I HAVE AN AGENT!
I’ve always known that the road to writing a book was a long one. I’d assumed it’d be painful, because, when does striving toward something good and meaningful not require a little blood, sweat, and tears?
I’ve been writing stories, and then essays and articles, and then commercial copy, and then attempting to write books for the eighteen years, consecutively. And, put simply, there is no more beautiful nor heart-wrenching act than that which requires creative outpouring.
I wrote two books—both YA fiction, did the whole editing and revising and querying thing only to meet with rejection time and time again. In retrospect, I am SO THANKFUL those first two stories will never see the light of day. They deserved rejection because they were riddled with problems, like, um, no plot.
That said, in March of 2009, two weeks after my daughter was born, in the crazed delirium of frantic sleeplessness that only a new mom knows, I picked up my pen and began writing Waiting for Unicorns.
In Unicorns, Talia Lea McQuinn, nearly-thirteen, is wrestling with the grief of losing her mom to cancer, while living on the edge of the arctic with her dad, a whale researcher. There are no mythical creatures in this story, only the idea that a Narwhal Whale—a Unicorn Whale—could, just maybe, grant a little girl’s impossible wish.
The idea was born partly as a way to process my own heartache as several of my girlfriends' mothers had been recently diagnosed with cancer. Also, being a new mom to my second child—this time a daughter—made me all the more poignantly aware of the bond that exists between mothers and daughters. Between my own mother and me.
Also, winter in northern Minnesota might as well be winter on the polar ice caps. It wasn’t too hard to make that fictional leap.
Coming in at just over 20,000 words or around 70 pages, I knew that Unicorns was much too short to ever make it on the shelves. It was written as middle grade fiction, which, generally speaking doesn’t run very long. But it was going to have to expand a bit. The story was spare but the concept decent. Plus it had a plot. (Bonus!) And so began the rewriting process.
Over the course of the next several months, between bottle feeding, potty training my son, running an ad agency with my insanely patient and loving husband, and trying to hang onto my sanity, I spent every spare minute working on Waiting For Unicorns. And finally, seventeen months and six drafts later, Unicorns rolled in at closer to 30,000 words (just over 100 pages) and it was the most true but hope-filled story I knew how to write.
I spent the next several months writing my query letter and distributing my book to a trusted but honest group of readers who I knew would give me helpful feedback. Their comments were invaluable, and I did one more rewrite before I felt confident the book was ready for submission.
And then it began.
I sent out a batch of query letters. To twelve agents. All twelve rejected.
I revised my query letter and sent out another batch of twelve. More rejection. But this time I also received nice comments on my writing, requests for pages, and finally, a request for a full, which meant an agent was interested in reading my entire manuscript! I was elated!
I tried not to get too excited.
And she rejected it. With scathing comments.
“It’s no more than a glorified outline.” “You should scrap it and start over.”
To say I was crushed, would be a vast understatement.
I questioned everything. The story. My motives. My wasted time and sleepless nights. I'd wanted to write a "true" story—a story that meant something—a story that put the spotlight on hope and grace. But maybe I had failed at that in greater ways than I'd imagined. Maybe I should quit altogether . . .
I took a break from writing, and almost didn’t enter an agent auction I had been planning to enter for several weeks. Authoress’s Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction, which, in 250 words or less, I had the chance to whet the literary appetites of 13 agents and one editor.
I never expected to make the cut.
But I did.
And with only the first 250 words (1 page), Waiting For Unicorns eventually earned six requests for fulls.
I almost died.
I sent out my manuscript. I cried. I prayed. And I waited.
What if these agents felt the same as the first? What if my story sucked? What if my motives were purely selfish? What if I’d wasted all those hours I could have spent with my husband, my two kids, or even just sleeping? And worst of all: What if I didn’t actually know how to write in the first place?
And then five weeks later I received an email from Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary. She’d read Waiting For Unicorns and thought it was REALLY WONDERFUL.
She liked it.
I died again.
“I have the mss out with a reader,” she wrote, “and I'm meeting with her tomorrow to discuss it further. I like what I've read, and am close to making a decision...and will be in touch again very soon.”
I spent the day vacillating among a wide range of emotions. —One moment elated, then next depressed. Was I going to have an agent? Should I give up writing altogether?
Danielle’s answer came later that night in the form of an email.
Subject line: Okay, I have no patience
“So here's the deal,” she wrote. “I'm meeting with my reader tomorrow and I want to get her feedback on your story. But the truth of the matter is, I CANNOT stop thinking about your novel. I think it's brilliantly written and heartbreaking and real and wonderful. The more I think about it and re-read it (and I admit, I've been following my husband around the house all night reading him passages), the more I like it. I'd love to set up a time to speak with you over the phone so we can get to know each other a little better.”
I screamed. Literally. Out loud.
And then I started crying. And shaking.
Then I did a happy dance in my chair.
And then I ran to tell my husband.
And after notifying the other agents who still had my mss, and giving them several days to finish reading and make an offer of representation if they were interested, I ultimately decided to accept Danielle’s offer.
Today, I have an agent.
That last sentence, the one right above this one you’re reading now:
Best. Sentence. Ever.
For the record, this writing stuff is hard work. Hardest work I’ve ever done. Harder than labor, and so far, I’ve done that twice. —I’d like to think I have an educated perspective.
There is so much grief and so much joy in this creative process. So much opportunity for heartache and also for victory, and mostly, for evidence of grace. Existence was woven into existence with words, and any I set to paper is, in some small way, only a retelling. And for this, I am grateful for the privilege of picking up a pen at all. Maybe thankful is the best word. It took me eighteen years of trying, failing, and learning, to teach me how to trust. I'm praying for whatever it takes to keep my heart rooted there. Even more failure, if necessary.
I’ll close this out with a few words via Richard Wilbur, as his poem so aptly says what I cannot. His words are what my heart has felt for years, and what I wish, desperately, for anyone who has ever tried to do something beautiful and meaningful with words. Be encouraged my friends. And, as another dear friend and author recently said to me: “You are closer than you think.”
By Richard Wilbur
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.