I thought it would be helpful for people if they saw the stats for the two books I queried! So I hope these encourage people to keep writing and querying. You can also read a more narrative form of my querying journey. There are some brief summaries for context here.
I wrote two ~novels~ (YA fantasies) before I turned 18. I rewrote and revised them for 9 years, but I think the longest they ever were were ~35k. Then, the summer after my senior year, I wrote my first 55k-length novel, called AMANDA, OR FINE LINES AND AMBIGUITIES (yeah, I know). It was a YA contemporary that was deeply problematic! Anyway, I had no idea that agents were a thing, so I just worked on it, submitted it to a contest or two, thought maybe I'd publish it one day.
I didn't write much more than a few nonfiction pieces during college, until I started taking creative writing workshops. I wrote a couple of short stories, then the summer after my third year, I began a new novel. It was called NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN, and I finished it by the end of my fourth year. I didn't query it right away, apparently—I thought I did, but I was wrong! The queries started the next summer, summer of 2014.
I queried this book until the end of 2017, through NUMEROUS revisions. I re-sent revisions to some of the agents who read the full. So here are the stats:
Needless to say, I was devastated that NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN wasn't getting picked up. One problem was that I couldn't tell the genre to save my life. To be fair, neither could publishing professionals—but this is not a great sign to someone who is trying to sell your book. I moved from calling it a YA medical thriller to dystopia to coming-of-age something (I cringe when I see that in my old queries). The truth is, this is adult literary fiction, plain and simple. Not really sure why I was so resistant to this idea, but there you have it.
Another reason NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN didn't get picked up was because I'm a queer writer of color with mental illness. Sorry to put it bluntly, but not sorry. I'm not saying NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN is a literary masterpiece, but I have read way worse books by white writers that have been picked up by agents. Yes, NC was deeply flawed and ambitious, but I have zero doubt that if I were a white writer, it would have been picked up eventually, especially after future revisions.
Anyway. I decided, while I was querying, to work on something else. Remember those two novellas I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I started a fresh version of that story, called THE BALLAD OF SHANG AND GILEAD. I talk briefly about how much this story shaped me in my How I Got My Agent post.
You know how I said AMANDA was problematic? BALLAD was fifty times more problematic. I learned a lot by writing it and stepping away, and thank GOD I only sent out a sample of it to one agent. (Ironically, this agent would later offer me representation, too.) Anyway, I had a 115k draft of this epic YA fantasy, the first in a trilogy, that I was going to let stew before I revised.
Except... the people who read BALLAD couldn't get into it. My husband hated it, said I was capable of so much more. My betas struggled through it. I was mortified and devastated and pretty sure I didn't have another book in me, at all.
The querying stats for Ballad was:
Needless to say, that first and only query was jumping the gun.
In the meantime, I was working on a short story for my application to the writing workshop Clarion West. This is a summer workshop held in Seattle for beginning SFF writers—super competitive to get into, super prestigious. In college, I'd written a few stories here and there, and one of them had been an alternative universe of BALLAD. So I took that story and rewrote it with new characters, a new structure, then had to butcher it in order to hit the page limit for the workshop. (I didn't get in two years in a row, haha.)
But in writing the story, I realized that I had enough to flesh into a novel. A standalone YA fantasy, nothing too fancy or ambitious. At this time, I read N.K. Jemisin's THE FIFTH SEASON, and the use of the second person sang to me. When I got to the end and saw what she was doing and why, it clicked to me that second person was exactly what this fantasy needed, and the pages began to pour out of me a few months after I'd written BALLAD.
I was about 50k into this book when NaNoWriMo started inching towards me. I'd attempted a few NaNos in the past but nothing seriously. This time, I started with a few questions, SPIRITED AWAY x UNDERTALE, and a host of myths on which I'd been raised.
I've heard this from a few people who had given up on the query trenches (Julie C. Dao talks about it in the Write or Die podcast), but it was when they wrote a book for themselves, the book of their heart, that they finally got picked up (or, in Julie's case, published). FEATHER AND EARTH was that book for me. I finally just let myself write something super Persian, super queer, and myth-based—something I didn't know I had in me. I wrote it in a tone that was true to me, a sort of whimsical legend that ended with "and they lived" and not "and they lived happily ever after." I hit the 75k mark by the end of the month, the fastest I'd ever drafted, and I began to wonder—what if this was the book?
I set concrete plans for myself: revise in January, sent to betas by the beginning of February, start drafting a query, start querying February 19th. I participated in the March 8 PitMad to huge results. I got my first "let's set up a call" email on March 11 and my first offer that following week.
The stats for FEATHER AND EARTH:
So, as you can see, the results were HUGELY different. I went from 9 fulls on NC to 27 for FAE, with 5 offers at the end of it. (I'm still stunned about that O_O) I'll do a "how do you choose with multiple offers" post at some point, but mine wasn't the fairytale "I just knew" at the time—it became "yes, I made the right choice" afterwards.
It took two novellas, three and a half novels, and four years in order to find my agent. So if you're feeling despondent—I've been there, and don't worry. You'll get out of it. Find some friends in the trenches and great critique partners, people who've got your back during this. When I queried NC, I did so alone. PitMad for FAE found me a ton of great friends and new CPs, and I'm thrilled they're with me on this journey.
YOU'VE GOT THIS.
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