Success has a lot to do with just not quitting
I found an agent with the first book I wrote
Does that sound like I had instant beginner’s luck? A win, right out of the box? Lest you roll your eyes, I assure you there was nothing quick or easy about finding my novel a professional advocate and champion. But there was an element of chance about it.
I suspect that’s true of any leg up that any artist gets. The first big role you land, the first gallery opening, the first prize in a juried contest, the first publishing or producing or performance contract you sign — it feels abrupt, breathtaking. As though the door you’ve been knocking on while standing out in the rain and sleet and freezing wind has burst open. You’re swept within a warm and golden interior, suddenly welcome, suddenly wanted.
In that heady rush, it’s easy to overlook all the determined door-knocking while out there in the harsh elements. Success at any level in the arts is like an iceberg: the visible part is only the uppermost fragment of what lies beneath.
This iceberg took a very long time to form
My novel, with a working title of The Moon Ran After Her, had a long gestation period. Decades, in fact, during which the oral history I’d recorded and transcribed of my sons’ great grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, simmered in my imagination and refused to leave me alone.
I’d written essays, articles, blog posts, and short stories — some of which had been published, some of which won well-regarded writing contests — but I hadn’t found the grit to attempt a novel, as much as I wanted to. Where would I even begin? Worse, what if I didn’t finish?
Enter NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, an event and organization I first heard about in 2014. Now worldwide, in its most basic form it’s a challenge to write at least 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. It’s been the springboard for some big hits (Cinder and Water for Elephants, to name just two), and uncounted first attempts.
It offered the structure and support I needed to dive into what I’d dreamed of: a historical novel based on Grandma’s and others’ memories, one that could bring to life both their ordeals and the triumph of their survival. By the end of November, 2015, I was 65,000 words in. And then I just kept going.
The first draft was 124,000 words long
Far too long for a debut novel, as I was soon to learn. And it needed a lot of work. I spent another two years revising it. I worked with critique groups. I recruited beta readers. I joined writers’ associations, including the Historical Novel Society. I went to writer’s conferences, learned what it meant to pitch agents, won a contest with a chapter of Moon, and toiled on my query letter, which often felt harder than writing the book. And I kept revising. The novel eventually trimmed down by 27,000 words, shrinking by over 100 pages, and became tighter and better paced.
And I queried agents. Many agents. In the process, I learned a lot about handling rejection. Also that there are different levels of rejection: the form rejection, a quick brush-off; the rejection with feedback, much more rare but greatly instructive however painful; and the long form, when an agent has requested your full manuscript, taken months to get back to you, and then says no. This went on for months, until months turned into years.
Then I got the Call
An agent who had asked for the full manuscript contacted me to arrange a phone call. I was, pardon the pun, over the moon. We spoke for over an hour. She was enthusiastic, thought it was an important story, said her intern claimed it was the best book she’d read in years,. But she had suggestions, and would I consider revising and resubmitting? Not even the entire book, just the first third. I liked her suggestions, and although I knew it didn’t obligate her to anything, I agreed. And boy, was I excited. I worked like a demon on that revision, submitted it, and waited with bated breath.
And waited. Three months, five months. I sent a polite nudge email. No response. Three more months, another nudge. Crickets. I saw the agent quoted in Writers Digest. Sent a third email mentioning the quote. More months, more nada. At last I accepted that I’d been ghosted.
At least I liked the revisions I’d done.
After some wound-licking, I got back in the saddle
I had other eggs in my basket by this time, another novel completed and edited, more stories. But I still believed there was a readership for The Moon Ran After Her, if I could connect with the right person. So I resumed querying, but this time I was even more careful about targeting agents with whom my book seemed a good fit. I researched them carefully, read their clients’ work, checked out interviews they’d done.
In the process, I found one agent who seemed like a great fit — and also a very long shot. What did I have to lose? I crafted a carefully personalized query letter and sent it off, with about as much expectation as you’d invest in buying a lottery ticket.
This agent got back to me immediately. Requested the full manuscript. A few months later, the response landed in my inbox. Thank you for sending me The Moon Ran After Her, it began, and I braced for what I assumed would follow: while I enjoyed reading it, I don’t feel I can represent it at this time.
But that’s not what this agent said. Their agency, for various reasons, was indeed unable to represent the book — but not because they didn’t think it was good enough. In fact, they thought it was “terrific.” So they’d taken the liberty of sending the manuscript to a colleague with another agency in New York. She had read it, loved it, and wanted to reach out to me, possibly to offer representation. Did I mind that they had taken the liberty of sharing my contact information?
No. No, I did not mind at all. I stood in my West Coast kitchen at 5:30AM, crying happy tears. It had taken years to get to this point, years in which I’d questioned everything about the book and about myself as a writer. But I hadn’t given up, and in this moment of positive recognition by industry professionals, it was all worth it.
I had another call, this time with Helen Adams
The president and owner of Zimmermann Literary Agency, Helen has decades of experience in several areas of the publishing world, from Director of Advertising and Promotion for an imprint of Random House to being the Author Events Director for an independent bookseller in the Hudson Valley, before establishing her own agency in 2003. As an agent, she has shepherded best sellers and award-winning titles — among them Susan Richards’ New York Times best-selling memoir, Chosen by a Horse, a book of which, horse lover that I am, I’m a forever fan.
Helen was delightful on the phone. She was personable, direct, and ready with excellent editorial suggestions, all of which I agreed would improve the book. With President Biden’s official recognition on April 24 (Armenian Remembrance Day) of the Genocide, she found the novel not only powerful but timely.
I loved our conversation, but given my experience I was careful to manage my expectations. At length I asked her the big question: was she asking for a revise-and-resubmit, or was she offering representation?
“Oh, I totally want to represent it,” she said, and went on to outline her strategy for selling it. My right hand took notes on a legal pad while the rest of my body orbited Earth a few times before touching down.
I keep my signed contract on my desktop
I fully realize that getting an agent is only one step in the publishing process, and that The Moon Ran After Her still faces a challenging and uncertain journey to become a published book. But it’s gotten this far, and that’s a huge step. In Helen, I’ve found a business partner, a coach, and an advocate.
Some of this is timing. Some of it is luck. But if I’ve done anything right up to this point, it’s this: I didn’t give up.
And that’s the advice I have to give: if you know you’ve got something worthwhile to offer, keep knocking on that door.