Wednesday, May 25, 2011

12 WOW Wednesday: Karen Mahoney on Saying Yes to Every Opportunity

Today's guest post is from Karen (Kaz) Mahoney, author of The Iron Witch. The next book in the trilogy continues in 2012 with The Wood Queen, and she has also published stories about a kick-ass teen vampire called Moth in The Eternal Kiss and Kiss Me Deadly. Karen currently lives near London. You can find her on her website or her blog. She's also on Twitter at @KazMahoney.

Say YES to Everything (but not just Anything)

by Karen Mahoney

I have a problem: I can’t say “no” to anything.

You see, the truth is that I’m a people pleaser—I know this is true and I’ve tried to change. Why? Because sometimes you really do need to say “no” to allow yourself the time and space in your life to get things done. Lately, in fact, I’ve done very well at saying “no” and trying not to feel toooo guilty for disappointing people.


Saying YES is of huge benefit to writers aiming to find agents and get publishing deals. Saying YES is a lot more than just a three-letter-one-syllable word that indicates an affirmative response to something asked of you.

Saying YES can be a little piece of magic that leads to huge rewards later on.

Let me ‘splain.

When I was querying agents with The Iron Witch I made several decisions. First of all I decided to not give up and move onto querying the next project until I had queried at least 50 agents. (Of course, during this querying process I was busy writing that next project. The finished manuscript is still sitting in a folder on my laptop; maybe I’ll get around to fixing it and my agent will submit it one day.) I was determined. I was a querying machine! It’s amazing to me, actually, to look back on that time because I am genuinely a humble person filled with rampant insecurities, and yet I was absolutely single-minded about finding an agent to represent me and my work.

I am a walking, talking contradiction. I think that’s probably true for most writers.

So, there was the determination, and perhaps more importantly the decision to never give up (never surrender!). Another decision was when I told myself I would take every opportunity that came my way, no matter how small.

That’s the saying YES part, just in case I needed to spell it out (I wouldn’t blame you if I did because I do have a tendency to ramble).

When an agent said that he would be willing to see a revised manuscript, and gave me vague (and I do mean vague!) ideas as to what he wanted to see, I said: YES.

I revised. But I also continued to query other agents.

When that same agent still said “no” but gave me a second opportunity to revise… guess what I said?


I didn’t complain, even in private. I didn’t think he was being evil and cruel and difficult (as I’ve heard some people say about agents). I didn’t think he was trying to make me ‘jump through hoops.’ I was grateful. Think about it: a busy and very successful agent with many big-name clients gave me a chance to resubmit. He gave me hope. He told me that there was something in that manuscript that he believed might be for him—if I would only look again and put in some more work.

You bet your *ahem* I said yes!

While that was going on, I was getting various rejections, requests for partials and requests for fulls. The Iron Witch saw a lot of action. I was also writing on the new project, trying not to get too invested in one thing—one manuscript—and kept reminding myself that it’s about having a career, not just a single book published.

Here’s a Kaz Tip while you’re querying: agents are human beings. Seriously, believe me when I say that they want to find a project they love! I don’t know where this idea of agents as fire-breathing dragons guarding the Sacred Treasure of Publishing came from, but in my opinion—in my experience—it’s simply not true. Agents are people, just like you and me, who love books and love stories and love words. They want to find clients they can work with over the long haul. It’s just something I thought I’d throw in here, randomly, because it helped me to think this way when approaching agents. Don’t be afraid to nudge them (politely) if you’ve not heard anything on a partial or a full for months. Don’t be afraid to drop a note to an agent with a quick (and polite) update if you’re getting a lot of interest from other agents. Nobody told me it was okay to do that, but I did it anyway. I’ll tell you something here and now: agents like to be kept informed. They have so much to read at any one time, it helps them to know that they might have a hot little gem sitting in their stash.

Okay, back to what I was saying before. While all that was going on with the Asking-For-Multiple-Revisions Agent, I continued to query others. Another agent read my query letter and the opening pages, and replied with a very nice note saying that although it wasn’t for her, she thought Miriam Kriss at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency might be interested in YA urban fantasy like mine.

I thanked the agent, saying that I had already queried Miriam (in fact, she was in my very first batch of six queries from months before) but hadn’t heard anything at all. This agent said I could mention her name, just along the lines of: “Agent X said she thought you might like The Iron Witch, and she said I could give you her name and quote her on it.”

Of course, I said YES to that opportunity! I wrote Miriam an email nudging her on my original query, using the new agent’s name and recommendation. I received an immediate request for the full manuscript. Although she still had to love the project enough to represent it, that other agent had helped me to get my manuscript to the top of a TBR pile. In fact, up until then, all Miriam had was my query letter (languishing in a ‘central’ email address for queries) and the first 5 pages of the book. So this was a huge boost—it meant an agent that I really wanted to work with, and had dreamed of working with, was actually going to read my manuscript.

I was terrified.

But I kept querying. And meanwhile, I had done the next revision for that other agent and sent it off. I still didn’t put all my eggs in one basket—that is, seriously, one of the worst things you can do as a writer hoping to find an agent and to get published. You have to remain open to other opportunities to say YES. If you are too focused on one particular outcome, then I believe you’re already saying “no” to something that you might not have expected. Allow for the possibility of surprise!

On the very same day that the agent who had suggested two sets of revisions said his final (though very kind) “no,” Miriam Kriss offered me representation.

I said YES.

To say I was happy is an understatement. I signed with Miriam on July 7, 2008 and I love working with her.

Whenever she suggests something, the first word on my lips is: YES.

(You can read my query and Miriam’s thoughts on it here at the Guide to Literary Agents Blog. )


  1. Thanks for that. I'm interested, once you'd done the first set of revisions was it the revised MS you sent out to everyone, or the original?

  2. Great post. It gives us waiting some hope. I'll be sure to say "yes" when the time comes.

  3. Great post. I'm so glad you kept on querying because I love The Iron Witch. This is great advice to keep on perserving on revisions, querying, and not giving up.

  4. Such a great reminder not to give up. I'm about to go into the query trenches, and I definitely needed it.

  5. Sarah: That's a good question!

    (I'm interested, once you'd done the first set of revisions was it the revised MS you sent out to everyone, or the original?)

    In my case, I stuck with MOSTLY the original version - I did keep some of the more general tweaks and revisions, but not for example one thing that was basically: lose some of the humor-in-the-face-of-dire-peril. Because I like my inappropriate humor (!), I decided to keep that version when I sent to other agents - including Miriam. ;) But, like I said, I did keep stuff where I'd generally tightened, etc.

    I'd say it should be decided on a case by case basis, unless you know that the on-spec revisions are absolutely spot on and you're happy to go out with that version. If you feel it in your gut, I mean.


  6. Woo! Exciting post and fun/inspiring to read. How brave of you to plow on with the revisions on spec; it's all about improving the story, and it sounds like that's what you did. Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  7. This is a really great post. I love your point that putting all your eggs in one basket is like saying "no" to an unexpected opportunity.

  8. I loved The Iron Witch and can hardly wait for the next book in Karen's series! I'm so glad Miriam finally said yes to HER!

  9. I love stories that show busy agents and editors looking out for those whose works shines.

    Way to go, Kaz!

  10. This is a great, positive, and encouraging post! Thanks for sharing Karen. I had the same question as Sarah, the first comment, so thanks for answering it :)

  11. What a great post. I think it's important to remember agents are people looking for a good story too. It's hard to keep in mind at times. It's wonderful you never gave up. I'm determined to do the same. :)

  12. This is such a positive post and outlook on a process that's not always rainbows and unicorns. Thanks for sharing your story!


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)