Today I’m going to post the essay I wrote for the 2010 Guide to Literary Agents. Partly because you have never seen it and probably don’t know all of this (I was asked to talk about highs and lows of the publishing journey, and we usually focus on the highs here at WU). Also because I have one foot on a plane to Orlando and didn’t have time to write a new post (just keeping it real!). I hope you like it.
How I Found an Agent and Editor
Gifts come in mysterious wrappings. One of the very best gifts I’ve ever received came in the guise of a rejection letter from an agent back in 2004, after I’d spent two years working on the first form of my novel, THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY. Said agent wrote, “Your story is just too much a hybrid right now. My gut tells me you need to write something bigger and that eventually you will. Why not analyze ways to make this story something more?”
Though that agent didn’t inevitably become my agent, her advice changed my life. After sulking over the mammoth undertaking it would be to rewrite THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, I studied, then studied some more. I brainstormed ways to explode the story out while maintaining the heart—the otherworldly connection between twin girls and how it related to a Javanese dagger called a keris. I experimented with voice, created new characters, thought through the interweaving of plotlines. A year later, elated with the story’s fresh potential, I began rebuilding the literary equivalents of bone and muscle and flesh around that well-preserved heart; I rewrote every word.
In the spring of 2008, I prepared to send the second complete incarnation of THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY out into the world—proud of its metamorphosis, but aware of one likely problem: It was still a hybrid, just a bigger one, with various parts women’s fiction, psychological suspense, family saga, love story, mystery and magical realism. Would my cross-genre story ever find a home?
Casting a Wide Net
My first strategy was to look for agents who represented as many of the elements in THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY as possible, write a damn good query letter and call my story commercial fiction; I’d leave it to the experts to figure out what specific label it should be given, if any. I created a list of top-notch agents, began querying and received a few positive rejection letters that amounted to the same message: the story was intriguing but would be difficult to market because of the supernatural elements.
Plan B emerged. Since the magical realism reflected the heart of the story, I decided to focus on agents with a record of selling that—people with both a love for the niche genre and established connections in it. I submitted again and right away had a request for the full manuscript from a highly respected agent, followed later by a half-hour phone conversation with him. He loved the suspense and the magical realism involving the twins but didn’t connect with the emotional aspects of the story; he suggested major revisions. This marked a low point for me; part of me wondered if I’d wasted six years of my life on something unmarketable, if my instinct for story was intrinsically flawed, if I should give up the nonfiction writing that had long sustained my fiction habit and just get a 9-5 job already. A stronger side of me refused to give up, though, believing THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY was not only unique but sellable; I just needed to find the right person. I wondered for the first time if the story might resonate best with a female agent.
It was early June when it occurred to me that one of my blog partners at Writer Unboxed, Allison Winn Scotch, had an forthcoming book that contained a touch of magical realism (Time of My Life). Her agent, Elisabeth Weed, had recently started her own agency and had only a short resume of fiction credits, but I knew Allison believed Elisabeth to be up-and-coming and very well connected in the industry. I shot Allison an email to ask if she thought Elisabeth might be interested in more touch-of-magic tales. Elisabeth was a new mother in the midst of a short leave, Allison explained, but she’d mentioned my story to her—and my close call with the big-name agent—and Elisabeth asked to see the query. I sent it. Then a partial. Then the full. Elisabeth called a few days later, full of excited enthusiasm for the manuscript and eager—despite her new baby and consequential lack of sleep—to help me sell the story that had held my imagination captive for the better part of a decade. She encouraged me to ask as many questions as I had, and she answered them, but it was her answer to one question—“Do you think it will sell?”—that really impacted me.
“If this story doesn’t sell, I’ll lose my faith in publishing,” she said.
There was no question in my mind; I’d found the perfect agent for THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY.
Embracing the Big Book
More than anything, I wanted THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY to find a publisher so that I could hold it one day, bound and covered, and show it to my children. But several times during my interview with Elisabeth, she used the phrase “big book.” This referred to more than the scope, as I was to learn. “Big book” meant she’d send it to senior editors, the heads of imprints, specific women she felt would respond to the story. “Big book” meant she wanted to send it to everyone at once, hoping for either an auction or a pre-emptive offer.
I had a difficult time wrapping my brain around these concepts, as she named names and outlined her plan, so I focused on her suggested editorial changes instead, reworking scenes, clarifying motivations and tweaking prose. By mid-July, we both felt THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY was ready to go and wanted to get the manuscript out before August—a known vacation month in the publishing industry. We worked on perfecting the cover letter: “Part psychological suspense, part love story, Therese Walsh’s novel will appeal to readers of Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child and Jennifer Egan’s The Keep.”
On July 17th, a Thursday, Elisabeth called her A-list editors to introduce and gauge their interest in THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, then she emailed them the story. She’d previously told me that response times could range from twelve hours to one month, so I tried to ready myself for a long wait. Coincidentally, my family and I had been planning a getaway to St. John that would begin ten days later, and I was ready for some R&R. I figured Elisabeth would hear from editors—for good or bad—sometime while I was away or even after my return.
Four days later, we had an offer, and it was improved upon the day after that, following some negotiating over world rights. Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House, had offered a major two-book deal for THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY. My hard work and relentless belief in the story had been validated, though the deal also stunned me utterly. “Never in my wildest…I never thought…I didn’t realize…” I stammered.
“I did,” Elisabeth said.
Adjusting to Growing Pains
Wise Elisabeth might also have guessed that my new editor, Sarah Knight, and I were both strong-willed women who wouldn’t always agree. Still, Sarah was the perfect editor for THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY—because she truly loved the story and demanded as much of herself as she did of me. If my book sings today, it sings in part because she held the baton and encouraged its song.
It wasn’t all easy, though.
When I first connected with Elisabeth, I talked up my nonfiction work history, my adaptability as a writer, the ease with which I could handle deadline pressure and the various demands of publishing. I’d worked at Rodale Press, once upon a time; I knew publishing. (You can see it coming, can’t you?) Thing is, I’d never taken large-scale direction on anything remotely personal, let alone a six-year writing project, so I really had no business assuming the unruffle-able nonfiction writer I’d always been would show up to work when Sarah took pencil to hand and urged me to ready a scalpel for mine.
The hardest lump to take involved the title, which wasn’t always THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY. A few days after the deal, Sarah mentioned concerns about the title I’d long thought of as perfect—Unbounded—and asked that we brainstorm new possibilities. The idea sapped me of joy and made me so anxious that the issue was tabled. It might seem a ridiculous, petty thing to worry over after such a great deal. The only thing I can liken it to is this: Imagine having a six-year-old child and being told his name didn’t suit him and that from that day forward everyone would call him Stinking Cloud of Doom. It was this cloud that followed me to St. John.
After I returned from my trip, not exactly rested, Sarah and I went to work on edits. I learned that I had a tendency to overuse certain words (check). A few sections required fleshing out while others needed pruning (check). Overall, the story needed another thousand words or so to reach an ideal length (check).
The biggest overhaul to THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY came from some smart, open-ended questions Sarah asked about pacing issues in one section of the story and uneven tensions in another. I suggested a plot twist and character makeover, and she agreed that these revisions could solve the problems. The changes cut deep into the story, though, and affected more than I’d bargained for originally—and probably more than Sarah had bargained for, too. I could see a way out of the new mess I’d made and believed the story would be stronger for my surgery in the end, but I worried that my new editor might lose faith when she read clunky first-draft scenes or couldn’t immediately embrace new creative possibilities. We made decisions together and reached compromises. We had a few bloodless battles. Ironically, the manuscript that had once been too lean became too fat, and so I was asked to trim smart while sanding every last rough sentence into shape. We even settled on a new title and—happy day—it wasn’t Stinking Cloud of Doom.
A few days before Thanksgiving, I turned in my final draft, exhausted but knowing it was my best work. Sarah knew it, too. Her pride in the story we both loved was audible when we spoke, and I have to admit that it made mine surge, too. This particular editorial journey was finally at an end. I have to admit that, after six long years, it felt bittersweet.
Awaiting the Next Chapter
THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY will be released in September of 2009 [update: it was also released in trade paperback in August, 2010]. Before then, I’ll see galleys and glimpse the cover; I’ll work with publicity and develop a website, maybe even a book trailer. I’ll hope for more foreign rights sales; already we’ve sold to Brazil. Exciting, yes. But for now, since the knowledge of having written a “big book” has finally sunk in, and since I’ve finished the hard work of editing, I’ve circled back to my original, blissfully simple goal: hold the book, bound and covered, and show it to my children. I can’t imagine a better gift. [last update: It really was the very best of moments.]
Write on, all.