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Navigating the Space Between Getting an Agent and Selling Your First Book

Louise Ahern



By Erin Bartels

“So how’s the writing going?”
No other question in the history of the human race can be so welcomed when things are going well nor so loathed when things are going nowhere. How does one answer such a question when every writer knows that the answer will be long, convoluted, angsty, and peppered with self-pity? Because, let’s be honest, unless you can say, “I just signed a six-figure contract with Huge Publishing House and already there’s buzz about me landing on the Man Booker Prize’s short list,” you’re going to feel like you have some explaining to do.
“Oh, fine. I’m just plugging away at my eighteenth draft, collecting rejection letters, and crying myself to sleep most nights, that is, when I’m not in my manic phase, in which case I’m up all night burning everything I’ve ever written…and how are you?”
And lest you think your personal and professional uncertainty will disappear once you finally get that yes from an agent, think again. I’m pretty sure uncertainty and self-flagellation don’t end in the writer’s life until you’re dead.
The world in which I currently live—post-agent search, pre-publishing contract—is one that is, in some ways, more uncomfortable than when I was searching for an agent. There’s a very simple reason for this: agency. Not as in literary agency, but personal agency, the ability to have some effect on the process.
To illustrate, imagine yourself in a plane on the tarmac at the Baltimore airport. You were supposed to fly into Dulles five hours ago but here you find yourself in Baltimore at night, your luggage is God knows where, and you have been told over the PA system that you cannot deboard because there’s a back-up and the plane can’t dock until some other plane gets out of the way. The cabin is getting hotter and smaller by the minute and, for the first time in your life, you understand what claustrophobia is. You feel that at any moment you might push and elbow your way out of this hellish cylinder of slow death, trampling that old lady near the front with absolutely no remorse. If an air marshal dragged you off in handcuffs and put you into an interrogation room it would be preferable to staying here with all of these bodies breathing each other’s germs in and out, stealing your oxygen! You will never leave this plane! You’ll suffocate and die here and no one will mourn you!
That’s kind of how it feels to be out on submission. You are at the mercy of other people—your agent, the editors and their assistants, all the other fools filling up the editors’ email boxes so that you get pushed further and further down the queue. You can do nothing but wait.
And wait.
And wait.
I signed with my agent in September, did some revisions during the fall, and went out on submission in mid-January, thinking that by the time spring was well underway, I’d have a publishing contract for The Bone Garden. When people asked how the writing was going, I listed off the houses that were considering it and I felt pretty darn good about myself.
But now I’ve been waiting for seven months, and I don’t like being asked that question.
Several big time editors requested the manuscript when my agent pitched it to them in January, and several have declined since then. Each time one of those rejections came in, it stung a little bit, but since there were more out there, I could hang tough for the moment. After all, other editors were requesting it. But as of yet, I’m still stuck on the plane in Baltimore.
When people ask me how the writing is going these days, I say, “At this point it’s a waiting game. A number of editors are reviewing it but there’s no way to tell how long it will be before they get back to my agent. Could be two weeks, could be two years.”
So what do I do in the meantime? What do you do when you can do nothing to speed things along?
Other things. You do other things that you can do.

  • You finish a new manuscript, send it through some beta readers, revise a few times, and send that to your agent.
  • You get back to blogging a little more frequently, building your audience a person at a time.
  • You start drafting a third manuscript.
  • You try not to think about your sad and beautiful debut languishing in editors’ inboxes.
  • No! Stop it! Keep working!
  • You read, both published books and others’ manuscripts as a beta reader.
  • You organize your office.
  • You start eating better.
  • You click “like” on others’ status updates about their new publishing contracts and you try to muster genuine feelings of happiness for them even while you wonder if your moment to shine will ever come.
  • You remember that just because you can’t do anything to speed up this process, it doesn’t mean you aren’t talented, nor does it mean that you are all alone out there. Your agent is your advocate, and lots of people you know are still a few spaces behind you on the game board of the writing life and would give anything to be in your shoes right now.

Waiting sucks. No one likes to do it. And yet, as writers that is the lot we have chosen. So we may as well get comfortable living in the in-between. We may as well take some deep breaths, close our eyes, and imagine a future when we are not stuck on the tarmac in Baltimore.

Don't miss Erin's workshop this Wednesday, August 3rd, 7-8:30pm at Schuler Books & Music in Eastwood, and be sure to check out her website,!