Those of you who read my post last week may remember that most of it was reminiscing about my childhood love for L. M. Montgomery’s heroine, Emily Starr, and how my obsession with her eventually inspired me to write the book that is now my debut. Since this week we’re all blogging about “the path to publication,” I titled my little piece with one last reference to Emily. Because Emily dreams of becoming a writer, she draws inspiration from a verse by an unknown author called “The Fringed Gentian.” (Incidentally, this is the final verse of a real poem that Montgomery actually looked to for inspiration.)
When whisper blossom in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honored fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.
The great thing about the Alpine path, I think, is that it never ends. There is no real pinnacle in a writing career—even if you win a major award, have an international best seller, do an interview with Reese Witherspoon, there is always the next book. We’re always trying to get better.
That being said, the part of the path that leads to that first published book can feel exceedingly long, and I’m going to do my best to tell my own story here without rambling on for five thousand words and making you all feel the endlessness with me (no promises).
Writing the first draft of The Dream Peddler actually didn’t take me that long. But keep in mind, I was a stay-at-home mother for many years before this (more about that next week), so as soon as my youngest child went off kindergarten, I suddenly had a wealth of free time. I started my book in the spring of 2013, but I didn’t get very far. School let out, I found out we were moving to the outskirts of Philadelphia in August for my husband’s job (we’ve moved a LOT), and I pretty much spent that summer and fall preoccupied with the move. By November, everyone was settled in and we were all unpacked and I was looking for new friends. I scouted Meetup, and a local group called Just Write caught my eye. They met every Tuesday morning at an indie book store only five minutes from my children’s school. I joined, and within six months or so, the book was finished.
I did some research. I spent the summer editing. I found a few beta readers through the group. I did some more editing. In December of 2014, I began to query.
I queried for eighteen months.
This might sound strange, but this is the part of the story I love to tell. I never get tired of telling it. I want people to know that you can have a perfectly sellable, agent-worthy book and spend a year and a half trying to find the one person who will fall in one with it.
The Dream Peddler is not a flashy commercial thriller. It’s a quiet, literary kind of book. So maybe that had something to do with how long it took me to find an agent. I also think I started querying it a bit too early, but I couldn’t see that at the time. Some agents provided helpful pointers along the way, but most of its flaws I eventually saw for myself—it just took a lot longer than I would have thought.
I know I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but looking for an agent really is a lot like dating. Some books, like some people, are widely attractive and likable…right out of the gate, they have no trouble getting requests, and receive multiple agent offers. Then they go on submission, and they are so likable and popular that they go to auction. They are like the prom queen or king of the book dating scene. But most books, I think, like most people, are not going to be quite as popular as the prom queen. They might have to work harder to attract attention. Luckily, at the end of the day, most of us are only looking for one life partner. Popularity no longer matters once you find that “right” person and fall in love.
I went into this agent search optimistically, but not really knowing what to expect. I read a lot about querying and followed the usual advice to look for agents based on the kinds of writers I admire and emulate. I crafted a list of maybe ten or twelve people. One of my top contenders was David Wroblewski’s agent. I thought The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was absolutely phenomenal, and I listened to his agent do an interview online and thought she just seemed wonderful, a perfect fit.
I had my first manuscript request within about two weeks. That was a great moment—until it arrives, you’re sending queries out into the void thinking it’s entirely possible that no one will ever respond to you. Then I got a couple more requests. Great, I thought. The ball is rolling.
I turned forty on April 9th, 2015, and that day a full request came into my inbox from THE agent. What an amazing birthday gift that was. I wrote her back and told her that she had made my day. (Spoiler: she did not become my agent.)
Then, some time in May, I was sitting outside my kids’ swim class, watching them through a big glass window, when I checked my email and found a beautiful letter from the assistant of another great agent who had been on my original query list. They had made a quick request for the full and were now getting back to me about it. I remember that letter so well. It began something like, “First let me say how excited we are to have found a project like The Dream Peddler.” My heart was pounding. This is it, I thought. This only took a few months, and here I am. (Spoiler: she did not become my agent.)
Now, this agent’s assistant, who was just on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged agent herself, ended up being very helpful to me. She asked if I would consider a small change to the manuscript. I wasn’t at all surprised—I had revealed something right up front in the book that she thought would be better saved for later on. I’d been going for a different kind of tension, but I expected pushback on my choice, so I told her I’d try it her way. It was no big deal. I made the change, and sent her a new version.
She wrote back and suggested a few more changes. Most made sense to me—she pointed out that certain character arcs needed a little more development, and she was absolutely right. But she wasn’t entirely happy with my dream peddler character. He needed to be more mysterious, she said.
Through a few more exchanges, it gradually became clear to me that she was looking for me to rewrite the book as a mystery, rather than the literary meditation on grief that it was. It was not lost on me, either, that her language had changed from “we” to “I.” I had the feeling that the original agent I had queried was not taking on this book, that the assistant was considering it for when she began to build her own list. Nothing wrong with that, but it seemed more risky to revamp my entire book for a person with far less experience than the original agent. And when it came down to it, I just couldn’t do it. It felt utterly wrong. When I considered it, I couldn’t even imagine where I’d begin. So I wrote her a letter explaining all the reasons why I felt the book’s focus should remain as it was. She wrote a kind letter back, saying it was great that I had such a clear vision for my book, and that her suggestions were merely that—suggestions. She would take a look at the changes I had made and get back to me. I never heard from her again.
After a few months, I nudged the birthday agent, as well. She did not respond.
I should probably mention that, in the meantime, I had abandoned the idea of looking for agents through authors I admired. It was far too time-consuming. Once the initial list I had made was exhausted, I couldn’t just go to books I had read. One book could take me a week to read, and even if I loved it and found it similar in some way to my own, I might discover that the author’s agent wasn’t taking new clients. I invested in a big 2015 Writer’s Market Guide to Agents, and went through it alphabetically, looking for anyone who was interested in literary fiction.
In the meantime, I was also working on book two. I told myself that if The Dream Peddler really wasn’t good enough, I could start over with my new project, which was completely different.
Sometimes I received more personal rejections, and they really did encourage me to keep trying. An agent might say she loved the writing but couldn’t connect to all the characters. I literally had one agent say something along those lines in the same week that another told me she adored the characters but thought the writing was too literary. There was nothing to do but laugh. That term, “didn’t connect,” began to make me crazy, until I eventually figured out that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s usually just an agent’s or editor’s way of saying they could see all the merit of a project but just didn’t love it enough to take it on.
I remember having one other close call that year. An agent asked for the first one hundred pages of the book. A week or two later, her assistant emailed me on a Friday to ask for the rest. Instead of sending it off right away, I decided to take that weekend to do one more pass through it. I hadn’t looked at it in months and I knew, after that long, that I’d probably see lots of little places where I could trim. I didn’t bother to tell them—it was a Friday, I reasoned. They wouldn’t even notice.
On Sunday, the agent emailed me herself about the request. Again, I ignored her, as I wasn’t quite done. I was not trying to be coy or pretend I didn’t care—it just never crossed my mind that they could experience any anxiety over my getting their emails. On Monday morning, I was working out in our basement weight room when I heard the phone ring, but I let the machine pick it up. To my great surprise, when I was done with my workout, a message from the agent’s assistant was waiting for me. Just making sure I got the emails and reiterating their interest, she said. Wow, I thought. They must really, really like this book. It finally occurred to me to be excited. (It also occurred to me that apparently a sure-fire way to get an agent interested in you is to ignore them—just kidding.)
I sent the newly polished manuscript off later that day, and waited. When they got in touch, it was to say that this was a tough one for them. The agent had really been on the fence about it, but in the end, it was a no.
At this point, it’s not like I was crying and tearing out my hair. I had grown used to these close encounters, to being, as Emily Starr so aptly described it, “damned with faint praise.” I buckled down, sent out more queries. Some time that fall, I had a request for a full from an agent I had entirely given up on. I was moving alphabetically through my list, and I was pretty far along. She’d been way back when I was on the D’s—eight months earlier, or more. I wondered what on earth she’d been up to that my query was only now coming to her attention. I rarely nudged on queries. I had learned that silence means no, and only ever followed up on manuscript requests. Was my manuscript still available, she asked. It was slightly humiliating to answer that, even after all this time—yes, it was.
We moved again. It was a terrible move, back to Michigan over winter break. The back to Michigan part was okay, except that I had to leave behind my lovely writers’ group, but the midwinter part was awful. Again, I put my writing on hold, because I was distracted with settling into yet another new house and getting the kids into school and activities. As the winter wore on, I took another look at my query list and sent out one more round. I was now on the W’s, so it looked as though The Dream Peddler would have to be put away. I still loved it and had faith in it. I thought, maybe if I make it with another book, I can find a way to get someone interested in this.
That spring, the eight-month agent, Bridget Smith from Dunham Literary, emailed to let me know she would soon be reading my manuscript. In the summer, she sent a final email. I remember seeing it in my box before I opened it. My view of it showed me who the sender was, and I could read just the very beginning of her correspondence: “Thank you for sending me this book,” it said, or something similar. Heart aflutter, I clicked to open her email, expecting to read the end of that thought: “But I’m afraid it’s not right for my list at this time.” Instead, she went on to say she’d like to talk with me about it. We arranged a time for a phone call, and she offered to represent me.
I once did the tally, and I had sent out a grand total of 109 queries. Bridget, because of the D for Dunham, happened to be number 39. At first, this seemed to me like an unfortunate loss of time, but now I wonder if maybe it was a good thing. Maybe if she’d seen my manuscript right after I queried her, without all the changes I’d made, she wouldn’t have loved it. Maybe everything happens in the proper time.
I was lucky when we went on submission. She began sending it around in January of 2017. In May, it wasn’t looking as though any of the first round editors would want it, although she let me know she was still waiting on a couple of people. Then she happened to meet someone at Penguin who wasn’t on her list, someone she thought would love it, and she was right.
This is where I’ll end for now. There’s so much more to say about working with my editor, but this post is already obscenely long, so I’ll save that story for another time.
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- Interview with Lana Wood Johnson and Giveaway for TECHNICALLY, YOU STARTED IT - Saturday, August 10, 2019
- Work in Progress - Friday, August 9, 2019