The Long & Winding Road: Part II - Revision Hell!
Recap: The Long & Winding Road is a multi-part essay about my endeavors to get an agent and publish my first novel. Part 1 discussed writing my first novel and seeking representation.
So let’s just get the 600-lb gorilla in the room out of the way. Did “ideal agent” read my partial, declare me a genius, sign me instantly, and help me become an over-night success? No. No, he did not. Although I suspect you’ve guessed as much given the title of this column – had my first shot out of the gate resulted in an agent, a book deal, and financial success it would likely be called something like “The Short & Straight Road”…
Six weeks after sending my partial, I got a very kind rejection from “ideal agent.” I consider it especially kind given what I know now about writing, agents, publishing, and life in general. At the time it was pretty devastating though. The feedback was good and I didn’t really disagree with it, but who heads into a major revision based on one person’s feedback no matter how much you respect them? Nobody, that’s who. So I went out again. Still to just one agent. I picked this new agent carefully, but not as carefully as the first. I never heard back. Like, ever (even now I have never gotten anything, including a form rejection). In December I sent out one more. And never heard back from that one either.
Now I was having flashbacks to my first short story. The first short story I ever wrote was accepted and published by the first place I ever submitted it. JOY!
And then I proceeded to never get another acceptance ever.
In fairness, I stopped submitting short fiction at some point mostly due to time constraints, but I racked up a good two dozens rejections after that first publication. Perhaps my agent search would go similarly? A quick positive experience followed by many epic failures?
In January, I girded my loins for a “real” submission, picking five agents from my carefully vetted list. It resulted in me sending three email queries, one regular mail query, and filling out one “online form.” The online form produced a rejection within 24 hours (I now hated online forms). One agent responded with an enthusiastic request for a partial within 24 hours. Three others elicited nothing.
I sent off my one partial, hope blooming tentatively in my chest.
Four weeks later I received another request via email, but for a full. YES! My first full request!
I sent off my full via mail (as requested), which cost a small fortune even though the manuscript was drastically undersized from what it needed to be. Email is the single greatest invention for writers and agents. Go technology.
Two months later I got a form rejection via mail from the one regular mail query I sent. More points for technology…the only thing worse than getting a rejection is waiting three months for a “rejection postcard.”
While I waited to hear back on my new partial and full, I gave the manuscript to two readers that I thought might be able to give me more honest and, if necessary, brutal feedback. I should have never suggested they be brutal; the feedback came back both honest and brutal, emphasis on the brutal. In time I’d be able to see how right they were, but for now, I was still waiting and hoping for a miracle.
By May I’d been querying, albeit very slowly, for nearly a year and my stats were as follows:
1 partial, rejected.
1 partial, requested and still waiting
1 full, requested and still waiting
3 no responses
As hard as it was to wait, these weren’t bad stats. An almost 40% request rate. But when my second partial came back in May with a rejection and nearly identical notes to the rejection from “ideal agent” I had to admit that my query wasn’t the problem.
My book wasn’t ready.
Rather than readying another batch of queries, I decided to do a major revision. One of the most brutal comments I had been given by my two new betas was that the book lacked an antagonist. This was painfully true. By setting my book up as a trilogy I had inadvertently saved much of the good stuff, the stuff that would make an actual compelling and complete narrative, for later. Rookie mistake. So rather than doing fussy revisions on the first 55,000 words that were clearly flawed on such a structural level, I decided to rework the entire book from scratch, combining all of the intended three books into one massive volume. I estimated it would take me a year.
To go from “Hey, I think it’s done and I totally typed ‘the end’ you guys” to “Oh, I have a year of revisions ahead of me” was absolutely devastating. However, I had one thing in 2008 that I didn’t have in 2007.
I had found a writing group.
In January of 2008, around the same time that I got serious about doing a real query to a group of agents, my boyfriend encouraged me to seek out a writing group. I resisted it for so many reasons, including your basic fear and self-confidence issues. But the desire to become a “real writer” won out and when I found a great ad on Craigslist of all places, I responded and went to the first meeting. It was a huge success. Not only did I think they could help me (and hopefully I, them), but it was such a relief to talk to people who really understood what I was going through. There were six of us to start, all a bit different and all on slightly different parts of the path to becoming “real writers,” but we all had that in common – the path, and the desire. It was then, and is now, one of the single greatest decisions I ever made for my writing career. And I’m happy to report that more than four years later, three of the original group are still together, and we are currently a very strong five - which is kind of amazing when you think about it – three strangers from Craigslist building a four year plus friendship. Craigslist: it’s for more than random hook-ups, shitty used furniture, and suspect apartment listings. Who knew?
In May of 2008 I began my revisions in earnest. I was not yet sharing my book with my writing group as it was basically a tear down and rebuild rather than a renovation, but I was sharing short fiction with them, and my skills were improving dramatically - though not my grammar…commas especially continue to be my Achilles heel…does this sentence need a comma…I have no idea…see?
The new book quickly took on a drastically different shape and tone, and as a result the title no longer made sense. But, inspired by Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, I had a new title that I loved even more than the first: The Girl Who Would Be King. I liked the idea of subverting Kipling’s title for my own purposes and it was also a good fit for the alternating first person narrators I had ended up with -- Bonnie and Lola. The name Bonnie and superpowers were now the only two things that remained from the initial idea, and it had blossomed into something much much larger.
Around October of 2008 the agency that had requested the full the previous February emailed me to say they had misplaced the manuscript and could I re-send it. I panicked. The new draft was coming along but was a long way from finished and drastically different from the book they had originally been interested in. I replied that I was in the middle of a major revision and was happy to send them the old draft, but thought the new draft would be better. They asked me to send the full when it was complete.
I should have been elated at the idea of, in essence, a full request from a major agency just waiting for me when I finished the new draft. But it choked me with fear. The new book was becoming very long, and though I liked it, I felt I could be months away. I pretended the full request didn’t exist and just kept going, but I vacillated wildly between thinking I was a genius who was writing the next bestseller to being convinced I was galactically stupid and the worst writer to ever set fingers to keyboard.
Then, in February of 2009, all hell broke loose when I lost my job. For the first time in my life I was unemployed. I decided to take it as a sign that I MUST finish the book, and quickly.
In March of 2009 I did just that. However, now instead of being 55,000 words and far too short, the manuscript was a massive 120,000 words. Far too long for a “first time novel” and something that I feared would be a huge red flag for any agent. I imagined my novel appearing bloated and unrefined, and looking like a first time novelists who don’t know how to edit themselves. I reasoned that I was lucky it wasn’t 150,000 words considering I had basically combined what was originally intended to be three books into one massive tome. With a gulp of apprehension I submitted the draft to my writing group.
They loved it. There were problems, of course, but on the whole, I wasn’t insane, I wasn’t galactically stupid. It was good.
I dug into their notes and made revisions to the March draft with renewed vigor and, thanks to being unemployed and 2009 being a horrible year to be looking for a job, on April 27th of 2009 it was complete. Despite everything, it had taken almost exactly as long as I expected – one full year.
In mid-May of 2009, before giving myself a chance to chicken out, I sent the full to the agency that had asked to see it in October. I also, in a flurry of self-confidence, emailed “ideal agent” to see if he’d be interested in looking at the revised manuscript. He responded immediately that he would. And so I shot off another full.
Being jobless had made me bold. Or desperate.
Whichever it was, it also spurned me on to reaching out to a connected friend and asking if he’d be willing to take a look at “this thing I’ve written.” He very kindly agreed to take a look at it and I sent over a pdf of the first two chapters in late May of 2009.
I got an email back instantly. He wanted the whole thing, and also wondered if I would like him to send it to an agent he knew.
Hell to the yes.
Come back next month to find out what happened with the new (too long) manuscript for The Girl Who Would Be King, which suddenly had three fulls sitting with three different agents as if by magic...that is if you define magic as hard work and lots of time, of course.
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