“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
by Debra Chappell
Displaying my newby writer’s ignorance in fine fashion, I didn’t recognize the New York agent’s name on the other end of the line and asked her to repeat it again. She patiently complied and got straight down to business, “I received your query letter, I’m calling about your manuscript – how many people have you sent it to?”
“None,” I replied quickly, my intuitive reactions responding to her air of authority.
“I’d like to read it. I want a 3 week exclusive…”
Still struggling with the notion that a literary agent was actually calling me at home, I was quite unclear what she meant by “exclusive”- and had to ask. If she was rolling her eyes at her assistant, she didn’t let on. She was polite but matter of fact in her I-don’t-have-time-for-chit-chat sort of way. She said she understood if I wanted to wait and see what the other responses were to my query, but she was making the offer now to read my manuscript and wasn’t going to waste her time if I was still actively pursuing others. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. My instinct was to buy some time, just long enough to research her and the [La-Dee-Dah Media Group] she represents, to see exactly whom I was dealing with. I asked her if I could get back to her at the end of the day. She firmly said “No, if you want to wait and see IF someone else wants to read it, that’s fine, I wish you all the best. But I’m talking to you now… at home, which is something I don’t often do.” For emphasis she added, “Look, I’m telling you – I’m willing to read it. I need an answer… now.” I guess you don’t mess with New York. The easy-going, persuasive charm I’d perfected in real estate was not going to get me anywhere here. Somehow, she just didn’t seem the perky, have-a-nice-day sort.
“3 weeks is long time…” I responded, trying to stall while I mentally sorted through my options. I was weighing her offer against the three I’d already received in my in-box that morning. (If I’d known then what I know now, I would have given her three months… in a heartbeat – but this is the one time my ignorance played to my advantage.)
She said, “How long is the book?” I told her about 300 pages. She said, “Give it to me for 10 days then, I can read it in ten days and get back to you.” Reacting from my gut I said, “okay, I’ll send it now, PDF or Word?”
The entire conversation took about 3 minutes. I hung up the phone somewhat dumbstruck. I nervously sent off the manuscript and called my husband at work, still reeling. I told him what had just transpired and we both immediately set about researching the [La-Dee-Dah] Media Group and Ms. [So-and-So.]
This time it was Steve who called me shrieking into the phone, just a few minutes later. “BLOODY HELL, HAVE YOU SEEN THEIR CLIENT LIST?” Yes, I had, I’d been perusing the same page. “These guys are REALLY heavy hitters!” We were both looking at the alphabetical listing of writers on their website. It was pretty impressive – I don’t like to drop names…well, okay: Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Catherine Coulter, and some not so heavy: Paris Hilton, The Osbournes, and Stephen Colbert. (Holy crap! This is who’s reading my manuscript – quite possibly at this very moment??) Steve observed, “ Wow! If she takes you on, your name would come just before Deepak Chopra…”
His voice faded somewhere between the rising awareness in my brain and the sinking feeling in my stomach. I suddenly felt nauseous. The more I learned from the website, the more distraught I became. This firm is a powerhouse in the publishing industry. She’s not only “in the big leagues,” she and her boss define the big leagues! How could I have been so stupid and naive? Rather than being elated at my good fortune, I was mortified by my own behavior earlier on the phone. A top agent in one of the most prestigious agency’s in the literary marketplace calls me at home and here I am, not only making her repeat her name like some snooty receptionist at the local country club, but actually hemming and hawing over whether or not to send her my little manuscript? AAARRRGGGHHH! After several hours of self-deprecation, I finally dropped into the bathtub that evening exhausted, taking my only comfort in a generous glass of chardonnay and the knowledge that though I’d been an inarticulate fool as it was, had I actually known, I most certainly would have become an out-and-out blithering idiot!
Thinking I wouldn’t hear anything for at least a week in any case, I searched desperately over the following days for something to take my mind off it all. Diving with rigor into my preferred intellectual pursuits, I was taken aback when she called me a mere four days later interrupting my morning kitchen counter routine, and the discovery of the latest eliminations on Dancing With the Stars.
“I liked it,” she said. “I liked the characters, I liked the story, I loved the voice and I think you have a clever idea here…BUT, it needs some work.” She paused. “It needs a lot of work.” She mentioned “tension” and “pacing” and a whole bunch of other things. We talked for quite a while, about what changes she thought should be made to improve the story. She suggested I could benefit from the help of a professional editor – if I was interested she could pass along some names. And then rather abruptly said, “well, that’s what I think. If you’re willing to do all that, then I think you’ll have a really good sellable product at the end of it all. I’ve thrown a lot at you, maybe you still want to consider it all and see how some of the other agents respond… But here’s what I think; you shouldn’t do anything right now, just sit on it for a few days. I’ll check back with you on Thursday…”
WTF?! What the hell just happened? I quite honestly didn’t know. Suddenly, I had more questions than answers. Was she saying yes, she’d represent me if I completed XYZ? Was she suggesting I re-work it and she’d reconsider it in a few months? Or was this just a nice rejection with some constructive suggestions for the future, like The Bachelor finalist (“you’re a terrific person who’ll make someone a great wife someday BUT…”) who doesn’t get the final rose after all?
By dinnertime, I had pretty much convinced myself it was the latter. I resisted the urge to call her the next day to tell her thanks but no thanks. Thursday was 2 days away – I created a list of perfunctory questions, but primed myself for what in all probability would be the final rejection – no matter how constructively presented. I prepared to send my manuscript to the other interested agents (minus the enthusiasm I’d had just days before,) and mentally had already moved on to plan B.