I first met Melissa during KissPitch, which is a writing mentoring contest where writers complete for mentorship from agented or published authors, to help them polish their manuscripts and get ready to query agents. I was chatting with other mentors behind the scenes about their impressions of the mentee pool, and author Emily Colin and I were both crazy about the same entry--a smash-the-patriarchy post-apocalyptic retelling of Tristan and Isolde with sky-high stakes and lots of action. I kept reading entry after entry and coming back to this one, and since Emily and I were friends from working on one of her manuscripts together, I didn't want to fight her for the contest entry. Instead, I asked if she wanted to team up so we could both mentor it, and thus our three-lady team was born!
1. Did you query books before the one you signed with your agent? How many books/how many years, etc?
I’ve always said that storytelling comes naturally to me, but I had to learn how to write. So about twelve years ago, with the arrival of our son, I decided to give it a shot. My first book, although well-plotted, will never see the light of day. I call it my practice book, but really that means it will stay buried in a file on my computer. My next book was a brilliant idea (or at least I thought so) about a boy who was cursed to kill the first girl he fell in love with. It was a trilogy, and to this day I adore it, but I struggled with how to pitch it. At about forty queries for the first book in the series, I gave up because I was new to querying and thought the story must suck if that many agents said no. Hah!
The book after that, another YA Fantasy, was intentionally a standalone. This book played with the premise of: what if cheering for a team actually improved how they played? So, I wrote about triplet brothers who had the ability to enhance their natural talents simply by rooting for each other. I think the concept rocks, and the book went on to be chosen for PitchWars. I queried it just as the shutdown began with Covid-19, and although I persevered and went well beyond querying forty agents, I again struggled with how to pitch it. Deciding to go even bigger and better, my next book was a dystopian YA Fantasy loosely based on a Tristan and Isolde retelling. It was selected for KissPitch. I knew this was my most cinematic, checks-all-the-boxes, this-will-get-me-an-agent book, and it did. Eventually.
2. Was there anything you’d point to as a turning point or turning points where you really leveled up your writing?
I think each book forces a certain amount of growth, and each time you critique another writer’s manuscript you also learn what works and what doesn’t. I found it extremely helpful to hire editors or work with them from winning contests (I recommend entering every free and reputable contest you can). Editors were a key part of leveling up my writing by getting personalized, story-specific advice.
3. You had some interesting things happen in terms of the timing of being offered a book deal AND an agent at the same time. Do you want to tell me the story behind that?
That was a crazy, amazing week. My friend (I love you, N) had pitched my book to a small press, which lead to a publishing offer. BUT, at the same time, Catherine from Paper Literary also requested to read my book. I sent it to her on a Tuesday, she read it on a Wednesday, and she asked for a phone call the following day. To top things off, I also received a grant from Canada Council for the Arts (to finish my next book). So it was a lot of very exciting things happening ALL AT ONCE. I’m not sure anything in my career will top that, and it meant I had to make some big decisions. Ultimately, since the dream had always been to find an agent first, I accepted Catherine’s offer of representation.
4. Tell me about the call. How did you know this agent was the right fit for you?
I think I have some PTSD from all the years of rejections, because I was half-convinced that Catherine wasn’t calling to offer rep; she just wanted to talk. She started off by telling me how she read my book in one sitting, and it hit me that that’s all I’ve ever wanted—someone to love it enough that they couldn’t put it down. We both asked questions, then I attempted to pitch my back log of previously written books. At the end, I had to confirm that Catherine was in fact offering rep, because I still couldn’t believe it. And, she was!
5. What’s your top tip for other querying writers?
Oh, man. I don’t know if this is a tip or just a warning, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that querying has changed. It’s not what it used to be five years ago. Or even two years ago. Previously, the advice for writers was to send out queries in batches, then make changes to your submission package based on agent notes and number of rejections. But the reality now is that many agents won’t respond. Ever. Not when you query. Some even after they request your full manuscript. And for those agents that do respond, receiving feedback from them is like spotting a unicorn in the wild.
Personally, I haven’t gotten feedback from an agent since 2020. With that in mind, querying can be an extra frustrating process now. My advice: don’t be afraid to query in whatever way feels right for you.
Melissa is a writer of short stories and YA novels in genres ranging from contemporary to fantasy. Her novels have been chosen for author mentorship contests like PitchWars and KissPitch, and her short stories have appeared in literary magazines like Flash Fiction Magazine and THIS Magazine. When not writing, she spends her time trying not to freeze in the Canadian weather and the arenas her kids play hockey in. She is represented by Catherine Cho of Paper Literary.