First, an admission. I probably should have started this blog long ago, but I had other things to do (i.e. catching up on seven glorious years of RuPaul’s Drag Race--thanks for giving me life, ladies--and learning how to do The Twitter) and never got around to it. So my first two posts will really be a whistle-stop tour of how THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE (caps = manuscript that lives in your computer) became The Ethan I Was Before (italics = book that will actually one day live in a bookstore). Bear with me…
Cue: back in time sound effects/screen wave.
It was the spring of 2014. I was working for a public school in Washington, D.C. and gearing up for a transatlantic move. It was a really hectic time and, in a lot of ways, kind of a brutal one. I was about to leave a job I was passionate about working with kids I loved, say goodbye to family and friends, all to go live in a new country where I had no job and knew no one but my then boyfriend (now husband), Aki.
But around that time, the seed of a story was taking root in my brain. And on nights when I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t picture what this new life of mine would look like, I calmed myself down by thinking about that story. And it slowly started to grow.
By the time I arrived in Cambridge, my fingers were literally tingling with the desire to start writing it. And fortunately for me, I had nothing but time to do just that. (Because I am not a British citizen, I had to wait several months for my visa to be approved before I could even apply for a new job.)
My new home in Grantchester!
I pumped out that first draft in about two months. I do tend to write drafts fairly quickly, but that’s because my stories live and grow the jungle of my brain for a long time before I dare attempt to wrangle them out. (I imagine this process to be somewhat similar to uprooting a screaming mandrake from its pot...very tricky business!) I wrote in the mornings. Then I spent my afternoons beating myself up over the fact that I wasn’t spending my afternoons writing. And speculating on the vast improbability of my book ever being read by someone not related to or living with me.
I cannot overstate the incredible good timing I had to have written my first draft in time for my final summer at Hollins University, where I completed my MFA in children’s writing. I actually went back to the States after just two months in Cambridge so that I could complete the summer program. One of my courses was a writing tutorial where I was fortunate enough to be able to workshop ETHAN with five amazing writers, who worked absolute magic on my first draft. When I returned to Cambridge in August, I sat with hundreds of pages of their critiques in front of me and began to revise. I was doubly fortunate that the instructor of that class, Nancy Ruth Patterson, extended an invitation to her students to keep sending her our writing. She read my second draft, and my third, and my third and a half, and my fourth, until we both felt that it was ready to send out.
In the meantime, I was drafting query letters and researching agents. I attended a writing conference as well, one of those deals where you pay a couple hundred pounds to attend lectures, “network” with other writers, and, most tantalizingly, get to meet with a couple of agents for ten minutes apiece. I have to say that, personally, I do not recommend this experience. If you’re not a complete extrovert, it is quite hard to walk into a room full of hundreds of strangers, all unpublished writers, all with the same goal (getting published ASAP), all with eyes set on a handful of agents (like swimmers in shark-infested waters, brave souls), and try to make friends. The agent critiques were helpful, to be sure, and one of the agents I met with even went on to consider ETHAN more seriously. But all in all, the experience was overwhelming and disheartening for me. I’m sure that others have a different take on these conferences, but physically seeing so many other writers, and hearing from agents and editors in panels over and again how many queries they get every week/day/hour/minute made me more certain than ever that I had zero chance at ever seeing my book in a bookstore.
Cue: dark night of the soul.
Fortunately for me, I had a handful of people who would not let me give up on ETHAN. So I sent out my query letters, and I waited. I queried Greenhouse Literary Agency in November of 2014. I had heard quite a lot of good things about them from authors and other agents, and because they are also a transatlantic agency (with Polly Nolan representing authors in the UK and Sarah Davies representing those in the US), they seemed like a perfect fit for me.
Christmas came and went, and I hadn’t heard anything from them.
The view from my writing desk...looking out on my very own Skellig shed!
I sent new queries out. I focused on being happy about an internship I was about to start with Working Partners, a children’s book packager in London that I got connected with through a Hollins alumna who works there (thanks, Michelle!).
On January 5th, Polly emailed me to ask for the full manuscript, and a couple of days later, we were arranging to meet in the Greenhouse offices in London, which, as it turned out, was in the same building where I would soon be starting my internship. Not knowing any better, I just assumed that all the London literary agents/editors/book people must work in one giant building. I took it as a sign. The stars were aligning...
During this time, I also heard back from two other agents who were interested in representing me. That’s when I really started believing there was a chance that I might one day snag one of these mythical, all-knowing gatekeepers of dreams and somehow trick them into representing me. A real chance!
A side note: I, like many writers before me, was fairly certain that if I ever was going to get published, it was going to be through a connection, and not because my work actually had any real merit. (Because what could anyone really see this little book I grew in my brain jungle?) I will admit that I had a few “connections”—friends of friends who had agents who were willing to put in a good word for me and the like, which I unashamedly pursued. Some of these connections did ultimately pan out, but I ended up turning down all of them when I found a better fit. And I ended up learning that if you can write a really good book (or even a book that has the potential to be shaped into a really good book!), you do not need connections. All you need is enough faith to keep sending your manuscript out until it finds the right person to represent it/publish it.
When I arrived for the first day of my internship at the Working Partners’ office in London, the elevator doors parted to reveal an open floor plan office. My eyes went straight to the sign in front of me, listing the companies that worked there. Right under Working Partners was listed...Greenhouse.
I was in a complete daze as I followed the internship coordinator (hi, Rosie!) past the sign and into the office. My palms sweated as my eyes darted back and forth, trying to circumspectly identify whether any of the women we passed could potentially be Polly or Sarah. I had no idea at the time that Working Partners and Greenhouse were owned by the same umbrella company, which is why they shared an office. Rosie showed me to the desk I'd be working at for the day, and I could see by the stack of post waiting on it that it belonged to none other than, you guessed it, Polly Nolan.
That’s when I realized that I had become an accidental stalker.
I was so terrified that Polly or Sarah would walk in and discover me, an author hoping to be represented by them, sitting at Polly’s desk. They would obviously think I had showed up here to wait for them and beg them to take me on as a client. They would think I was unhinged! They would send out an email to all the other agents telling them I was unhinged! I would never work in this town again!
So the first thing I did on the first morning of my internship was write the following email with shaking hands:
Dear Sarah and Polly,
As it turns out, the work experience I am beginning today is actually in the same office space as Greenhouse! Just thought I would let you know so if either of you are in and see me, you will not think I am a mad stalker!
Fortunately, they did not think I was a mad stalker, and when I finally did meet both of them a few days later, I had a great feeling about them straightaway. Sarah is the kind of steady-handed woman you feel you could trust with the nuclear codes (and therefore with your manuscript), and Polly immediately puts you at ease, not least because of her amazing Irish accent, which I could listen to for days. We talked about Ethan, both what they loved about it and what they thought needed work. And then they offered to represent me.
This moment felt somewhat similar to the moment Aki proposed to me. Except in this case, I couldn’t say yes. Even though my gut was telling me to accept immediately and then burst into song, I forced myself to say, “I need to think about it.” And while that might be the most cringe-worthy answer you can give a potential fiancé, it is really the best answer you can give a potential agent, and the only answer to give if there are still other agents involved. Polly and Sarah told me they were there to answer my questions and offered to put me in touch with their clients.
And then Polly, Sarah and I all walked out of the conference room, sat at computers facing one another, and pretended like they had not just offered to make my life-long dreams become reality, and like I had not just told them I would have to get back to them another time. If any author out there has a more awkward post-offer-of-representation story, I’d like to hear it. Fireworks were going off inside my chest, but I had to wait until my lunch break to go downstairs to EAT and call my parents and Aki to tell them the news while I guzzled down a cup of tomato soup that tasted like victory.
Sweet, sweet victory.
I ended up with three offers of representation, and it was a tough decision. Agents are generally lovely people who love books. And it’s actually very hard to turn down someone who loves the book that grew out of your brain jungle. But my gut told me that Polly and Sarah would be the best people to represent ETHAN. So I accepted their offer a week after they made it.
Then came the fun part…but we'll save that for the next post...
Bella and I celebrate my getting an agent by reflecting upon the enduring power of the written word at Tintern Abbey. Okay, fine, Bella is reflecting on how to get free so she can chase the cows. Same difference.