O.K. So it is now official official.
I have an agent! wow! I still can't believe I am typing this. It is still a blur.
One day I didn't have anything. (Except rejections of course! :)
One day I got I made a huge change.
One day I got lucky.
One day I got a email.
One day I got a phone call.
One day I had a few agents who wanted me. (BTW I did not wake up expecting this day to be "the day")
Now suddenly, I found "the one".
Finally today, I can tell you my agent seeking story. Since the Agent Agreement is signed, my agent can't back out now (at least not for a year :). For the last week, I have been almost sure she would come to her senses and change her mind.Right?
I mean she's crazy... right?
Surely she called the wrong Shelli. Right?
Surely this is a joke. Surely I am on candid camera. A mean episode.
But it is really happening. (OMG! OMG! OMG! AAAHHHHHHHHH! :D
My agent and I (man I love saying that!) have both signed in blood so it is irreversible. O.K. so she signed her name with her Secret Agent pen (they have those right?) , however, what she doesn't know is that I signed mine in blood, sweat, and tears. It's a done deal and I am thrilled and so lucky and so grateful for my journey.
Mostly, I am so grateful to(there I go again!) for believing in me and seeing something special in me and my writing - Just like I see in her amazing ability.
So here is my story.....
...when I was born in 19??..... ( JK! I won't go back that far - thank god! I hear you sighing with relief. Whew!)
In the beginning
As many of you know, I was an executives at a Consulting Firm and International Bank until I started my own marketing company. I have over 15 years of experience in marketing and communications. But something was always missing.
I have always loved writing. But growing up - I was always told to go into business. That was where the money was. I still managed to do writing in my business jobs - it was just business communications. Sometimes, I would dabble in poems at home. But I never took it seriously. I never expected or even thought it could be a career. I think that's why the marketing copywriting was a great transition b/c it was creative and I am good at business.
My first book
When I had my daughter in 2004, I went on 5 months of maternity leave.The summer before when I was traveling in England (with my British hubby) I remembered passing by a shop called the Broken Winged fairy and got an idea. A book about a fairy who couldn't fly. I sat down one day when my baby girl was sleeping and started to write my tween fantasy, which is now titled On Tattered Wings. It all came pouring out of me - totally out of the blue b/c I never set out to write a whole book. I wrote on naps, at night, early in am. I never intended on trying to publish it.
But I realized I felt so alive writing and suddenly knew (don't ask me how I came to this conclusion after 15 years of business experience. I just knew.) writing was what I wanted to do. 6 months later I had a first draft. I think my family and friends thought I was crazy. As I kept my marketing business a float, I left my job and immediately starting querying some agents and some editors. Yes this was only after my first draft. Big mistake! This was all before I joined SCBWI (oi!!!!!) and trust me I made so MANY mistakes. (if you have not already, join SCBWI!!!!! I would not be here without them!)
At that time, I did not get any requests from agents (I must have queried at least 60-75 but they all seemed to want YA at the time - now I see why :). I got alot of form rejections and even a couple nasty grams begging me to proof my book. I edited my book and started querying publishers (thinking what did agents know anyway! :). First there was one publishing house that asked for MAJOR revisions. I did them but they took me 4 months only to get a (lets all say it together) REJECTION! I was bummed (for a nicer word) but then another small publishing house requested a full and informed me my book was going to Acquisitions. I thought for sure I was In-like-Flynn (cliche alert!). Unfortunately my book was once again rejected. I was so upset. Devastated. I really thought I was going to be published by this company. I mean didn't they know I was the next Harry Potter?????(blah blah blah). Now what? I didn't have time to write another book!
I paid an well-known editor to edit my book. What was wrong with it. It came back with so many post its and changes and things broken - I shelved it and it still sits on a shelf today, collecting dust. Maybe someday when the fairy market subsides, I will revisit it again. I still think a young tween fairy book may have a potential market - especially clean tween.
A new project
I did not write for a long time after that let down. I was very discouraged with the whole process, the rejections, the mean letters. I mean - after all - who did I think I was thinking that I (a business person) could write something and get published. I was a joke. I had no writing degree, no MFA, no experience. I was a business girl and that was it. I had nothing tangible to go on, except a dream and an urge.
Needless to say, I had a hard time personally in 06/07 - i lost a big money-making contract, lost a baby, got prego, had a son was born in May o7 who was very sick for the first 6-9 months, and to top it off my hubby had to have major back surgery in Germany for 6 weeks (nov/Dec 07) with a very long painful and recovery.
During this time, I started Grace Under Fire. But I only dabbled. Nothing serious. My hubby actually came up with the original concept - a homegrown terrorist group training in NC mountains found out by a nature loving, sassy girl. I loved Grace because she was sassy yet insecure and I loved the nature aspect of the book. (which BTW has now changed dramatically)
I wrote when I could but had totally given up the dream of getting published. I looked into self-publishing but for some reason, it didn't call me. I had little time to focus on writing anyway, with everything else going on.
To be honest - I think I made up every excuse to not finish my book and get it out on sub. Who needs the rejection anyway. Life was full of it already.
But I still had the itch.
I joined SCBWI and attended conferences. But in Fall 07 - was asked to give a marketing speech at a SCBWI conference. There, I met Sarah Francis, Katie Anderson, Jessica DeHart, and Lindsey Leavitt. Just making some new friends that I could talk to about writing all day really helped me get going again. I had always gone to conferences alone, ate alone, and didn't focus on meeting people. I only focused on meeting editors and agents and getting published, I didn't try to connect with anyone. This change in mindset for me was huge! These special girls have all got me to where I am today. Without them, I really do not think I would be here. After all, none of us can do it alone.
I started writing again but sporadically. Until I attended another conference in April 08 and got re-inspired when I met up with Jessica DeHart again. We found a couple of cool chicks to hang out with (since Katie, Sarah and Lindsey were not there) and started our own informal posse - OK so it was just an informal weekly critique group, but doesn't posse sounds much better? This group included both of us, Sherri Dillard, Kelly Williams, and Betsy Delves. My special connection with these girls is really what pulled me back on my path. For 6 months, we met weekly and not only did they offer to read a chapter a week of my book. Sometimes they did 2. This was invaluable to me and pushed me to finish Grace. Something I'd been dabbling in for a couple years at this point. I will say during this time, I also wrote a nonfiction book that went to Acquisitions at American Girl - once again only to be rejected. This sucked! I was so fed up at the all rejections. For me, it always felt like 1 step forward, 10 steps back. Because of my group - that we called The Calliope Circle - I pushed onward and upward. Needless to say, I grumbled the whole way.
Before I started subbing in the fall, a friend that I met at a Southern Breeze conference, Lindsey Leavitt, had just gotten an amazing agent and 3 book deal. At the fall conference, I met her for coffee and we chit chatted for a couple hours. She was very generous and I soaked in all the great tips she offered on the agenting process and all the great info on her own story. She also encouraged me to restart my blog. When I had met a year before, Lindsey and I had been in the same place writing wise. Suddenly, she had catapulted forward in a flash. She and her story re-lit a major fire in my belly. I could do this! It had happened to someone I knew and now it felt attainable. It was possible. I made a decision then that no matter what I was not going to give up. If I wanted something out of this process, I need to put something major into it.
I started a blog to help people sell their books. I started offering free web sites as giveaways. I started doing massive amounts of research on the business side. I ordered PW, signed up for Publishers Lunch and studied the daily deals. Anything I could get my hands on that added to my knowledge of the business, I sucked up!
Agent Subbing process
In general - 3 agents changed my book and my career.
After I met Lindsey, I was ready to sub Grace. THIS TIME, I decided to go for an agent and not a publisher. I realized in all my research that it was the best option for me to kick open a door in this industry. In Oct 08, THIS TIME I did massive amounts of research. I made a very detailed spreadsheet listing my top 50 agents. I logged all the research I found on them - what did they like, who were their clients, where did they come from, what did they read for pleasure. I read blogs, interviews, studied the journey's of their authors. I really did my work. In Nov, I sent out 5 queries at a time and worked very hard to put a personal item in each letter that connected specifically with that agent. I mentioned a book they read or an interview they did. Each letter was very personal and took a long time to write. Then, I waited.
Surprisingly, within a month, I had several agents request fulls. I was ecstatic. In Dec, I got 2 very personal letters from 2 wonderful agents (I'll call them Agent #1 and Agent#2). Pretty much they both told me that my premise was unbelievable and dark and my characters needed some major work. But they did say that they loved my voice and that my writing had serious potential. OK, so at least I did not totally suck! At least I was not a joke to them. (PS. I want you to know that one of these agents is now my agent. So stay tuned!!!!) Even though these were 2 hard rejections, I knew it was promising. It gave me much more specific feedback that I could use to get to the next level.
Back to the drawing board
I started brainstorming ideas with my book angels.
Lindsey Leavitt gave me great advice and laid it on the line for me. (BTW you don't want people around you who are going to blow spoke up with booty. That is not going to get you published, trust me.) She told me that if I was getting past query stage and partials going straight to fulls. That meant I had good writing, good voice but something was wrong with the plot of my book. In my gut, I figured it had to be the terrorist group - the ending. I had in mind a huge change I needed to make to the book that would get rid of the terrorist angle and change from a thriller into an environmental suspense. But there was no way I was changing all that. The changes were way too daunting and way too big. I just didn't have the time nor the energy. Did I?
I made some changes to my characters and the plot, but nothing like I knew I needed. But I was still getting full requests by alot of agents so I kept waiting to see if something would stick. Out of 50 queries (over 6 month period) - I think I had about 15-20 full requests but they always ended in a rejection. This was heartbreaking for me and I cried many nights. I was so close. Why wasn't this happening for me. I became a bit obsessed with the process. I got jealous of hearing people's agent stories and deals. With every rejection, I got anxious and angry and a bit bitter. This wasn't the real me - it was the desperate me. What I also didn't tell you is that during this whole time, I was battling a bad ear infection that caused major Vertigo - 6 months of daily vertigo.
Jessica DeHart pushed me through this process. She was so positive and always saw the best in everything I did and the good in anything that happened. This changed my mindset completely.
But, more rejections came in and none were as personal as the 2 I received in the beginning.
Finally, a wonderful agent - Agent #3 (who I was referred to by a fabulous friend/author) provided sent me a very nice and long letter. In this letter, she loved my writing, my characters but hated the terrorist angle. She and I exchanged a couple emails and she gave me very specific feedback. Do you know what was weird? Her feedback was EXACTLY the same changes I had been contemplating for months. The ones I was avoiding because of being lazy and impatient. This was a sign to me. I knew then I had to try the huge changes or I would always wonder if I could have been more. Changing the terrorist thriller to an environmental suspense would be so hard. It was a major plot change. Like 1/3 of the whole book had to be ditched. Meanwhile I got in the Quarterfinals in Amazon (which was based on the first few chapters of my book).
I knew I was on the right track, but I wasn't convinced the changes would make a difference.
What helped me finally push over the edge was that Agent #3 said if I decided to rework my plot, she MIGHT take another look if I resubmitted.
Suddenly, I had a speck of hope and possibility. There was no guarantee. But it got me through those changes. I went back to the drawing board, scrapped the last 1/3 of my book, and started over. And cranked them out in one month. I did not want to mess around and take 6 months. I know from a business perspective that markets can change like the wind (cliche alert) and I was not going to ruin my chance of getting Grace published because I could not work fast enough.
I worked night and day and my hubby gave me weekends.
My goal was to give rebirth to Grace on Easter.
That was a long, hard exhausting, month. But I did it. Vertigo and all.
When I finished the rewrites, I resubmitted to Agent #3 just before crashing. (I also dropped dairy, sugar, caffeine, carbs and 14 lbs - but you know what vertigo went away too!)
I was happy. I knew this new version of Grace was tighter, lighter, better, and much more believable. I felt like I'd fixed it but I still wasn't sure.
One day, I was talking to Katie Anderson about who had rejected me and I how I was bummed I had wasted some good queries especially on the 2 agents that gave me personal feedback. She said, "Can't you just requery them?"' I said. "Noooooo I don't think you can do that." But that night my hubby said "So? Why not? all they can do is say no again. Who cares?"
Me! I could be blackballed from the industry for fudging the "rules". They would all send each other emails about me: "hey don't read Shelli's stuff, she'll just keep requerying."
You know what? I decided to requery them - what the hell right? If you fail, I say fail big! :) Go outwith a bang! You gotta take changes. Agent #1 and Agent #2 had taken the time to give me feedback and very personal rejections but that was 8 months ago and my book was totally different. It was risky and I know everybody says - "please don't requery us." but I did anyway. I wrote a very nice, professional letter to both agents, reminding them of what they said about my writing, explaining how I had changed the book, outlining how I had addressed their specific comments, and asking permission to resubmit my manuscript. In the letter, I also included - as a one liner at the bottom - a blurb about my new tween-angel book (On the Bright Side) that I had started writing. Just so they knew I was not a one-shot wonder.
It took me a couple of weeks before I heard back. When I saw their emails pop-up in my box, I didn't open them for like an hour! I was so scared to. I anticipated multiple curse words and a couple F-off's followed by: "Listen little girl, we already said No and I've marked you as junk mail in my box. Go away neophyte. You'll never make it in this town!"
But these 2 fabulous agents were very nice and very generous. They thanked me for requerying them and allowed me to resubmit Grace. They also asked to see the beginning of Bright too. I was so grateful. For the first time, I felt like something might happen for me. It was another sign that I was going in the right direction. At this time, I still had a total of 6 agents reading my full manuscript so I went ahead and emailed each of them asking if I could replace the old version with an updated version (due to major changes). They were all very gracious as well and let me switch since they had not gotten to it yet.
Honestly - they were all so nice! I think we would all be surprised. We have to remember they are people not ogres.
Suddenly the 3 agents (the 3 that had given me the personal feedback before) came back to me and requested more of my tween angel book. This was promising. It meant they liked my writing and voice. I had a shot.
Maybe it was a shot in hell - but it was a shot nonetheless.
One of the 3 quickly bowed out with very kind words of encouragement. :) ( Who to this day I think is amazing!)
I waited. And prayed. And waited. And hoped. And begged the universe for a break.
I just needed one to see my potential? Just one to believe in me!
Then a couple weeks ago, (about a month after I sent off the new versions) Agent #3 came back with an formal offer. I was so ecstatic on the phone - I barely remember what she said. I loved her and was drawn to her because she was the first agent who had ever offered to REREAD Grace if I made changes. That glimmer of hope helped me in that hard month of rewrites. I felt grateful to her and - to be honest - somewhat loyal for her just giving me the extra chance. I almost swiped up the offer without even thinking it through. I knew she loved my writing and my books. And I thought she was fab!
But a couple writer friends encouraged me to think it through and email all the people who were still considering my full to let them know. I thought, "Yeah right. Like they are all going to want my book. What are teh chances? And if they did, wouldn't they have emailed me." Besides, I had one already interested that rocked the house!
So what's the point? Right?
But I wanted to be courteous of the others that had been courteous to me.
So I emailed them about my offer, expecting. "Good, we didn't want you anyway and this saves us another manuscript to read." (Again, they are people not ogres!)
Within about 10 minutes of emailing them, the floodgate opened. I got all emails returned within a short time. A couple agents bowed out and wished me luck/congratulations. But several were interested in offering me representation on Grace. And lucky for me, a few had also read the sample of Bright as well and loved it. (PS Bright was in first draft and not even complete yet!)
Now I got to schedule a few interviews and choose! What?????! This is CRAZY! For years, I had been begging people to look at my manuscript and love my writing. Begging!! Wishing!! Hoping!! It had all seemed so unreachable but now, I was going to get to choose my agent out of a great group? A top group!
How lucky was I?
After the interviews, I narrowed it down to 2 wonderful agents that I connected with the most. I thought so hard about it. This was where it was really tough for me. They both were amazing and so nice and loved my writing. Which one to choose? I even did a few eeny meeny rounds, a few flip the coins. But it always ended up even stephen.
ahhhhhhh! I felt pressure. I've always heard a bad agent is worse than no agent. what if I make the wrong decision? what if one backs out? How do I know if i choose right?
I made a thousand lists of pros and cons!!! I analyzed every word of their emails looking for a hidden clue. At first, I looked at experience, books sold, clients, their vision for me and my writing. But it was so close and they both were so good.
In the end, I simply quieted down and went with my gut. It was hard because I loved both of them for different reasons.
But the agent I chose was honestly the one I had a feeling about since the very beginning. Since last fall. It was the FIRST agent who gave me very constructive feedback in a personal/nice rejection. It was the agent that had so much passion in her voice for my work that I got off the phone MORE more excited about my own book. It was the agent who took the time and care to lay out a very specific plan ( and I mean very specific) for my career and each book's journey to market. For both Grace and Bright!
Out of respect, I am not going to list who my agent choices were. That seems very tacky. Because they were all fab for different reasons.
But I will tell you who my Secret Agent is.
When I was trying to choose, I Casey McCormick posted her Agent Spotlight of the Week. which happened to be the one I was leaning towards. I am a big person on signs from the universe and this was a big sign to me. (thanks Casey!)
Wanna know who it is?
My agent is.....
the fabulous Alyssa Eisner Henkins from Trident Media!!!!!!!
(what?! can you believe it?!!!!!!!!!!!! She's amazing right?!)
I m so happy!
OMG! OMG! If I had a dollar for every time I have said or screamed or cried over the last 2 weeks - I would not even need a book deal!)
So, what's next?
My first deadline - my real official deadline that someone else has given me - is June 8th! Yes a week away. But I'm ready to work hard and do what it takes. Hopefully we will go to sub in July if I can crank through my edits. Or maybe I should say when i crank through my edits.
How did I do this?
I would say I had some luck mixed with perseverance, splashed with blessing, and dipped in destiny.
But honestly, I have no clue how I got to be 1 of Alyssa's 24 lucky clients!!!! ;) OMG!
I do think I have a unique voice. I do think I tell stories well. After all, I am a total drama queen at heart so that part is so easy. And just like every other writer, I did not give up! I also have a great family and a hubby that supports me and believed in me when I did not believe in myself.
But most of us have these things. Right?
I was thinking last night, what did I do differently. I wanted to help you all who are still on the agent path to take a step closer to your dream. So I think there are a few things that I tried to do during this crazy process that may have pushed me forward.
1) I joined SCBWI and met my book angels - Jessica, Katie, Sarah F, Lindsey, Betsy, Sheri, Kelly and Suzanne Young. We cannot write in a vaccum! We get ideas from outside sources but we write from within. My book did not just come from me. The idea, premise, characters and writing are mine. But they are all sprinkled with advice, critiques, and ideas from all these girls. Without them I would not be here! I swear, I am here because of them!! I dont think any writer gets anywhere alone. We make work alone. But we can't write/create alone.
2) One thing I have tried to do is celebrate each and every step forward! I really have! I have tried to be grateful for any small sign of progress. Which in this business, are usually very small things. If someone requested a partial or a full. If an agent took their personal time to send me a personal rejection (of course this is after totally crying of course :). I celebrated my win at Amazon, even though I dd not get to the next round. I celebrated the agent who gave me a second shot to revise and resubmit. Because you see, she gave me more than just a shot, she gave me hope - which is priceless. These were all wins to me. I try to focus on the small steps. As long as I took a step forward, I knew it was a matter of time.
3) I requeried the 2 agents that gave me feedback. I was actually expecting 2 "hell no we've already said no so go away" but it was not the case. I went against the grain a bit and did something everyone says not to do. I just did it in a professional and appropriate way. I'm not saying it works for everyone. And please don't go and resend all your queries (especially to Alyssa!!!) I'm just saying you can't always play exactly by the rules. No one can tell you what to follow and what to break, sometimes you have to take risks and go with your gut. Whatever you decide, be sure it is smart and appropriate.
4) I am open to CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. I actually seek it out. (Note on constructive - Please emember if you are critiquing someone - they is no reason to dog them. I saw some comments on one of Miss Snark's Victim's monthly contest that were just plain rude and mean. If I was an agent, that stuff would turn me off completely). I always look for any way to improve. Don't get me wrong, this does not mean I don't get my feathers a bit ruffled - I think we all do. After all our writing is personal. But after I vent a bit and stomp around muttering under my breath (so much to where my daughter asks who I am talking to :) , I really try and step back to take in what was said. I do not think we can write books alone. There is so much more that goes into our stories: our past, our deepest feelings, fears, experiences, and even criticisms. I do always look for any small nugget of advice, any way to improve. I listen even if I do not agree with something thankful someone cares enough about me and my writing to talk about it.
5) I tried not to focus on the end result of getting published. Towards the beginning of this year, I got to a place where I decided "I am going to write for me and if I get published great. If I don't, it doesn't matter b/c I will still write and be happy writing." I let go of any angst to to attachment. I tried to start focusing more on my journey and the passion I feel when I write. I didn't do this all the time, I am not perfect - but this was the mindset where I could recentered myself after bad rejections or major disappointments. And for a long time, that is all if felt like I was getting. I'm not saying I didn't stand on the edge of the doubt. I did many times. I even quit writing 2 or 3. But I always came back because I love writing. I am a writer at heart. No rejection could tell me otherwise. We have to remember why we write.
6) I think you have to seek out and help others - I decided lastyear that you do not "get anything until you give something). That is why I started this blog. Not only to network and start building a platform. But so I could give marketing advice to every author that woudl help them get noticed and get deals and get published. I have tried to give back by speaking at conferences and give free things away so that others can benefit. I think this is important but this is just me.
7) Lastly, I try to remember that publishing is really just a business. Even though it is a creative one. The publishing business is about what sells. My original version of Grace was not selling. If I couldn't sell it to agents, then something was wrong. And b/c of that, I was willing to change my entire book to be sellable. Don't get me wrong, I did not sell out! I did those edits on my terms, in my way, and maintained my true voice. The story is the fundamentally the same, I just did it in a different way. If I had not stayed open to the drastic feedback and possibility of changing my entire plot, I would not be here today. I got essentially 50 rejections with my old version and several offers with my new version. I knew deep down if I want to get an agent and get publsihed, I had to find my target audience. BTW this does not mean you all have to write commercial fiction. I personally dont think Grace is commercial. YOu can still market yourself as literary but you still need a market to buy your idea. And if an agent is not buying, it probably won't sell. I am sure there are exceptions.
BTW - we are not our target audience. Just because we love our work and characters, does not mean it sells.
In the end I think it helps to remember, this is a business and we as writers have to find customers and a market for our books and ideas. If we can't - for whatever reason whether its fair or not - we need to find some way of adapting. Or we lose.
Grab Hold of your Dream
Whatever you do, if you know deep down that this is your calling, your purpose, your path. Keep going!!!!!! Instead of focusing on the end result, the big agent, the big book deal, the signings. Focus on the now. Make connections. network. Listen.
Yeah easier said than done. But it can be done. I did it.
Look for all those little signs telling you that you are heading in the right direction. The letters, the requests, the advice, the special connections, the people, the special moments of serendipity that sometimes come our way without us even recognizing they are there until they pass us by.
If you don't look for them, you will not see them and you may give up on a dream that is yours. One that could come tomorrow.
Doesn't mean it is easy. Doesn't mean it will happen tomorrow.
But at least you have hope and possibility.
If you quit, all that hope goes away. You will never make it. So woudl you rather think you might make it or know you won't. That is what it came down to for me. Try to relax. If you hold on tightly to the end result, you just cause yourself angst and anxiety that only impacts your life, health and your writing.
It only impacts your dream.
So keep trying, I did. Keep your chin up. I know - trust me I know - it is not easy. But is anything worth getting easy?
When I got bad news, I always gave myself 24 hrs to mope and shout and cry and quit and feel sorry for myself. But that's it. You only get 24 hrs. Jessica DeHart taught me this and it helped. After 24 hrs, you force yourself to get up and go on. After 24 hrs, get off your BUTT and take a step forward. Maybe even 2. If you take 1 step back and then 2 steps forward, you are actually ahead of where you were. Do it! You will feel better. Write a page, send out one just more query, call a writer friend, buy a book. Read this blog :) Do whatever it is you need to do for you.
But you have to get back up and take a step forward.
You never know - tomorrow could be your day. I never expected it to be mine.
I am still working towards my dream. It is still a long shot and I am sure more rejections are to come.
But for now I am going to stop and cherish this moment. I am going to enjoy my feeling of accomplishment and the steps I have taken in this crazy process.
Today, I'm just going to.....Dance and Shout!