September 6, 2010

Of City Busses & Baths

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 2:14 pm

That’s where we were when I last left off. In case anyone doesn’t remember (and really, why would you), a legendary editor had just called my first agent, who’d just submitted my first novel. (To make things a little extra confusing, my first novel was subbed second, after my second novel didn’t sell. Yipes.)

Heck, I’m just going to name Legendary Editor. Sadly, she has died, and I never got the chance to work with her. It was Leona Nevler, who discovered Jean Auel’s CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR among other hits, and was at Ballantine by the time she made it onto that city bus.

Getting Leona Nevler to stay up all night reading still counts as one my most precious accomplishments, even though this was now nine years ago.

I still remember hanging up the phone with my agent–before we knew this outcome–and her saying, “So that’s all the news I’ve got at 9:30 on a Monday,” and me replying, jubilant, riding a crest of adrenaline, “That’s pretty good for 9:30 on a Monday.”

But even Leona Nevler couldn’t get her board behind my first novel, and no offer was made.

I wasn’t heartbroken upon learning this for one reason. Not one but two other editors were also interested in my book. One was at Berkley and has since left to be a literary agent. The other was at William Morrow, and when she too couldn’t get permission to make an offer on my book, she asked my agent if we could meet.

Man, how this whole thing was dragged out, huh? It’s like Someone was having fun with it.

I was in the bath when my agent when called with this piece of news. “I’ve never had this happen before,” she told me.

Because publishing is a small world, it wasn’t possible for Jennifer Sawyer Fisher to take me to one of the typical spots the literati might dine at. “People would buzz,” explained my agent. “They wouldn’t understand why we were there when no offer had been made.”

My agent–a generous and devoted soul–offered to host us at her apartment for lunch.

Oh, how I prepared for this meeting. I spent hundreds of dollars on an outfit, exchanging my first, labored over choice on a second shopping trip. My husband drove me into the city so I wouldn’t have to stress alone over traffic. Except that we left early enough so that the most tangled, ensnared metro area traffic couldn’t have made us late.

A spring cold was coming on the day we finally met, so I had to hope my nasal intonation didn’t turn anybody off, but oh, what fun we had. I had, anyway. I got to hear the editor say things like, “So since my publisher would like this to be a big book, I thought about adding a subplot,” and then toss ideas around with her.

I felt creative.

I felt important.

I felt real.

I rushed right home and–cold or not–got immediately to work. Adding a subplot. Tearing the novel into tiny shreds, and piecing them back together again. Thanking the stars that the first version didn’t sell, since this one was oh so much better.

Way back when Jennifer Sawyer Fisher first contacted my agent, she’d told her there might be an issue with the title. (Which my agent put to me as: She hates the title.)

I first spoke to Jennifer–before we met–at 4:32 in the afternoon (yes, I remember the minute) and at the very end of the conversation she said something like, I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but if the title was less than perfect, would you mind…

Or words to that effect. Careful, almost tiptoeing words. In a business that doesn’t often scruple with the writer’s feelings, let me just say that Jennifer’s manner endeared me to her greatly.

So it was doubly upsetting, after I finally got that new version ready for submission, to hear from my agent that it had been passed on to a new editor at Morrow for consideration.

Jennifer had moved west to start a family.


  1. This is a difficult story to read, I admit, but the only thing this can all mean is that eventually you’re going to get a nice, big offer and be treated like the professional you are.

    Comment by Judy — September 6, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  2. Oh, the heartbreak of things beyond our control! Yes, my handy publishing biz decoder ring translates “less than perfect” into “hates it”. And the attrition rate in publishing is scary.

    Comment by Sara — September 6, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

  3. Getting a contract is an exercise in events coalescing, stars lining up. Not just one (a ms) or two (an agent) but several more beyond that. That’s what I hope to convey with this Backstory series. And I hope it all adds up to a lesson in hope…because when events do coalesce–when the stars align–oh, does magic happen.

    Comment by jenny — September 6, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

  4. If only we could set the timetable for things we want to happen! My MS would have been published the day after I wrote my first draft (patience not being a virtue of mine). Thank you for sharing the back story.

    Comment by Subourbon WIfe — September 7, 2010 @ 5:42 am

  5. I, too, am actually having my second novel marketed first. Funny when that happens, huh?

    “Getting Leona Nevler to stay up all night reading still counts as one my most precious accomplishments”…

    And well it should be!! Wow!

    But still…you must feel, sometimes, like the mouse in the cat’s paws. :omg:

    The theme of my life is being built up before a crash. So you can imagine how much I identify with your story.

    You’ve just GOT to break out and win, Jenny, you’ve just got to!!

    Comment by Savvy — September 7, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  6. Okay, you are TOTALLY scaring me. All these near misses are terrifying! You have to get there after all that!

    Comment by Hart — September 7, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  7. “A good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957, Author)

    I saw this quote this morning and thought of you…your summer travels and novel-selling-anguish along the road :)

    Comment by susan — September 8, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  8. [...] called and I spoke to her from in the tub. She was actually calling to give me good news–an editor at William Morrow was interested in my first novel, which my agent had submitted second. But this was still a low [...]

    Pingback by Suspense Your Disbelief » Voodoo dolls, backyard bonfires, & daisy petals — May 22, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

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