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So what is happening with that book of mine, you ask. Well . . . nothing much.

There are still two agents from the Pitch Slam who I haven’t heard back from, one of whom I’ve pretty much given up on. From what I’ve read of her online, she usually responds fairly quickly and in one interview, she welcomed follow-up emails if she hadn’t responded to a query within five or six weeks. So I sent her one a few weeks ago and still, nothing. She’s the one I mentioned who I would have been shocked if she’d asked to read my full manuscript, so I guess it’s to be excepted. Still, it seems extraordinarily rude to ask to read someone’s work and then to even give them the courtesy of a rejection. I mean, it’s only a measly form letter — it would take thirty seconds to paste it into the body of an email and hit send. Oh well.

The other agent who still hasn’t responded happens to be my favorite of the five. Her agency’s website says right up front that it takes them up to three months to review initial submissions and only to follow-up if we haven’t heard back in six months. Six months! And I thought I’d already done my share of waiting.

That agency did have a very thorough submission form that asked for all sorts of information, from the last book I read to the author who’s most inspired my writing to a single line, one sentence, culled from my submitted pages (not easy!). They also required a synopsis, which is harder than writing a full-length manuscript! Really, in the past, I’ve steered clear of agents who request a synopsis just because I didn’t want to have to write one. This is a two-page summary of the entire book, devoid of any exposition — just straight up, “This happens, then that happens, blah blah blah.” Ugh. Double ugh.

But I do trust that, by requesting all that information, and by warning ahead of time how long it takes her to review it all, that she really will indeed review it all, and that she really will indeed respond. I’ve also read some interviews with writers who’ve signed with her and they all say that she’s much much quicker to respond once she officially represents you and that she spends most of her work day acting on behalf of her current clients and their books, which is a good sign.

So, more waiting and more hoping. If there are only a few things I’ve learned since Austin was diagnosed with cancer, it’s how to wait and how to hope.

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!)

Wow, I just realized that title could sound very forboding. No, this isn’t about another recurrence.  But I would like to talk about Austin’s recurrence, in an artistic sense (if recurrences of pediatric cancer can be “artistic”!), and ask your advice.

I’ve been hard at work on my manuscript over the past few weeks in preparation for the Writers’ Digest conference in New York City in January.  The weekend includes a pitch slam, where you get 90 seconds to make an individual oral pitch to up to fifty literary agents. I’d like to have my book mostly done by then, so that 1) I can give an accurate summary and word count (which is expected) and 2) I can mail it out the next week on the off-chance that some agent says, “Wonderful! Can’t wait to read it, send me your work asap.”

Now, you may remember that I had written a book, one I was very happy with, after our first round of cancer.  It originally checked in at about 250 pages. I then revised to add our almost-recurrence, which I managed to describe in less than 25 pages.  I feel like that event is important to the story because, even though it ended up not being a huge deal in terms of Austin’s overall health, it was enormously consequential to me and Mark and how we thought about his disease and all of our futures.

But now I’ve spent weeks struggling with how to include Part Three, the actual recurrence, spanning from our worrisome fall through spring (end of treatment) and even summer (recovery of kidney). The truth is that it is dreadfully boring to write about. Dreadfully. It is repetitive and tedious — the same worries (oh, what should we do with his kidney?), the same procedures (day after day and week after week of platelet transfusions), the same ups and the same downs and ultimately, the same ending.

Now, of course, I am thrilled we got the same ending (a happy one) — that’s all we want, but it doesn’t make for interesting literature. The entire recurrence fails to move the story forward in any way.

That first part is full of drama, especially the mysterious and horrifying growth of his primary tumor, which occurs four weeks and ninety pages in. That is followed by two more dramatic surgeries and then, in perfect climactic fashion, the unexpected clear scan that fall. The story has flow–there’s build-up and mystery and climax and resolution.

The recurrence is just boring. It was boring to live and it’s boring to write (and I’m afraid would be boring to read). Yes, it’s true, it happened, which is why I feel the need to include it.  But honest memoir doesn’t mean you have to write about every single thing that’s ever happened to you. There are many reasons I want to include it — it was hugely significant in his life and in all our lives. It mattered.

And yet, it’s boring.

Mark suggested that I just include it as an epilogue, an abbreviated looking-backward kind of essay: overview of what happened, overview of how we felt and feel, overview of where we go from here. That’s it.

Oh, I just don’t know!  What do you think?

See, it’s a good thing when I post those big whiny complaints because I get so much encouragement and positive feedback, it keeps me going. I especially appreciated hearing from all the people who said they could tell exactly which words in the DF article were mine and which were the editor’s. I guess my voice is being heard above the static after all!

I’m taking a deep breath and diving right in by posting two verisons of my query letter for your very expert review. I feel nervous about this, like it’s easier to send these to perfect strangers (even perfect strangers who hold the key to my future career) than to show them to you. Sort of like how it’s emotionally safer to make out with some random crush at a party than to kiss your best guy friend (I’m talking years and years ago, people). You know, that sense of vulnerability or fear of judgement that exists with the people who know you best. But oh well, I’ve never been one for sitting on the sidelines avoiding vulnerability, so here goes.

Keep in mind that a query letter serves as your introduction to a literary agent, who you hope will then read your enclosed pages (usually five to ten, depending on what they ask for) instead of automatically putting them in the reject pile. This golden letter is one page and one page only (and both of mine, which officially fit on one page, veer towards long so don’t tell me to combine it all into one version). The query should include your hook (the quickie statement about what makes your book special, which I have yet to perfect), a brief synopsis or overview of your story, and any relevant information about the author (which can be left out if you have no publishing history). Agents receive upwards of fifty unsolicited queries a day, so they are rather quick to reject them. Feeling desperate yet?

And now…..

Version One:

Dear Gatekeeper of my Future (or Mr/Mrs So-and-So),

The luckiest. That is what we called ourselves, that is what we believed we were. We were wrong.

My 81,900-word memoir Whoosh: One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year traces my son Austin’s eight-month battle with bilateral Wilms’ tumor, a rare and sneaky pediatric kidney cancer. All the elements of a typical cancer story are present: A family’s stunned disbelief as we slowly reconcile the idea of this dreaded, deadly disease with our lively, lovely child. The litany of gruesome medical procedures, surgery after surgery, complication after infection, night after night in the hospital. The anguish of parents forced to admit that even the fiercest love may not conquer all. But this narrative touches upon the unexpected as well: The atheist mother grappling with how to accept the prayers of others on behalf of her child. The moments of laughter and joy, normal family life carrying on despite our horrific new reality. The concern for all that our other son stands to lose, from his beloved brother to the gift of growing up in a home not shadowed by sadness. And also this: There is hope, amidst the gritty and the heartbreaking, the mundane and the humorous, there is always hope and there is always love.

Whoosh tells Austin’s story with raw immediacy, interweaving postings from the Carepage blog I wrote during his illness with private journal entries. The inclusion of the most poignant messages posted by Carepage visitors lends a conversational tone to the book, drawing the reader directly into our lives. Like Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, you can “come for the writing, stay for the drama. Or vice versa. Either way, you won’t regret it,” (San Francisco Chronicle). But unlike Corrigan, who is stuck between being a mother and being a daughter, trying to balance caring for her sick father with caring for her sick self with caring for her healthy children, my role is unambiguous: I am the mother. And my task is clear and pure: I will care for my son, I must save my son.

I have enclosed the first xx pages and would be happy to send the completed manuscript upon your request. Please note that I am simultaneously submitting this to other agencies. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

KDG

Some comments, although I should really let you think these things on your own: It’s often recommended to compare yourself to a current book or author, while also pointing out how your work differs from theirs. Of course, my comment about Kelly Corrigan is a tad obnoxious as she is on the NYT Bestseller list and I basically said I was as good a writer as she. At least I didn’t say Oprah would love my book (which she would!).

And numero dos:

Dear xx,

The setting: From a hot July day to the cusp of spring the following year, from Cleveland’s premiere children’s hospital to our nearby home and back again and back again and back again.  The protagonist: Ten-month-old Austin, a sweet and spunky boy facing the fight of his life, while his parents and brother watch from the sidelines, doing all they can but never convinced they can do enough.  The antagonist: The brutal rogue that is cancer, six tumors destroying Austin’s kidneys, taking up vital space in his small body and challenging him and his family to an epic battle.

Whoosh: One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year, an 81,900-word memoir, traces my son’s eight-month battle with bilateral Wilms’ tumor, a rare and sneaky pediatric cancer of the kidney.  Austin is obviously the hero of the book, but it is also a mother’s story and a mother’s journey, as she moves from a gloriously normal life to the edge of disaster and back again.  Part medical mystery, part epic adventure, part motivational guide, Whoosh is, at its 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, doctors and nurses, and wide community that sustained one family through its darkest hour.

Told with raw immediacy as the drama unfolds, Whoosh interweaves postings from the Carepage blog I wrote during Austin’s illness with private journal entries. The inclusion of the most poignant messages posted by Carepage visitors lends a conversational tone to the book, drawing the reader directly into our lives. While Austin’s tale is both as stunningly extraordinary and sadly ordinary as any other sick child’s tale, it is rendered with such an abiding love and endless optimism that this book would appeal to anyone who has ever been afraid,  down on their luck, or faced with a nearly impossible task. It is a lesson in hope, in community, in courage, a lesson in living and dying and loving.

I have enclosed the first xx pages and would be happy to send the completed manuscript upon your request. Please note that I am simultaneously submitting this to other agencies. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

KDG

Alrighty, there you have it. Please post your comments here, good and bad, I can take it, I promise!

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