Sometimes, Running Away Works

Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, said:

“The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.”

I’m currently a nomad, traveling around, and I give this introduction only because people tend to ask me, “But what are you doing out there? Why did you go?”

“Nothing. I wanted to.”

I’m terrible at taking pictures. But I’m very good at remembering things. So here goes—first up Boston!

Here are some lovely things about Boston:

1) Louisa May Alcott’s house (Little Women!), an assortment of pens on dead authors graves, and Walden Pond. Even better than the pond itself, was walking the entire perimeter chatting about book contracts with two people who totally knew what they were talking about. And even better than that was the ice cream we got after—which was so rich I didn’t even finish it, but it stayed in my soul.

Fall 2014 Trip 002

Walden's Pond

Walden’s Pond, also Awesome Boston Friend

2) Seeing The Lion King musical for the first time and getting the chance to see Finding Neverland before it premieres on Broadway in March. I WEPT. (And even better? The kind of friend who doesn’t bat an eye seeing two musicals in a row.)

3) The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I just. I can’t even. Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world and amassed a remarkable collection of art. In 1903, she completed the construction of a personalized museum to house her collection. Everything is arranged in such a loving, deliberate way, and there’s a mix of paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture. It’s beautiful, and Isabella is one of the coolest ladies in history.


4) Walking all around Boston. I saw the balcony where they first read the Declaration of Independence, saw the “Make Way for Ducklings” duck statues in Arlington Park, read my book in the stunning Boston Public Library courtyard, watched sailboats on the river, and climbed aboard the U.S.S. Constitution. (Even better: going to the children’s section of the museum and pretending to be a sailor and playing all the games.)


test jewel 040

5) Having a wonderful friend who will not only act as a tour guide and let you use her discount at the bookstore, but who will talk about books and writing and publishing and musicals and all sorts of odd topics in between for four days straight and never feel like we’ve ran out of things to say. Not to mention, when your friend is a bookseller, you will leave with new books you’ve been dying to read in your bag, and you’ve also been introduced to lovely books you didn’t know existed. (Virginia Wolf, the picture book! Bloody Jack!)

6) Nothing is Ever Not Wonderful.

Just kidding. I caught a mega cold right when I got there and spent a literary party huddled in a blanket, hacking on the floor while I watched Netflix.

But otherwise, yes. Everything was perfect. (;

Next stop, Canada!


For weeks (okay, okay—over a month) my blog has proudly featured a post with the title “I Hate Exercise” and it has been there, the first thing I see, wherever my site is advertised, like a glaring banner of self-admitted weakness, and finally I thought:

“Enough of that.”

This new one is much catchier, right?



Incidentally, I also have something to say about epicness, particularly epic fiction. And I don’t mean it in the pop-culture sense of the word, that is just so cool and massive in its coolness.

An epic is traditionally a genre of poetry—like the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old English Beowulf. Nowadays, an epic can mean anything that follows a theme of grandeur and heroism.  But how I’m thinking of it right now is based on the incredibly simplistic definition of: a really, really long book.

Books like these.

I’m currently sketching research ideas for a future novel set as a Western and my dad (die-hard cowboy that he is) sent me home with a whole stack of movies, the first of which was the six-hour long miniseries of Lonesome Dove—which, if you didn’t know, is based on the 600-something page novel (that also won the Pulitizer).

I loved it, in the same way I love many historical miniseries where I can sink into the world and the characters for a good, long while.

Hence, my renewed obsession with long-ass books.

One of my top-favorite classics is The Count of Monte Cristo, and I was flipping through it the other day because my WIP has some revenge themes in it, and I kept thinking, “Geez, I forgot how good this was.” In the publishing industry—at least lately, in our hyper-competitive media world—we get pretty finicky about lengthy word counts. If you’re a new author trying to get signed, forget about it. But why is that? I mean, not always, but fairly freaking often, the big guns are winning literary prizes and they create cultish groups of fans.  Last year, to name some contemporary literary examples, there was: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

Do I even need to mention Game of Thrones (or any fantasy series? because, duh)?

Here’s what I like about big books: you have to get really comfortable with them. A big page count means multiple days, multiple sitting-downs with this book and this world and these characters. This ain’t no one-night stand, it’s a commitment.

Therefore, even though it’s harder to get through a longer book, and you may not always be in the mood or have time for one, if you finish one, there’s no way you’re not at least a little affected. You are changed.

Here is my secret confession:

It is my dream to right a really big novel. When I was younger, I used to think, like Les Miserables! Now I, more realistically, can admit that . . . probably not like Les Miserables, but I can still write a book that spans multiple characters and years of time, and it might in fact suck, but whatever that’s my dream. (And is sort of, if I may confess a little more, the book of my heart, the one I’m waiting to write until I’m a better writer so I do it justice.)

So, hi, I’m McKelle, and I like big books—

—and I cannot lie.

(Just kidding. Couldn’t resist.)

. . . and you other readers can’t deny, when a book walks in with a good plot base and big spine in your face, you get sprung!

(Okay. Now I’m really done.)

Banned Books week is two weeks away, and I think I need a badge that says I <3 BB, and BB can stand for Banned Books or Big Books. And in honor of these two grand loves, I’ve decided to read a big banned book I’ve never read (and never seen the movie either, somehow), namely:

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, which finds itself at number 26 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most-banned classics.

Happy reading, y’all.

I Hate Exercise

To put it kindly, most writers tend to be of the pasty and pudgy variety, if not distinctly overweight, then at least soft to the touch. We spend a lot of time in front of a screen and are fueled by a combination of caffeine and a short list of specific “nutrients” that we probably buy in bulk and eat with 9-hour stretches of no-eating in between. To an outsider, it’s a quiet work. If you have the energy to lift a cup of coffee, then you can write a novel.

But we all know that even if your body is not hopping around doing jumping jacks, there’s a grueling, demanding labor going on inside you. Writers use their entire being to think. To quote Haruki Murakami: “The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine.”

In short, my brain is an Olympic Warrior. On the inside, I’m a raging warrior goddess who bows to no one.

But on the outside . . .

Last spring I traveled to the UK and hiked my way from Scotland to London over two months. I loved it, and except for one strenuous adventure on Scafell Pike, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Walking, I loved—and also scenic English countryside. Then I got home, and suddenly my world was consumed by school and work.

Work means: writing (of many varieties), editing (also of many varieties), ghost-writing, reading so many manuscripts. School means: reading and writing. Free-time: reading and watching all five seasons of Parks and Rec so my brain can decompress. If reading burned calories, I’d look like Heidi Klum.

I’m not saying I spend every minute in front of a computer. I do stuff (I do!). But the ratio of computer-sitting to movement is significantly disproportionate. I started doing yoga because I was worried that after ten years of sitting hunched over a laptop, I was going to look like this:


And I enjoy it immensely; it makes me feel better, even though I’m possibly the most inflexible person alive. But basically—how I do it—it’s an hour of glorified stretching. Me and my back need the stretching—and the inversions and deep breathing. But there’s no cardio. It’s good for you, but does not require a lot of physical exertion. My body was starting to take on what the Oatmeal calls “computer shape”:




What to do?

I decided recently on running, for a number of good reasons.

1) You can do it for free. We all know what would really happen if I forked out $50 a month for a gym membership. That would be two very expensive sauna trips per month.

2) It’s outside. So . . . sun (ew), and fresh air.

3) Alone. ‘Nuff said.

4) Remember my Olympic-sized brain? Being alone with my thoughts for an hour is not only not boring and not difficult, it’s also probably necessary so my head doesn’t explode. I do this anyway, when I walk, but now I will just . . . go faster.

5) I can eat more carbs.

Once I decided to do this, I spent more time reading memoirs about running than actually running. I thought about running a lot. And then finally, eventually, there was nothing to do but go. People run all the time around Provo, they’re basically part of the scenery, so I wasn’t self-conscious. I figured I’d go for roughly half an hour. That was a good beginner’s start right? Besides, I’m not a completely non-athletic person. I hiked the UK. I played basketball and tennis in high school. I ride my bike and walk most places I need to go. I’m not a total newbie to exercise.

After half a mile, half a mile, my face was flushed into my ears and as I slowed to an unsteady walk, I thought seriously that I might pass out on the side of the road. I’ll just walk for a minute, I thought. Five minutes later, I tried again, with same results, only it happened faster, less than a quarter mile this time. The running app on my iPod asked, “Do you want to post your time to Facebook?” Um, no. Actually, I thought I should probably turn around soon so that I wouldn’t need an EMT stretcher to take me home.




On one of my multiple breath-catching moments, this shirtless guy passed me (going uphill!!), and he didn’t even look like he was breaking a sweat, mouth closed and serene. Maybe slight dampness at the temples. I thought: You are an alien or you are lying.

In fact, everyone who says they love running is a liar.

This is the only explanation.

Because it suuuuucks. When I finally got home, I was thinking, is this what running is going to feel like every time? Is each run going to mean confronting this pain, shame, and rage? Why do people do this?



I mean, to be fair, I know this was the first time. I will probably give running a few more chances before kicking it to the curb. Actually, even if it sucks indefinitely, I will most likely still do it because computer shape is worse than the agonizing torment of jogging (maybe).

But do any of my readers run? Is there a way to make it less torturous? ANY TIPS? Or is this going to be a necessary evil in my life no matter what I do?

My Writing Process – Bloghop

My dear friend Sara Butler, who writes a speculative fiction series about monster-hunting and other awesomeness, invited me to participate in this bloghop:

We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook . . .

So, onward.

What am I working on?

I’m just starting the first draft of a YA contemporary book called The Dark Backward, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero, a brilliant teen trained by his con-artist grandfather, is the master of a small public high school in Pennsylvania – all he wants is revenge on a trio of boys who bullied him as a freshman. We’ll see what it turns out to be, but right now it’s a story about forgiveness, deception, acceptance – and the way bullying, abuse, and social networks affect teens lives.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My retellings are historical and realistic, but they hover near the edge of being too unbelievable; they’re cinematic. I’m not so much interested in hardcore realism as I am telling a good story. I’m not writing to the characters in my book, I’m writing to the people who read it, and my philosophy tends to be that it’s much more important to be a good storyteller than to stick too closely to what’s real. I mean, if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn’t be reading a novel.

Why do I write what I do?

Ha ha, I don’t know to answer this question. Because I want to? Not to sound too mystical about it, but these stories chose me. All of my books are different (in approach, in genre, in purpose), and the reason I write them is because that’s the story that comes into my head. Sometimes I get an idea for a book in a genre I don’t even particularly read that much. If I like the idea, I will write it, because I want to and because I need to.

How does my writing process work?

I research quite a bit. I usually have a few pages of notes and snippets. Then I write a loose outline – longhand, on a legal pad – and go for it. I write “higgledly-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way” as Kurt Vonnegut says, and I write fast. I can finish a first draft in a month or two usually, and then comes the second draft, which is almost always completely different. I basically consider my first drafts a level of prewriting, though I’m trying to change that – work smarter, not harder, as they say. Then REVISION. My books are made in the process of revision.

All right. Enough about me. It is my honor to tag these three lovely ladies in this bloghop:

I met Mackenzi Lee because we both interned at the Friend, and she was (luckily) open to my insistent idea that we were destined to be friends. Her debut novel THE SHADOW BOYS ARE BREAKING, a (totally awesome) reimagining of Frankenstein in steampunk Geneva, comes out Fall 2015 with Katherine Tegen Books, and imprint of HarperCollins.

Rebecca Lamoreaux is an old Pandamoon friend who writes lovely historical romance, the latest of which is called LORD HYACINTHE. She also runs an amazing business that hosts online book launch parties called Loving the Book Launch.

And finally, my dear friend Rae Chang – who most of you probably know as the indomitable assistant and Pitch Wars mentor on Brenda Drake’s blog – but she is also a fantastic writer herself (her latest is an edgy take on Sleeping Beauty called CIPHERS), as well as a skilled freelance editor.

Check them all out – they’re awesome.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Manuscript

I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but I experience ups-and-downs in regard to how I feel about my current WIP – actually, in fact, with everything I’ve written, whether “in progress” or not. Last week, after getting some notes back from my agent, I had a moment, after opening the Word document and beginning the fine-tooth-combing process of final revision tweaks, of what I can only describe as a wave of loathing.

I mean, I was reeeally not fond of this story. “This is shallow as a puddle. And boring. And every sentence I try to write is more tissue-paper flak around this essential pile of crap.”

Part of it is that I’m one month shy of hitting the year mark from when i wrote the very first sentence for this book. Am I not finished yet?!  The other part is that I have the notes and outline and first two chapters of a new manuscript, and that one, I’m convinced, is going to be dazzling immediately  (we’re in the honeymoon stage). I am fickle in my affections, apparently.

Now, I got over it. I got over it by letting my two main characters bicker for a few pages. I deleted most of it, but it reminded me that I did like this story and it didn’t need to win a Pulitzer for me (and other people) to hopefully enjoy it and make it worthwhile. But it made me think how bipolar this whole process is, and how rocky the relationship between creator and creation can be.

First, there’s the idea stage. The meet-cute between you and your future book. Love at first sight.

first sight

Then, you start getting more ideas and writing them down and slowly realizing this is going to be the greatest book of all time.


Then you start writing the first draft.


And everything’s fine for the first three chapters are so, and then you realize this is ms is so needy.

be cool

And it’s not what you thought it was.


And you get finished and you’re just like . . .


But whatever. You said you were in this for the long haul. Clearly it’s time to whip that ms into what you originally dreamed. You’re pretty brutal.


You’re not sorry.


But then you start letting beta-readers read it and OMG! they love it. The fuzzy feelings are starting to return.


Also you’re getting ideas on how to make it EVEN BETTER and again it’s the greatest thing in the world.


And yeah. That ebbs too. But even though the rose-colored glasses are off, you accept your ms for who they are.


You renew your vows to each other to see it through to the end.


But then, surprise, brand new plot-hole that is going to need a truckload of rewriting.


And you never really get to a point where you’re finished, but you eventually arrive at a place where you know where you stand, where all you can think is:





Because, in the end, we all feel a little like Walt Disney when he said in Saving Mr. Banks, “That mouse, he’s family.” My stories, anyway, feel like family. And I guess that’s why they alternately drive me crazy and make me so happy in the same week.


I’ve gone to quite a few lectures and panels and classes taught by skilled writers, publishers, and editors. Always, if they open up for questions, I ask them this: “What’s one thing you would do differently?” and “What’s one thing you’re still glad you did?”

One of my favorite answers came from Sara Zarr, during an intimate, 7-person bootcamp. She said: “Well, I don’t really regret any part of my journey because it was part of getting me to where I am now, but I do wish I would have relaxed—and not worried that people younger than me were getting book deals, or people in the same place as me were getting better book deals, or making more sales, or whatever.”

Good advice for us all. Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. I think this is because it’s so competitive (second most competitive career in the country, no lie), and the reason it’s so competitive because there are not enough readers to go around. You can’t say, “There’s room for everyone to succeed!” because it’s not true. Really good writing is often rejected because there’s no space on the market. Limitation breeds envy.

But it’s hard, right? All I’ve ever wanted is to be one of the most brilliant writers in the world (cough). Thanks to Twitter, I now know I’m not even one of the most brilliant writers in my small community.

I saw this on Humans of New York a few days ago:

"I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age."

“I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age.”

I was so delighted! I thought I was the only one who did this. Of course, I only do it with writers I admire, but the point is still there. It’s a fever, a madness. I see a new book hit the lists and I go straight to the author’s website, seeing if they’re young or old, my age or even—crap!—younger.

Anne Lamott has said: “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”

Envy—comparing, festering—sucks. Literally. It sucks the joy right out of writing, taking what we loved about it and souring it. And there’s something inherently chilly about a feeling that is dependent on another’s misery and failure.

But the root of envy is often desire—we want to accomplish something—and how do you be a writer without desire? That same feeling that leads you to send a manuscript out to be rejected again and again, that same feeling that urges you to write another book, is the same source of what makes us jealous.

(I’m about to quote “The Lego Movie.” Just thought I’d brace everyone.)

The main prophecy, part of the repeated theme of the movie, is the claim: “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.”

And this got to me, because isn’t this sort of what we all want, just a tiny, tiny bit?

I read this story in the New Yorker, about a woman who says to the writer of the article, unabashed, “I want to be a star.” What awed this writer was not that she wanted to be a star—didn’t we all?—but that she’d say so, flat out. “I thought if you had the gumption to say what you wanted, you’d probably have the nerve to get it. And I was, in fact, impressed by her desire. Most of us wanted the same thing, but we tried not to know it. Such grand wants exact a price. Better to content oneself with the small success.”

Here’s what I think. I think it’s fine—even good—to want to write something brilliant. To be, as it were, a brilliant writer. But often we confuse the desire to write with the desire to be validated in our efforts.

The spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once told his students, “We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don’t love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems – if you really loved it – you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.”

In 2006, a public school teacher had her students write letters to famous authors, asking their advice on the arts. This is the response Kurt Vonnegut sent back:


You have experienced becoming! Isn’t that fantastic?

So go—be a brilliant writer! Have the gumption to demand to be an artist. Go make your soul grow! Write an awesome poem about envy, then tear it up and let it fly.

How I Got My Literary Agent

I decided to do one of these posts because when I was in a position to start looking for an agent, I became mildly obsessed with knowing the “path to publication” of each writer I read, and was always disappointed when at least some information wasn’t provided, while the stories I did find served as inspiration (such as that of A.S. King and Shannon Hale). Also people keep asking.

February 2013 was the first time I ever pitched to an agent. I’d finally finished and polished a whole manuscript (to death, really) and there was nothing left to do but go for it. I paid for a ten-minute session with an agent at the LTUE conference and was nauseous I was so nervous. Looking back, I think it wasn’t so much that one pitch, but rather that I was owning up to the fact that I wanted to be a published author and this was the first leap off the cliff (except I didn’t so much leap as I did close my eyes and tip over). I’m read Seraphina a few weeks ago, and there’s a quote that describes this perfectly (but is actually describing a dragon hunt; accurate, I think): “There’s the exhilaration of an exciting chase mixed with the fear that it may all end in nothing, but there is never any question that you will try, for your very existence hangs on it.”


Despite my nerves, the agent was nice and asked me to send the full manuscript. I was clearly a bit awkward, but I had an interesting concept (this will turn out to be a pattern in my other publishing attempts as well; I fumble in nearly all areas of this process, but by darn, I do have good ideas). From there I sent query letters to 50 other agents. I used the “Guide to Literary Agents” and agent websites, plus blogs like Miss Snark’s to make sure my query was properly formatted. I’m not saying I did an awesome job, but I did try and fully recognized that I needed to put my best foot forward, even if I was still figuring out what that was.

Some of you may have guessed, the manuscript was Once Upon a Nightmare*. Roughly five agents wanted to read it, but all of them ultimately turned it down for basically the same reason: nice idea, needs some work on the execution. The rest were form rejections or no answers. At this point, I had two choices: go back and rework OUAN again and get it up to snuff . . . or I could move on. I chose to move on. I think a lot of new writers fall into the trap of nursing their one book, babying it, when really what they need to do is write more books. [*It’s still online because I’d put it up on FictionPress before ever trying to query, and when I took it down I got some very distraught e-mails from old fans, so I’ve left it up for the people who still enjoy it.]

So I wrote more books. I wrote a speculative mystery novel, then I went to the UK and was completely blown away watching Shakespeare plays at the RSC and the Globe Theater. I remember seeing As You Like It and thinking, “You could make such a freaking cool novel out of this.” I added the thought to the multitude of notes I’d made in my Shakespeare class last semester of different retelling ideas. But I didn’t really think I could write books based on Shakespeare plays, because wasn’t that kind of cheating? Or overdone? Or laaaaaame?

Meanwhile I got home the end of June and did some more rewrites on the mystery novel. Time to query again! Except I ended up not querying, because I entered it into a contest for adult fiction and it got picked up by a small publisher. Shortly after, I read an editor’s tweet saying she’d love to see a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing. Um, what? That’s my favorite play (not just favorite Shakespeare play, but favorite play period). I had so many things I wanted to do with it . . . which meant, could I actually write this?

I took it as permission and (re)watched every adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing I could get my hands on, and read the play again, highlighting all the best lines, of which there are many. I watched Ken Burns six-hour documentary on Prohibition and read multiple books on the 1920s and bootlegging. My excitement grew. I wrote my retelling faster than I’d ever written anything (though to be fair, I was following the play pretty closely, so it was like having a built-in outline). I was so jazzed about it, I wanted to come back to the story every morning and was sad to leave it when my eyes started to blur from staring at my screen too long.

Yadda, yadda, yadda, I showed it to some readers, got feedback, rewrote some scenes and chapters, polished it up, and decided to query again. (At this point I just sigh and pat my past-self on the head; my excitement outran my patience, to say the least.) I was much more specific in my research this time. I used and narrowed my search field to include young adult and historical fiction. From the agents that popped up, I studied each one more to narrow my list even further. I wanted a semi-younger agent (younger in the business, not in age) who would hopefully be my partner for my entire career. I also looked for, in addition to young adult and historical fiction, an agent who could handle a flexible spectrum in fiction and was interested in high concept books. Nearly all of my books, or at least the ideas and notes I have for them, are fairly high concept and different from each other in many ways.

I sent the first batch of 20 or so queries out, got a few form rejections right off, then entered my ms in Brenda Drake’s PITCH MADNESS contest. I ended up with five bids, in addition to a handful of “ninja” agents who also wanted to see it. Then two agents I sent queries to asked for the full. Then #pitmad happened and I got additional requests from that. I also, as a result of #pitmad, got an e-mail from an agent* I’d already queried who saw my pitch on Twitter and was like, “Wait, didn’t I already ask for that?”

Suddenly, within what felt like a relatively short period of time, over a dozen agents were looking at my manuscript. One of the #pitmad agents responded in a few weeks, and I really liked her. I was hoping she’d write back and she did, asking for rewrites of the first chapter to see if I could take feedback and edit well. This was another case of: nice idea, execution needs a little work. Except this time people were willing to give me a chance to improve the execution. I severely over-wrote and slaughtered that rewritten first chapter; it was terrible. But the agent, bless her heart, saw the effort and potential and offered representation.


Dreams come true! Dreams come true! I was over the moon, but still knew the professional thing to do was let all other agents who had my manuscript know that I’d had an offer. At this point, I was slowly realizing that in my over-eagerness I’d sent out a manuscript that still had a way to go, so I wasn’t expecting any passionate pleas for all future works of genius (cough).

About 2/3 of the agents very politely and warmly stepped aside, citing various reasons they weren’t personally as excited about it as they’d hoped to be. (I just want to make a quick aside here that it’s easy to see agents as these Gandalf gatekeepers between us and our dream going, “You shall not pass!”, but they are truly some of the nicest people in the world.) The last third asked for more time to finish. Of this third, most ultimately passed, giving me good feedback, but one had a full page of notes that ended with, “If any of this resonates with you, I’d be happy to talk, but do know that I would expect a lot of additional edits.” Ha—you and me both, I thought.

I couldn’t quite tell if she was very interested or not, so I wrote back and said, “I agree this needs additional elbow grease. Um, would you want to represent the book?” That’s a paraphrase, of course. Actually when I look back on some of these e-mails to both agents, I cringe. I, at least, can tell that I was a screwed up ball of anxiety.


In short, second agent and I talked on the phone, lots of her edits did resonate, and I was left in an unanticipated situation where I liked both agents and didn’t know who to choose. I also knew my novel was going to drastically change. What if I signed with one agent, made the changes, and they hated the new draft?

If the cringe-y e-mails weren’t bad enough, it was nothing compared to the second phone call I had with the second agent, where, in retrospect, I think I was presenting ideas and subconsciously trying to wring a confession out of her to admit she would like the changes (before I’d even sent them) and be happy she signed with me and we’d ride off into the sunset. Which is crazy. And I remember getting to the end of the phone call, when she was maybe starting to see through the fog of my crazy, and she said something to the effect of: “You know, I get how important this is to new writers, but at the end of the day, you can say no to both of us. That’s not the end of the world. And if this book never finds an agent, then you’ll write a new book and try again with that one. The fate of your career doesn’t have to be decided in the space of this phone call.”

It was good advice in general, but really good advice for me personally. Plus, she’d sort of talked me off the crazy cliff, which I suspected might be a useful skill for a future agent of mine to have.

Thus . . . I said no to both, because clearly it was important for me to chillax and rewrite this book on my own terms. So I rewrote my manuscript, incorporating the plethora of professional feedback I’d received. It was a massive undertaking, almost 80% new writing. During this time, funnily enough, two other agents I’d queried asked for the full ms, one who later declined and one who I later declined (I only add this detail because one of the requests seriously came six months after I sent the query, so you just never know). Then I waited for the first two agents to read the rewrite and while I waited I cyber-stalked them. If they uttered a word on the world wide web, I probably read it. I’d also made sure to ask them questions about their clients, what they envisioned for the book, are they a member of AAR, etc., etc.

In the end, they both were still interested and, honestly, it just came down to what felt right in my gut, because they were both genuine, qualified, lovely people. I looked at it from a business angle as well as a personal angle and chose the second agent, the indomitable Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, who is pretty much fantastic. I love that she is an editorial agent and is never going to tell me, “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” when it could be better (I also like that she thinks I’m capable of making it better). I’m not sure how many writers feel like that they’re getting a mentor into the publishing world with their agent, but that’s been the case with me. I used to read the acknowledgments of books with authors describing their agents as ninja/sword-wielding/super people, and thinking, ‘They can’t all be like that.’ And maybe they’re not, but Katie is (after our first phone call I described her to my friend saying ‘she has a lioness quality’).

[*She was also the agent who I sent a regular cold query to, but who e-mailed me back after seeing my pitch on #pitmad, so I never know to which venue I should attribute the contact.]

So top lessons learned: be patient. Don’t take every e-mail from every agent like it’s the start or end to your life. If you truly love writing, you’re probably in it for the long haul, so just relax. And finally, hold out for an agent that really gets you and gets your book. Many aspiring writers, myself included, are ready to say yes to whichever agent makes you an offer first. If that first agent at LTUE had made an offer for OUAN, I would have jumped on her like a koala, refusing to let go, but I’m grateful for all the delays and side-turns that ultimately landed me with agent I have now.