Catherine C. Heywood
A Master Class in Resilience
If you’ve ever queried a literary agent, then you know it’s a special kind of hell.
Frankly, I thought writing a book would be the most difficult aspect of becoming a novelist. It turns out, that isn’t so. Three years ago, I woke up having met a heroine in my dreams. An eighteen-year-old girl, covered in filth, awaiting her execution. An execution that could start a war. That summer I discovered what it meant to fall in love with a story. I had all those heart-fluttery feelings, bright bursts of energy, and an obsession to be with my characters to the exclusion of all else.
That story wrote itself. Three months. 185,000 words. Late nights. Little sleep. I lost ten pounds. But I loved every moment of researching and writing that story. Never had any writing been so easy. It seemed meant to be and written in the stars and everything starry eyes and gooey hearts could make when you’re stumbling in love.
But here’s the thing—it wasn’t very good. Not the first draft and certainly not the first query letter. Any half-way decent agent would have been well-advised to laugh me off. And they did. Plenty of them. My first readers, an attorney and writer himself who had represented me on a screenplay, and an acquaintance who is a middle-grade writer, had similar reactions. Kind encouragement punctuated by, “Wow!” Almost definitely short for, Wow! This needs a lot of work.
What I discovered when I stepped out of my hazy-warm writing bubble and into the hot arena of criticism is that I had a ways to go. I would never have learned that, not in the soul-deep way I needed to if I wanted to have any success, had it not been for rejections.
When I sat down to write that story, I had some idea how to do it. After all, I had minored in writing as an undergrad and had taken screenwriting workshops as an adult. But I had no clue how to query a literary agent. That it was an art form. That those 300 words in the query letter were as important as the story. And if that seems hyperbole, I’m here to tell you, it’s not. Consider an agent’s day. The height of their slush pile, much of it filled with letters and manuscripts like my first ones. I cringe to think of it.
I charged full-boar into the querying abyss, sending dozens of letters without having any real feedback. Naturally, I got rejection after rejection. And it was heartbreaking. But, despite the state of my query letter and manuscript, I did get some requests by top-tier agents for full manuscripts. So, I knew I had something.
Accumulating all those rejections made me steely. I got an editor who took me back to school. I began researching the market, agents, the query process, and the essential query letter.
Three years later, the girl I met in my dreams is on a shelf. For now. I self-published a novella. Self-publishing was something I had never seriously considered, but it was an incredible opportunity to release with an already established bestselling author that I just couldn’t pass up. I’m so glad I did it. Because when you write an entirely new story in only three weeks, you realize you can write another story without betraying your goal. Now I’m querying a third story I would not have written had it not been for the second. One I hope is much better.
Querying, and the rejections that naturally come, can seem like a cruel process. But it can also be a crucible if you let it. I’ve learned some essential lessons on this very difficult road. About the importance of having a good editor. About nailing the query letter. About researching agents so you can speak directly to them in those all-important letters. About slow querying, sending only a handful at a time and waiting, waiting, waiting. I used to chafe at the waiting, now I just start writing another story. Because writing is where my heart wants to be.
With my latest, a historic fiction love story and mystery I describe as Downton Abbey meets Gone Girl in Golden-Era Hollywood, I have received one rejection so far. And it was no less heartbreaking for having learned. I will admit, I ugly cried while drinking chardonnay and listening to “Audition” from the La La Land soundtrack. Then, during an eight-day, 1,139-mile road trip, I stewed over the comments made by the agent. Because I valued her opinion, I stewed a lot. Somewhere around mile marker 1,000 I considered just perhaps she was right.
So, I edit and I write and I query, remembering all those old sayings, old because they are time-tested and true: If it were easy, everyone would do it and fall seven times, stand up eight.
Cheers to your dreams!