Inside the Castle
Late fall I recounted my quest for a new literary agent. I likened it to storming the dark castle of the publishing business, armed with only a query letter. What I sought was an “Offer of Representation” – a writer’s ticket into the first courtyard of the castle.
I sent out my first query on October 23rd. Six weeks later I got an offer. I spoke to the agent and he answered all my questions to my satisfaction. And I liked him. A few days later we signed a contract.
Those six weeks of waiting were nail-biters. I sent out 150 letters, and began getting rejections within hours, for an eventual total of 40. I got 15 requests for manuscripts. The tough part was when those began getting rejected. But I was somewhat heartened by two things: most of the rejecting agents went out of their way to compliment my writing. And they couldn’t agree on what they didn’t like – whether it was the plot, characters, the age of the characters, the controversial historical context or voice. I was one of three writers that my agent took on last year, out of three thousand queries. I can’t help but feel some pride.
Three days before my Offer of Representation came I faced the Black Moment that story teachers insist is one of the essential elements of a successful commercial tale. An agent had requested a manuscript in an email that praised my father’s work. I sensed the set-up but sent it anyway – a querying writer is a desperate writer. This agent’s rejection email was nasty, and felt personal, as if he’d hoped that William Manchester’s son would be his golden goose, and instead turned out to be a sow’s ear, or whatever the other part of the mixed metaphor is. Whatever his scene was, I can’t imagine he knew that he was fulfilling my worst nightmare as the writer son of a (once) famous author: telling me, “You aren’t your father.”
This rejection freaked me out. I began reconsidering my original plan to publish my memoir about my father and me. At the time it had looked like the memoir craze was dying down. But it hasn’t. And almost twice as many agents are looking for memoirs as mystery thrillers. Working is always better than waiting, so I dove into the memoir and began draft number eight. (Or was it eighteen? I’ve lost count.)
Even as I did this a thought lurked in the back of my mind: the other shoe’s about to drop. I’m nothing if not superstitious. Or intuitive, because that is in fact exactly what happened three days later. Or maybe living my own story, the subject of my next blog post, “When Life Imitates Art.”
Here I sit in the courtyard of the castle. It’s my agent’s task to fight my book into the inner courtyard with its treasury filled with publishing contracts. Why has it taken two months to report what in the world of the Luminous Muse is very good news (and what is now quite old)? Am I lounging here, slugging down Pinot Grigio and munching on French cheese, hobnobbing with the other agented writers? Counting my chickens before they hatch? (Because while the acquisition of an agent has made me happier, it has not so far made me a penny richer.) No. I’ve been busy writing.
As always here in the land of the Luminous Muse things are complicated. No chunk of good news comes without a sliver of bad. The good news, aside from the Offer, was that my agent felt my manuscript was so spiffy that he could take it to publishers without need of further editing (which I had little stomach and less budget for.)
The bad news was that the book my agent (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) accepted is book two of a series. My previous agent took book one around to publishers three years ago and it was roundly rejected. I view this series as a complete work in its own right. And as my first novel, I’m very attached to that first book.
If novels are like children, I love it like a first child. But novels are not exactly like children, and are often born not sweet and cute, like babies, but with the terrible twos. As mine was. While as a parent I was certain of its lovable qualities – its cooing strength of character, its smiling plot – to the world my book was a trial. The plot took forever to get going. It was strewn with superfluous characters. Laden with unnecessary description. Some of the writing was jujeune. And there were too many damned metaphors. (More about this below.)
Over nine years, through various drafts, it grew up. Last year as I awaited an edit of book two I revisited book one and made some serious improvements.
My new agent said that selling this tainted work wasn’t impossible. But of course he’d first have to see it. I was convinced that book two’s success in attracting an agent was in large part thanks to its extensive restructuring, performed in the wake of a devastating (but true) critique from an old friend. This restructuring did not merely address flaws in book two, but taught me a new instinct regarding good story-telling in general. In the light of which I saw that book one might well benefit from its own restructuring.
So I tore the damned thing down to the studs. Jacked up the foundation. It was three months work and I did it in half the time, and I’m beat. Now I’m waiting again – for my agent to read it. Then depending on what he wants to do, I’ll wait for him to take one or the other (or both!) books into the inner courtyard.
I count five metaphors in a thousand words. I’m a sucker for them. Part of my evolving writer’s instinct says that when it comes to novels and metaphors, the fewer the better. They’re kind of like cockroaches – squash them there and they pop up here.
Jeepers. Metaphor number six. Enough for one day.