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Well, that was fast. I’ve already received rejections from three of the six agents who offered to review my work following the Pitch Slam. Don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. (It’s not great, mind you, but also not too awful.)

First of all, if I was forced to rank those six agents, I would say that two were my favorites, two were in the middle, and two were at the bottom (one because I just wasn’t excited about her and the other because the work she typically represents didn’t align with mine — as you’ll see below).  The first rejection came from one of those bottom two. Following the conference, when I would think through the agents I had met, I would consistently forget her.  Like, “Wait,…weren’t there six?  Now who was that sixth?” Her rejection came quickly, within a few days of my submission, and was completely generic.  The most generic rejection I’ve ever gotten.  It addressed me by my full name (Krissy Dietrich Gallagher) as if it had simply been cut and pasted from the submission form.  She then went on to say she was not the best agent for “the memoir” (I’ve never not had an agent mention the title of my work) in part because she doesn’t have the time to take on any new clients right now. Really? Then why did she go to a pitch slam where she’d meet some 400 eager new writers? My mom got the exact same rejection from her on the exact same day (except her’s referred to “the young adult fiction”).  Huh, oh well on that one.

The next rejection came from one of my middle ground agents, a very friendly woman who I enjoyed speaking to quite a bit.  Her’s was at least nice (and she mentioned the actual title of my book!), saying that she read my pages “with great interest and enjoyed my honest admissions and engaging narrative style.” But ultimately, she didn’t “fall in love” with the project as much as she had hoped. So that one was definitely a disappointment.

And the third, … oh now this one is classic. First, let me give you some background of how this industry works. Memoir falls into a category somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. It is, of course, non-fiction because it is actually true (at least it’s supposed to be true — just ask James Frey!). But agents want it submitted like fiction. Not submitted as if it were fiction, but submitted in the same manner that one submits fiction. Here’s the deal: If you’re a fiction writer, you need to complete your entire work before submitting it. An agency and publishing house will represent you if the story and the writing are good, so they need to actually read the manuscript. Non-fiction adheres to a completely different set of rules. If I wanted to write a book on how women should invest their money, I would write a non-fiction proposal before writing an actual book, and that proposal would describe my outline, my credentials (I better know something about investing … and women!), my platform (hopefully I have some articles printed in boring money magazines or I’ve been interviewed on this topic for the news), etc etc. Same thing if I want to write a book on the history of wine production in France. I need to present to an agent and publisher why I’m the best person to write that book (and it can’t just be because I like wine … and France!), especially if I expect them to pay me to go there and “research” for a year.

So, anyway, even though memoir is technically non-fiction, most agents want it submitted like fiction: Write the book first, make sure it’s really good and then send out sample pages. The idea is that it’s the writing and the story that will sell that book, not the credentials or platform of the author. So, this one agent I pitched to in New York, who mostly reps non-fiction, asked me send in a non-fiction book proposal. Of course, I’ve never written a book proposal before. So, after putting it off as long as I could, I finally pounded one out, including market data on cancer memoirs versus mommy memoirs (“momoirs”), hunting down website statistics for St. Baldrick’s and Carepages, listing the speeches I’ve given over the years to various organizations about Austin’s cancer. I finally sent it in yesterday only to find this message in my inbox this morning: “Krissy (my name again)…It was lovely to meet you and I appreciate the chance to read this. I have, however, decided to stop representing memoirs as I just couldn’t land them. I wish you all the best …”

Oy vey.

But, hey, I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, so at least I have three agents left. And my top two among them. Plus, now I have a non-fiction proposal in case anyone ever wants one!

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Our weekend was fabulous.  I could save myself some time and just repost last year’s description, which we pretty much repeated, down to the walking, shopping and eating.

But I’ll grant you a few minutes and go through the details of the actual conference.

First of all, my mom and I were both heartened to discover so many repeat attendees from last year. I think we’d both been a little worried that going back again meant we had somehow failed: we were the losers that ended up being rejected by the agents after all that hard work and here we were, groveling at their feet yet again. But right away at the first session, we started to see people we recognized and several mentioned as they asked their questions to the panels that this was their second visit. (And of course, the conference organizers announced proudly that four conference attendees from the past few years have found representation thanks to the Pitch Slam. FOUR. From the last SEVERAL YEARS. Well. Not sure whether to feel relieved that I wasn’t the only one not picked up or completely discouraged that we’d spent all that money and invested all that hope in something that won’t likely lead anywhere.)

But, it is still so rejuvenating to be there, thinking and listening and talking about nothing but writing. I loved it. It had a few ups and downs though. Friday evening, at the end of the last “Perfecting Your Pitch” session, the moderator asked for brave souls to present their pitch for a very public critique. Well, I was feeling very confident and somehow imagined that I could wow him (this man whose entire job is critiquing pitches–critiquing as in criticizing), so I quickly got in line and stepped up on stage to repeat my memorized lines into the microphone in front of 400-plus people. And he just … well, he just didn’t feel it. He wasn’t harsh or anything, but gave me some generic suggestions that certainly didn’t come across as the praise I’d been imagining in my head. Within a mere eight minutes of my moment in the spotlight, the whole session was over and my mom and I rushed out to meet a friend for dinner, never hearing any feedback from the assembled crowd.

And I was completely deflated, suddenly unsure of what I would say the next day or how to present my work with the same pride I’d had in it a half hour prior. (I know, I need a thick skin for this industry, I know.) I tossed and turned through the night, finally sitting up at 3am to announce to no one and everyone that I’d figured it out. I had a new ending in mind that I liked and was again ready to go.

And as soon as I walked into the first session of Saturday morning, I was met by strangers complimenting me on my story, asking how Austin was, saying they’d teared up and thought it was wonderful. I said to one that I was discouraged by the moderator’s response, even though I knew he wasn’t my target audience (he did say in his critique, “Well, I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know what that feels like”) and she said that she was sitting right in front of him and thought he had gotten emotional after hearing me and covered up his discomfort by being extra unemotional. Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly what happened but it did feel good to have the praise of my colleagues.

So we sat through several morning sessions, all interesting but still only a prelude to the big event of the afternoon. Finally two o’clock rolled around and we formed our long and jittery lines outside the various ballrooms for the equally dreaded and coveted Pitch Slam. And again, just like last year, it was fantastic. I loved my pitch, loved it (I gotta admit, he did nudge me along to improvements I may not have otherwise made). But I stood in some very long lines and saw only seven agents, the exact same number as last year even though it was an entire hour longer! (My mom, by comparison, saw eleven agents over the six she saw last year.) They all asked for my work except one, who was very complimentary but she’s repping a writer whose memoir about his son’s death from cancer is due out soon and she didn’t feel it would be fair to him to take on such a similar project.

One asked for my entire manuscript (the one I’d referred to last week and the one whose line was so damn slow) and another asked for my strongest six pages (NO ONE does that; they all ask for the beginning of the book, either ten or thirty or fifty pages, no one allows you to choose which pages so that ought to be fun).

Of course, as an experienced Pitch Slammer I know that this doesn’t guarantee anything except a read (which is pretty big on its own) but I really felt like I connected with the agents. And like I said last week, it only has to work once. I only need one single agent to like it. So I’ve been furiously revising yet again (I swear, I thought it was done) and plan to send stuff out by the end of the week.

Fingers crossed.

 

 

The other thing I got out of my bike trip was renewed desire to work on my book.  I, of course, had many opportunities share Austin’s story,  which I, of course, took full advantage of. Which (of course) led to conversations about the book. I got lots of positive feedback and encouragement from a bunch of people who’d never read a word I’ve written (perhaps I should tell an agent that),. And now I want to get out there and do something about it.

For as long as I’ve been saying that I’m “working on getting my book published,” the truth is I’ve only queried about fifteen or twenty agents in all these years. Most authors, even bestsellers, query five times as many. I recently read that The Help, which I loved, was rejected 60 times before Kathryn Stockett landed an agent (and then a movie deal). Nobody is simply going to find me, as I sit here in my home office and blog away.

I’m still awaiting word from one agent from last year’s Pitch Slam, but I have to amdit that it has indeed been almost a year and I may  never hear from her. And even if I eventually do, it can’t hurt to query others in the meantime.

But pulling that manuscript out of its dusty spot in my hard drive can be a bit overwhelming.  I guess I need to think of it like just another mountain. One step at a time, one word at a time. If I tackle this book word by word, I’ll eventually finish (82,000 words later!). And then the query letter (which is always being revised) word by word and then the literary agents, one by one down my long list.

And sooner or later, I’ll reach that summit. Step by step, word by word. I’ll get there.

Tuesday was the six month mark since I sent out my samples to the agents I met at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam. Of those five, I got three rejections, one remarkably personal and complimentary and two standard form letters. There was one woman who simply refused to respond, despite two separate follow-up inquiries. And then there’s the last, my holdout, and favorite of the bunch.

She’s the one who, according to online lore, takes an awful long time to get back to queries. The agency website says to resubmit after six months, so that is what I did late Tuesday night, six months to the day since I sent my original, with a friendly, “I know you’re really busy, but …” letter.

No word yet, but now I’m more nervous than ever. As tedious as all these months of waiting are, at least they hold hope. That whisper of hope is always there, simmering below the surface: this is gonna be The One, she’s gonna ask to read the entire manuscript and then love it and then sign up to represent me and then sell the book to a major publishing house — oooh, maybe there’ll be a bidding war and a six-figure advance, and then it’s interviews and New York Times bestseller lists and book signings and then, oh yeah, someone is obviously gonna want to make it into a big Hollywood production, and then ….

Or at least the beginning part: She’ll like it enough to ask to read the rest! That’s all I really want at this point — for something to read the whole damn thing.

If this doesn’t pan out, then I’ll have to take a long hard look at my work and possibly revamp the beginning, which is of course the hardest part to change.  If someone asked me to rework ten or twenty pages in the middle, I could do it in a flash. But the opening sentences are just so so hard. But I’m afraid it’s falling a little flat and that it takes too long for me to really get my groove. Oh, I don’t know, hopefully this won’t be an issue at all. Hopefully, I’ll get that positive response and then, and then, and then …. You know the rest.

After five excruciating weeks of waiting, I have received two rejections from the five literary agents who requested my work at the Pitch Slam. They were both completely generic rejection emails, clearly the form letter variety they send to everyone: “After careful consideration, I’ve decided this is not something I would like to pursue. Best of luck in your future endeavors. Blah blah blah.”

I’m actually not devastated by either one (something that has been a bit surprising to me).  Neither one of them was my top choice. In fact, the first rejection came from an agent who was added at the last minute (she hadn’t preregistered for the Pitch Slam) and I had therefore done no prior research on her, like I had for all the others I pitched to. I simply stood in her line because those precious two hours were coming to a close and there were only two people in front of me. She seemed interested enough in my story, but did mention how last year when her parents both had cancer, she “learned about all these kids with cancer. That’s really something people should know!” It struck me as odd, like did she really not know that children got cancer? That would be rather difficult unless you were living under a rock somewhere.

But the real kicker for her (or the real kick against me) was that when I returned home and did finally research her agency, I read that she does not want any books dealing with dogs, cats, blogs or journals. Well, I am not an animal person, but the first (and longest) section of my book does follow a blog-like format. It is a series of updates, drawn from the original Carepage, interspersed with more personal journal-like entries and select responses from readers. So, had I known that ahead of time, I never would have pitched to her anyway.

I did like the other agent I was rejected by, but she wasn’t one of the ones who I walked away from that fateful Saturday feeling the most hopeful. Two of the remaining three I feel very hopeful about, while the other would shock me if she requested a full. I had really liked what I’d read about her ahead of time, especially this: “Understanding why characters make the hard choices is also integral to building them into a truthful entity—and if your protagonist isn’t worrying over any difficult choices, that’s a problem.” We obviously had some difficult choices to worry over! But she also said she doesn’t want “misery-driven” memoir and even though I would argue that my story is driven by joy and hope and love, I think it still falls into the dreaded misery-driven category.

None of this is very surprising. A lot of agents request partial reads at events like Pitch Slams simply because they’re nice and feel bad rejecting people face to face (that is made so much easier by email!). I read somewhere that after last year’s event, four writers out of more than 300 attendees actually found representation from the Pitch Slam. Plus I keep reading article after article and blog post after blog post about how no publishing houses want memoirs that aren’t written by someone famous (i.e., Sarah Palin) or at least with an established writing career (i.e., Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love who was already a professional writer). It’s very frustrating of course, but I seem to have written my little book at the wrong time in the publishing industry.

So now I wait and wait and wait some more. And hope for at least one measly agent who wants to read my full manuscript. Just one! One, one, one (okay, maybe two . . .).

The rest of the details:  The entire conference was good, with many interesting sessions (and some really boring ones).  There was a mix of presentations on writing as a craft (how to build and develop your characters) and writing as a business (how to build and develop an online following). I find the former more enjoyable, even though right now it’s the latter that is probably more important.

There was an enormous focus on using social media and blogging (can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “Search Engine Optimization” — perhaps I should go back to my hot titles?) and on the changing face of the book industry given new technologies (e-books, print-on-demand and so on).  It was during these sessions that I found myself (and many of those around me) pulling out the draft of my pitch for endless last minute revising and rehearsing.

I had an opportunity on Friday afternoon to practice my pitch with one of the session presenters, the book world’s expert on pitches and queries. He really helped me hone in on the central theme of my work.  I had been planning on opening with one of those poetic lines that sounds really lovely but doesn’t actually give the hard facts an agent needs.

My original first line: The Wrong Side of the Window is, in essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.

The first line I ended up using: The Wrong Side of the Window is an 83,000 word memoir about mothering through adversity.

A bit more to the point, yes? I also originally introduced Austin as “the hero” of the book until he said that, because it’s a memoir, the hero can only be me. So I omitted Austin entirely and spoke solely of myself.

Kidding!

But I did change a few words to say that the book “focused on” Austin, without using the word hero at all. Many of the agents really responded to the Braedan parts (with lots of vigorous head nodding): There’s wide-eyed and gentle Braedan, struggling to find his role in the drama that stars his little brother, whom he adores and resents with equal force.

I had been advised by above-mentioned expert to leave the word “suffering” out of my last line, which I tried to do late Friday night and throughout the Saturday morning sessions before I finally decided it belonged there, because, hello, I can’t just go and lie.

Sad but not depressing and hopeful but not sappy, this story is an intimate look at suffering and loving and really, really living.

After my introductory monologue, there were 90 seconds for discussion, during which time the agents inevitably asked how Austin was doing (and I often joked that they had to read my pages to find out). The other topics ranged from questions about my previous writing experience to “I can’t wait to read more about the Braedan and Austin relationship.”

All in all, I left there feeling listened to, respected and validated (never a bad thing).  I will send out my pages tomorrow and expect to hear back from them within four to six weeks. The hearing back part is another huge bonus of going to a conference like this and having a face-to-face meeting. Often, due to the high number of blind submissions an agent receives each week, they say that if you don’t hear back from them within a specified amount of time, assume it’s a no. I think that these agents will provide a response, even if it’s a rejection, because it’s material they actually requested. And, if it is a rejection, they will hopefully take a few minutes to say why. And if it’s not a rejection, then they’ll ask to read the full manuscript, which could take another eight weeks. And after that, they would either offer to represent you (or, hopefully, me!) or not.

Then a whole other process starts during which they need to sell the manuscript to a publishing house who actually publishes the book, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!

Everything else about the weekend was great too.  The fellow writers at the conference were extremely interesting to talk with and very supportive of one another’s work. I am sure to have lots of new friends on Facebook this week!  My mom and I are excellent travel partners because we like all the same things — same kind of food (must include cheese), same amount of walking (lots), same style of walking (fast), same way to spend any free moment (shopping). So, after finishing our long Pitch Day, we walked 3.6 miles in our newly purchased and miraculously comfortable boots to meet up with old friends at a fabulous little Italian place and eat delicious food and drink fat glasses of wine before walking another 3.6 miles back to our hotel. And we never once turned on the hotel room TV.

Perfect.

I love that I can be equally as excited to go away somewhere as I am to come home again — definitely a good sign. And speaking of good signs … the weekend was fabulous.

I am exhausted so I’ll skip all the extraneous details (for now at least) and get to the thing you (and I) care about most: the Pitch Slam. What a fascinating and exhilarating and nerve-wracking process!  Picture more than four hundred aspiring authors lined up outside a hotel ballroom at 2:50 and then, when the doors are ceremoniously opened at 3:15, the crowd surges forward and everyone forms chaotic lines behind the agents of their choice, who are seated two to a table around the periphery of room. And then you wait, lips moving silently as you nervously rehearse your “lines,” eying the competition, strategically deciding which line to stand in next.

I pitched to seven agents in the two hours, which (from what I gleaned from my 400 new best friends) was on the higher end. Five of them requested material, usually the first 10 to 30 pages (one said, “Oh just send me the whole thing” — gulp!). I’m happy with that response, although it was far from unique.  Most attendees I spoke with were asked to send work to most of the agents they pitched to (my mom had an impressive six requests out of six!).  I think the request itself is not an indication of how well they really liked your pitch (I honestly think the agents were sometimes just being nice to people), but the victory lies in the fact that there will now be five people actually reading my work. And that for me has been the biggest hurdle, given the somewhat “unappetizing” nature of what I write.  I mean, few people walk into the bookstore and exclaim, “Oh look! A memoir about a baby who gets cancer — can’t wait to read it!”

I felt like I received some very personal and thoughtful reactions, including one excellent rejection. The first agent I pitched to, who was starred as number one on my list, got tears in her eyes and said she has learned through experience that she simply cannot represent work of this nature because she gets too emotionally caught up in the characters and is no longer able to be objective about the manuscript. That “No” felt as good as some of my “Yeses.”

I did have one other woman who passed, saying that cancer memoirs are just too hard to sell. I wanted to say, “Ugh, I know, everyone who’s ever been sick thinks they should write a book … but this one is GOOD,” but that sort of self-promotion is not looked upon very highly (to say the least).

But all the others seemed genuinely interested (often interrupting to ask if Austin was okay) and excited to hear more. So my next few days will include rewriting a query letter (much easier now that I have a pitch I like) and polishing up those first ten to thirty pages (again) and emailing them off in the hopes that one (or more) agents will like what they read.

And then, who knows, we’ll see … but mission number one is definitely accomplished.

Alright, let’s see if I’m ready.

Cape, tights, superpowers? Check. (Thank you, Chris, for reminding me to pack those.)

Well-worded oral pitch that clocks in at 87 seconds (thanks to some careful revisions) and that makes me giddy with pride? Check.

Well-researched list of agents, ranked according to best match for my work? Check.

Carefully chosen outfits that are both comfortable enough to wear all day and yet appropriately stylish? (Hey, you gotta look good.) Check.

Three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams? Che….

Wait a minute. The product of my three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams (and blood, sweat and tears) is staying behind. It’s here, this family, this house, this home. Two mostly healthy, mostly happy, remarkably normal children and one super-strong marriage.

Perspective? Check.

Thank you for the many very thoughtful comments. You’ve all given me a lot to mull as I move forward. A few issues you raised are quite easy to address — the arbitrary deadline for one: I think having a date ahead of me is a good thing.  I love to write and have a ton to say, but just haven’t had the time lately to sit down and do it. Or maybe I haven’t made the time. So having the conference looming in the near future provides excellent motivation to sit my butt at my desk and just start typing (something other than blog posts).

Of course I know that no agent is going to expect a complete work immediately following the confernece.  At the very best, they could invite me to query them, which would only require the first 5 to 50 pages, depending on the agency.  So it will easily be months before I need a finished manuscript. (Although memoirs, like fiction, are expected to be complete before a writer even sends out queries.)  Of course, even a “finished” manuscript will then be subjected to many revisions based on agent and editor suggestions.

But I do hope to at least have a sense of the scope of the book, what period in our lives it covers and to what degree. Which is what I’m trying to work through now with all of you. I need to know the direction and narrative arc of the book before I sell it to someone else. And the purpose (more on that later, Alfalfa — you know who you are.)

I think I will spend the next week or so (when I’m not shopping, baking, wrapping, celebrating, etc) drafting an epilogue of the recurrence. And then I’ll just see how I like it and whether I feel it accurately covers enough of the important stuff (without all the boring stuff) and then go from there.

Ultimately, all these decisions will lay in the hands of first an agent, and then an editor at a publishing house. If they read the manuscript and say, “This is great — can you give us more?” well, I certainly can.

In the meantime, I will comb through my discarded work of the past month as well as through the past fourteen months of blog posts to pull out the best and most poignant moments. And not even just the moments but the words and phrases that best capture those moments. Some of them will go in the epilogue and others can be woven into earlier parts of the story.

One thing I will have to work hard to ensure doesn’t get totally lost in the epilogue route is the spark of Austin’s personality. In his first round of cancer, he was only a baby and still pre-verbal so the reader simply can’t see the boy who begs to be unhooked from his IV pole to run laps around the nurses. I know this is a largely a story of a mother, but that boy running laps plays a pretty big role too!

So, I haven’t ruled out one or the other option. I’m going to move forward and attempt both and see which one feels most right to me. Which is what matters most. But keep those comments coming — I like having this built-in community of first readers.

(And thanks to those of you who said it’s not boring!)

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