And then one day, I had an agent

In late October 2018, shortly after I turned 45, I told my husband that I might have to shelve the book I’d spent the past two years working on so that I could move on to something else. The rejections were mounting, and I was tired of thinking about the characters and scenes and pages of my first novel. Before I gave up, though, I looked over the rejections I’d received.

In late 2017 and early 2018, I’d sent out my first round of queries. This was way too soon; I see that now. The novel wasn’t ready. I received a couple of manuscript requests, then silence. Nothing. No response to my polite little follow ups.

Round 1 stats:
Queries: 13
Straight rejections: 10
Manuscript requests: 3
Offers: NONE

Overall hit rate: 23%

I went to the AWP conference in March, then to The Writer’s Hotel (TWH) conference in June. I got some more feedback, then I revised and re-queried in August and September of 2018. I was specifically querying some of the agents I’d met at the TWH agent pitch session.

Round 2 stats:
Queries: 7
Rejections: 6
Withdrew or pending: 1
Manuscript requests: 0
Offers: NONE

Overall hit rate: 0%

One day in September 2018 I printed out the whole novel, sorted by chapter, and reorganized the whole thing to move between past and present. Why? Because the hook, the most interesting bit of the novel, didn’t start until around page 60 (in earlier versions, it was even deeper in the book). I’d done what so many writing teachers caution against … I’d written a long runway leading up to the core plot and to essential character development, but instead of abandoning the runway when the narrative took flight, I had clung to it.

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Frida the cat, in front of work by Hollie Chastain on my bookcase.

After that revision, I sent out a few more (okay, a lot more) queries. My personal time clock to get this novel out there was ticking, fast. I no longer had the patience or inclination to send out six to eight queries at a time, especially since most agents don’t promise any reply and give their average response time as four to eight weeks. Friends who were trying to be supportive told me, “I queried 77 agents for my first novel, and it’s harder now,” and “There are lots of terrible books out there. I’m sure yours will get published.”

Round 3 stats:
Queries: 45 (I know, but it was a weird time for me)
Rejections: 23 (several with useful feedback)
Manuscript requests: 4 (I withdrew these or declined to send after my initial offer)
Withdrew or pending: 18
Offers: NONE

Overall hit rate: 9% as of 12/6/18

In late October, I turned 45 and had a “fish or cut bait” talk with myself. I revised and reorganized a little bit more, until there was a man with a gun on a bus on the first page. In media res, indeed. Readers needed to be grabbed, and fast? Okay then. Let’s grab them. I queried a few agents I’d been too intimidated to contact before (this included my current agent), because what did I have to lose?

Round 4 stats:
Queries: 47 (Give me a break, it was a last call effort and I also re-queried different agents within the same agencies I’d queried before.)
Rejections: 10 (4 came after I’d accepted representation)
Manuscript requests: 7 (2 came after I’d accepted representation)
Withdrew or pending: 31
Offers: 2, plus 1 possible with rewrite

Overall hit rate: 15% as of 12/6/18

So yes, if I count up all the queries from the past 12 months, I sent out 112. As of this writing, 49 of those queries are still within the agent’s response window or I have withdrawn them from consideration, so it’s reasonable to say I received 55 rejections before I landed an agent. But when I look at the rejections I received when the book was really as ready as it could be (round 4), my results were so much better.

I say all that to say this:  When I see “this great book received xx rejections before being accepted” or “this new author received xx rejections before she landed an agent,” I wonder, “Really?” Are they sending to the wrong agents, e.g., agents who aren’t seeking what you’re putting out there? Are they sending their best, most revised, get-the-hook-up-front work? Did they ruthlessly edit their query letter to showcase their novel to the best advantage?

Because I didn’t do all those things, not for a long while. The feedback I received (which wasn’t until round 3, and only when agents were kind enough to provide any feedback at all), were variations of “I wasn’t as pulled in by the story as much as I hoped.” In late October, I stepped back and understood this to mean that my query was fine, but my first pages were flat. Some even noted that the writing was good and the premise was interesting, but they simply weren’t engaged or caught up. Fair feedback, and much appreciated, in retrospect.

So I put the man with the gun on the bus on the first page, did a last round of queries, and walked away. Whatever would be, would be. I had other work percolating in my head and heart.

And then…

An agent called and left a voice mail during my hair appointment. I fought back tears in the salon bathroom when I read her transcribed message. It was an agent from a Manhattan agency with excellent credentials! Hooray! We talked, and I liked her, a lot. We seemed to be on the same page, and she sounded like a woman after my own heart. She had good ideas, a patient voice, and experience in the industry. Yip yip!

I just had to let the other agents who had requested manuscripts know before I made a final decision. And so what if they all passed…I only needed one, and she was great. That was on November 16th, the Friday before Thanksgiving week. One to two weeks is a standard reply time for other agents when you have received an offer, so at her suggestion I promptly emailed the other agents who had requested my manuscript (as well as one who had just said to let her know if I received an offer) and gave them a deadline of November 26th, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

I floated all week. I told my friends and family. I didn’t fret over hosting Thanksgiving dinner like I usually do.

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My first ever pecan pie, for Thanksgiving 2018

Of the other agents I had emailed, one passed because she couldn’t get through the manuscript by the deadline. I withdrew from another because, although she would have been good, I knew I’d choose the other one over her. Another agent said she liked it but would need a rewrite, and still another said she’d bow out because I had other offers (maybe she didn’t like it, maybe she didn’t read it, but no matter).

But then, oh my god, another agent sent me his thoughts, told me he was interested. Over the course of that week, he vetted me with questions, shared his own thoughts about the book. On Monday morning, the day of the deadline, we talked at length. I felt like he would push me, challenge me, support me. That he was enthusiastic about my work. That I filled a space in his list. That he was unlike me but in all the right ways–like my best teachers, my good friends, my favorite lovers, my spouse.

I had to choose.

I had come to accept rejection as a matter of course, but this was the first time I was in the position to accept one, reject another. What did I want from an agency? What did I want from an agent? What were my goals and who would best help me achieve them? I’d only queried agents who seemed like a decent fit, only queried agencies that I’d be proud to be associated with. Sure, there were some I wanted more than others, but the two agents with offers on the table were both experienced Manhattan agents from established agencies with a collaborative editorial focus. Oh, hot damn.

In the end, I went with my gut. Which meant I went with the second agent. When he confirmed late Monday night that he was excited to work with me, I burst into tears. Like, straight sobbing against my husband’s chest. Joe and I toasted with bourbon (Old Weller Antique Original, the one we save for special occasions).

My takeaway here is not, “Never give up,” but rather, “Pay attention. Listen to what they’re telling you, and adjust accordingly. Be prepared to move on.”

And now, it’s Christmas.

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My December view from my workspace.

 

4 thoughts on “And then one day, I had an agent

  1. An excellent post. I have a question, if you’d be so kind as to answer. Since I am considering attending the Writers Hotel conference myself–they’re interviewing me on Thursday–I wonder if, looking back, you feel that attending that event last year (I read your previous post too) really helped you. It appears that the agent you ended up with was not one of the ones you pitched to–at least you don’t say so. Do you think the Ms. evaluation you got was so valuable that it justified the high cost of the conference?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Before I reply, know that I don’t speak for TWH and my response reflects my own impressions and experiences as a fiction writer based on what I was seeking when I applied last year. While I didn’t pitch to the person who became my agent while I was at the conference (it was a bit like speed-dating and a little bit overwhelming/thrilling), he was there. Since he valued TWH enough to attend, I think including TWH attendance in my query letter helped get the query read.

      My initial response is that yes, the ms evaluation definitely helped me. In terms of it being worth the cost of attendance, I will say that it depends on where you are with the ms. I got the impression the editors met writers where they are, but it seems like if you are going to a conference where you’ll be pitching to agents it’s better to have a ms that is close to being ready to send to agents if they’re interested. I was at the point where I was finished, but I knew the novel wasn’t done. In other words, I knew that the novel could be better, but I couldn’t see how to make it so. I had beta-readers who gave general feedback, but I had not experienced the level of engagement I got from the TWH editors since I had worked with graduate school professors. I needed this level of feedback, and I wanted it from a different perspective than the one I benefited from in my M.F.A. program 8 years ago when I was primarily writing short stories (which I still do, but the novel is whole other animal). I also compared the cost of the program to a graduate level writing class or other conferences.

      The ms review balanced feedback between both basic editorial notes like sentence structure, author tics that could be distracting to the reader, head-hopping, and overuse of certain words, as well as holistic feedback, e.g., maybe move this action sequence to the beginning, consider minimizing this subplot because it’s overdone and comes off as cliché.

      Questions that could help answer the “Is it worth it?” question:

      Do you see the ms as commercially viable either as literary/upmarket or as well-structured genre fiction, and/or do you want to make it more so?
      Do you think you’re almost ready to send it out to agents?
      Is agent representation important to you and your vision for your own work?

      Other aspects of the conference:

      For me, the curated talks, lectures, and agent pitch session provided either eye-opening insights or great reminders. The workshop felt less intensely and immediately useful in terms of improving the story and my overall writing, but I felt the same about workshops in grad school. That isn’t to say I didn’t find good value in the workshop! As you may imagine, the workshop was the best place to connect with people who are writing in the same space in the world as you are.

      I also found TWH freeing in certain ways. I was surrounded by people who wrote crime noir, quiet literary fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, assault survivor memoirs, entertaining romantic comedies, and so much more, but I didn’t get the feeling that some types of writing were preferred over others like I sometimes get in academic settings. It was an acknowledgement that good stories come in all forms.

      Another expense associated with TWH is travel and staying in midtown Manhattan for a week. My spouse is from Newark, NJ and loves all things NYC, so he and my 18 year old tagged along and we made a vacation of it (even though I was occupied much of the time). However, TWH has a private study option that may be particularly useful to folks who want the ms review and other editorial/agent-connection support, but who don’t necessarily want to travel to NYC for a week. https://www.writershotel.com/privatestudy

      Here is some more insight from a recent interview with TWH Director, Shanna McNair. https://www.pressherald.com/2019/03/11/for-nations-aspiring-writers-room-at-the-inn/

      Having said all that, know that I will be a Teaching Assistant at TWH in June and would love to see you there!

      Like

      1. Thank you very much indeed for this. I’m not going to say much because the platform keeps deleting my comments for some reason (they aren’t rude, honestly!) The reply is very informative, thorough, and insightful, and I do seem to be in a similar position to the one you were in when you attended. I’ll look forward to meeting you if I am selected, and end up there.

        Like

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