Taking the Long View: From a Book without an Agent … to an Agent without a Book

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I started the process of seeking an agent the way many of us do: a combination of earnest mailings to total strangers, desperate mailings to friends of friends, and offering my first born to the gods of literary representation. But strangers ignored me, friends of friends rejected me, and eventually my first born turned eighteen, making him a less appealing sacrifice. I had no takers. I had written a novel called Separate Bedrooms, the story of a retirement-aged, sexless, married couple living in Longview, Texas, and, while my husband still insists it’s a decent book, I wasn’t getting any traction with it at all.

Eventually I sent a chapter to Linda Chester, an agent who is the friend of a friend. Linda asked to read the whole book and then ultimately signed me. But there was a catch: She didn’t think it was a good idea to shop Separate Bedrooms anywhere. Even after I revised and rewrote it, she felt it would be best for me to write a new book. A different book. Like, as in, start over. She liked my writing but felt that Separate Bedrooms was a better second or even third novel, but it was not, she felt, a good debut. It was too “small,” she said, meaning it’s a book about a small town (Longview) that would interest a small audience, resulting in small sales and a very small fan base. Small. “But,” she said, “I like your writing.”

So we signed a contract, and I sat my ass down to write a whole new book. If you’re in this struggle and reading this, surely you can imagine the elation I felt in signing with an agent combined with the horror and disappointment of having to begin the process of writing a novel. I was euphoric and (first-world) wrecked simultaneously. But Linda was taking the long view, considering the big publishing picture and the landscape of debut fiction, and she knew what I didn’t fully believe at the time: that I had another book in me, and another one after that, and maybe even another. She insisted that we were on a mission to start my career, not just to put a cover on one particular story. And she was right – I did have another book in me, and I’m hard at work editing the next one.

It’s so easy to get fixated on one project, especially since writing a single novel can take years (about ten in the case of my unpublished, southern, geriatric love story). And one’s first completed novel is especially personal. But when I step back and look at the big picture, I can see clearly that Linda did me an enormous favor: she put our future goals for me ahead of my more immediate gratification. And the result was a book deal with Emily Bestler Books and the confidence that I have more to say in the future. It was also a good reminder that even when it comes to things that feel very personal, it’s best to listen to professionals and to trust the people who have spent their lives working in this field. They can take an objective, serious look at an issue and give good advice, well worth heeding. Before Linda, I was completely on hold, waiting for Separate Bedrooms to find a home, and until it found one, I had neither the oomph nor the confidence to start another book. Linda gave me oomph and confidence.

I have said, in as many ways as I know how, that Linda Chester changed my life in the most substantive and foundational ways possible. She really did. When you’re writing a book for someone, when you feel that someone is counting on you and has high hopes for you, it is, for me anyway, extremely motivating and satisfying. I wrote Small Admissions over the course of about two years and Linda sold it in only a matter of weeks. Separate Bedrooms sits on the back burner and may stay there forever. Or perhaps in another few years, I’ll take another crack at it, see if it’s the right time to put my old, southern, sexless couple out in public. But for now, I’m working hard on a Broadway novel and sending my gratitude out to Linda Chester, an agent who takes the long view.

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Amy Poeppel grew up in Dallas, Texas and left the south to attend Wellesley College. Since then, she has worked as an actor, a high school English teacher, and most recently as the Assistant Director of Admissions at a school in New York City. Her three fabulous boys are all off in Boston attending school, and she and her husband now split their time between New York and Frankfurt, Germany. A theatrical version of SMALL ADMISSIONS was workshopped at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. She later expanded it into her first novel.

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