Persistence + Luck = Pluck … by Deb Alicia

Alicia Bessette

Short version: I emailed a query to an agent at Folio Literary Management. Next day she requested the first fifty pages of my book. A week later, she requested the whole thing. Two days after that, she called and asked if I was willing to make some changes to the manuscript. I thanked her for her astute observations, and promised to resubmit the revised manuscript exclusively to her. She said that wouldn’t be necessary, because she was offering me representation.

Extended version: Rewind to the summer of 2003, when Matt and I traveled to Ireland. We were work-weary and restless, in our late twenties, and armed with books by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the pubs of Dublin and Sligo, Westport and Kilkenny, we had long conversations about our marriage; our future; our deepest, brightest dreams. Many of these conversations included some version of the following exchange:

Matt: I can’t be a high school English teacher for the next thirty years. I just can’t.
Me (quoting a paperweight I saw in a Dublin bookstore): What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
Matt: Write books.
Me: Yeah. Me too.

We were both experiencing a quarter-life crisis. And our lives needed a major overhaul.

Over Guinness, we hatched a wild plan to sell our house, quit our jobs, and move from Jersey to Massachusetts, where I’m from. He’d write, and I’d work. Then we’d switch.

And so, after the ’03-04 school year, we moved in with my parents. I taught yoga and worked for the weekly paper while Matt pursued an MFA. He spent no less than nine hours a day in his “office” (my parents’ unfinished basement), hunched at his desk, writing, revising, reading, studying, emailing authors for advice and encouragement, researching agents. About once a week, I’d wake up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. and realize he wasn’t in bed next to me. I’d find him in the basement, working.

As our meager savings dwindled, we questioned the wisdom of our drastic life-change. Others did, too (“So, are you going to get a real job?” “Publish that book yet?” “Gonna get your own place soon?” “What are you going to do next?”).

Two and a half years went by, Matt graduated, and we planned to venture out on our own again. But this time we had no idea what we were going to do, or how we were going to do it. Then, on a Wednesday morning in April 2007, he came bounding up the basement steps to announce that a wonderful agent offered to represent his novel, The Silver Linings Playbook. And soon after, his manuscript sold in New York, the UK, Italy, Spain, and Hollywood.

We celebrated with Guinness, of course. And Rocky Patel cigars.

With enough money to allow us both to write, full time, for about two years, we tearfully thanked my parents and rented a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment outside Philly. That first year of on-our-own bliss-following, I wrote a 60,000-word spoof on the chick lit and fantasy genres. It had sword fights and Sephora, dragons and designer handbags. It was awesome.

It was rejected by more than 120 literary agents.

Oh, and five small presses.

Then, in 2008, I began All Come Home, a much different novel than my first. My goal was to write an emotionally honest book that demands to be read quickly and intensely, and that also demands to be savored and discussed. I wanted to write a book that book clubs would fall in love with.

I worked on All Come Home at least six hours a day, six or seven days a week. Full-time fury. I was determined. I also spent many hours researching agents and soliciting advice from kind writer-acquaintances.

Ten months and two revisions later, I calculated how many months’ rent remained in the bank. It wasn’t much. At the same time, I started pitching All Come Home to agents. Thankfully, I got a fantastic one: Laney Becker. She sold All Come Home to Penguin’s Dutton imprint. And she and her colleague, Celeste Fine, sold it to a German publisher too.

Matt and I picked up some Guinness and toasted a couple more years of bliss-following.

I tell my husband’s story in addition to my own because they’re inextricable; his success led to mine, and vice versa. But to get an agent, you don’t have to be married to someone who shares your dream. In fact, most writers aren’t.

You don’t need an MFA (although I greatly admire those who pursue graduate studies). You don’t need to quit your job, sell your house, or move into your parents’ or in-laws’ basement. You don’t need to “know somebody.”

Support from family and/or friends is nice, and if you have that, cherish it. Being open-minded and conducting yourself professionally helps.

From where I’m standing, what you absolutely need is tons and tons of persistence, and a little bit of luck.

Persistence + luck = Pluck. You’re going to need that, too, especially if, like many writers, you find yourself facing down rejections.

A final note about luck: One of my favorite expressions is, The harder you work, the luckier you get. That notion really resonates with some people. I’ll express it in another way, in case it gives your spine an electric flutter. Ready?

You make your own luck.

~Alicia Bessette

31 Replies to “Persistence + Luck = Pluck … by Deb Alicia”

  1. What the…? Alicia, your timeline is amazing! Seriously? *Seriously*?? One day for partial, one week for full, two days for offer????????

    Your book must be amazing. (And your query letter made of chocolate 😉

    I so admire your joint-adventure with your husband. It’s a beautiful story, truly.

  2. I love, love, love this story! What an incredible tribute to love and taking chances and believing. I can’t wait to read All Come Home (and your husband’s book, too). Go Alicia and Matt (does he go by the nickname Q?)!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I think your clarity about what you wanted is also important – success with your writing means more time to write. Hard work is so much easier when you know what you’re trying to do.

  4. That ‘60,000-word spoof on the chick lit and fantasy genres’ was a very smart read, and got the attention of more than a few top agents. I remember that we both really thought it would sell, and were absolutely crushed when it didn’t find representation. It’s a very hard game. Persistence and luck, indeed. Hooray for pluck!

  5. Hey Al,
    I think this is the best of your blog entries yet. I admire both of you for taking the leap. Very proud and happy for both of you.
    And I’ve never known anyone who quoted a paperweight before.
    Can I get you to send me your spoof? I’m a sucker for a good sword fight.
    Keep up the good work.


  6. What an amazing story! I laughed with recognition at the 60,000-word spoof that got rejected by 120 agents. I had similar results with my second serious attempt at a novel, a comedic tale of small town politics. I did find an agent (number 121 or so) but we couldn’t submit to 121 publishers so it didn’t work out.

    Pluck! Absolutely.

  7. Soooo, what you’re saying is we should be drinking more Guinness?

    Great post. I especially like the two take-aways of

    1) working through rejection
    2) working.

    I think what separates the aspiring writer (or artist or musician) from the actual writer is that whole working thing … the drive and discipline to sit at that desk or in that studio every day grinding along, long after the initial inspiration has lost its luster.

    Great post.

    If I were a writing teacher, I’d make it required reading.

  8. i love this story so much. I think it’s great how you both recognize that success is not a one time thing but something that can and hopefully will happen over and over (because just once will only pay the rent for a couple of years at best!).

    Here’s my favorite line from this post:

    “Full-time fury.”

    That’s the mindset i strive for and results in my wrist and hand aching from writing page after page after page. But 6 hours is not always available so I’ve been trying to find five minutes of fury or an hour of ire or forty five minutes to wallow in my own crapulence.

  9. Thanks everybody.

    I’d like to make it clear that my parents never once even hinted that Matt and I should move out of their house. They always believed in us, even when we didn’t.

    Jen, Devourer: Yes, Folio reps some excellent books, including The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. My agent reps (former Deb) Eve Brown Waite’s First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria, a wonderfully entertaining memoir, one of my faves; and The Crying Tree, a stunning first novel by Naseem Rakha, who guest-blogged at the Ball this past summer.

    Jean: “Success with your writing means more time to write. Hard work is so much easier when you know what you’re trying to do.” Wise words. Make your intention clear, then go after it.

    Kristina & Ken: Yes, working through rejection, followed by working, has been a strong theme in my writing life.

  10. Thank you for telling your story and letting us into that “often-elusive-secretive-world of literary agents.” Pluck is my new mantra. And when I start chanting it during meditation and my brother asks me to keep it down and wonders just what the heck I’m saying, I’ll smile and keep going!

    PS. You write so beautifully!

  11. Fabulous story! And I can’t wait to read you book. Also, I have to tell you that I have contemplated buying The Silver Linings Playbook many times for my dad, who is an Eagles’ fan. Now you’ve given me the definitive reason!

  12. Great post and fantastic story. Making the time to write is so important, but having help and support from a spouse is so unmeasurable in its goodness. I had written part time for years, but when my new husband gave me a house to live in where I didn’t have to worry about the rent money, an office to write in, and the freedom of no job, all I could do was put my butt in the chair for a few years. I’m not saying you have to have that, but there’s something about someone else supporting you (both financially and emotionally) that makes you either give up or get to work! Congratulations.

  13. Alicia–
    Really nice to read that–I’m a friend of Matt’s from Goddard–always admired his work habits and from a distance, his marriage(!) So congratulations and thanks for sharing that story, which is very encouraging as I embark on novel number five (or six, I lose count).

  14. “I worked on All Come Home at least six hours a day, six or seven days a week.”

    Alicia, your description of your writing schedule is like a smack on the back of the head for me. An *inspiring* smack, mind you! I loved this blog entry. The importance of hard work and persistence really cannot be overstated. Good for both of you for working hard for the life you wanted!

  15. I LOVE Ireland … and Guinness … and Laney Katz Becker at Folio Literary Management too! And I TOTALLY agree with what you say – we absolutely make our own luck.
    Lovely post.

  16. Hi Alicia!

    Yours and Matt’s story inspired me the first time I heard it. It was the first day at Goddard, January 2005, Matt walked over to my breakfast table sat down, and we shared portions of our stories; which, of course, was your story, also. And, now you’re part of my story. Did I get all the commas right in that? I can’t wait to read your first novel.

  17. Thanks again, everybody! Evan & Cheryl: You make a very important point. It’s not necessary to write full time in order to produce a book. There are probably a lot of great books out there written in five-minute snatches. Commit as much as you can, and the rest will follow. Robert: good luck!

  18. What a great story, Alicia! Too many people expect their very first effort to sell, and when it doesn’t they give up. I’m so glad you kept it up, and I look forward to reading your book!

  19. Great to read that story. So we met you right in the beginning of your “life-changing-process” in the pub in Kilkenny.Ireland is such a wonderful place to get inspiration.
    Since that time we watch your successful development and enjoy your music and your literature.
    Cant’t wait to

  20. Q and Al – Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed following your progress these last few years, and what an inspiration it is to see two people whom I admire greatly keep after their dreams. (And land them!) You guys have pluck to spare, something I’m hoping to scrounge together myself as I begin my own writing journey.

  21. Alicia,
    While I know your story well, I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful retelling of it and the sage advice, encouragement and comfort offered to beginning writers. Continued good luck to you and Matt.

    Joe Serico

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