A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
The first literary agent who read the manuscript of my first novel snapped it up. Don’t hate me, though: She turned it down the first time she read it, plunging me into despair.
Why did Natasha Kern reject my first submission? As so many first-time authors have done, I sent her my first draft. She agreed to consider it after our mutual friend, author Paul Vandevelder, told her about my novel, “The Jewel of Medina.” With her rejection came a two-page letter – also unusual, written as a courtesy to my friend — telling me, basically, that my book was a too-long, disjointed mess. Which it was.
All those creative writing classes in college, fine for short-story writing, had failed to teach me how to craft a novel. I read Natasha’s letter and realized that I really had no idea how to fix mine. So I hired freelance editor Daniel Zitin, who told me what I needed to do to make “The Jewel of Medina” work. “What you have here is not a novel, but a series of interesting events,” he wrote.
Using his suggestions, I took the book apart and re-wrote it, then sent it to a second freelance editor (Susan Leon) and revised it again, adding in the sensual detail she suggested. this time. A year and a half later I queried Natasha again — even though I had read that agents almost never consider a book twice. Hey, you don’t get what you don’t ask for, right? To my delight, she said “yes.” Not being one to put all my proverbial eggs into a single basket, however, I queried other agents, as well, with the help of agentquery.com.
Agent Query has, among other things, an excellent database of literary agents. It produced for me a long list of agents who represent historical fiction and who were accepting new clients. I arranged the list so that my top ten choices sat at the top, followed by my second ten, my third, etc. I sent queries to the top ten, then waited a week or two. I then sent queries to the agents in the second tier, then waited another week or two. By the time I got to the third tier, three agents had expressed interest in seeing a partial manuscript and one had enjoyed the partial and had requested the rest.
Imagine my surprise – and delight – when the phone rang one Friday noon and Natasha Kern was on the line! She loved my manuscript, she said, and she wanted to represent me. I found myself in the enviable position of telling her that I needed to check with the other agents who were considering my book before accepting her offer. Like me, however, Natasha doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet. On Sunday evening she called with detail suggestions for changes to my manuscript. We talked for an hour – and, by the time it was over, I had decided that she and I were a perfect team.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Don’t forget that, as a journalist, I wrote one or two articles nearly every day for thirty years. “The Jewel of Medina” wasn’t my first novel, but my fifth – after four romance novels I wrote in the 1980s that I never could get published and the obligatory autobiographical novel, truly horrible, that I would never try to publish. I researched, wrote and revised “The Jewel of Medina” over five years. I queried forty agents, receiving rejections from ninety percent of them.
In other words, there’s no secret formula to getting an agent, or to getting published. It takes hard work and perseverance. A sense of humor helps, especially when the rejection slips start rolling in. And in my case, having an author willing to make that call for me really did make a difference.
As I prepared to send my manuscript to Natasha that first time, after she’d told Paul that she would read it, I got something surprising in the mail: A form letter from her office — in one of my self-addressed, stamped envelopes.
“Dear Author,” it read. “Thank you for submitting your query to the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Unfortunately, your project does not appear to meet our needs at the current time. We wish you luck placing your manuscript elsewhere.”
Apparently, someone in her office didn’t get the memo — Natasha DID want to see my manuscript. However, if it weren’t for Paul’s call to her, her assistant, who was answering her query letters, would have passed.
In writing, as in every other walk of life, whom you know can sometimes help you to become whom you want to be.