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.

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.

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.

My December view from my workspace.


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