How I didn’t get my agent or: The story of CotT and more specifically DoT
Updated: Jan 9
As I announced earlier today, I’ve decided to self-publish my debut High Fantasy novel, DAUGHTERS OF TITH, which is Book I of the (eventually 5-book) series: CHILDREN OF THE TREES.
I’ll start this post off with the biggest red flag, so you can quickly decide if you want to continue reading or not:
The book I didn't get my agent with is 220,000 words long.
*cue the much-loved/hated word count debate*
It won’t be surprising to most (or likely all) of you reading this that I was unable to get an agent with a 220,000 word debut novel. It wasn’t a big surprise to me either, thank goodness, or I might be a lot more upset with this outcome.
I want to make something clear before I start into my personal reasons for this decision–the decision being to stop querying and to still publish the book:
If you aren’t yet traditionally-published and you want to be–and you’re sure that’s what you want–don’t write a book this long. Or do (because if you want to you should!), but if you have anything else, you'll have a much easier time querying that instead.
I truly, honestly started writing DoT knowing how long it would be. It didn’t grow in the telling or get out of control. I conceived of a story and a world over many years that needed this much space, because that’s the kind of book I read growing up and that’s what I wanted to make.
It had a 20,000 word outline. It has 6 (non-human) POV characters, an original fantasy race and magic, a fantasy multiverse with 11 worlds…and it begins a 5-book series where each book is a self-contained part of a larger story, each about mostly different characters. It was always going to be long.
I went into querying with eyes wide open, knowing it was “impossible”. Rare exceptions have done it, but it’s so rare as to approach impossibility. You can try, but you really have to be prepared to fail.
The main reason I tried at all was because it would have been nice to see “Tor” on the spine. It’s what I wanted as a kid, when severe childhood insomnia forced me to begin building the multiverse that features in CotT, and DoT specifically. I’d have regretted not trying. Now I have no regrets!
This is going to be mostly about me and this specific project, but I also hope it will help people struggling with the same decision. It’s long…kind of like the book (ha ha ha I swear I don’t have a brevity problem), but fancy links will take you through it if you’re only interested in specific parts.
The elements that went into my decision to stop querying my giant book and to eventually self-publish it are best categorised like this:
Other sections of note if you want to skip to them:
The story of DoT/CotT
The story of this long story is a long one! The multiverse DoT takes place in has been growing in my mind since I first started reading Fantasy at six years old. I’ve had the bones of the stories for all five CotT books in my head for at least fifteen years now with varying levels of outlines and notes on real and virtual paper.
I tried to write DoT for the first time in my last year of high school and gave up in university (I was having way too much fun to sit in my room!). That draft made it to a solid 80,000 words before I realised it was going to be 400,000 words long if I kept going the way I was, and even I have limits (max 250,000 for life, I promise hehe). So I quit.
After I graduated and had been at my full-time job for a year, I figured it was finally time to write it. There used to be a main human POV character in DoT with her own human storyline–an obvious author stand-in that I just kept ageing up as I aged. I decided to lean into the non-human perspective and…cut her completely :O. Which was perfect because now I expected it to only be around 250K words (a word count that is actually on the shorter end for the books I was reading). It removed the dated aspect of the story at the same time–the grounding in “the real world”–which I liked, so I was happy with the decision and never looked back.
I wrote the new 1st draft in 10 months in 2012-2013 (yes–I started it for NaNo 2012–that is not a typo haha). A serious under-writing issue and…no idea how to actually write a book???...meant it was missing sections (those I had deemed "too hard" to write at the time :P) and what was there was sparse. It took another year and a bit to fill in the holes and have the beginnings of a 2nd draft worth showing anyone, which essentially doubled the length.
DoT’s first readers were my brother (who writes sci fi novels now–because he copies everything I do–and is my CP (critique partner)) and my future-at-the-time husband who is a reader and long-time genre fan. They got a look at it slowly throughout 2014 and into 2015 because I edited the chapters ahead of them and clarified in advance based on feedback. I actually highly recommend this method if you have time for it. I believe it’s what made DoT relatively clear despite everything going on in it.
I thought it was finally happening as they read it. It made sense outside my head! They liked it! Then, over the next many years…a bunch of mental health issues and a wedding and two babies got in the way.
In 2016 I also lost an entire draft’s worth of detail character edits to…a USB stick malfunctioning because I carried it around with me everywhere like Gollum with the One Ring. Like I’m pretty sure this thing was in my purse at the club when someone poured a beer in it, ya know? Amazingly, that’s actually not what took it out but it’s the extent of “my precious” I treated this USB stick with–and it turns out USB sticks do not appreciate that level of cling. Big setback. I didn’t work on it for a couple years after that.
Attending my first SFF con in January 2019 (shoutout to ConFusion in Detroit) is what really got me back on track. I…can’t imagine a better con experience, honestly. I’m still trying to match it! If you’re ever feeling down about being a lonely writer with no writer friends and you have access and can afford it you should go to a con (once the world is safe(r?) or even go virtual! Virtual cons are great too). I know a lot of you have writing groups (I've recently joined my first! And I also have a discord for sprints) and friends who share your interests but before January 2019 I only had my brother. ConFusion and the people I met there convinced me I should get it *done* and move forward.
So I did! DoT got its first amazing stranger beta reader in 2020, which led to further clarifying edits…which took me forever because I had a toddler and a baby and I am BUSY (oh and covid and *gestures vaguely* the world and…). But I was hooked. It needed more readers.
A couple other beta readers and a traditionally-published author friend read it in May 2021, loved it, and I was ready to query.
So I started on June 1st, 2021. Just before having…another baby! Received two rejections in the space of a day while in a hospital bed hahah–one while I was actively in labour. That agent should have said yes! THAT would have been a story :D.
I sent my last query on October 16th, 2021 and I’ve known I would self-publish since shortly after that…just took me a little while to announce, for various reasons I’ll get into further down this virtual page.
An overabundance of research
I research obsessively. Everything. Anything. I want to know it all and I need to know as much as possible to be vaguely comfortable in any situation. So you have to know I started researching how to publish DoT before I thought of actually writing it.
Back when I began my research, you had to mail queries, and Tor accepted unsolicited submissions from writers without agents. I think they even accepted submissions directly from authors all the way up to and past the point I wrote the first old partial-draft. Agents were around, of course, but I only wanted TOR. In the beginning, I was convinced that if I wrote the book I’d be submitting directly to them. Now, in 2022, that is HILARIOUS. It was hilarious in 2020 when I first thought I had a query-ready draft. But back then that’s what you could do!
I mention the research angle specifically to make it clear that there are writers writing gigantic books who are fully aware a 200,000+ word debut is “impossible”. And also to point out that the world has really changed, and the publishing industry along with it. I’ve watched it change through my research, while DoT slowly moved from my head to virtual paper. Sometimes dreams are made in a world that doesn’t exist by the time we’re ready to reach for them…
As the industry changed, I started to research agents. The list of agents to query I made back in 2013/2014 actually had a lot of the agents I eventually queried! It was nice to know they’d been successful enough to survive the grind for so long. Most of them are still going strong…though even some of those have left in the time since I queried. It’s tough out there!
As things continued to change I also researched self-publishing. It was perhaps my confidence in self-publishing as an emerging “valid choice” that allowed me to finish and polish DoT even though getting an agent and publishing traditionally was “impossible” for the length. I hung on to this, not as a “backup plan”–not as a second, lesser choice–but as an assurance that DoT could have readers one day, even if it only had a few.
I've since read many indie books (self-pub and small press) and met a ton of awesome authors who have chosen this path! All you have to do is look at and read some of these books to know it's not a last resort. The covers coming out--my GOSH! The writing quality! The creativity! <3. It is the golden age of indies. I'm excited to join them.
The “traditionally-published-author dream”
This one breaks down into two main points.
Did I really want to “be an author”? Or did I just want to publish DoT?
The “traditionally-published-author dream” a lot of us have isn’t reality
I realised the answer to 1 was: I just wanted to publish DoT.
Now, in 2022, I have plans for too many books and even another completed work in my novella, YBaB (YOUR BLOOD AND BONES). Now I want to actually BE an author. But “the dream” started with DoT. If I could be a traditionally-published author but not publish DoT–or wait years to gain the clout that let me publish it–would I be happy? The answer to that, for me, was no.
This really became apparent when I gained friends who had succeeded in the industry–traditionally-published authors, editors, reviewers etc. If you have a 220,000 word manuscript, the first question people will ask you is:
Can you split it?
My answer before beta readers was “well, maybe, but it wouldn’t be a complete story anymore, and that’s what I love about it”. My answer after beta readers had evolved into: “no”.
If the people asking this question know the industry (and love you enough to want to help the kind of person who writes a 220,000 word book they hope to be their debut haha) they might follow up with:
If you could get a deal tomorrow by cutting it in half or thirds, would you?
And…even with that specification, I realised my answer was still no.
This sounds like I’m talking about whether MY giant book should be split or not, and in one sense I am. But what I’m really trying to say here is, even when asked by industry insiders who KNOW the process and might have had the resources to help me if I was willing to make drastic concessions, even just hypothetically, I could honestly say I didn’t want to.
That told me I cared more about the specific story than about traditionally-publishing it.
(I actually got a chance recently to see two of the people who were instrumental in this realisation, *and I didn't tell them my decision*! I meant to but missed the chance! If you’re reading this you probably know who you are–so thank you <3)
As for point 2…well, this one is applicable to a wider number of writers (including those sitting on standard-length manuscripts). What was I imagining the dream to be? Great advances? Quitting my day job? Millions of readers? Dude, I wanted to be Robert Jordan. That WAS NOT going to happen! Hahahaha!!! When I imagined being traditionally-published I didn’t imagine myself as midlist author #5. I imagined myself as freaking Robert Jordan.
Part of this was age–my publishing dream formed when I was too young to understand what being an author really meant (I assume this is true for a lot of us). My choice of successful author should date that well. And part of it was a general misunderstanding of a changing industry–which is still pretty widespread.
Also, let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with midlist author #5. Midlist author #5 can be Robert Jordan in 5 years. Or 10. Or 2. Or posthumously :O! They can have a partner or family who financially supports them and money can be a non-issue. They can also be perfectly happy being midlist author #5. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is dreaming a dream that doesn’t exist for most traditionally-published authors and believing it will be your reality once you “make it”. Especially when there isn’t much you can actually *do* to guarantee it happens for you.
You can write a fabulous book. You can write “the best book”. You can get an agent. Your book can make it through sub (submitting to editors). Someone who knows what they’re doing can finally *publish your book baby*, but bad marketing (or even marketing pointed in slightly the wrong direction), a too-small marketing budget, timing (a bad election! a pandemic! a recession!), just plain bad luck, etc. can make the difference between amazing success and poor sales leading to a smaller marketing budget and smaller advances and so on.
This is becoming clearer to many writers with the growing transparency from trad authors and publishing professionals on twitter and elsewhere, but it was not as clear in 2003-ish when I first imagined traditionally-publishing a book that didn’t exist yet.
So while it may be hard to give up the dream–omg DoT with “Tor” on the spine!–it was really an impossible dream to begin with. Not only because I have an impossible debut, but because the dream I had was a lie. When I realised that and fully understood it, the decision became a lot easier.
I’m not sure I’m really giving up anything. Wider reach through trad, sure, but it really looked like…DoT might NEVER be traditionally-published. Is limited reach better than no DoT at all? To me, the answer is yes! Five stranger-readers are better than zero.
But what about time? If I’m worthy of being traditionally published eventually why don’t I just wait five years? Ten? Write another book? And another? Aim at the market–or at the very least the word count range? DoT could be my fifth book. CotT my second series. Then the reach is wide…
That brings me to my final point.
How long am I actually going to live?
Depending on your mileage that either sounds funny and/or irrational or you get me.
I've waited long enough. I want this book published and I’m not guaranteed tomorrow. So…let’s hope I’m still here in six months when it comes out!
Thoughts on traditional publishing and querying a giant book
Wow, I have too many, and most have been said before by better writers than me!
The most important is probably that it’s all about money. The publishing industry exists to sell a product. Unfortunately that product is the secret stories torn from artists' bleeding hearts…and the intersection between money and art is always going to be fraught. Rejection in this industry isn't personal, but it sure can feel that way.
One thing I will say that I don’t see said very often is…if you’re finding it hard to follow the trad-pub guidelines for submission for your specific piece, well, it may be by design.
For many years I thought my struggle to summarise DoT in a 1-page synopsis or hook readers with a catchy marketing-savvy query letter was inexperience or lack of knowledge/skill (I queried in 2021 but I’ve been working on query materials for…longer than I want to say haha). I think this is the case for most beginners and was clearly the case for me when I started. But now I’ve read the Query Shark archives. At least two full times. I’ve read a ton of queries the writing community puts up for review (both successful and failed) and participated in critical analysis and discussion. Why did they succeed? Why did they fail and how can we change that? I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do to learn to write synopses…and I have PRACTISED.
I even ended up with a pretty reasonable 1-page synopsis! And a 3-page, and a 5-page, etc. Also about ten versions of an “acceptable” query letter.
The unfortunate reality is, nobody expects you to write a representative 1-page synopsis for a 220,000 word book because…surprise! *You're not supposed to submit them.*
Same with a query letter. It's possible, of course, depending on the work, and by the end of my journey I might even be able to write one that gets requests…but in this case it wouldn’t represent the book. Or it would represent such a small part of the book that it’s not worth doing. Requests from a tweet or query that don't accurately tell the agent what they're getting would feel like false promises (both to me, and to the agent).
(It might even be one of the reasons for the recent proliferation of full requests that lead to nothing. The likes on pitch-tweets that go nowhere. Maybe this has always been the case, and maybe growing transparency falsely makes it look as if it's changed...but it does seem to have changed in the last few years. Collectively, we are getting very good at queries. We are very good at twitter pitches. Rejection after success in those formats may not be about you or your work. An agent can imagine a completely different 80,000-word novel from a tweet and when they get yours, they may find something they didn't anticipate. Unfulfilled expectations can be worse than no expectations.)
If you’re reading this and believe you’ve done it effectively for a giant book–I’m not saying you haven’t. It’s not even my place to judge, as I’m not an agent, editor, or publisher (although I guess I’m about to be the last of those :D). If you’ve written a representative 1-page synopsis and query letter for a novel way outside the standard word count range, you’ve done it against all odds because you weren’t supposed to be able to. That’s one of the points of the restriction.
Comps (comparable titles) are another thing that cause certain projects a lot of trouble. I could never think of comps for DoT and still can't. At least none that follow the rules...
And unfortunately if your book doesn’t have comps that fit the “comp rules”…traditional publishing probably doesn’t want it. The rules are made to exclude books they don’t want. This makes it hard for long-term projects (DoT may have comps I haven’t thought of but they probably weren't published in the last 3/5 years), “unique”/weird projects, and projects by authors with marginalised identities. This is by design.
Does that automatically mean those books are unmarketable? Maybe! Traditional publishing seems to singlehandedly *decide* what is "unmarketable". And it's not my place to judge for the same reasons I mentioned above. All I know is that (so far) readers like DoT. That's the only thing I can know.
Publishers want something they know they can sell. They want you (or your agent) to tell them how they can do that. Agents and editors don’t want to fight for a project unless it consumes them (which is reasonable!)–and often they can’t fight for it even if they wanted to because the little people in the industry need to eat. A lot of agents don’t make money until they sell. They are reading our queries for free.
Once again I have to thank industry insiders for part of this realisation.
I had a polished “unconventional” query letter after several attempts to write a conventional version. I thought this query letter better represented the book, where conventional query structure hadn’t seemed to. I had the opportunity to submit it to a (smart/successful/savvy) popular debut author at the virtual Nebulas in 2021 just as I started to query, and they…came back to me with advice to revert it to standard. Nothing wrong with that! That advice makes sense. It wasn’t a surprise. Also unsurprisingly, they expressed concern over the word count, saying it was nigh impossible but had been done before (we cling to that, don’t we?). Their advice about the synopsis I'd agonised over condensing to the requested 1-page was–this story seems too big for 1 page, maybe a 3-page synopsis would be better?
Ha. Hahaha. *Sigh*.
I want to make it clear that this author was amazing to me, even though I’m not naming them! I just think…sometimes books that break the querying rules look like they’re doing it by accident when it’s actually on purpose. If we don’t fit into the mold it’s either break it or self-reject. Or force ourselves to fit and probably fail regardless :).
I did end up reverting to the standard query letter structure to query, and I actually think it was the right decision for the industry. For the rules.
I highly recommend getting good at the standard structure if you want to succeed in the traditional-publishing query process. Just be aware that if you struggle (after becoming educated and putting in work) it may be for the reasons I spoke about above.
Skillz (and privilege)
Not everyone wants to–or can–self-publish. It’s a lot of work and the cost can be prohibitive. The nature of the work is also not an enjoyable prospect for everyone because most of it isn’t writing.
Thinking about the work made me anxious to start with because I have a full-time job (though I am on parental leave now–until February) through which I support our family. I have three kids 5 and under, and a sketchy record with executive function and critical perfectionism.
The nature of the work appeals to me greatly.
I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades, to the degree that I struggled to choose a “career” because I felt like I was missing out on other things I liked to do, and I couldn’t find a job that fit everything.
Guess what fits (almost) everything? :O!
I am in no way promising I am *good* at the things I like, but I feel *fulfilled* for the first time by “work”. That has to be worth something!
I have the skills to at least try this and I also have the privilege to be able to afford it. So I’m going for it!
Why this took so long to announce...
I’ve known I would self-publish DoT since November 2021, after speaking to friends at World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, and shortly after I figured the majority of my querying rejections had come. So why didn’t I announce earlier?
I wanted to make sure I could write DoT’s sequel in less than ten years. Lol.
I’ve always hated writing. I liked having written. But now I have a way to make it reliably happen that works for me. Everyone’s process is different, and I have finally found mine! I’ll write about it here at some point.
More importantly, here is my 1st draft word count since November 1st, 2021 (1 year), as recorded on my NaNoWriMo website profile (you can use it all year long! Record all the words!):
It is 272,669 words. I'm still shocked looking at this number. I don't want anyone to feel bad or unproductive seeing it. I basically made writing my personality during a very tough year and this was the result. That is not healthy, but I believe healthy habits have come out of it and I expect the next year to be successful as well :). Maybe not THIS successful, but I have hope!
150,000 of those words are the 1st draft of DoT’s sequel. Still severely underwritten, but significantly improved on DoT’s 1st draft. It’s affectionately labelled 3T and I expect the 2nd draft to fall somewhere between 230-250K words in length. Based on the outlines, 3T should be the longest of the 5 books in CotT, hence why I say, “never more than 250K words!”
33,000 of those words are my Fantasy/horror novella YBaB, which I wrote a 1st draft for in January and recently polished to a level that I felt comfortable submitting it to small presses (hey, why not aim for hybrid-publishing if the word count suits?).
The remainder of those words were the completed 1st draft of a sci fi standalone that I’ve since lost to catastrophic cloud storage failure (reminder to: back everything up NOW even if you think it’s safe).
The meaning of all of this is: I can do it.
I can write other things. I can edit them to a level where I feel comfortable having someone read them. DoT has a (1st-draft-of-a) sequel. I am confident it will have three more when I’m done.
So I will release it to the world on May 1st, 2023…and hope the sequel follows in fewer than 2 years :P.
DoT’s query stats
Between June 1st and October 16th, 2021, I had an in-person pitch session with an agent, a referral to a friend’s agent, and I sent 45 cold queries.
1 “in-person” (virtual) pitch led to a partial request
1 referral to a friend’s agent led to their agent taking a partial
45 email cold queries led to 1 partial request
3 partial requests (ending in rejections)
13 CNRs ("closed-no-reply"s)
My last (and slowest) rejection came in May 2022 on a query sent in August 2021–10 months!
Quickest was sub-15 minutes and I’m sure it was an auto-reject based on word count–which is totally fair game. I'm sure a bunch of them were that.
The three partials were all requested in the first two weeks of querying–leading to a bit of an embarrassing “maybe I CAN do this” reaction. Two were clearly special circumstances (in-person pitch and referral) but one was a cold query…and I feel like it came early because I queried agents I thought would be most interested to start with.
I mostly queried agents who showed active response rates in Query Tracker. I’ve heard not to use it this way because it limits your options, but I personally wanted responses (even if they were no). Luckily the agents I was most interested in also happened to be active and responsive. And of course I did still query some non-responders, hence the CNRs.
I queried sub-50 agents simply because they were the agents I believed would be interested in the project. I could have continued but I believe the outcome would be the same because I was only grasping at fewer and fewer straws.
I did not research or query small presses because they aren’t looking for 220,000 word novels. For good reason!
The number of agents/presses you choose to query DOES NOT reflect badly on you or your story. Query as many or as few as you feel you need to!
Keep going until you can’t find more or stop when you’ve had enough, even if it’s not many.
Rejections do not define you or your work.
Agents and presses and editors would say the same thing–I was just at a conference where they said it many times. This is a tough industry and lots of amazing stories don’t fit the traditional-publishing model. Striking out during this process should not be allowed to affect your self-worth or the way you feel about your work. I know it often does–hard not to let it–but listen to me and try to feel good about yourself! You got this! Trad-published or self-published or querying or not there yet! You got this.
I’m self-publishing my 1st book, my book-of-the-heart, my giant book, because I realised no one else was going to. And…I want to.
That's how I didn't get my agent.
I can also afford to do it. Financially and mentally and time-consumingly (I think/hope)…
If you have the same dilemma and the same resources, or the means to achieve them through saving or trade, I recommend thinking about what you actually WANT. Educate yourself on the realities of the publishing industry and then ask yourself:
Do you want to be traditionally published no matter what? Or did you only want to tell a specific story and give people the chance to read it?
Those are the most important questions. Really the only ones that matter.
I found my answers for DoT. "Tor" will have to be on the spine of one of my future books :D. Shooting for hybrid will remain an option.
I think that is finally all I have to say :).
Good luck out there! It's rough in the query trenches. I hope you find what you're looking for.
Add DAUGHTERS OF TITH on Goodreads if you’re interested in:
non-human characters (6 POVs)
sibling stories (5 sisters specifically–although they are non-human)
secondary-world, reverse-portal fantasy
mind-to-mind connections/a hive-mind
BIG trees (and average trees and small trees)
chonky High Fantasy books
Here is DoT's first chapter if you want to check it out.
Since I have no rule-following comparable titles, here is my DoT-inspiration post (also long ha ha ha).
Follow me on twitter if you want updates on this or other projects.
If you'd like more thoughts on the industry and querying-journey content, here’s the post that inspired me to lay this all out. It’s about another book-of-the-heart the author believes will help people. I–as one of its beta readers–tend to agree!
Pretty picture to cover the post. Who doesn't like looking at trees?
(If you don't like trees you probably shouldn't read DoT. It's kind of ABOUT trees.)