How I Got My Agent: A Tale of Hell & (Occasionally Literal) High Water
As a lot of you know, around late 2016, I started writing short SFF fiction. I'd dabbled here & there in undergrad, but over a lifetime largely in love with long form, I'd neglected short form craft. But at 25, swamped with my Washingtonian day job in international affairs & creatively drifting apart from the literary agent who'd first signed me for a novel that died in submission over a year before, I'd hit a rut. My latest novel-writing attempts were terrible & making me miserable, I'd convinced myself I was A Hack All Along, and everything was The Worst!
Eventually bored of The Worst, however, I decided to get over myself and try a new tack. After binge reading the likes of Isabel Yap, Zen Cho, and Alyssa Wong, I wrote a bunch of short stories, which remarkably enough, 1) I genuinely enjoyed, and 2) a handful of SFF publications enjoyed enough to pay me actual money for!
Then the US election happened, which hit both my professional and personal communities in DC with the force of a million bricks. A new routine emerged: I'd get out of bed, do my job, come home, have myself a good existential stress-cry about the future of the geopolitical landscape, my career, and my sense of self – so like, normal 20-something stress-crying, but weirdly and specifically magnified – and keep writing. It became an odd combination of catharsis, escapism, and witness. I wrote angry, I wrote depressed, but I also managed to write, at times, with a desperate, rebellious sort of joy. I could command so little of what happened around me, but I'd be damned if I couldn't command words.
Time for friends, meals, and cathartic stretches in martial arts gyms wound its way into my routine too, mind you, but mostly my days looked like this: wake up, deliver an international security brief, cry, draft some war game strategy, cry, write some anxious cyberpunk stories, cry, submit my stories to SFF markets, cry, rinse and repeat. I drank a lot of water!
At some point during that long, awful year, however, something magical happened: a novel crept into my notebooks alongside the short fiction. It was a fun, punchy sci-fi romp aimed at YA audiences, and contained stuff like giant cybernetic dragons and dramatic military intrigue, but it was also a fundamentally North American-set story carried by an Asian girl lead, multiple supporting Asian characters, a POC-majority cast, casually but explicitly queer characters, and cheerful codeswitching banter rife with the language of diaspora and immigration.
It was, I think, the story I needed most to tell myself – not only myself circa 2017, crying too much and overly aware of life's uncertainties on every level, but also my younger self from years before: the girl who'd hunted through books she loved for faces like hers and her friends', and never satisfied, decided – if I might quote Teresa Tran – to write herself into the narrative. Regardless of what happens to this book, I will always love it for that much.
Eventually, I blinked, and realized my odd little sci-fi YA was done, or as done as it could be for the moment. I dove into the agent querying trenches around late September 2017, with about 20 queries, about seven of which netted full requests, so not terrible returns! Meanwhile, though, in the two months that followed, powers that be wreaked new and exciting swathes of havoc on my day job, my neighbors accidentally flooded me out of my apartment – because my life is evidently written by gods overly keen on heavy-handed symbolism – and I wound up temporarily homeless on a kindhearted friend's floor, morosely rereading Megan Whalen Turner novels, pitying myself once more with great aplomb.
This was also, naturally, when an agent called to tell me she'd picked my weird mecha dragon book out of the slush & wanted to offer me representation. Say what??!
She was wonderful, for the record. To that first agent, if you're reading this: you were and are wonderful, and that first call meant more to me than I can possibly say. In the end, after all was said and done and I'd frantically contacted everyone else with my manuscript, I had the tremendous privilege of not one but THREE offers of representation from three incredible agents. Each one of them floored me with their passion for both my current book and my future writing, along with keen editorial vision and author lists I practically salivated over. To this day, I remain convinced that I could not have picked a poor choice among those three, whose clients are all tremendous talents lucky to have such staunch, savvy advocates in their corners.
One agent, however, stood out to me for personal reasons. I'd queried Thao Le what felt like a million moons ago (by which I mean like, four years) with another novel: what was, in hindsight, an earnest but messy manuscript. Being a saint among agents, however, Thao had offered bb!Andrea some wonderfully kind, thoughtful feedback + an R&R. Alas, it was not to be, as I wound up signing with different rep back then!
Nevertheless, her advice stuck with me (along with the Marvel superhero videos we'd bonded over in correspondence), and when she wrote to tell me how much she loved the mecha dragon book – that this odd little novel of mine was, in fact, one of the smartest manuscripts she'd found in her slush that year – it felt like the strangest, loveliest sort of kismet. I was also literally on my way to France at the time; hence, I had my call with Thao from a townhouse on the outskirts of Paris, like some ridiculous, aesthetic mid-20th-century writer cliché. Hey, there are worse clichés to lean into!
Of course, in the ensuing days, I'd hem and haw and wring my hands over Big Decisions (see above: No Bad Choices among my offering agents! If I could have signed with all of them, I would have, and was weirdly upset that I couldn't! Talk about first world problems, sheesh, Andrea.)
Still, I think I knew about 20 minutes into my chat with Thao, in my heart of hearts, that hers was the right representation for me. She'd laughed and cried over my manuscript and connected so intuitively with all the characters. She fundamentally understood all the various themes and subtleties I'd flailingly tried to convey through my worldbuilding, and she had ideas of her own on how to drive them further home. When I shyly mentioned the ancient 2013 query that should have long since passed from all memory, she DUG IT OUT FROM HER INBOX the next day and forwarded it to me, cheerfully going, "Wow, look what I found! I can't believe how much you've leveled up your craft since then. We may not have connected back in 2013, but my fingers are crossed for 2017!"
"OH GOD," I replied aloud, around a mouthful of breakfast croissant, and covered my eyes with my fingers, on one hand mortified at my awkward POV switches and overlong pitch, but on the other hand, oddly and deeply touched. The thought of kismet stuck under my skin, as I wandered through Paris, slipping in and out of coffeehouses along the Seine, running my fingers over the book spines at Shakespeare & Co., and absently doing translations at the Château de Vincennes' Defence Historical Service, where of all things, I found an actual mechanical dragon:
Like I said, kismet! I thought about the writer I'd been in 2013, fresh and wide-eyed and utterly new to publishing, peddling my earnest, heartfelt little mess of a manuscript around. I thought of the writer I'd become in 2017: a grad degree, three years of day job, seven short stories, and a few disasters natural & otherwise later. I thought of the writer I wanted to be, of late nights and early starts, sweat and tears and uncertainty. I thought of hope, and the kind of joy that is also rebellion. A week later, I flew back into DC, went home to my (finally!) de-flooded apartment, and signed with Thao. I haven't looked back since.
Now, the good news is, I imagine most query trenches – trenches though they are – see a fair bit less drama than all this! I cannot, in good conscience, recommend writing and/or querying your way through literal floods and political upheaval. I realize it follows a noble & rather Alexander Hamilton-esque tradition, but the actual experience was stressful, dehydrating, probably bad for posture, and well... wet. 0/5 Yelp stars, would not take a second helping of this experience, thank you kindly.
That said, I will also unabashedly admit that hell and (occasionally literal) high water were worth finding the right advocate. Do your research. Learn their tastes – not so you can twist yourself into a pretzel trying to match them, mind you – rather, learn them so you can figure out whose tastes match up with yours naturally. In such a wildly subjective business, professional savviness is crucial, yes, but so too is passion, and the right personality fit. Your agent is there to sell your books, but a good agent will also guide you through a tough, overwhelming, and often heartbreaking industry, coach you on everything from craft to market, fight in your corner, and believe in your work even when you're not sure how to. My own has done that much and more, and I sincerely hope that yours will too.
Good luck out there in the trenches, friendos. You got this.