Harry, Sally, Deb Molly, and Ragdale Magic

You know the end of When Harry Met Sally, when they say, “We were friends for a long time. And then we weren’t. And then we fell in love“?

That’s how selling my book went.

There was a very, very long time when the book was in the hands of an editor who liked it and who requested some changes to the ending, so I spent several months on them — and in the process of changing the ending, of course, changed the middle and re-wrote the beginning. My agent and I sent the manuscript back and forth a million times, tweaking and polishing it, and when we finally agreed that it was good enough, we sent it off to the editor.

And then we waited. And waited…

She sat on it for a long time. A looooong time. And then one day in January, the phone rang.

“I’m sorry,” my agent said. “They decided to pass on it.”

I confess: I totally cried. It felt like a breakup, after so many months of fantasizing about this editor and how perfect we’d be together. My mother offered to get in her Yaris and drive from Wisconsin to New York to beat the editor up. My boss gave me 24 hours to mourn. My agent wondered gently if maybe it was time to put this book aside? I could focus on writing the next book — which would be even better! — and take a break from all the rejection.

I almost agreed with her, but at the last moment I rallied and gave her my Oscar moment speech: “No! I’m not ready to quit! This draft has a whole new beginning that no one has seen! Let’s give it a new title [it had been out on submission with a pretty wretched title] and send it to a new round of editors!”

“Yeah!” said my agent. “I’ll write a whole new pitch!”

“And while they’re sitting on it for the next three or four months, I’ll finish my second book so by the time we hear back from editors, we’ll have a new book waiting in the wings!”

So my agent went to write a new pitch, we batted titles back and forth until we agreed that The Princesses of Iowa was adorably odd and catchy, and I headed off to a two-week writing residency at Ragdale, where I had my own room in this amazing old house, with a big desk, a giant bulletin board, and a great view of the front lawn, blanketed in snow.

For a week, I sat at my big desk and alternated between working on a new book and writing essays about my family. I watched the snow fall through the wavery old glass, crept down the creaking staircase to make myself cups of tea, and curled up on the couch in my room to read books written by other residents. There were four writers in the big house, all women. I rarely saw them during the day, but at night we’d gather with the other residents — a sculptor, some photographers, a painter, a composer, a few more writers — and have dinner together.

It was heavenly.

After dinner, we’d step out into the crisp January darkness and look up at the stars, thick in the black night sky. Sometimes we’d see deer at the edge of the woods, and rabbits, and squirrels. Sometimes we’d stay up late together, drinking wine and telling stories, and other nights we’d head back to our respective rooms and studios for a few more hours of work.

And then, after just a week of residency, my agent called to say Candlewick had made an offer on my book.

This, you may remember, was not the plan. The book had only been back out on submission for a week! “I’m sorry,” I told my agent. “But could you repeat that?”

She repeated it.

I watched a squirrel leap across the snowy driveway and run up a tree. “Ragdale magic!” I said. My agent laughed.

After I hung up with her, I staggered out into the hallway, where the other writers just happened to be chatting at the top of the stairs. “I have an offer on my book!” The group included Stephanie Kallos, whose second novel Sing Them Home had just come out a few months earlier, and Kat Falls, whose debut novel Dark Life was set to come out later in the spring. They hugged and congratulated me and gave me some ideas about what might happen next, and then they snuck off to tell Chef Linda and to get champagne and flowers.

Needless to say, I didn’t get much work done during the second half of my residency! I spent the next week glued to my cellphone, talking to my agent, and randomly yelling “Ragdale Magic!”

Three months later, we were married. It only took three months. Twelve years, and three months.

It only took a week to get the call. A week and two years.


19 Replies to “Harry, Sally, Deb Molly, and Ragdale Magic”

  1. Oh, man. I love this story. It’s like a writer’s fairy tale, being at the residency when you got the good news! How cool is that?

    You’re another great example of how persistence pays. It’s not enough to write a good book — you have to believe in it, and work with it, and keep on trying. Kudos to you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. It was totally like a fairy tale! But I agree, I think the biggest lesson for me was about believing in your own work — as a writer, you become so accustomed to getting feedback about your story’s flaws, sometimes it’s easy to hear “we’ll pass” and hear “this isn’t worth publishing, give up.”

  2. Oh, there is so much I love about this story. I know exactly how that cry felt. It IS like a break-up, maybe even worse, because at least with a break-up, there’s sort of a global understanding of what that feels like–whereas a rejected ms may not be considered as cruel–but it is!! I had a similar experience with LGG in the first round–I worked with an editor on edits and they ultimately passed. I was crushed, and like you say, couldn’t bear the idea of putting it away. And lo!

    I love too that you were at this incredibly romantic spot when the news came in! And I’m getting SUCH an Anne-with-an-E vibe here. Are you sure chef Linda didn’t sneak you some raspberry cordial? Are you sure Gil wasn’t the sculptor?

    1. Everyone else in my life was mad at the editor who passed, but my agent and I kept telling ourselves “We love Editor!” because even though she didn’t ultimately buy the book, she read it and gave some great, thoughtful feedback that ultimately helped it become the book that sold to Candlewick!

      And yes, as soon as I get the final copy of my book, I plan to rush to Gilbert’s bedside and tell him that I wrote a book about our town, just like he said. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Oh! I can totally relate! The same thing happened to me, only it was with agents. Not publishers. A VERY big agency seemed interested. We talked. I made revisions. We talked some more. Then silence. Finally, after begging for any kind of answer, I got one. It was “No”. So, I definitely understand. Then I found a GREAT agent, but even then it took a year to find a home for my book and another year and a half after that for it to hit bookshelves. Still, totally worth it! BTW, I’m from Iowa, so I have to say I LOVE your title! ๐Ÿ™‚ Good luck!

    1. The best advice I ever got about the business — and it’s not really advice, I guess, but it’s still the best — is that everything takes ten times longer than you think it should.

      And yay, Iowa! It really is the best. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Oh, I love, love, love this story and cringed right along at the breakup part. Been there, cried about that. Ugh, but see how it worked out in the end? Here’s to Ragdale Magic (which you know is code for Molly Magic, right?)

    1. Yes, it all worked out! I couldn’t be more thrilled to be with Candlewick. They’re so amazing.

      And seriously, Ragdale IS Magic!! Every writer should do a residency there!

  5. Oh Molly. When Harry Met Sally? You really know the way to my heart. Every one needs an Oscar moment book speech!

    This is a great story and obviously those Candlewick folks are smarties. I am SO excited to read Princesses…

    1. Why am I not surprised? Of COURSE you love WHMS! (It really is the best.)

      Whenever I talk about an Oscar moment, I think of Wayne’s World, where he’s splashing water on his face and crying “I never learned to read!”

  6. I absolutely loved that story! It just made me feel all cozy and happy! Congrats again! I just hope I’ll be able to get it in Germany right away…

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