The How I Got My Agent Post
This is a post I’ve spent the better part of eight years imaging, turning over in my head. It’s also a post I didn’t exactly ever think I would write. I still keep waiting to discover I’m in some weird time loop and I’ve stumbled into an alternate reality where I, Lucie Witt, received an offer of representation from a literary agent.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in myself, or my writing. No one keeps persevering for seven years who doesn’t believe in their work/worth. But when you spend long enough in the query trenches, you start to think you’ll never get out.
This is the long version of the story, not just because I want to be indulgent (I totally do) but because it was the longest stories that gave me the most hope when I was shelving books and organizing rejections into email folders. I don’t begrudge (very much) the writer who writes their first book, sends out their first query and lands their dream agent in one fell swoop. That just wasn’t me, and those stories never made me feel much better.
Like most writers, I always wrote, but I didn’t finish a novel until my mid-twenties.
I started law school six days after officially finishing undergrad. I moved in with my boyfriend and became an involved adult (eventually a step parent) in two little boys’ lives. I stopped writing, mostly.
My son was born between third and fourth semester, over winter break. I was back in school eight days later, even though I wasn’t medically cleared to lift my backpack.
I stopped writing, definitively.
Then, at the start of my last semester of law school, a devastating ice storm hit. School was cancelled, and we were snowed in our tiny apartment. Miraculously, we had power even though our block looked so bad it made the cover of our local indie paper:
I started daydreaming about magic and heroes and who gets the glory. Next thing you know I was writing, and by graduation I had a draft of an adult urban fantasy book.I started researching literary agents and drafting a query but pretty quickly realized this book I loved so much was structurally flawed and just … not ready. So in the desk drawer Book 1 went (queries sent: less than 5).
I decided to try NaNoWriMo and wrote a magical YA book. I read every post in the Query Shark archives (then it was around 220, I think) and took notes as I went. I queried this book and got nothing but a stack of form rejections in return. I realized I took an MG idea and tried to force it into a YA book. I shelved Book 2, too (queries sent: under 20).
I started Book 3. It featured dual timelines and this contemporary back-story layered over a dystopian-lite thriller plot. I queried it and got all the WTF and form responses it probably deserved (queries sent: under 20). The feedback was basically “Girl, what?”
When I shelved my third book I realized something important. All three of my books had the same problem – trying to shove too much story in one book. So I cut the over the top storyline in Book 3 and focused on the backstory, because I really liked the characters. I started over and wrote a new, better book.
I queried Book 4. I entered Bakers Dozen, got selected, and got some bids. Requests started to come in as I began querying. I sent each request off, hope blossoming in my heart, only to find the ground wasn’t so fertile after all. Rejections trickled in. Many personalized this time – some had a hard time relating to my main character, some felt the pacing was off, some just didn’t love it enough.
I kept querying, but my pace dwindled down to nothing (queries sent: about 25).
This book joined the others in my desk drawer. They had company now – things were snuggly in there.
I started working on a Book 5. It was about two teenagers but also about police brutality and what happens when a small town ignites. About 58k in to drafting, Mike Brown was murdered and the Ferguson uprising began, and I couldn’t write the story anymore. I felt stalled, stumped, incapable of thinking about fictionalized violence when the news featured Black women being pelted with tear gas canisters, civilians and journalists being attacked by their government on a daily basis.
Unable to continue Book 5, I set it aside (not shelved permanently, but for awhile).
I didn’t know where to go next. In the time I’d been writing all these books I’d graduated law school, gotten pregnant with my second child in not the most expected manner, taken the bar, had my second son, suffered homelessness and poverty that lasted years (remember, I graduated law school in 2009) and had to move in with my parents (who are not wealthy by any measure), come close on several occasions to really great jobs, and, finally landed not one but two jobs in quick succession (a legal gig and teaching, both of which I still do today).
My writing ebbed and flowed during those times. Long months passed wordlessly.
You’ll never be that kind of writer, not a real one, I told myself. You’ve been wasting your time. I found myself employed and somewhat more stable, but listless as a writer. I had three novels completely shelved, one novel in purgatory between the query trenches and the desk drawer, and one half-written novel I really loved but felt incapable of finishing.
The turning point
A writer I like and follow on Twitter, Daniel José Older, was hosting an online class – Storytelling Fundamentals. The class, a nice blend of craft and academic/theory really appealed to me, I had a little cash saved up (this is rare as fuck when you have double student loan debt and four kids), and I enrolled on a whim.
I started writing a dark, sexy magical book just for me (this is Book 6, if you’re still counting). My pages were well received during workshop and the feedback, the back and forth, the encouragement and the community made me excited to write again. I built up a reserve of something I’d been missing for awhile – confidence.
I kept working on my twisty magic adult book. I noticed tweets for Pitch Wars, the popular contest run by the super-powered Brenda Drake. The book I was working on wouldn’t be done in time to make the deadline.
I thought about my contemporary YA in the desk drawer (the one that got requests, Book 4). I knew there was something there, and maybe with a mentor I could pull that something out.
I entered. I didn’t get selected.
But one of the mentors offered me another opportunity. Was I, this mentor wanted to know, willing to toss about 75% of my manuscript, including the main plot line, and make the conflict from the first one-third the central conflict of the book?
The question could also be put like this: about 20k in you turn right, do you think you could turn left instead and write a completely different book about the same main characters?
I thought about it. The suggestion made sense to me on the gut-check level. It would be a completely new book, but I was excited to try it.
I put all other projects aside, slashed my story down to a core 15,000 words, and took about six months writing a brand new book. I edited on screen and on paper and repeated the process until I thought I would scream. I read each and every of the 75,500 words out loud to myself and fixed clunky sentences and cut unnecessary words.
I had a new YA contemporary book when I was done (Book 7). The strongest book, craft wise, I’d ever written.
I worked on my query as I went, and then I sent out 37 queries over a roughly 10 week period.
The very first query I sent was to an agent I was friendly with on Twitter, one who’d given me query feedback via a contest. I sent that query at 8:17pm. It was during BEA, so I didn’t expect to hear much back. Instead I woke up to a partial request sent at 11:40pm. I cheered and my heart did that flip-hope thing requests inevitably caused, and I sent off my first fifty pages, fingers crossed.
I kept querying. Some form rejections came in but so did partial and full requests – more than ever before. I diligently tracked all my responses and closed out NORMAN queries. I tried not to think too much about those fulls and partials.
A hair over two months after I sent that first query, the first agent got back to me, enthusiastic about my partial, apologizing about the delay, and asking for the full.
I sent it, tried to forget about it, and left for the beach with my family.
We got home late Thursday. Friday, early afternoon, I picked up my phone and saw an email from the first agent.
I braced myself for what comes next. It’s what always comes next. It’s how the story goes. No laugh track needed, because I know right where to expect the punch line. This was probably the kind rejection that renders you incapable of even properly hating the tasteless jerk. The compliment followed by the but and regretfully.
Only this one didn’t say that. It said I’ve finished the book, can we chat?
My husband sat next to me in the bed. I threw the phone out in front of me. “It’s happening,” I said. “It’s happening.”
He somehow knew what I meant. “Really? From an agent? This is it?” he asked, jumping up and wrapping me in his arms.
I sobbed. Cried my eyes out. The dam that had been holding strong since 2009 burst (no joke, I can’t even think about it without tearing up).
Then I got my shit together because we scheduled our call for just an hour and a half later.
The week that followed The Call was one of the longest weeks of my life.
I honestly kept expecting the first agent to write or call back and tell me never mind, my mistake, what was I thinking, offering you representation.
Even when the second agent wrote that she wanted to talk, it all still felt tenuous. Fragile.
Even when the enthusiastic eleventh hour full requests came in from multiple other agents who asked for a few days to consider, it still felt like a mistake.
I cannot stress enough how much every agent I dealt with was kind and encouraging, even the ones who were critical and who passed or stepped aside.
Backtrack to that first call. After I cried my eyes out I decided to fold laundry while listening to Hamilton until it was time for our call, because that’s how one distracts themselves, right?
The second the clock switched to 2:30pm my phone rang. First Agent jumped right in, telling me a few of the things she loved about my book. Then she paused. “I have a question, though. Did you use a sensitivity reader?”
I sensed this was a toe testing the water.
I told her I did, and voiced how important getting representation right for my readers is to me. I let her know since submitting the book there was one thread in the story that bothered me and I thought needed to be revised.
She wanted to see how I would take the suggestions or criticisms as a white writer writing diverse characters. I wanted to see if she would brush off my concerns about getting something just right and say it was fine as is, or if she would disagree with my concerns. I knew I wanted an agent who would call me out, which means having an agent with both the desire and ability to do so.
As soon as we hashed that out she said: “Okay, now that we discussed that I want you to know this is an offer of representation.”
That time, I didn’t burst into tears.
We talked for another thirty or forty minutes and her business acumen was just as impressive as the vision she shared for my book and my career. She answered every question I had on the spot, she provided the agency contract, offered me lots of time to notify other agents, and was there to explain any contract terms I had questions about.
The client I talked to sang her praises, and he was awesome on top of it.
I would have been lucky to sign with either agent. But I knew in my bones Caitie was the right agent not just for this book, but for my career. I am thrilled to say that I officially signed a contract with Caitie Flum of Liza Dawson associates.
No, you took a contract signing selfie.
Moral of the story
I think every single writer who gets an agent and shares their story says the same thing at the end – don’t give up. That’s for a reason. You see my backstory stretches seven years and includes four shelved and two half done novels.
Perseverance is a necessary trait in a writer. Even if months pass where you don’t write much, even if you don’t feel like a “real” writer, just keep writing, keep bravely putting old things aside and trying something new, and don’t ever give up.