How I got my agent

Grab a cup of coffee and get comfy . . . this could take a while. You see, I’ve kept my writing under wraps for several years. For a long time, only my husband and kids knew I’d decided to write children’s novels. I wasn’t trying to be secretive, it’s just, well, you know, imposter syndrome. That little voice in my head that said you can’t do this.

Well, I did. Through doubt and uncertainty, small wins and big losses, and many late nights spent writing, I kept going. And now I’m represented by an incredible literary agent, Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. in New York City. Together we will work to get the books I write into bookstores, libraries, and readers’ hands. It’s been a long journey, and it’s only just begun.

The Quick Version

In October of 2019 I sent out my first query for The Spirit of Rose Hill Island. It’s a novel for middle grade readers set in the late 1800’s that incorporates Scottish folklore, including a deadly water horse known as a kelpie. It was my third completed novel, and the second I’ve queried.

Over the course of nine months I sent 50 queries to literary agents before receiving an offer of representation, which quickly turned into multiple offers. I signed with Christa given her 10+ years of experience as a literary agent as well as her enthusiasm for my book and future writing career.

My Query Stats:

Queries sent: 50

Rejections: 29

No response: 14

Full requests: 7

R&Rs: 3

Here’s How This Really Went Down

Before I signed with Christa, I wrote three full books (as well as several partials) over the course of more than three years. I read many books on the craft of writing, listened to countless podcasts, and read hundreds of blog posts. I found other (amazing) writers to swap work with. They read my books and offered advice, and I revised some more.

I sent queries out to literary agents and received many, many rejections, as well as some words of encouragement. There were times I felt discouraged, but I never felt like giving up. I enjoyed writing too much to quit. It gave me a creative outlet I hadn’t had in years, as well as something that was all “mine.”

My first manuscript was a YA historical I wrote and then re-wrote and revised for over a year. It received some attention from agents, but never an offer, but that was okay. I took every morsel of feedback I received and worked to make it better, even though I knew it was unlikely to be published. I was learning a new skill, and like any new skill it takes time and effort to perfect. That manuscript taught me so much about writing and the publishing industry.

My second manuscript was my first foray into writing Middle Grade. I wrote it for my two middle-grade-aged kids, who helped with the concept. It was fun and quirky, and I loved writing it, but after it was finished and we’d all had a good laugh, I decided to set it aside. I could’ve worked to polish it, then sent it to agents for consideration, but it wasn’t a book my heart loved. I decided that if I was going to put in the work needed to query and then hopefully have a book published, I wanted it to have the classic feel of the books I grew up reading.

My third manuscript, and the book that got me my agent, was the kind of book my heart loved. Classic and historic, with mystery, magic, and folklore. I wrote it for middle grade, which was something I’d loved about my second manuscript. I loved it, and it felt like it could be “the one.”

I worked with many other writers to polish it (thank you, awesome critique partners!), then started sending it to agents. Rejections rolled in, and I began to doubt myself, but I also received some feedback. Several agents liked it, but there were things about it that needed work. Their advice was gold. I took it and rewrote, revised, and polished some more.

I also joined a group of writers (hello Write Squad!) and more writers read it and offered advice. I worked on it some more (too many revisions to count) and sent it to more agents. I entered it into a couple of Twitter pitch contests, and quite a few agents “liked” it and requested to see my query. I was getting somewhere.

Then three R&Rs (Revise & Resubmits) came within a couple of weeks of each other. That’s three agent rejections, with offers to read again if I made their suggested changes. That feedback was gold. I stopped querying and spent several months revising.

During that time, the Coronavirus hit the U.S., and the publishing world (which is based primarily in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. at the time) came to a halt. My life did, too. My kids were doing school at home, and we were in lockdown in our house. All the momentum I’d built with my book died in a matter of days. I took several weeks off writing, as did most creative writers I knew. My head wasn’t in the right place, and I was spending any free time I had sewing face masks.

Eventually, we made it through the worst of the lockdown, and I started revising again. Soon, I was sending out queries of my new draft. This time, the response was different. Within a few weeks I received a call from an agent. She loved it. She wanted to see it on bookshelves. She wanted to represent me. I alerted the other agents I’d queried, and gave them two weeks to respond. By the end of that two week period I had multiple offers. I was elated, and also in a bit of shock. The voice in my head that said you can’t do this finally quieted. I had made it to the next step. I was doing this.

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In the end I signed with Christa Heschke. She has years of experience, works for a top-notch NYC literary agency, and has sold dozens of books to publishers. She wants to represent me, this book I’ve written that I love, and any books I write in the future (I have many planned!). There are still hurdles to leap over before a book I write finds its way into a child’s hands (it could take years), but I’m one step closer.

For updates on what I’m writing, and the books I love to read, follow me on:

Instagram: @ShannonBalloonBooks

Twitter: @ShannonBalloon

When to query your “Dream” Agent

Someone recently posted this question on Twitter, and having spent a lot of time in the Query Trenches before I got my agent, I have some thoughts.

Querying is hard and filled with rejection. Back when I queried my first book, I identified my “dream” agent. She was at a top-notch NYC agency, and she rep’d one of my favorite authors. She was perfect, and she was going to love my book. Fast-forward six weeks, and her rejection landed in my inbox. I was crushed, but I wasn’t about to give up. Here’s what I learned in the months and years that followed.

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Lesson #1: Don’t pin your hopes on one “dream” agent, have a bunch!

I wouldn’t have been quite as crushed if I’d been realistic about querying (and not as naive). The next time around, I made a list of agents who qualified as “dream” agents. You know, the ones who’ve had a gazillion sales, who rep your favorite authors, or who seem like they’d just “get” you and your writing perfectly.

Important Note: You can find info on agents’ sales on Publishers Marketplace. It charges a fee, but is one of the best investments I made as a querying writer.

Lesson #2: Have lists of other potential agents, and query them, too.

After I made my list of “dream” agents, I made a list of “solid” agents. For me, these were agents that were still actively growing their lists, but had already sold some books, including to big-five publishers.

Then, I made a list of “reputable newbie” agents. For me, these were agents who were in their first or second year of agenting, had completed an internship (or two), and worked for reputable agencies. Sales records were less important for these agents. It was more about whether they had access to the expertise and guidance of more experienced agents.

Important Note: If an agent was new and working on their own (i.e., not part of a reputable agency) then they didn’t make my list. Anyone can call themselves an agent, but I only wanted to work with someone I felt had the ability to help me grow my writing, build a career as an author, and sell my book. There may be exceptions, of course, but use good judgment.

Lesson #3: Send out queries in batches.

What’s a batch? For me, it was 8-10 queries sent on the same day. I divided those among agents in my three categories. For example, I’d send 3 to “dream” agents, 3 to “solid” agents, and 3 to “reputable newbie” agents. I’d then give it 4-6 weeks before sending a second batch. During that time, I’d see what rolled in. Sometimes, it was nothing (many agents are backed up, or follow a “no response means no” policy). Sometimes, it was form rejections that didn’t offer any insight into “why.” Sometimes, it was a rejection with a few words of advice. And ocassionally, it was a request for additional pages or the full manuscript.

Take what you learn from that first batch of queries and revise your query and pages as necessary before sending out your next batch. It’s all about finding what works.

I revised my query and my manuscript many times during the querying process, and I am forever grateful to those agents who offered me those rare nuggets of advice. They were gold.

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Lesson #4: Don’t let rejections get you down.

I don’t know a single writer who scored an agent with their first query. Many don’t with their first book (I didn’t). But putting yourself out there and receiving rejections is part of the process of growing your writing.

Lesson #5: Write something new.

My best advice for managing the stress of querying and the torture of waiting for responses is to come up with a shiny new idea and start writing. Throw yourself into it, make it the best it can be, and remind yourself why you started writing in the first place. And if that other manuscript you’re querying doesn’t snag you an agent, you’re already ahead of the game with your next one. It’ll give you hope on those days when a rejection hits hard, or it seems like everyone else is getting agents, or when it feels like no one is out there and you’re sending queries into a void.

And remind yourself, you’re not alone. Every writer has been there. You can do it, too.

Some Thoughts on Twitter Pitch Contests

Hey Twitter pitch folks (#PitMad, #DVpit, #PitDark, etc.), I want to pass on some of the things I learned from my time in the Twitter pitch contest trenches. When I first started, I had no idea how to pitch my book in just 280 characters, but with a lot of hard work and practice I figured it out. The good news is that you can, too.

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Your pitch needs to address four things:

  1. Who is the main character and what do they want (goal),
  2. Why do they want it (motivation),
  3. What stands in their way (conflict), and
  4. What happens if they don’t get it (stakes).

And yes, it seems like a lot, but it will all fit in a twitter-length pitch if edited well. Here’s mine with the parts noted:

Haunted by memories of her dead sister (motivation), 13yo scullery maid Flora sets out to slay the Kelpie (goal), a spirit horse that wants to lure the children of her new southern manor home (conflict) to a watery grave (stakes).

Here’s a breakdown that may be easier to follow:

  1. Who is the main character and what do they want (goal): Flora wants to slay the Kelpie.
  2. Why do they want it (motivation): Flora is haunted by her sister’s death and doesn’t want anyone else to die.
  3. What stands in their way (conflict): the Kelpie is the bad guy/antagonist, and he wants to keep drowning children.
  4. What happens if they don’t get it (stakes): more children will die.

Include comps:

I think including at the front of your pitch a comp or two in ALL CAPS can really help the agent grasp your story/world without using up a lot of words. For example, I used DOWNTON ABBEY + FOLKLORE.

Include the right hashtags:

The rules differ a bit for each contest, so check the rules, but typically you need three hashtags, sometimes more.

  1. The age category (#A, #YA, #MG, etc.).
  2. The genre (This indicates if your book is fantasy, women’s fiction, historical, etc. Some agents may narrow their search to just the genres they are looking for, so if you leave this off you may miss an opportunity to be seen.).
  3. The contest (#PitMad, #DVPit, etc.).
  4. Any other applicable tags. For example, there may be a tag to indicate you’re an own voices writer. Again, check the contest’s rules for which hashtags are available.

Support your fellow pitchers:

If you retweet their pitches, they’ll (more likely) retweet yours, and the more RTs you have the more the Twitter algorithm will boost your tweet which will help agents see it (and getting them to see your pitch is half the battle).

Pin your pitch:

Be sure to pin your pitch to your profile so others can easily find it and re-tweet it.

What to do if you get an agent “like.”

Congrats, you got a “like,” now what?

First, check out the agent/publisher. You are NOT obligated to query every person that gives you a like. Do your research. I know it’s hard, but it’s better to skip any shady agents/publishers than waste your time.

Second, check what the agent wants you to do. Most post this in their Twitter feed. Some may have a special way they want you to query them. For example, they may want you to note the contest in the subject line of an email, or use a particular query manager page.

For every query I sent in response to a “like,” I included the pitch. Here’s how I worded the beginning of my query:

Dear [Agent Name],

Thank you for liking my #PitMad pitch!

DOWNTON ABBEY + FOLKLORE. Haunted by memories of her dead sister, 13yo scullery maid Flora sets out to slay the Kelpie, a spirit horse that wants to lure the children of her new southern manor home to a watery grave. #PitMad #MG #HF #F

I’m excited to tell you more about THE SPIRIT OF ROSE HILL ISLAND, a Middle Grade Historical Fantasy complete at 49,000 words.

[Then I launched into my query.]

Don’t sweat it:

Twitter pitch contests are amazing. They helped me connect with other writers, learn about agents, and refine my pitch. In the end, however, I found my agent through traditional querying. So don’t sweat it–contests aren’t the only way. The slush pile is a great place to be.

Also, if an agent that is participating in your contest doesn’t “like” your pitch, that doesn’t mean it’s a pass. It may just mean they didn’t see it. If the agent is open to queries, and you think they’d be a good fit, you are still welcome to query them.

I have an agent!

I’m thrilled to announce I’m now represented by Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. Together we’ll be working on my Middle Grade Historical Fantasy. It has wild horses, a strong female protagonist, and a kelpie!

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I’m so grateful to my family, who not only helped with my book but also celebrated me well when I signed with Christa.