In 2015, I went to one of Brandon Sanderson’s book signings. I stood in the back of the line, clutching the 150 page manuscript I had worked on for the last 2 years. I knew that it was bad form to ask a famous author to read an unsolicited manuscript. It’s rude, authors don’t have the time, and they won’t agree to do it. Still, I had printed it out. I stood, sweaty palmed, carefully rehearsing what I was going to say.
When my turn came, I saw Brandon glance warily at the manuscript in my hand, as if he knew what was coming.
“I’m not asking you to read it,” I said. “I know you don’t have the time. I’m just hoping that you’ll sign it. It would be really inspirational.”
Brandon took the whole thing in stride. He wrote an encouraging note on my pages, signed my copies of Mistborn and The Way of Kings, and we chatted. He wished me good luck with the writing. As I turned to go, he leaned forward as if telling me a secret, and pointed across the bookstore.
“See the guy in the orange shirt over there? That’s my agent. Why don’t you go and ask him if he’s accepting any queries? Tell him I sent you over.”
Literary agent? I saw the guy in the orange shirt, a description that sounded like some ominous villain, and I knew I was in trouble. Brandon’s simple gesture was incredibly generous–but what he didn’t know was that my book wasn’t finished yet. If asking an author to read your manuscript is frowned upon, querying an unfinished manuscript to a literary agent is a cardinal sin. What the hell was I going to say? What if this agent took the 150 pages out of my hand right then? I glanced down the isles, and saw a clear shot to the door. I could make it out before this orange-shirted man even knew I existed.
“Hey, Joshua!” Brandon Sanderson, my literary hero, yelled across the bookstore, pointing at me. “Talk to him!”
Welp. There went my way out. I shuffled over, trying not to soil myself in the middle of the memoir section, and introduced myself. I asked Joshua exactly what Brandon told me to ask—if he was accepting any queries. Thankfully, he didn’t try to take my unfinished pages. He just shook my hand, gave me his card, and told me to email him the following week. I tried to look casual as I practically ran out of the store.
I smiled the whole 3 miles it took me to bike back home. Brandon’s agent! Brandon freaking Sanderson’s agent. I had never anticipated anything like that happening. Hell, I had almost not printed out my book in the first place, because it felt too ballsy. And here I was, with a Jabberwocky Literary Agency card in my wallet.
For the next 6 days, I called out of work and wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to finish the last third of my book. It was a valiant effort, but 6 days wasn’t enough time, not even close. And I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, query it unfinished. Feeling bummed, I emailed Joshua, and told him that my book wasn’t done but I hoped that I could pitch it to him and his team when it was ready. He sent back a positive note, and told me to send it over when I finished.
I got back to writing–and what I thought would take 2 months took over 2 years. I gutted my story. I eliminated characters, rewrote sections, and then rewrote them again. I changed the ending, and changed the beginning. Two and a half years later, I had a manuscript I was proud of, and I sent it back to Joshua. Susan Velazquez, one of the agents at Jabberwocky, took an interest, and asked me for the full manuscript. Thrilled, and terrified, I sent it back.
The waiting began. I had heard that things at this stage moved very slowly, that that was normal, but I didn’t realize how the waiting would feel. Every time my phone buzzed in my pocket, I jumped. Maybe it was Susan! Had she read it? Did she like it?
The waiting continued. I pitched to other agents, and started compiling a hefty list of rejections. Then, a few months later, Susan responded. She liked the story and characters, and wanted to see a revision! I knew that the agent R+R—revise and resubmit—was a great sign. Most agents receive dozens or more queries every day, and they don’t waste time reading and messing around with projects they don’t see potential in. It wasn’t representation, but it was a tangible sign that I was making progress.
I liked her editorial vision, and jumped into the revision. I cut 19k words, reworked a few character responses, and retooled some of the major plot lines. I sent it back, proud of where it was.
She asked for another revision. This was when I discovered just how much of an editing wizard Susan is. With her guidance, I learned that I used too many words. My characters grinned and smiled and nodded and set their jaws, way more than anyone would want to read. I repeated the same contextual information over and over—sometimes in back to back sentences, sometimes in back to back chapters. I started too many sentences with the words and and but. “We don’t need this,” Susan’s notes said, many times over. “Get us to the action!”
And even as I’m writing this post, I can see her editorial notes, identifying what words I can [to] cut, and how I can clean up the language, make everything [the language] flow , and improve the piece as a whole.
I sent it back, and she asked for a third revision. This one was the deepest. I cut out entire secondary plot lines. I had to take three chapters worth of character development and somehow weave it all into an already jam-packed scene. I added chapters that fleshed out the world, and adjusted character motivations—all while still lowering the word count. This revision took me 5 months. I finished right before Christmas, 2019. My book was at 174k words, down from the original 219k, and it was so much better. I sent it back to her. Again, I waited.
At the beginning of April, Susan called and offered me representation. She said some of the nicest things about my writing that I’ve heard (rivaled only, perhaps, by my mother), and discussed her vision for this book and for my writing career. I don’t know how I kept it together on that call. A few days later I filled out the paperwork, and officially joined the Jabberwocky family.
Getting an agent isn’t the end–it’s the beginning. But for me, this beginning is many years in the making. Six years ago, I decided to be serious about my writing, to really give it a shot. It was four years ago that Brandon signed my manuscript. Two years ago, I first pitched to Susan.
I’m grateful for every step of that process. Grateful Brandon went out of his way to make an introduction. Grateful Joshua gave me a way in the door. And grateful that Susan decided to take a chance on me.
I don’t know where everything will go with this. But I’m stoked to be at this point, and excited for what may come. And it feels really, really good to finally be able the say the words:
“I have an agent.”