So, you want to know how I got my agent.
There’s a short way to explain this: I wrote a book, I queried that book, I wrote another book, I queried that book, and boom! Agent. So neat and so clean. Right?
It did not take me over a year to write my How I Got My Agent post to sum it all up in one run-on sentence (although, to be fair, that would be very on-brand for me). So buckle up, because I’m sharing it all.
That said, if you don’t want all the backstory that led me here and just want the facts and stats, you can jump ahead to Act 3: Gathering the Team. It will minorly hurt my feelings, but I’ll find it in my heart to forgive you.
Just kidding––I’m honestly so thankful for you, and that you’re interested in my writing journey, even if it’s just a piece or the whole twenty-three years-and-counting adventure. I appreciate you so much!
HERE WE GO!!! The story starts when it was hot and it was summer and––
Okay, it doesn’t start there, either. And I promise, that will be my only TS reference. Probably.
Act 1: The Set Up
My writing journey actually started when I was in a car seat. I couldn’t hold a pen, but that’s not really what writing’s about. It’s about storytelling, and before I even knew how to string together coherent sentences, I knew how to do that. My mom says I used to sit in the car and talk about random things. Sometimes I’d sing them, too. It didn’t matter that no one was listening (except, of course, my mom always was. She still is.) Even then, there were pictures in my mind, and I needed to share them with the world.
It was fourth grade when I really got into reading. I had trouble making friends, but that didn’t hurt as much once I found comfort in books. I became more confident in myself, too. It was like I unlocked this little key to surviving school. All I had to do was pretend I was a character in my favorite story. They could do anything, so why couldn’t I?
This is all relevant. I promise.
When I was ten, I started writing songs. I’d sometimes scribble story passages in fancy journals I bought from Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t have the attention span to stick with anything past a few pages. Songs were easier for me, because it was a whole story in three minutes or less. One of my first ones was about how it’s okay to be yourself. My second was about how unfair it was that I’d probably never meet Josh Hutcherson and make him fall in love with me. It’s called range, okay?
In seventh grade, something shifted. I would sit in religion class (shout out to my fellow Catholic school kids), and I couldn’t focus for the life of me. So instead, I started writing in my notebook. It was basically fanfiction of my own life, but it was about falling into a new world and having to save it. Keep in mind, this was during The Hunger Games phenomenon, so “I <3 Peeta” was scribbled in the margins.
Every religion class, I would write in the back of this notebook. My friends would nudge me when the teacher looked my way for too long, and I’d stuff it under my textbooks. But then I’d go back to writing. Looking back, there’s no way my teacher didn’t know I wasn’t paying attention. I was not slick. So I owe that teacher a lot of thanks for letting me do my thing instead of yelling at me or taking it away. It was the start of something really special.
Act 2: Fun and Games (I use ‘fun’ loosely. You’ll see why.)
Life got really busy, and writing that story stopped being a priority once I left seventh grade. I still wrote songs, so when it was time to go to college, I auditioned for a music business program, sure it was my ticket to being a professional songwriter.
I didn’t get into the program. I wasn’t a talented enough singer.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t even want to be a singer anymore, I just wanted to write the songs. I was heartbroken because it felt like I was made for that school and that program. But I did get accepted to the school itself. I decided I’d go there based on the assurance that come winter, I could audition again. I remember sitting in the office of one of the music professors and their exact words were: “Ninety-nine percent of students who audition the second time get in.”
Well, those odds were certainly in my favor. I went to the school, and the night before I left, I packed the Percy Jackson books. I figured, Okay, if I’m bad at making friends, I can just read books and write in my dorm. It’s fine.
Except, to my surprise, I wasn’t bad at making friends. Not anymore. My unexpected social life, combined with all the music classes I had to take to keep me on track for the program, meant I suddenly had no time at all. The Percy Jackson books collected dust and my own story, still barely started, was left on my laptop. I was taking voice and piano lessons, spending late nights in practice rooms. And even then, my fingers itched to get back to the world I had started in seventh grade. But I was sooooo busy being a music kid. No time!
It all led up to the winter audition in one great crescendo. This was it. I’d get into the program for sure, become a songwriter, move to LA, and live out my best bougie life. It was everything I’d dreamed of.
And then I got the email that I didn’t pass the audition. Again.
Insert: Dark Night of the Soul
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Dang Mackenzie you must be kind of a shitty singer. And maybe you’re right!! When you grow up on your brother’s 90s pop punk playlists, it’s not exactly the makings for the most classically trained set of pipes (although, I did take years of lessons!). But honestly, I think somewhere deep inside, I knew I didn’t want it as badly as I thought I did. And I think the professors judging my performance could see it, even if I couldn’t.
At the time, I couldn’t see the doors it opened up. I just felt humiliated. With a ninety-nine percent chance to make it, I was the one percent that failed.
Keep that one percent in mind. It comes back later.
I almost transferred schools, but I had made friends and loved the campus, so I decided to give it one more year. I switched my major officially, continued taking voice lessons, but dropped all the other music classes. And with that change came a lot of free time, along with a lot less stress now that I wasn’t trying to be someone else. I even realized that my new major, Communications and Media, was a way better fit for me. It introduced me to some professors and friends who became fundamental to my growth as a writer. Silver linings!
Act 3: Gathering the Team (Aka, hello writing I’ve missed you so much.)
I started writing again.
I finished my first book freshman year. It was a trilogy, so I dived right into the second. I wrote a quarter of that one while abroad in Bologna, Italy. We had gone right after the book convention that happens in Bologna. I remember sitting outside of the biblioteca and thinking, Someday, I’m going to get invited to this.
Then I wrote the third book, because what else was I supposed to do? These characters were all I’d ever known and they felt like home. While abroad, I also finished reading the books I brought and my friend let me borrow hers. “It’s really good,” she said, handing me Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard.
I devoured it, and then I looked up Victoria Aveyard. I couldn’t believe she had written it just after graduating college. That wasn’t much older than me!
Suddenly, being an author felt possible. I had always assumed I was too young––I don’t know where that notion even came from, maybe just a perpetual instinct from being the baby of my family. But it was like someone had opened the floodgates on my brain, and I’m a dreamer, so I saw everything. Movie deals, my name in lights, the whole shebang. Oh baby, I was getting published.
But I had to finish the trilogy first, right?
Wrong, again. You really aren’t supposed to work on the next book in a series before querying the first one. But I didn’t know that, so I just kept writing. When I finished the trilogy, I went to a local writing convention. There was an opportunity to pitch your story to agents. I signed up for a slot, with absolutely no idea where to even start, just the conviction that I had to tell someone about my story.
I distinctly remember a man pitching right before me. He stormed out of the room swearing, ego bruised from the agent not requesting his materials. I exchanged a look with my friend who had come with me: Oh jeez, I have no shot.
I rambled off a scattered pitch to the agent, and to my surprise, she said she’d love to see pages. To which I replied, “Really?! Thanks! Sounds good!” And leapt out of the chair before she could tell me how many pages and where to send them. I just zoomed right off, on cloud nine. Later, I found her email and sent what the website directed. She never replied.
But dang, I thought that meant I was ready to query! So I compiled a spreadsheet of eighty or so agents (ah, yes, another mistake), and shipped my query off to twenty of them. And then I waited for the agents to pour into my inbox with their undying love for my barely edited writing. It would happen any second.
Narrator Voice: it did not happen.
I got rejections. This was around the same time that I found the Twitter writing community, and discovered that there’s such a thing as critique partners and beta readers. So I found a few, launched my book off to them, and waited. With their feedback, I revised and sent it off to some more agents.
And I got more rejections. It was a YA contemporary fantasy book, a portal fantasy, and at the time, that was a death sentence. It didn’t help that the pacing was terribly off, which I didn’t know back then. And to be fair, there were a lot of other issues, too. However, I won’t say it was terrible. It was good for where I was at at that point in my writing career! But it wasn’t my best. As more rejections rolled in, I knew that deep in my heart.
But I had just written a whole trilogy. I didn’t realize that’s the exact thing you’re not supposed to do. I thought I was ahead of the game.
I truly thought I’d never have another good idea. I had been working on this single idea since seventh grade. I was one and done. I applied to mentorship programs like Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match and a few others. No luck. Not even requests. Oof.
It was fall 2019 at this point, my senior year of college. Pitch Wars had been my last shot, and I was stumped. What came next?
I had an idea that was inspired by something my brothers had said over the summer about arson (I promise my family’s normal, lol). But all I knew was fantasy, and I didn’t know how to make it fantasy. So, I started reading outside of fantasy. And thus, I fell into the heart pounding little niche of YA thrillers.
It changed my life.
I started drafting in November, a story so completely different that it was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. In December, I thought I’d give my YA contemporary fantasy one last shot during #PitMad. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
And my tweet blew up.
I thought, “This is it! I’m getting an agent.” And it certainly seemed like that was in the future! Except, rejections started coming in. Even as I was sending the book out, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I loved my new book so much, and I knew it could give me a better shot than this first story ever could. Would I really be happy if an agent offered on a book that I knew wasn’t my best?
Thankfully, they all rejected me. I was especially crushed by a quick rejection from an agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret because I had been eyeing that agency for awhile. But it wasn’t the right book, and I knew it in my heart. I’d just have to throw everything I had into my new story.
So, I did. And that story became ALL WE HAVE IS THE FIRE.
Actually, it was first called, IT STARTS WITH A SPARK, then later graduated to AN ARSONIST’S GUIDE TO HIGH SCHOOL. And writing it felt different. A lot of agents had kindly mentioned the main character in my first book was too quiet and passive. I poured that feedback into my new main character, Izzy, a girl who struck matches after midnight and didn’t know how to take no for an answer. Who, at times, felt like everything I wasn’t and everything I wanted to be.
I subbed the book to AMM with heaping amounts of hope in my heart. This time, I’d get in. Then, I got requests. I was sure this was my shot.
And, it wasn’t. But the mentors were so nice, and I made an awesome CP and friends, so it was fine! I was crushed, but I’ve always been good at dusting myself off. With the help of the CP, I’d edit it and try again.
I found out about RevPit (aka, Revise and Resub) on a whim and I almost didn’t apply. I was antsy to launch my book at agents, and scared that more rejections would knock the wind out of my sails. But at the last minute, my CP and I made a pact to sub together. So, we did.
This was all during the beginnings of the pandemic, too. My senior year of college was toast, I was terrified because most of my family were high risk or healthcare workers, and I was so anxious I could barely breathe. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to put out a book about fire when it felt like the world was burning around me. (Yes, super dramatic, I know.
When the mentee picks were announced for RevPit, I screeched. My name was on the list. Me! I called my mom, which felt right since her and my dad have always been my biggest cheerleaders. My editor was the lovely Katie McCoach, and together, we transformed my book into something more thrilling, more voicy, and more murderous than before.
In July, the agent showcase came around and I was fully prepared for no agents to request. After all, I was pretty familiar with being the one percent who fell short. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in my story, but in cases like this, it was easier to prepare for the worst.
But that didn’t happen. I got several requests from super lovely agents. I spent one last week polishing up my manuscript before launching it off. And then, I bit my nails and waited.
At the beginning of the week, I sent out my full manuscript requests. By Friday, I had my first agent email to set up a call.
I was losing it. It was everything I dreamed of. I had a call with that agent the following Tuesday. On Monday, I received another response from an agent saying they loved my manuscript and wanted to chat. I had that call on Wednesday.
And woowee, my head was SPINNING! I had also just started a new job that same week, so I was buzzing. It was a lot, and it also felt like exactly what I’d been waiting for. Like finally, after essentially four books and a bunch of doors slammed in my face, there was a shimmer of hope.
I had other full requests out (I’ll share stats at the end!), but they all ended with kind step asides. And it’s funny, because no one ever talks about what it feels like during that two week decision period. I got more rejections during that time than I ever have in such a short period of time, and despite having two wonderful offers in my pocket, I was doubting my writing like I never had before. And I’ve never been good with decisions, so that was another battle in itself. I was lucky to have a choice!
One of the agents was Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and when we hopped on the call, I was in awe of the ideas she had to make my story better. I could tell her brain worked differently than mine, thought of solutions that had never crossed my mind and reminded me to make every action count. I knew she’d challenge me in a good way and push me to be a better writer. I emailed her back with shaking fingers, accepting the offer.
All in all, for my second queried book, it all happened SO FAST!!! But probably only because of the agent showcase, which speeds things along, usually. Looking back, I was so overwhelmed and grateful for all the kindness the agents and mentors had shown me. So much support and encouragement. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.
So, remember that one percent from earlier?
When I was trying to make my decision, I was scrolling through Dystel’s website, one I had looked at longingly many times throughout the past year. And man, I was having crazy imposter syndrome. I had gotten so many rejections in the past week alone. Was I even good enough to deserve an agent? Surely, there were writers much better.
But then there was a quote on the website. I’ve tried to find it since, but it’s not there, so maybe I imagined it? Saw it somewhere else? It said something like, “Less than one percent of people who write a book go on to get an agent.” Again, totally don’t quote me on that; maybe my brain made it up because it was what I needed to see at that moment. But, it definitely was something about being in the one percent. In a good way.
I realized maybe being in the one percent for some things wasn’t so great, like my music business experience. But for others, like in the case of writing my books, I’d count it as a win.
If you read all of this, I’m blowing you a kiss right now. And if there’s one takeaway, I want it to be that you really just have to keep trying. I’ve said this before, but here it is again: getting rejected is a door being closed in your face. But houses have lots of doors, and maybe that wasn’t the right door for you at this point in time. Try the next one, and keep trying until you find the right one that opens for you, even if you have to shove your shoulder into it and push it open yourself. Because it WILL happen. Just don’t give up, okay? You’re rare, and the world needs your stories.
Epilogue: One Year Later and Time for Stats! (RIP to those of you who had to scroll all the way down here for this.)
Time to write it: Uhhhhh I technically started in seventh grade and finished as a sophomore in college, so eight years? But if we’re only counting the true first draft, then probably a year and a half!
Queries sent: 45 (my list had 101 agents on it, though. Seeing that made me queasy.)
Full/partial requests: 6
Pitmad requests: 12
Time querying: 6/10/19-4/29/20 – almost a full year!
Offers of rep: 0
BOOK 2 & 3: Never queried!
BOOK 4: ALL WE HAVE IS THE FIRE
Time to write it: I started it in November 2019 for NaNoWriMo and finished the first draft on January 16th, 2020. Less than three months this time!
Queries sent: 19 (my list had 35 agents on it)
Full/partial requests: 8
RevPit requests: 5
Time querying: 11 days!
Offers of rep: 2
So there ya have it! In the past year, I’ve revised ALL WE HAVE IS THE FIRE with my agent and I’m also working on some other exciting projects. The writing train is chugging harder than ever! If you want to stay up to date with any news, feel free to sign up for my mailing list here, where I share the query letter that got me my agent and other writerly things. I also actively talk about my writing journey on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, so I’d love for you to drop by. I’m always happy to chat or answer questions. Thanks for reading!