Wow, friends. This has been one hell of a rollercoaster, and I’m acutely aware that this is just the beginning of my journey, and not the end of a rather long tunnel. Word of warning…this is a long post, as it spans 21 years.
My writing career began with fan-fiction (as it normally does). I had a group of friends in Secondary School (shout out to Colaiste Muire, in Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland), and we would write and swap fan-fiction back and forth. I was hooked. I’d always been an avid reader, but maybe I could write my own books. The concept for my first ever attempt at a manuscript sparked from a run-of-the-mill history project. Then another, and another, and another. Holy moly. Too many concepts and no idea how to finish any of them. (Amirite?)
That is, until I made the decision, in 2007, to move with my husband to the United States. Just us. He’s from New Jersey. But packing my entire life into two suitcases, deciding what mattered enough to take with me and what stayed behind…that was a whole other can of worms. I couldn’t take the people who mattered most—I doubt my sister would’ve enjoyed traveling by suitcase—so I packed a few books, photos, as many clothes as I could fit, and went on my merry way, visa in hand.
It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized how soul-crushingly lonely it would be. Good God. I was reared on American TV and movies, and I thought it would be an easy transition, but it absolutely wasn’t. I didn’t fit in (still don’t), I didn’t understand the customs (meh, I’m getting a bit better at that), and I certainly never felt a sense of belonging. I used to be outgoing, adventurous, ridiculously happy, and extroverted. But I’m not that Maria any more. I’m the girl who spent too much time explaining the differences between our worlds, the girl who smiled when something harmful—or hurtful to me or my culture—came up in conversation. I’m the girl who spent too much time reflecting, only to learn about the woman I’ve become.
And let me tell you, she is driven. She is ambitious. And she never, ever, gave up.
What better way to while away the time in a foreign country, with only my husband for company, than to revisit my lovely book babies? So I focused on that first concept, the unfinished manuscript that came to me when I was fifteen. I wrote, and I wrote, (for anyone who follows me closely on Twitter, you’ve already guessed what manuscript this is). When I finished, I had a 487,000 word garbage fire (YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT), and I did what every newbie does. I Googled ‘How to get my book published’, and reader…I gasped. If I wanted to see my book in an actual book store (book shop for my cringing friends and family reading this), I needed an agent? As in, like actors have agents? I thought you just wrote a book and sent it to publishers and then they’d give you a cheque. What sorcery was this? And, wait…I needed something called a ‘query’? Oh, for the love of God! But I knew I’d spent so long on the damn thing, I had to figure it all out.
So, I studied. My long-time alpha reader (hi Kelly!) and I met up at Barnes & Noble and I gave her the rundown on what I needed to do. Part of the query letter is the metadata (technical information like comps, market, genre, etc.) and that meant word count as well. Okay, cool…except it wasn’t cool. Kelly suggested (manic laughter) that we should find out how long books are. I know, sounds really stupid, right? I’ve been reading for as long as I discovered books, but had no idea how page count translated to wordcount. We Googled.
My manuscript—Adult Historical Fiction—was as long as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus appendices, with an additional 2000 words tacked on for kicks.
Well, that was okay—mY BoOk WaS dIfFeRrEnT. I queried it (LAUGH OUT LOUD).
2009 Book One: Queries Sent: 201 (including agents from the UK and Ireland)
Not even a 1% request rate. I did manage to garner two full requests (I don’t know how, the query was 3 pages long!), but I quickly realized that the only thing to do was to—sigh, oh baby Maria—chop it into thirds, right at a really great cliffhanger.
Everyone loves a good cliffhanger, especially in a series.
And I queried it (Book One of my Epic six-book series…because that 487k first attempt was legit book one of a trilogy) at 110,000 words.
2009 Book Two: Queries Sent: 211 (found a few more agents for this one…these numbers include agents in the UK, Ireland, and Australia)
10% request rate! Cool! That’s the magic number for request rates (warning: this number is only a sweet spot if your genre and age group are actively being acquired. The market shifts constantly, and is fluid). While I was querying, I decided to revisit other projects, and finished another. Great! I knew how to query, so I’d query that one! And the next, and the next! Lots of rejection.
Then I went back to the rewrite of the massive tome I’d queried and…
Reader, I cut it, and I revised…again. I re-wrote all my submission materials (I was really getting the hang of this query thing), and I submitted widely (in the 200 range). Requests started to flow in, and I knew This Was It.
This wasn’t It.
Neither were the other manuscripts I was querying (simultaneously…don’t do that, by the way. Only query one project at a time).
Frustration settled in. Not connecting. Didn’t vibe with the voice. Didactic. I didn’t connect to the material, the concept, the world. YOU MARIA, I ACTUALLY HATE YOU. I didn’t get it.
I’d been writing forever. The best papers you’ve ever read, the dissertation of a champion, and I had been editing for academic writers for years. I knew how to write. I was a great writer. But technical writers—and copyeditors—do not good fiction writers make. It takes work, hard work, and dedication. I knew then that I needed to branch out, to study, and start Developmental Editing (which was something I was good at, but at the time, it didn’t speak to the academic writer in me). I had to really dig in, study craft, understand the beauty of storytelling, and that’s when things started clicking. (I am now in LOVE with Developmental Editing…as most of you know). My eyes finally opened…and I started thinking about that damn, behemoth of a manuscript.
Now, to do a little math here, I began that manuscript at age fifteen, and I was twelve years into the process. Well, one day I had an epiphany—one that really hit me in the gut—and I knew then that I finally ‘got’ it. My massive manuscript? All the revision, the entire plot, could be summarized in a few paragraphs and I should’ve started my story where it ended.
Alright. I rolled up my sleeves. One last try, and then I was done. I had other concepts I was working on, and querying. It was time to figure this out.
I re-wrote again…slowly. It took maybe eighteen months, but damn, it was good. I was pretty sure I had a winner. I was heavily pregnant when I finished, and my due date was fast-approaching (just like my #RevPit 2020 winner, @SasaHawk Oh hi! Agents, watch out!). The plan was to query everywhere before our son was born, and I did.
I was drowning in requests.
Queries Sent: 153
A 41% request rate. Anyone who knows anything about query stats knows that number is whoaaaa. This Was It.
But this wasn’t ‘it’. I was closer—the writing was so much better, but I was pissed, and suffering from postpartum depression (yay!), so I took time off.
Fine. I was done with this manuscript. Over it. It was time to move on, and query The Other Things, and while I queried them, I wrote a romance.
It was bad, but I wrote it. I didn’t query it, because I knew it was bad (progress!), and it was really just a way to get back in the saddle.
Then, someone at work (hi Brittany) handed me a YA Fantasy and said I had to read it. But…YA is for kids, right? Reader, I was so wrong. It was one of the most exhilarating reads of my life, and I begged her for more recommendations, and more, and more, and a new concept formed.
A YA Sci-fi/Fantasy. I finished it in about eighteen months, and I could see the growth in my writing. I could sense it, and I felt this one was different.
In 2018, (19 years since my writing journey began, and 10 years into querying), I entered RevPit (oh, the irony), and had requests…and got on the shortlist…and one of my best friends in the whole world rejected me!!! Okay, so Jeni Chappelle wasn’t one of my best friends back then, but I never let her forget she did that, just saying.
I was going to shelve the manuscript without querying, and then something happened. Jeni slipped into my DMs to gush about my manuscript. Excuse me? You…you loved it?? She said it reminded her of a certain huge NYT Bestseller, and my confidence soared.
Reader, I queried it (and Jeni and I became fast friends). Here were my query stats for that one:
Queries Sent: 75
A request rate in the sixties. YASSSS! It. Was. Happening.
It was not happening. The market had shifted. This was new for me, this idea of the market shifting. Before, the writing wasn’t quite there—not connecting, not vibing with the concept, the words, the story. But now the writing was there, and…the market had shifted?
Fine. Whatever. (I am the definition of tough-skinned crone after all this. No tears, just business!)
On to the next, this time a YA Dark Fantasy that took a deep, dark dive into who I am. I bled onto those pages, and just let it all out.
Queries sent: 64
A 73% request rate??? Holy forkballs! I DID IT! I DID IT! But…when I got the first offer (May 2019), I had to turn it down, and part of me died.*(Note below)
I took a few months off, and then started querying again.
The second offer came eight months later, but I found myself in the same damn pickle, and had to turn that down as well.**(Note below)
The time between May 2019 and March 2020 were some of the darkest days of my life. I suffered horribly with my mental health, and became very quiet on Twitter. The people closest to me reached out, but I just couldn’t talk about it. Someone—two someones—had offered me my dream, on a plate, and then I screwed it all up by making the gut-wrenching decision to say ‘no’. It just broke something inside, and I didn’t think I’d come back from that. Where had the crocodile-skinned battle ax gone? This is why it’s so important to have people in your life who understand the pain—the blood, sweat, and tears that flood this industry with disillusion and paint it with despair. This isn’t a hobby. This is a life force, the thing that keeps some of us breathing. That support rarely comes from family and friends, (them: write book, send to publishers, lots of monies…right?!), but from the writing community. And I am so grateful that I have an incredible team behind me. They pulled me up. Dusted me off. And I know I made the right decision for my career. @Justine_Manzano @Megan_Manzano @SouffleLumiere @jenichappelle — I would’ve given up without you.
Rejections trickled in on the rest of the requests out for that manuscript, as they do, but this time it was: ‘This isn’t a debut, it’s more of the next book you sub once you have a foot in the door. Therefore I don’t think I can sell it at this time’.
Then, Covid hit (maniacal laughter). I had been working on a Middle Grade concept (because I needed sunshine and distraction. I’d even written a chapter of it back in December of 2019), and people (mostly Jeni) were encouraging me (read: yelling at me) to do it. Go for it. Nothing to lose.
“But my writing is too dark for Middle Grade.”
“I’d never be able to nail the voice.”
I was furloughed and remote learning with my kiddo (who turned seven in July! Happy birthday, kiddo), but I had a vague plan. I’d re-write that YA Sci-fi/Fantasy from 2018, because I had a clear vision for it, then I’d re-visit that behemoth manuscript again (yes, yes, stop yelling at me. Jeni did enough yelling, thank you), because I realized I didn’t actually have the skills to take on the concept before. Now, I have them. I should give it a whirl!
*CUE JENI YELLING SOME MORE*
She talked me into the Middle Grade, so I wrote. But by wrote, I mean spent most of my time on Twitter, or glued to the TV watching the apocalypse unfold. I wrote about half, and then it was mid-May. Three months, maybe 23,000 words. Not bad given everything, but man, I mean, what was the point? I’d just keep writing, get requests, then rejections. It’s an endless cycle.
Enter @SierraPung— oh hi, Sierra! We were chatting one day, and I was down and out, and she said, give me your first ten pages, because I’m about to do a positivity pass! (For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s a cheerleading read of pages, where only the great things are pointed out. I never *personally* liked them, because I’m a masochist and generally don’t trust anything but scathing feedback of *my* work). But, Sierra’s a ray of sunshine, and she’s awesome. So I said: Oh, Lord. Fine. I sent them to her. Color me surprised when she then wanted everything I’d written so far, because it was actually…good? I was rejuvenated, and waited to hear back from her. I wasn’t disappointed. Her notes, her enthusiasm, it was everything I needed to finish, and I am now a reformed lover of positivity passes.
She set a deadline: Another chapter by Friday…or else. Yelp!
But I didn’t send her a chapter by Friday (three days away). I sent her the entire, completed manuscript by the following Thursday (ten days later). Finished. I wrote half a book in ten days. (It’s Middle Grade, don’t get too excited).
I waited. She had created such a buzz in our Twitter circle that I had more people than I could handle volunteering to beta read. My CPs (Critique Partners) were busy until August—justifiably so (everyone go check out The Order of the Key by Justine Manzano. It launched in July!)—so I sent it to my group of volunteers.
I normally don’t send out a first draft, but it was clean, and I wanted to give myself enough time to revise before the fall querying season (summer isn’t the best time to query, folks).
So, I waited for feedback (hopefully scathing so I could rip it to shreds and re-write it…because that’s what I’ve always done). In the meantime, I made sure Jeni had time to fit me in for a critique (she’s very busy and important), but she didn’t have an opening until mid-July (for the best friend she once rejected. Roooood).
Feedback was minimal—from EVERYone. Even from Jeni. So, I polished up my first draft (typos, a few small things here and there), and wrote my query and synopsis. Then I did what everyone does: I sent a few test queries (3), then revised the query and synopsis based on response.
With my actual first draft in-hand, I said screw it. Everyone’s behind due to Covid anyway, so maybe agents would finally see my submission around September/October, right in time for Halloween (my Middle Grade is a fun vampire-centered story). If I waited until September, they might not see it until Christmas.
Fine. Plus, #SffPit was coming up, and I love a pitch party! I knew it would be quiet on the agent front (summer plus Covid), but I wanted to see if readers had an interest in my story.
Here was my pitch:
STRANGER THINGS but VAMPIRES
12yo Sophie loves vampires. Literally. Her moms + bffs are vamps. But when Mama gets sick & turns evil, Sophie has to find the cure. That means exposing a conspiracy + stopping a mad scientist—all w/o breaking curfew #SFFpit #MG #FA #LGBT #F
As expected, the event only had a few agents in attendance, but holy moly, the writing community loved it! And thank you all so much.
I did get a few agent likes, and sent off my requested materials. By the afternoon, those likes had turned into full manuscript requests, so I spent the rest of the day meticulously querying my entire list of agents (don’t do this, send in batches of five and re-evaluate after each group). I quite literally was so done with everything that had happened last year that I threw caution to the wind. It was a short list, and everyone, and every agency, on it was vetted.
Reader, four days later I had an offer of representation. And that started an avalanche of requests that resulted in multiple offers from some incredible agents and powerhouse agencies.
That’s a 71% request rate.
And now I am overjoyed to announce that I am represented by Amy Giuffrida (@kissedbyink) of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. She came to our call with a plan, with complete enthusiasm for my backlist, a passion for my work, and we just…gelled. I am 100% confident in her ability to get things done, and am overjoyed to be part of #TheATeam. Here’s to the next chapter, and hopefully a much shorter time in the sub trench (at least in comparison to the query trench)!
Everyone’s journey is different, and mine is but one in an ocean of dreams. So, keep dreaming, dreamers, because if you work hard enough, and smart enough, you can do anything you set your mind to.
Time in the Query Trenches: 21 years.
Words written: 3.2 Million.
Requests Total: 362.
Bottles of wine earned: Infinite.
That’s it for now. To the future, friends!
Notes from Earlier:
*This is a wonderful person and a great agent, but I’m still not taking questions about why I turned them down due to my own Mental Health. There are lots of excellent reasons to turn down offers of representation
**Same note as above…with focus on MH.