January 20, 2011

A writer’s starting line

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 11:54 am

I never wound up getting an agent for that novel Jackie Mitchard said wouldn’t fly commercially. She was right, and after 80 rejections from agents–with not a one citing a flaw in the manuscript–I had to agree.

Instead, I got pregnant again, and did what all writers do in that situation (the can’t-get-an-agent one, not the pregnancy one). I wrote another novel, birthing both book and baby about nine months later.

That novel was the first to shed some light on why my work might’ve been having a hard time. The agent who became my second repped primarily literary fiction. I was her first more commercial writer, and what she said she liked was the “crossover potential” in my work. Did not fitting into one particular market niche explain the trouble I was having?

This begged all sorts of other questions, such as, if it was, did I then change what I wrote? I rather quickly answered this one. I couldn’t change. The kinds of books I wrote were the ones I wanted to read. When I typed out the circumstances of page one, I sat with breath held to see what might happen next. One day my readers would hopefully feel the same way–even if traditional publishing was unsure who those readers would be.

This fourth novel–for anyone who’s counting–was also the first where we didn’t get any rejections for reasons of flaws. With the first two submitted, even though several editors wanted them, their boards always found this plot hole or that character dimension or that stylistic foible that could, arguably, be taken to mean I still had work on craft to do.

Not that we ever don’t need to work on craft, but you know what I mean. Work before my book could cross that finish line. Uh, starting line.

But this novel, the first that my second agent sent out, didn’t receive any comments about craft mistakes. Instead several editors wanted to make offers (again) and when their boards came back with no’s, the reasons were all that the topic was a tough one for readers.

From being a part of boards like the wonderful DorothyL for a while now, I see that those boards were right. I was a psychotherapist for 13 years, concentrating on children and families, and I had some pretty tough cases. As writers, anything in our lives can become fodder for fiction, and one especially upsetting element had become the subject for this fourth book. I tend to keep unpleasantness pretty far off screen, but the marketing guys at Berkley and the late Warner still felt it was a reason to turn down the novel.

Never mind. I’d written another novel. Which my agent went out with.

This one attracted instant interest from none other than Amy Einhorn, who had *just* begun her own imprint. Yup, my book was being considered as Amy was choosing THE HELP. Amy sent my agent a longĀ  list of changes she’d like to see made. They were brilliant ideas, all. And once I worked with them, she agreed to see the ms back.

We didn’t hear from Amy for a long (long, long) time. All that editorial brilliance–in addition to launching a phenom like THE HELP–takes a while.

But it hardly mattered because an editor at Knopf had fallen in love with the new version, the one Amy had had such influence on. The editor was passing it around to others in the house.

Well, you know what happens next. What always seems to happen once my work goes to editorial? (she asked with her tongue in her cheek).

Yup. Turned down. However, if I addressed this board’s reasons, they not only agreed to see the ms back, but asked to see it.

I remember I was sick when my agent told me this. Sick, but so urgent, and weary of all this at the same time, that I hauled myself up to get to work. I had a new baby, I had a toddler who’d just gone to preschool for the first time. Who knew when I *wouldn’t* be sick?

And my agent, who was sharp and dedicated and a great editor herself, but not the most warm and fuzzy person you’ll ever meet, said (warmly), “Don’t work when you’re sick. Take care of yourself.”

I think she was really excited.

We both had a contract from Knopf in sight.


  1. Ouch!! You can’t stop there! I hate cliffhangers!!! :)

    YES, genre is SUCH a problem. What’s funny, though, is that you say “I write what I want to read,” and that crosses genre. I also write what I want to read, and that, too, crosses genre. Is there anything really “wrong” with genre straddling? Readers don’t think so…

    Oh, that’s right. Publishers aren’t real readers. They’re looking for the next Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice. Money, money, money.

    Comment by Savvy — January 20, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  2. Looking forward to the next installment….

    Comment by Stephen — January 20, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

  3. What?? Where’s the rest of the story? Inquiring minds want to know!
    Clearly, those boards don’t have a clue…

    Comment by Shelley Stout — January 20, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  4. Wow, what a saga. Seems the accountants have more editorial control than the editorial staff. OTOH, if they don’t know how to sell something, they won’t take it on.

    Comment by G Thomas Gill — January 20, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  5. Sheesh. It’s a heartbreaking biz. You’re so tough to keep going.

    Comment by Sara — January 20, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

  6. Oh, my gosh, Jenny–you’ve had such an amazing trek of ups and downs! Don’t STOP! I bet once you get one of these solidly in place, you will be able to get ALL of them in line… Just keep swimming!

    Comment by Hart — January 21, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  7. Oh. No. You didn’t! You *couldn’t* possibly have left us hanging like that?

    Can’t wait for the next post! Well, well? :P

    Comment by susan — January 21, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

  8. Ack! A cliffhanger! Tell us more!

    You have worked so hard. It is your time.


    Pam DuMond

    Comment by Pamela DuMond — January 21, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  9. Jenny – I’m amazed at your perseverance. You really have true grit. I sense this story will end well. Best of luck.

    Comment by d.j. mcintosh — January 21, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  10. [...] last night’s Writing Matters panel, and told me that she had just read the last backstory post and wanted to know what [...]

    Pingback by Suspense Your Disbelief » A Cliff Called Knopf — January 29, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress