I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M WRITING THIS POST.
I’ve been walking like in a dream world for the last week, not even able to process this is real but I’m told it is so I guess I’ll try to tell you how I got here.
I recommend getting snacks. This is a long story.
In the spring of 2014, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin finishing grad school and I was utterly miserable. I lived in a terrible place, I had an internship I felt lost in, had a job I didn’t enjoy, and was sick with a mysterious neurological illness that left me weak and unable to rely on my body in any way, shape, or form.
I had been writing seriously for about 1.5 years by then, with an eye toward maybe someday possibly trying to get a book published, and I’d written six full length novels in that time- 2 MG, 3 YA, and 1 adult. There might have been a few others in here too, at the time I whipped out drafts and then spun right on to the next one so it’s impossible to say. All but two of them were terrible. The MG I’d entered in a contest and won a place in it, and even took through an R & R with a wonderfully kind agent who ultimately ended up rejecting it. For incomprehensible reasons, I never queried that book much- maybe 10 queries total, five then and one here and there whenever I got discouraged about other projects.
Hey, I said this was my story about getting an agent, not about making good life choices.
But I digress.
Pen and Muse, a writing website, ran a showcase that year on their blog and I decided to enter it. I wrote a short story called Strings and Shadows about a girl who played the violin and a boy who might have been a ghost. You can actually still find it there if you look hard enough.
That story blossomed into a book.
It shouldn’t have worked, because I am notorious for dropping projects in the face of major life transitions, and over the course of writing that book I graduated with my master’s degree, quit my job, moved back in with my parents, went to Florida, got a new job, attended the Midwest Writers Conference, and bought a house. I couldn’t stop writing or talking about the story though, and by the time it was done it was a full fledged book, almost 90k long, and it was a retelling of Phantom of the Opera set in a modern day Southern youth orchestra.
It was not good.
But it had good bones.
In Fall 2014 I entered Pitch Wars and was chosen by the lovely Brianna Shrum as an alternate. She helped me polish up the query and first chapter, and Margarita Montimore, my PW mentee teammate, helped me write some amazing pitches I used in multitude of contests to come.
I had a few bites in PW, but ultimately they came back as rejections. I had a finished book though, so I dove deep into the querying trenches. Again – this is all about what I did, not what I should have done. Don’t try this at home.
Along the way, I wrote a book about a girl who ran a radio station and a boy taking a cross country road trip to meet his dying grandfather.
Y’all, I tried to piece together that stretch of time from late 2014- mid 2015 and I can’t even. All I can say for sure is I sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 queries and had an even mix of rejections, partials, and full requests. Every single one eventually was rejected, but I was fortunate enough to receive some fairly specific feedback along the way and decided to tear the whole book apart and start over.
I mean, why revise when you can just write a new book?
On my birthday in summer 2015, I received a request for a partial from an agent I was wild over. She loved musicals and even played the violin so I knew immediately I wanted to query her, plus from her Twitter and interviews she seemed really fun and like someone I’d be comfortable with.
An aside- as a cantankerous medium-anxious introvert, finding someone I think I’ll be comfortable with is a MASSIVE cause for celebration.
The trouble with this birthday request was that I had just ripped my book all to shreds and was doing my best to paste them all back together. Having stalked, um, done my research, I knew this agent had specifically mentioned not always enjoying when people said they had a new version of a book as that was often an indication of not being prepared when they queried in the first place. Side note: I probably wasn’t ready. This will inevitably happen to you, because unfortunately, querying is the kind of thing you only get good at as you go, so you won’t know how bad you are until you do it for awhile. Anyways I sent the amazing agent a nervous email saying since I had so much feedback from so many agents, all indicating the same thing, I was revising, but I’d be happy to send it to her when it was done.
Waiting was agony.
She sent me an email just a couple days later saying she’d be happy to wait and see what I came up with. Two weeks after that I sent her an email with my revisions and settled in.
Y’ALL. I had no idea what the next year would bring.
I sent that email in August and continued querying, with the same kind of success- partials and fulls in fairly steady rates with my rejections, but never an offer. There was always, always a but: liked but not loved, enjoyed but didn’t connect, liked prose but not character, couldn’t get into it, didn’t love enough. I went through really rough periods of wanting to give up completely- on that book, on writing in general, on everything everywhere.
I read all the blogs I could find – call stories, posts about the Almost But Not Quite stage, quotes about the gap between knowing how you want your writing to be and how it is when you’re first starting out. Some days I successfully managed all my feelings, and some days I ate a LOT of cookies.
Earlier that spring I’d written an alternate history about a girl who led a revolution, so to take my mind off my troubles I polished it up and tried to enter PW 2015. I didn’t get in.
I spent the fall racking up all the rejections, both on my Phantom book and on another pair of projects I queried haphazardly, desperate to feel all the work was worth it. I literally. cannot. Tell you. how many rejections I got. It is a number well over 100 but after that they all blur together.
I told you this was not a story about making good choices. Don’t do this, kids.
For NaNo 2015, for a change of pace, I wrote 50k of a beautiful, complicated adult fantasy full of politics and intrigue and beautiful dresses. I took all of December off and decided to start new in 2016.
2016 was not a good writing year.
I started fresh with an amazing idea I loved, about a magical garden and an angry boy and a Spanish-speaking girl with a terrible addiction to knives. The first draft fizzled out slowly, painfully, at 40ishk. I shook myself off, racked up a bunch more rejections on various projects, and tackled the knife book again. The second draft failed miserably at 30k. Remember, in the past I’d written 3-7 books per year. Granted I never revised a word and they were all terrible, but I was a finisher. And now I couldn’t finish anything.
I took a break. I wrote a short story for spring showcase again. I wrote a short story for an anthology, about a pizza shop in space. I did anything and everything to try to feels single shred of hope but mostly I was in despair.
By then I was running out of agents to query with PHANTOM. I had promised myself I’d shelve it, but it kept sneaking back out, a query here, a query there. I kept dragging it back out for every pitch contest. Everyone I’d been friends with in the beginning had agents now. Some had book deals. Some were mentors in contests I couldn’t even get into. I was certain I was done. I was wasting my time and when the infinitely patient and long suffering Rena Olsen told me I wasn’t, that the work would pay off and the ability was there, I politely informed her that she was insane and I was done.
But PHANTOM was still there, lurking. I joked that this book about ghosts and obsession was my ghost, haunting me all the time.
Finally I threw up my hands and said FINE ONE LAST TIME YOU STUPID BOOK LET’S TRY IT ONE MORE TIME.
I was fresh off of a second R & R getting rejected and just as I was starting to revise, a third R & R didn’t pan out. I was absolutely positively certainly convinced I was the worst writer in the entire universe. WHO LOSES THREE OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THAT?? I was so close, always so close, but never quite there. I finished the revision and felt like it might be stronger but was so disillusioned and sick of the book and sad of spirit I couldn’t even tell anymore if it was good at all.
I set it aside for what I swore would be the last time. It was time to accept this book, that I had poured two years of my life into, wasn’t my book.
I tried knife book again, full of despair and certain I would fail.
I also traveled a bajillion miles down to Tennessee to stay in a cabin clinging to the side of a mountain surrounded by perfect strangers – I went to the 2016 Madcap Aspiring Writers retreat.
It changed my life.
It was the most terrifying, horrifying, what have I done experience ever. I’ve mentioned I’m an anxious and cantankerous introvert, and I was at the lowest point of my entire writing career. When I arrived, I thought I was going to pass out of sheer terror and What Am I Even Doing Here I Can’t Write I Need To Lay Down And Eat Cookies. It’s a real condition I promise.
However, there was one thing that made walking through that door easier. The day before I left for Tennessee I got an email.
Remember that agent? The one I’d sent my partial to 13 months before, the one who was so utterly perfect?
She wanted to know if I’d do an R & R.
I took a few days to answer, distracted by sheer terror and by huge questions. Did I really want to dig into PHANTOM again? This book was RUINING MY LIFE. I COULDN’T WRITE ANYWAYS! Not to mention it had been so long that I’d already been through two more drafts in those 13 months.
Madcap was absolutely amazing. It made writing feel real, and the community that grew up in that cabin happened so fast and so well that even I was at ease and felt like I belonged. Most importantly, every writer there talked about failure. They told real, humble stories of their struggles and their failures and all the sweat and tears and hurt it took for them to achieve their dreams.
I emailed the agent and said yes. I went out on a limb and shared with her all my hopes and dreams for the book, everything I wanted it to be and knew it wasn’t yet. I was terrified I was being presumptuous or needy or way too bold. I almost fainted when I hit send.
But a few days later she told me she was excited and she’d get me a letter, and a week or two after that I had my R & R letter from her.
By that point I was up to my neck in knife book and desperate to finish *something* in the hell of 2016. I read her letter almost every day, meshing it with changes I’d already made, digging deep into things I needed to make better and big questions I needed to ask, letting the back of my brain work away on that project as I labored through and finally at long last finished the third draft of the knife book. The agent’s letter for PHANTOM was perfect, hitting on things I knew I needed to fix and approaching issues in brand new ways that somehow, impossibly, got me excited about this ghostly albatross of a book again.
Then I went to work.
October 2016 came and I’d made all the changes I could think of. The pacing, always a huge problem for me, was much tighter, the relationships were more real, and the main character was her fullest self. Instead of making her easier to relate to, more likeable, or less intense as so many past rejections has suggested, I made her 1000% herself. I felt good, or at least as good as I knew how to feel then, but I hadn’t quite solved all the issues in the letter and I was stalled out.
Oh, and by the way, I also threw an MS in the ring for PW 2016. I didn’t get in.
Y’all. 2016 was not a good year. Can we all just agree on that?
Then I got an email.
This amazing agent who I so loved ASKED ME HOW THE REVISION WAS GOING. She liked me and my book ENOUGH TO CHECK IN. After all the leaping and flailing, I set about the heart-in-throat task of telling her I had a new and much more powerful draft, but was struggling with a few aspects.
I thought for sure she wouldn’t want to help me anymore. I couldn’t expect her to, just the R & R alone was such a great opportunity. I was in despair, certain I’d let a fourth R & R slip through my hands and hating myself for all my faults, as a writer and as a human, real and imagined.
Then I got an email.
THE AMAZING AGENT OFFERED TO READ WHAT I’D WRITTEN EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T TOTALLY RIGHT.
I sent a number of joyous and awed texts to friends, ate a bunch of cookies, then with my heart in my throat (all my vital organs kind of rearranged themselves around that time) I sent her my draft.
And then there was silence.
For NaNo 2016 I channeled all my angst and failure into 50k of an adult thriller about a woman who returns to her small town after years away only to find she must work to cover up a crime she committed a decade ago.
I took December off, as is now my routine, and when 2017 arrived I started with the audacious goal of writing every single day. I had an idea, a flash of a scene involving a valley of bones coming alive, and a woman driving a cart of bones through a wild, fierce land, and a book that took place in war but wasn’t necessarily about war. For the first time ever I outlined the book before writing it, and then I set to work. After a horrible year of failures and anger and grief and every word being agony, this new book slipped into the world like actual magic. It was everything I wanted it to be, a true book of my heart, and while it has definite issues and needs work, I finished it in less than two months.
At last, writing and I weren’t enemies anymore. I was at peace with having shelved PHANTOM, and yet, not quite ready to query again. I knew the agent might have forgotten about me, after all, it had been four months and wouldn’t she have responded right away if she’d actually liked it? Wasn’t it stupid to put all my eggs in one basket? I knew I should query and try things, but I just wanted to work with her so much. And besides, I couldn’t be any less agented than I was…
While I tried to decide what to do, I threw my hat into the Pitch Madness ring with a different ms. I started a chapterbook about a girl named Peach who has ADHD and lives in a trailer park and tries to figure out life, an updated Junie B Jones basically.
Then on March 2 I got an email.
It was from the dream agent saying she’d read about half of Phantom so far and she loved it. SHE. LOVED. IT. She was still reading but wanted me to know she was pleased with the revisions and she’d talk to me soon.
Cue all the panicking and flailing and excitement and befuddlement.
I finished the first chapterbook and started a sequel. I played with some words about a girl who controls the weather with her moods and the hapless boy who loves her. I checked my email 187 times per day. I reread all her interviews I could find, checked her Twitter for any sign.
In many ways I was waiting for the let down. The almost but not quite. The thanks but no thanks.
After all, this agent had never read the end before and WHAT IF SHE HATED IT SO MUCH I JUST NEVER HEARD FROM HER AGAIN?
Then came St. Patrick’s Day.
I see about 100 kids per week at my day job, and Friday was an epically difficult day in an epically difficult week. I was exhausted and stressed and dizzy with trying to keep track of deadlines and meetings and behavior approaches and curriculum writing.
As I was wearily packing up to finally go home, my phone – ever at odds with the thick cement walls – registered a 2 hour old voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize.
Immediately my hands started shaking. I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize even when I do have service, but why would this one leave me a voicemail? I opened my computer back up and googled the number.
The area code was the agent’s area code.
I immediately grabbed all my stuff and galloped out to my car- last one in the lot on a late Friday afternoon.
My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I dropped the phone twice. I decided to take it slow.
I went on the agent’s Twitter and saw a tweet about a sub making her buy a new violin case.
My book is very very violiny. But still. It could have been anyone’s.
Then I opened my email.
There was a message from her saying she’d left me a voicemail and would like to talk as soon as I was available.
By this point I legitimately thought I was going to have a heart attack. My pulse was about to explode out of my wrists and the SHAKING like FULL BODY TREMBLES. My head was clinging to a last shred of logic but my body was full on emotion.
Finally I listened to her voicemail. She was looking forward to talking to me at my earliest convenience.
GOOD LORD ALMIGHTY I WAS GOING TO DIE IN THE PARKING LOT AT WORK.
My brain was spinning. I told myself it could still be a rejection because we’d worked together quite a bit and maybe she wanted to explain “in person” why she couldn’t take it on.
It could be anther R & R. More fixing, more polishing and tightening, maybe adding the things I hadn’t figured out how to add from the letter.
I knew if I didn’t call her right then I was just going to never ever ever find the courage and also that I might actually truly have a heart attack.
So I hit call.
And waited, holding one hand up with the other because of the shaking.
And then when she picked up, it wasn’t to reject, and it wasn’t to talk about the work it still needs, though it does need more work.
It was to offer representation.
1.5 years after my original query, I am absolutely dizzyingly overjoyed to say I am now represented by Moe Ferrara of BookEnds Literary. And she signed me for a ghostly albatross of a book I thought nobody but me would ever love.
It all still feels like a dream, like it’s happening to someone else. I can’t BELIEVE that I’ve been given the incredible privilege and honor of achieving the huge first step in reaching my dream of holding my own book in my hands someday. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to way more people than I can ever name. Moe gets my book, and she makes me feel comfortable, and I can’t WAIT to see what we’re going to accomplish together.
If you’re out there and you feel like a failure, like it’s just a series of hurts and mistakes and like this weird, wonderful dream you have is something you have no right to, no hope of achieving, I hope this story- all it’s craziness, all its unexpectedness, all its anxieties and sadness and thrills and twists, gives you hope. Every road has a bend in it. You have NO IDEA what might be just around the very next one.