Today's WOW post is by one of the very first people I ever met at a writer's conference, the incomparable Ara Burklund, whose manuscript blew me away the moment she read it aloud. You'll be blown away by her story, too. I promise. Read on, and visit her at her blog for more.
Confessions of a Two-Timer
By Ara Burklund
Everyone could reject it, or maybe more than one editor will want it, and they'll have a bidding war. Another favorite fantasy is that someone will make my agent a preemptive offer. On the flip side, though, I realize I still might need to dodge a few very likely hurdles: editorial board meeting approval, uncontracted revisions, similar titles already on publishers' lists.
Anyway, all my disclaimers about the status of my now-ten-year-old writing career said, here's my advice to the writing world at large (including myself!): Don't give up!!! That agent I'm madly in love with? She's not my first. Kind of like the high school boyfriend I knew deep in my heart--no matter how much I wanted to deny it at the time--just wasn't right for me (even though he's a great person), my first agent and I amicably parted ways. And yes, breaking up was hard to do. Afterward, it took me awhile to find the right person again.
Not because I was gun-shy, but because I'd become more particular about the type of agent I wanted. Kind of like my friends in their late thirties who were dating, I now had a lot of dealbreakers on my list, and I'd been around the block enough times, compromise was no longer an option. As a result, it took me two years to find the right person. Now that she's in my corner, though, I'm happy I waited.
As far as my lifelong journey as a writer goes, I'm not going to be all trite and tell you how I've been writing flash fiction since I was a toddler, penning novels since the tender age of nine. No. More like I was that girl who wrote angry diatribes in her journal during junior high, then lamented in it over why [insert name of latest hot guy I wanted to nail] didn't like me in high school. Stories--if there were any--were written on whim or assignment, all extremely short. In college, I finally started sketching a few character profiles I hoped would turn into a full-length manuscript. But then I made a horrible mistake: I showed them to someone I loved (still love, believe it or not!), asking for his opinion. His response? He hated them. Said I didn't have any talent as a writer. Said no one would ever want to read anything so depressing. And even though he didn't regularly read fiction, I trusted his opinion. So I stopped writing. For ten years.
At the age of thirty, I had somewhat of a midlife crisis, probably springing from the fact that two friends of mine had published novels. Because somewhere down in a neglected corner of my soul, I knew I wanted to write, but I'd given up prematurely. So I started all over again, this time, writing a full manuscript in six weeks. I finally had the discipline to stick to a project and the self-confidence not to care whether the people close to me thought I was wasting my time. It was my time, after all, and I deserved to spend it doing something I enjoyed. Something that brought me fulfillment. Something that stimulated my brain.
I wish I could say that first manuscript was a big hit. Sure, a few people said they read it in a single night, but that was probably because it was like a freeway full of unending, gruesome, multicar pileups, impossible not to keep staring at. After the rejections starting rolling in on that one (over one hundred of them--I'd learned to be persistent), I finally picked up a few writing books. And promptly found out all the stuff I'd been doing wrong. Oops! So I wrote another manuscript. Structurally more sound, also a one-night read for some of my beta-readers, I immediately queried agents with it. As usual, I got a lot of requests (in hindsight, I realize I wrote a better query letter than a manuscript at the time). Again, though, the rejections started rolling in, one after another. But then I got a two-page, single-spaced rejection from a prominent agent (you'd know her--she's got a few NYT bestselling authors on her list) that I'll always treasure. In it, she told me the truth: the manuscript I'd written was well-crafted, but the way the subject matter was set up (with the main character first a teenager, then in part II an adult) would never fly in the marketplace. She told me I'd essentially plotted two separate manuscripts, praising my teen voice and suggesting I develop that side of the story first. So I did.
Again, I wish I could say I hit it big with those two resulting manuscripts, but I didn't. The teen part of the story did attract some agent attention. In fact, another well-known agent (think of at least two YA authors who are worldwide phenomena and share the same agent), requested an exclusive on that manuscript. First s/he requested a partial, then a full. And then s/he held onto it, exclusively, for almost A YEAR!!! You can imagine my frustration when I *finally* received my rejection, not to the full s/he'd requested, but to the original partial! Talk about disorganized!!! Anyway, lesson learned: big names aren't superhuman. They have their flaws, just like everyone else, so it's better not to put them on such a pedestal.
With manuscript number five, I finally got an offer of representation.
Two offers, actually. Naturally, I didn't choose the agent whose career was about to blow up, with three authors becoming bestsellers within a matter of months. I chose the agent with the more steady track record. Ultimately, when s/he didn't wind up selling my manuscript, I took to mentally beating myself up over not choosing the other agent. But you know what? Years later, I realize something: it wouldn't have worked out with the agent not chosen, either. I wasn't ready as a writer. No matter how much guidance I might have received, I still had way too much to learn about craft. In fact, even now, I've learned that I'll never stop learning from the masters. With this new manuscript out there, I just hope I'm finally ready. No matter what happens, though, one thing I know: I'll keep writing.