So, agent #60 has passed on THE LIGHTED HEART, and 60 seems like a nice milestone at which to pause and reflect on my submission process.
Actually, not all 60 have been agents. Three have been novel contests, one of which my MS came in as a finalist. (Believe me, I mention that in the query letter.) Three of the rejections came from direct-submits to publishers: one didn’t like the hook, one didn’t like the voice, and one simply never responded (not even when I politely followed up).
Not included in this number is an early and expensive Writer’s Digest workshop with an agent who looked at my submission materials and told me how to improve them and thought my project should sell to an editor. Included in this list is a second workshop with an agent who could think of several imprints where my book would fit nicely, and while she didn’t care to take the project on (too romance-y for her tastes), she believed my book had a place on the shelves and encouraged me to “keep swinging.”
I did, and now I’m pausing to rest the bat a minute. Much of the rejection has been encouraging; it seems standard boiler-plate language now to say “I didn’t connect with it, but this is a very subjective industry and I’m sure you’ll find an agent who feel differently and will be a passionate champion for your book. Good luck!” I think of this as the nicest possible let-down language. The problem, of course, is that the agents I’m hearing from all in fact feel the same. Liked it, didn’t love it. Strong writing, but not for me. I’m not in love with you–I mean, with your book–but you are–I mean, your book is–totally lovable. Surely the right person will come along and the love will be everywhere.
I’ve been told enough times not to take it personally, but of COURSE I take it personally. This is a book I’ve worked on for the better part of seven years, that I’ve been actively revising for at least four years, and that I’ve been learning how to write since I first entered my MA program in 2001. That’s 18 years, people–long enough to raise a child to adulthood and watch them leave the house to flourish on their own. I’ve wanted to publish a novel for 30 years and I still haven’t managed to birth one. It’s the biggest struggle–really, if you set aside my problems with the current political climate and the rapidly degrading geological climate–the only struggle in my life. There’s a whole lot of painfully heavy baggage around this process that clearly has my name on the label.
But how to move forward? Ben Miller, when I met him recently at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference keynote address at the Figge, wrote in my copy of his book “Keep on truckin’ with the writing.” He’s right. Keep swinging. As Luis Urrea said in last year’s keynote address, it took him 10 years to place his first novel. “Just keep coming back!” was his advice. In my FB support group for struggling want-to-be novelists like me, we like to share our numbers–versions, weeks/years on submission, rejections, etc. One writer’s story sticks in my head. She was rejected by 122 agents (literary fiction, YA protagonist). Agent 123 picked up the book, sold it at auction, and it was at that moment on the NYT bestseller list. Sixty is only halfway there, in this light.
One thing that keeps me going is the love and support of my beta readers. One has read this novel three different times and still loves it. One who doesn’t really read fiction, especially not historical fiction, gave it a 90% rating. (Though obviously it needs a 99.999% rating to make it in the NY publishing world.) My betas still ask how the querying is going and they, too, seem to believe it deserves a home. One of my readers passed it on to her daughter, who stayed up all night to finish it even though she had a test at school the next day. My readers are rooting for this book.
So my options, at this point, seem to be these: 1) Keep sending to NY agents until I hit 125, at which point I can call it quits. 2) Keep direct submitting to publishers, but open the field to small and independent presses. 3) Consider a subsidized press, which would be my version of self-publishing: if I end up self-funding the project, I want to hire an outfit with an in-house design and possibly a marketing team rather than having to do all that hiring on my own.
There’s also option 4: Put the book in a drawer and focus on revising and sending out Novel 2.
I’m already in the process of revising and sending out Novel 2; it’s passed the first beta read and I’m getting it ready either for another round of beta reading or professional editing. Novel 2 is Plan B, currently edging nose-to-nose and in time possibly overtaking Plan A. But I recently set the MS for Novel 1 aside and when I went back to it, I liked it as much as ever, maybe more than ever. So I still have the energy for continuing to submit, and I still have a slim hope it may find an editor or publisher who loves it as much as I do, who will bring it to readers who will love it as much as my beta readers did. I’m not ready to give up on it just yet.
Right now, option 2 has the most appeal: Target smaller presses who may have a better chance of responding to the voice, the characters, the conflict, the feminist themes in a romance plot. Editors who have a more flexible vision of what works and are willing to take a risk on something just a little bit different. And if that fails, and Novel 2 doesn’t hook anybody either, maybe I will fulfill that dream of my young-20s self and start my own publishing company.
What am I missing, dear reader? What other options should be on the table that I have failed to see? What would you do in this situation? Honestly, I’m open to any and all sorts of advice right now. This is all new territory and frankly, I need a signpost. If at all possible, I’d like the sign pointing toward publication in beautiful trade cloth with a pretty gilt-touched cover, a major award for first novel, and lots of 5-star ratings on Goodreads, but right now, I just don’t want to be stranded in the desert any longer with nothing but mirages ahead. It’s hot, I’m thirsty, and I’m kind of tired. I want to be at the oasis already.