Saturday, February 2, 2013

Writing Journey: From First Attempts to Agent!

Fair warning: You are about to embark on reading the longest blog post of my bloggerly life. It may bore you. If you don’t care about how this writer started writing—with all of the mind-bogglingly verbose details—skip this one and come back for a normal post another day.

This started out as a guest post for Monica, my awesome coach from The Writer’s Voice—the contest responsible for helping me find my agent—and turned into a history of my life, at least as pertains to writing. Monica got the edited version. I got to keep the beast. Aaaaand, here goes.

Sometimes writing can be frustrating—a conversation with no one talking on the other end. You spend your days creating drama and solving problems for pretend people. This particular brand of nerdery can leave you lonely.

In junior high school in Canada, the majority of my social life happened in my head, with characters whose dramas were so much more life-and-death than mine. They were going to die in childbirth, or crossing the plains, or of a broken heart. They rode in buggies, or walked the halls of castles.

Meanwhile, back in real life teenagerville, I was just wondering what to wear, who I’d eat lunch with, and if any boy would ever acknowledge my existence.

I owe a lot of my early writerly journey to my best friend through junior high. She was unique, imaginative, and a ton more fun than the popular kids who were obsessed with Guess and Esprit and Beaver Canoe. Yes, indeed… I lived in Canada. And Beaver Canoe was a seriously coveted brand. The cliché blows my mind, too.

Anyhoo, Christy and I shared the wonderful writerly world of make believe. And she made it okay for me to enjoy it. In a way, she was my first writing group. We hung out at Heritage Park, a pioneer theme park where you could go and pretend for a few hours that you were in another world. We even dressed up a few times, and people thought we were park employees. I remember eating lunches from Christy’s picnic basket on the lawn of the manor house, wandering out to the lighthouse, and watching the ferry departing. I populated our stories with characters and dialog, while Christy made sure their wardrobe was well-designed and their houses impeccably decorated. I hope she went on to be a fashion designer or an architect.

I never lost the need to tell stories. From childhood when I’d narrate my sister Kathryn off to sleep every night with the plots of my novels, my scribbling in notebooks has kept me marvelous company.

I took a brief break from writing and reading for pleasure in college and in my first years of teaching, although my French major and English minor kept me immersed in classic literature.

It wasn’t until my first two years as a stay-at-home mom that I finally wanted to write again. I spent my days with a delightful toddler, but she didn’t talk to me much, and I needed more than just my relationship with her to sustain me. Enter my good buddy, NaNoWriMo.

I’ll admit straight out that I have never once succeeded in making the full 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo, but I owe the rest of my career as a writer to setting the goal and working to meet it. And to learning that writing is more than planning and outlining and imagining. Writing is more like… actually… writing. Moving your fingers on the keyboard as words come to life under your fingers. Experimenting with voice and description and dialogue. Creation, pure and simple. Exhilarating, thrilling, compulsive, and exasperating.

My first NaNoWriMo netted me 25,000 words of an epic fantasy novel. I didn’t do much outlining. I just wrote until I got bored or frustrated, which was when I skipped to the most thrilling scenes. I never went back and did the drudgery of writing the boring parts. (It didn’t occur to me until later that if there are boring parts, you shouldn’t ever go back and write them. If there is some empty space in a book, you should definitely fill it with something that makes your arm hair stand on end.) Eventually, figuring out court intrigues, battle scenes, and what to feed my medieval princess for breakfast forced me to try to write what I know.

NaNoWrimo #2 yielded a very rough 25,000 words of JUST THIS ONCE—A book about a perfectionist teen working to get into Yale from her broken-down trailer while she tutors a rich, popular sports hero who is the perfect person to help her embrace her fears, open her heart, and learn to accept her life.
I ended up with six chapters of telling—not showing. I’d toy with my readers in paragraph after paragraph, describing scenes they’d never get to actually read.

(See following approximate though exaggerated passage from NaNoWriMo#2)

Whew, thought Main Character. That was a raucous good time we all had doing that hilarious project for history class. Everyone was laughing so hard at jokes that the author is too lazy to think up or write here. My goodness, I’m still blushing when I think of all the serious chemistry I felt with Romantic Hero. He was so intense. Seriously. We felt something magical. Guess you had to be there.

Umm… yeah.

Four years and almost no writing later, I found myself commiserating with my friend Juliana that we were writers who didn’t write—a sad waste of our talents and interests. And we decided then and there to form a weekly writing group. During the two-and-a-half years that followed, I finished my contemporary manuscript, co-wrote a middle grade mystery with my husband, revised my contemporary manuscript, had another baby, and started a new YA novel.  Without my writing group, I doubt I would have finished my first draft of my first book.

Last year I queried my MG mystery to 20 agents. I received 12 form rejections, one personal rejection, and seven no responses. I felt like no one would ever care what I was saying from my solitary living room on my little laptop. I also queried JUST THIS ONCE to several  small publishers, who all rejected it. One told me that they loved it, but were no longer marketing this genre to their readers. One told me thanks, but no thanks. My favorite rejection letter said that my writing was exceptional but that they felt that my story had no hook, was not unique, and that I should limit my MC’s internal musings and learn to write authentic dialogue.

Ouch! I wonder what they say to authors when they don’t feel their writing is exceptional.

If you never cry at all during the process of trying to find an audience for your work, you are a robot with a heart of stone. But you get tougher and more certain that what you are saying has value, even if you’re still locked in a one way conversation with only your MC to tell you how amazingly witty you are.

Last May my agented writer friend Caryn suggested that I enter The Writer’s Voice contest. I was hesitant to enter because I just didn’t think my manuscript was right for the competition. But my sister called and encouraged me, and I decided to go ahead. What could it hurt, right? I tried and failed to get entered on the first wave of entries, and that afternoon, I tried again. I remember sitting at my computer with my heart pounding and my finger on refresh waiting for the link widget to appear so I could type in my name. And this time, I made it.

Most of the coaches had picked their teams, and only Monica had waited to announce, choosing not to fight with the other coaches for some of the more popular entries. She picked some less obvious choices. When she emailed to say she wanted my query and first page on her team I couldn’t believe it. It was the first positive feedback I’d had about any of my queries. I was excited for her coaching to help me improve my query, but I never thought it would actually be the doorway to getting an agent. Her comments really improved my query and first page.

Near the end of the agent voting, Kevan Lyon and Louise Fury nearly gave me heart failure by voting for me. I sent off a partial manuscript to each of these women, and a third agent who asked for a full.

Two of the agents rejected the manuscript, saying it just wasn’t for them, and Louise never responded. No worries. All part of the process. I’m getting good at the whole not-holding-my-breath thing by now.

But at the end of December I got an alert that Louise Fury was now following me on Twitter. Um… why? Why would this agent who’s had my manuscript since May be suddenly following me? I almost never tweet. Authorial sacrilege, I know. Anyway, I told myself it was probably nothing.

But FIVE MINUTES LATER I got an email requesting the full manuscript. LOUISE FURY loved my voice and was excited to read more. Breathe. Must. Breathe.

So I calmed myself down and sent it off to her. And pretended to forget about it. 

And… she’s an agent, and must have a finely tuned sense for drama, right? NEW YEAR’S DAY! That’s when I got her next email. Three days after receiving my full, she emailed. I was just heading to bed, and Louise thought she should make good and sure I didn’t sleep. Ever. Again.

She said that her team had read my book, and that they thought I was a “seriously talented writer,” (This phrase is burned forever into my brain, incidentally) and she wanted to talk to me on the phone the next day. It is a seriously good thing that I didn’t fall down and die. 

The next day lives on in my memory as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It was like a fairy tale. I told myself to keep my expectations low for her call. I let myself fantasize briefly about her offering to represent my novel.

Our conversation was better than anything I could have dreamed up.

For every question I asked Louise, her answer showed that she was the perfect agent for me. The way she thinks about my manuscript and respects my vision for my story, while helping me to improve it with clear, incisive feedback is amazing to me. I’ve only been working with her for a month, but we have already been through two full sets of revisions, and she has already helped me so much. Now I’m immersed in my WIP, and my book is in her capable hands while we prepare for the next step—submission.

It’s an exciting journey, though I have little control over where it goes next. I am writing, though, and that’s what matters, right? I have learned that for those of us pursuing the dream, we are closer than we know. The line between an agented writer and someone in the slush piles telling themselves not to give up is a fine one. It’s a matter of finding the right person at the right time who will look closer and see what they are looking for in your work. Simple? Maybe not. But achievable. I know. One month ago I had never had any requests for fulls or partials from any of my query letters. Today I have an amazing agent who is passionate about my manuscript.  

As writers, we often downplay what we do until someone else validates our work. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve worried that I was wasting my time with something that would never benefit anyone but me. And I know many other writers who have felt the same. Don’t give up on your dreams. Just keep networking and querying and believing and WRITING! And don’t give up on yourself because no one is currently reading your work. If you write, you are a writer. You can do it! The one-way conversation is worth it. All the uncertainty and lack of control is worth it.

Heh… I’m telling you this as a writer who doesn’t have and may never have a book deal. I’m your friend, on my laptop frantically trying to help another MC out of this or that disaster. And hoping that someday someone besides my critique partners will ever know that she figured out the secrets of life and found love.  Speaking of which… I’d better get back to work. Hasta!


  1. What a wonderful story! I especially loved the part where you said, "One month ago I had never had any requests for fulls or partials from any of my query letters. Today I have an amazing agent who is passionate about my manuscript." Life is like that, isn't it? Sometimes you think you're getting nowhere, and then, suddenly, it all changes, sometimes with just a phone call or an email. One day you're this, the next day you're that. You just never know.

    Congratulations (again) on working with Louise! You are a very talented and dedicated writer, and I know that the two of you are going to do wonderful things together.

  2. Inspirational, Heather. Thank you for sharing this and being so open.

  3. I'm so proud of you!! <333 It's an awesome story!
    Best of luck in this new journey!

  4. You know, Caryn, I think that's such an important thing to remember. And to know. We may tell ourselves we're just posers for having a dream that no one can guarantee will come to pass. But this has shown me that it's okay to be bold with my dreams. I remember how silly I felt the day I put up an author page on Facebook. And every time I tell a friend that I write and they ask where they can buy my book, I feel silly. But I shouldn't. None of us should be afraid to go for our goals.

  5. Thanks, Jennia, Caryn, and Monica. I really appreciate all the support!

  6. Thank you for this lovely post. I needed this today.