Life and Writing Advice is our new blog post series! Sometimes the most helpful information is knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences, that others can empathize with us, and that we can learn from others. Once a month, get ready to read about personal experiences that impacted or changed writers’ and freelancers’ lives.
We give writers a prompt question. For each Life and Writing Advice post, we’ll show the prompt question and then the writer’s response. We hope this series connects people and provides inspiration. Let us know your thoughts about our new series in the comments!
In 2016, I attended a small, local writing retreat. The guest speaker was a literary agent who had previously worked as an editor for one of the Big 5 trade book publishers. One of the retreat packages included the option of the agent reading the first chapter of your manuscript. I decided to fork out the hundred or so dollars. The price was a bargain compared to other retreats and conferences. Five hundred plus a plane ticket to New York or California? Sorry, no. But one hundred in my own city? Definitely.
At that point, I had a finished manuscript on its sixth draft, and I’d been shooting queries into the void, hoping some agent—any agent—would bite (or at least email back). So the idea of a real agent actually reading my first chapter felt happy-dance inducing.
On the day of the retreat, I attended various presentations and workshops, all the while stewing over the meeting with the agent. As I followed an event volunteer to the room for the meeting, my thoughts bounced around chaotically.
What if he hates it? What if he says the idea will never sell? What if I’m super awkward the whole time?
And, of course, the one question I’d been examining for only 10 seconds before I fell asleep each night: What if he asks for the entire manuscript?
Now, I’m a realist. Not a pessimist. A realist. Optimism and I are friends, but we keep things real. My tootsie-roll heart can take only so much unnecessary disappointment. So if that small question stepped out to play, I generally banished it as quickly as possible. That day, though, I allowed that indulgent truffle of a thought for a moment.
The meeting was going well. The agent complimented me on my voice and humor. I asked some thoughtful questions. The meeting was giving me everything I expected and needed —encouragement, feedback, and insight into the industry. So when the agent said, in our last couple of minutes, “I’d like to see the rest of the manuscript after you polish it up,” a sort of rushing filled my ears. This was my chance at last!
I went home, polished my manuscript, sent it off, and waited.
Basically, I spent a year waiting and following up with the agent. He rarely answered my emails. For some reason he was unusually busy. Luckily, I had a mentor who knew the agent. Around the six-month mark, I asked her if I should assume the agent disliked my manuscript. She encouraged me to keep waiting, and she emailed the agent, too. It was a really hard year.
Then I finally heard back from the agent, and he didn’t want to represent my novel.
I was crushed. I was so sure he would say yes. My mentor thought it was likely he would say yes. I’d set myself up for a yes. And it was a no. Now what was I supposed to do? Go back to futile querying? That seemed so defeating.
I decided to take a short break from writing and querying. I figured this was a smart, healthy move. Except, that break turned into almost a year of not querying, and I didn’t work on many of my other writing projects either. And I regret that. It’s not that I felt like a failure and no other agent would love my book. I still think my book is good. The agent said it was good and that plenty of other agents would like it. It just wasn’t his preferred genre.
In essence, I allowed the letdown and subsequent daunting task of querying overwhelm me. Taking a short break would have been fine, but I wish I set a defined amount of time. If my novel is trickier to pitch, then I could have finished another project that was more on trend with publishing tastes. I could have gotten further into the query process instead of putting it off. I could have made more progress by now. I didn’t give up on my novel, but I got lazy and wasted time. And that’s what I regret.
But don’t pity me too much! I’ve started querying again, and I’ve signed up for another local writing retreat. Writing a novel and then going the traditional publishing route is definitely a journey. There are dozens of small triumphs and failures that make up that journey, and I’ve found it’s best not to take any one success or failure too seriously. Just keep working at it!