The Waiting Game: PART I

Attributed to Marcus Gheereart the Younger , Portrait of a Lady in late 16th century Elizabethan England. (Roughly 1550 to 1600) from [Public domain]

If the wait from book deal to physical publishing contract were a pregnancy, I’d have my suitcase packed and waiting at the door by now. My last blog post was over seven months ago. Since then, I’ve been given a pub date of August 2020 for my first historical novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS, and I’m told I’ll be assigned an editor this summer. While I’m excited and grateful to have a deal in the works, I had no idea that this would be such a long process. It took a year for me to get my publishing contract. For the past seven-and-a-half months I’ve been on something of a writing hiatus, which feels weird because for most of the past five years I’ve written every day. While I’ve been waiting I’ve taught a couple of seminars and I’m working on a lecture I’ll give in June.
Getting published is a waiting game, as anyone who’s been through it knows.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons:

It’s also like a carnival ride, in that at all points along the way you never know when your heart will lurch with the unexpected—that glowing skeleton drops in front of you, or you feel like you’re flying, or you know you’re going to be sick. That email announcement goes ding! And then BOOM, there it is: a request for more pages, or a request from an agent for a phone call to talk about our work, or even an offer of representation. Further down the road that BOOM is a publishing offer.
Heady stuff, for sure.
But between these moments, there is an awful lot of waiting. And anxiety. But I get ahead of myself. There’s a lot that goes on before this point, believe me. Publication is not for the faint of heart. And of course, any writer reading this is probably thinking, at this moment, ‘yadda, yadda, yadda, I’ve heard this before.’ Right? Maybe. Let me tell you a little story.
After sending rounds of query letters I had four requests for full manuscripts. For those of you who haven’t been through this process this means that I had sent flawless, artfully crafted, intriguing, (yet humbly self-effacing) one-page letters (with sample pages, if requested) to a carefully researched list of agents. I had included recent comparable titles (“comps”), I had a hook and elevator pitch, a brief bio. Now, this is a whole ‘nother blog post, so I won’t go into more detail. But anyway, what happens is that the agent’s assistant (most likely) reads your letter and, if it’s interesting, your sample pages. Then, said assistant passed them on to the agent, who might read them that day (my fastest request for a full was 6 minutes) or might read them in four months. If the agent is interested, the assistant (or maybe the agent) will email, asking for more pages. And here’s where the waiting bit comes in. I had several agents hold onto my manuscripts for up to four months, even though I let them know that fulls were being considered elsewhere. Somewhere between the third and fourth month of waiting it hit me like the clapper of a gong: they don’t need me or my novel. They have stacks of good stuff to choose from.
Yet, while this is true, somehow agents need to find work that they believe in and want to represent.
Okay, I have totally wandered away from my opening premise. (must edit). Yes, right, well. The waiting. You have finished your manuscript! Edited, copyedited, formatted. You have come up with a killer title, and admit it, you have already decided who should star in the blockbuster movie (though you’ll keep that to yourself.) You feel cautiously optimistic as you craft your query letter. You research agents, personalizing each letter and submission. Onward. Get it all right. Send the letters.
Send requested fulls. Maybe grow out your hair.

Baby Fleetwood Taylor, 2015

Maybe raise a puppy.
Then, things can speed up. I sent a letter and quickly had a request for 50 more pages. Then, like something in a Dickens novel, I came home from Christmas Eve dinner in 2015 to find an email from an agent, enthusiastically asking for the whole manuscript. A month later, I had an email from her assistant, asking for a phone call “to discuss my work”. In the five days intervening I deconstructed the wording of that request dozens of times: She didn’t say “to discuss representation”. Didn’t say anything about a contract. I wondered, should I request that we meet in person, and I’ll come to New York at any time of the day or night at her convenience? Does that look desperate and pathetic? (Yes, it does.)

Photo from Omeka at Middlebury

It’s just a phone call. Don’t overthink it. Repeat. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to focus on the potentially overwhelming fact that THIS WAS THE BIGGEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN in my fairly new writing career.
SO, the call happened. I dressed as if I were going into a meeting. Took care with my makeup and hair. And that actually helped. I decided against having that shot of Jack Daniels. I sat in my living room so that my three dogs would not distract me. I had a notepad, a fresh pen. My senses were on high alert, my palms, super clammy.

The phone rang right on time and I answered, affecting a “hello?” meant to sound like I was just pulling wet laundry from the washing machine—like it was a normal day and this was no big deal and I was an old hand at this sort of thing. The assistant was on the line, and she connected the agent. I was pleasantly surprised by how warm they sounded, how solicitous and kind they were, how complimentary. The call lasted forty-five minutes. I hung up with an offer to “revise and resubmit” my novel, according to the agent’s ideas. I agreed readily. I was thrilled to have caught the notice of someone at this agency. And she was so nice! But here was the kicker: I had to agree that I would not send the manuscript out to anyone else as long as I was editing based on this agent’s ideas for my work. That was fair. I agreed.
Fast forward eleven months. I had completed three exclusive revisions. I did not have a contract for representation. As I ticked off each week between waiting to hear about my revisions and hoping for a contract, I learned to be patient. And let me tell you, it is hard. Every time there was a request for a phone call I thought, she probably hates what I did. She’s going to drop me and I wasted 3/6/9 months.

The Antikamnia Calendar, 1897 Photo from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [Public domain]

I had no idea almost a year would pass. But it did. And after those 11 months, my novel was better. I spent all of my time and energy on making this agent happy with my work. Happy enough to sign me. I pushed myself. I applied to an MFA program.
In November we had another call. As I waited for the days to pass I convinced myself that surely she would not want to continue if my work wasn’t there yet. So, same modus operandi for the previous calls: dress well, paper, pen. Only this time I had a box of Kleenex and I did, in fact, have that shot of bourbon, because I truly anticipated bad news. I re-thought taking a tranquilizer because I figured that if I did I would probably ugly cry on the phone when the bad news was delivered.
But after a few pleasantries, here’s what she said: “We need to talk about further revisions.” My heart rose, since this meant she wasn’t dumping me yet, but it quickly fell as I thought, I gave my all to that last round of revisions. I did almost everything she asked, and it’s still not good enough? I can’t do this. I don’t have what it takes.

And then she said, “…but I believe that your work is strong. We’d like to offer you representation.”


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