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I received a completely unexpected rejection yesterday from an agent. Not that I had expected her to request my full manuscript, but I hadn’t expected to hear from her at all. She’s the one I wrote about many months ago who I’d met at the Pitch Slam in January and then queried, and then followed up with in March (after the requisite two month wait) and then never ever heard from. So I assumed I never would.
Suddenly yesterday an email from her appears in my inbox. I was so surprised I thought maybe I’d pushed some funny button on my phone and pulled up old email files form the dark recesses of digital storage. But no, it was dated August 24 and she began by saying what a pleasure it was to meet me at the conference (although I’m certain she has little recollection of me at all). She then apologized for how long it’s taken her to get to all these submissions and acknowledged that I’d probably written her off, but “for what it’s worth, I think you have a very interesting project and an important story to tell. I also found that your prose conveys true emotion and that you handle a difficult subject with a deft hand.”
Okay, okay, this sounds good. Tell me more. And then the word: “Unfortunately …” It’s like those moments on The Bachelor when they say to some puppy-eyed prospect, “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a partner: funny and smart and good-looking. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on you that I might fall in love … BUT ….”
So, my “unfortunately” was that the narrative did not pick up quickly enough for her to have the necessary enthusiasm to represent my book.
Well, I have to say, this is a really good rejection for a few reasons: One, I didn’t expect to hear from her at all so it’s not like I was holding out some last great hope. And two, this is the very first time I’ve received any constructive criticism. I’ve had agents reject me in completely generic terms or I’ve had them praise me and my writing only to blame the market or their own inexperience for not being able to sell my work (a twist on the classic, “It’s not you, it’s me” line). But now, finally, I have an actual reason, something I can do to make it better.
And it’s the very reason I’ve been wondering about lately. In fact, just last week, I dragged my book out of those dark recesses of digital storage and added a brand new first page, something I’d been loathe to do before. I knew the beginning didn’t fully capture my best writing but I’d been so stuck on how to change it. I still don’t have the perfect answer for how to do it but at least I have an impetus to do so and a clear goal — move the narrative along faster.
Now I just have to hope the one other agent I’m still holding out hope for doesn’t think the same thing!
There are a lot of ways to get rejected. Some of those ways feel a bit better than others (say I, tentatively embracing my emerging role as something of an expert on rejection).
I got another rejection last week. Yes, the third of five.
But let me tell you, compared to the generic form letter rejections I’ve received thus far, this one felt pretty darn good.
Lines like, “I read this with great interest and your talent is obvious.” Oh my, thank you. “I thought the writing was truly engaging, and the pacing and structure were excellent.” This is good to hear because the structure of the first part of the book is made up of a combination of blog posts and private journal-like entries, peppered with select responses from readers. I’m comfortable with the format and can’t quite imagine changing it (at least not at this point) but have been aware that someone might ask me to. So the fact that she liked it is a good sign.
And then, “This was a very compelling read for me, but (but, but, big ol BUT) ultimately, I worry that there is no place for this memoir in trade publishing.” Ohhhh . . . . ouch. The words “too medical” found their way in there too. (Well, to her credit — and mine –, she said she was afraid a publisher would think it was too medical, not that she thought so.)
She admitted that this was more about her (in)ability to move my manuscript through the stages of publication due to her inexperience, which was actually a concern of mine about her from the very beginning. She happens to be all of about 25 years old and obviously hasn’t established herself in the industry yet. A new agent like that can push another young adult vampire novel through the process because there’s a template for that — it gets done every day. But a medical memoir, which nobody seems to want these days (due in part to the fact that every single person who’s had cancer or whose parent, spouse, child, friend or pet has had cancer is told they should “write a book about it”), requires someone with enough connections that they can pick up the phone and call their friend, who happens to be a respected editor at a respectable publishing house, and say, “Listen, I know nobody wants another medical memoir but trust me, this one’s good.” She admitted that she doesn’t have the ability to do that but reassured me that someone else out there does and that she’s “sure they’ll scoop it right up.”
Well, I hope so.
Three days until the Writers’ Digest Conference in New York City. And I am so excited.
My mom and I fly out Friday morning and the event starts that afternoon. There will be a variety of keynote speakers throughout the three days, as well as many sessions to choose from, covering everything from how to write an effective query letter to what to do after you’ve landed an agent. The highlight, of course, comes Saturday afternoon when we have two hours to sign up with any of fifty agents for the Pitch Slam. I’ve been carefully researching the agents attending to find those who represent memoir and who seem like they’d be a good match for me. I don’t have my final list yet (that’s what I really should be doing right now) but I think I’ll be pitching to about twenty.
Most importantly, I have a pitch that I really like (and that, if you’re lucky and if I’m feeling extra brave, I might just post on here). It runs a tiny bit long (100 seconds) but I don’t imagine they’ll cut me off right at 90 seconds. The second minute-and-a-half of each meeting is dedicated to questions and feedback, so I suppose (hope?) we can just lose ten seconds out of that. I can always race through what I want to say but much of the impact lies in well-placed (but brief!) pauses for emphasis.
I’ve decided to use the title The Wrong Side of the Window, at least for the purposes of this event. It doesn’t need a subtitle or an explanation and I’d much rather use my allotted time to sell the book itself and not its title. Besides, my original subtitle for Whoosh was One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year, which — call me crazy — loses a bit of its flow when revised to One Ordinary Family, Three-and-a-Quarter Extraordinary Years!
So, that’s it. I’m super super excited. Appropriately nervous too, but mostly just excited.
Argh! I am crushed. So totally disappointed. I really really thought this was my big break, my golden opportunity, the sure thing. I figured that even if she didn’t like my work (the very idea of which seemed completely foreign to me), she would at least refer me to someone else within her agency or at the very very least, give me some good advice about improving my work to make it more appealing to the next agent (or more marketable). But I got nothing, absolutely nothing. I am right back where I started months and months ago, now rejected and dejected.
I’ve wavered now for the past week between feeling completely discouraged, like “What is the point? Clearly this isn’t any good, clearly no one wants to read a book about a baby with cancer,” to just plugging ahead because — well, because plugging ahead is what I do — but also because I know, I know, this is a damn good book. I reread the beginning of it right after hearing from Kelly, thinking I might discover some glaring problem, and all I could think was, “Wait, this is really good!”
I’m not saying it’s perfect or that I’m perfect. It can always get better and I think it does every time I open the document. But it is a good book. And I believe it deserves to be published.
So, it’s back to the drawing board. Back to the query letter which, as you know, is my least favorite part of this process and which I actually thought I might manage to skip. That will be my project when I’m in Chautauqua with the boys, reworking that damn letter and identifying a few more agents to query. Kelly was very encouraging, sorry it didn’t work, told me to keep going, not to give up, this will happen. I have to remember that her interest in my writing is a positive in and of itself. She is a best selling author after all.
And when I need to remind myself of what really matters in life, I have this: