How I Got My Agent, How Failing Helped

GOOD NEWS: I have an agent!!!! The whole story is below!

WARNING: The WHOLE story is below. Seriously, this post is loooooong and maybe wanders a bit in the rambling-territory—but I truly believe that it’s just as important to celebrate the struggles as it is to celebrate the victories. I didn’t want to leave anything out.

EXTRA WARNING: Mulan gifs galore!


The first time I queried with my first finished novel, I failed. In more ways than one. And to be honest, the period when I tried just wasn’t a great time for me in general. I was a senior in my last semester of college, my grandmother was severely ill, and I was constantly heading home from class/on weekends to be with my family and make visits to the nursing home, and later on, the hospital. And on top of that, I was querying a novel that 1) didn’t have much of a market anymore, and 2) still needed A LOT of heavy-duty work, which I didn’t realize until the rejections started piling up.

Rejection after rejection after rejection.

Overall, it was a combination that down-spiraled into a lot tears and utter dejection. After spending so many years of my college life crafting this first book, nights of missing out on parties and so many social events just to write in the confines of my room, I couldn’t help but feel angry and confused. Bitter and frustrated. How could all that hard work not pay off or amount to anything but a shelved manuscript? Shouldn’t hard work always end with success? I did all the research, didn’t I? How can something that I’m so passionate and proud of be making matters even worse?

These questions, and more, flitted through my head constantly, and it didn’t make things any easier. The rejections piled higher, and my grandmother’s condition wasn’t improving. Even worse, those ugly feelings and questions swirling around festered until I was only focusing on the unfairness of it all. Because I had worked hard for something, I thought I deserved it. It really isn’t a horrible philosophy when you think about it—however, when you start expecting anything in this sort of industry, that’s where the trouble arises. Going in with high expectations and dreams of grandeur can only hurt you in a game that is mostly luck and chance after all the hard work. This was one of the many lessons I learned during this period, and while at most times I felt like I was breaking apart from all the things I couldn’t control, I’ve always believed that facing hard times was just as formative as the good times. Even more so. It had a power, if one was able to acknowledge it, to make someone stand a little straighter the next time they got back up and tried again.

No surprise, I didn’t get far with that novel. When landing an agent and seeking that validation became the only measure of success to me, that’s when I knew I’d truly failed as a writer. I was no longer writing for me anymore, which, all along, was the true poison to all of this. Writing and reading had always been my safe places. My pillars. And if one of them falls, then in many ways, I do, too.

So while I didn’t get an agent that first time around, I did get back up. And I was finally okay, because I knew I had another story in me, just begging to be written.

The initial ideas for Pirate Fantasy first came to me years back, but I was in no way ready for it. Any attempt fizzled so quickly because it was just too big of a story, and at that time, I wasn’t prepared to write it. Yet.

But years later, when family, school, and querying life wasn’t going so great, I finally opened a blank Word doc and decided it was time to escape. Not going to lie, I was semi-terrified to start a new story. Seeing a completely blank page in the beginning can be both exhilarating and frightening when you’re not sure how it’s going to end. But very quickly, I shook off that fear, resolving to not think about how this was all going to end. This time, I knew without a doubt that I was absolutely writing for myself.

It took me around four years to write my first complete novel. I finished writing the first draft of Pirate Fantasy in about two or three months. After years of letting the idea grow in my head, the world and characters just came to me in a flood—and for the first time in a while, I was having so much fun with it. I was obsessed. And it was only halfway through writing during that year’s NaNo that I realized querying my first novel was starting to hurt a lot less. In fact, I knew then I needed to stop querying because I just wasn’t as passionate about that project anymore as I was about Pirate Fantasy, which rapidly became the book of my heart.

My grandmother was the first to hear an excerpt of my first draft, right before she passed away. In her condition, she couldn’t really respond to what I’d read, but I remember seeing her cry and just wishing there was more time. In writing and in life, there are just so many things beyond your control. This loss, that whole last semester really, left me bruised and mourning inside, regardless of how I’d bounced back into writing. I wasn’t really sure how to heal from it all, especially as a super-fresh-out-of-college undergrad, in student loan debt and massively freaking out over what the next step would be.

My next step, as it turned out, would be taking a break. A writing break. I felt so strongly about this manuscript that I wanted to give it everything I had in terms of revisions and edits. It is really true what they say about how your first novel is viewed as your “practice” novel—all that I learned from writing Novel #1 enormously helped pave the way for Novel #2. Finishing one manuscript meant I could do it again and again, that I could get back up again and again. Looking back on it now, I’m so freaking happy I failed that first time. It changed me for the better as a person, and as a writer.

Of course, more failures were to come. My first draft wasn’t perfect by any means at all, and neither were the many drafts that came after. However, I was determined to always make each round of revision better than the last. I threw myself into a daily routine that strengthened my writing discipline. I started posting my profile on CP sites and forums, and by some miracle, ended up finding the greatest group of writing friends in the world. I went to conferences and bookish events where I met the loveliest, most inspiring authors who had nothing but support for aspiring writers.

In the end, I owe a lot to failure. It humbled me. It enabled me to grow out of my comfort zones. It helped me realize what I’d been missing all along. It motivated me to always try harder. Even Queen J.K. Rowling has spoken on the benefits of failure that no doubt resonates with every writer like it does with me:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.

Finally, after countless rounds of revisions and read-throughs—enough to make me want to pull my eyes out—I was ready to fail once again. For months I’d given this life anchor of a manuscript everything I had, yet I still didn’t know if anyone would love it enough to take it on. All I knew as I went into querying my second novel was that I was armed for battle with a much healthier mindset, a fantastic support system, and the thickest skin that covered me like armor.

Sure enough, as soon as I reentered the querying trenches, rejections started piling up.

Rejection after rejection after rejection.

And then, requests.

Requests that ended in rejections.

Requests that ended in the kindest, most encouraging rejections ever.

And of course, there are always those queries that just go unanswered and you’re not entirely sure what to make of them.

While I had great armor with this new round of querying and second novel, I wasn’t entirely impenetrable. Rejections still hurt, but they definitely hurt a lot less this time. I already had a new shiny project in the works that kept me blissfully distracted, a writers conference to look forward to with many of my amazing CPs, and the support of truly incredible and generous people who rejuvenated my querying-beaten spirit whether they realized it or not.

But then, out of the blue, an agent emailed me. A great agent who’s always been at the top of my list, who had requested my first novel the year before but gave the kindest pass on it ever, who had shown interest in seeing Pirate Fantasy when I queried her that second time. That agent emailed me to say she was excited to start reading Pirate Fantasy.

The next week, she emailed me to say she was halfway through.

The following Monday, she’d updated me to say she had finished, and would love to schedule a call.

Naturally, I cried. And assumed the fetal-position. A lot. And then called my sister and sobbed. After having spent so many years of daydreaming and reading blog posts that chronicled milestone moments like this, none of it felt real. In fact, there were many times when I wondered if I’d somehow hallucinated everything that was going on because all of it was just that unbelievable to me.

We set up a call the next day, and I cringe from just remembering how many awkward pauses I’d taken to catch my breath/pinch myself. But I knew from the instant she started firing off comments about Pirate Fantasy, with such insightful praise and notes to make the work even stronger, that this was it. And as we talked some more about my other projects and tackled endless questions in between, we vibed better than I could’ve imagined. It seriously took everything in me not to seize her offer of representation right then and there—but after a torturous week of waiting and nudging, I finally followed my gut and accepted.

The next part still doesn’t seem real. At all. Accepting the offer, telling my friends and family, signing the contract and mailing it, announcing it on Twitter and weeping over how nice everyone in the Twitterverse is. Since then, I feel like I’ve spent my time between floating around my house like a shocked ghost and then floating around in general on cloud nine. I knew how to deal with failure, but not this. This was—and still is—a foreign concept to me. No longer hypothetical, but actually happening. And nothing in me will ever forget how valuable this opportunity is from every step it took to earn it. Even though I’d failed before, I would never trade those experiences for anything, or take any of this for granted. It’s honestly because of failure that I appreciate this moment, and all the lessons I learned to get here, so much more.

I’m now represented by the incredible Thao Le of Sandra Dijsktra Literary Agency, and I couldn’t be happier.

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17 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent, How Failing Helped

  1. LOVE This story! I totally agree with the first manuscript getting rejected is really humbling. I went through the same thing with my first one, and also got an agent on my second. 🙂 You’re Pirate story pinterest board looks amazing!! I can’t wait for you to have a book launch and to go and buy your book and have it signed ^___^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hooray for second-manuscript twinsies! Oh man that first one was a rocky road, but I’m glad to have learned so much and that it worked out for us on the next go 🙂 Also, THANK YOU! How have we not found each other on Pinterest yet? *proceeds to stalk*

      And hold up, I can’t wait for YOUR book launch as well 😉 Boston will be home to alllll the awesome YA book launches muahahaha

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Can’t say anything more than what I’ve already said, but JANELLA YOU ARE SO AWESOME AND TALENTED AND HARDWORKING AND I AM SO PROUD OF HOW FAR YOUVE COME AND HOW MUCH FURTHER YOURE GOING TO GO! I’m so lucky to have you as a CP and most importantly, friend! 😭😭😭😭😭😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😘😘😘😘😘😘😘💗💗💗💗

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and commenting!! I’m truly happy to hear that my post meant a lot, and I wish you the best of luck wherever you are in the writing process 🙂 And also, thank you SO so much!!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I relate to this post so much! I went through a similar query-novel-failure craziness… And loss, too. I’ve been on the other side for a bit now, taking my time learning those lessons, and always, always improving. ^.^

    So much congratulations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you SO much for reading and commenting—I’m really glad to hear that I’m not alone in all this/so many people can relate! There’s always so much learning to do in this business (and I know I just have truckloads of more lessons and challenges ahead of me), but the mark of a truly great writer is how much he/she is willing to do it. Good luck to you on wherever you are in your writing journey, and thanks again! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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