Author Janelle McCurdy details her eight year journey to getting a literary agent from the age of 16 to 24...
It's no surprise that since I was little, I've always loved books. As I got older and read more, I realised whilst I loved Middle Grade and Young Adult books, there weren't many books that had characters that looked like me, a Black girl. So, I wrote stories for myself. Most of them were silly fantasy books that will probably stay on my computer forever. Probably.
When I was sixteen I decided I wanted to take things seriously. I wanted to be a published author, and so wrote my first official contemporary YA novel to send out to agents.
I don't need to tell you what a mess that was, and looking back I can only laugh at myself, reading that old manuscript and query letter. Still, I sent it out to agents (after looking at their guidelines and googling what a query letter was!) and believe it or not, I didn't get one response, which was - as we all know - heart-breaking.
Not a single response, not even a rejection to say they didn't like the book. I stopped writing for a whole year before I decided to get back on the horse, this time putting in more of an effort in my research and honing my craft as a writer.
The Turning Point
I remember googling "tools that every writer should have" and The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook was almost always mentioned. My mum bought it for me, and this book changed the game for me. Not only did I have a list of agents from the UK and across the world in one place, but it had tips and tricks when it came to writing and the publishing process. I learnt the terminology, what literary agents actually did, and so much more.
As I started writing my next book, the next important step for me was to network and receive feedback on my work. I knew that meeting agents face to face and getting feedback would hopefully give me more confidence and break down the walls that seemed to surround these so-called ‘gatekeepers of publishing’.
Another important thing I wanted was writer friends, to be among people in the same boat as me. People who understood what it was like to be rejected and all the other emotions that came with being an aspiring author.
I was working part time, so I saved up my money and attended my first ever writers event. It was an event organised by Writers & Artists in fact, their How To Write for Children & YA conference. Not only did I meet an author for the first time, but agents as well! I spoke to fellow writers from all walks of life and for the first time ever, I didn't feel alone. Writing can be such a lonely craft, but it doesn't have to be.
If you can't afford to go to writer events then Twitter is your next best friend. There are writer communities, such as SCBWI, Twitter pitch events such as DVpit and #Pitmad, mentorship programs and communities like WriteMentor and thousands of industry professionals and writers to connect with.
The first event I ever attended also had workshops to help you create a query letter and a helpful Q&A with the author and her agent. I got to ask all the burning questions I had; it was one of my most treasured memories, and he amazing author followed me back on Twitter (I literally squealed).
I went to many more writers events after that throughout the years and only stopped when money was tight due to my studies. The HOW TO HOOK AN AGENT events were really fun!
Support Systems and Opportunities
In the next few years that followed, I queried about five other books. This time I received full manuscript requests, and when the rejections arrived they came with feedback. I knew that each manuscript was getting stronger and I was getting closer to my goal. Of course, each rejection (especially on fulls) still stung a lot. There were many days I cried, followed by a period of depression, but I made it through. I'm so thankful for the support system I had both with my mum, and the writing friends I had made through events and Twitter. Querying a book is tough on your mental health, so be kind to yourself.
Looking back now, I can see that each book made me a stronger writer. Whenever an author was offering free critiques via Twitter, I took them. Whenever there was an online pitch event, I participated. I threw myself at every opportunity I saw. I can't stress that part enough. It's important to keep trying. It paid off for me, and it will for you too.
So fast forward to this year 2020. It took about four months to finish the manuscript that would get me my amazing agent, Rachel Mann. I entered #Pitmad for my current Middle Grade fantasy novel, which sparked off what would be a whirlwind two weeks.
I had already sent out about 8 normal queries prior to participating in the pitch event.
Normally, I would send out my query to about 15 agents at a time, but this time I decided to take a different approach and send less the first time round. My now-agent Rachel was one of the first agents I sent my manuscript to. My first round of submissions was a month before the #PitMad event and in between that time I met some more amazing writer friends who offered to look over some of my pages. My brilliant friend Louie Stowell (Go check out her MG books!) was especially helpful during that month and after too.
So during this time, the tragic death of George Floyd sparked off a worldwide Black Lives Matter protest which led to many organisations looking at themselves and how they promote diversity. Many editors, writers and agents were offering to help Black writers in many different ways, and once again I took every opportunity available and was able to get great feedback on my book.
So, by the time #PitMad came along, I entered and was amazed, and entirely grateful for all the love my pitch got from both lovely writers, editors and agents alike, and that sparked off the whirlwind two weeks for me.
20+ agents liked my tweet but after doing some research and asking around via Twitter friends, I sent my book to about five of the 20+ agents from #PitMad, and kept a note of all the editors who had shown interest.
I sent off my query to those five agents. Soon after I had my first call with an agent. It was safe to say I was very nervous and excited, but I had prepared and had my questions written down in front of me.
As soon as I had the call with the first agent, she offered me representation and set a two week deadline to get back to her. After that, I began emailing every agent who had a query from me.
I remember sending the "offer of representation received" email to Rachel and I was horrified to see I’d sent her the earlier version of my first three chapters. When I emailed her for the second time, I explained that the manuscript had improved and gave her the updated query and pages.
She got back to me within the hour. As soon as I read her email about how excited she was to read it and that it was just the type of Middle Grade book she was looking for, I just felt like she could be the one.
After having the first call with another agent, I was a little more confident. When I tell you, you just know when you meet the agent that's right for you, trust me it’s true. That's exactly what happened.
We clicked instantly, and even talking to my mum (and my big brother who was apparently eavesdropping on the call too), they both said straight away that she was the one. It solidified my thoughts.
So after we spoke, just like with the first agent, I asked for the contact details of some of her clients and a draft agency contract to look at. After that I had a few more calls with different agents with an open mind that someone else could swoop in and amaze me, but no one quite topped Rachel. I had planned it so I had three days to think about who I wanted to pick and I sent that email straight to her when the three days were up.
It took eight years for me to get an agent and I know there's still a long road ahead, but if you take anything from this story, it's: DON'T GIVE UP. You can be a writer at any age, and every writer faces rejection at some point. Don't compare your journey to anyone else.
Janelle is an author and fully-fledged gamer. Having started writing and querying at only sixteen years-old, she joined JULA in her early twenties. After graduating from Royal Holloway University with a Criminology and Sociology degree, Janelle moved back home to London, and began writing middle-grade fantasy.
In her free time, you can find her holed-up in her room, gaming and watching anime (some of her favourites being Inuyasha, Dragon Ball Z and Death Note), or attending numerous comic cons and gaming events.
Twitter: @janellelmccurdy Instagram: @janellemccurdyy
Photo credit is: Dujonna Gift-Simms 2020