October 25, 2020

How I Got My Agent (and Nearly Gave Birth in the Process)

This story involves almost going into labor. Literally. The emotions run that high.

How I Got My Agent (and Nearly Gave Birth in the Process)

This story involves almost going into labor. Literally. The emotions run that high. They run high because the climactic moment of our story—the arrival of that singular “yes” that makes every “no” before it worthwhile—came after years of trial and error and adrenaline and hope and tears. They also run high because I was two days shy of 9 months pregnant when that “yes” arrived. Suffice it to say, all the feels.

Don’t worry, though. I didn’t go into labor. Babies take 9 months to gestate unless you’re me, in whom they’d gladly take 10 months if my midwives allowed it, but landing an agent? In my case, that took 15 years.

I queried my first novel in 2005, roughly a year after graduating from college. It’s a lovely story about girl power and literacy bans set in a pseudo-Renaissance Italy in which I kid you not the ending is IT WAS ALL A DREAM. 🤦‍♀️ Setting aside the project after 29 queries without a positive response from a single agent or much in the way of bitter feelings on my part, I turned my sights to NYC and a career in publishing.

My “career” was wonderful. One full year in publicity at HarperCollins Children’s Books during which time I read much and wrote nothing. Fearing for the health of my writer’s life, in 2007 I quit my job and fled the country to the Italian Riviera, every bit the 19th century poet plagued with consumption and in need of fresh air. I lived off of my meager savings, lodging in a narrow, L-shaped servant’s room with peeling wallpaper, off the kitchen of my Nonna’s city apartment, and eating a diet of spinach, rice, and the occasional yogurt. Until I had to get a job, because duh.

But this new job (freelance translator) and my bella vita lifestyle generously allowed me the time to write. And. I. Wrote. I drafted picture books, completed 1.5 novels, carried out multiple year-long revisions, plotted 8 subsequent novels in a 9-book series, and jotted down notes for countless other ideas. Each fully drafted project was queried at some point.

And I did it all alone, without a CP, or a writing group, or the SCBWI, or a single one of the endless resources readily available online. I say this not to brag. On the contrary—

Lucille Ball as Lucy, curling her lips in bewildered disgust

What was I thinking??? I went from living in the heart of US publishing, hobnobbing with editors, authors, and agents, and spending my weekends at the Strand brainstorming with fellow writers...to cutting myself off in a foreign country, whose bookstores rarely carried a single children’s book in English, without once thinking to seek out a community online, not even of writers abroad. I’m a card-carrying member of the lone wolf club, but jeez, even I can see now that that was a little extreme.

I was flying by the seat of my pants which is a visual I cannot understand but clearly involves neither wings nor aerodynamics so it can’t be a very effective way to fly. Indeed, my time in Italy was highly productive but it didn’t get me anywhere other than a high word count.

By the time I left Italy, I had sent 178 queries for 6 books over a total of 9 years.

I returned to the states without an agent or a book deal, but with a husband and a mindset focused on our shared dreams. Priorities shifted for a spell. Until...I met someone.

A writer of YA fantasy, like me. But unlike me, she knew about things...resources, books, techniques for revision, theories underlying successful story arcs, partnering up to critique each other's work. Be still, my heart!

I returned to my novel with fresh eyes and returned to my writing with a much-needed infusion of the knowledge available to anyone curious enough to google it. Ultimately, I snowflaked the novel and found myself with a phenomenal scene spreadsheet full of major plot revisions just waiting to be put into action.

Still waiting, in fact, because during that same time, I had a child. Priorities once again shifted...from novels to picture books, that is. :) I dove back into that glimmering sea of sparse text and deft illustrations that I had swum through so happily during my time in publishing. I dusted off some of my very shortest manuscripts. And more than anything, I thought constantly about what my son would like to read.

Within months, I was querying again. I was convinced my son would love a board book idea I’d had years ago. But after 21 rejections over the space of 2 years, without so much as a nibble of encouragement, I realized it was time for something new. Something informed by the countless books I’d read and reread and reread again to my baby-now-toddler. Something I, as a parent, would want to read on repeat, and he, as a child, didn’t yet have on his shelves. That magic formula of the book you want to read that hasn’t yet been written.

It was nearing Christmas, and I was on the hunt for the perfect gift for my son: a rocket ship toy paired with a rocket ship book. Both of these were surprisingly hard to come by. Or rather, they were hard to come by in the form that I was envisioning. Cue my brain becoming a light bulb.

Shortly after Christmas, a story took shape and the words began to flow. But this time, I wasn’t going it alone. I had two full years of reading a minimum of three picture books a day, and I had google and the gumption to use it.

From the very first sentence, I knew my story would be a rhyming one. And from the second sentence, I knew I had no idea what I was doing. Google led me to Dori Chaconas’s incredible deep dive into all things rhythm and rhyme. (Honestly, if you haven’t read it yet, and you’re looking to up your rhyming game, do yourself a favor and follow that link post haste.) Toward the end of the article, she mentions studying successful rhyming picture books. I snuck a stack of my favorites out of my son’s room after he’d gone to bed, read them each with new ears, and found my rhythm.

But almost a year would pass before I found myself with a completed manuscript ready to query. Life, as it tends to do, happened once again. I became happily pregnant and rather nauseated for several months. When the nausea subsided, we up and moved across the entire country. By the time we’d settled into our new home, I was very pregnant and very tired, chasing after a nearing-three-year-old. But somewhere in there, I finished my story.

I vetted it with my always-and-forever beta readers, my mom and my sister. I penned the easiest query letter I’d ever written in my life (market fit? check. comps? check. originality? you better believe it). And in late September, about a month before my due date, I began to query.

An initial three no’s were followed by a “more please” who ghosted. But who gives a hoot about that because four days later an email arrived that blasted the “more please” out of the water. “Would you have some time in the coming week to speak with us?”

Bastion riding Falkor victorious in The Neverending Story

Like a house that didn’t get nearly as many trick-or-treaters as they’d hoped and dumps their entire bowl of candy into a single pumpkin-shaped bucket, I replied, “Yes, all the time, here you go, take as much of it as you'd like please, thanks?” Except more eloquently.

THE CALL took place three days later. I spoke with Joanna Volpe and Abigail Donoghue of New Leaf Literary, and you guys, I was smitten. They loved my project, they asked about my long-term career goals, and they spoke of their work with a passion and ingenuity that confirmed everything I’d intuited from my research: I would be infinitely lucky to partner with them on my books.

An example of how I knew this? They didn’t offer representation right there on the spot. They asked to see more of my work, to understand if we’d be a good fit for all of my writing. I sent them the board book of my heart and the beginning of the YA fantasy of my heart. And, reader, can I tell you a secret-not-secret? It was not the first time I’d sent Jo that YA.

New Leaf had been at the top of my to-query list for years. Both Jo and Suzie Townsend had received a query for my YA, but the moment simply wasn’t right for us to join forces. I'm a firm believer that things happen when they're supposed to.

On October 25th, nine days after sending the samples of my other work, THE EMAIL arrived. Funny thing is, unlike all the other times I’d queried, this time around I wasn’t refreshing my inbox nonstop or jumping every time my phone pinged. Don’t get me wrong, I was on high alert...but for a contraction, not an email. So there I was, sitting on my pregnancy ball at the desk of my home office, working away at my day job, and I didn’t even notice THE EMAIL arrive.

Like, a legitimate hour and a half passed. Then for some reason or another I swiped down on my notification center to find something and—wait a second—ohmigosh, what?! when???! how did I not?? OHMIGOSHHHHHHHH

If you’ve never seen a 9-months-pregnant woman hyperventilate while ugly crying on a pregnancy ball via Facetime, my mom will tell you it can be something of a shock.

“Chiara, are you ok? Are you in labor? What’s wrong? Is everything ok?”

“I’m not in labor!” *heave, sob, ugly cry* “I’m not in labor!” *heave, sob, ugly cry* “They said yes! They replied—and they said yes!” *heave, sob, heave* “I HAVE AN AGENT!!!” 😭😭😭

My mother is a retired children’s librarian. Second to going into labor, this was the best news I could have possibly given her. We rejoiced, in due manner, and not unlike that time we saw Titanic together in the theaters when I was fifteen years old, she helped me breathe through my hormone-fueled sobs.

The weeks that followed were a whirlwind of emails and paperwork and acupuncture and, oh, heads up, Jo and Abbie, I’m heading in for an induction in case I don’t get back to you right away, and woot! we have a baby! and woot! we’re sending ROCKET SHIP out on submission! and that, my friends, is the story of How I Got My Agent.

On this the 1 year anniversary of that singular yes, I raise my glass to Jo and to Abbie and everyone at New Leaf for making those last few weeks of my pregnancy uniquely memorable and to all the book birthdays we'll celebrate together in the years to come. Cheers! 🥂


Books queried: 2 novels, 6 picture books
Queries sent: 207
Partial requests: 5
Full requests: 16
Rejections: 206
Offers: 1
Time elapsed: 15 years

Author photo of Chiara Colombi

Chiara Colombi

Author, Reader, Wonderer

Chiara Colombi is the author of Rocket Ship, Solo Trip, illustrated by Scott Magoon. An Italian-American bilingual wordsmith dedicated to the art of engineering with words, she worked for a decade as a translator before pivoting into product marketing at a Silicon Valley startup in the data privacy space. She is as comfortable talking about PII (personally identifiable information) as she is talking about PBs (picture books), though she'd love it if you asked her about Jupiter's moons.

About Chiara

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