Friday, November 29, 2019

Being Thankful for…Rejections? Why I’m Grateful to the People Who Rejected My Early Work

On our writers’ blog, Ruth Harris and I say we made the mistakes so you don’t have to. And I sure made my share. Maybe more than my share.

I got an agent with my first query!
When I started querying agents, I scored the pot at the end of the rainbow with my very first query. I was such a newbie, I didn’t even know how impossibly lucky this was.

I was still a working actress in Southern California when I sent off a very early draft of The Best Revenge to an agent who was referred to me by a friend in the business. It was a prestigious agency in Los Angeles, and I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in Hades.

But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call. Yes, an actual call, from a delightful man with a British accent who said he thought the book was hilarious and he wanted to “send it around.” No mention of a contract. That should have been my first clue.

And then I heard nothing. For weeks. And months. I’d read in Writer’s Digest that you’re never supposed to phone an agent, so I didn’t call. After about six months, I sent a “follow-up” letter. (This was long before email.)

Two months later—a full eight months after my “acceptance”— my manuscript, in its stamped, self-addressed manuscript box, landed back at my house. I can still remember the sound of “thump, thwack, slide” as it skidded across the concrete patio.

Inside was a scrawled note. “John has left the agency and we understand he has moved back to England.”


I was devastated. I felt hollowed-out and dead inside. It was like the time in 7th grade I found out that my first love, Chip Bessey, had asked Katrina Jagels to the Spring Hop instead of me.

I gave up writing for almost a year.

I Finally Get a Real Agent

Meanwhile, I wrote a play and had it produced and won some awards. I was having the success in the theater I thought I could never have in publishing.

But I also found the theater didn’t thrill me the way it used to.

And my itch to write novels was still there. I finally sat down and reread my manuscript and saw hundreds of flaws. I went back to my critique group and asked them to help me polish it up.
Jeff Herman's Guide was our Bible
I researched agents in a pricey copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents—the only way you could find out about agents in the pre-Internet era.

I found one that looked good. Young, eager for new clients, and she had worked for the same agency with my sort-of agent from L. A.

She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. A few months later I got the call. She wanted to rep me!

Meanwhile, I had a major tragedy in my life. My beloved Dad died. I also turned 40.

My mother reminded me that when I was small, I always used to say I wanted to live in a little cottage by the sea and write books.

So I pulled up stakes, sold my SoCal condo, and moved to the sleepy Central Coast. I bought a little 900 sq. ft house three blocks from the waters of Morro Bay.

I had an agent. And my cottage by the sea. I was going to be a real writer.

I started working on my magnum opus. This was the literary novel that was going to find me a place in the literary firmament.

You’re probably all laughing now. That’s not exactly how the publishing industry works.

Fear of Success…

Six months after I moved to the Central Coast, my new agent dropped me. Again, I was devastated. I managed to get some freelance writing work while I clerked in a couple of bookstores and sold antiques.
Photo of downtown Baywood by Paul Irving
I put The Best Revenge in a drawer and worked on that “big book.” And then wrote another, lighter one.

I started sending them out. And sending . I got rejections by the ton. Sometimes in return mail.

I did everything you shouldn’t.

·       I sometimes queried all three books at the same time.
·       I wrote my synopsis in a tiny font so it fit on one page—since so many agents asked for a “one page synopsis” in those days. (Who did I think I was fooling? I was only making it harder to read.)
·       I queried agents who didn’t represent my genre (s)
·       I didn’t even know what genre to say I was writing, so I improvised according to what the agent was looking for.
·       I wrote terrible query letters. Not enough hook & way too much about me and all the nonfiction articles I was writing.
·       I faked personalizations, once even saying I was going to a writers’ conference where the agent was slated to speak—even though I had no intention of going.

Is it any wonder the rejections stacked up?

I think I had a fear of success.

But I think that was because I knew, deep down, that I could do better. And that took time. I think my freelance writing helped me improve. Plus all the research I was doing on agents also taught me about the publishing industry and how it works.
I was collecting lots of rejections

Without that time to grow and learn, I don’t think I would have succeeded in this business. I was too na├»ve and would have got myself in all kinds of trouble.

Two more Agents!

Finally  I started doing some things right.

·       I went to writers conferences,
·       Joined a local critique group
·       And a writing club.
·       I kept learning from what I’d done wrong the last time.
·       I placed short stories and poems in literary magazines.
·       I even won some contests, one for a story and one for a poem.

Finally, it worked! I got another agent.

She sent my “big book” out on submission for a year.

She couldn’t sell it. In fact, she couldn’t sell much. She ended up leaving NYC and gave up agenting altogether and moving back to Texas.

But I was better at getting agents by now. So I got another one.  She liked Food of Love but made me do lots of edits to dumb it down and make it more of a romance.

I Fire my Fifth Agent

While my romanced-up version of Food of Love was making the endless rounds with editors, I got an email from one of the magazines that had accepted a story months before. The editor said the magazine was going under, but he had taken a job at a small press in the English Midlands. He was in charge of acquisitions— did I have any novels looking for a publisher?

I sent him Food of Love. A month later I got a call from the managing editor of the company—a former BBC comedy writer—with an offer of a nice advance. He also offered me a place to stay if I wanted to come to England to launch my book.

Do I have to tell you how fast I bought a ticket to London and fired my agent?
I was off to England!

I’m not going to tell you that everything was beer and skittles after that. (Although there was a lot of beer involved.) But I embarked on the adventure of my life (which inspired my comic mystery Sherwood, Ltd.) And got to see two of my books in print. I got to go on a book tour and live out my fantasy.

But I also had to deal with some strong criticism and major changes from my UK editor. I was finally mature enough as a writer to understand what he wanted and why my book needed the changes.

A few years before the edits would have made me sad. So would the book signings where only three people showed up. But I finally knew enough about the business to take it all in stride. All those years of rejection had taught me a lot.

And so, in a way, I’m grateful to them. They gave me the time to learn and grow into a confident, professional writer.

Did my magnum opus make it? Nope. It took another, fiercer editor to whip that puppy into shape…but that’s another story.

What about you? Did you collect a boatload of rejections before you found a publisher? Are you still on the query-go-round?


SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her.

When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky.

Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

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