The journey, finding an agent, and all that

Some of you have inquired a bit about the journey to finding an agent and it occurred to me that I’ve been somewhat quiet here over the years about this part of the process, when, in fact, it has been a larger, nagging presence in my life than I’ve let on.  

So here’s the story, and I apologize, in advance, for the length of this post.  Get a drink, kick back, skip to the end if you’re bored.

Technically, I sent my first query letter in 1992. I was eleven and I had written a poem and, since I spent most of my mornings reading cereal boxes and whatever mail my parents left on the kitchen table, I read one of those weekly free community news circulars and discovered they had a very small poetry section.  I wrote a handwritten letter that said, ‘I wrote this poem. I hope you like it!’*  And a month later, my poem appeared in the circular.

Since then, I have spent years sending short stories and novels into the universe. But that was the first and last time anyone has ever published my fiction.

In April 2010, I was serious about publishing a novel inspired by two sisters I had met long ago when I worked at school for children with special needs.  That story was really important to me and I queried it, slowly, for about a year.  Because I had done a lot of research about querying, I actually received a lot of requests to read the book but, in the end, I received around sixty rejections and about twenty of those were rejections of the actual material.

At some point during that process, I actually received a rejection from a reputable agent for a book that wasn’t mine. As in, she gave me all kinds of feedback regarding a character named Logan (there was not, has never been, a character named Logan in the manuscript.)  She later apologized that there had been a mix-up but, at that point, having then received, not only my own beautiful stack of rejections, but, also, in some cruel joke, the rejection of someone else, I made a very difficult decision to shelve that novel and move on.

I wrote RABBIT ISLAND, a young adult novel inspired by the historic Dreamland fire of Coney Island. It’s about a burning amusement park, a young singer trying to find her voice, and an abandoned amusement park ride and group of siblings she discovers underground.

In January 2012, I queried it. Over time, I received many rejections. A few agents, however, gave me very encouraging feedback.  One of those rejections was so incredibly kind and encouraging that I actually cried in my grey cubicle while at work, on the phone with a very confused IT person in India.  I cried because it felt as if I had come close.  I felt that maybe it had been good but not good enough, and, sometimes, it can be hard to always feel not good enough.

After querying some more agents, I decided to put that manuscript aside. I was trying to change some things in my life, gain career experience I wasn’t getting at work, and plan a wedding. Somehow, I managed to write 15,000 words of a novel, then, one day, discovered that a very reputable young adult writer had already written it. Sigh.

But, in the summer of 2012, in a rather surprising string of events stemming from some words I had written about a treasured friend’s book, on this very blog, I met with a real-life editor who reached out to me about my work (color me floored.) I explained some of my projects to her and her enthusiasm for RABBIT ISLAND made me think it might be time to re-look at it.

So I did.

I rewrote it. I changed third person to first, brought characters back to life, sent others to their rooms with no dinner, re-imagined an underground world I thought I knew, and discovered the motivations and the past of a mother I had not understood. I sent it to critique partners and received amazing feedback.  I revised again and sent it to others, then to an amazing friend who I did not know, when I first sent it, but later learned, was the one person I needed to read this book.

Then, last month, in mid-March 2013, I felt ready to send it out. I felt that if no one loved this novel, it wouldn’t matter, because I had done all I could.

I was in conversation with a freelance editor partnering with an agency about my work but, beyond that, I queried just one agent. The one who had sent the kindest rejection. The one who, yes, had made me cry (because the rejection was so kind.) The one who, last Wednesday told me she loved the book and Thursday offered representation.

So here we are.

*For the record, I firmly believe all query letters should only consist of the words ‘I wrote this. I hope you like it’ because, what more is there, really, than that?**

**If you’re new to querying, don’t do that. Email me.

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15 thoughts on “The journey, finding an agent, and all that

  1. Wonderful words from Beth, above, who I've been lucky enough to meet at several local events. I am ecstatic for you, and I love the mysterious/tragic premise. I cannot wait to hear this news followed by a sales announcement. 🙂

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  2. This is just brilliant! Well done! I knew that your time would come – and this is only the beginning. Fantastic, I keep repeating in my head. It is not my work, but it is the work of someone special … and to have representation is exciting in the extreme.

    There is hope for each of us.

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  3. This is so wonderful! I'm so happy for you, I really am. And every writer can feel the, “I'm not good enough.” No, writing and querying is not for wimps. Your book sounds awesome. I can't wait to read it and interview you, okay??? 🙂

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  4. THAT IS AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!

    I'm so excited for you.
    I love that you sent out your first poem for publication at the ripe old age of 11. Shows you had this in your blood from such a young age. And I totally get that feeling you conveyed of crying b/c you came so close. And look, now YOU GOT IT. I'm so happy to hear it, Melissa! 🙂

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  5. Crazy girl, apologizing for the length of the post. As if! And omg, so sweet that your 11 year old self had a poem published. I read through every single word of your wondrous journey. Rabbit Island sounds exactly like the kind of story I could get lost in! Dear Kindest Agent of Melissa: Please hurry and sell it. 😉

    Btw, love the new background.

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  6. How did I miss this news?! Terrible friend I am, but CONGRATULATIONS! So extremely happy for you, and sending all the positive vibes in the universe. You're such a thoughtful, talented writer, and I know representation is just the beginning of such amazing things for you. Big hugs. Can't wait to read Rabbit Island.

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  7. This is fascinating. And yes, all queries should state exactly that. 🙂 Learning about your process, and all the work and digging and spinning wheels is actually very encouraging. I could see you in your cubicle. I could imagine everything you have put into getting where you are now. Thank you for sharing.

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