I’ve been putting off my “How I Got My Agent” post for– *checks calendar* –oh, only about a year now, so I thought it was finally time that I wrote this and lumped my entire publishing journey into one post for the internet to see. When I was querying, I devoured stories like these from successful authors as if I was starving, notably this one by Katie Zhao, and yet I’ve just kept putting off my own post. I think the reason why is because compared to everyone else’s journeys in the querying trenches, mine has been…relatively easy? But I’ve talked about this in my post on The Illusion of Overnight Successes and it’s about time I smack myself over the head and take my own advice: just because I didn’t spend as long in the trenches themselves doesn’t mean I haven’t been in the trenches of writing for a long while. So, this post shall henceforth come into creation. Also because I just painted my nails and I need something to occupy my time while they dry and typing won’t mess them up.
If you’d like to skip to my querying hack, you can scroll down to the snake gif. If you’d like to skip right to the part with my query letter and how I got an agent, you can scroll down to the GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. If you’d like to skip right to the part where I detail how I got my book deal, you can scroll down to the GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. If you’d like to come on a journey with me to the very beginning, we begin here:
It all started with a shampoo bottle. Really.
I was thirteen and at my grandparents’ house in China. It was the year 2012 and as some of you may know, western social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) is all blocked over there so I was so. freaking. bored. I’ve always been a huge, huge reader, but I didn’t have an abundance of book options at my grandparents’ house and I hadn’t thought ahead to buy more ebooks because I tore through them so quick. And then it occurred to me… why didn’t I just… write my own?
This is where the shampoo bottle comes in. As a thirteen year old taking a stab at fiction for the first time, I obviously came across the most ridiculous idea. I was brushing my teeth when my eyes caught sight of a shampoo bottle featuring a picture of a cartoon lady with rainbow streaks in her hair and I thought: I’m going to write a book about a girl with rainbow hair. (Just bear with me, it gets worse). At this age, I was also far more obsessed with Ben 10 (specifically the Ben 10: Alien Force reboot series) than a tween should be, and so my next thought was: the rainbow hair gives her superpowers.
I started writing, one chapter at a time in the Notes section of my iPad, and after each chapter, I posted it on Wattpad, where I had heard people posted their stories for readers to find. This was before the age where fanfics exploded on that site, so thankfully I made my little niche with my content. But by the time I was 25% of the way into my very first book, I had a realisation. This wasn’t original content at all. This was straight up just the plot line of The Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong. Also my protagonist was perfect and the most powerful being alive. Also it started with an alarm clock opening. Also she described herself by looking in a mirror.
a) give up
b) have a crisis
c) shrug my shoulders and just keep going
If you chose C: ding, ding, ding, correct! The benefits of being thirteen (or now fourteen, probably, when I came to this realisation) was that I didn’t really care!!! (Honestly, I wish I could gain some of that apathy back.) I diverged the plotline into something that Darkest Powers didn’t do, I made some meta-jokes about the protagonist being a Mary Sue (because that term was all the rage back then), and then I moved the hell on without going back to fix anything. A year later, I had a manuscript at 115k words, nice and neat with a wrapped bow on Wattpad and a select few readers who loved it. My heart was warm.
(The reason why I’m not giving any further details about this first manuscript is because yes, it is still up on Wattpad today, and no, you cannot have my pseudonym because this manuscript was the cringiest thing I’ve ever written in my entire life because I was thirteen years old.)
Here’s the thing though. I never revised it. And I think different writers operate differently in the way they do things and the way they learn, because I know that when I was just starting out, had I taken some people’s advice on the internet now re: revising is most of the writing process, then I would have dug myself into a hole and perhaps never have found my way out. My first manuscript wasn’t something that could handle revision. Its plot was a bit too long and meandering, its structure unclear, but the characters and chain of events were super fun. I would have just gotten stuck if I tried to improve it: my first manuscript was never publishable and will never be publishable unless I tear it apart into something that no longer resembles it’s original form. That was okay to me, because it hadn’t even entered my mind to get published yet — all I wanted to do was to make some readers on the internet happy. That was the way I learned: by writing something that was never meant to stand up on a professional level, and thus Levelling Up on craft. I even wrote another 100k sequel in 2013. Again: I wrote it, yeet-ed it onto the internet, and never touched it again. It’s the way it had to be, and I honestly wish we allowed that more. It’s hard to hear if you started out with the intention of being published, but sometimes the first few books that come out aren’t there yet unless you change it utterly. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. I levelled up by writing tons of different first drafts of different manuscripts. There are also plenty of people that level up by repeatedly revising a first manuscript. It’s a case by case basis, and only you can figure out which one you are.)
After this duology, I wrote the first book in what would become a mystery trilogy about a high school game of tag turned deadly when “The Hunt” gets played with real bullets instead of a paintball gun. If that sounds familiar to you and you were on Wattpad circa 2016… yep, you probably read it. I got my 15 minutes of fame as a featured author, and god –knowing that people were reading my work and loving it was the best feeling ever. I also know now that no matter what strange shit Goodreads reviews tries to throw at me the closer I get to debuting won’t faze me because… I was on Wattpad for seven years, I have seen things.
I didn’t write the whole mystery trilogy back to back because I was a high school student desperately applying for the Ivy League and doing random extracurriculars I couldn’t care less about, but I did end up wrapping up the third book at some point during my last year of high school. The details are fuzzy now, but there was also a high fantasy series I was uploading at the same time as this trilogy, though I never worked on more than one book at a time. It was more like Mystery Book 1 would finish, I would write Fantasy Book 1, then Mystery Book 2, and so on. I still feel guilty to this day because I got to Book 3 of the high fantasy and I NEVER FINISHED IT. I still get a few messages every month asking what happened. I’m sorry, Wattpad. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. Poor Pasiphae. I think I left her in a cliffhanger.
It sounds real easy when I list out these books I wrote like this, but thinking back on it, one whole book took me close to a year to finish. I was in school! I mean, thankfully, I didn’t have much of a social life and I had babysitting duties for my younger siblings so I was at home a lot but still. Juggling being an actual teenager + high school homework and then writing about actual teenagers with teenage problems was an enormous thing, and there was no way I could work fast, even if I didn’t revise a single one of those books. Every first draft took me a whole ass year!!! And you know what – that’s what worked for me!
So, with a paranormal duology, a mystery trilogy, a weird dystopian that I wrote somewhere in between which we won’t even talk about, and a fantasy series (not) done, we finally get to the creation of THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS. Throughout my journey as a writer, I always get the concepts first and everything else later, so as soon as I have something that could turn into a full book, I dump out my entire stream of consciousness regarding the idea on a huge document titled CONCEPTS. While I was still in high school, I came up with:
Those parentheses lol. There were two wolves inside younger Chloe. One wanted to write about white people so she could get readers on Wattpad and people wouldn’t be like “but why are they Asian?” The other one was sick of reading about white people. But this little chunk of text was THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS’ very first origins. Because at the end of this stream of consciousness, noting my own chiding in the parentheses, I suggested to myself:
*Cue angel chorus*. The first seed of THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS took root.
Of course, if you know anything about my debut, you know it has absolutely nothing to do with time travellers and what not. I threw that idea out pronto and started working with something different: a Romeo and Juliet retelling. I wish I had some deep story about how I came to mash R+J with 1920s Shanghai, or even something funny like my shampoo bottle story, but I really have nothing. It just came to me and I wanted to do it, wanted to mash the aesthetic of a Shakespearean blood feud with the grime and dirt and decadence of Shanghai’s early modern history. And there was so much that aligned perfectly that it felt a little bit like fate. I know people say not to get caught on the thought of a book of your heart, but this was the book of my heart. This was the first time, in all the other manuscripts I had written, where I started plotting as I always do, vomiting out everything I wanted to happen in an outline that was essentially Draft Zero, where I stopped and thought… oh. This might really be something.
Around this time, I was about to start college in America and I had joined Book Twitter. I’d started reading about the industry and researching casually on how people got published. I think it was the fact that I would soon be moving to the US that triggered my musings, because I remember researching and going, Wait. ANYONE can be published EVEN IF THEY DON’T LIVE IN AMERICA? Shocking. I was shooketh. I’m not going to say that those years before were done in waste though, because again, I really needed those trial manuscripts before THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS.
I wrote the first chapter during freshman year. Yep. You thought I was slow taking a whole year to write a first draft? IT TOOK ME ONE YEAR TO WRITE A WHOLE CHAPTER. But I exaggerate my own inadequacy, because the reason why I was so slow was because of schoolwork and a social life and meeting my real-life found family among my college hallmates (aw <3).
That being said, I did do a lot of outlining through freshman year. To me, outlining feels very close to what writing a first draft is to other writers, because EVERYTHING is in my outline. The scene directions, the emotion, the implications, the unspoken feelings. I like the term Draft Zero. Draft 1 will be vastly better — the language is prettier, the sentences flow, the tenses are all correct, but because I have Draft Zero in the outline, I’m a relatively clean first drafter since I already know what’s going to be happening. At the end of freshman year, while all my high-achieving friends went and got internships with like, Akin Gump or whatever (yeah, I’m calling you out, Ryan), I just went home.
And I wrote.
I wrote so fast–faster than I ever have, because I was ready. This was finally something that could stand up on its own two legs. I had outlined the ending during Spring Break while everyone else went home (international student problems = being the only one in the dorms during the holidays because you can’t exactly go home) and had already had a big ol’ sob to myself in the middle of my dorm room because I finally figured out how the manuscript was going to end (no one be concerned – THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS has since then been re-written and overhauled and now I don’t even know yet how Book 2 is going to end, so this isn’t indicative of anything). By the end of May I was at 90000 words and I’m pretty sure I was done within a week. Here’s my finsta post complaining about this (I was a bit more than 60% of the way through, I wasn’t great on judging progress):
I took maybe a week to revise. This is because a) I’m a clean drafter but also b) I didn’t really have a direction for revision. I’m about to say something really controversial, hence why I’m saying it in a blog post instead of on Twitter where I might get ratio’d but I’m not a believer in taking feedback from people you don’t super, super trust! It works fabulously for some people which is good for them, but I can’t just go around with my writing willy-nilly taking feedback from an avatar behind the screen. (Disclaimer: this is different for mentorships where mentors have credentials or taking advice from verified writers through programs or specific calls for help!) Different people have different subjective tastes – to me, I will always wonder if a stranger’s or acquaintance’s feedback is something that rings true to my work, or if it’s in fact what they would have liked to write instead, which isn’t helpful to me. With this in mind, before I properly integrated myself onto Book Twitter and made friends… I didn’t really trust anyone to review my work. I wholeheartedly agree that CPs and betas are important to the process and for a lot of people, CP and beta feedback was fundamental to their work, but this wasn’t the case for me, and for THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS in particular. From manuscripts 1-8 I’d always been a lone wolf, aside from the “please update, I like this!” comments on Wattpad, so this one was no different. It went through my eyes, I liked it, I went out with it.
That’s it! I’m not building up to a cautionary tale, I swear!
I wrote my query letter and I participated in #PitMad. I got a few likes but nothing extravagant, though I did make a few great friends from that event, which in the long run was definitely more important. I noted those agents down on my spreadsheet, and then I got to work.
The month of June was the most anxious I’d ever been in my entire life. I’m already an anxious person with Anxiety™️ but I was straight up unable to sit still for any longer than a few seconds when I was thinking about my inbox. I decided to go out in batches, because the advice on the internet was to query in small groups to see how responses are. If there are a lot of rejections on the query, then the query is the problem. If there are a lot of rejections on fulls, then the manuscript is the problem. Boldly, on the 9th of June, I decided to send my very first query to the agent whose MSWL I matched perfectly with, because, hey, go hard or go home, right? After sending her my email, the next day I shot off a few more queries, and sat back as a bundle of nerves.
My request rate was so much better than I thought it would be. A full request the next day, a full request the day after. I also used a slight querying life hack that I’m surprised more people don’t do more often, or at least discuss: (is it a little snake-y of me? Yeah…) Research on Querytracker, Google, etc. which agents respond the fastest. Of those, of course you should only be querying ones who are looking for what you have written. Please don’t go randomly querying agents just because they’re fast responders! All you’re going to get is a fast rejection! But of those who you are good fits with, send the fastest agents on your list your first round queries. It means you don’t have to wait around wondering if there’s any issue with your query. You’ll know sooner rather than later–according to whether you’re getting fulls or rejections–whether your query is effective or not; you’ll know sooner rather than later whether your query itself needs fixing, or if you can just send to your top agents because you’re confident in your query.
As soon as four or five requests for fulls came in, I jumped to it and sent out queries to everyone on my list, knowing my query was good enough. I queried 35 agents in total. Despite these great rates, I had some mistakes in my query, in retrospect. THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS shouldn’t have been categorized as “Historical Fiction YA.” There are monsters and strange shit. I imagine that’s not what’s lurking in most purely historical shelves. There are also a lot of details that might have been more confusing and misleading than necessary, like why I bothered with specifying the “rivers” that surround Shanghai. My point is, it still worked with mistakes. Agents aren’t looking for perfection, they’re looking for heart.
This was my query:
Dear [AGENT NAME],
In glittering Shanghai, where we lay our scene — ancient grudges have broken to new mutiny.
It’s 1926. After six years of schooling in New York City, Juliette Cai has abandoned her wild flapper lifestyle and returned home. She is to begin her duties as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals and merchants that the law cannot touch. On the other side of the city, only a Russian rival gang are worthy competition. They call themselves the White Flowers, and most unfortunately, their heir is Roma Montagov, Juliette’s ex-boyfriend.
For generations, a blood feud between these two gangs has been running the streets red, numbing the people of the city to their violence. That is, until gangsters on both sides start clawing their own throats out, and civilians begin to whisper of a monster awakening in the rivers that surround Shanghai. A strange madness is sweeping through this glistening city, toppling the structure both gangs have worked so hard to build. Although Juliette and Roma cannot stand each other, they must put down their guns and work together to find answers. The deaths are stacking up, and if they cannot defeat this madness, then there will be no city left for them to rule.
Set against the backdrop of the burgeoning Chinese Civil War, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS is a historical #ownvoices YA novel. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and as a sweeping standalone complete at 118,000 words, would especially appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s THE DIVINERS series and Robin Talley’s AS I DESCENDED.
I specifically wanted to query you because [PERSONALIZED REASON].
I am a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania but am originally from New Zealand.
I have included [MATERIALS WHICH THEIR GUIDELINES ASKED FOR]. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
(Also I said it was a standalone but a few rejections I got were attributed to the MS’s weird pacing, and once THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS sold, my editor nailed it down to too much being in that one book and we split it to two books so!! Mistakes at an early stage can still be fixed later!!! Worry!!! Not!!!)
Anyhow, back to the story. I’ve been typing for so long that my nails are dry now.
With all those fulls out, randomly, on one night in late June, I woke up at 4AM with… food poisoning? A weird bout of the flu? Just life, punching me in the gut? I don’t even know, but my head was bent down the toilet for a full hour (TMI? I did promise y’all the full story of How I Got An Agent) and had to crawl back to my bed in the half-haze of the not-quite-dawn. And because I’m me, even while I was semi-delirious, I couldn’t resist reaching for my phone and checking my notifications.
I almost fainted right in my bed. Two emails. One from the very first agent I had queried with an offer of rep right in the email. Another from another agent asking to get on the phone. Because I was in New Zealand’s time zone, they had all popped in overnight within the hour, and I wouldn’t have seen it until morning if I hadn’t been woken up. Believe it or not, I was so knackered I actually went back to sleep after reading the emails. How I did that, I have no idea.
I got on the phone with the first agent I queried some time in the next few days. I had already read over a dozen blog posts of course on what to ask on The Call so I was well prepared, even though I was taking The Call at 1AM, because time zones. And I know this sounds cliche, but something just clicked. I have the worst phone anxiety but as soon as I hopped on the line with first agent, we were cracking jokes and I think I might have cackled a few times. Everything she said about THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS aligned perfectly with my vision and she got the vibe I was going for and ugh *chefs kiss* it was just amazing — as soon as I got off the phone, I was like, there’s no way anyone can top that.
While my mind was kind of made up on a subconscious level, I obviously needed to consider all my options first because that’s the smart move. (Always, always, view all your options! Even if you are sure the initial offering agent is amazing, you will be even more certain in your choice if you’ve considered everyone else too.) I got on the phone with the second agent whose email came in that night, and she was also absolutely, absolutely amazing — though I didn’t click in the way I’d clicked with the first agent, which is of no fault of anyone’s. I sent out my nudges to everyone who had my query: some agents bowed out because they didn’t have the time to read or weren’t interested, some wanted fulls. I gave them a deadline of 10 days–the standard is around two weeks, some people do one week–but I gave 10 days in particular because the first offering agent wanted to know by then since she was leaving the country and in this house, we respect publishing professionals’ time! To make matters complicated though, I had decided a while back to road trip down New Zealand during precisely those 10 days of hearing back from agents, as clearly, I have a great sense of timing. If anyone ever wonders where my characters’ dramatics come from, here’s the finsta post that detailed my stress:
I had another offer from two lovely agents at the same agency who wanted to work with me together. I took the call in a hotel in Wellington while my friend paced behind me watching me tear at my hair because these agents were all amazing and had such fantastic visions, and I couldn’t go wrong with a single one of them, so how could I choose?! (I was already in such a place of privilege to be choosing in the first place that I felt so bad that it was so hard!) As if my choice couldn’t get harder, I then received an email from a big name agent who I queried completely expecting to get rejected, who hadn’t finished the manuscript yet but was enjoying it so far, and would need a bit more time. Could I extend the deadline for her?
At the back of my mind, I already loved the very first agent. It was one perfect checkmark after the other, and fellow agents at her agency had even reached out to me to put in a good word which really, really cemented my good feeling. But then this big name agent was so big! Should I give her more time!?
The dilemma was that, even if I gave her more time, and even if, after then, she offered, (which wasn’t guaranteed) I was almost certain that I’d still go with the first agent. So was I to waste big agent’s time, just to see if she would offer? Would I prolong first agent’s deadline and be an annoying butt even though I already knew my answer?
In the end, my friend Sherry had the best advice that pushed me back on course: “Think through each of the agents. If you go with that one, are you going to ask what if? on the other ones? Which one are you going to be the least what if? about?”
It was revolutionary, honestly. Sherry needs her own paragraph in the acknowledgements section of THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS. I knew that if I went with the big name agent I would constantly be asking what if on missing out with an agent I clicked fantastically with. I knew if I went with the agent I clicked fantastically with, I would rarely be thinking on what if with the big name agent, because it’s not like clout is solely going to sell my book–my book’s quality is still going to be the determining factor which sells my book.
So I emailed Laura, my agent now and the first agent I queried, being like YESYESYES PLEASE TAKE ME AS YOUR CLIENT!!!!!!!
And it has been a fantastic year.
But we still need to stay in the past. Now it’s time to go into how I got my book deal. Can I count this blog post as my word count for the day? We’re already at 4000 words.
After signing with Laura, I spent about a month on some edits that we had discussed during The Call. Mostly things to clear up confusion near the MS’s end, and to cut parts that digressed from the plot too much. I sent it back to her once she had returned from her overseas trip, she read through it, and maybe a month or so later, sent me small-ish line edits. They had a lot to do with cutting down, cutting down, cutting down (I’m such an overwriter), both in the smaller details and in this huge chunk at the end where I may or may not have just held a textbook open in front of me while writing going “OMG THIS IS SO FASCINATING, I MUST INCLUDE IT IN MY BOOK.” While I found the textbook material inspired content interesting, it very much… just read like a textbook to everyone else, so cutting it was absolutely the right move and I went snip, snip, snip. A few back and forths later, we went on submission on September 24th, which was coincidentally–in 2018–the day that the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival fell on and my book opens on the mid-autumn festival, so IT WAS FATE.
My submission experience that followed was kind of wild. Here I was, a 19 year old who had written a book about 18-19 year olds. But the number one feedback we got in the rejections were:
This doesn’t feel YA to me, sorry! I’d suggest trying Adult instead.
With my agent’s wise words, I urged myself to take it as a compliment, but still–it was wild. We submitted to both YA and Adult imprints with more gusto after the repetitive feedback on this, since you know, I’ll take what I can get and if I stand a better chance as Adult, then so be it, but secretly of course, I had written this book for teens–for teen me!–and I really wanted it to reach teens. To the Adult imprints we went to, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS would be Crossover anyway, so I wasn’t too worried, just mildly sighing over how an actual honest to god teenager accidentally wrote an Adult book when actual Adults are out here being told to age down when they don’t want to. Publishing is weird! Stuff happens! You just gotta roll with it!
Let’s fast forward through all my submission angst. We don’t need that.
Around four months after we went on submission, I was sitting at the Starbucks on my school campus, doing my British Poetry readings. I’d gone there with my friend after we left class together, but he had to drop into a meeting, so he left his stuff with me and I sat there with my frappe, minding my own business and probably rolling my eyes at Lord Byron.
Then a little email notification slid in on the sidebar of my laptop. It was from Laura. It said: OFFER OF PUB!!!!!!
When I say I choked on my frappe, I really choked on my frappe.
Yes, agents usually call with offers but hilariously, Laura had lost her voice (well, not so hilariously at the time, poor Laura) so we made do with a lot of !!!!!!!!! in the subsequent emails. All this happened in the time my friend left me and when he came back and started talking, I could only stare forward in shock before showing him the email and even though I warned him to keep quiet, it promptly got sent into the group chat (with some terrible zooming that I have GIF-ed for this post’s convenience):
With that one offer in, nudges were sent to all other editors, and it was a scramble because we had just sent the manuscript out to some on a new round. Some editors received my manuscript in the morning and were told that afternoon they had to hurry up and read because an offer was in. I have never felt such power in my tiny, tiny hands–just kidding, I was stressed as heck.
There were enough editors interested that we were going to auction, and in what seems to be a recurring pattern in publishing, I was way more anxious than usual all the way up to the day. There was a lot of random shrieking. I would just unhinge my jaw and shriek. Frequently.
I hopped on calls with all the offering editors, and it was just like choosing agents, where they were all amazing and had extraordinary visions for what THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS could be and I truly could not go wrong no matter how the auction proceeded… but I clicked with one editor in particular and a gut feeling just said YES, YES, YES!! But business is business, and if the auction veered one particular way, of course I’d go with the runaway offer. That didn’t stop me from pleading with the universe the night before the auction: I already know I’m super super lucky to be in this position but oh pleasepleaseplease let it be this editor.
So here I am, writing this post far after the events I have described. I feel like I’ve just been blah-blah-blah-ing about myself so I’m going to shut up now, but I hope this post is helpful in some way, and if not, I hope I’ve at least been entertaining for these past 5000 something words. Good god, imagine if I wrote my manuscripts at 5000 words per hour. I’d be unstoppable.
Anyway, if you like, you can add THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS on Goodreads, and I can’t wait for the world to read this book of my bloody, pulsating heart. That’s all from me until the next time I decide to write an unnecessarily long post!