Note: this week, we are discussing the process of landing a literary agent. For anyone unfamiliar with this torturous process, it involves writing a one-page letter, describing your book and yourself, in which you are supposed to entice, or at least not frighten, the agent.
You wanna talk about the sting of rejection? Settle in, child. I am the patron saint of awful query letters. In the beginning, I tried very hard to write a concise, hooky one but I failed. I had an unmentionable number of rejected query versions, including an unfortunate batch I discovered one morning after I’d had a teeny bit of Ambien the night before. (Oh, the horror. I awoke feeling ridiculously confident, turned on my computer, and nearly vomited on my shoes to find my Sent file containing a heartfelt, overly affectionate query to multiple agents, beginning with a cheery ‘How are you?’ and ending with an XOXO.) I thought about changing my name after this.
But I persevered. I got editing help from the greatest local editor. I sent my query to the Query Shark, who said, “This is a hot mess.” I rewrote the query, and I rewrote the novel (including changing it from third person to first person.) I got a few requests. I got praise for the exact things other people found to be deal-killers and vice-versa. But I didn’t get any traction until I changed the title, and rewrote the stupid query AGAIN. I sent it to 12 top agents, and waited with the usual mixture of dread and irrepressible hope. And I had six full requests almost right away! Four of the agents were interested, and I signed with the first one who reached out to me.
Jane Dystel (Dystel, Goderich & Bourret) is a tiny, ferocious bundle of energy. She barely stands 5 feet tall but she’s indefatigable, making decisions and churning out opinions at warp speed. Heaven help the fool who stands in her way. To me—a product of the bless your heart South—she embodies the quintessential New Yorkiness we all have in mind when we picture a literary agent: a smoky-voiced unfiltered fast-talker, dripping glamour and competence in equal measure. She hasn’t whipped out a cigarette holder and a martini at any of our lunches, but it’s not in the realm of the impossible.
Jane Dystel, Mariam Goderich, Kimmery MartinI met Jane in person for the first time in the spring of 2016, and we had plenty to celebrate. Jane’s partner, Miriam Goderich, who is gifted at centrifuging their slush pile, had been the one to email me a few months before to say she loved my manuscript, and would I be willing to put any other offers on hold for a short time for Jane to read it? Why yes, I would. Jane and Miriam moved fast, making an offer within a day or two. I considered the other agents who liked my story, but Jane was persuasive: She laid out her plan to sell my manuscript, detail by detail, and by the end of it I found myself in an agreeable trance, unable to do much more than grunt assent. I figured if Jane could reduce me to a state of such helpless acquiescence, she could probably do it to editors, too.
And yeah: Jane sold my book right away, to an editor I love, at a Big Five publisher. She’s a merciless advocate for me, but she also displays no remorse in sharing her opinion if she thinks I’m messing up. This is not a bad thing. I get in touch when I’m in New York, in case she can meet, and we have long lunches where we talk about the book and the industry and our strategy for my career and our travels and fashion and politics and whatever else crosses our minds. This is not strictly necessary in an agent-author relationship, of course, but getting to know the person with whom you have significant business dealings is in your best interest. And in theirs: It’s surely easier to go to bat for someone you know and trust. So I think I hit it out of the park with my agent. I wish for that for everyone.
I still can’t quite believe all this has happened, because during the Query Letter Rejection Ordeal, I developed a visceral hatred of the sight of an email coming in, to the point where I’d feel my cheeks flame up in shame before I’d even read it. (I recently got a rejection from a query I sent more than a year ago and got momentarily depressed, before I remembered, hey, I have a book deal.) I thought this was an impossible mission. I thought I couldn’t write. I thought I should self-publish, which still strikes me as a reasonable method in many ways. Although it’s obvious all my rejections forced me into becoming a better writer than I’d have ever been otherwise.