How I Got My Agent
My favorite book-world things to read that aren’t actual books are How I Got My Agent stories. I love remembering that everyone’s road to publication is different, and that behind every shiny book deal is a story of years, if not decades, of rejection, anxiety, confusion, and a half dozen books that will never see the light of day.
This January will be my one-year anniversary of signing with my incredible agent, Kathleen Rushall. And while 2018 has been full of exciting book things that I’ve been working toward for a very, very long time, I want to take this moment at the end of the year to reflect on my own years of rejection, anxiety, confusion, and the books that will never see the light of day.
I present to you the story of…
How I got My Agent.
Back in 2011 I had my first software engineering internship. As a way to keep my creative juices flowing while doing purely technical work for the first time in my life, I got myself into a 500 words a day writing challenge with two friends of mine, Beth and Boggy Fama. At the time, I had never written anything longer than a few pages, but I had always been a good writer (or so I thought), and I read a lot of books (or so I thought), and I decided that some basic reading and writing skills were enough to get me started on a YA dystopian novel. But not just any YA dystopian novel. I was going to write the best YA dystopian novel that ever existed. The Hunger Games meets Divergent meets Matched with a little bit of The Golden Compass mixed in. My YA dystopian novel was going to be so good that it was going to get published (or so I thought).
I had no idea what this book would be about, but I knew the formula: girl lives in world kind of like ours but not quite like ours, girl realizes world is wrong in some way, girl escape the world to try and fix it, girl falls in love with a boy who has scruffy hair and a crooked smile.
Bing. Bang. Boom.
I started writing 500 words a day, and by the end of the summer I had a written 90,000 words of a time travel/dystopian/YA romance novel.
So, I revised! I spent the entirety of my junior year of college revising this project, now called THE FROZEN CITY. By my senior year, I was convinced this book was going to be the next Big Thing and I strong-armed a fiction teacher into taking the project on for my senior thesis.
I spent all of my senior year revising, and by graduation in spring of 2013, I just knew the project was ready for publication. And I knew that in order to get published, first I needed an agent.
I queried 10 agents with THE FROZEN CITY and, shockingly, I got zero requests for more pages.
I was disappointed, but I had done so much research into the publication process, and I had read so many posts like this one, that I knew this wasn’t abnormal. Besides, I had already started writing another project.
The Second Book
This time, I knew what I wanted to write before I wrote it. I had the whole story in my head, and I couldn’t write fast enough to get it out. The project was (and is) called INKSTAINED, and it’s a MG magical realism novel, though at the time I thought it was just a short YA with a young protagonist.
I cranked the first draft out in under a month, and then I spent the rest of the summer between graduation and my first job chasing down anyone who was willing to do a beta read for me. My inbox from that time is cluttered with me sending INKSTAINED to a friend, then making midnight panic revisions, and then emailing them again at 2 AM like “Oh, sorry, can you read this one instead? Made some changes :)”
Unlike with THE FROZEN CITY, with INKSTAINED I had found a story worth telling. It’s a story that I’ve come back to many times over the years, and it’s the story that got me my first full and partial requests.
Well, not at first
First, I queried 10 agents over the course of a few months, and got 10 rejections. But these rejections felt different than the rejections for THE FROZEN CITY. These were… personal. Some said that they liked my writing but that the beginning didn’t grab them. Some said it was funny and sweet but that they weren’t sure if it was YA or MG, and therefore they would have trouble selling it. Some people simply held on to it for a long time considering it, but ultimately passed.
So I revised some more with the scant agent feedback I was given, and then I queried again. I sent it to 22 more agents over the course of the next year. I did #PitchWars, #PitMad, I did feedback giveaways, and I made my friends read it, and read it, and read it. This time, when I queried, about half of my rejections were personalized.
But the real excitement here is that, for the first time ever, people were requesting more pages! Out of 22 queries, I had 3 full requests and 2 partial requests. And furthermore, when people did request more pages, they were sitting on those pages for a really long time, and coming back with very detailed feedback. One agent essentially wrote me an edit letter and said if I ever implemented those changes she would love to take another look!
It’s been three years since I received those emails. I (spoiler alert!) have an agent and a book deal, and yet, even today, when I was scrolling through my inbox from that time in order to write this post, my heart fluttered when I came across a partial request. Someone likes my characters? Someone is excited about this story?? Someone read my words and wanted more??? Even going over my personalized rejections thrills me to this day, because someone cared enough to give me feedback!
Those tiny nuggets of success are what got me through the querying slog. Every time I got so much as a positive rejection letter, I forwarded that email to everyone I knew. Nothing made me happier than a good rejection.
I queried 32 agents with INKSTAINED over two years, and I got 3 full requests and 2 partial requests. I got 9 nice rejections and 18 stock rejections/ignores. But even with all of this good news, I still had no offers of representation.
I do want to return to revising INKSTAINED at some point. I’ve gotten great feedback on it and it still holds interest for me, but the project has been in a drawer for several years because in 2015 I decided to get my MFA.
If you had asked me when I graduated college if I would ever go back to school, I would have laughed in your face. And yet here I was, not two years later, spending my own money to go to graduate school.
But not just any graduate school.
Hamline University has one of the most incredible MFA programs in the country, and, I would argue, the best one for anyone who wants to write kidlit. The faculty is star-studded, the staff is attentive, brilliant, and hard-working, and the program is low-residency, so you don’t need to uproot your life to participate. The two-year program consists of four remote semesters and five in-person residencies. Each residency is ten days long and feels like writing camp. You spend the residencies attending lectures, readings, workshops, author talks, and agent panels. There are picture book read-alouds at night, and dorm parties where a bunch of full-grown adults discuss what they think the bunny wants in Goodnight Moon, and when the residency is over, you’re paired with an advisor who works with you for the duration of the semester on a project of your choosing.
Throughout my time there, Hamline taught me how to think critically about my craft, it showed me what books I should read, it introduced me to the kidlit community of the past, present, and future, and it gave me permission to spend inordinate amounts of time by myself, writing.
I was at Hamline from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2017, and during that time I wrote a lot and queried very little. In those two years I drafted two and a half full-length novels, as well as fifteen picture books. But in that whole two year timespan, I only sent out 8 queries: 2 for INKSTAINED (1 partial request, and 1 polite rejection) and 6 for a picture book.
This is where the story starts to get interesting.
In 2017 I wrote a picture book called PASTA PASTA LOTSA PASTA. If you couldn’t guess, it’s about pasta. I only sent it to a few agents, but one of those agents is named Kathleen Rushall.
If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because she’s my agent now.
But she didn’t accept me right away.
I sent her my picture book draft and she liked it enough to request more work. But, I’m not really a picture book writer, so in addition to sending her more picture books, I also sent her the first three chapters of every book I had ever written, including the first few noodly poems in this totally off-the-wall novel in verse idea I had about a girl learning to code that combines poetry and programming languages. The book was called THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES.
Now, normally I would never, ever, ever send an agent something that I hadn’t even drafted yet, but this agent was specifically interested in girls in tech, and I’m a girl in tech, and my new character was a girl in tech, so I figured… why not!
I didn’t hear from Kathleen for six months. In that time I drafted and revised THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES with my advisor, Laura Ruby, and when I graduated with a shiny new master’s degree, I decided to nudge that agent who had liked PASTA, and tell her that oh, by the way, I’m still working on that novel in verse, sign me please.
And she got back to me!
With a no.
As it turns out, she had closed herself to queries earlier that year, and she already had so many picture book writers, and while she loved my work, she was going to have to pass.
The Final Push
I was disappointed, but now I had a plan. I really loved this novel in verse idea, I had piles of feedback from beta readers, and for the first time ever I was certain that the story I was telling was well-written, important, and was ripe for the market.
I spent six months revising THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES. I called in every favor I could, ultimately roping in roughly 12 beta readers, and forcing my mom to read the same book 15 times all the way through. I won a 50-page critique from Cordelia Jensen in the auction to benefit the US Virgin Islands, and she encouraged me to delete a plot line that I had been reluctant to remove for the last nine months. But with yet another voice telling me it was the right call, I removed it.
And the story started to sing.
I sent out 10 query letters in 2017, and out of the 10 I got 2 full requests that turned into passes.
But I wasn’t going to give up. I had come so far and I was certain that this book was The Book, and besides, I was about to go to Andrea Brown’s Big Sur writing retreat. Maybe I’d get some good feedback there, or make some good connections, or maybe I’d even come home with an agent!
That didn’t quite happen, but it did end up being a big weekend for me.
The first cool thing that happened at the Big Sur writing retreat was that my first workshop leader, Mitali Perkins, author of YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, fixed my beginning. Move this piece here and that piece there, and voila! You’ve got a hook!
I went back to my room after that workshop and didn’t leave until the first ten pages of my book (now called IN THE KEY OF CODE) were perfect. Then I went to my workshop with Caryn Wiseman, an agent at Andrea Brown, who did the exact same thing for the next ten pages.
By the end of the weekend, I had finally, finally, nailed my opening.
That’s the first cool thing that happened at the Big Sur writing retreat: revision.
The second cool thing that happened is that I met my now-agent, Kathleen Rushall, in person.
This was the first time I’d ever met an agent who I had queried, and I was honestly kind of nervous. I had received so many stock rejections from so many talented agents, and let’s be honest, Kathleen was probably just being nice when she said that she had wanted to sign me but already had so many clients that it just wasn’t feasible. But nonetheless, I figured I should go up and introduce myself. Maybe she would remember me!
Well, not only did she remember me, but she took me aside during dinner to tell me to my face how much she loved my projects. She told me that she was so close to signing me but she really did have a full plate and she just knew I was going to find an incredible agent, and soon.
I was so in shock after this interaction that I would have not believed it had even happened if someone else hadn’t witnessed the whole thing and gushed with me about it after.
The last cool thing that happened at Big Sur was that Caryn Wiseman told me to query her with IN THE KEY OF CODE once the whole book was as good as the first twenty pages.
I waited until I got back to San Francisco to fully freak out about this because as it turns out I had developed strep throat while at the retreat and spent the next three days unable to swallow.
But once I could swallow again, I got back to work. I spent all of Christmas revising, and by January 1st 2018, I knew I was inches away from getting my dream agent.
I queried only 5 people, but they the right 5. One was Caryn Wiseman, who had asked me to query her, two were referrals from editor and author friends, and two were cold queries for agents who had specifically asked for STEM novels and novels in verse.
I had my first offer of representation within the week.
I kid you not, I dropped my phone in excitement. I was shaking, I was stuttering, I was half-asleep because I had just landed back in California after a weekend in Boston, but when I woke up the next morning, the email was still there: I had my first offer of representation.
I could have cried, and I did.
But it didn’t end there! By the end of the second week, I had one more offer of representation, and two more agents were “reading and loving” my book.
Now, a careful reader might notice that me querying Caryn Wiseman with Andrea Brown would preclude me from querying Kathleen Rushall at Andrea Brown. So how did I end up with Kathleen?
A lot of the bigger agencies have asterisks at the end of their submission guidelines where they say “a ‘no’ from one of us is a ‘no’ from all of us.” Well, that’s because agents pass books around between them. If they like something, but it isn’t quite right for their list, they give it to a friend.
Caryn Wiseman knew that I had had prior communication with Kathleen, and ultimately, when she felt she couldn’t sign me for IN THE KEY OF CODE, she forwarded it to her.
Kathleen called me the very next day to offer me representation.
Final querying stats
4.5 novels written
15 picture books written
3 novels queried
1 picture book queried
15 full requests
5 partial requests
3 offers of representation
Now, one year later, THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES/IN THE KEY OF CODE is called EMMY IN THE KEY OF CODE and it is coming out in fall of 2019 with HMH/Versify!!! I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up, and I know my journey of writing/revising/rejection/acquisition is far from over. And as I dive in to the first round of revisions on a brand new work in progress, I couldn’t be more excited to see what 2019 has in store.
Aimee Lucido is the author of EMMY IN THE KEY OF CODE and the upcoming RECIPE FOR DISASTER (Versify, September 14, 2021). She’s a software engineer who has worked at Google, Facebook, and Uber, and she got her MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University. She lives with her husband and mini golden doodle named Bowser in Berkeley where she likes to bake, run, and write crossword puzzles.