Last week I got sidetracked in my enthusiasm for Delia Owens and her novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. Delia is my hero, publishing her first novel at sixty-eight. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing about my path to publishing and the waiting and anxiety that are involved. So I’ll pick up where I stopped, with my first manuscript going out on submission to publishers. This was in March of 2018.
I felt lucky, in a way, that my breakup with my first agent happened before any publishing editors saw my manuscript. As I understand it, it is a no-no to send the same manuscript out twice, unless it has been significantly re-worked and maybe has a new title.
My new agent made no editorial changes. We discussed where he might send it and he patiently listened to my requests. I asked that he not submit to digital-only publishers. It was important to me that my book come out in a hard-cover version. Call me old-school, but there is nothing like a hardcover. I wanted to be able to walk into bookstores and hold my baby in my hands. He asked me to give him a list of current (published within the past five years) comp titles and I gave him a list of editors of books I felt were similar to mine.
Weeks passed. Over in Scotland, with very little internet connectivity, I was a wreck. I think that modern technology has conditioned us to experience adrenaline surges in response to the stimulus of an email notification. Ding! Your story is shortlisted for a contest! Ding! You’re waitlisted for a prestigious writer’s conference! Ding! Your proposal for a presentation has been accepted! And these are only positive examples. So, secluded in the Castle, I was jonesing for news. For DINGS.
My research told me that four months was the usual window for a manuscript to elicit interest. I sought commiseration from my fellow writers in the castle and did my best to immerse myself in revising my second novel (working title: IN ALL GOOD FAITH). On those cold Scottish spring evenings the five fellows read each other’s work or our own work, or read the playwright’s scenes in parts. In out sequestered days, minus the constant distraction of internet and household duties, I managed to make some real progress on GOOD FAITH. I think, in retrospect, that I was trying to attach myself more deeply to the second story, because I might have to face the prospect of the first one not selling. I began to feel distance–physically and emotionally–from that first manuscript.
We can come up with many defenses when we anticipate rejection. Be it personal or professional, rejection hurts. I was always the type to break up first in dating, because if one does, one controls the outcome to some degree.
Professionally, thought, we have to wait. We have to allow our work to be critiqued and edited by others and, if it is accepted, allow a price to be negotiated for our babies. There are a lot of variables and many things can go wrong, or go sideways. While we wait, we must battle insecurity and, in my case, obsessive tendencies. I speak only for myself here, from my own experience, so take this all with a grain of salt. Although this all sounds dire and it wasn’t always a smooth ride, make no mistake about it: this was something I wanted as much as I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.
I felt SO grateful to have found an agent to represent my work, and to have my manuscript under consideration. I felt grateful that I had another novel in process, that I was inspired to write, and that I had the time and freedom to do so.
When, in late March, I asked my agent what he had heard from submissions, he began to forward responses. While on a walk in the woods on castle grounds, five forwards came in in rapid succession. Ding! No, because they had something similar in the works; Ding! No, because they weren’t looking for Historical Fiction at that time; Ding! No, because the editor just didn’t connect with my characters. I stopped reading then asked my agent to stop sending them. I realized that I could easily fall into an unhealthy spiraling obsession, waiting for each response and attempting to decipher if there were some hidden message, or something being withheld. I realized that I was taking these rejections to heart to an unhealthy degree.
At this point I had something of a self-reckoning. I had to wrestle with the fact that might book might not sell. I had to admit to myself that I had, over time, allowed this whole process to take over my life. First, I had wanted to learn to write, then to finish a novel, then to make it as good a book as I was capable of, then to find an agent, and then to see it published. All through the process I sought validation. I still do. I realized that my thinking was that if this book did not sell I was invalidated. A fraud. An impostor. (see previous post).
I decided I only wanted to hear good news.
So, for the rest of my time in Scotland, I revised my second manuscript, telling myself that if the first one was declared dead, I would be able to offer up my second born so that my agent wouldn’t lose interest in me. This was, in part, a defense mechanism. I also came up, finally, with the ending of the story.
As with my first novel, the ending of this novel did not reveal itself to me until I was well into the story. In both cases, I have written along knowing where the plot is leading, but not what the destination would be. That, it seems for me, is a leap of faith, believing that all will be revealed in time. Sometimes our characters surprise us.
More months passed in waiting, and by July I felt like my second novel manuscript was complete. I sent it to my agent but he told me he didn’t want to send it out while my first novel was still in play. He comforted me, saying that first novels often take a bit longer to sell.
On a trip to see my daughter in New York in mid-August, I arranged to meet my agent, Mark, in person at his office. Although it was beastly hot I was determined to look professional and, hopefully, stylish. I wore a pair of kitten-heeled mules that look fabulous but are extremely hard to walk in.
I teetered around behind Mark on the office tour, hoping I wouldn’t wipe out. In his office I admired the view and the books he’d represented. We discussed both of my novels and I had a chance to tell him about my research for the second and the historical events that figure into the plot. When I have a willing listener I tend to start gesticulating and bouncing in my seat with enthusiasm. He seemed intrigued, but said he did not want to send it out yet. He believed that something good would happen with the first novel. I left the meeting feeling buoyed somewhat about my prospects, and I careened back through reception and onto the elevator and outside onto Madison Avenue, where I leaned against the building and exhaled before changing into the flip-flops I had stuffed in my purse. I felt exhausted, but also exhilarated.
The next day, I boarded the train for the seven-hour trip home, to Virginia. Around Philadelphia, I had a glass of wine (okay, two) since it was cocktail time. Then I fell asleep. I woke to the ringing of my phone.
Disoriented and fuzzy-headed, I noticed it was a New York number. It was Mark. He said he had an offer on my book.
I sat up, trying to clear my head.
This seemed so sudden. I had just met with with him the previous day. As the news began to sink in he told me he would negotiate terms and get back to me. I thanked him and we hung up. I looked around the train car, smiling broadly, but everyone seemed to carry on as before.
I wanted to stand up and shout, or burst into song—like they do in musicals—high kicking my way down the aisle as my fellow passengers performed choreographed moves with briefcases and laptops and boater hats, rising to harmonize on the chorus: “JUST LOOK AT HER! SHE HAS AN OFFER! AN OFFER ON HER MAN-U-SCRIPT!”
I wanted to shout, but I just kept it to myself, jiggling my crossed leg and staring out the window and smiling and smiling. It felt good.
A couple of days later, if memory serves me, Mark called to tell me that he had told the prospective publisher that I had a second finished manuscript that was a stand-alone sequel to THE THIN END OF THE WEDGE. The publisher asked to see it.
Three days passed. Or maybe five. I heard from Mark that the publisher wanted to buy both of my manuscripts. Negotiations began. My agent did a great job for me. I got everything I asked for and a “very nice deal”. I’ve exchanged emails with the acquisitions editor at the publishing house and met the head of publishing. I’ve been given a pub date of August 2020.
So, back to my theme of waiting. I agreed to a book deal on September 4, 2018. Eight months have passed and I’m hoping to see my contract soon. More, next time, about the process. As always, thanks for reading.