In the fall of 2012, I accepted a dare from a colleague in the English department where I teach: to join him and a group of our students in NaNoWriMo. Since I’m one of the principle teachers of creative writing at our school (this haven for intellectual oddballs and the gifted, sometimes called “Hogwarts for Hackers”), it made sense. I’d had a loose idea for a world and a story in me for years but never made my own writing – or, really, myself – enough of a priority to write it down. But I knew my characters already, and I knew what was facing them, and the thought of finally getting it out was so appealing.
I could never have predicted how that one, agreeable shrug of my shoulders would lead to such a complicated future.
When Nightmare on Query Street 2013 came around almost a year later, I was a first-time novelist with a complete ms and a fistful of loyal CPs found through the hope and happenstance of AgentQuery Connect (I’m looking at you, Michelle and Pete). I had a query letter they’d kicked up and down cyberspace for weeks, a synopsis, some spiffy first chapters, and …
A word count problem. Like, to the tune of an adult fantasy manuscript 134K strong. By the time Michelle, Mike, and S.C. made the all-call NOQS entries, I’d already racked up a month’s worth of rejections and some detailed CP notes, all chorusing “cut this thing down, and maybe it’ll go somewhere.” Encouraged by my writer-friends to give the contest a go, I wrote my “MC’s greatest fear” paragraph, squinted fussily at my query, spit-shined page one, and sent it all off.
Then I sat down to make good on my submission’s claim that the project was actually 125K.
I know what you’re thinking: “You … lied about your word count?”
Well, sort of. No. Not “sort of.” Yes, I did. (Not-so-subliminal message: DO NOT do this!) I had a strategy planned out: I would submit with that word count, dive into my CP notes, and start editing down. By the time I knew if I’d made the contest, the ms would be the promised length, and really, that tightening needed to happen either way. I had been reluctant to cut for months, insisting I had already taken out as much as could go (it had been 146K, once upon a time – STOP LAUGHING AT ME). Creating this sense of urgency would make me do the job at last. (Do not do this… Do not do this… Play with fire and you get burned… Look both ways before you cross the street… DO NOT DO THIS. Please.)
Poking about the NOQS forum on AQC, I saw Mike tease about dropping his final pick for another spotted at the last minute – a really interesting adult fantasy he couldn’t pass up. And then, a day or so later, lo and behold: I – or, my manuscript, THE NINE, rather – was a Monster. The actual manuscript was only down to 130K at this point, not the advertised 125K, and so, even as I gabbled on Twitter with the other contestants and our growing, cheerful fan bases, I worked furiously behind the scenes to cut, cut, cut.
By the end, I had one ten page, three fifty page, and one full request. Twenty-four hours after the contest closed, I was down to 122k and sent my beastie off, praying after its electron trail.
Time passed. By December, two of those partials became fulls. The original contest full lingered out there, unanswered.
In February 2014, still haunting the Twitter pages of two agents from NOQS who hadn’t yet decided on the full, I discovered #MSWL. There, I found a request tweeted by Agent Overwhelming: a funny, charming, unfailingly polite personage with an impressive sales streak. I had long since decided that querying there was out of my league, but the #MSWL message sounded just enough like my work…
I gave it a shot.
Three hours after I sent the query, it turned into a request for a full. Nine days later, I was talking to Agent Overwhelming on the phone, going over ideas and details for an R&R. I babbled. Lord knows how I must have sounded. Agent Overwhelming, though, was completely clear: these kinds of phone calls are rare, and serious, but not a guarantee. No promises from Overwhelming that writing the revision meant representation – and so, no expectation that the revised ms would be an exclusive, either.
That, as it turned out, would prove as important to my eventually getting an agent as NOQS itself.
It was just six months after I’d started querying, and I had an R&R. I planned it down to the finest detail and set aside my entire upcoming summer break to tackle the job. In early June, it dawned on me that I really should take advantage of the non-exclusive agreement offered. I contacted all the agents who had read the previous full or had it in hand then (including a small press who had offered on a prior version) and let them know a new copy would be available soon, if they wanted it.
One of the first agents to respond to that offer was Agent October, the agent whose request – even though it wasn’t a full – had had me the most excited during NOQS. I’d had a stack of raggedy post-it notes in my desk drawer for months prior to actually beginning querying, written in more or less my fantasyland order of “agents I wish would sign me.” (These were, naturally, also the agents I was most afraid of querying.) Agent Overwhelming and Agent October’s names were written side by side, with slashes separating them, top of the list. Imagine my surprise when Agent October responded to the revision offer, confirming that she actually had just recently finished reading my ms. She’d had some misgivings about it and thought a re-read was in order. I described the changes I’d discussed with Agent Overwhelming, and she felt they largely addressed her concerns. She added two points of her own, which I quickly included in my to-do list. Then I powered on, completing a first draft, CP rounds and notes, and a final draft all by the first week of August 2014.
I sent the revision – practically a speed-skater at 114K (STOP LAUGHING) – to several interested agents, the small press, and (of course) Agents Overwhelming and October.
I waited, but not for very long. When the small press editor came back with yet another offer, I sent the word around and found myself on the phone with Agent Overwhelming again. Not wanting to endanger the small press as an option by making them wait overlong, Overwhelming vowed to finish reading by the following Monday and get back to me. Other agents followed suit. Mercifully, the school year was starting again. I threw myself into the distraction of class prep.
Monday came, bringing no news with it. By lunchtime Tuesday, I felt the small press deadline closing in and nudged Agent Overwhelming for a status report.
The response came less than one minute later.
Agent Overwhelming had not been overwhelmed. The email was polite, professional, encouraging. Sympathetic. It ended with an invitation to share future work, and best wishes. None of that stopped me from sitting slack-jawed at my desk, staring at the screen as if I could will the message away. It wasn’t that I assumed I was already in. I am extraordinarily good, actually, at not getting my hopes up. I had written the revision, telling myself all the while that the reason to do it was because I believed the advice given would make a better book. Everything beyond that was hope – less than hope, it was a guess, a stab in the dark. It was that dream-list on a raggedy post-it note.
That well-ordered, rational thinking didn’t console me much.
I wondered how I could have fooled myself into thinking I was in anybody’s league. Anything other than bush-league. I was a first-time novelist, a lifelong writer with a career of putting my own ideas aside in favor of teaching others how to excel. I was a living embodiment of that horrible adage about how those who can do, and those who can’t, teach. I remembered the small press offer, but now, as I researched the costs associated with a good publishing attorney to review documents, it seemed the billable hours would equal or exceed my probable earnings. Whatever THE NINE earned would be almost entirely through my own marketing, something I knew nothing about. I was in over my head and had been from the start. I was finally getting my cosmic punishment for my word-count gamble. I had dared, and gotten close, and it was just that I should get my smack-down now. Simple as that.
My sadness gave way to a dull sense of foreboding – an absolute conviction that the next 24 hours would be parade of “no”s from the remaining agents. Instead, at 3:30 that same afternoon, my email winked with a message from Bridget Smith. Agent October, the first agent to ever request my full manuscript based on reading a partial. The first agent to want more of my work, knowing what it was really like. The first name, side-by-side with Agent Overwhelming’s, to have made my dream list.
She was glad to have read the revision, because she really liked it. She felt more confident about it, reading it slowly, carefully, taking time to “admire [my] skillful writing”! Could we talk tonight?
Yes. Let’s talk now.
A half hour later, my phone rang, and the whole world changed. I told myself not to listen with rebound-ears. There was a chance this might not be a fit. I shouldn’t jump at acceptance because I was still stinging from rejection.
But it was a fit – a perfect fit. Bridget had noticed things about the manuscript, details of character and world-building that I had put in almost as Easter eggs. I’d never counted on a reader finding them, but she had and she got them. She had insights into the culture of my world, daring suggestions about shoring up storyline, and authentic curiosity. She was the perfect blend of enthusiastic and genuine – never gushing or putting on a show. And she didn’t shrink from my toughest questions. She had some editors in mind for submission and felt that the book could go bigger than the small press who had offered to me. She was ready to really work her experience in the sf/f market. As the conversation wound to a close, I told her I needed to let the other agents know of the offer – and she asked about Agent Overwhelming.
Was it just my imagination that she didn’t sound terribly disappointed about Overwhelming’s decision to pass?
When my cursor hovered over “send” on my first query back in August 2013, to predict where I’d be in a year, I would never have mapped out this strange, winding road. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined it would lead right back to the beginning – to my first and fondest hope.
People tell you patience is key to querying, and they’re right. October 2013 to August 2014 kind of patience. Luck is part of it, too. The luck of finding amazing CPs, for one: Michelle, and Pete, and eventually Maura. The luck that opens the doors to opportunity: Mike’s taking a second look at my entry and swapping it in. There’s an absolute, full-frontal nudity of the ego when querying, and entering contests, and being rejected. You can’t know when you start if or how you’ll reach your goal, or how many expectations will be broken along the way. You can’t predict which gambles will pay off and what paths will cross, or how they’ll all suddenly come together, as if it were meant to be. As if you’d written the end of the story on a scrap of paper before you even began.
You can’t know. That’s why we try.
Tracy Townsend lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois and teaches English at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. She has studied at DePauw University, the National University of Ireland (Galway), and DePaul University, where she obtained degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric. She is a member of the Science Fiction Research Association and other academic organizations, which has allowed her to write very long things and read them aloud to people who are obliged to behave politely. Her background as a lapsed Catholic, an assistant martial arts instructor, a comic book fangirl (Make Mine Marvel!), a tabletop role-player, and an obsessive hound for obscure mythologies inspired her writing of The Nine. Inexplicably, other uses for that resume have yet to present themselves. She is represented by the strikingly elegant and classy Bridget Smith of Dunham Lit.
Tracy devotes time she doesn’t have to cooking, gardening, writing, and seriously pondering the treadmill in her basement. She is married to her high school sweetheart, with whom she shares two remarkable children. They are – naturally – named after characters from books.
You can find Tracy on Twitter (@TheStorymatic) more often than she really ought to be.