How I Wrote a Novel and Got An Agent, Part 2

(Part 1 can be found here.)

So, where were we? Oh, yes—a coffee shop in Tanzania. After six years, I had just written “The End” on a piece of paper containing the last page of the first draft of my novel.

Andy was still up on Kilimanjaro somewhere, so I went out for Indian food with a Norwegian girl I’d met that day. I had a celebratory beer. The next morning, Andy came down off the mountain, and the morning after that, I packed my manuscript back in my backpack and we got on a bus for points west. I didn’t take it out again for eight months.

Finally, in June of 2011, our travels ended and we found ourselves back in New York. I typed up my novel and sent it out to my writers’ group (and also finally let Andy read it). Everyone gave me excellent feedback, most of which I proceeded to ignore. I had already spent so much time working on the project, I just wanted it to be done.

(I had also spent so much time working on it that BOTH of the agents I had met in the years before—the ones who had said they’d be happy to look at my book when it was finished—had left agenting. Oops!)

So if I wanted to find an agent, I was going to have to start from scratch. I’d have to send out query letters (one-page letters pitching the book to prospective agents) and hope that an agent requested to read some pages…and loved them so much that she requested to read the whole book…and loved the book so much that she requested to represent me forever and ever, amen.

While there was plenty of information out there (thank goodness for writer and agent blogs!) about the querying process, the numbers seemed to be stacked against me. For every kindhearted post I found on how to write a great query letter, I found another about how agents receive 100+ queries a day and are looking for any reason they can find to reject you.

Luckily, that’s when my friend Julie introduced me to the wonderful Eugene Myers, who had been through the whole querying process and come out the other side with an agent and a book deal. He gave me tons of querying advice and the most spot-on critiques a person could hope for on my query and synopsis. (He could tell just from my synopsis that the beginning of my book was too heavy on backstory—an important issue that I, in my hurry to get querying, once again chose to ignore.)

In August, I e-mailed my query and first 5-10 pages to seven agents. Some took only days to respond and others took several weeks, but the results were all the same:

I won’t lie—it felt like crap. Tears were shed. I felt like I had made my book as good as I could on my own, and that even if it wasn’t quite perfect, it needed that professional feedback that only an agent or editor could give to take it to the next level.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that wasn’t true. I already had plenty of feedback to work with—all the stuff my writers’ group, and my husband, and Eugene had told me. My book wasn’t as good as I could make it yet. I could do better.

So I fired up the computer in my parents’ basement and got to work on the hardest part of the whole process: major revisions. I cut my first two chapters. I wrote three different new beginnings for my book, scrapping days of work each time I decided one wasn’t working. I took the metaphorical hatchet to my trademark long, comma-ridden sentences. (And cut them down. Into shorter sentences.)

I also discovered Miss Snark’s First Victim. Every month, that blog hosts a “Secret Agent” contest in which an agent critiques the first pages of entrants’ novels and picks winners. I read through months’ worth of contests, learning what kinds of entries appealed to agents, and what appealed to me. I learned how to write a first page that grabs the reader. And when I finally finished my big revision in October, I entered that month’s contest…and ended up with my first partial request.

Then, a few days later, I got a request for a query and five pages from another agent who had seen my first page in the contest. I sent it to her, and the next morning I had an e-mail saying that she wanted to read the whole book. Hooray! That agent was Ammi-Joan Paquette.

With renewed confidence, I started querying again. I got more requests for pages. I still got rejections—more rejections than requests—but they began to hurt less. I entered more contests, including the annual Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction at Miss Snark’s First Victim, in which agents “bid” on how many pages of your book they’d like to read. Three agents ended up bidding for my full manuscript within seconds of each other…and a week later, I had two offers of representation. A week after that, I had two more.

In the end, five wonderful agents offered me representation, which is kind of a ridiculous dream situation for a querying writer. They all brought different and compelling skills to the table, and I found myself faced with a difficult choice. But the agent who was the best fit for me turned out to be the first one who ever requested to read my whole book: Joan.

So, I signed the contract…

…and am now an agented writer! 😀

Phew—story complete! However, if for some reason you have a hankering for EVEN MORE details about the writing of Gladys Gatsby Takes the Cake or the querying process, you’re welcome to check out this interview I did at QueryTracker, which also includes my query letter for Gladys.

Also, without the support of my friends and family, Gladys and I never would have made it to this point, and there are a few more people who deserve extra thanks for their help during this process: Katie, Jessica, Evelyn, and Miriam (the brilliant ladies of the Breadbasket Writers’ Group); Hoi Ning, Aunt Judy, Brooke, Christine, Nomi, and Cath (my beta readers); and Ann (the very best companion a girl could ask for in query hell).

Much shorter entries to come in the near future, I promise.

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10 thoughts on “How I Wrote a Novel and Got An Agent, Part 2

  1. Man, I love that you were sitting alone in a coffee shop in Tanzania when you finished Gladys (love the picture of it, too!). That’s just about as cool as you can get.

    The next time I finish a book remind me to stick it in a backpack and not take it out for eight months! I’ll just have to start planning that trip around the world. 🙂

    Anyway, congratulations! I loved having a front row seat for the last part of this journey. It was kind of like being friends with a celebrity. (And actually in a few years when Gladys is published and everyone’s talking about how fabulous it is, that’ll be even more true!)

    • Ann, your comment made me wish I had a picture of the coffee shop to share, but Andy had the camera up on the mountain and when he came back, I never did remember to take one. But then I thought to look online, and found that the cafe has a little website! So now I’ve linked that at the top of the entry.

      In other news, I’m so glad that we’ve become friends through this process. =)

  2. Thanks for the “extra thanks” but really it was my pleasure to read it. Since I am a slow read, and although prejudiced, was grabbed even before the rewrite, knew you had a winner. I guess all those years of talking gourmet food with you have finally paid off. Congrats on the agent. She’s lucky to have been selected by you. Love, Aunt Judy

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