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For the two weeks following my return from the writing conference, I spent every day revising my book (you know, when I wasn’t busy planning one major event or another … or another). I read through the entire thing, revising word by word and page by page. I was feeling pretty good about it and was easily able to submit the first fifty pages to four of the agents who requested that particular amount. Because I had one agent who wanted the entire manuscript, I kept on, digging deep into the later sections of the book. I had a few moments when I’d come across a page or a section and would pause and wonder why I hadn’t already changed that part. There were a few scenes and pages that I thought I had drastically revised, only to find they were the same as they’d been more than a year ago.

But I carried on, making small tweaks and sweeping changes, … until last Wednesday night at 11:15 when I scrolled to page 223 and realized, with a sickening drop in my stomach: This was not my finished book. These were notes. Literally, notes to myself, things like “Add Dec 14 surgery here; rounds with the docs, plans to remove kidney — include Nurse Shannon.” Notes, shorthand, to myself! But I had already finished my book.  I knew I had finished it, I had blogged about it, for crying out loud, and that definitely makes it true. I had even printed up a hard copy for my mom and she’d read the whole thing … I remember. But this version, saved on my trusty little Store n Go device, was not it.

It was really time for me to go to bed, but after a few minutes lying there I got back up to check our other computer. I found a slightly newer version and, after quickly scrolled through the final forty or so pages, discovered that it was better than the one I’d been working on, but still not done. This was still not it. I finally went to bed, worried but absolutely convinced that I had another verison, another more complete version. I had to have another version.

The next day, I searched around for a hard copy but knew that I’d probably used it as scrap paper (no blank white side is safe in this house). Finally, I conducted a full search of my computer and … whaddya know? It appeared in an auto-recovery file … from the trash. Holy crap, at some point, nearly a year ago, I failed to save my damn book. But there it was. Thank god computers never really throw anything away.

I quickly cut and paste the last forty-five pages onto the version I’d been poring over and, upon rereading it, was more relieved than ever to have found it. It is good. And good in a way that would have been very hard to recreate. My opening pages I could recite verbatim, I’ve read them so many damn times. But the ending was new to me, the words were fresh, the emotion was raw — I cried all over again as that kidney slowly began to heal itself. It was good good good. And it was finished.

So, after going through to make sure there weren’t other revisions in the one verison that were better than my more recent revisions in the other version, I attached the whole darn thing, all 84, 212 words of it and sent it off through cyber space.

And now we wait.


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.


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.


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?

February 2020
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February 2020
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