When I graduated from college in 2007, the economy tanked and it was viewed as unwise to seriously pursue any artistic endeavors. My family was thrilled that I had managed to secure a stable job in uncertain times and even though my heart was broken at the thought of working at a desk, I consoled myself with the following mantra:
You’re lucky to have a job. This is only temporary.
I used that mantra for seven years in the insurance industry while I wrote three novels on my lunch breaks and quietly plotted my escape. To keep my spirits up, I listened to all seven Harry Potter books on audio (repeatedly) while I checked client policies and issued certificates of insurance. The music of Les Miserables became a favorite soundtrack of mine (for obvious reasons) and I kept a doodle pad on my desk next to my wish jar as another means of distraction when the monotony of customer service became too much to handle.
Eventually I wrote something that I hoped would free me, but when I first ventured out on my quest for publication, I did everything wrong.
Julia Walton received her MFA in creative writing from Chapman University. When she’s not reading or baking cookies, she’s indulging in her profound love of Swedish Fish, mechanical pencils, and hobbit-sized breakfasts. Julia lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @Jwaltonwrites. Her novel WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS was published by Random House on July 4, 2017. It has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, was listed as a Bookish Must Read for Summer 2017, and was an Amazon Book of the Month for July 2017.
As a budding young writer, I:
1. Wasted a great deal of time still feeling sorry for myself because I worked in insurance and I desperately hated my job. Queue sad violin solo…
Note: This is particularly stupid because my writing time was already limited and I allowed these feelings to nest in my head when I could have been moving forward with my next project.
2. Sent out query letters knowing that my manuscript was not fully polished.
Note: Agents don’t generally sign you based on “potential.” The writing has to shine. Only send out your best work.
3. Allowed jealousy to consume me. Every time I browsed Facebook, it seemed like somebody from high school was actively pursuing their dream job and making progress towards an actual career.
Note: This is probably the most foolish thing I’ve ever done. There is absolutely no point in comparing yourself to other people. There is enough success to go around.
4. Made excuses for myself and started to believe them.
Note: No one is going to fight for your dream. No one is going to save you. SAVE YOURSELF.
5. Nursed quiet feelings of superiority in the workplace like a disgraced princess-in-hiding, who would one day reclaim her throne and cast these unimaginative peasants out.
Note: These feelings were directed towards my bosses, never my coworkers who are actually great people who, more than once, saved my sanity. And it’s perfectly fine to hate your job, but don’t ruin the work environment for your coworkers who might be happy where they are.
6. Let rejection hit me hard.
Note: This is a natural response, but the sooner you accept it as part of the process, the easier it will be to move forward. Listen to Elsa. Let it go…
7. Vented my frustrations to close friends and family, expecting them to understand.
Note: If they’re not writers, chance are they won’t understand. They might love and support you but they won’t understand why you care so deeply about the make-believe world and make-believe people you’ve brought to life.
8. Wrote lackluster query letters.
Note: The query letter matters! Spend a lot of time on it before you send it out.
9. Stopped reading new books by debut authors due to intense jealousy (see item 3) that reared up every time I read about someone with a book deal.
Note: This was absurdly stupid. Why was I denying myself happiness in other books? Because I didn’t want to know how good the other writers were.
10. Cried a lot.
Note: Meh. Maybe this one is okay. Cry if you gotta cry. But maybe don’t sob at your desk. That’s awkward for coworkers on the other side of your cubicle wall.
So here’s how I really got my agent:
I got really good at being a failure. Then, I learned from it.
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By doing everything wrong with my first few novels (which, let’s be honest, were not ready to see the light of day anyway), I learned how to navigate the query process with confidence and stopped feeling sorry for myself.
With my fancy, color-coded spreadsheet of information on all the agencies I wanted to query, I created a plan of attack. My query letter went through several revisions until I was satisfied that the hook was strong enough to get a bite and I spent hours researching potential agents who were looking for novels like mine.
On my fourth novel, the one that would eventually get published, I was only rejected by maybe twenty agents before I got a bite. A big bite.
Enter: Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency
She requested my full manuscript right away. A few weeks later I got “the call” and then “the offer.”
I still have a hard time believing it.
Everything after that point happened very quickly. Two short months later, we were already out on submission to 14 publishers and a few weeks after that, my novel Words on Bathroom Walls was picked up by Random House.
So, I finally did a few things right.
As a more experienced writer, I:
- Polished my manuscript, including getting beta readers to provide feedback before I started querying.
- Wrote a solid query letter.
- Learned to gracefully accept rejection.
- Stopped comparing myself to other writers and other people.
- Started enjoying books again.
- Started my MFA program just after I finished my rough draft, because I realized that I wanted to surround myself with books and people who love books for the rest of my life.
- Stopped wasting time feeling sorry for myself.
- Stopped expecting family and friends to understand my frustration
- Remembered what it feels like to write for the love of it.
- Cried a lot.**
** This one didn’t change. I just cried for happier reasons.
My agent, Heather Flaherty, is one of my favorite people on the planet. She is honest and kind and all the good things an agent is supposed to be when they love and support your work. Whenever I think about the chain of events that brought us together, I have to smile because it really was just a lot of failure, followed by luck and stubbornness (on my part). I think she ultimately signed me because she connected with something in my story. Maybe the voice. Maybe the topic. Maybe the epistolary style.
But I don’t think she would have connected at all if I hadn’t failed so miserably so many times before sending that email to her. The early failures are the foundation for the story that finally broke through and the query letter that caught her eye.
I guess after all this time my old mantra still applies. To those writers still in the query trenches, searching for their soul-mate agent while working a crappy job, I would just say:
Yes, you are lucky to have a job. Be grateful for the paycheck that sustains you, but keep writing. That hopeless feeling of not being where you want to be is only temporary as long as you keep going.
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.