In February 2015 I finally signed with my literary agent, Stacy, after years of rejection. If you had asked me that day—as I sat eating celebratory bruschetta at Macaroni Grill—how long I thought it would be until I got a book deal, I might have guessed four to six months.
That was over two years ago. I can finally tell you everything that has happened since.
First of all, here’s what happens after you sign with an agent: your agent submits your manuscript to acquisitions editors, who serve as the gatekeepers at their respective publishing houses. If an editor likes it, she will present it to the rest of her house and try to get them on board. This includes the sales and marketing teams who need to be convinced it will make money. If they all approve, she comes back to your agent with an offer.
This process is called being “on submission.” And although it may sound exciting—publishing professionals in New York are reading your book! Your dream really could come true at any moment!—any writer who has made it this far will tell you that the wait and uncertainty are excruciating. Any given editor is still most likely to reject it, and because there are a finite number of editors, you can really feel the gut-punch of each rejection moving your book one step closer to death.
But when Stacy started submitting my manuscript the following June, I actually didn’t stress about it too much. Even as the rejections started rolling in, I was so distracted preparing for my August wedding that I barely noticed. That’s actually my best piece of writing advice: if at all possible, try to be planning your wedding the first time you go on submission.
But at the end of July, I got an email from Stacy that blasted me back to reality: a compilation of rejections from all the remaining editors. They’d all written similar things: loved my voice, didn’t know how to market this type of memoir. One editor—let’s call her Jessica—had especially nice things to say. She suggested I revise it into a young adult novel and send it back so she could reconsider. Stacy thought I should do it; otherwise, we’d reached a dead end.
My heart sank as I read all this in the middle of a Colorado gas station, where Doug and I had stopped on our way home from another wedding. Turn my memoir into young adult fiction? That would be like turning a bear into a cat.
“I’m not doing it,” I said to Doug as we got back in the car. “It’s over.”
“You’ve made it too far to give up now,” he said. “I think you should go for it.”
“But I’m a memoirist.”
“Oh, the line between memoir and fiction has always been very thin,” he said, waiving off my concern with definitive certainty. “All memoirs are to some extent fictionalized, and all writers of fiction inevitably mine their own experiences. The most important thing is to convey emotional truths in a way that appeases publishers and resonates more readily with readers.”
He then went on to give a detailed history of authors throughout the ages who have published memoirs as fiction and fiction as memoirs, depending on the trends of their times. And I just stared at him, mouth agape, wondering how I managed to find such a perfect life partner.
By the time we crossed into Nebraska, I was convinced.
Stacy arranged for me to talk with Jessica. I blocked an hour off my work schedule and took the call in my office. She gave me advice for the revision and I took copious notes. “I’m getting married this weekend,” I told her at the end of our call. “I’ll start revising right after the wedding.”
And I did. This again proved to be great timing: diving into such a big project instantly eliminated my post-wedding blues.
I revised from the middle of August until the end of January. It was the most focused and intense period of my life, and I was surprised by how much I loved it. I cleared my weekends so I could do nothing but write, and during the work weeks I’d long for my writing binges with a deep, aching anticipation I’d never felt leading up to anything else—not even my wedding. It was easy to maintain momentum knowing Jessica was waiting on the other side of all my hard work.
I felt confident when Stacy sent the revised manuscript back to Jessica in February. “My book deal is coming in March,” I even told a friend, embarrassingly. “I know it because I sent my wish out into the universe, just like Oprah says, just like in The Secret.”
Four weeks later, Jessica rejected it—said it still sounded too much like a memoir.
I was confused; I thought I’d followed all her suggestions. Still, I wasn’t completely discouraged. Before I’d started revising, Stacy told me that even if Jessica ended up rejecting it, we’d have many more editors to submit to once it was YA fiction—which is, as it turns out, hot.
So Stacy sent it out to a long list of editors, and we waited.
And this is when I learned how truly awful it is to be on submission. The compulsive checking of your phone and email. The way you become the most anxious and dullest person on earth, your mind drained of everything except two questions: Is it going to happen today? Is it going to happen ever? Not having anyone to talk to, because no one in your life has been through this. The stories you read online about people who got three-book deals after just two days.
By mid-June, I still hadn’t heard anything. I figured Stacy was compiling the rejections and waiting to forward them along until the last one rolled in. I emailed her before Doug and I left for our delayed honeymoon to Alaska, requesting that she not send them until after we returned; I didn’t want bad news to ruin our trip. She agreed.
I still didn’t hear anything after the trip, and I was antsy. I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and went through my entire apartment, holding up every object I owned and asking myself “Does this bring me joy?” For weeks, I dedicated myself to this pursuit with an obsession that bordered on mania; I threw away 70% of my possessions.
There’s something about getting rid of all your stuff that really does make you reevaluate happiness. Once my things were gone, I sat in the middle of my empty floor and asked myself: Can I be happy if I never publish a book? I was surprised by the answer, and how quickly it leapt to my mind: Yes.
I took my agent contract off the refrigerator and held it in my hands. It had turned crinkly and yellow. I put it away in a drawer next to my bed.
And then, while conducting an assessment at the psych hospital on the evening of July 26, I got a call from Stacy. She said that one of the editors—let’s call her Christina— loved my book. She’d shared it with others in her publishing house, and they loved it too. They just had one concern: some of my content was inappropriate for younger readers. But if I revised and resubmitted the first few chapters, Christina was “very confident” we could move towards a book deal. MY BOOK WAS BACK IN THE GAME!!! (I had this whole conversation while seated across from a slumped-over psych patient whose entire face was covered in medical tape.)
I spent the weekend of my first wedding anniversary revising those opening chapters like crazy. I removed f-bombs and innuendos and anything that could be construed as a stereotype. I made it so appropriate, it would blow your fucking mind.
On the Wednesday that Stacy sent the chapters back to Christina, I would have guessed that my book deal was coming in two or three days. I actually contemplated—God, this is embarrassing—taking the following Monday off to celebrate.
A week passed: nothing. Two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, seven.
I lied before, when I said that spring was when I learned how excruciating it is to be on submission. August and September were knives through my heart every second. I did nothing with my time except read everything anyone has ever written on the internet about the torment of submission. I learned that almost nobody ends up selling their first book, which felt devastating. Then again, was it even still my first book? If you gradually replace every part of a ship, is it still the same ship?
One author wrote that you won’t sell a book until you’ve already experienced literally everything that can go wrong: your agent dumps you, an offer falls through at the very last minute, your publishing house goes out of business five minutes after you sign a contract.
I wondered: Had enough gone wrong for me yet? It certainly felt like it. Would I really need to suffer even more?
I developed, during this time, what I termed “mental health colds.” These were the weeks I got so anxious I felt physically ill. I got them about every other week.
I asked myself again: Can I be happy if I never publish a book? The answer was still yes, but it was a different kind of yes than before. It was a muted, gritty, teenager-lying-through-their-teeth kind of yes.
The backdrop to all this was the Presidential election. “Fight Song” had long been my personal publishing anthem, and it was also Hillary’s campaign song. One night I looked at her on TV and thought, “I’ve been waiting a long time to publish a book, but not nearly as long as she’s been waiting to be President.” It may sound dumb, but I felt a lot of solidarity with her after that. Her fight gave me strength to keep waiting.
After eight weeks, we heard back from Christina: she liked my revisions and wanted to set up a phone call to make sure we shared the same vision before moving forward.
I put on a blazer and heels to feel more confident for our call, even though I was just in my study. Christina was very nice. She asked a lot of questions about myself and the book and wanted to know if I’d be willing to make additional revisions after they made an offer. I said yes to everything in ways I hoped didn’t sound desperate. She said she’d get back to Stacy as soon as she could, but she didn’t know when that would be.
I resumed my waiting.
A week passed. Two weeks, three weeks, four.
I checked my email more often than my phone could refresh it.
I replayed our call a million times and doubted everything.
For days afterward, all I could think about was Cheryl Strayed’s quote. “Not everything will be okay. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose.”
I came down with a bad mental health cold.
A total of nine weeks passed before we heard from Christina again, in the form of a vaguely-worded email stating she’d been advised to hold off on making an offer until early 2017.
I had no idea what that meant. At first I celebrated, thinking it was good news. Then I grieved, thinking it was terrible news. Then I realized I could at least stop checking my email for a month, which actually ended up being so freeing that I was finally able to get back to work.
For all of December, I plugged away at making the rest of the manuscript appropriate and incorporating other changes Christina had mentioned as well. That way, when she came back with an offer, I’d be able to say “Look, I’m already finished! I did everything you wanted! I’ll make you proud always!” I still had to believe it was going to happen.
But by mid-January, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I somehow understood that it wasn’t.
And then I was able to admit something to myself: this wasn’t how I wanted it to happen, anyway. I wanted to become an author more than anything in the world, but not like this. It’s like how you don’t want to have to force someone to propose to you. I didn’t want to just barely squeak out a low-confidence offer from a house that clearly had serious doubts about me; I wanted to be swept up by a team who felt as enthusiastic about my book as Stacy and I both had that day I first talked to her from my booth at the Macaroni Grill.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry when Christina’s final rejection arrived on January 27. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to postpone a meeting while I sat in my office trying to put myself back together, wondering if I’d just wasted the last eight years of my life.
Where do you even go from there? What happens after you put up a good fight and lose?
Stacy suggested I finish my revisions since there were still a few editors left to submit to. I tried this for a few weeks but something felt off, like trying to perform CPR on someone who has already passed away. The words were still there, but the soul of the book had already drifted off into that great, open library in the sky.
All this time, I’d been so focused on finding a publisher that I hadn’t realized my book itself had already moved on. That because I hadn’t been able to leave my book, my book had finally decided to leave me.
You can’t revive a manuscript that no longer wants to be a manuscript. All you can do is thank it, and let it go.
It didn’t feel right to start writing something new right away, just like it wouldn’t feel right to adopt a new puppy the day after your dog dies.
So I read. I found myself drawn to books about story structure, which I’d never given much thought to before. I ordered every structure book I could find and devoured them as fiercely as my orthodox cousins devoured Oreos that week in 1998 when a rabbi suddenly deemed them kosher.
I feel like I just graduated from an intensive, self-directed, MFA program. I’ve honestly learned more about writing books in the last two months than I did in the last eight years, which is both empowering and alarming.
It forced me to get really honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I know that I’m good at writing sentences. I’ve been good at writing sentences for a long time, and I thought that was enough to write a good book. It’s not. Writing a legitimate, publishable novel requires some serious plotting skills that don’t come naturally to me and that I was never taught. (If you find yourself in a similar predicament, don’t type another word until you’ve read Structuring Your Novel and Story Engineering.)
But I’m an eager learner, and a lifelong reader, and someone who apparently doesn’t mind investing years of my life chasing statistically unlikely goals with no promise of payoff. So I’m confident I can figure it out.
These days, I’m busy outlining (!) my next novel.
I’m excited. I’m terrified. I have a lot of work to do.
And I’m still hopeful that someday, I’ll have really great news to share.