I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d been offered representation, but decided to let it settle around me for a while before I talked about it here on the blog. I wanted to be sure my priorities were in order, and my last full post came from that place. It’s still true; so much in life is more important than landing the right agent.
But you know what? It’s still pretty darn cool. So now I’m talking about it. It's a long post—I hope you'll bear with me!
As an unagented writer, I spent hours poring over search results, combing the blogosphere for stories about writers and their agents. On the one hand, it was a great way to research the process—to discover why authors queried certain agents, how long it took to find an agent, how many queries they sent before getting “the call,” what kinds of questions they asked before signing the contract, and so on. On the other hand, these posts were like little pep talks. When I read success stories—especially from authors I know—I got butterflies in my stomach. Realizing dreams, it seemed, wasn’t an impossibility.
I got that feeling when I read Therese Walsh’s post on the fabulous Writer Unboxed blog: “Home Run! Therese Finds her Perfect Agent!” back in the fall of 2008. I’d only just begun compiling a list of agents to query with my last manuscript. (Yes, there were others, may they rest in peace. It was my first to query.) I’d known Teri a while online. We’d both taken classes from the same amazing author (Barbara Samuel O’Neal), were in some of the same online forums, and eventually clicked to become Facebook friends. I admired Teri’s determination and attitude and absolute transparency when it came to her writing journey. Her character alone was a recommendation for her agent, but I also liked what I saw on Elisabeth’s website—who she’d chosen to represent and what kinds of books they were writing. So I added Elisabeth Weed’s name to my query list, dreaming of the day when I’d finally send my first letter out.
In May 2009, I sent my first query to the agent at the top of my list—Elisabeth Weed. I sent two more, just to be on the safe side. (Ha!) Imagine my excitement when I opened my inbox the next day to receive a request for the first fifty pages of my manuscript from Elisabeth. I was beside myself, and after the emails flew among my fellow What Women Write ladies, I jotted a quick note to Teri, telling her I’d received a request and if the time came, would she mind me picking her brain about Elisabeth. “Woot! Julie, that’s awesome! Of course, send any questions along as things progress. Elisabeth is terrific. Good luck!” (Facebook is so sweet to keep all these conversations for so long … and kind of creepy, too.)
Now imagine my dismay when my first rejection also came from Elisabeth Weed—and one of the nicest I received. I knew there would be many more before it was all over. I’d queried other agents in the interim, of course, and kept doing so for several more months while another story began tugging at my heart. I didn’t query a huge number of agents—maybe twenty five in all. I received a decent number of partial requests and one full, but each was followed by another rejection. I was already getting a sense that maybe it wasn’t “the one.” While I loved the story, and the characters lived on in my mind and heart (still do!), I suspected it wasn’t where I was supposed to be as a writer. It was trying too hard to be like another author I loved (waving at Jodi Picoult, as if she’ll ever read this!). It was time to move on. I’d been attempting to write a new story in the same niche while I queried, but after nearly fifty thousand words, I put it aside as well.
That other story, the one that started tugging at my heart early on, just wouldn’t let me go. I’d learned a surprising bit of family lore from my father. One line, basically, with no more hints of what happened: As a teen, my grandmother had fallen deeply in love with a young black man, and their families ripped them apart. It was all he knew, and none of the involved parties were living, so it’s all I’ll ever know. But it wouldn’t let me go. I began to imagine what might have been. I selected a setting and time period, slightly different from when and where my grandmother lived, but perfect for my story, did a lot of research on the area, laws, time periods, and anything else written on the subject. In April 2010, I wrote the first 30 thousand words or so during a Backspace writing marathon. Over the next several months, I added another 45 thousand, and in November, I did my own version of NaNoWriMo (NaNoFiMo: National Novel Finishing Month!), to write the final 30 thousand words.
I mostly ignored the file over the holidays, then pulled it out to begin revising in earnest after the New Year. I began setting my beta readers upon it (I picture them like a school of beta fish going after their dinner) in mid-February. After the critique of my marvelous group, some non-writers, and several more months of fiddling with the thing, I finally decided it was time to query. I ran my query letter by my critique group a few hundred times, and also by my trusty fellow Backspacers, who poked and prodded at it gently and graciously.
I sent a few queries at the end of June, but this time I didn’t query Elisabeth first. I wanted to be sure my query letter was effective. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity. Because she was still at the top of my list. I received a request for a partial from another agent immediately, and was thrilled, but by then, the last few members of What Women Write had read and critiqued CALLING ME HOME and I realized I had a little more work to do. I was relieved I hadn’t sent more queries or partials into the ether.
A couple of weeks and some hard revisions later, I was ready to query again. This time, late Thursday, July 14, I sent my first letter to Elisabeth. I sent a few more a few hours later, just to be on the safe side. (Is this sounding like the movie Groundhog Day? It kind of is. Keep reading!)
Imagine my excitement when I received a request Monday afternoon for a partial from Stephanie Sun, Elisabeth’s delightful assistant (who is now building her own list!), on Elisabeth’s behalf. I hadn’t said anything to my group, wanting to query under the radar for a bit, but of course I couldn’t contain my excitement and the emails started flying. I sent a note to Teri—shocked to find my old note floated back up in Facebook, reminding me exactly when I’d messaged about the last time I’d queried!—and I said something much the same, but perhaps not quite as confident as when I was a brand new querier the first time around. “AWESOME!!” Teri wrote. “I’ll put in a good word for you and cross my fingers!” She suggested a relaxing glass of wine, though within a day or two I said I probably needed to upgrade to Jack Daniels. (If you know me at all, this should make you laugh pretty hard—Julie doesn’t do alcohol very well at all. I stuck with wine and not much of it.)
The next day, I received another email, this time from Elisabeth herself. “I just read the first three chapters of Calling Me Home and think they are terrific! Will you send me the rest? I can't wait to see how this love story unfolds.”
O.M.G. Let me think about that ... OF COURSE I WILL! I sent it off late that night after madly making sure all my i‘s were dotted and t’s were crossed. (I emailed Teri: “What did you tell her? That I can perform miracles?” Teri responded that she had her toes crossed, too, now.)
The next day, Wednesday, I received a note from another published friend who has been an incredible mentor to me over the years. She’d asked if she could read my manuscript a few weeks earlier. Her note said she loved it and wanted to recommend it on to her agent with my permission. WHAT?! I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t sleeping or eating much by then. Her agent agreed to read the full manuscript and I sent it off that day.
I wasn’t sure how to handle this with Elisabeth. I’d heard it was polite to send other agents a note when other agents had your full manuscript. Others said only to nudge if you’d received an offer of representation. I was conflicted. I asked Teri what she thought, and she said it couldn’t hurt to let Elisabeth know.
I think the new request was providence.
I contacted Elisabeth, and it turned out she hadn’t received my full manuscript for some reason. “I'm so glad you emailed. I requested the rest of your ms yesterday and hadn't heard back from you. Clearly you didn't get it. Please send so I can read the rest. I'm loving it!” Then, later: “I am so glad you emailed again as I was seriously refreshing my email, hoping I had this to read tonight!”
Needless to say, I was allowing myself to hope at this point. Just a little. But trying to keep my cool.
To make a short story long … I received another email from Elisabeth the next Tuesday: “Dear Julie, I literally just finished reading this at my desk! Thank you so much for sending Calling Me Home my way. I loved it!” and later, after she commented more on the story and some revisions she anticipated it needed, “I am having Stephanie, my trusted colleague read alongside me and was hoping you and I could find some time to talk. Are you around tomorrow or Thursday?”
Was I around the next two days? Of course I was. And was this … The Call?
I was dying from anticipation. It felt like it was going to be The Call. But I wasn’t going to count my chickens before they hatched.
I emailed Teri, “Note from Elisabeth today saying she loved my manuscript and wants to speak by phone call tomorrow or Thursday! Good sign, yes?!?!”
Teri: “Oh, this makes me soooo happy! Yes, a very good sign.”
Turns out that stinker already knew Elisabeth was going to offer representation, but she was gracious enough to let me hear the words from Elisabeth herself the next day: “In case it’s not clear, I’m calling to offer you representation.”
So on Wednesday, July 29, We spent more than an hour on the phone, discussing my manuscript, how she saw it positioned in the marketplace, how she typically worked with clients, and so on. By the time we finished talking, I’d ticked all the questions off my “things to ask potential agent” list without even having to ask most of them. And though the majority of articles you read about considering offers of representation say to thank the agent and tell her you’ll get back to her after you’d have a chance to consider, and to notify any other agents reading your manuscript, I had a gut feeling. I told her, “I’m just going to go ahead and say now that I feel good about this. You’ve been my top pick from the day I sent my first query two years ago, you’ve answered all my questions, and I can’t see any reason not to say yes today.”
After we disconnected, my daughter, my wonderful, wise girl who got the first post after this experience, said, “You just sounded like you were talking to one of your writer friends.”
It was more confirmation I’d made the right decision. I sent a note to the other agent who had my full, letting her know that while I appreciated her offer to read and admired her for doing such a truly fabulous job for my friend, I believed I was making the right decision in accepting Elisabeth’s offer. She was gracious and full of good wishes.
So here I am, a month or so later, an agented author. August is no-man’s land in the publishing world, so we’ve taken that time to fine tune my manuscript. I’ve completed two sets of revisions and it sounds like we’re on target for Elisabeth to start submitting to editors soon! I can’t wait to see what happens next.
I hope you’ll take this post as I did all those times I read about The Call—as a few words to the wise, and a reason to keep following your dreams.
Most of all, I want to take a moment to thank some dear friends who helped make this the exciting and relatively painless process it was this time around. Therese Walsh, author extraordinaire of The Last Will of Moira Leahy and creator of Writer Unboxed. And my other friend—the fabulous multi-published Diane Chamberlain. (Both of them have been our special guests on What Women Write, here and here.) And of course, my amazing group of women right here at What Women Write. (And my BFF Gail, who is not yet a writer, but is determined I’ll need a personal assistant ASAP.) This kind of feels like an academy awards speech, so I’m stopping there for now.
But this only reinforces what I’ve known for a few years now. The writing community isn’t a tank full of sharks, circling to devour one another (well, maybe there are a few sharks, but I haven’t run across any yet). It’s a community of friends who look out for each other and help each other along the way. I hope I’ll always remember to pay it forward.
P.S. That picture up there--it's my two girls. That picture was taken the evening of the afternoon I got The Call. They were NOT at our house, and I have no idea what they celebrating, but I like how they do it!