Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Double Agent; Or, What I Learned When the First One Didn't Work Out

In a previous post, I wrote that after revising my query letter for Survival Colony Nine, I acquired representation within a month.

That story is true.  But it’s not the whole story.

For those who’ve struggled with agents, editors, and the entire publication process, I thought I would provide the part I left out.

My revised query letter did indeed garner a number of requests for the full manuscript.  One agent seemed particularly enthusiastic to read the full—and when we talked, she seemed very much “in tune” with my book, my career, everything.  It was incredibly flattering for a debut author to feel that someone really “got” my book, saw its potential, and was ready and eager to start shopping it around.

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe I jumped at her offer too quickly (there was another offer waiting in the wings).  Maybe I should have been more skeptical.  Friends cautioned me that this agent didn’t have a lot of experience in my genre, but I refused to listen.  I was on cloud nine, and I could barely hear all those little quibbling voices from the ground.

So I signed with her, revised the manuscript in accordance with her fairly modest suggestions, sent it back, and waited.

And waited.  And waited.  I’d thought she’d get right back to me, telling me the manuscript was ready to go out or, perhaps, asking for a few tiny “tweaks” before she started submitting it.  But I sent it back to her (much improved, I thought) in March 2012, and it wasn’t until May that I finally heard from her again.

What she told me then was devastating.

The revised manuscript, she announced, was “rough” and “slow,” and still needed tons of work.  It wasn’t anywhere near ready to send out.  A paid editor would have to go through it before she’d even consider subbing it.  When I asked her what the going rates for such editorial assistance were, she told me it could be anywhere from 2K to 5K.  I told her I didn’t have that kind of money, particularly not if I was spending it only in the hope, not the assurance, of her sending the book out.  I pressed her for details on what was wrong with the manuscript, but she would only answer in generalizations: it needed to be “finessed,” it didn’t yet “sing.”  We went back and forth like this via phone and email, until finally—after she told me the story was narrated in the wrong tense—I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and exercised the termination clause in our contract.

I still have no idea what happened.  Maybe she, too, had leaped before she looked, snapped up a manuscript she thought was in good shape but then discovered, or was told, that it wasn’t.  Maybe she was simply as inexperienced as my friends suspected, and she didn’t know what to do once she realized that.  Or maybe the whole thing was a scam, a way of milking novice writers in some sort of kickback scheme.  (I doubt this, however; she works for an entirely reputable agency.)  Maybe the manuscript really did stink.

But whatever happened hardly mattered at the time.  All that mattered was that I felt as if my dream had been snatched away from me just when it was finally within my grasp.

I picked up the pieces, though.  The first thing I did—the very next day—was start writing another manuscript, just to have something in reserve.  (It’s finished, though I haven’t done anything with it yet.)  Then, a month or so later, when I could bear to look at Survival Colony Nine again, I went back to it and revised.  I decided the verb tense was fine, but there were other issues that needed to be addressed.  I deleted scenes, added others, tightened the language, worked on the pacing, improved dialogue, fleshed out characters, fixed continuity errors, everything.  In retrospect, being brought back to earth—however rudely—turned out to be a good thing, as it enabled me to see my manuscript through newly critical eyes.  By imagining that it was as bad as she’d said (even if it wasn’t), I was able to make it much better.

And the work paid off.  I queried agents again.  This time I received a positive response right out of the gate from Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency.  A one-month exclusive led to an offer, which I accepted.  Further revisions were called for—bringing the number of complete revisions of the manuscript up to five—but this time, Liza found my changes acceptable, and she started sending the book out.  Acceptance by Karen Wojtyla of Margaret K. McElderry Books followed roughly three months later.

It’s a cliché to say you learn more from failure than from success, but it’s true that in the end I benefited greatly from this experience.  First and perhaps foremost, I teamed with Liza, as tenacious and talented an agent as I could have dreamed for.  At the same time, I learned that every part of the writing process—not only the physical writing but the querying, the relationship with an agent, and all that follows—is a work-in-progress; it’s naïve at best, harmful at worst, to imagine a time will come when one can stop laboring to create and recreate one’s product and oneself.

Finally, in true Scarlett O’Hara fashion, I learned that tomorrow is indeed another day.  I was crushed, angered, and dismayed when my relationship with my first agent went sour; I felt like giving up.  I was as low that first day as I’ve ever been as a writer.

But I went to bed, had some few dreams, then rose to meet the dawn.


  1. Thanks Josh for sharing this honest account of your experience. So many of us find the rejection or disappointment part of the publishing process so debilitating. And I agree. We need to get back to work if we are writers. One day, our work, like yours, will hopefully see the light of day. I'm going to share this post with an online group of writers that I check in with regularly.

  2. Thanks, Sara. I'm pretty sure that all of us writers--famous and unfamous, novice and experienced--have gone through periods of rejection, and I think it's important to share our stories. It doesn't remove the sting of rejection, but it helps!

  3. Thanks Joshua for sharing your agent story. I love happy endings! .