How I Got a Literary Agent.

I’m trying to decide how honest I should be in this post.  I have to walk a fine line between seeming like a professional and conveying the sheer magnitude of the improbability that has just occurred here.

Any of you who have been in touch with me via Twitter or other internet media during the past two years probably remember watching me go through several phases of passive-aggressive rage regarding my novel Borderline.  It’s actually a little bit ironic.  Borderline Personality Disorder, a central subject in the novel, is theorized at present to be caused when an extraordinarily emotionally sensitive child is raised in an “invalidating” environment — that is to say, when the child’s expressions of feeling or perceptions of the world are repeatedly contradicted by the authority figures in his or her life.  “That’s not scary,” says the well-meaning parent, and many things like it over many years, making the Borderline-vulnerable child believe that there is something wrong with her, that she sees a world no one else sees, that everything she feels is somehow a lie that no one else can see or understand.

My relationship with this novel was enough to give anyone Borderline Personality Disorder.  I loved it.  I felt passionately about it.  I tried to share it with other people.  And for the most part, people reacted as though I were offering up a dead skunk.  Over the course of about a year, I did manage to get twelve people to agree to read it.  None of them actually did, beyond the first few chapters, and to make matters more unsettling, they dropped out of communication with me altogether.  As though the novel were not only too bad for them to finish reading, but so bad that it made them think less of me as a person.  One of those twelve was actually a professional critique service.  I got my money back, and said professional hasn’t responded to a single communication since.

Diana Rowland aptly dubbed the manuscript “the Weeping Angels of literature” (Dr. Who reference) because whoever touched it disappeared off the face of the earth.  The novel seemed genuinely cursed.

In the face of this, is it not understandable that giving up on the project seemed like the best idea?  So I did.  I gave up on it.  But then I dragged it out one day, I don’t even remember why, and made one last desperate tweet for feedback.  Amanda C. Davis happened to have nothing better to do that weekend, so she read it.  And she said, “I think you should go ahead and query this.”

I should have seen this for the encouragement it was, but given what I’d been through before, I assumed this was just her way of saying “I don’t think there’s much point in spending more energy trying to fix this mess.  This is as good as it’s going to get.”  So I, incredibly, put the novel away again.  For months.  I only dragged it out when I was halfway through the second draft of my next novel and hit a terrible research roadblock I couldn’t find my way past.  I dragged it out and read it again, and once again I had that bizarre feeling of living in a parallel universe from everyone else who had ever seen this thing.

I loved it.  It had been long enough since I’d read it that I’d forgotten parts of it, and they made me laugh.  I even got tears in my eyes at one point.  I said to my husband, “I love this book.  I would want to read this book.  Why does no one want to read this book?”  I tweeted something to that effect, and Amanda tweeted back, “I’ve often wished there were a sequel to that!”  And it finally clicked that she had actually meant she also liked the book.

In a frenzy of excitement, I queried my dream agent, the one I’d wanted ever since I read an essay on publishing he’d written in 2009.  Within hours he asked for the full manuscript.  So I sent it.  I knew I was in for a long wait, so like a good girl I researched other agents and sent out eight other queries, one each day.  I got about a 50% “send more” rate, which is, as I understand it, spectacular.  But all this mechanical professionalism, this steady train-chug of submission progress, was hard to invest in, because the book was already metaphorically sitting on my dream agent’s desk.  I tried not to even think about it, because when I did, I suddenly noticed all kinds of flaws in it I hadn’t noticed until I realized he was looking at it.  I wanted to yank it right back off his desk and say, “Never mind, I’ll get back to you when I’m a real writer.  I’m so sorry to have wasted your time”  But I didn’t.

I did give up, though.  Again.  I stopped sending queries, because I realized that I’d rather just try my dream agent again next year with a different project than keep offering up what I still wasn’t 100% sure was anything other than a dead skunk.  I had no one’s enthusiasm but mine and Amanda’s to suggest anything different.

Then yesterday, I got the call.  Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency and his partner Rachel Kory wanted to represent me.  They loved the exact same things about the novel that I did, the things I had stubbornly stuck to even though they blithely ignored genre guidelines.  Suddenly it mattered to me a lot less what those twelve vanishing people thought, or didn’t think, about my novel.  I may never know, and I’m at peace with that.  Because the person who mattered most to me — literarily speaking — felt the same way about my book that I did.  And, bonus!  I’ve met someone new in Rachel, someone young and energetic and hungry and innovative who also loves my book.  Between the two of them, they make, quite literally, the perfect agent.

Of course, I don’t know what Borderline‘s ultimate fate will be.  But I’m not worried in the slightest.  Not only is it in the best possible hands, but it isn’t my only dog in the race.  I have three other series ideas in various stages of development.  This is the end of one phase of my life and the beginning of another.  And if I had been even one ounce less stubborn about this project, even half an ounce, today would just be another day.

Let that be a lesson to you!  And, honestly, to me.  I came within a hair’s breadth of giving up on this book so many times.  And whatever ultimately becomes of it now, it will always be the book that got me a literary agent.

How Submissions Are Like Firearms.

Today, literary agent Eddie Schneider tweeted a list of gun safety rules that had a strangely familiar ring.  I’ve been informed that the discussion began with a blog post from military man and award-winning author Myke Cole, and I would like to list the rules here as excellent thoughts to keep in mind when submitting, as well.

1) It’s always loaded.  Even if it isn’t.

You may think you’re just having a casual chat with an editor or literary agent at a conference, but please exercise due caution.  Even when you think your motives are pure, someone says something encouraging or nerve-racking and then suddenly BAM! there your latest project goes, spilling out of your mouth.  If you’re an aspiring writer, don’t kid yourself that you don’t have ulterior motives in every conversation with someone who could help you.  Being aware of this is the first step to caution.

2. Your muzzle isn’t pointing at it unless you intend to kill it.

There’s no “casual” way to bring up your project around an agent or publisher.  The minute you bring it up, you’ve pitched it.  If you get a “no thanks” at that point, you’ve closed off any later opportunities.  So don’t even bring it up unless you know your pitch is going to slay ’em.

3. Finger off the trigger until it’s time to pull it.

It’s tempting to start querying when you’re “virtually finished.”  It’ll take a while for the agent to get back to you, right?  Not necessarily.  I once got a full manuscript request three hours after a query, which was awkward enough for me when I couldn’t get to the correct computer until late that night.  Imagine how awkward it would have been if I still had to nail down the ending.

4. Know what you’re shooting at, what’s around it, and what’s behind it.

Do your research, folks.  One of the reasons people typically have such an abysmal response ratio is that they fire wildly across a field and hope they hit something.  It may seem like a waste of time to peruse agents’ web sites, see who they represent, check out the deals they’ve done recently and read their online interviews, but when you know what you’re aiming at, it can actually save you time (see above story about manuscript request).  As I implied in a previous blog, there is nothing magical about spending weeks obsessing over the wording of a query.  What makes a query effective is that the agent is looking for just the kind of thing you are offering.  And the only way to know that is by knowing what you’re shooting at.

Hope this is helpful.  (If it is, go visit the site of the agent who inspired it, and start your research there.)  Happy querying!

Why I Haven’t Read a Novel Lately.

I’m halfway through a draft of a novel.  When drafting new prose, I don’t read other novels.  That’s not unusual; many people worry about unintentionally aping another writer’s style.  But I’ve got a whole other level of crazy going on.

Years ago, I spent a few months doing pro bono freelance writing and editing for a nonprofit whose aim was to get art and music into local public schools.  At one of the meetings someone told me an anecdote about her friend Jacob*, a university art professor, and his five-year-old daughter.  Their reported conversation went something like this:

Daughter: Daddy, what do you do for work?

Jacob: I teach grownups how to draw.

Daughter: (aghast pause) … You mean they forget?

I’ve been thinking about that conversation lately because I’ve been dealing with a child who, contrary to everything I understand of children, simply would not draw.

I was always the kind of child who would be quiet indefinitely at a restaurant if you handed her a pen and the back of a paper placemat, and so I have always assumed that children naturally drew pictures for pleasure, whether they were good at it or not.  I thought that self-criticism was a faculty that came much, much later to spoil the fun.

But this little girl, far past the age when this was developmentally appropriate, would only ball a crayon up in her fist and make merciless, crayon-snapping scribbles on any paper given to her.  Sometimes she would ask other people to draw things for her, but if she tried to draw so much as a circle, she would look at it, say “That’s not right!”, in a tone just this side of panic.

There was no pressure for her to perform, especially not at first.  But eventually my concern began to bleed through, and made it worse.  I wasn’t concerned about her skill level, but about her dread of the process.  Aren’t children supposed to run to you excited about a portrait that looks like spaghetti dropped from a great height?  They’re not supposed to stare moodily at their work and feel crushed by its inadequacy.

Some had tried to demonstrate the fun of drawing for her by doing it themselves, but I quickly realized that part of the problem was her comparing her drawings to adults’, so I categorically forbade any adult to draw anything for her, no matter how she begged.

Last week, we had a breakthrough.  She asked me to draw her a rose.  Instead of gently declining the request the way I usually do, I said excitedly, “Hey, want me to show you how?”  We sat down, and with hands firmly behind my back I instructed her to draw a circle, and then a line coming down from it.  “Look!” I said.  “It’s a rose!  Now you can make it any color you want.”  I’m not sure why this was the breakthrough, but suddenly she spent half the afternoon drawing lollipop “roses” in every color.

The next week, I instructed her to add an extra line to the lollipop, and called it a person.  She caught onto this quickly, and then within a few hours, without my even being in the room, she was drawing intricate people (for her age), people with limbs I hadn’t told her how to draw, people with hair and smiling mouths and the right color clothing to match the Disney character she had in mind.  As if she’d suddenly caught up to a year and a half of delayed development in a matter of hours.

But it wasn’t her mastery that delighted me.  It was the way she grabbed my hand and dragged me in to show me.  The way she insisted on taping them to the wall, herself, to look at in perpetuity.  The way she stopped thinking of art as pass/fail, and instead as a way to communicate something inside herself (in this case, a deep fascination with the movie Tangled).  Instead of seeing what the drawing wasn’t, she could finally see what it was.

I find myself envying her.  I wish that, knowing how flawed my work is, I could still feel happy about it.  I wish I could be proud that, to whatever limited extent I’m capable, I captured something that is important to me.  But I’m the little girl sitting in front of a piece of paper near tears, looking at what the grownups drew and knowing I can never, never, not in a million years, do that.  It’s as paralyzing for me as it was for her.

So no, I won’t be reading any of my favorite authors, not until my drawing is finished.  Will that stop me from being crushed by shame over its weaknesses?  No.  But at that point my shame cannot undraw it.

*Not his real name.  Not for his protection, I just honestly don’t remember.