To give the truest sense of my journey to “The Call”, I want to start in fall 2011, so that hopefully people can learn from my mistakes a little faster than I did. You see, in October 2011, I “finished” my historical novel, Blessed Among Women. I thought, hey, this is just like what’s in bookstores! I need to get this to a publisher stat! Then I did a little research and found out that you don’t send it to a publisher, silly, you send it to a literary agent with a query letter. So then I sat down to write a query letter. And boy, did I bomb. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that I went after some of the top agents in the field with a poorly-written query letter and a 55k word “novel”. When their assistants got done wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, I got form reject after form reject.
I feel extremely fortunate that a) I have a hugely supportive husband who really believed that somewhere in what I had written was a real novel; b) I love researching things; and c) I am the world’s most stubborn person. Ever. So I was going to find out what I was doing wrong and fix it.
First thing: I dug back into the novel and made additions that enriched the story, and then completely re-wrote the beginning when my beta readers made the comment that it was a good novel “once they got into it”. To me that said the beginning was too slow, so I concentrated on my strong suit (dialogue) to make the opening punchier. Then I joined the “Where Past is Prologue” critique group on Agent Query Connect and learned invaluable lessons.
In January I started the querying process again and got my first requests for pages. Hooray! Then I got form rejects on pages. Ouch. So I set it aside—stepped back, worked on other projects. I thought I had shelved the novel, but it kept whispering to me from my Documents folder. In a fit of procrastination on another project I dove back in to my first love. I read Writing the Breakout Novel (Maas), On Writing (King), Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and, for the thousandth time, Bird by Bird (Lamott). Then I thrashed my novel into submission based on what I learned. I attacked my query with the same fervor, and then started sending again in March.
That’s when things really started to happen.
I started getting requests—I was still getting rejections, but now they were personalized, with real suggestions to help my novel, and invitations to re-submit. I incorporated those suggestions and then sent another batch. If it sounds like I sent a lot of queries, it’s because I sent a lot of queries. Over 130. Maybe even way over 130. 130 is when I stopped counting. But therein lies the biggest lesson of all. So many of those were losses before I ever hit send because I didn’t do my homework. I thought I was done before I even really started. The lesson is: study up and play by the rules. The agents who are turning people down are not bad people who can’t see your brilliance. They are businesspeople who have a job to do and their own rules to play by when they submit to publishers.
So I sent my just-good-enough query plus the first 30ish pages to Clare Wallace of the Darley Anderson Agency (among others—I sent out batches of ten). Within a couple of days, I got an email from the agency’s editor, the delightful Vicki LeFeuvre. She and Clare and read the first part and wanted a synopsis and a full on exclusive. I know exclusives are a hot-button issue among authors, but I was really drawn to the agency. I decided it would be worth a delay in sending material to other agents and granted the exclusive. When the read the full they approached me with a suggestion for revision that would draw the novel more to the “faction” side of historical fiction (basically, they wanted me to draw in more of the true historical element that inspired the novel). I considered it, decided I’d give it a shot and see how I felt about the changes.
Well, they’re the experts for a reason. The suggestions strengthened the novel enormously. I sent the revision and got an email from Clare a couple of weeks later. I was actually standing in the grocery store when I opened the email! She said she wanted to talk about representation. Let me tell you, there is no better feeling than standing in the frozen foods aisle reading those words. Several days later my phone was ringing and I was trying to keep my cool.
We talked for about thirty minutes, but I knew immediately that she was the right one. Her vision for the novel perfectly aligned with mine, and she was excited to hear about the other projects I’m working on. She sent me the contract later that afternoon.
I know this is long, but if it saves anyone some heartache it’s worth it. I learned a lot about patience in this process, and it’s what served me best.