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  • Writer's pictureAl Hess

How I Got My Agent

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

In 2017, I self-published my first book, Travelers, in what would become a seven book cozy post-apocalyptic series. I also published two books in a 1930s-flavored sci-fi series featuring a lot of well-dressed misfits and rogue A.I.

Not only did my fan base and writing ability grow over the course of four years and nine books, but I discovered so much of myself in the process. Let’s make this gunslinging caravan guard a genderqueer badass named Jack who looks hot in a cowboy hat. Sounds good. And Reed, my sarcastic and anxious recluse, is going to fall in love with his dream man while dealing with murderous A.I. and the mainstream’s poor fashion choices. Why not?

The more I wrote these queer men and characters who didn’t fit the binary, the more euphoria it gave me until I finally had to step back and go, Ohhhh.

But realizing I was trans pulled to the surface an acute ache I didn’t know how to deal with. I would lay in bed at night and stare at the ceiling, despairing that I would never be able to transition, and what was the point of living if I couldn’t?

I channeled that feeling into a new protagonist, Valentine, and mirrored his dysphoria in Osric, a formerly-disembodied A.I. forced into an android body without his consent. I filled the book with humor, romance, Mad Max vibes and art deco aesthetic, and most importantly—hope.

WORLD RUNNING DOWN was the book of my heart, a story about a wasteland salvager who risks his dream of transition to help sentient androids have the chance to live as their true selves. It was full of deeply personal feelings that I wasn’t sure I should even be writing, let alone allow anyone else to see.

By now, many of my friends had broken into traditional publishing, and it was wonderful to watch their careers take off. I loved self-publishing, but I’d grown weary of the fight to market my books and was itching to do something different.

Though there are a handful of great YA trans books out there, the adult market, specifically for people beyond their teens who are still struggling with transition and/or finding themselves, felt empty.

I had this book of hope, love, and trans euphoria, and knew that getting it traditionally published would allow me so much more marketing and distribution power than I could do on my own. But I was scared to have even written such a book, let alone query agents with it. I wasn’t out to family yet, hadn’t started medical transition, and didn’t know if it would be marketable.

But with support from both my small Facebook writing group and a bunch of querying pals in a Discord server, I polished up my query and started to send it out in January 2021.

After mentioning on Twitter that I had started querying, my favorite author, whom I’d talked to briefly after doing a fan painting of his characters, reached out to me. He wanted to read my manuscript, blurb it, and help me with querying.

Someone grab the defibrillators.

I cannot convey the elation and terror of having your favorite author read your unpublished book. Lucky for me, he loved it and gave me a wonderful blurb that I slapped on every query I sent out.

Around the same time, an agent who represents two of my critique partners and was high up on my list invited me to send them my query. A couple hours after submitting it, they asked for my full. It felt like stars were aligning. That full request turned into an R&R that I very excitedly worked on… and then into a rejection. Coupled with several beta readers leaving very cruel comments on my first chapters, I was absolutely devastated and did nothing but lay on the couch for several days.

More rejections piled up after that. Couldn’t connect with the characters. Story moves too slow. I have a deeply traumatic personal history with androids and can’t bear to read this.

The worst was querying agents who specifically asked for books with trans main characters, then getting a reply that they weren’t the right agent for my story. It started to feel like no one was.

I passive-aggressively made WORLD RUNNING DOWN a beautiful cover in case self-publishing was going to be my only route, then decided to give querying one last push. My favorite author told me he had sixty rejections before landing his agent, and if sixty was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. I mass queried the other forty or so agents on my list and dusted my hands of it all.

Partials and full requests came in sporadically. More rejections. I participated in SFFpit on Twitter and got a couple of agent bites.

I threw myself into working on my next book, which I felt was likely even more unmarketable than WORLD RUNNING DOWN, because it featured a non-binary protagonist with very visible autistic stims and sensory sensitivities. But writing characters like me, who I want to see represented, isn’t something I can stop doing even if I wanted to.

In May, I got a full request from Ren Balcombe at Janklow & Nesbit, who I’d received a like from during SFFpit in February. It had been so long since sending that query that I’d written it off as a no response. When I got an email back less than a week after sending my full, asking for a chat, I stared stupidly at the message until asking my writer friends if it was an offer.

During our call, Ren told me my trans themes at the heart of the book were honest, uplifting, and easy to connect with. They loved the complexity of my characters, and the message of enduring hope even in a world that’s falling apart. My biggest fear was of an agent asking me to bring more trauma to the page, which I wasn’t willing to do, and Ren absolutely didn’t want to add more of that.

We discussed edits, how my book would be pitched and to whom, and what I pictured for my career path. And they offered to represent me.

After our call, I felt like Ren was the perfect choice for getting my book out into the world, but I still had quite a few outstanding queries and some fulls and partials. I nudged everyone and got more full requests. I got agents telling me they didn’t have time to meet my deadline but could easily see why I got an offer.

One agent told me if I hadn’t already had an offer she would have requested an R&R. She said WORLD RUNNING DOWN was so moving that she was able to understand how it feels to be trans in a way she never had before, despite having trans loved ones. She said she’d remember my story forever.

Then I got another offer. This agent too, was incredibly moved by my story. It started to finally sink in that this book of my heart was touching other people’s too.

I now had more interest than I knew what to do with, and was so gripped by anxiety over having to choose between two excellent agents that I knew I couldn’t handle another offer. I cut my deadline short and withdrew my outstanding fulls.

Ultimately, my choice boiled down to agent vision, agency power, and gut feeling. I chose Ren.

Their editing style is fantastic. Instead of mere suggestions or telling me something isn’t working, they ask me questions that make me think beyond what I’ve written. This helped me overhaul a huge portion of the world-building, which I think is my weakest skill. The book is so much stronger now.

I signed in May, and we went out on sub in late July.

Though I have more to share (when allowed), I’m saving it for a Part Two. But I’ll leave you with an observation Ren made on WORLD RUNNING DOWN:

It struck me how much these two lines are the heart of the novel:

Osric drew in a labored breath. “I’m not supposed to be in this body.”

Valentine tugged Osric’s shirt closed. “Me neither, hon.”

Osric, to whom every breath is a reminder that he’s in the wrong place, and Valentine, his first action to protect a complete stranger before voicing his own perspective. The connection between them in these two lines, and the way Osric processes it later… I’m going to think about this for a while.

I can’t wait to share this book with you.

My stats:

60 agents queried

8 full requests

3 partials

2 offers


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