Fifteen years ago, just after I married, someone handed me Nicholas Sparks’ first book, The Notebook. I knew it was a romance, and I was a new bride, so I read it. At the time, I had just finished writing my second novel. I did not have an agent yet, and like so many writers, I wrote and breathed with the belief that I would soon publish. I made it a habit to peruse the acknowledgements page of every book I read, since I’d heard that was a great way to find an agent, plus I enjoy seeing who inspires writers. Sure enough, Nick (I can call him that because he’s a neighbor) thanked his agent, his editor, and so on, just like many other authors who want to express their gratitude. Then he mentioned something that has stuck with me through the years. He was talking about specific moments that had led him from point A to point B, from sending out the query, to signing with his agent, to the bidding war that ensued, and then:
“…At that moment, I remember, I was serving fried chicken to a group of nurses.”
Fried chicken? Nurses? He had been selling pharmaceuticals at the time, and was standing at a nurse’s station. That’s where Nick was when the call came that changed his life forever.
We don’t tend to remember where we were when we received all those rejections, since most fledgling writers get so many (I have enough to decorate a graveyard), and who wants to remember those moments anyway?
I recall the moment my now agent called to say he was in love with one of my books. I recall the exact second a top editor called me on a Friday afternoon and handed me five pages of editing notes. (In the middle of contract negotiations, she moved to another house, my poor book abandoned after three months of grueling changes.)
Whether you are waiting for a call from a prospective agent that she wants to read your entire manuscript, or you are hoping to snag an editor at one of the big houses, don’t you want to be in a really cool place when “it” happens?
I am in the car, driving on a busy highway. My cell rings. I nearly crash into a semi in front of me as I grab the phone. My agent says, “Are you sitting down?” To which I reply, “How else would I drive?” Then I laugh and pull into a Walmart parking lot, so he can give me the particulars and I don’t kill myself or others when he hands me the GREAT NEWS, for that kind of irony is not my style.
The above scenario is only in my imagination, of course.
In another daydream, I am standing in the local Mega Bookstore, checking out the latest in “How to become a Hybrid Author” or “Using Magic Spells to Get Published.” My phone rings, and I go to silence it, embarrassed that the entire room reverberates with tinny acoustic guitar, but I look at the screen and see the word “AGENT.” And I know. I KNOW. It takes all my energy not to run through the store, screaming that my book will soon be on their shelves, right between Debbie Macomber and Cormac McCarthy. Right here! HERE! And that soon I will be signing autographs in their coffee bar on a Saturday night.
But here’s my personal fave: I am tutoring one of my high school students, reviewing the insecurities of Othello, or the hyperbole and its proper usage. Of course, I have turned off my phone during our session, as has my student. But my peripheral vision catches the lighted screen, and my agent’s name looks electric. I glance at my student, who, like all of my students over the years, knows that, although I love her dearly, I would rather be at a book signing than sitting at her sticky kitchen table rehashing Shakespeare plays or grammar, precious though both William and grammar are. I breathe, “It’s my agent.” Student says, “OMG, like, you totally need to answer it.” I obey. By the time I hang up five minutes later, tears are running down my cheeks and onto her textbook. My student hugs me and says with adult-like empathy, “You can go if you want to. I mean…to celebrate. I really think you should…and I would, like, totally understand…” Anything to get out of taking a Sparknotes quiz or literary-terms review.
I have had an agent for seven years. I’ve written eleven novels, six of which we have shopped, the seventh currently in the hands of a prospective publisher (though this has happened before, so I forever remain a hopeful skeptic). There have been many, many times when my agent’s name has popped up on my cell phone, only to be followed by a conversation where he becomes my therapist, softening the blow before handing me the crushing news: “Not this time….but don’t give up…we are so damn close…”
Why I haven’t given him his own ring tone I have no idea, as he certainly deserves one. He is the only person who can catapult me through the five stages of grief in one fleeting moment, because there are only three reasons for him to call: Number One: “Nope.” Number Two: “Contract in hand!” Number Three: “Still in acquisitions…so maybe…” Oh, woops, there is a Number Four, one I’ve been through too many times to forget: “Yes, we want the book. BUT…kill the protagonist, make the antagonist male instead of female, and change the ending so the heroine grows wings and flies instead of moves to the mountains to start a commune.” In which case, refer back to number one.
As of late, I have bound my agent to an agreement: All benign news, or line-editing details, or anything that is NOT related to a publishing deal, must come to me via email. So when the call finally does come, I will know from the moment I see his name in the neon green letters on my cell’s screen that I will have no choice but to perform a touchdown dance wherever I am.
And yet, since I believe in perseverance as the highest virtue, all I can do is wonder, where will I be WHEN IT DOES FINALLY HAPPEN?
I once had a wonderful and talented writing professor in Orange County, California, where I originally began my writing ventures. He told our class a story about how one afternoon he heard from his agent that his first book had been sold. This was pre-cell-phone era. The news came to him while working in his home office. His wife was out. He got a busy signal when he tried his parents. And he was in the middle of writing another book. So what did he do? He didn’t run down to the store for a bottle of champagne. He didn’t run through the streets like a madman, or do a crazy dance on his front porch. He didn’t even get up to stretch. Because he is a writer. And writers write. So that’s what he did. After pinching himself to make sure he hadn’t died of a stroke from sitting so much, and giving himself a tiny well-deserved pat on the back, he looked at his computer screen, sighed, put his fingers to the keys, and resumed typing. After all, books don’t write themselves. But chances are good that he smiled for the rest of the day, even if no one was there to see it.
If you are still waiting for that big break, where do you see yourself when the call comes in? If you have received the call of a lifetime, where were you when it happened? Is it memorable? Did it change your life?