I am not, and never have been, an MFA student. I haven’t even played one on TV. So, I am always a little hesitant to throw around terms like “narrative arc.” Mostly because I have no idea what they mean. On the other hand, I am old, so I know a lot of stuff. And one of the things I know is this: If the term “narrative arc” connotes a progression of events from beginning to middle to end, life doesn’t have one. It is, as the man says, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Life lurches hither and yon without regard to plot, pacing, metaphor, or anything else. All it does is happen. The writing life is no different.
The stories we craft in the shadowed space between cerebellum and fingertip, be they fiction or otherwise, have an internal logic, a sense of moving from A to Z. Publishing those stories, however, getting them into the hands of an agent, takes place in the living, breathing world. It involves life. There is nothing logical about it. It happens. It doesn’t happen. And tomorrow is another day.
I attended college at a time when years beginning with the number two were the stuff of science fiction, the stuff I like to write. I wrote a SF short story, sent it to a magazine and got it published. I got paid something like £40. I had a vague idea that I might like to write for a living but rejected it out of hand. It was too lonely of a job. I wanted to get out in the world. I wanted to do something that involved living, breathing people.
So, I spent the ensuing decades standing up in courtrooms—British and American—helping other people tell their stories. Stories where the stakes are always high: prison or not, child back or not, victory or something even worse. At some point in all this the years started to begin with a two. I left the courtroom for the financial war against terror (and drugs, and trafficking, and other fun stuff) and learned to not hate spreadsheets.
Then my sister happened.
Give It a Go
I was sitting in her London kitchen in the summer of 2012, shortly before the Olympics. I forget what we were talking about. Random stuff, no doubt, the sort of thing that if you threw it down on the page, you’d be horrified at the lack of direction. But then, suddenly, she was talking about me writing a book. You’re good at that, she was saying, you should give it a go before you die. After all, how hard can it be? My sister is like patient zero when it comes to enthusiasm. Nephews and nieces weighed in and suddenly, without really thinking about it, I said yes.
So, I wrote a book. A hundred thousand words. I wandered onto the internet and learned I would need a literary agent. I drew up a list of about eighty who appeared to be in the market for what I was writing. I don’t (quite) hate spreadsheets anymore, so I made one for the query process: name; contact info; website; submission requirement; date of submission; date and type of response. I started submitting, maybe two or three a day.
And over the next six months the rejections rolled in. A little over forty. The rest didn’t bother to reply.
The Price of Ignorance
I wrote another book. A hundred thousand words. Better than my first. By the time I’d finished, I had stumbled across agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark website and discovered I’d been querying (and doing a lot of other stuff) all wrong.
Query letters, it turns out, should be formal, structured, and short. Which makes sense. I write letters like that all the time for work, but it hadn’t felt right when dealing with agents, whose websites are, in many ways, not businesslike at all. The CEO of the vast megacorp for which I work is unlikely to publicize the fact that their significant other plays in a rock band, for instance, or that they love their pet yorkie more than their two children and hiking in the woods—which is what one presumes when the yorkie is listed first.
The price of ignorance is high.
Somewhat better educated about things literary, I timed a trip to Colorado to coincide with a writers event and recited my pitch letter word for word to a bunch of agents. Agents, it turns out, are like lemurs, hard to see but cute and cuddly looking when you do. The reaction was positive, so I figured I was on the right track. I also learned a ton of really basic stuff I’d have picked up earlier if I’d bothered to look/ask for help. For instance, my chapters were too long for the modern attention span. Who knew?
Everybody, apparently. Except me.
Oddly, though, the thing that really wormed itself into my brain that day was this. “You have a British accent,” the presenter said. “You should pitch live if you possibly can.”
Back to the Spreadsheet
Book finished, I returned to my spreadsheet, ignoring agents who seemed unlikely to be interested in what I’d written this time around and adding a couple of dozen more who might be. I ended up, once again, with about eighty possibles. Interestingly, my spreadsheet revealed a significant number of agents who had left the industry between my first book and my second, all junior. Making it as an agent is clearly a tough gig.
Despite what I’d been told, I did not pitch live. I sent out my new, query-sharked pitches and waited. Of the eighty, about half didn’t respond at all, thirty-plus rejected, and a handful asked for partial or full manuscripts. I knew enough now not to wait with bated breath and turned to my next project. Which was just as well because, in the end, no one wanted to represent what I’d written.
My next project was a sequel to my first book. I wrote it because, well, because I wanted to. If you’re going to set sail across an ocean of rejections, the act of writing has to be its own reward. It’s absolutely the only thing you have control over.
I wrote. I was rewarded. I did not query.
The Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam
I started on a fourth manuscript. By now it was the beginning of 2018. Knowing more about the writing community than I did in 2012, I was aware that the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference was going to take place that August in New York City. And the WD conference has something called a Pitch Slam, where you can meet with a significant number of agents face to face. An opportunity, perhaps, to follow that advice and take my British accent out for a spin.
Because I write pretty much every day, I had a completed manuscript ready to go by the time I arrived in the Big Apple. The scale of the WD Pitch Slam (and conference) is breath taking. The corridors were crammed with hundreds of writers, all waiting for that rarest of all commodities, the undivided attention of an agent. Even for a trial lawyer, it was an intimidating prospect. I have nothing but admiration for the many introverts who braved that press of people to pitch their work.
Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is the overcoming. I’m not sure I’d have been able to do it had our positions been reversed. But, agents being more lemur than leopard, the whole thing went pretty smoothly. The introverts were made welcome, and I got to pitch to a bunch of really cool people. I don’t know if the accent had anything to do with it, but I got a number of bites for my project and left happy.
Receiving “The Call”
When, as happened to me a few months later, a young agent from Pitch Slam calls you and wants to represent your book, the world seems to stop turning. I got the call in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Pittsburgh PA, where I’d stopped for a coffee. After it was over, instead of returning to work, I stared into space for the best part of an hour. A lady at a nearby table gave me a sympathetic glance when I finally left. She clearly thought I’d received some very bad news.
There were edits, of course. But I didn’t mind. It was fun, actually. It was clear as I read through the suggestions that the end result was going to be significantly better, so I set to with a will. After a couple of months’ work, I sent the revised manuscript off, accompanied by an email explaining the rare occasions where I’d dug my heels in, and waited.
I think it was four months later that I got a call from the agent telling me that while she loved my edits, she wasn’t an agent anymore. She was leaving the industry. Another casualty for my spreadsheet.
And back to square one.
Well, not quite square one, to be fair. My now former agent had an in with Brady McReynolds at JABberwocky Literary. I’m not at all certain he’d have given my project a second glance if I’d pitched him directly, but he agreed to give it a look. Some months later he gave me a call. He loved it.
Of course, he had some edits…
Later, much later, we were on the phone chatting about the offers he’d secured for my manuscript, and it dawned on me that a project begun in 2012 was finally moving forward. By the time you read this, in 2022, it will be out in the world, for better or worse.
Unlike our stories, the writing life seldom travels in a straight line.
It is a tale told by an idiot.
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