I’ve been wanting to share the details for some time now in case this may be helpful for anyone querying! Querying for an agent or editor is HARD and if you’re going through this process, I wish you find success and sanity asap. This process will prepare you for being on submission to editors which also requires patience.
Back story: I was unagented when I submitted Lailah’s Lunchbox all on my own and it got picked up by Tilbury House Publishers. I did manage to secure an agent years ago when my picture book Amira’s Picture Day got a deal with Holiday House. I also had another picture book coming out with Eerdmans – I Can Help (formerly titled Let Me Show You The Way).
Both of my picture books were supposed to be published in 2019 after I got offers in 2017 but both of them got pushed back to 2021! Publishing can sometimes be slow unfortunately. Lailah’s Lunchbox, on the other hand, was published only 1 year after our offer, which was awesome and I’m so grateful for the staff (editor Audrey Maynard and owners Tris Coburn & Jon Eaton) at Tilbury House who worked hard to get it ready in time for Ramadan and to Lea Lyon who illustrated at top speed!
My first agent left the agenting profession and I then worked with her boss at the agency. I had not had any new books come out for a while, but was working on a MG novel in verse as well as a chapter book series per my agent’s suggestion to try writing for older children. In July 2019 my agent suggested I find a different agent who could assist me more on my path to publishing with feedback, inspiration, etc. After the amicable split, I realized I was in a tricky place to be – with maybe-almost-ready-manuscripts and unagented.
Nowadays, many publishers require you to have an agent to even be considered. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time researching publishers and would rather have an agent assist in getting me published.
Furthermore, since I was already published, I was hoping to have my work be picked up by a bigger publisher. If you’ve heard of the Big Five, these are the big publishers that dominate the USA reading market and it’s a big deal to be published with them. I think that’s every writer’s goal!
It was summer vacation so my children were home all day, and I had no idea where to start or when to polish my manuscripts! I reached out to my author friends Aya Khalil, Aisha Saeed, and Saadia Faruqi who were helpful. I’ve linked to their new and upcoming books – make sure you pre-order them! Aya Khalil asked me if I’d tried #MSWL. I responded, “What’s #MSWL???”
#MSWL was very helpful in helping me find my current agent. #MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List in which agents and editors use that hashtag to describe their dream manuscripts on Twitter.
I hadn’t been active in Twitter in a long time so I hopped on Twitter and http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com and looked up #MSWL.
At first, I wasn’t sure which story I would query – my chapter book series, my picture book biographies, or my novel in verse for middle grade. I had invested the most time and emotional energy on the novel so I settled on the novel.
I had my other stories on file – if I were to get an offer, I wanted to make sure that the agent saw potential in the other stories not just my one story.
I printed out my story at the UPS store, sat down in the wee hours highlighting, Post-It-ing, and hemmed and hawed as I added what I hoped were finishing touches.
At this point, I would recommend waiting it out a little, but I am rather impatient and impulsive sometimes. Without further ado, I immediately queried a notable and Very-Speedy-Agent with a rambly query who asked for a full request the next day.
This first request gave me hope as I knew then the first pages had promise.
A couple of weeks later, I got a kind rejection from the Very-Speedy-Agent who is also Very-Kind, but that gave me hope to keep going.
“I admire your writing and this story. You so perfectly capture what it’s like to be this age. For as much as I admired about the project, though, I just never fell wholeheartedly in love. My list is robust enough that I have to love everything that I work on, so it would be a disservice to work with you on the project without the passion and vision for how to break this out into the marketplace. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to consider your work, though, and wish you much success.”
This kind, personalized rejection gave me hope.
I had an earlier version of my story critiqued with good feedback from my middle grade critique partners (thank you Vicki Wilson, Amy Board, Melissa Miles, Becky Goodman, Tresha Render – Tresha printed my manuscript and penciled in edits and mailed it back to me!!) so I continued to polish the manuscript, make a list of agents, and started querying those who were looking for something that looked my manuscript and also started querying specifically those who were looking for ‘novels in verse.’ I did send my picture books and chapter book series out as well, but got rejections on those. (Thank you Angela Krans for the in-person picture book critique group that kept me going!)
I sent my middle grade verse novel to:
From those 18 I had around 9 who never responded or flat out rejected the story.
I got 8 full requests
I got 1 partial request and never heard back from them again.
From the 8 full requests, I got 6 rejections and 2 offers.
Getting rejections after an agent has requested your full story or manuscript can be crushing. Regarding the rejections, I got a lot of ‘I like your story, but don’t love it.’ I got one email addressed to “Mr. Farugi.” One agent may hate your work, one may like it, and hopefully one may love it. You just need the one yes. It feels like you’re on The Bachelor as there is a lot of rejection as you try to find your one true agent! A couple of rejections below of agent responses to give you an idea:
“I like the stories but don’t necessarily love love the writing or stories and that makes it hard to find the confidence to pitch them in a very competitive market. That being said, I think another agent may feel very differently–it’s such a subjective business!” – Agent 2
“Unfortunately though, I did not fall in love with the free verse to the extent we would both need for success. Given that, I think it’s best for me to pass as I know you and your work need and deserve an agency that can be 110% enthusiastic. You are clearly very talented, so I am confident someone else will have just the right connection to this story.” – Agent 3
I kept chugging along and hoping out of all those emails, someone would love the story! I was also losing hope – I had received many full requests but these were inevitably followed up by rejection emails.
I was thinking at this point, I would just give up querying for a while and focus on other things in life. I didn’t need to or want to keep writing ever again!
One afternoon, I was on Twitter when an agent Rena Rossner told me she was loving my novel. I couldn’t believe she had used the word ‘love’ since I was so used to being told they ‘liked’ my story, but didn’t love it.
I felt so excited that she loved my novel, but then nerves set back in. She may have loved it but did she want to represent me?
A few minutes later after checking my email, I was psyched to see that she emailed me to set up the call!
After speaking to Rena, I was elated and got to email the agents who had my story with the subject line, ‘OFFER OF REPRESENTATION.’ A couple of agents asked who the offering agent was (apparently this is a thing!). I told them who and they either took more time to read through the story or said they would step aside. For example:
“The story is lovely, but I think I’m not the right one to work with you, so I’ll step aside.” – Agent 4
1 more agent also made me an offer at this point so I now had 2 offers and big decision to make.
After months of querying, It felt surreal to finally read positive emails and to be told that they loved, not liked, my story! I had a match!
I had a list of what I wanted in my agent – timeliness was important to me, connections, an agent who was in this industry for the long haul, etc! I did research and asked author clients about their experiences with these 2 agents, and both were great which made it harder!
Eventually, I just went with my gut feeling and I signed on with the talented Rena Rossner. I discovered her from my Twitter search from #MSWL as Rena specifically was looking for verse novels and immigrant stories (I got so excited to see this!). Rena has had success with her clients who wrote in this genre such as Chris Baron’s All of Me, R. L. Toalson’s The Colors of the Rain, and more. I loved those two books and Rena’s own novel The Sisters of the Winter Wood which was in verse and prose!
There is a very supportive writing community on Twitter – look up #amwriting and #amquerying. That being said, it’s easy to get distracted there and you may find yourself stalking agents and editors instead of writing!
Thank you to all who helped me in my agent search and to my family for hearing me vent during the what seemed like a never-ending obsessive-email-checking process!
Once I signed on, I waited for Rena’s edits. When I got them, it was great to get Rena’s editorial expertise and to start getting ready to be in an exciting stage for writers— submission to editors!
Also here’s an example of my query letter that evolved throughout the process – I read a lot of sample query letters and was advised that you need to clearly express what your character wants, what they may lose, and what is at stake for them if they lose it…
I found you on Twitter and wanted to send my #ownvoices story over to you as my character-driven middle grade verse novel, Unsettled, has a strong, diverse, female character and a poetic voice.
In my lyrical 14,100 word manuscript, Unsettled, Nurah reluctantly moves continents. In a new land, she sticks out for all the wrong reasons. At school, Nurah’s accent, floral print kurtas, and tea colored skin contribute to her eating lunch alone underneath the stairwell. All she wants is to fit in. If she blends in enough, will she make a friend? For now, all she has is her best friend brother Owais. In the water though, Nurah doesn’t want to blend: she wants to stand out and be just like her star athlete brother and win a swimming medal. However, when sibling rivalry gets in the way of swimming, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates and Nurah might risk losing the one friend she ever had…
I am a 2016 ALA Notable Author of the award winning book Lailah’s Lunchbox. I also have two upcoming picture books coming out in 2021 – Let Me Show You The Way (Eerdmans), and Amira’s Picture Day (Holiday House).
Below are my first 50 pages- I would love to hear from you and send you the full story.
I’m excited to currently be on submission (when an agent sends your stories out to editors) and will hopefully share more on the submission and beyond process later! I wish those who are writing and querying the best and my message would be Don’t Give Up!