Remember, if you will, that my original premise in this (now lengthy) blog post was that writing and publishing is a waiting game, akin to a pregnancy? Well I’m finally circling back to that. So almost a year and a half had passed since I sent out my first query and started this ball rolling. I was 56 years old and not getting any younger. I started my low-residency MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January, 2016. I was one of two members of my cohort who had an agent. I tempered the urge to drop the phrase “my agent” into every conversation.
My head swelled a bit, until I was brought to my knees by the stellar quality of some of the work of my fellow writers, by their workshop comments on my work, and by the readings of faculty and visiting authors. I was a peon again, humbled by how much I did not know. And this is exactly how it should be. An inflated ego is not the friend of a writer. Enough said about that.
Where was I? Oh yes. The Agent Contract. I believed that it was ALL going to happen, and quickly.
NEWS FLASH: An agent contract is just five pieces of paper, really. Yes, it’s important and you should read it very carefully and have a lawyer review it. Of course I signed it, thinking that NOW things would really start to happen.
Not so fast, missie.
More revisions, work on my MFA, longer waits to hear back from my agent, and I began to think some other author had caught her eye. In January, I was going to New York for fun and arranged a meeting, which did not take place at the Agency office. We met in a coffeeshop and she bought me a cup of tea. She was cool. I was nervous. We passed pleasantries and talked about the upcoming Women’s March in Washington. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she asked me why I had made the changes I made in the last revisions. Some of them were off-script.
She did not look happy.
I was flummoxed. Each time she had given me her revisions I had done my best to take her ideas and run with them, with the intention of exceeding her expectations. Apparently, I had overstepped. I left that meeting confused and feeling insecure. Over the next six weeks, as I waited through the (longest yet) interval of her review I figured something out. By now, I had been through the first year of my two-year MFA program. My writing was—I thought—evolving in ways I was happy about. It was different now than it had been a year before. But that meant that I was not the same writer that this agent had found and signed. Over time, I realized that we had grown apart, creatively. It was no one’s fault. We both came to see that we just could not move forward together. I was devastated, and I believe that she was sad about breaking up. I have tremendous respect for her and I’m grateful for the time and effort she put into making my novel better. So in March of 2017, I found myself back at square one. Albeit with a better (I hoped) manuscript.
Did I mention yet that being a writer requires fortitude? That’s one of the main points I mean to get across here, so let me drive that home:
WRITING TAKES FORTITUDE.
Okay. So if you recall, I am a year-and-a-half in. I’ve been agented, I’d suffered a creative breakup, I’d started a second novel. And let me tell you, the self-doubt is real. I’ve heard it described as impostor syndrome.
|Impostor syndrome (also known as impostorphenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or theimpostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. (Wikipedia).|
At this point you will tell yourself some version of: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? Why are you spending all this money on MFA tuition? Why the HELL are you starting a second book when the first one hasn’t gone anywhere?
Despite the self-doubt, I kept going, working on my second novel. At this point, I was fully invested in my MFA program. I loved it. I grew excited about my second manuscript. For several months I licked my wounded ego and let the dust settle, concentrating on the new work and getting short stories published and entering contests.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, or maybe it’s just me, but I found that once I was really entrenched in writing my second book (a stand-alone sequel), I was able to distance myself from the first. It’s sort of like having a second child.
I plodded on, buoyed by the support of my MFA cohort and advisors. I refined my query letter but did not send more out. I had some stories published, won a fiction contest, then a fellowship. I let my novel manuscript sit “in a drawer” (as writers describe it), while I worked on my second novel. After about six months, I began to go back over my first manuscript, changing some things I thought I had put in only because my first agent had wanted them. That, frankly, was tough. Because it is easy to brainwash yourself into believing that you agree with everything your agent suggests. It is easy to make nice and be a good camper. I realized that I had, on some elemental level, lost touch with my own work. That in some places, I didn’t recognize my words. And that, my friends, was scary. Because, as I said before, my style was evolving. In moments of doubt I thought that maybe, just maybe, the first success had been a fluke.
Now I must interject something important. Along with the patience and fortitude, submitting writers—I’ve learned—need to be realistic. This does not mean pessimistic, though. When I say realistic I mean that if ten prospective agents tell you that they felt like they “couldn’t connect” with your main character, then this is a problem you ought to address. Telling yourself, well, they just don’t get me, should only work about—say—five times. Then it’s time to smell the f**ing coffee.
After a few rejections to my second-round queries I began to think, well, you know, Liza, a lot of first books aren’t published, right? I mean, we’ve all read those interviews where a now-famous-and-successful author laughs, confessing that their first book was truly terrible. Well, hell. They can laugh now, now that they’ve got a mini-series coming out and an endorsement from Reese or Oprah. Har, har, har. After several requests for fulls and some kind rejections, I had an email. A young agent from a top agency. A man. I had mainly queried women, thinking my work would resonate more with them. He requested the full. I sent it, feeling cautiously optimistic. By now I had learned to corral my excitement to protect myself from disappointment when the news was not encouraging. Five days passed. He emailed, requesting a call.
As before, I dressed professionally for the call. We talked. I was impressed. He liked my work. He was soft-spoken and persuasive, without being pushy. A few days later I accepted his offer of representation. Then, almost exactly a year after my first agent breakup, things started to happen.
It was early March of 2018 when I began working with my new agent. I sent him a list of recent comparable titles to mine and ten days later I left for a month-long fellowship in Scotland, in a castle where no speaking was allowed between 9:30am and 6:30pm and cell service and internet were spotty at best, with reliable reception a 45-minute walk away. My novel went out on submission to publishers and I was a wreck, waiting to hear.
But again, guess what? Waiting is involved here. Just as agents ask for submissions and can be inundated with queries, editors must also wade through manuscripts, looking for fresh new authors who have great style, or a marketable story, or just some magically charismatic way with words, or maybe all of the above and more. And here, I’m going to wander off again a little bit. Bear with me. Take for instance the meteoric rise of Delia Owens’ WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. Delia had previously published a couple of non-fiction books that had done well. At the age of 68 (GO DELIA! GO DELIA! GO DELIA!) her first novel came out. Reese Witherspoon, who’s an actress but also the face of the wildly popular Reese’s Book Club which boasts ONE MILLION followers on Instagram, chose it as her featured book of the month.
The rest is, truly, publishing history. The book has been sitting pretty at the very tippy-top of the NYT bestseller list for over five months and Reese has her hand in the development of the movie.
See, good things come to those who wait. Just ask Delia. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Owens at the Savannah Book Festival in February. We had a nice conversation, where Delia was very cordial and self-effacing and I was all fangirl squealy-gushy. When I left for a moment to refill Delia’s publicist’s wine, a man stopped me and started chatting me up, asking me about my book. I was thrilled and flattered, until I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens, and our convo went straight downhill from there.
TO BE CONTINUED. I promise to get back on point in Part III.