In May 2010, after over a year of querying agents and many near misses, I realized my mistake in working backwards up my Dream List. I had spent the previous year sending my book to wonderful-but-not-top-ten-but-still-great-agents who I hoped would give me feedback if they didn't offer, and that turned out to be true. I got a ton of feedback, I did a lot of spec revisions that did not ultimately garner offers. These were smart agents who know what's up and what would sell. But in my eagerness to please and get a contract, I wound up with a Frankenstein-ed version of what used to be a first draft of a first novel, and not a single offer. In a year's time I had burned my list up to my top ten agents, then my top five. In April 2010, instead of implementing my plan of using all that great feedback to make sure my most yearned-for agents got a super-polished, expertly revised manuscript, I took my poor book back down to the studs, to what it was before all the spec revisions, and sent it, finally, to my top five dream agents. A risky and terrifying maneuver. And I am in no way saying don't revise, I'm saying revise with a purpose, to serve the story, don't take every single suggestion from a million different people. Makes no sense to the narrative. But anyhoo, by the grace of...something, I don't know what...by May I had an offer. From the agent I wanted most. And then two more agents knew I had an offer and then they offered. And then I passed out. Because that's a super weird position to be in - to go from begging for anyone to read this thing, to figuring out how to graciously turn down someone's offer. So I wrote a bunch of stupid rambling emails to the Dream Agent about "Other agents are saying this book won't sell without a complete tear down to the studs but you seem to think it's got more potential than that, please tell me why?" My confidence was shattered after a year - no, it was more like a year a half - of negative criticism and about thirty long, drawn-out rejections. Maybe this book just needed to go take a long nap in a desk drawer. The other agents all thought I could write, they just didn't like this book. Why did this one agent, the one I wanted more than anyone else to represent me, why did she think this book would find readers? In her first display of monumental patience and kindness, which all her writers are so lucky to receive, she sent me an email I want to have plated in gold one day. An email she didn't have to write, but she did anyway. Because she's a freaking rock star. And she's a honey badger with a heart, who actually does give a shit - about everything that matters. Just not nonsense.
Agents and editors work non-stop, I'm pretty sure they don't ever get days off even when they're supposed to. Agents are also editors, and writers, they have to ferociously protect their books and authors without making anyone mad, they must maneuver the minefield of the publishing world with grace, all the while holding the hands of ridiculous authors, first-time spazzy writers like me. My agent has figured out knots and plot holes in both my books, she knows stories like a boss. She talks me down from ledges of self doubt, tells me when it's time to nut up or time to back off. My agent brings books into the world. She makes sure there are books for us all to fall into and love and learn from and devour. That is, to me, one of the most noble and selfless lives a person could live. I cannot believe I went up my list backward. But maybe it happened the way it was meant to. Who the hell knows. I'm just grateful every day. Here is a small part of the email my agent wrote to me, when all she really had to say was, "Oh my God! Stop being so precious about it, you're not Proust and it's just a book! Stop with the hand wringing, get off your ass and let's do this thing!" But she's a far better person than I am. Thank Goodness.
I can only imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to talk to so many people about your manuscript and hear a ton of criticism. And I’m assuming a lot of this criticism is varied, so you start to wonder, what is working and what needs to be addressed. Who’s right? Maybe I should just go back to the drawing board… You start to lose sight of what is there and the reason all these people have reached out to you. I’d like to remind you of that: The fact that so many agents have expressed interest in your manuscript is strong indication of its merit. We are constantly reading – you can probably just imagine how many manuscripts we read each week (it’s kind of astounding sometimes!). Of those, I would say most agents talk to very few of the authors and offer representation to even fewer. You should be very confident in your work if this many people have reached out to you. Keep that in mind when you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed and struggling through a revision.
It simply comes down to the writing, and that’s where this shines. If someone has a story that’s plotted out well but their voice doesn’t shine, there’s really nothing an agent or editor can do to fix that. You can’t really teach someone how to create a voice and a style of writing. You have that.
Hang in there.
Seriously. Makes me cry every single time. To all my friends with books in the hands of agents, or editors, hoping someone will say Yes, I'm passing on the best part of this perfect message. Hang in there. Keep writing. The world is full of readers and a ton of them want your book. They do. For real, do not stop writing. Hold out for the agent who writes emails like this one. Hang in there.