How I Got My Literary Agent & Pitch Wars 2017

Better late than never?

This is way overdue, but since I’m going to be a 2020 Pitch Wars YA mentor, perhaps this is as good a time as any. Some of you reading this might be considering entering Pitch Wars. Maybe you’re checking to see if I’m a mentor worth submitting to. Keep in mind this isn’t my official wish list – that’s coming soon! This is a brief look at how I got my literary agent and my experience participating in Pitch Wars 2017. I used to survive off these types of posts when I was querying, so hopefully hearing my story satisfies some of your curiosity and brings you some measure of comfort like these posts used to do for me.

To start, let me take you back to late 2016.

I know some of you may not want to, but I ask you to bear with me.

For some reason, my first completed novel – a 120,000-word YA dystopian space opera – was struggling in the query trenches. This book took me over two years to write and involved so many revisions I’d lost count. It was my baby. My heart. My soul. Looking back now, I can see why it was rejected. But back then, I was too invested, ignoring all advice about wordcount and dead genres. I’d sunk too much time, blood, sweat, and tears into this book to let it go easily.

A quick tip for querying writers: you may think your book can be the exception, but it’s more likely you are not. Agents are looking for a reason to say no and oh boy, was I giving them plenty.

As the number of rejection letters grew, my hope dwindled. Had I really spent so much time on this book for nothing to come of it? I didn’t have any deadlines, but I still felt like my dreams were slipping past me. In a burst of desperation, I wrote another novel. This time, I tried a YA contemporary set in my home, the island of Tobago. This time the story came to me easily, a lot of it based on my high school days. It was the fastest and most fun I’d had drafting a novel ever.

By April 2017, I had a 70,000-word manuscript revised and ready to query. Immediately, the response to this project was different. I was getting requests! A lot of requests!! Unfortunately, like before, they all ended in rejections. Nicer rejections, but those hit just as hard, if not more so. There was one agent in particular – relatively new but at a great agency – who had the nicest things to say about my book’s voice and setting. It was a near-miss that stuck with me. (SPOILER: This isn’t the last you’ll hear of her!)

A few months in, it became clear I’d have to do a big revision, this revelation coming just around the time the Pitch Wars submission window opened. I entered thinking nothing would come of it.

What would it hurt to try?

All four mentors I submitted to requested my full, and normally this would be a great sign. But for me, at this point, I had confidence in my query. It was the actual manuscript that kept getting rejected. When the mentee list finally went up, I didn’t check it. Why bother? Then the twitter notifications with congratulations started coming in!

The Pitch Wars experience was a bit of a hectic blur. This was back when the revision period was shorter. I ended up doing a very extensive edit under the fabulous mentorship of Lizzy Dent (The Summer Job; Spring 2021). In the end I needed a two-week extension to finish the draft, but it was still the fastest, most extensive revision I’d done to a manuscript up to that point. Going into the agent showcase, I knew that if nothing else, I was proud of what I’d accomplished. I’d also been welcomed into a supportive community of talented writers, which I’m still part of today.

The actual agent showcase was a bit disheartening. Contemporary YA doesn’t always pitch as well as high fantasy or mystery, but I quickly found out that lots of agents – including those who had participated in the showcase and not requested from me – were still willing to look at my manuscript when I queried them later. When I explained the manuscript had been through a Pitch Wars revision, there were even some agents who’d rejected the book before the contest willing to look at it again.

One of these agents was the one who’d sent the nice rejection letter I mentioned earlier. A few days after sending her the full, I received THE email most authors hope for. We scheduled a call! And then another. On the second call, she offered representation. I signed with Wendi Gu of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in early 2018.

Obviously, this is an abbreviated version of events. From the time I started writing with the intent to publish to getting an agent took about four years. Then it took another year and a half to my book deal for Where the Rhythm Takes You (May 2021). For some writers this will seem like a long time, for others not so much. The point is to keep writing. Take advantage of every opportunity you can, whether it’s Pitch Wars or another writing contest. It might not lead to anything or it could change your life.

What would it hurt to try?

Sarah Dass