Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Get a little angry
Last weekend, I returned to Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina to read selections from EYES RIGHT and to participate on a panel about the publishing process.
Five others joined me on the publishing panel. Each had a different experience with specific lessons to share. One had usurped the entire agent process until after acceptance by a publisher; one discussed the process of finding an agent; another talked about soliciting and editing for an anthology.
I talked about the value of getting angry.
I told the story about how the initial rejection process of finding an agent after grad school only made me more determined...and a little angry...and compelled me to e-mail 20 query letters (19 to agents and 1 to the University of Nebraska Press) one Friday night when I was supposed to be packing for a vacation in Panama.
By Monday, the editor of Nebraska said she was interested in taking the project before the board for approval; the process, she explained would take several weeks. At least a dozen other agents asked me to e-mail the full manuscript, one of them even e-mailing early Saturday morning.
I never made it to Panama that week. I came down with the flu. But exactly one week from "getting angry" and sending out those 20 query letters, an agent called. I was in bed, nearly too sick to answer the phone, but the area code looked intriguing. I paced the house, as if miraculously cured of the flu, while he rambled on about what he liked about the book, which was mainly about how it had as much appeal to men as to women. I loved his impressive resume; he'd been an editor at several large houses before becoming an agent. I loved his enthusiasm. I needed his enthusiasm. Finally, someone outside of grad school professors and fellow writers was expressing a legitimacy about my work. I was so thirsty for this I'd have drank sand in the desert if it offered such a hint.
You'd think the story would end there, right? That obtaining the agent led to a publishing contract. Nope. By the way, the Nebraska Press decided three weeks afterward to pass because it was backlogged with so many titles it would take years to release mine, and since I'd recently signed with an agent, the board didn't think it fair to hold me up.
Unfortunately, agents don't always have success selling the manuscripts they're passionate about. Turns out, my agent didn't even try. A few months after signing the contract with him, he decided we should hold the memoir, and that I should write a military novel, instead. So, like a good little Marine who follows orders, I did. And he came close to selling the novel. But only close.
Fast forward two years (it takes time to write a novel and revise that novel several times, you know) to when I discovered his photo and bio were missing from the agency website. Have I mentioned he was with one of the oldest, most prestigious agencies in New York? I called. He'd left the business, said his apologetic colleague. "He plans to contact each of his clients," she said. But he never did.
That night, I got angry, again. I got so angry that I sent an updated query letter to the new editor of the University of Nebraska Press, explaining that Nebraska once had interest in the memoir and that my agent, former agent, hadn't taken the book anywhere, after all. I asked if she'd take another look.
Yes, she e-mailed. The rest, as they say, is history. Three weeks later, she had unanimous support from the board, and EYES RIGHT was green-lighted for publication.
So my advice to grad school friends this past weekend was to get angry. More importantly, to put positive action behind that anger. No one is going to care about your success more than you. Not your spouse, believe it or not, not your children, not even your mother.
So, if not you, who?
It's okay to get a little angry. It's okay to feel passionate about your work. It's okay NOT to quit. In fact, I beg you not to quit.
You could be one query letter from success.