Five years ago this month, I quit my full-time job, took a half-time position at a new company, and committed to using the other "half" of my time to writing with an end-goal of publication.
My plan over the next several weeks is to go over some of what that journey has looked like. I'm starting today with rejection. It's probably an odd place to begin, but I've been terrified of making this post, and refused to even consider writing it before my book sold. I was paranoid that my agent might read it and think, What was I thinking? I must have been crazy for taking Mindi and this manuscript on!
So, in late-2005, I completed my first novel, FADED AS MY JEANS. It is the story of a 15-year-old girl who's obsessed with the music of Janis Joplin, a basketball player at school whom she calls "Bobby McGee," and finding out the truth about her father, who has been out of her life since she was four. I just looked at my query for this for the first time in over two years and teared up with embarrassment. (Although, it's actually better than I remembered!)
I kept poor records, but I believe I queried about 75 agents (in batches of five or ten at a time) during 2006. I received a total of about a dozen requests. Maybe five or six of them were for the full manuscript. Every single one of them resulted in rejection or non-response.
Looking back, I can see exactly why I didn't get an agent. That manuscript had some good moments, and I'd really put a lot heart into the emotional scenes, but the voice was inconsistent and the plot was convoluted and crazy. Also, it read like a middle grade novel, but had some content that was more appropriate for YA.
I kept going. I loved those rejection letters and kept them. They were proof that real, live literary agents had read (tiny pieces of) my work and that I was a legitimate writer.
During those querying months, I got about a quarter of the way into a new YA before abandoning it. Then I wrote a rough draft of another YA that just wasn't doing it for me. While I was trying to decide what to do next, I thought up two new characters who interested me: a secretly-damaged popular girl who is "rescued" by a social-reject boy. Those characters evolved to become Rosetta and Seth. Having just finished reading LOOKING FOR ALASKA and being in boy mode or something, I came up with my most insane writing idea ever: I decided to tell the story from the boy's point of view.
I got to work. And it was hard work. While I was still in the early stages, I received an email from Stephen Barbara who had read my first manuscript and sent a personalized, helpful, and encouraging rejection. He had stumbled onto my LJ and was interested in my new project! I sent my outline and he asked for a two-week exclusive for after I'd finished. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?
After six months, I finished the first draft, read it, and cried. My plotting sucked. There wasn't even a story to speak of -- just a large collection of mediocre scenes that hung together long enough to fall flat with a mediocre finish. All I had going for me was the voice and the characters. I'd let myself down. I'd wasted my time. No one can get an agent when all they have are a voice and characters!
I thought about giving up on it, and starting something new. But I couldn't. Because Stephen had asked to read it. And how could he read it if I didn't finish it?
So, I forced myself to get back into it. I signed up for a 12-week MediaBistro class (my second). I decided I would start over using this voice and characters, and any scenes I might be able to salvage. I was going to do it better this time. I was going to do it right.
My instructor for the class was Liesa Abrams, an editor at Aladdin. I wasn't sure we were going to be a match since she edits middle grade, but I quickly learned that Liesa loves YA, too. As part of the class, she helped me get a more coherent outline put together and offered helpful feedback on the chapters I turned in weekly. To my surprise, she really liked it! She said she looked forward to reading it each week!
By the time the class ended, I was nearly half-way finished with my second draft. I kept at it, writing new scenes, cutting scenes that weren't working, updating my outline to accomodate the changes, revising, revising, revising. Oh, and also? Revising and revising some more. I got a bunch of critiques from YA writers and other readers, and did some tweaking based on their comments. By the time the draft was really and truly "done" this time, I'd put 18 months into the project. I felt good about it. I knew I'd written the best story I was capable of. In February, 2008, it was finally ready for Stephen to read!
And then, well, about a week and a half after I sent the full, Stephen sent me a rejection. It was okay, though. The idea of Stephen -- a real, live literary agent interested in my work -- had helped me finish, but that didn't mean it was meant for him. Since I've been active in getting to know other YA writers, I'd been offered agent referrals from friends. And I was ready to query, too. I had a big list of agents looking for contemporary YA. This was a good story. I believed it. Other people had confirmed it. Writer friends were sure I'd get an agent quickly with it -- maybe even in the first round! I'm often a glass-half-empty person, but I was pretty convinced of it myself.
It did not happen that way. The referrals ended in rejections. They were nice rejections. They were "this is great writing, but I don't connect with your protaganist" rejections. They were "I enjoy your writing, please send your next project!" rejections.
These were not the kind of responses I'd wanted, of course. With my first manuscript, I would have been disappointed, but still happy to get encouragement like that. This time, though, I was hungrier for it. This time, I'd spent a year and a half of of my life putting in 20 to 50 hour weeks (in addition to the 20 hours I was working for my job) to make sure this manuscript was good. I couldn't accept failure. I had to get an agent.
The months went on. The queries still went out. The agent requests came in. The rejections later followed. Over and over and over again. The same thing. There wasn't an identifiable problem with the story per se. Mostly, the problem seemed to be Seth. My main character who I loved, who Liesa loved, who my critique partners loved. Agents said they "didn't connect" with him. They found him "unlikable." They didn't care enough about him to care about his story.
They were the wrong agents for the project. I understood that. I knew that I needed an agent who would love not just my writing, but who would connect with Seth and have enough passion for the story to sell it. A half-hearted agent would get me nowhere. Knowing that didn't make it any easier to accept, though.
By November, the querying was coming to a close. It had been over eight months and I'd tried every referral I'd been offered. I'd been in contact with a total of 75 agents. There were a few who had been sitting on the full for many months, but nothing that looked promising anymore. Answers had also trickled in from some of the agents who'd requested the full for whom I'd had the highest hopes for. "I didn't connect." "Please send me your next project."
Next project? How long would that take me to finish? Could I really spend another year plus trying to write and polish my new story to snag an agent with? How much longer before my husband and I were in true financial ruin over this five-year writing-to-get-published-working-part-time experiment that had run three years past our original agreement? How much more of this did I really have in me?
Everything writing-related was dragging me down. I was sabotaging my new project with my unreasonable aims for a perfect first draft. I was getting bitter and angry reading publishing news and seeing others succeed where I was failing. A week or so before Thanksgiving, I told my husband I needed to take a writing break for the rest of the year. He thought it was a good idea. So, I baked. Pies, dinner rolls, cookies. I cleaned and organized my house. I read a few books.
Then on December 14th, while eating breakfast, I came up with an idea for a tiny revision I wanted to do on Seth's story. I wrote about it here. "One last shot," I called the entry. Because this was it for Seth. If nothing good happened -- and deep down, I didn't believe that it would -- the manuscript was going to be retired from querying. Maybe someday it could be my option book if I got an agent who sold a different manuscript for me, but THE FAKE MCCOY (as Seth's story was called then) was probably never going to be my first novel.
This was me, letting go and telling myself that I'd done all I could do.
To my surprise, after finishing the revision and sending out my last-ditch query letters, requests started coming in. On December 22nd, I got my first revision request from an agent! This was big. It was the first glimmer of hope for me with this manuscript for many months. I made plans to revise for the agent during the month of January and see if I could impress her enough to convince her to offer representation. I was excited, my f-list on LJ was excited. Phoebe_K said something like, "Hey, now that you've started sending this manuscript out again, would you be interested in letting my agent take a look?"
I said, "Yes, please!"
On January 6th, I was just starting my agent-requested revision while wearing my Hello Kitty pajamas, when I got a call from Jim McCarthy -- Phoebe's agent -- offering representation less than 24 hours after having requested to read the full!
I accepted Jim's offer on January 12, 2009, received his revision notes on February 20, completed the revisions March 14, and received approval of the revisions March 30. Submissions began on April 6, we got an offer from Pulse -- from my instructor, Liesa!!! -- on May 11, and accepted that offer on May 18! It was a whirlwind four months. And the excitement had all started just over a month after I'd almost accepted that it wasn't going to happen with this story.
On my list of "Agents Queried" for the manuscript now titled SCRATCHING AT THE 8-BALL, there are 95 names.
Jim McCarthy is number 94.
Ninety-four. That's how many agents it took for me to find ONE who would say "yes." Adding that number to the rejections from my first manuscript, I have now received nearly 170 agent rejections.
This time around, I could easily have stopped after Rejection #75. I almost did stop then. And if I had, Jim wouldn't be my agent, Liesa wouldn't be my editor, and SCRATCHING AT THE 8-BALL would not have a tentative publication date of Fall 2010.
So, you see, I'm grateful for all of my rejections. In stepping aside, those other agents allowed me to find an agent who is everything I wanted and needed him to be. (And, by the way, Jim absolutely wasn't my ninety-fourth choice! It just happened this way because of various circumstances and timing and such.)
And I'm SO glad I didn't give up on this manuscript that I love because now I have the opportunity to get it ready for publication (!) with the expert guidance of the first industry professional who connected with it back when it was nothing but a voice and characters with a few salvageable scenes!