By: Jeanne Charles
Break out the streamers, the toot toots, and the champagne! (Or, if you’re like me, the red wine. Champagne gives me a headache; fizzy and I don’t get along.)
This column may not interest you unless you’re a writer, specifically, a writer struggling with a novel, that behemoth monstrosity of an endeavor guaranteed to keep you awake nights with dreams of characters who don’t exist to anyone but you, the bedeviled author. Others might call this a psychosis. Writers call it creative.
The celebration is because I have actually signed with a literary agency The Rights Factory to represent my Young Adult novel, Shanty Gold. Yay, Jeannie!
If you’ve never gone through the process of trying to get a literary agent, and you’re interested in doing so, read on.
I started writing a first novel eight years ago called Daughters of Famine, which encompassed four generations of Irish and Irish-American women. It began back in 1849, the height of the great Irish Famine, and introduced the reader to Mary Boland, a 13-year-old girl starving in County Cork. I queried 25 agents for that book to no avail.
Astute and intelligent critics made me aware that Mary’s life was big enough for its own novel and that I should save Nellie’s, Holly’s, and Kate’s lives for future books. So, I put Daughters of Famine away for a while—about three years—and wrote another book called The Wrong Woman, the story of a principled, female News Director in Philadelphia who was pressured by her corrupt corporate owners and managers to slant news stories to benefit clients who “played ball” with the mob. It was exciting to everyone but the 30 agents who said, “No, thanks .”
Throughout these years, I studied at UNCA, the Great Smokies Writers’ Programs, and with Peggy Millin, David Pereda, and Sallie Bissell, all fine writers, to improve upon my craft. This is important for you to know—if you have somewhere in the back of your brain a story that intrigues you and that, someday, you just might turn into a novel. Because there’s so damned much you need to learn—even if your English teachers always told you that you could write.
It’s so much more than good spelling, punctuation, and knowing the difference between a gerund and a split infinitive. (Don’t ask me; haven’t a clue.)
During this time, there were also four writers’ critique groups I tried.
Finally, I settled on my present group, the Pink Fire Writers, four dedicated females, each of wh om writes in a different genre: romance, paranormal, Southern lady, and me, Young Adult (presently).
With that support, I revisited Daughters and made it strictly Mary Boland’s book. It’s written in first person present , and involves voodoo, Banshees, rape, vengeance, and murder. And that’s all before she gets to Boston!
For the first time, I actually believed I had a good book. Enough so that last January, I attended the Writers’ Digest conference in New York City and braved the agents’ pitch slam.
To explain the pitch slam, let’s just say it is much like speed dating on speed. There are 600 writers storming 50 agents in a room. You line up and have exactly 90 seconds to tell an agent your story. Then, they have 90 seconds to ask questions. At exactly three-minute intervals, a bell rings and you stand, shake hands, and get in line to pitch another agent.
It was really cool!
Anyway, I had nine agents request a “query,” a one-page letter which tells the story of your book in a way guaranteed to hook an agent. You must research carefully each agent you query because some accept email queries; some do not. Some ask for a synopsis; some do not. Some ask for five pages; some for two chapters. If you screw up and send an agent something they don’t want, you are often guaranteed a place in their slush pile, that towering stack of papers that never gets read.
Again, the rejections came at me, but they were different this time . Agents said things like, “I am absolutely certain I will regret not taking this on, but I can’t figure out where it would sit on a bookseller’s shelf.” Stuff like that. Stuff that gave me hope.
When my rejection pile hit 30, I figured I’d wasted another two years of my life on something that would never see the light of Kindle or Nook or Malaprops. But, as often happens in life, an angel appears at the exact moment that you need her. In my case, that angel was Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help.
She published an article in More Magazine about her experience trying to get published. She queried for two years, received 60 rejections, and hid from friends because of her embarrassment. Get that? Sixty rejections for The Help!!
Funny, isn’t it, but for some reason, that motivated me to send out a few more queries.
Within two weeks, I had two agents interested in representing Shanty Gold. The one in Toronto, I clicked with. The one in New York, not so much. So, I went with my gut and, in November, signed the contract from The Rights Factory in Toronto.
What has happened since then will have to wait for another column, but suffice it to say, it involves three editors I’ve never met and a lot of rewriting on my part.
Do not give up—ever. And, by the way, since I missed last month, Happy 2012!