I get asked a lot about how I landed my first agent/contract. To help me with illustrating, I’m using the movie Rudy. It’s where a young college boy longs more than anything to go to Notre Dame and make the football team. For those of you who’ve seen it, you’ll understand my parallels. Those who haven’t, well, rent it and then come back
At the beginning of the movie, we learn how Rudy is obsessed with the lore and legacy of Notre Dame football. More than anything, he wants to make the team. Problem is, he’s short, not very athletic, and doesn’t have good enough grades to get into Notre Dame (in my case, I’ve never been to college, I’m not gloriously gifted with intelligence, and I don’t have ANY ‘in’ with the publishing world). So Rudy goes to a local college and studies his ass off, also trying to get into shape for that magical day when Notre Dame will approve his transfer to their campus. (read: I buy books on writing, try to figure out what the hell is a ‘good’ query letter, and hunt down agents in my genre).
Every semester, Rudy applies to Notre Dame (or I send out multiple query letters and sample pages to agencies). Every semester, Rudy is turned down (or I get back those dreaded form letter rejections). No one in Rudy’s family thinks he has a chance. Neither do his few friends (for me, it was hearing lots of “writing is a nice hobby“). But Rudy is determined, despite the odds (and so was I. Or more accurately, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was already unpublished, right? So there was only one way to go from there).
Rudy would get his rejections on good days and bad ones. So would I. Rejection has no mercy for timing. One day sticks out in particular: I had a blasting migraine, and I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital where we were going to have to take my grandmother off life support. Why I stopped by the mail box first, I’ll never know, but I did…and found not one, but two rejection letters from places I’d thought were ‘sure things’. I’d been querying for about a year then, and that day, I almost gave up for good. However, my grandmother hadn’t let a paralyzing stroke ruin the last eleven years of her life, so I decided I couldn’t quit so easily, either. I kept revising my novel and query letters, and kept sending more out into the field. About three months later, out of a batch of five I’d recently sent, three came back with form rejections…and two were requests for more.
Let’s jump back to the movie. Remember when Rudy opened that letter from Notre Dame, knowing if it was a rejection, he’d miss his last chance to transfer in time for football try-outs? How he sat on a bench outside, read their acceptance out loud, and started to cry? Well, when I opened the email from an agent who’d rejected me before and who I only sent to again because I figured it couldn’t get any worse…and saw her reply asking for my full manuscript, yes, I teared up. For Rudy, his chance was being accepted into the college where his beloved team played. For me, it was having a top agent read my book for possible representation. I sent my manuscript off to the agent. As a side treat, just a few days later, a small-press publisher also requested my full. I was delighted.
And then after a few weeks, the agent sent me a detailed reply saying that while she liked my characters and my writing ‘voice’, my book wasn’t strong enough. She cited several reasons why. Ow, ow, ow! Think Rudy being bashed around in football try-outs by all the bigger, more athletic players. But at the end of her critique, the agent invited me to resubmit if I wanted to revise. Here is where my reaction was different from Rudy picking himself up and going right back at it without complaint. My first instinct was to email the agent back and tell her how WRONG she was, because my book was perfect, perfect! (yes, I was young and foolish ;).
However…I took a deep breath, emailed her instead thanking her for her time, and then later that night, looked at her critique with my wounded ego locked up. I decided to revise based on her suggestions (cue me being like Rudy again, getting up to go back for more abuse). A few weeks later, I sent my amended book off to the agent, confident she would sign me.
To summarize her response: Better, but still not good enough. I was awash in disappointment, but I said Serenity Now! several times and once more thanked her while promising to fix all that was still wrong. I revised again (flash to Rudy getting pummeled by the merciless linebackers), and when I sent it to her a couple weeks later, I was positive this version was a winner.
Her response? Not quite there yet…
In my newbie immaturity, I confess to wondering if she was a sadist just tormenting me for her own amusement (of course, I know now that agents are far too busy to do that). The ironic part? Later that day, the small-press publisher who’d requested my manuscript called me to tell me they LOVED it and wanted to publish it - in its original form. So, I had an agent who didn’t want me yet, but a publisher who did. It was instant gratification versus more uncertainty. My family didn’t get my hesitation, either. “You want to get published, here’s your chance!” was the paraphrased version I heard from them.
I was torn over what to do. The publisher was legit – no fees, no scams, no hidden cost-sharing. But the initial print run would be very small, and furthermore, after revising twice, I didn’t like my original version anymore. So, with a lot of fear over burning a bridge behind me and possibly kicking myself for the rest of my life, I told the publisher no. And I revised my novel again, sending it off to the agent a third time.
Six weeks later, she said yes. Cue the Notre Dame coach telling Rudy he’s made the team.
The next three months, I’ll compare to the part of the movie where Rudy was a member of Notre Dame football team - and no one but him really cared. His family didn’t get to see him on TV, because Rudy wasn’t a starter. So, he practiced with the team, but never got to play in the games, which made it not ‘real’ to them. Rudy’s coach promised him that one day, he’d let Rudy dress and run out onto the field so everyone could see him as an official Notre Dame team member (much like my new agent told me she thought she could sell my book). But as in life, there were complications. In the movie, Rudy’s coach retired in the middle of the season and another one took over. Rudy didn’t know if this new coach would let him play, still, he trained every week with the team.
Time stretches. Rudy gets despondent. At one particularly low moment, he bitterly wonders if all his efforts have been a waste of time. But with the help of his teammates (in my example, it was my agent sending my book out to several editors), the news finally comes. Rudy will dress and run out onto the field in the last game, showing everyone that he’s accomplished his dream of being a Notre Dame football player. And for me, my agent, away at a conference, emails me to tell me that a two-book deal has been offered for my novel by Erika Tsang of Avon/HarperCollins. Erika loved my book, Halfway to the Grave, so much, she offered a deal before she’d even finished reading it (not kidding – Erika swears to this).
My contract with HarperCollins felt similar to Rudy finally running onto the field of the school he loved to be counted amongst people he’d grown up admiring – the Notre Dame football team. For me, my team was the publishing world, and I had my chance to be counted amongst the people I’d grown up admiring: authors. It was more than worth what it took to get there. Now, of course, I’m hoping/dreaming the rest of my story will be similar to Rudy’s – that I’ll get time to play on the field, sack the quarterback (or the odds against being a successful writer), and maybe even get hoisted on my friend’s shoulders at the end of a job well done. I’m not done dreaming yet
This version of Jeaniene’s publishing journey may also be found here.
Jeaniene also has been very generous in sharing the real-deal experience on queries. Here is the before and after.
Query Letter – Take 1
I am seeking representation for my Horror manuscript, “Skin and Bones.” It is completed at approximately 120,000 words and currently I am working on book two, so this will be a series. Although primarily a horror novel, “Skin and Bones” also has strong influences of humor and humanity set against a backdrop of supernatural occurrences.
Growing up is difficult to do today, made even more complicated when you’re illegitimate in a town still small enough to care. Catherine is already an outcast for her fatherless upbringing, uncommon looks and odd nocturnal wanderings. When she turns sixteen she discovers how deep her dissimilarities run, because her mother reveals a terrible secret about a long-ago date rape: Catherine’s father wasn’t human, and neither is she. She is the child of a human and a vampire.
Confused by her strange abilities and desperately trying to blend in, Catherine hides her dual nature until it is brought to the surface when she meets and kills her first vampire. She comes to believe that the purpose of her existence is to destroy every vampire she finds, and uses herself as bait to hunt the undead. Then she meets Bones, a Master vampire with a killing agenda of his own. Soon Catherine is forced to trust the very thing she fears most, and comes to desire the one thing she can never have.
“Skin and Bones” is a novel which will appeal to readers who want a strong female heroine, not another feminine victim. Where the innocent-looking person next to you can transform into a monster in a blink, and the brush of fangs across your throat can be the most frightening thing you’ve ever felt – or the most erotic.
Thank you in advance for your time, and of course I would be glad to forward either sample chapters or the entire manuscript via regular mail or in electronic format.
Sample Page Included with Query
“You think you’re going to get away with this?”
The roar of rage trembled the windows in the hospital room where I recuperated. The detective who uttered it loomed over me, bandaged wrist raised in threat. “I am going to see you go down, you murdering bitch! No attorney in the world is going to be able to get you off. You have so many crimes piled up, I can’t even file the reports fast enough. You’ll wish you were never born, you –”
The door opened and interrupted the tirade. Detective Mansfield straightened and barked angrily at the guard stationed by the entrance.
“I told you no one else gets in until I’m through!”
“Sorry, Detective, but…” The guard began to sputter an apology when one of the two men who entered cut him off.
“F.B.I., Detective. We need to speak with Miss Crawfield.”
Mansfield went from white to blistering red in a heartbeat. “You have no business here! I’m interrogating a suspect in multiple homicides.”
“Detective Mansfield, please remove yourself from this room. You were taken off this case yesterday due to the injuries you sustained from Miss Crawfield. If you leave quietly now, I’m sure we can forget that you were here.”
There was a distinct threat behind the polite words, spoken from a man around fifty. He was of medium height, with thinning charcoal hair overrun with gray. His eyes were the same medium gray as his hair but they almost danced with anticipation. He was clearly anxious for Mansfield to leave.
His companion was considerably younger, perhaps in his late twenties. He had short brown hair in a buzz cut, and something about the way he carried himself screamed military even though he wore no uniform. His eyes were navy blue and fixed on me with steadfast intensity.
Query Letter – Take 2
I am seeking representation for my fantasy manuscript, Halfway to the Grave, set in present times and completed at 103K words.
Cat is daddy’s little girl with a vengeance and she’s after her father, the deadbeat who wasn’t alive when he raped her mother. It will take the help of another vampire to find him, and to show her that being half-dead doesn’t have to be all bad.
Halfway to the Grave is a novel with heat, humor and teeth. Please see the synopsis and pages 1 – 5 for your review. My SASE is enclosed for your reply. Thank you for your time.
Sample Page – Version 2
I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck. I pulled over, holding my breath as the sheriff came to my window.
“Hi. Something wrong?” My tone was all innocence while I prayed there was nothing unusual about my eyes. Control yourself. You know what happens when you get upset.
“Show me your license, young lady.”
I dug quickly in my purse and made sure to hand him my real license, not the counterfeit one.
He shined the flashlight back and forth between the identification and my face.
“Catherine Crawfield. You’re Justina Crawfield’s girl, aren’t you? From the Crawfield Cherry Orchard?”
“Yes, sir.” Politely and blandly, as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
“Well, Catherine, it’s nearly four a.m. What are you doing out this late?”
I could tell him the truth about my activities, except I didn’t want to sign on for hard time. Or an extended stay in a padded cell.
“Just driving around. I couldn’t sleep.”
To my dismay, he ambled to the bed of the truck and shined his light around.
“Whatcha got back there?”
Oh, nothing unusual. A dead body under some bags and an ax.
“Bags of cherries from my grandparents’ orchard.” If my heartbeat were any louder, it would deafen him.
“Really?” With his flashlight he poked at a plastic lump. “One of ‘em is leaking.”