I finished my novel in mid march of 2019. On a whim, I sent out a few query letters to literary agents. Not many, just five, who I had chosen based on the clients that they represented, clients whose books seemed similar to mine. I didn’t know much about publishing, and my novel certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was finished and had passed muster through a thesis defense so I figured that it was a somewhat good quality piece of work.
I had taken a community class on querying, years before, when I was first starting to write. I still had a query letter from that time, so I updated it now that my novel was finished. I found a list of agents I had saved on my computer, mostly from writing down which agents represented writers in my genre that I liked. Then I began to send out queries. I started with five.
A week later, I got my first full manuscript request, from one of my top choices of literary agent. I was elated as I sent his assistant my manuscript. A few weeks later, I had another request. I sent out more queries, then more, until I had sent out nearly 50 by the end of the summer. By then, I had 6 requests, 3 fulls and 3 partials. I sent out a few more queries and waited. I would have an agent soon, I thought. I was confident about my novel. It wouldn’t take long before I would begin the process of selling my first book.
I queried in April-December of 2019. I was optimistic enough then to think that my roughly 10% request rate meant that I would certainly get an agent. It was a good start. I waited and waited as the responses slowly came back to me: No, No, No. Then finally, a revise and resubmit request from an agent. I agreed, then I frantically emailed the other agents who still had my novel and told them I would send them the new version soon.
I rewrote the entire novel based on her feedback, then sent it back out again in late November of 2020. This time, I queried a handful of new agents, about 30 in all. By then, my list of available agents had shrunk dramatically. I had already queried most of the agents I was interested, but new agents had also entered the field, leaving me with new exciting options.
While I queried, however, I was still writing. I had a new idea for another novel, and I had polished some of the short pieces I wrote in graduate school for workshops. One of these was a piece that I was very confident with. I had begun to submit it in May of 2019, it was accepted for publication at the Southern Review in the spring of 2020, and published that July. I was accepted to the Tin House writers workshop for nonfiction, which I attended virtually and used to polish another piece. I was waitlisted for a residency at StoryKnife, all because of that one piece I had written during my MFA, then polished, slowly but surely, alongside the novel.
In the end, it was not the novel I had written that would get me an agent. In February of 2021, I was sitting at work one day when I got an email from the Pen/America association. I read the first word, “Congratulations!” and screamed. I had been nominated for the Pen/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for emerging writers that year, after asking the editor of the Southern Review if he would be willing to nominate my story for that award. It was awarded to twelve emerging writers each year, who had published their debut short story. I had been chosen. As soon as the news was public, I emailed the agents who had my novel. All but one emailed back to congratulate me. Within a week, all but one had rejected my novel again.
I had no choice but to keep going. I started working on personal essays in 2021, and at the suggestion of a friend from my MFA program, Sean Enfield, I considered the possibility of gathering them together in a collection. This time, I would learn from my mistakes with the novel. When agents said they wanted something in a book, like a fantasy series where the first book was a stand alone, I knew they really meant it. With essay collections, they had to be linked. I read any essay collection I could get my hands on, focusing specifically on the thematic tissue that linked the collection together.
I got off the waitlist for Storyknife in April, much to my surprise. In July, I took 2 weeks of vacation from work, loaded my car with books and drove to Homer for three weeks to live in a cabin there. While I was there, I called my Tin House instructor, and asked for her advice. I was going to write an essay collection, I said, what would be required to find an agent?
The anthology for the Pen/Dau short story prize was released in August of 2021. The day before it was due to be released, I put a contact form on my website. A few weeks later, the first agent email came. “I loved your short story, do you have anything you’re working on?” Three agents emailed me. I told them I was working on a proposal and would get back to them.
I finished the proposal in January of 2022, then sent it to the three agents. One of them, the first agent who had reached out in August, emailed me back at the beginning of April. “Would you like to chat?” he asked.
After a long conversation about my vision and his vision for the essay collection, he offered me representation and gave me the customary 2 weeks to make a decision. I emailed the other two agents who had my proposal, as well as the one who still had my novel, nearly a year and a half after I had first queried him. The two agents politely stepped aside. I signed with my agent in mid April of 2022, 3 years after I sent my first query, one literary award and two publications later.
If there are any lessons to take from this, it is perhaps that writing is rarely linear, and that there are many paths to finding representation, whether that is by writing multiple manuscripts, writing short work and gaining attention, or any other avenue in between. But in the end, it is not the representation or being published that matters, it is doing the work of writing.
Heather Aruffo is teaching the upcoming fundraiser workshop Next Steps: How to Find a Literary Agent on March 4th 2023, from 3-5pm. You can find more info and register HERE. Aruffo is based in Fairbanks. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2021, she was awarded the Pen/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared twice in the Southern Review, Best Debut Short Stories 2021, and is forthcoming from the Alaska Quarterly Review. She has received support from the Fulbright Association, Breadloaf, the Rona Jaffee Foundation and Storyknife. She is represented by Justin Brockeaurt of Aevitas Literary Management.