THE BIG KIND.
I decided this anecdote was amusing enough for a first-contact Facebook message, despite our total barely-acquaintances-in-college status (Oh Facebook, you make it so easy to blur the lines of appropriateness). I proceeded to construct the awkwardest “Hey, you probably don’t remember me, but funny story…” message in the history of awkward Facebook messages. Holly responded almost immediately, with an “Of course I remember you! And yay for blogging, let me know if there are any books I can send you” message. Then I was even more awkward by requesting FAR TOO MANY books and saying embarrassing things and why am I bringing this up when I really hope she has forgotten all about it for all eternity? (Also, I have since come to learn that authors initiating contact with agents through FB is a BIG NO-NO. I’m guessing bloggers doing it is even worse. But I won’t ask, because we’re never going to mention that ever again.)
She was lovely and gracious and did not file a restraining order. Obvious proof that she is a Class Act.
A couple months later, I got the idea to write a book. A fantasy.
It was weird. I’d never had a book idea before. But I decided to try, because why not? It could be fun.
I did everything wrong. I didn’t plot at all. I flew by the seat of my pants. I wrote myself into corners. I blathered on forever with ridiculous subplots that could never, ever work. And I wrote a YA book that clocked in with a first draft of 133,000 words, which is far, far too long.
I revised and revised and revised, cutting out huge chunks and bringing it down to a more manageable length. I sent it to beta readers. They thought it was…okay. They had lots of nice things to say, but also lots of questions. Big questions.
I revised again. And again. Tried to answer their questions and fix what was broken. I eventually got it down to a 100K word revised draft that I was happy with.
When I was finishing what I thought was the final revision, I was asked by one of Holly’s clients — the lovely and brilliant Myra McEntire, whom I had met I believe a whopping three times at various book events — if I’d be interested in taking a look at her most recent manuscript and offering feedback. To this day, I still really have no idea why she asked me, since we knew each other only slightly better than Holly and I knew each other in college. (Hey, Myra, why did you ask me? Was it a dare? You can tell me if it was a dare.)
But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (or, like, something that’s not a terrible cliché. Man, I am so good at this writing thing.) So obviously I said yes. In exchange, Myra promised to read my book, just as soon as she passed her deadline.
As it turned out, Myra read my entire book one Saturday in early February 2013, shortly after turning her book in. Before she finished, she emailed me to say she’d already recommended it to Holly, and that I should plan to start querying on Monday, because it was Ready.
I did as I was told. I queried Holly, along with a few others, that Monday. Holly responded later that day requesting the full manuscript and congratulating me on finishing my book. No mention of my crippling awkwardness. Again, Class Act, people. I was ecstatic. I sent my story off and set about biting my nails and refreshing my email and starting a new story.
Then the rejections started rolling in from the other agents I’d queried. One after another after another. Form rejections — not even a hint of personalization.
I doubted. I convinced myself that Holly had only requested because we went to college together and because one of her authors liked me and because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. (Hint: This is not a Real Thing Agents Do. They don’t have time for it.)
I shook it off, reminding myself that Real Authors pile up enough rejections to wallpaper a room! I didn’t have nearly enough yet! So I retooled my query and kept sending it out, one little feeler at a time, as I waited to hear from Holly. I got several requests, but no offers. After Holly had my manuscript for a month, I was utterly positive that she was just trying to come up with the words to let me down easy. My book was stupid. It wasn’t new or interesting. The other requesting agents were bound to be disappointed, and had probably requested by accident, and were probably going to reject me any day in a not-so-nice fashion, because they had no reason to care about hurting my feelings.
Here’s the thing about querying, guys. Or letting anyone see your work. You swear you’re going to be cool, you’re not going to obsess, you’re not going to let it get to you. You read all the stories of people freaking out, and vow, that will not be me. But once in the query trenches, remembering that is hard. Even if you are Facebook friends with your top choice agent and have a referral from one of her clients. Once someone is reading the story you poured your soul into, waiting to hear what they think is painful. And the doubt and fear can be crippling. Even when you know it is you psyching yourself out. You become your own worst enemy. Or at least I did.
Then, five weeks after sending her the manuscript, I got an email. It was from Holly and it was long. I was simultaneously excited and disappointed. Long meant she cared. But long also meant it did not just say, “Can I call?”
Turned out, she liked the fantasy. Very much. But she didn’t think it was quite to a place where she could sell it. She had a lot of suggestions for how to make it better, all of which I absolutely agreed with. They were the kind of suggestions that seemed so obvious in retrospect, like why had I ever considered writing my story any other way? That was the moment I became absolutely certain that she Got Me. She’d seen the story I had wanted to write underneath the story that I’d actually written.
So I contacted the other requesting agents, let them know I was revising and asked if they’d like to see it when I was done. They did. Then I plunged into the revision cave to tackle her notes.
It was a ton of work, but the story came out so much better for it. I sent it to critique partners. They gave me feedback, and I revised to their notes, sending them revised scenes pasted into emails with subjects like, “I AM SO SORRY” and “I AM TRYING A NEW THING, PLEASE TELL ME IF IT SUCKS” and “I’M NOT SO GOOD AT THIS.”
I’m not really sure why any of them are still talking to me.
Finally, after many weeks of intense revision, it was finished. I sent it back to her and the other requesting agents at the beginning of June. A week before she went on maternity leave.
Disclaimer: I totally knew she was going on maternity leave. It was in no way a secret. I actually knew she was going on maternity leave before I queried her the first time. But still, it wasn’t easy to send off my revision knowing she was about to step away for three months and then return to work three months behind. That was a lot of waiting. And I suck at waiting.
The other agents with my full wound up passing, for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t queried many agents, and I could always query wider, but I wanted her. I actually felt relieved by a couple of the other agents’ passes, because I’d come to realize that Holly was my top, and only pick. Her authors love her. She does amazing things for their careers. Her sales record is spectacular. Her list includes many of my favorite books. And I knew, from talking to her authors and keeping up with her on social media, that she would get me. She would be My People.
So I didn’t send any more queries. I waited it out. I got really good at waiting. I got so good, in fact, that I started to dread what would happen when she finally returned to work and I did hear back. I liked limbo. Limbo was comfy. Limbo wasn’t rejection.
But at the same time, I didn’t want to be waiting forever. I did, after all, want to get published someday. So I kept writing a different project that was 180-degrees different from the fantasy — a thriller about a teenage superhero. One of the biggest assets to being unpublished and unagented is freedom. I could write whatever I wanted. Why not something different? So I played with my superhero thriller, which was oodles of fun plus it kept me sane.
One million years Three months later, Holly returned to work from maternity leave. About six weeks after that, in October of 2013, I got an email from her about my fantasy revision.
It was a no.
It was a kind no. An encouraging no. But still a no. “You’re terrific and there is something really special to this story,” she said, but she didn’t think she could sell it. She then said a lot of lovely things about me and my skills as a writer, and closed her email with a heartfelt request to see whatever I did next.
Then I did Another Wrong Thing. Another Thing That Querying Writers Should Not Do.
I responded to her rejection.
(Don’t respond to rejections, people.)
I responded and laid my cards out on the table. I told her she was my first choice, and whatever I wrote next would be written with the goal of nabbing her. (I may not have actually used the word “nab.” At least, I hope I didn’t.) And then I did another thing you shouldn’t do, and pitched my totally-not-even-drafted WIP with a query I wrote on the fly in five minutes, asking not if she wanted to see the manuscript, but if the project itself sounded like something she might like if I could make it good. Because if she didn’t want to read what I was writing, I was actually prepared to start a totally new project that would be more to her taste.
Yes. This is how sure I was.
(Don’t pitch books you haven’t finished writing, people.)
Somehow, yet again, she did not respond to me like I was suffering from The Crazy, but instead emailed right away saying that my new story sounded awesome and that she’d love to read it when it was ready.
CUE FRANTIC DRAFTING.
This is the point where two things happened.
1) I started doing things right.
2) My book broke.
This time, I actually plotted my book. I made beat sheets. (Like, a thousand of them. And followed none of them. But that’s a post for another day.) I had made some excellent friends in my local writing community, and I brainstormed with them and had them read for me and attended a writing conference and writing retreats. I started seriously critiquing for friends and having them seriously critique for me, and I learned how to apply the critiques I was giving others to my own manuscript. I immersed myself in the publishing world. I did my research. I attended as many book events as I possibly could. I was serious, yo.
I also couldn’t finish this book for the life of me. I had to toss it out completely and start over. Several times. And it still wasn’t right. I finished it through gritted teeth, knowing something was wrong, but unsure what it was. I gave it to some trusted beta readers. Their feedback helped me realize I needed to yank out an entire subplot, and after doing that, I discovered a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work and had to be rewritten. When all was said and done, nearly ten months had passed since Holly passed on my fantasy, and I’d thrown out over 150K words. But I finally had a book that I thought might — might — be Good Enough.
Which was…terrifying. The voices in my head never stopped whispering that if I didn’t knock this book out of the park, I’d probably reached the end of my chances with Holly. (I’m not sure why I just decided this, but once the thought was in my head, there was no dislodging it.)
But I sent it to a new wave of readers, and all of them agreed, this book was ready to query.
I carefully crafted my query, this time (thankfully) spending more than five minutes on it. This time, I only planned to send it to one person. Two of my critiquers for this book were Holly clients (Myra again, along with the incomparable MG Buehrlen), and they both sent her heads-up emails telling her they’d read for me and thought this book was The One.
In mid-July of 2014, I pressed send. I included a note in my query that she was getting an exclusive, which is another thing you’re Not Supposed To Do, but I think we’ve established by now that I am terrible at Doing Things Correctly. Then I immediately texted a handful of friends something along the lines of “I JUST HIT SEND WHAT IS THIS MADNESS WHAT IF SHE HATES IT WHAT IF I FAIL.”
Forty-five minutes later, Holly requested the full manuscript. Always a good sign.
MG and Myra freaked out. My critique partners freaked out. My writer friends freaked out.
But then six weeks passed without a peep. I twitter stalked like a champ (can one be a champ at Twitter stalking? should one be a champ at Twitter stalking?), even though Holly basically never tweets about individual submissions, because what if she did for meeeeeeeeee? I texted Myra and MG and asked them to please use their telepathic powers to read her mind and tell me where she was in my book. (Spoiler alert: They don’t have telepathic powers and I was, once again, The Crazy.)
The Crazy came in waves. Some days would be just normal days. Other days I’d wake up at 4 a.m., certain that today’s the day, even though I had no reason to believe that. Sometimes friends would ask me how I was doing, and I’d say fine. Other times, they got ALL CAPS RANTS ABOUT MY OBVIOUS SHORTCOMINGS AS BOTH A WRITER AND A HUMAN.
Querying is so weird, guys. Even (maybe especially?) when you’re only querying one person.
Then, on my birthday, I went to C.J. Redwine‘s launch party for Deliverance. And a few minutes after I got there, guess who sat a few seats down and waved to me?
Oh yeah. Holly, who lives in California, was in Nashville visiting her family. And C.J. is her client. So of course she’d be at her launch. Duh.
I even knew she was going to be in town, because we are Facebook Friends after all, but somehow I had not connected those dots. A+ detective work, Lauren.
After C.J.’s launch (which was lovely, and if you haven’t read her Defiance trilogy yet, you should), several of us, including Holly, stayed and chatted a while about a variety of things. For once, I decided, I was going to do things the right way and not bring up that she still had my manuscript. Because imagine with me, if you will, the Epic Awkwardness of bringing up my book if she was trying to think of a nice way to reject it? Or a not-so-nice way? And then had to do it to my face?
No thank you.
But. BUT. When I was getting to ready to leave, Holly turned to me, fresh off of recommending a book to someone else. “Speaking of fantastic books,” she said, “I just started yours on the plane here and I am LOVING IT.”
And then I fainted while somehow remaining upright and conscious and engaged in conversation. I think she said more nice things about my book. I think it involved scaring other passengers. I don’t know. I was having an out-of-body experience. But I said something coherent-ish (I think?) and then I really did have to go because it was my birthday and I’d been promised cake.
I might have freaked out a little. Or a lot. I don’t know.
AND THEN – two more weeks passed. And I didn’t know what to think. If an agent’s started reading your book and told you they’re loving it, you’re supposed to hear back RIGHT AWAY, right? That’s what the success stories say in all the “How I Got My Agent” posts I’d been reading (you ever notice how most success stories are like, “AND THEN I HEARD BACK THE NEXT DAY,” and even though they say that’s not the norm, it seems like it kind of is? Well I am here to tell you: I did not hear back the next day).
I began to dread her response, the same way I’d dreaded her coming back from maternity leave. If she hadn’t gobbled up my story, that meant it was boring, right? A story you love shouldn’t take two weeks to finish. It sucked. I sucked. Any day she was going to email me to tell me that maybe I should consider pottery, or window cleaning, as a better career option. I became convinced that she was merely attempting to craft the gentlest rejection letter she could, and that really not knowing was good, because I didn’t want to read another gentle rejection.
I should mention that all my friends told me I was crazy, and Myra and MG continually stressed how busy Holly was and reminded me that submissions have to come after client work, and did I mention Holly has a lot of clients and some of them are NYT bestselling authors and it’s not like she has a shortage of work? But even though, logically, I knew they were right, there’s a weird dichotomy when you’re waiting for someone to pass judgment on your work. I knew that if it was a no, she’d just tell me no. She wouldn’t sit on it forever. That didn’t make sense.
But what if she did?
Anyway. I actually wound up pushing the waiting to the back of my mind, because I had something else to focus on. The SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference. I love this event, it takes place ten minutes from my house, it’s organized by some of my dearest friends, and it is one of the most edifying parts of my year. This year the conference was September 12-14, and the whole week before was basically one big countdown to the conference. I even stopped worrying about my manuscript. That’s how excited I was.
On Friday afternoon, I checked into the conference hotel with my critique partner, Sarah (who has read everything I’ve ever written, even the super-crappy first drafts that aren’t fit to line a hamster cage, a feat for which she deserves knighthood or possibly even sainthood), and her mother. We dropped our suitcases in our room and prepared to go downstairs and mingle.
Before we left the room, my phone rang. I don’t know anyone in L.A., I thought as I picked up.
“Hi, Lauren, this is Holly Root. Do you have a minute?”
I might have hit Sarah in the back so hard it scared her. And then I realized I couldn’t actually say anything so I mouthed IT’S HOLLY like I was trying to communicate with a lip reader in Djibouti while responding in my calmest tone, “Of course I have a minute.”
“Do you have a minute for me to tell you that I loved your book and think I can sell it?”
I definitely had that minute.
After talking briefly about my superhero book, she said, “So this is the part where I woo you. How should I go about the wooing?”
“It’s going to be really easy,” I said. And it was. We talked about revisions, and once again, I agreed with her on every point. We talked about how she does business. We talked about my other WIPs. We talked about the fact that I unpack in hotels, because I am weird. I’m sure we talked about other things too, but I was on a cloud somewhere and can’t tell you what they were. At the end of the call, she offered to give me a few days to consider, but I told her I didn’t need them. I’d had a lot of days and months to consider. I was good on the considering front. We got off the phone, she sent me the agreement, and bam. Agented.
One of the best parts of this entire year-and-a-half long process was that she called at the exact right time for me to be able to walk downstairs and tell nearly all of my best writing friends the news in person. And let me tell you, my husband was overjoyed, my mother screamed, but no one understands this particular thrill like writer friends. There were many hugs and much screaming that night.
So basically, if you are querying and can get your dream agent to call and offer to represent you ten minutes before you’re about to go spend a weekend with most of your closest friends at a writing conference, DO THAT. It’s pretty great.
My favorite reaction was my friend David, who congratulated me, gave me a hug, then promptly threw his wadded-up napkin in my half-full wine glass.
“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”
“It’s a momentous occasion! I wanted to do something you’d always remember.”
Oh I’ll remember, all right.
I honestly think my friends were more excited than I was, because while I’d been holding my emotions back from the process (I’d been plenty neurotic, but I’d never allowed myself to be more than cautiously hopeful, because if you don’t hope, you can’t be crushed), they’d always believed in me. This is why it’s so important to have community. Writing can be lonely and full of self-doubt. I cannot stress enough how valuable it’s been to me to be surrounded by people who know the process and the struggles, but never falter in their faith that I can do this. I expect my emotions to crank up to eleven eventually. It’ll sink in soon. But until then, they’ll carry the giddy for me.
Also, I was asked at least a dozen times if I remembered to tell my husband. I told my husband first, people. We are not savages.
Signing the Agency Agreement. Husband is behind camera, being TOTALLY PRESENT AND INFORMED.
The conference was amazing (of course), and while I wasn’t ready to officially “announce” publicly yet (my overloaded brain simply could not handle telling the world my news and doing a writing conference on the same weekend), I had the rather surreal experience of being able to answer “yes” on the few occasions when one of the faculty asked me if I was agented yet.
How weird is that?
So there you have it, folks. The long, meandering tale of how I got my dream agent. If you made it through the whole thing, congrats. May your admirable perseverance serve you well in life.
Thanks for celebrating with me, friends. I’m so beyond thrilled to be an official part of Team Root, and can’t wait to see what adventures the future holds.