through language, and words and their power are at the crux of who I am as a person. But for many years, I think I forgot this truth, thought it wasn't as important to me as it is. I spent four years in undergrad hardly writing at all. As my mental and physical health deteriorated, for the first time in my life, I didn't turn to the written word. I was empty, silenced by the person I was becoming, losing track of the one I truly was.

The story of Golden stayed with me for many years; so many, in fact, that I finally put her away last year, after writing a 115k manuscript that, as one might imagine, had been greatly altered from its original form. It took a lot for me to put Golden's—now Gilead's—story away, to finally shut out the myth of the Parian from my mind. It'll stay with me forever; there is too much of who I am rooted in that story. (I even still have the leather-bound journal that my father gave me as a gift when I was around ten, which became the inspiration for the magical book FLORENTIA that Golden finds. It's still unwritten in, because I always planned to write out Golden's story in its final form.)

I look back on this story with so much fondness. It was really hard for me to put it in the drawer when I finished it last April (wow! a year ago, LORD)—I was convinced that I could fix all the problems inherent with carrying a story for 16 years. I think I finally accepted it when I started to really focus on another WIP, and then when I drafted FEATHER AND EARTH. And even though it felt, at first, like I had wasted 115,000 words, I realized I hadn't. Reading LOVE, HATE, AND OTHER FILTERS by Samira Ahmed made me realize that the co-narrator of the manuscript I'd written needed his own book, set in modern day Earth, where he could shine. Drafting my "Academy" manuscript made me realize that Golden/Gilead and her mentor, Aazar, could have a place in that world, albeit in a different book. And I learned so much while writing it: about cultural appropriation, about what is and isn't in my lane, about researching and respecting cultures outside my own. It was a lesson in humility, and it was a lesson in how to write well. Ultimately, Golden/Gilead's story was written well enough, but not well. And that, too, was deeply important for me to learn.

I like to say that I cannot write a short story to save my life. It's true. I used to write short stories in high school—I'm talking outside of the thousands of words of fanfiction I wrote—but I haven't written a short story that hasn't turned into a novel in over five years. In my last quarter of undergrad, I was in two creative writing workshops. I used the same short stories for both—one of which I'd written and revised almost a year before—because I was busy working on a new novel. More on that in a minute; let me dwell on short stories. I bring it up because the novel I began after I finally closed the chapter on Golden's grew out of a short story I wrote in undergrad that I then revised to submit to a writing workshop. And then realized, about 7,000 words in, needed more room than it was getting. I've determined to use my MFA to crack the short story, figure out how to write it, so we'll see about that. (Meanwhile, the short-story-turned-novel has a Draft 0. It should have been a Draft 1, but I rushed through the ending. It is SO ROUGH. Lord. But I'm also proud of it, and can't wait to get it into shape.)

But the novel I wrote in my fourth year; let's talk about that. It was supposed to be the one that made me a literary star. It was going to be a stunning, award-winning debut. It was everything I'd ever wanted to write and couldn't, didn't know how to.

If you could the early drafts of Golden's story as one novel, and its sequel (despite also being under that 50k mark) another, then the one I'd begun in my last year in college was my fourth. (The third was a book I wrote the summer before I started college. I did some revisions with it during my first year, maybe even some in my second, and at some point, put it away.)

The novel I was working on was called NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN. It was about a nonverbal boy with schizophrenia who lived in a boarding school for mentally ill orphans. It was my opus, my literary masterpiece, my Great American Novel set in 1950s England. I cried while writing it, poured myself and my relationships into it in unexpected ways.

NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN was not a bad book, but it was flawed in many ways. I revised it, began to query it. By then, I'd discovered the mysterious "literary agent" that was necessary for me to publish traditionally. (If I'd recognized this sooner, you bet I would have been querying since high school.) And I wanted to prove to myself that I could be published traditionally, because in my mind, I was worthless as a writer if I couldn't. (Now, years later, I find this idea so remarkably flawed and untrue that it makes me sad.)

And you know what? I got some requests for this manuscript. People looked at it. Some people even liked it. But it wasn't working for them, and they couldn't articulate why. My joy at having a few professional eyes on it slowly became disappointment until it was just discouraging. Why did they say that I was a good writer but not accept this book?
There are two reasons for this, I think. One is that the book was fundamentally flawed in certain ways that required a certain reader to finally point out. It shattered the vision for my book, but it did become a better story, even if it lost some of its literary "genius."

The other is, frankly, because publishing is willing to take chances on white writers that it won't on people of color; it will accept straight authors over queer ones, ones who aren't disabled over ones who are. If I was a white author writing about mental illness that wasn't a personal perspective, I think I would have found an agent for this book. Some agents will pick up a deeply flawed book and work on it for years, but the writers who get those chances are very rarely writers of color. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Still—the book was flawed. It took five years of constant work and the right reader to fix it. I've had dozens of readers, half a dozen edits, and it took the right one to finally help me understand what was wrong and what to do about it. The result is that NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN is a better book, and I hope that one day, it might see the light of day.

But to get formal representation, I had to put it down and move on.

The book that got me my agent is called FEATHER AND EARTH. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo last fall. I had no plan going into November; I only decided to do NaNo about a week before it started. I discovered my story as I told it (as I tend to do), posted it to my Patreon each day after I wrote it. I realized, sometime during the month, that I wasn't writing a YA fantasy like I thought; I was writing an MG. For the first time in my writing career, I let myself tell the story how I wanted to, without superimposing a character's voice onto it. (That is to say, this book was the first since the early drafts of Golden that was in third person. Yes, there is character voice in it.) I wove in stories I'd been raised on, let it take on the tone of a legend. I let the characters be brave, and scared, and queer, and nonbinary, and friends. There's no romance in FEATHER AND EARTH. I didn't write my friends into it. I didn't take parts of my own life, except in identity. I wrote the book that my ten-year-old self needed to read.

Yes, needed. Because representation deeply matters to me, and a lifetime of gender dysphoria was solved when I discovered the term nonbinary. I imagined my younger self picking up this book, seeing a Persian demigirl as the protagonist, a protagonist who loved her father and had a complicated relationship with her mother and wanted desperately to be the child her father wanted. I created a world where a thirteen-year-old could face the archdemon of evil with her head held high, where she was stronger than her male friends, where she could have a life worth living simply by doing what felt right.

But I didn't plan to query it, not yet. I planned to do one final revision of NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN, one last attempt. Then, as I sat in my parents' house in December, grieving the death of a friend, I told myself it was enough. I told myself I had to shift focus. I decided to put away NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN and work on FEATHER AND EARTH instead. Things were going to change in 2018, I decided.

Here's what happened: in December, I decided, on a half-whim, to get a Passion Planner on the recommendation of a friend. On January 1st, I sat on my bed, opened it up, and followed the exercises of goal setting. I wrote out my wildest fantasies for three months, one year, three years, my lifetime. I decided which goal under each timeframe would make my life more meaningful. Then, I made a plan for my three-month goal. By April 1, I wanted an agent.

So I planned. I decided that by the first of February, I needed to have FEATHER AND EARTH revised. Then I could send it to beta readers. I needed a preliminary agent list by February 10th. I'd write my query on the 14th, revise it, then start querying on the 19th. I'd give myself two weeks after my betas got back to me to revise some more. In the middle of January, I realized to reach my goal, I needed to revise at least two chapters a day. A little bit afterwards, I freaked out about how bad the manuscript was, put it aside, and finished my NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN revisions in two days. Then I picked FEATHER AND EARTH back up again and finished revisions five days before my deadline.
I wrote my query. I began querying on February 19th, like I said I would. I participated in PitMad while I was at AWP and got nearly 40 agents interested. I sent some more queries. Then I got my first offer of representation while I was in Tampa, on March 10th.

I went from trickles of interest but ultimately passes on NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN to a total of five offers on FEATHER AND EARTH. Several people passed because they didn't have time to finish it after I received my first offer; others passed because they didn't have a strong enough editorial vision for it. I queried 35 people and sent out 27 full manuscripts. For NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN, I queried 65 people (I need to double-check this number, since it sure felt like more) over five years and sent out nine full manuscripts. The difference in my experience querying the two is staggering and also deeply humbling. I'm grateful for my past experiences, because they help me cherish my current success.

I reached my goal. I didn't sign with my agent on April 1, but I had multiple offers. On the books, I became officially represented by Erica Bauman on April 5. I couldn't be more excited.

In order to be successful when you query—especially if you're a person of color—you need to query the right book. That's what all of this has taught me. You might have written The Next Man Booker Prize Or Pulitzer Or Something, but you still might not find an agent. FEATHER AND EARTH caught people's eye because it was the right story at the right time. It's not as ambitious as the other books I've written, and it might not be as lyrical or as exciting, but it's what caught Erica's interest.

Look, I am not an amazing writer. I love writing, but I have to work hard at it, especially my fiction; it does not come naturally to me. I've written awful stories and awful novels and even worse fanfiction, but all of it came together to create a product that someone thought was marketable.

Getting an agent is not a reflection of your quality as a writer; I understand that in a way that I couldn't have before. It's in seeing my unagented writer friends struggle to find representation, writers who are brilliant and powerful and whose stories leave me breathless. It's in seeing trash books like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY getting published that reminds me that the gatekeepers aren't necessarily looking for beautiful writing; they're looking for what sells, maybe. It's in learning about how the whiteness, the straightness, the cisness, the allosexual-ness of publishing has created a barrier to marginalized populations.

I'm hopeful that things are improving. I think someone taking a chance on me—queer, trans, Persian me, who unapologetically writes stories centering that—shows that. And I'm hopeful that someone will read that it took me five and a half books and five years of failed querying to find someone to represent me and not lose hope.

Your words matter; don't ever doubt that. You'll find a way to get them out there, whether that's through traditional publishing or indie publishing or self-publishing. Your reader is waiting for you; you just have to find them.

This was originally featured as a Tuesday Telegram on April 17, 2018. Join us on the third Tuesday of every month at tinyletter.com/naseem. Don't forget that I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, and if you liked this and got a dollar a month to spare, please chip into my Patreon.

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