7 finished manuscripts
1 dream come true
After more than 8 years of queries and 7 manuscripts, I’m happy to announce that I am now represented by the wonderful Melanie Castillo of Root Literary! I’m thrilled beyond belief to have found an agent that believes in my voice, writing, stories, and self. To have reached this milestone floors me. I still can’t believe it.
As writers often do when they get an agent, I wanted to share my journey to reach this point. Both because I hope it can offer some information and encouragement to others still looking for their agent and because I think my path was a little stranger than most. You see…
I never planned to write books.
I was a poet. And I don’t mean, “I wrote poems for fun when I was a kid” (though I did 100% do that). I mean, I deep-dove on poetry all through high school and college, including writing an Ars Poetica for my degree’s senior honors project to go with a true epic poem. Not to mention that I really, REALLY wanted to be a poet for my career. I’d been writing since I was a little kid—it’s been my passion for most of my life—but the only prose I wrote were fragments of short stories and the occasional start to novels that I never finished because I didn’t believe I could write a good book.
‘Poetry,’ I thought to myself as I graduated with degrees in English and psychology, ‘poetry is a stable career into which I can launch myself!’
Yeah, that didn’t work out. Shockingly, there weren’t a copious supply of full-time, well-paid poet positions available on the market in 2011. Or, y’know, ever. So I did what I needed to do in order to help support myself and my (awesome) wife: get a terrible job at an insurance company. I was an Agency Sales Support Assistant (or A.S.S. Assistant). Weirdly, no one at the company wanted to call it by that acronym. The job was absurdly boring. I worked hard, did well, but my brain was dying from lack of stimulation, so I decided to do something crazy: write a book.
I couldn’t do this on my work computer, of course, so I took the sheets of used printer paper (the to-be-recycled cover sheets from faxes and such where one side just had a date on it) and started writing one line at a time with a pencil. Finish a work task? Write one line. On my single 15-minute break for the shift? Write a few more.
Ultimately, I wrote a 123,000-word epic fantasy that way. My first finished novel.
I adored it… It was full of big ideas and over-the-top action. It was great, dense, and definitely terrible.
In anticipation of this post, I dug through old emails and found evidence that I had sent some queries (all form rejections, of course) before I tried to write something new. And hopefully better.
I’d gotten bitten by the book bug. Bitten BAD.
My 2nd book came not long after. My first kids book (a YA fantasy), it had a lot of great ideas that were all executed pretty poorly. Also it ended on a horrific cliffhanger. But I learned A LOT in writing it. Most especially, I realized that I loved writing kids books. Something about the dynamism, joy, realness, and wonder of kids books really clicked with me. Still does.
I queried my 2nd finished novel around 15 times. All rejections. Bummer, but I already had a new idea.
My 3rd novel took much longer than the 2nd. It was my first science fiction outing (I adore sci-fi), built around AI and questions of humanity centered on a kid protagonist. For the first time, I felt like I’d crafted a complete, engaging story that others could enjoy. It was also a lot more grim and intense than anything else I’d done. In part because that fit the nature of the story, but I also had an incredibly stressful job as the Research Director and Managing Editor for a healthcare advisory firm at the time. When I started the novel we were cruising upward in success, working with healthcare leaders across the country.
Then an outside firm purchased our start-up and I was forced out by a change in management. It was mid 2017. I thought I would get another job in 1-3 months. My wife and I could handle that.
It took 15. 15 months of looking at jobs every day. Applying for everything I could that fit my experience and skills. Hundreds of attempts. 15 months.
And to keep myself sane during that time, I worked on what I loved: my stories.
I wound up finishing my 3rd novel in the immediate aftermath of my healthcare position. I threw myself into the work: revising, editing, polishing, striving every day to make it the best story I’d ever created.
I made a writer Twitter account and participated in my first Twitter Pitch events. I made my first Twitter writer friends. And then I queried my 3rd novel, a YA Sci-fi, 20+ times. I don’t know the exact number. I wasn’t keeping the best records yet; that came later. I submitted to PitchWars and other manuscript/editing contests. I tried as hard as I could.
(It’s worth noting that I queried 20+ times, but I closely considered and researched WAY more agents than that. I’ve always been really picky about who I submit to as I tried to find someone who seemed like they would love my stories and fit well in a working partnership with me.)
All rejections. No requests. Just rejections. It was the best thing I’d ever written. My beta readers loved it. But it still wasn’t getting any success outside of my small circle. And yes, I know I could have sent WAY more queries than that, but throwing myself into what I felt would be more rejections on top of the job rejections I was getting was too much. It hurt.
But anyway, as I waited to hear back on those queries, I threw myself into writing the sequel to that YA Sci-fi. Most of my books (at that time) took over six months to write. This one took 1.5 months, flat. It was crazy. Time and a desperation to find satisfaction in creativity really drove me forward.
But no one wanted that book either. ~30 queries. Many, many pitch events. No requests. All rejections.
All of this takes us from 2012 through 2017. By the beginning of 2018, I came to a decision that would change my life: I was going to write something just for myself. I wouldn’t worry about genre, age category, or comp titles. I wouldn’t even think about what anyone else would get from it. This new book would be just for me. Only for me. Because I needed something to go my way. I had nothing to lose. With my incredible wife’s support, I started on a book featuring a character some of you may have heard of: Iri.
Iri’s story would be a secondary world fantasy inspired by the style, themes, and tone of North American Indigenous oral mythology. I wanted to celebrate the ancestry I carry. Embrace a world filled with people whose skin looked like mine. A world full of stories and beauty and wonder.
I started writing Iri in March of 2018. Finished in less than 3 months. Edited the whole book immediately afterward. I got my first agent request for Iri from a pitch event in July. Then came the big fall pitch event combo: #PitMad and #DVpit, barely a month apart. Iri blew up. I got dozens of agent requests, received likes from editors at major publishers, and met a bunch of really great writers that I’m still friends with to this day.
I wound up with a bunch of full manuscript requests. FULL MANUSCRIPT REQUESTS!
To someone who had gone 4+ years without even getting a partial, I cannot express how revolutionary this felt. People—cool, publishing industry people—wanted to read something I wrote. And many of them enjoyed it… but none of them loved it “enough.”
All querying writers know the line: “I just didn’t fall in love with [BOOK]”. I also got some “this would be great if it was traditionally written.” And a few, “your voice is wonderful BUT…”.
In the end, despite all the successful pitches and queries, I didn’t get any offers. I realized something that had been true from the beginning: my books leaned literary, which could make it hard for them to push an agent over the “offering line”. But I knew I was close, so I kept working. And anyway, I love writing stories, so why would I stop? Honestly, if you had told me at any point over these years that I was destined to never get an agent, I still would’ve kept writing purely for the enjoyment and satisfaction of it.
My 5th book, an MG portal fantasy built around video games like Pokémon and Jade Cocoon, was drafted before the middle of 2019. 21 queries.
1 full request from an agent named Melanie Castillo.
I waited for a reply on that full with an enormous amount of anticipation. Melanie was from a terrific agency (Root Literary!) and her interests leaned literary, just like mine. She seemed upbeat and excited about kids books. A few months later (April of 2020, no less), her reply came: a rejection… but the BEST kind of rejection. The kind where she told me what she loved and what didn’t quite work for her. She encouraged me and told me that I had a wonderful voice for middle grade. Even better, I could tell from how she described the book that she got it. What the story was really, truly about.
I’m a firm believer that fantasy and sci-fi novels should use their fantastical settings to tackle real world issues that can be difficult to address in contemporary stories, and I could tell Melanie understood. She instantly shot to the top of my list of agents to query with other projects. A lot of writers talk and joke about their dream agents; Melanie became one of mine. She was on the shortlist from that day forward. (Fun fact: around this point, my wife decided that Melanie was her preferred agent for me to get someday!) In the last line of her rejection, Melanie said she would be happy to see something else from me, and I just so happened to have this one story about a girl named Iri and an adventure across two worlds.
Now, this wasn’t the Iri that I’d first queried to agents in 2018. Nor the completely revised, rewritten, and queried version from 2019. This was a third, brand-new version that I’d been working on since the pandemic started. Now an MG fantasy, I’d worked SO hard to bridge the necessarily complex style of storytelling with easier-to-approach narration and a smoother runway to the core plot and conflict. With her permission, I sent the first chapter to Melanie. She asked for the full the next day.
This was it. This had to be it.
Here was an agent who got my style. Loved my voice. Enjoyed my work. And I’d just sent her the best thing I’d ever written. This HAD to be it. I’d sent ~90 queries for Iri. Pitched it in at least 15 events. Gotten 15 full requests plus requests from editors at five major publishers, including an open invitation to submit Iri directly to one. I was SO close. I just needed to wait a little longer.
Of course, 2020 interfered with everyone’s everything. We all fought to survive the disease, our anxiety, our fears, our depressions. We lost loved ones. We grieved. We struggled to be creative and hope even as the world around us seemed dim.
I started writing a new book—a YA space opera—and got 40,000 words in before something more joyful stole my attention: a modern YA fantasy involving a magic food competition. Still waiting for Melanie’s reply, I spent the last months of 2020 feverishly drafting this new book.
And then the email came in the first days of 2021. It started so good. Again, she loved my voice. Loved the beauty of the descriptions and the stories. BUT…
She had some concerns. She wanted to know if I would consider revising and resubmitting.
I admit, that hurt a little. Sure, it wasn’t a No. But it also wasn’t a Yes. Still, I know that one of the most important things to reaching your dreams is perseverance, so I told her I was interested because of course I was. She was still one of my dream agents.
I had finished my edits on my new YA Fantasy—my 7th finished manuscript—and gotten that querying as I waited. And despite my and my beta readers’ sky high hopes, my queries weren’t doing great. With Melanie’s Iri email in mind, I started reworking Iri.
I had a small number of queries still out on the YA Fantasy as I worked on revisions. No other prospects. Nothing particularly promising to talk about. 4.5 months had passed since Melanie’s last email. I was thinking about how I would pitch my new book in the June #PitMad. And then, one Wednesday afternoon utterly out of the blue, I got an email. It was Melanie. And she wanted to talk to me on the phone about Iri and some other things like my new project.
An agent. Wanted. To talk to me. On the phone. HOLY CRAP.
This had never happened before. In the eight years since I sent out those first queries, no agent had ever asked to call me. Let alone an agent I liked.
Some of you may immediately have thought, upon reading this, AND YOU KNEW SHE WAS GONNA OFFER.
But you’re wrong. I didn’t know that. Sure, I had the crazy, distant hope that she was calling to offer… but offer on what? She loved two of my books, loved my writing and my voice, but she’d gently declined both full manuscripts. I convinced myself she wasn’t going to offer in anticipation of our call a few days later.
And I was wrong.
Melanie went on to explain that she couldn’t stop thinking about the voice of my stories and the way I write. She explained the potential she sees for me and my career. And it was everything I’d been waiting more than 8 years to hear. I notified the few agents still considering my material, some of whom asked for (and got) full manuscripts and shared glowing words with me, but none of them held a candle to what Melanie offered. Like I (and my wife) felt over a year ago, Melanie gets my stories. Gets why I write. She understands what I’m trying to do and agrees that kids books (especially MG) can have such a big, positive impact for their readers. She wants to help me bring my stories to the world.
Of course, I accepted the offer.
And now, here I sit, writing this gargantuan post to tell an honestly short version of a gargantuan story. There’s so much more I want to say; want to explain. So many moments of triumph and utter heartbreak. So many times I was cut down by someone and uplifted by someone else. So many times I watched friends who started querying long after me succeed long before me as I cheered them on despite the part of me that hurt. But that’s the way of things. Everyone’s journey is full of uncountable details. Innumerable little moments where we choose to go forward when we want to give up. Choose to try again even though the last 200 attempts have failed. And sometimes that feels like insanity. That’s what people will say, of course: that doing the the same thing over and over expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. But in the words of activist Olga Misik: “I guess hope is insanity.”
And I along with my wife, my parents, my sister, my in-laws, and my friends, have had so much hope throughout this journey. Even in the darkest, hardest days.
We have even more hope for what wonders the future will bring.
With all that said, I want to end on gratitude:
Thank you to God for making all this possible and inspiring me to write.
Thank you to my wife, Reneé, without whom I would be lost. I believe in the you that believes in me. I love you so much.
Thank you to my mom, who always treated every story like a good one… even when they definitely weren’t.
Thank you to my in-laws, who have become such fierce supporters to me on this journey.
Thank you to my friends, who have been cheerleaders, beta readers, and all-around cool people.
Thank you to Melanie, who believes in me and my voice. Who has a vision for the stories I’ve dreamed about for so long.
I can’t wait for what comes next. I can’t wait to show you all the worlds I imagine and the characters I love. It’s time to find out what the future holds.
(If you have questions about querying and my journey or simply want to discuss, feel free to comment here or find me on Twitter via @Dreamertide!)
Been following your journey since 2018 when we met on Twitter. Even though I’m a little sad that, in my friend group, I’m now alone in the query trenches, I’m so happy you got an agent! (I’ve actually been praying for you to find one…so yay!) It’s actually relieving to see how much you’ve been rejected. It gives me hope that I will someday (rather miraculously) land an agent for Winter Soul.
Can’t wait to read Iri!
Kristen, I’m so grateful for your kindness and for your prayers!! That’s so very sweet of you. I know it’s hard to be in those trenches, but even though I’ve made it to the other side, please know that I’m still pulling for you, still got your back, and still praying for you, too. I believe in your effort, passion, and perseverance. Getting my agent was a miracle, so I know you can get your miracle, too. And until that day, I’ll be cheering for you.
Great story! Interesting how you wanted to be a poet at first. I imagine your work is very lyrical. I can’t wait to see what publisher snaps up your book! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Cate! My work definitely tends toward lyrical, particularly in IRI. Plus most of my books wind up with a poem in there somewhere. I can’t help it!