On Thursday, December 13, 2018, I signed with my dream agent.
I queried her with my first ever completed manuscript, which I fondly refer to as Bhootbusters. 👻
I know this sounds surprising. I’ve heard stories of writers who’ve queried multiple manuscripts before finally signing with an agent after years of trying. I’m no more talented or hard-working than them. My manuscript, while one I’m proud of, isn’t some stroke of genius worlds apart from other writers’ works.
The difference (other than a pinch of luck) is that I was stubborn as hell when it came to Bhootbusters. As soon as I wrote it, I fell in love with the characters and world. I’d pieced them together from my own life, a book about the folklore I grew up with, my language, my culture, a Bengali, Muslim heroine like me, a city inspired by the one I grew up in, with a diaspora community much like mine.
And that, honestly, is what set it apart from all the books I couldn’t complete. Up until Bhootbusters, I had never written a Bengali (or Muslim) protagonist (besides the occasional short story in my college creative writing classes). I had a lot of stops and starts for projects populated with mostly white characters, but something about them always felt one dimensional and so I lost my motivation to finish drafts.
Meanwhile, I wrote the first draft of Bhootbusters in exactly two months, between March and May of 2017 (75k). But despite having finished the novel, I knew it wasn’t good at first. It simply had the potential to be. I loved the gruff heroine and her spunky cinnamon roll cousin. I adored the many powerful women who appeared in the story. I thought the mythology of the world was special, unlike anything else that had been done in the genre.
The setting, however, was one note, and my protagonist had too much of the plot just fall into her lap, depriving her of agency and stakes. So I rewrote the book.
Between May and June of 2017, I scrapped most of what I’d written, devised a new opening where my heroine propelled the plot more, completely rebooted the setting to do justice to the city that inspired it, and added more scenes to flesh out the plot and my word count (80k).
Only then did I feel comfortable enough to share it with a couple of beta readers. Neither were familiar with providing deep, constructive feedback that I could fix my book with, but their overall impressions helped me clarify certain confusing details so non-Bengali readers could connect. Naïve me figured that was enough. I’d already rewritten the whole book once, after all, and had revised in smaller ways at least once or twice as well. What more could I do? (Spoiler: A LOT.)
At the time, I didn’t know anything about traditional publishing, but while Bhootbusters was being read, I did my research. I learned about the querying process, about the Twitter writing community, about online pitch contests, and agents. It was a little overwhelming, so when DVPit rolled around, I created some short pitches and figured I’d try to get some attention that way. And I did! I think just over ten agents liked my (honestly not very well-written) pitch.
So come summer of that year, I sent my first few queries. This was a short-lived effort. Although I got full requests from three agents (a quarter of the amount I queried), there was something about my book that rang hollow once they got past the sample pages. They loved the characters and my prose, but I couldn’t stop adding to my list of things to edit, which meant there had to be fundamental flaws I hadn’t yet eradicated.
That was when I heard about Pitch Wars 2017. After reading up on the contest, which provides mentoring for unagented writers, I decided I would spit-shine my manuscript one more time and enter it. Perhaps a mentor would see the problems I couldn’t and tell me once and for all what areas I should concentrate on. I’ve always been a good student, so the idea appealed to me very much. Plus, I really wanted someone else to love it like I did.
Out of six mentors, four requested fulls. Several emailed to discuss my book further. Mentors from a different category read my query as a result of a giveaway and were incredibly complimentary. I was positive Pitch Wars was exactly what I needed and that I’d written exactly what a mentor—or several, a cocky part of me hoped—wanted.
Except I didn’t get in.
For at least a week, I was so crushed, I couldn’t even think of my book without feeling shame. Two of the three agents who’d requested my full had rejected it with no real feedback, several other agents had rejected or ignored the query, and I was terrified the remaining agent with the full would reject me, too.
But Pitch Wars left me in a better place than I’d started in: with a community of fellow writers who lifted me up. I met several of my long term betas/CPs/friends while participating in the contest. Not only that, but when offered the opportunity to request it, I asked the mentors I’d submitted to for feedback.
Most said, while they liked my book, they simply didn’t know how to help me improve it. One mentor, on the other hand, gave me chapter by chapter feedback on my first fifty pages. Between her and the CPs I’d met through the contest, I did yet another drastic revision of Bhootbusters that required cutting, adding, and rewriting whole scenes (a solid 85k at last!), just in time for PitMad.
“This time,” I thought, “my book is finally ready.”
When I participated in the pitch contest, my book got a few more likes than before, and I sent more fulls. By this time, 2017 was almost over. Around November or so, I received another crushing rejection from an agent who’d had the full for months.
“Maybe this time,” I lamented, “I should give up.”
But I didn’t.
One of the issues with my book, an issue beyond my control, is that it’s deeply cultural. Unlike a lot of fantasies inspired by non-western cultures, it takes place in modern day New Jersey, so a reader can’t pretend it’s purely fantasy or history to comfort themselves (because it’s easier for some people to connect to characters like Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, than actual human beings from different backgrounds than their own). I always knew there would be a problem with gatekeepers—that was why all of the books I’d tried to write prior to it were about white heroes.
A lot of rejections I’d received from agents and Pitch Wars mentors were of the, “I’m sorry, I just can’t connect,” variety. So when I heard about the Writing in the Margins program, another mentorship—one dedicated to helping marginalized writers improve their craft—I figured I would enter. What could it hurt? In just a few months, I’d been told no a painful amount of times already, but at least this time, it wouldn’t be because my characters were too “other” for whoever read it.
Rather than getting rejected, I was paired with a brilliant, prolific mentor who has been in the publishing industry for years. She told me though I’m a good writer, there were weaker areas in my manuscript I needed to address to make it shine. To prepare me for working with an agent and editors, she gave me both an edit letter and comments on my manuscript.
A lot of the issues she pointed out were things I, in my heart, knew needed fixing. Some were issues I’d already tried to fix, in a bandage-over-a-bullet-wound sort of way. But this time, with her organized list of issues to wrangle (a more vibrant setting, a more connected overarching plot, a more engaging love interest, and higher stakes), I felt revived. After creating a detailed, chapter by chapter revision outline we could come to a consensus over, I set about to do yet another comprehensive rewrite of my book.
I work a very exhausting full time job, often come home with grades and lesson plans, and sacrifice sleep to write during what wee dark hours can be wrung from my busy day. My Writing in the Margins rewrite required for me to cut about 5 chapters, combine several others, create a whole new character, and draft entirely new scenes to stitch everything together. My draft went from 85k to 95k despite what must have been close to 20k that needed to be deleted.
It took me nearly four months to do those revisions. By then, I was calling the novel Bhootbusters Draft 7, because between drastic and lesser rewrites, I’d already overhauled the book nearly ten times. Finally, I re-sent it to my mentor and as many CPs as I could get to volunteer, and yet I didn’t expect much. I figured I’d have to do more revising, even if it wasn’t as dramatic an amount as the last round.
When mostly positive feedback rolled in, and none of the critique was for big picture issues, no one was more surprised than me. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but even my mentor said how proud she was of the work I’d done, and she set me up with a list of agents to query.
The agency I’m currently with was on her list, but first (after yet another quick round of revisions to accommodate CP feedback), I reached out to the agents who’d previously rejected fulls of an older draft to see if they’d be open to rereading it, providing them with new sample pages and a synopsis. All but one were enthusiastic about this. While they read, I researched the agents on my mentor’s list.
This was when I decided the agent I’d most want to work with (my current agent!!!). Not only was the agency one my mentor recommended, but everything from Dream Agent’s credentials to her track record to her MSWL appealed to me. Figuring my sample pages had been received well by the other agents who had the full, I sent her and a few other agents on my mentor’s list cold queries.
In less than a couple weeks, she replied saying, while she loved my prose and the premise, she’d prefer if the paranormal elements appeared earlier in the opening pages. If I was amenable to revising them (she only had 10 pages), she would love to see the project again.
Some of my friends thought it was strange that she’d request an R&R for such a paltry amount of pages, but I saw it for what it was: a test. I have always been very good at tests. But I didn’t want to simply tweak the pages and send them back right away. I took an entire week to plot a new opening that wouldn’t sacrifice any of what I wanted to accomplish in my first chapter, while still doing what Dream Agent requested. After a few scrapped ventures, I finally came up with something I really liked—which I then sent to my most trusted CPs.
PitMad, meanwhile, had popped up again. Rather than send my updated sample pages to Dream Agent and risk throwing away the second chance she’d provided, I decided to pitch in the contest with a new and improved tweet (thank you, 280 characters!). This time, my tweet was toward the top, but not only that!!!
About half of the agents who read my pages requested my full! Finally feeling confident with my materials—and more convinced than ever that Dream Agent, with her brilliant feedback, was the one for me—I re-submitted my query. Another week or so went by before she also requested the full!
Now, it may seem at that point that I was finally winning. But the truth is, while I had a really positive request rate, several rejections soon began to roll in. Some asked me to R&R, but I wasn’t confident in the feedback, the way I’d been when Dream Agent suggested a change. Hers had made my book more gripping; others’ asked me to compromise my vision.
DVPit happened. I did fine in that, too. I got more requests, but between the R&Rs and “I can’t connect” rejections, I started to fear mine was the sort of book agents were fascinated by, but could never commit to. Too cultural. Not palatable. Or, as one agent phrased it in a very polite rejection, “too nuanced.”
Many agents praised my prose. One even mentioned gushing about me at an agency dinner party. But I was too much for them, too much for the imaginary readers they hoped to sell my book to, and would have to tone myself down to be accepted. Although my betas were from many walks of life and still found my characters compelling, I started mourning Bhootbusters.
Tuesday, December 4th had been a difficult day. Not only was work especially exhausting because I wasn’t feeling well, but I got caught in traffic on the trip home. I spent that long drive cataloguing the ways I would revise Bhootbusters again come 2019, even if I had to write a more marketable project first.
Because, again, I did not want to give up on my heart book. I just knew it was close to being something. It meant so much to the people who’d actually read it and I refused to believe their praise, the aesthetics and fanart they made, the memes and inside jokes—that all of it was merely a fluke. It would be hard, and maybe I was being foolish by refusing to shelve it, but I would pick myself up, dust my knees off, and try one more time.
When I got home, I saw I had two emails. (My friends insist I mention I was half-dressed at the time, scrolling through my phone as I changed into some PJs.) One was from Dream Agent! I opened the other one first because I was afraid to hear what she had to say. It was a reply to a DVPit query for only 10 pages: a rejection. My stomach sank.
I knew queries for such a small sample were mostly subjective, especially because my request rate was otherwise respectable, but this had to be a bad sign. After taking a deep breath, I opened Dream Agent’s email and scrolled all the way to the bottom—because when you get to the end, you can glean the gist.
I expected to see, “I’d like for you to query a future project,” or another R&R. Instead, it said she wanted to talk tomorrow. Before I knew it, I started whispering, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” under my breath. I finally found the courage to read the rest of the email and saw it was a list of all the things she loved in my book.
The next day, we talked and she officially made an offer (because until she said it, I was still positive it was a phone R&R). In another week, her agency would be closing for the holidays, so I could either sign by then or wait until the new year. Now, I was already 90% sure before even speaking to her that she was the agent I wanted to work with. That number climbed to 95% after we clicked so well during The Call, and after the head of the agency emailed to say they’d love to have me, but quite a few other agents still had the full.
Rather than wait till January and delay any revisions we’d need to do, I asked Dream Agent for one week and a few days. I would ask everyone else to read before her break began. I knew this short deadline, especially so close to the holidays, would affect their ability to consider me, but several agents responded that they’d like a chance.
Ultimately, after many polite step asides praising the book and expressing joy that I’d found the perfect champion for it, I withdrew my materials from the remainder of agents who had it and signed with Dream Agent, becoming her last client of 2018. The emails that followed only convinced me more and more that my journey had ended in the perfect place, with the perfect partner. And that, dear reader, is how I queried my very first manuscript (revised/rewritten nearly 10 times in just under two years) and signed with my dream agent.
In January 2018, that had been my wildest dream. Now, I can’t wait to see what 2019 (and Draft 10) brings!
DRAFTS WRITTEN: 9
QUERIES SENT: ~40
FULLS REQUESTED: 15
FULL REJECTIONS: 6
HOW LONG I QUERIED THE FIRST DRAFT: 6mos (7/17-12/17)
HOW LONG I QUERIED THE MOST RECENT DRAFT: 6mos (7/18-12/18)