I’m not one of those people who always knew she wanted to write books. I loved writing stories as a kid, but I decided at age 16 that I was going to be a photographer, and that’s what I did. Every so often, I started tiny writing projects, but I never finished any of them, and that never bothered me.
Fast forward to 2007. I’d been reading a lot of young adult literature, and the voices in those books resonated with me like nothing else I’d ever read. I started considering the possibility of trying to write one myself. And then one day I was in the middle of watching an opera, and a book idea hit me out of nowhere. When I got home, I started working immediately.
And by “working,” I mean “floundering around blindly.” I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have any critique partners or knowledge about the industry. I overwrote so much that my first draft was 155,000 words. (My wonderful writer mother helped me cut it down by nearly half, for which I will be forever grateful.) When I discovered the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2009, I started going to their events and conferences, and although I was too shy to talk to anyone, I learned what the road to publication looked like and what steps I needed to take to get there.
Three years later, in April of 2010, I was finally ready to start looking for an agent. I did extensive research on AgentQuery, then sent a list of my top fifteen choices to my friend Elizabeth, who used to be an agent herself. I asked her if anyone jumped out as being a particularly good fit for me, and she pointed me toward Holly Root. “I think you guys would really get each other,” she told me. So I put Holly at the top of my list, sent off my first round of queries, and settled in to wait.
Holly asked to see a full right away, as did six other people. Then there were many, many months of silence, punctuated every so often by a rejection letter. Late in the fall, after several rounds of queries and about 15 rejections, I sent my manuscript to Elizabeth in despair and said, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS BOOK?? Why does nobody want it?!” She calmed me down, then gently suggested I rip out a main character and a central plot line. She was totally right. When I emerged from a frantic round of revisions, the book was much better.
I still hadn’t heard anything from Holly by November, so I emailed her and asked if she wanted a new and improved copy of the manuscript. She did, so I sent it off and went back to waiting. I was working on a second manuscript at the time, but I was losing momentum; it seemed like nobody was responding to my writing, so why should I even bother? (Cue violins and weeping. It was a rather pathetic time.)
In January 2011, I got an email from Holly. She said some lovely things about my writing and said she adored the manuscript, then went on to say that she was pretty sure she couldn’t sell it. But she suggested we meet and talk about revisions, then asked if I was working on anything else. I sent her three chapters of my work in progress, RED, and we arranged a meeting. I reread my first manuscript, then printed it out and put it in a giant binder that I lugged to the meeting. I was prepared to rip it apart with her.
Turned out that was all totally unnecessary. The moment we sat down, Holly said, “So, I’m SMITTEN with your second manuscript.”
I was a bit taken aback. “Um… wow, thank you so much,” I said. “But what should I do about the first one?”
She said she liked the first book as it was but that it was way too quiet to be an effective debut novel, then told me to get to work on finishing the second manuscript so she could see the rest. Then we proceeded to talk about completely unrelated things for another hour. We recommended books to each other. We discussed the best methods of organizing bookshelves. We discovered, bizarrely, that we were born in the same hospital. I liked her immediately, and by the end of the conversation, I was absolutely positive I wanted her as my agent.
“Hey,” I said as we got up to go, “not to be ridiculously up front, but how do I make sure I get you to represent me?”
“Keep writing like you’re writing, and we’re going to be fine,” she said. Then she hugged me. Because that’s what Holly’s like.
I went home and wrote like crazy. The first part of the manuscript had taken me nine months to complete; I wrote the last 60,000 words in nine weeks. The minute I typed the words, “THE END,” I emailed Holly.
“Just wanted to let you know I have a finished draft,” I told her. “It’s not ready for you yet, but the minute I’ve revised it, it’ll be on your desk.” SUBTEXT: Remember me? I’m still here! And look how hard I work!
She wrote back that she was really excited to read my manuscript but that I should take all the time I needed because she wasn’t going anywhere. SUBTEXT: I really want to love this book, so don’t you dare send it to me before it’s awesome.
I gave the manuscript to my beta readers, who tore it apart in all the best ways. Halfway through the process of piecing it back together, I got a totally unsolicited email from Holly offering me support while I was in the revisions cave and telling me how excited she was to see the book when it was done. It was an amazingly nice little gesture and gave me a much-needed boost of confidence. I finally finished revising in July, and I sent the manuscript off to Holly, then completely ceased to think about anything else as I waited to hear from her.
Five days later, my cell phone rang while I was at work. I stared at it, way too scared to pick it up. When it finally alerted me that I had a voicemail, I pounced and found a message from Holly, saying she loved the manuscript and wanted to represent me.
I screamed. My coworker asked me if I was okay. “Um, yes,” I said. “I’ve gotta go. I’ll be back… sometime.” Then I sprinted out of the office.
I work at Lincoln Center, and there aren’t a whole lot of places to have a private conversation, so I went outside to the plaza. It was at least 95 degrees out, and I tucked myself into a tiny sliver of shade in one of the Met Opera’s window wells and called Holly back. She gushed about the book, and I tried to be professional but ended up doing a lot of squealing. I knew I was supposed to tell her I had to consider her offer, but I was not in the mood for games. “Listen,” I said. “I know I’m supposed play coy and say I have to think about it, but I don’t have to think about it. I absolutely want to work with you.”
There was silence for a second. Then Holly said, “Oh! That was easy!”
I signed a contract that afternoon. There was much champagne and rejoicing in my house. (There were also cookies.)
That first manuscript will never be published, but writing it was in NO way a waste of time. If you want to be a writer, every minute you spend writing is valuable. During the three years I worked on that unsellable manuscript, I learned how to write a book. I learned how to revise. I learned how to sacrifice scenes and characters I loved for the good of the bigger picture. I learned how to take criticism without getting unbelievably defensive. And I managed to snag the attention of my rock star agent, who saw potential in my writing even when the story wasn’t right. The world will never see the product, but the process was worth every second.