Signing with a Dream Agent

Sep 28, 2020 | Conversations, Writing | 0 comments

Sometimes something happens that you’ve hoped and worked and waited for for so long, that it shakes your world and reveals fault lines of self-doubt and uncertainty that make you almost wish the good thing never happened. But of course that’s not true. You can’t quite believe it’s real, or no, maybe it’s more that you’re afraid if you blink, it will go away. Maybe this happens when, for example, your children are born. One day they’re a dream pressing outward from the inside of your body, and the next, they’re in your arms.

Only I’m not talking about the birth of my children, I’m talking about signing with a dream agent for my book. That word again. Dreams can be perilous.  

I don’t know if all writers have difficulty with exciting, euphoric news. For me, it’s both wonderful and excruciatingly painful. It brings up years of writing two books that were agented but ultimately not published, of building rich and meaningful writing connections through publishing short stories in small literary journals, of teaching and running workshops, all while holding this wish close to my heart, that one day I would sign with an agent who would find a home for my book. The wish refused to die, but it learned to live side-by-side with finding the courage and joy to keep writing, growing in my craft as a storyteller, knowing I might never publish a book. I found ways for that to be okay.

It began, though, with the writing. As I constructed my novel, I’d write scenes then pull them apart. I tugged and knitted, unraveled and started again, the story like a sweater made from hand-dyed Scottish yarn. My floor became a tangled mess of thread. I workshopped every chapter with two different writing groups, sometimes more than once. I wrote and rewrote and wrote some more. I ripped out characters that didn’t work and replaced them with brand new people. And I loved it. I’d created this world, and now I went into it every spare chance I got. This was my happy place, as frustrating and inscrutable as it could be. There was no ceiling above my head. The only limits were my own failures of imagination and craft and voice. There was no one to tell me to tone it down, stay on the safe side of the street. I sought the fierce and tender blade of truth, going deeper, drawing it back out, more fully alive.

Then, one day, the novel was done. I couldn’t find anything more to fix or change or re-write. It was time to put the novel aside, put on my Kevlar vest and sign up for an account on Publisher’s Marketplace. It was time to query. I turned this process into a grim game, compiling lists, starting with every agent who’d published a debut novel in the past year. From there I researched the agencies they worked for, cataloguing every agent in the agency, with notes on each. Things got complicated. I devised a system of color coding and spent a good few hours procrastinating by making my list into a thing of beauty. I sent out as many queries as I had stamina for because I knew, once I stopped, I might not find the courage to start again. Querying requires skills totally different from writing. In writing, you face yourself. In querying, you face the world.

But along the way, requests for fulls started to come in. I put two blue stars by those agents’ names. When I’d received requests for, and sent out, six full manuscripts, I rewarded myself. I put the lists aside and started plotting my next novel. And there it was again, a world wide open, the gritty feel of dirt beneath my nails, the smell of fresh mown grass.

Weeks went by, and I hadn’t sent out a single query. I vowed I’d get back to it. Soon. But soon became over a month as I became engrossed in my new world. Finally I clicked open my agent documents and updated the no-replies, taking a certain satisfaction in crossing names off the list. Next would be to follow up with the agents who had requested the full manuscript. It had been almost three months.

Around this time I was coming off the tennis court, the sky a flat, luminous blue. I slid into my car and clicked open my phone to see an email icon from Mark Gottlieb at Trident Media Group. He was my very first choice agent, and he’d requested the full. My stomach sank. I stared out my windshield at that blue blue sky, and told myself I could do this. Just read it and get it over with. I was so certain he’d say no.

I swallowed hard and clicked open the email, skimmed the opening. Then stopped. Read again. “I would like…” I would like, I would like…every time I tried to process the rest of the sentence my mind stalled. Finally the words sunk in. “I would like to offer literary representation.”

Frozen, a buzz in my head, my heart rose and fell, as if it couldn’t find its level. My fingers, though, tapped out a reply. Something about being thrilled and honored. Something weird about not being able to talk until the next day because I had plans with my young adult children and my daughter would disown me if I bailed (which was true). And yes, I really did ask if I’d read correctly what he’d said. Then I pushed send. I wondered if what I’d written was coherent.

Shifting my car into drive, I drifted across three parking lots to roll to a stop in front of Whole Foods. Mark Gottlieb had already replied (I’m still practicing calling him Mark). We set up a time to talk the next day, and I wandered, dazed, into the supermarket. I completely forgot my mask.

People kept staring at me, but I wasn’t surprised. What must it look like to see a person haloed in a dream, blinded by a wish come true?

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