I wrote this book with the dim notion that it would someday be published, while carefully avoiding the reality of what that process actually entailed. Rather than get bogged down by what I was sure were mere technicalities, I sat down and started writing. I wrote a lot--sometimes churning out ten pages in one sitting. I wrote and I researched and I wrote some more, and after nine months of hair-pulling and sleep deprivation I had a tome that would kill a man if dropped from even the most meager of heights.
The first query letter I wrote was for a novel (a debut novel, no less) that stood proudly at 264,000 words.
I would like to point out here that I wasn't ignorant of this flaw. I was in denial. When I began to query I found myself carefully seeking agents who made no mention of word count in their requirements, foolishly hoping they'd be too dumbstruck by the genius of my book to notice the hernia they received upon lifting it.
After, oh, a dozen rejections (mostly because my query letter was both generic and terrible), I realized that this was going to become an issue. Accepting defeat, I sat down and carefully whittled away nearly 100,000 words, bringing the book to a trimmer, but still obese, 186K. As I prepared to send Chubby out to a new crop of agents, I received word that a local indie bookstore was holding a pitch contest. At this point, I had become less worried about my word count and more worried about the actual nature of my plot. It was, to be blunt, kind of demented--demented as in I felt like I might be arrested for even writing it. I had no idea if it would be well-received by people with minds that were not as sick as mine, and a pitch contest felt like the perfect forum to test the waters.
So I entered. And I won.
This isn't me. But I might have made that face.
To win was wonderful, but better than that was the overwhelming enthusiasm from the other writers in the group. I had tons of people approach me afterward asking if I needed betas, or if I was willing to let them read the manuscript. I was humbled--and relieved--to find that yes, most people are as sick as I am.
I also got some much-needed guidance. Arielle Eckstut of the Book Doctors was wonderfully encouraging, but she gave it to me straight: the word count had to drop. On Halloween morning 2011, I took a call from Arielle in my car (where I conduct all of my important business) and tried to work out a plan of attack. The magic number was 100K. If I could get it to that point, I would have a viable project. I had already cut the book almost in half, and now I was faced with bringing it down to a quarter.
But I wanted this. Guys, I really wanted this.
I wish I could say that it was easy, but it wasn't. I cut a lot of scenes that I really loved, rewrote practically every sentence in fewer words, and after six months of work I was ready to roll...120K.
And 120K got me some bites. A few partials, a couple of fulls. I was happy with that. It was progress. I rolled into the summer of 2012 with the highest of hopes that I was finally onto something.
Then, last September, the other shoe dropped.
**********WARNING****This part is sad...and gory****WARNING*************
I got pregnant. And then I got sick. Within a few days I was so sick that I had to be rushed to the hospital, where they discovered that I was bleeding internally. The baby had gotten stuck in my left Fallopian tube and it ruptured. By midnight I was having emergency surgery to remove the tube destroyed by a pregnancy that was no longer viable.
I had to have more than one procedure, so it was doubly difficult. Initially the doctor tried to perform a laparascopy, but it didn't work. When he got the scope in there was too much blood for him to see, so they ended up performing a salpingectomy by cutting through my abdomen. The pain I was in when I woke up was ridiculous. I was on heavy pain meds in the hospital, but the doctor said that my blood pressure was too low to take anything stronger than Motrin while I was home. I spent three weeks out of work--mostly on the couch because I could barely climb the stairs. I couldn't do much of anything. I didn't want to do much of anything.
Except work on my book.
It was the only thing that I could focus on, and I stayed up for hours, sometimes all night, whittling it down even further, making edits and tweaks throughout. I did three read-throughs in a row, each one stricter than the last.
Tragedy is great fodder for fiction; inflict more agony upon your characters than you'd ever endure yourself, blah, blah, blah. I suddenly had a different perspective. I felt wretched, I was in pain, I was sad. And all I could do was try to offset it somehow, distract myself. I would like to say that it was always alive, at least to me, but I honestly feel like those weeks and months of editing while I was in recovery finally put a beating heart in that book.
104K. I started to send it out again. The first batch brought seven requests.
The very last request I received came from one of my long shots. I visited QueryTracker daily, always with an eye on the "New" and "Updated" agents on the sidebar. One day I saw Melissa Sarver's name on top, with the news that she had recently joined Folio Literary Management. I immediately googled her name for interviews, and after reading about her for more than an hour I was hooked. I knew she would be an ideal agent, but I also knew that she only took on selective fiction, so the bar was high--and my book was weird: a conglomerate of literary/women's/sick-n-twisted, with two main characters too young to be called adults. I don't know that I would have had the confidence to query her before my surgery, but something was pushing me to be braver that that, and on January 22, 2013 I hit send.
On February 1, I received an e-mail in return. "I would love to read your novel." Seven words, but I had to read them twice. I ran to the nearest computer to send the manuscript and basked in the 'full request high' that comes just before 'doubt and panic attacks' set in.
I've read a few accounts of immediate gratification responses on requested material--even within 24 hours, but in my experience with fulls, I knew they could take months. I did NOT expect to find another e-mail a week later asking if we could schedule a call.
I had heard tale of The Call. I had always imagined what my reaction might be. I was at work when I got the e-mail, so I tried to contain myself. It didn't work. I started crying. Then I went in the conference room to call my husband and cry some more. Then I ran into the bullpen portion of our office and screamed, "I GOT THE CALL!!!!" which probably sounded like I was off to the nunnery.
The Call itself was among the best conversations of my life. My voice was pitched way too high and shook steadily for the first twenty minutes, but Melissa was so easy to talk to that I was able to relax and actually enjoy what was happening. She loved my novel! I love my novel! This is the best thing ever!!!
We spoke for an hour and a half about the book and what we could do to make it even better. She told me what she loved, but also what she didn't love, and her impressions and feedback made it clear to me that she really did share my vision for this book and could help me make it great. She told me about herself, about Folio, and I gave her some backstory on how the book came to be. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to accept her offer, but I still had fulls pending, so out went the "I got an offer" e-mails. I gave a one-week deadline, and it was a VERY busy week, but in the end I called Melissa the following Tuesday to accept.
I didn't have champagne (because I was in my car again) but I did stop for a cappuccino afterward!
It's still not easy to talk about, but I was in a very sad place when I was submitting this book. The surgery took a lot out of me, and the work I did while I was sick made it feel like I was putting some lost part of myself on display. The fact that it worked is more than validation for me, or the promise of something bigger, but rather a happier memory to tie to those long painful hours. I am eternally grateful to Melissa for having such confidence in my work, and for making the effort worth the result.