200(1) Queries: A Space Odyssey

This is how I signed with a literary agent. I queried across three years—November 2021 to January 2023. What there is to be learned from me is mainly by negative example. Anything which is insightful is purely coincidental.

You’ll enjoy the full 3,600 word post if you like eating a mouthful of powdered orange drink. If not, here’s the tl;dr:

  • It took five years to draft my first novel.
  • 203,000 words is too dang long for a YA novel.
  • Find a writing community.
  • I queried too early and for too long because I was too stubborn.
  • How many agents is too many to query? Possibly 200.
  • Use every resource and opportunity to give your story the best chance.
  • Querying stats are at the end.

In October 2021, I finished the first draft of STREET FIGHTING MAN, my 1990s coming-of-age, self-insert, wish-fulfillment story. It was the first novel I’d ever completed after many abandoned projects.

Inspiration for the story came from Stranger Things in summer 2016. I wanted to write a story with the same nostalgic and nerdy vibes but from an Asian American perspective. This stemmed from a desire to see myself reflected in the stories I grew up with—movies like The Karate Kid and Stand by Me.

I wrote the story I’d always wanted to read as a kid, full of depression, racism, church trauma…oh, wow. I think I know why it took me so long to find an agent…

But even I knew a 203k (!) word YA novel was not salable in any universe, so I cut it to 123k. Traditional publishing was always a dream of mine, so I watched YouTube videos about finding a literary agent. I zeroed in on the idea of beta readers, so I asked friends and family to read my magnumest of opuses.

My beta reader program was more intensive than a college course. I had a syllabus, weekly readings, and a lengthy questionnaire to fill out after every excerpt. Friends, I am deeply remorseful for what I subjected you to but thank you for your sacrifice. All told, I had a dozen beta readers who humored me and gave very helpful early feedback.

After consuming hours of craft videos and articles on how to write a query letter, I entered the trenches in November 2021 with a 111k version of my novel. My agent list was compiled by reviewing every YA agent on QueryTracker and their manuscript wishlists. I chose agents looking for YA coming-of-age stories and marginalized voices, but functionally it was ALL the agents. Literally no filter.

I was confident I’d done my homework and had a high-concept story with broad appeal. I queried in batches, according to the wisdom of the age, and received some quick passes from fast responders. This lack of self-awareness would come to typify my querying journey, but there was an arc.

As I queried, I installed Twitter on my computer and participated in the very last #PitMad in December 2021. It was my first exposure to the Twitter writing community, and it was exciting to connect with other authors. I didn’t get any industry likes, but I noted which agents liked pitches similar to mine. I queried one and got my first full request from an iconic agent.

If I had any shame, my story would end now. I sent my manuscript as a PDF e-book, complete with mock-up cover. I had not watched any videos about manuscript formatting, but in my ignorance and enthusiasm, I persisted.

Around #PitMad, I also learned about Author Mentor Match and joined the month-long #AMMParty before applications opened. I saw writers looking for an AMM Discord and hopped onto the server that would become my ride-or-die writing cohort, the Unhinged Writing Community.

The early days of the Unhinged server were so boisterous and fun as we shared our stories and commiserated over publishing dreams and anxieties. I’d spent the past five years writing alone and was now putting my story out there and found others taking the same first steps into traditional publishing.

My first full request ended in a form rejection two weeks later, so I paused at twenty queries and focused on AMM. On the Unhinged Discord, we workshopped our queries and sample pages and swapped resources and publishing insights. This group was what helped me persevere during the fifteen months I queried STREET FIGHTING MAN. Here I found my first critique partners and gained the greatest hype squad—absolutely essential for any querying author.

As the AMM mentee announcements approached, the Unhinged server buzzed as full requests from AMM arrived. There was much screaming, crying, throwing up. In the end, I wasn’t accepted for mentorship and didn’t receive any mentor requests. It was bittersweet to see a dozen others on the server accepted, but as we celebrated their success, I made plans to revise my novel and query again.

In March 2022, I got back on the querying horse a little wiser, a little heavier. I’d learned so much about publishing, read craft books, revised my novel to 97k, and retooled my query package. I was optimistic as spring arrived and queried ten agents over three weeks to act on any feedback received. The last query of that batch, I got a full request within an hour of sending.

I was ecstatic and panicked in the Discord. Buoyed by the quick request, I sent out forty queries over the next month and a half. I thought my query package was finally dialed in. I also got my first agent like from a pitch event during #APIpit in May 2022 and a second one during #SmoochPit the same month.

But the passes kept coming, including query rejections from the two pitch likes. There’s an oft-cited video by a famous BookTuber, which said you should aim for a request rate of 50% or higher. Y’all know the one.

The writing community has since come to grips with how much querying has changed since the pandemic. Agents and editors have become increasingly selective and were looking for highly polished manuscripts not giant diamonds in the rough.

On QueryTracker, the average user’s request rate was around 6%. Mine was half that. Of course, there were outliers on Twitter with high request rates and offers of representation after days of querying. Even if you don’t fall into the comparison trap, it’s hard to unsee some things.

I applied to a couple more mentorships even as established programs, such as PitchWars, closed. It seemed like writing programs were shuttering left and right as success in querying grew more elusive. My second full request ended in another form rejection. I kicked myself for having burned through so many agents on my list with materials that weren’t ready.

The possibility of shelving my manuscript started to intrude my thoughts. Most writers don’t find an agent with their first book or even their second or third. That was the cold, unblinking reality. But STREET FIGHTING MAN was the book of my internal organs. I didn’t think I could write another book with the same urgency and significance. The feedback I’d received from friends and writing peers was universally positive. Surely there had to be an agent out there who felt the same way.

In Save the Cat terms, I’d reached the midpoint false defeat.

Within a week of my second full rejection, I received another full request and a partial. The partial had me reeling as the agent sent the kindest note with the request. He connected with the video game aspect of my story and was eager to read more. The next day, he requested the full with even more praise. The effect of receiving any kind of personalization in a sea of form rejections was intoxicating.

I read every interview with this agent I could find and was convinced he’d be a great fit. Six days later, I got a response. It was full of compliments and sharp observations about my story, but it was another pass. The agent said the story issues he noted were fixable, but the voice felt too young and wasn’t something easily addressed. This rejection was super gutting as it felt like such a near miss. In many ways, form rejections were kinder as it’s easier to file them and move on.

By July 2022, I’d sent eighty queries. I took all the actionable feedback from the previous agent and completed another cover-to-cover revision. I reworked my query and sample pages. Again. I got another full request, putting me even with the average QueryTracker user. I took to heart the sentiment that any requests nowadays were a good sign. With plenty of agents left to query, I set my sights on #DVpit…one of the last big pitch events still running.

#DVpit was make-or-break for me. Depending on how much industry interest I received, I’d shelve my book or carry on. I polished my pitches, made a new moodboard, and counted the days until August 1.

Observing past events, a handful of projects would go viral and gain dozens of agent and editor likes. And it seemed those authors signed with agents within a matter of days. Of course, I dreamt of that kind of success, but I was at the mercy of the inscrutable algorithm. Even so, my “goal” was to get some editor likes to reference in my query.

The day of #DVpit, I scheduled my pitches and engaged with the community. I saw several friends and mutuals get quick interest, with a few even making a big splash. That’s how things worked; pitches that received early likes snowballed as other agents and editors piled on. My pitches weren’t a runaway success, but I got five agent likes and two retweets from Big Five editors. I was sufficiently pumped.

I queried four of the five agents from #DVpit and got prompt full requests from them all. With the editor interest now cited in my query, I thought the requests would come rolling in. But one does not simply query into Mordor Random House.

In the twenty cold queries I sent after #DVpit, I got zero requests. I was 110 queries deep by Labor Day. But in a reversal of fortune, I got three full requests from the next twenty queries. Most of my requests came from agents I felt were a long shot. Agents who seemed like a perfect fit based on MSWLs usually ended in quick passes. Querying was a most unreliable narrator.

My 100th query rejection came and went in October 2022. Yes, from one book.

In November 2022, I participated in my FINAL final pitch event, #MoodPitch. Leveraging my skills as a designer, I made a fancy new moodboard with animated portraits of my characters and other elements from STREET FIGHTING MAN. I got fantastic community response and three more agent likes, two of which resulted in full requests.

Besides pitch events and mentorships, I looked for anything that could give my story an edge. I signed up for a virtual conference organized by St. Martin’s Publishing Group. As part of the conference, marginalized writers could submit their query package and be selected for a pitch session with a SMPG editor. By divine providence or luck, I was chosen for a call with the editor of one of my comp titles. I couldn’t have chosen a better person to pitch my story to.

On the call in December 2022, there was very little pitching done. The editor loved what she’d read and had nothing but praise for my work. With so much of querying being so opaque and characterized by non-responses and form letters, it was so refreshing to hear a publishing professional really understand and see the value in STREET FIGHTING MAN.

I didn’t even need to ask if I could use the editor as a reference. Right away, she said to name-drop her in my queries and send her my book when I’m agented. She even gave me agent recommendations. I’d already queried them, but the sentiment was appreciated.

All along, I kept revising my manuscript, addressing feedback from submissions and personalized rejections on queries—a mix of the standard “didn’t connect with pages/voice/character. I also took a hard look at older feedback from critique partners and trimmed my manuscript to 86k.

December is widely held to be a bad time to query, but I nudged some agents with the additional editor interest and queried some more. I got four full requests that month.

Finally, I thought, I’d taken my manuscript as far as I could on my own. Now I needed an agent to take my story to the next level.

And that’s what happened. But in a roundabout way.

January 2023 started with two passes on full requests. Not how I wanted to start the new year, but one of the passes was an invitation to revise and resubmit. The agent asked to cut the story to 80k and suggested some scenes to trim. I didn’t think much of the R&R as I still had nine fulls out. Yes, a few of those were from #DVpit and were approaching the five-month mark. Still, I was content to wait things out and hear back on my other submissions. Slowly but surely, my story had picked up significant interest.

With publishing reopening after the holidays, I updated my agent list and added several more to query. I sent out another batch of queries, bringing the total to 170. More than a few of these agents I’d queried at the very start. I noted that I’d queried them before, but my manuscript had been significantly revised.

The R&R nagged at my brain. It was an internal goal to cut my novel to 79k, but I thought it was unattainable. After a year of revising and eleven numbered drafts in Scrivener, I didn’t think there was anything left to cut. But I sat on the R&R feedback and let it stew.

In all my many, many revisions, I hadn’t pushed the edits far enough. I was satisfied with cutting a thousand words here and there without changing much of anything. But I grew restless from waiting and dove back into my favorite hobby—revising my novel.

After a week and a half, I lowered the word count to 79k, and I was a little stunned almost nothing had changed. Most of the cutting was in the first act to get the story moving faster. The rest was mainly redundant dialogue and tags. All it took was some higher stakes to motivate me to make the edits I needed all along. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

I sent the revised manuscript eighteen days after the R&R request. The agent responded and said she’d start reading immediately. I learned later you should give the agent who requested an R&R time to review, but I participated in my FINAL final final pitch event (#KidLitPit) and got another editor like. Riding that momentum, I sent out MORE queries.

Maybe it was the combination of editor interest, a market appropriate word count, and a query package honed over a year, but my request rate for that batch hit an all-time high of 33%–two full requests and three partials. Four of those requests came the same day I sent the query. I screamed in the Unhinged Discord. My friends screamed back. I became something of an outlier myself.

Six days after submitting the R&R, I got an email from the requesting agent. The subject read: Offer of Rep. Plain and simple. The agent loved STREET FIGHTING MAN and wanted to set up a call to discuss edits and representation.

I read the email and sat there numb. I told my closest CPs and wife, then logged on a work call. To say I’m not excitable is a mild understatement. I once rode on a Mardi Gras float for MTV’s The Real World (my friend was in the cast) and tossed beads in indifferent silence. I proved so sedate and uninteresting, I appeared on the show for two literal seconds. But that’s neither here nor there.

Slowly, the reality sunk in. After fifteen months, the goal I’d been working toward was within reach. It felt impossible and inevitable at the same time. I shared the news with my writing Discords, and my friends more than made up for my lack of emotion.

Things got REALLY real as I tied up loose querying threads. Before the offer call, I sent out all my last-minute queries. It ended up being fifteen agents so I could reach an even 200 queries submitted. I could’ve queried more, but the round number felt right and also a little absurd. Who sends 200 queries for a single project? This gremlin.

I Googled questions to ask during the offer call and used Ann Zhao’s amazing list. The next day, Tuesday, January 31, I got on a Zoom call with the offering agent. She had to remind me this was an actual offer call and not a potential one. This was real life.

After the call, I was very reassured the agent was competent and motivated, despite being new to agenting. No red flags. I asked for until the end of February to make a decision. Two weeks to make an offer decision was the standard, with three weeks becoming more common as publishing workloads have increased. I thought I was being strategic by asking for four weeks to maximize my chances for additional offers.

Don’t do that. Save yourself the anxiety and ask for two to three weeks to make a decision.

Part of the reason why I asked for such a long decision window was because my family was going to Disney World. I didn’t plan it this way, but the offer and the trip dovetailed nicely.

I nudged all the agents with submissions and the forty open queries and received eight more full requests. This sounds ludicrous, but I had NINETEEN agents reviewing my novel during the offer window. Some of these were absolute legends who represented household names. It was an honor just to be considered.

The step-asides came daily, but the week before my offer deadline I got two more emails for a call. Celebration! *jazz hands*

These messages were a little more vague than my initial offer email, and I legitimately wondered if they were offer calls. Due to shifting schedules, I ended up taking the calls back-to-back on Wednesday, February 22.

After three hours over two calls and more talking than I do in an entire year, I felt I had found “the one.” There were still a few days left before my offer deadline, but I couldn’t see how anyone else would be a better fit for me and STREET FIGHTING MAN. The decision was made even easier as the remaining agents stepped aside or didn’t respond by my deadline.

I was actually excited when I emailed Jennifer Chen-Tran of Folio Literary and accepted her offer of representation. As an Asian American, she connected deeply with the elements of my story rooted in the immigrant experience. Plus, she grew up playing Street Fighter II and even mentioned Capcom during our call. Her editorial vision and submission strategy also resonated with me the most out of the three offering agents. As much as I can cite specific factors in my decision, it really came down to vibes.

Before the call, Jennifer was the agent I was most unsure of. I’d queried her in September 2022, and she requested a full 55 days later. I didn’t get a response until I nudged her with the offer 109 days after that. But Jennifer assured me that delayed responses didn’t indicate a lack of interest. And that was so true; she was the most enthusiastic and invested advocate for STREET FIGHTING MAN.

Querying writers know all too well how “subjective” publishing can be, but it really is. There’s no way of telling who’ll connect with your story or for what reasons until you send it.

If I didn’t sign with my agent when I did, I would’ve kept querying until I exhausted my exhaustive list. I made plans to attend local conferences to pitch to agents in person. I don’t know if I would’ve reached a point where I felt like giving up. That’s largely in part to my beloved writing community. No matter how discouraged I was, I had proof there were others who loved my story as much as I did.

I was very fortunate to find representation with my first book. I’ll repeat the truism that publishing is not a meritocracy and is more about luck, timing, mood, vapours, and what have you. So much of querying is beyond a writer’s control. But I dug in hard for the things I actually could control. I elevated my craft, polished my manuscript, solicited feedback, gave feedback to others, and sent out queries with the hope, “maybe this will be the one.”

My story is not prescriptive. It’s more likely you’ll end up blacklisted if you do what I did. Don’t ask how many “no from one” agencies I queried more than once. But this was my trajectory.

Hopefully, with more of the same ineffable formula, I’ll debut as a nearly half-century year-old YA author. I take great comfort knowing I won’t be doing it alone.

Below are the querying stats for STREET FIGHTING MAN.

200 queries sent
86 form rejections
57 CNRs
13 personalized rejections
21 full requests
4 partial requests (1 upgraded to full request)
18 agents queried twice
4 agents who requested fulls twice (!!)
2 R&Rs
1 R (?)
24 positive query responses
12% request rate

1 #APIpit agent like
1 #SmoochPit agent like
5 #DVpit agent likes, 2 editor retweets
3 #MoodPitch agent likes
1 #KidLitPit editor like

40 offer nudges on open queries
12 step asides
8 additional full requests
19 agents with full manuscript during offer period
32 overall positive query responses
16% overall request rate
3 offers of representation