On Losing My Agent (And Why I’m Not Giving Up)

This year started out on the best possible of notes. I went to a Shinto shrine with my family (which is the thing to do on New Year’s Day in Japan, regardless of your actual religious convictions), made my prayer for the new year (for my book, which was about to go on submission, to sell, of course), and bought an omikuji—a fortune, printed on a small piece of paper and numbered to go along with the chopstick-like stick I shook from a wooden jar.

My fortune was chuu-kichi, or “medium happiness,” which is the second-best fortune you can get. It said that I would get what I wanted, but I’d have to wait for it. So I sort of grimaced and said, “Oh well, at least I’ll get my wish eventually,” and buckled down for a long submission process.

Four days later, that optimism was shattered.

If you’re on Query Tracker or Absolute Write, you’ve probably already heard this, but my former agent has left the business. I am not going to comment on it in detail, because I don’t have the whole story, and because I’m obviously not an unbiased source, but let’s just say that, while I am most definitely cheering her on in her new life… at the time I felt a little like I’d been left at the altar.

I was suddenly sitting here with this submission-ready (I suppose, although of course I’m expecting to make at least some revisions once I get ready to go out with another agent) manuscript in hand, and no one to take it to these publishers I’d been dreaming about.

My first thought was that it was over.

But, well, here I am, on the two-month anniversary of that email, and I am still fighting for this book. There have been times when this whole process has made my physically ill… from the basically good (being unable to eat a thing on the day of my Call) to the basically awful (self-doubt, anxiety, generally wishing I’d never even come up with this idea)… but the fact of the matter is, I believe in this book.

It may need work. I’m fairly sure it does need work of some sort—hence the search for a new agent and an editor, instead of simply self-publishing. But this concept, these characters, this setting… I love them. I believe in them. My agent believed in them. My CP believes in them. And I have to believe that someone else will believe in them too.

Confession time: I started writing this book in 2005. Now, don’t panic. It didn’t actually take me ten years to write it. It was maybe a year of actively working on it all together. I wasn’t ready to do it justice when I started, and at some point I realized that and put it aside. Thank goodness I had no desire to query at the time.

So, I started writing in August 2005, and around November I hit a snag. I am pretty much a pantser (although I plan more now that I did back then), and I had no idea how this book was going to end. I had two versions in mind. One was too perfect, everything tied up too neatly in a way that seemed false. The other was too sad, unsatisfying. I had no idea which I was writing towards, so I took some time away to figure it out… and then I got pregnant.

Some women can apparently write while they are pregnant. I cannot. I wrote, of course, during that time—short stories and fanfics and lists of baby names. But I couldn’t focus. I was hormonal. I didn’t feel like me… not in a bad way, but in a way that took me out of my story big time. I read a lot… I remember re-reading Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND in a week (I had just quit my job and had a LOT of free time on my hands) with Kid #1, Murakami’s THE WIND-UP-BIRD CHRONICLE (in Japanese; that took awhile) with Kid #2, and all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books with Kid #3. I was really into SFF. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS came out. I wrote Star Wars fanfiction, and didn’t really care if it was very good.

And this book that would get me my agent was simmering. Those endings were simmering. I thought about those characters now and then, and wondered if their ending was a happy one or not. I came back to it once, wrote eight or nine versions of the chapter that had tripped me up before, and eventually got pregnant again and moved on to other, shorter-lived, more hormonally-appropriate things.

But I missed them. I missed those characters and I missed that book, and it was sometime in the spring of 2013 that I realized that it COULD be a book. A real book, not just something I emailed to a friend or two. It occurred to me that people—people I didn’t even know!—might want to read this. And so I opened the file again.

It was 103,000 words long, and the plot that I had in mind was only half finished. I had been doing years and years of reading since the last time I’d touched it, and all of that SFF actually came in handy—I had a better idea of how to introduce my setting (which wasn’t another planet, but was still a place and a subculture most readers wouldn’t be familiar with) subtly, walking the fine line between infodump and confusing. I went back to Bujold, McCaffrey, Tolkien, and did my best to apply that to my real-world but still new-to-most setting.

I went back and fleshed out my characters. The MC and LI already had fairly detailed backstories and personalities, but a lot of the minor characters were flat, one-dimensional… just there because I needed SOMEONE to do a specific thing. I gave them full names, jobs, birthdays, siblings… dozens of things that never made it into the actual story, but which ended up contributing to some major plot points.

I figured out the ending. And it wasn’t either of the two that had seemed so unsatisfactory eight years before.

And then I rewrote it. I edited it. I tried to find similar books that were already published, whether they were similar because of the setting, the tone, the gender or orientation of the characters, etc. I read. I kept those books in mind as I edited and edited again.

My 148,000 word first draft was cut down to 109,000. And I queried. I got two partial requests on the first day… but then I got lots of rejections. Then, in January, an agent sent me an email that would change my book and my life. That agent was, of course, Jessica Negron, and I would eventually sign with her… but she rejected me first, told me that my book was too long and my opening not strong enough. And she was right. There was still a lot that could be cut. I think I cut over 50 instances of the word “that” between the second draft and the eleventh. I rewrote the opening. I rewrote it again. And then—long story short—she signed me.

At this point, there is hardly any of that first draft left, and my book is so much better for being gutted. But the characters are there. They’re still inhabiting this world that I love. They’re still living their lives that moved me as I was writing them… their lives that (I am sure. I have to be sure) will move someone else someday.

I started writing this book in 2005. I spent nine of those ten years NOT writing it. I pulled it apart and put it back together, sent it out into the world like my heart ripped out for all the world to see.

And I still love it. I’m not going to say that it’s the best book in the world. It’s not. Of course it’s not. I don’t know what the “best” book in the world IS… but it’s most definitely NOT mine.

This isn’t the best book in the world. It’s not perfect. But it’s better for having been represented by Jessica, and it’ll be better still someday in the hands of an agent who will take it all the way, in the hands of an editor who will help me walk that line between wonderfully unique, and universal enough to sell to people who may not know anything at all about the world in which it’s set.

It will be out there someday.

I believe that because, to paraphrase a character from my WIP (Yes, of course I’m working on something new, and super excited about it too!): There is nothing BUT to believe it. I believe in my book(s). End of story.

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One thought on “On Losing My Agent (And Why I’m Not Giving Up)

  1. mjpullen says:

    I love this – it’s amazing how you have taken a setback and turned it into a long-term reflection, pulling out the positives and keeping faith. Keep on trucking. You have a great voice and I’m looking forward to reading your book one day!

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