It took me about seven months to write my first novel. After that I spent another two or three months revising and learning about how to turn my 50k word document into a real, actual book that people would read. After considering both self-publishing and a more traditional route, I decided to go with the latter, and because most advance-paying publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions, the only way to get my stuff read was to snag an agent.
The process of querying for an agent is fairly straight forward, but it’s not easy. Summing 60k words up in 250 is hard. Like stupid hard. And even if you have a great idea and flawless execution, you still have to find an agent who loves it. Not like, but loves, they have to be as invested in it as you are. I know really talented writers who spent years in querying purgatory before finding someone to represent them.
But not me; I got lucky. Less than a month after I sent out queries for my first novel, I had a few full requests, among them, one of my dream agents. I was over the moon. And then, less than two months after the process began, she offered to represent me. I happily signed the contract and began editing to go on submission with publishers.
My agent and I worked together for two years and although we had a few close calls, we never sold a manuscript. A few months ago we split and I was suddenly back at square one. It fucking sucked, but now that I’m ready to start the process again I thought it might be cathartic to talk about why it fucking sucked, why the end of a professional relationship made me feel like I’d just been jilted by the guy of my dreams.
1. She Was Way Out Of My League To Begin With.
The week I signed my contract, I took to Facebook to announce that I’d not only signed with an agent, but she was at one of the largest and most well-known talent agencies in the world. Look at me everyone! I’m signed with the same talent agency as Beyonce and Toni Morrison! I am basically famous already!
It was really, really great for about an hour. After that it was terrifying. Like getting asked on a date by someone much hotter than you and suddenly remembering you have a terrible sense of style and a really annoying laugh. I was not worthy. I had no publishing credits, I’m a college drop out and this was the first time I’d written a book (a shitty book, in retrospect). It was too much, too fast.
2. I Spent The Majority Of The Relationship Terrified She’d Leave Me.
After I signed my novel with her, we went through a really lengthy and intensive revision process. I slashed and burned enthusiastically because I knew I didn’t deserve to be signed, and I considered it a way to pay my dues. My agent’s other authors had sold books, were better writers and were generally more experienced and productive than I was. She was making money off of them, but I felt like dead weight. In my mind, I had to sell a book so she’d see I was worth the time she had put into ‘us.’ So if murdering my darlings meant a publishing contract, I’d gladly butcher them. I took all of my agent’s editorial advice as gospel. The end result was a lot of fretting over my integrity and whether or not I’d even be interested in reading this version of the book I’d written. Rationally, I knew that having to find a new agent wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but I didn’t want to take that step back—it would mean admitting failure and I hadn’t learned to do that yet.
3. Things Got Super Awkward At The End.
When the novel she’d signed me for didn’t sell, I pitched her a few more ideas based on some partially written manuscripts. She replied and noted the ones she liked, in order of preference. I got to work right away, careful to keep her updated on my progress. But there was one huge problem: she didn’t like it. Any of it. I trunked a few different novels mid-write because she said they weren’t working for her. I mean I liked them, but my agent didn’t and I knew I couldn’t sell anything without my agent on board. Around then we talked a little less, months at a time without a word. The one time I visited New York from Paris she made vague references to things she’d be doing around those dates and apologized that we wouldn’t be able to have lunch. If we’d been dating, I’d have called my friends, recounted the story, and asked if they thought it was the beginning of the end.
4. “It’s Me, Not You.”
The break up email came after I’d spent a few months working on something new for her. I’d written about a third of it and was really excited about the idea and how I planned to execute it. I tried to stay positive. She’d love it and then I’d finally be able to go on submission again. We’d send it to some of the editors who loved my last book and surely one would want to buy this one! We’d gone through a rocky period, but things were going to be good again.
But she didn’t love it. Or like it all really. Instead she said she was beginning to worry that we weren’t a good fit, that she didn’t ‘get’ my work and maybe she was just ‘holding me back.’ Maybe we should see other people. She wished me the best. I was gutted.
5. I Was Too Embarrassed To Talk To Anyone About It.
After The Email I retreated into my dark apartment/writing cave/blanket burrito to think about what a complete and total failure I was. Everyone had been so excited to hear about me getting an agent and they’d spent months asking me when my book was coming out (don’t ever ask anyone this. Ever.) and what was up with my book and how the “writing thing” was going. Each time someone asked, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Yeah, I did have that super star agent at that awesome agency, but I don’t anymore. How were things going? They weren’t going at all. I changed the subject, made excuses about why I couldn’t go out. I told my mom everything was fine. I’d spent the last two years telling everyone about this awesome, impending event (I wrote a book, guys!), and it never panned out.
6. Afterwards, I Obsessed Over Everything I’d Ever Done Or Said Over The Course Of The Relationship.
Getting an agent is great for your confidence as a writer. Losing that agent naturally has the exact opposite effect. My confidence went down the shitter.
I cringed when I read our old email exchanges or when she popped up on my twitter feed. Suddenly all of my old manuscripts, the ones I’d loved, seemed too terrible to let anyone read. The book I’d worked with her on couldn’t be used to find a new agent because so many editors had already seen it. But I couldn’t write anything new because every time my pen hovered over the paper, I’d hear her telling me what I should do and how I should do it. I knew it was a matter of taste and it didn’t make sense to obsess over what she’d want when she wasn’t my agent anymore, but it was like I’d forgotten how to write for myself, write like no one’s going to read it.
7. But! I Guess I’m Better For It.
Like, wiser or some shit. What doesn’t kill me (metaphorically-speaking) makes me stronger (like, emotionally or whatever), right? My agent was great. She’s known for what she does and how well she does it and I’m lucky to have had the chance to work with her. But none of that changes the fact that we weren’t right for each other. Even if I really really wanted us to be, like desperately wanted us to be.
And at least what we had wasn’t a complete waste. I made contacts through her and I know a lot more about the publishing process than I did before. I know more about how I work and my strengths and deficiencies as a writer. I’ve really grown and I wouldn’t take it back, any of it. It was as validating as it was difficult. Here’s to hoping the next time I make the leap I’ll find “the one.”