August 25th, 2013

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. –Alexander Graham Bell 

On this magical journey to publication, some moments will remain with me forever. Most are glorious memories, like being in Chicago when The Life List sold, which is set in the Windy City, calling my parents to share the news, or finding a text from my agent, telling me the first foreign rights had been purchased.

Another moment I will never forget is the day I saw re: Query: ANOTHER SKY in my inbox—a reply for the book that would later become The Life List. I knew exactly who it was from. I’d only sent one query. To one agent: Agent X.

Two years earlier, Agent X, a well-known New York literary agent, had requested a different manuscript I’d written. Though he eventually passed on the earlier piece, he was very complimentary, going so far as to recommend another agent and allowing me to use his name when I contacted her. Agent X said he liked my novel. He called me “a talent”. But he felt the story was too predictable.

I had to admit, he had a point. Buoyed by his enthusiasm, I gave myself a homework assignment. I’d write an experimental novel, one filled with unexpected twists and turns, for nobody’s eyes but mine. After that, I’d write the novel that would sell.

And so it began. I spent an entire year on a novel with more twists than a Zumba class, a convoluted story that waxed when it should have waned, zigged when it should have zagged. When I finally typed The End, I promptly filed it away, never to be shared. Then I started The Life List.

I was writing for Agent X, and I wrote maniacally. Every day after work I’d dash to my computer, raring to get back to my story—this one with enough unforeseen surprises that no one could accuse it of being predictable. Agent X would read it. He’d love it. He’d love me, too, and he’d offer representation. Me and Agent X, happily ever after, an agent-author dream team.

I finished the draft in four months—record time for me—and spent a scant three months polishing it. At last, with my stomach in my chest, I typed a single query letter—to Agent X. I reminded him that he had requested and enjoyed my previous manuscript. I told him I’d written this novel with his comments in mind, and hoped very much that he’d read it.

I sent up a prayer and simultaneously hit send.

I was stunned to find a reply in my inbox the very next day. I stared at the subject line, my heart battering. I knew from pitching my previous manuscript that replies typically took weeks, at best. My cursor hovered over the message, desperate to know what it held, but savoring the moment. With one click of the mouse, my life could change forever.

Finally, I took a deep breath and opened the message.

Dear Lori,

Thank you for your query. Agent X asked me to reply after he evaluated your submission.

We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list, but thank you for thinking of Agent X, and best of luck in your search for representation.


Assistant to Agent X

I couldn’t speak when my husband answered his phone at work. Eventually I choked out the word rejected. He was home ten minutes later.

It took days before I recovered. When I did, I decided that surely, there must have been a mistake.

With renewed determination, I sent a second query to Agent X, hoping this time that gatekeeper of his wouldn’t intercept it (or at least wouldn’t recognize my pitch the second time around).

Twenty-four hours later, I received the exact same reply. Again, it was from the assistant. My denial flipped to anger. How dare that whippersnapper keep me from Agent X! I plucked an envelope from my desk, printed my query letter, and sent it snail mail this time—directly to Agent X. Agent X would open it himself. He would request pages, never mind that his apprentice hadn’t. I imagined a future lunch in Manhattan with Agent X, toasting the sale of the book, laughing about that inexperienced rookie who’d sent not one, but two rejections my way.

Weeks later, my SASE arrived with the morning mail, the typed words and impressive masthead nothing more than a tangible copy of the heartbreaking news. I’d been rejected. For the third time. Neither denial nor anger could change this fact. It was time to accept reality.

I took a breath and slowed down. I hired a professional editor. I spent months tweaking and polishing the manuscript. I honed my query letter.

I went on to query many more agents. Eventually I was offered representation by three, and couldn’t be happier with my choice.

Agent X’s rejection no longer stings (though the lesser evolved part of me sometimes fantasizes about a How-do-you-like-me-now? moment with that pesky assistant!). Instead, I use the incident as a reminder that when one door is closed, try ringing the bell. If the bell doesn’t work, try climbing through a window. And if you still can’t get in, maybe it’s time to move on to another house.

(Originally Posted on Meg Waite Clayton’s Blog: 1st BOOKS: Reading and Writing with Friends)