Recently, a thread in an online writer’s community popped up, beginning with someone (who hadn’t begun querying) asking why folks sent query letters to so many agents.
Did they have that many “dream agents?
Why not send to just one or two top choices?
And, really, how long does it take?
Answers flew in—achingly honest and reminiscent of everyone’s distant and not-at-all-distant (often painful) publishing journeys. I thought back to how long it took me.
The answer? You got some time?
My published-too-young book: In my twenties, I co-wrote a nonfiction book (under my former—married—name, Randy Meyers Wolfson) Couples With Children. Co-author Virginia DeLuca and I, in our work with pregnant and post-partum women, saw that suddenly shaky marriages were of more concern than diapers. And we wanted to write. We bought How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum, wrote a proposal and a sample chapter, sent it off and shortly thereafter had a contract. I won’t go into the many mistakes we made after that (the only thing we did right was selling the book) but this ‘easy’ sell offered (extraordinarily) undeserved confidence.
Soon after, I got divorced. Now I was a single mother and talking about marriage and children seemed, um… embarrassing to say the least. And fiction was really my love. The nonfiction Couples With Children was left to languish.
In between raising kids, badly-chosen men, working in human services by day, and bartending by night, I co-wrote Novels 1 & 2 with Ginny: Two mysteries. Got an agent. We thought we had a series. Didn’t sell books.
Moving on, still submerged in bad men and fantasy, still not applying myself to learning the deeper tenets of writing fiction, and skating on sheer want, I wrote Novel 3, which should have been titled: The Book That Helped Me Pretend I Wasn’t Screwing Up, My Life By Mythologizing It.
No agent. No sale. No memory if I wrote a query. Probably not, because a friend insisted on sending it to his wife’s cousin-the-writer, who called it… execrable? Deplorable? Tripe? He didn’t soften the slam by deeming it poetic or lyrical. Because it wasn’t.
Had a drink or ten.
Thank goodness I had that inappropriate guy to lean on!
Fast forward: Sent kids through college. Lost bad guy/s. Found good one. Got serious about writing. Embarked on my homemade MFA and wrote my trilogy:
Dove in. Joined a writer’s group. Finished. Got an agent. As soon as she put it out for submission, I began writing:
Showed it to said agent. She liked it so much that she replaced the now-limping and ten-times rejected # 4 (are you still with me) with newly minted # 5. And I began writing:
Showed a bit to agent. She loved it. Said keep going! Meanwhile, she kept trotting out #5 to a few editors.
Then my agent turned more attention to representing a different genreand it seemed right for us to part ways. Leaving this agent was wrenching. The ‘bird in the hand’ theory pulled, but I felt a sweet spot with # 6, and felt that I needed the right person to represent it (aware many would find it dark.)
No hard feelings, a virtual handshake goodbye, and agent and I said goodbye.
Back out on the agent-hunting circuit, feeling like a confused divorcee. (Do I talk about the ex? Pretend it never happened?)
Six months later I signed with new (wonderful and current) agent. She read. She edited. I revised. She sold #6 to St. Martin’s Press (The Murderer’s Daughters) in 8 days.
How long did it take to sell my debut novel from when I began writing fiction?
What I learned:
1) To take heart from positive words embedded in rejections and believe the good things they said about my writing. Believe when they said ‘the work just wasn’t for them.’ To take their criticisms seriously and pay attention to ideas generously passed on. (Well, not the one that said, “she was so over domestic violence.)
2) To believe that writing, like any craft, requires honing, and not to beat myself up over unsold books. They weren’t wasted time—they were my education. I doubt Georgia O’Keefe sold her first paintings. Or Grandma Moses, who I feared I might pass in ‘firsts.’
3) To surround myself with supportive writer friends and take heart from their success (even when I felt green and evil.)
4) To learn when to fold them.
5) To know when to hold on.
6) To realize there is no such thing as a pre-met ‘dream agent’ anymore than there is a pre-met ‘dream husband.’ The dream agent is the one who loves your book—because s/he’ll make your dreams come true. You’ll know them when you find them.
I held on through years of rejection, chanting the old joke:
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice.
Getting my craft to match my passion and thoughts took many years. I would never have said it back then, at my personal ground zero, but I’m happy that it worked out as it did. The Murderer’s Daughters was the right book for me to debut with. Had I sold any previous novel, I don’t think I would have ended up feeling as right as I did.
I think, like with a partner, when you have the right material, there’s a magic click, and you fall in love—whether it takes six books or sixteen years on one book.
Since then, I’ve published three more novels (The Widow of Wall Street, The Comfort of Lies & Accidents of Marriage) and am about to deliver my fifth to Simon & Schuster. Working with a dream agent and dream editors.
Maybe that’s how long it takes. As long as it takes to feel the click, and have someone else agree.
Ya gotta have heart. A little brains. And a little talent.