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.
This is so helpful. Thank you for writng this, Sherry. I’m going ot share it with my workshop. And agentquery.com is a website I’ve wondered about. Sounds useful.
Thanks, Cynthia! It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I had to struggle so much with my first book, but on the other hand I hope it will help other authors who might be feeling discouraged. And remember: Before I wrote “The Jewel of Medina,” I had been a full-time professional writer for 25 years.
Hi Sherry, How interesting to see this from your perspective! One of the benefits of your posting this is for new authors of novels to realize that the vast majority of rejections are because the writer does not yet know what a novel is, does not understand the basic structure of this art form, and has not learned enough of the craft of writing one. Second lesson, referrals DO make a big difference. The vast majority of my clients have come through referrals and some from writers’ conferences. And the vast majority of queries are for unpublishable works. The unusual thing about your struggle, Sherry, is that you really were committed to succeeding and willing to do the work to get there, recognizing that talent isn’t enough (in any life endeavor from brain surgery to operatic singing). Editors really ARE essential and most of the self-published books really did need at least one editor. After following my final revision notes and selling Jewel of Medina, it was, of course, also edited by your in-house editor. Who said this is easy? It was also interesting to me that after investing time and effort in supporting your revision efforts with the two page letter, that you considered other agents when I offered to represent you. This isn’t unusual. Other agents have benefited in representing works that I helped to develop which is something of an obstacle to doing that very often. I’m all for writer empowerment and choices! I encourage writers to query multiple agents– although most agents I know reject out of hand the submissions that arrive from query services. Another important consideration here is that the process of making a match can take quite some time, even years while the writer develops a salable work. I can’t commit to represent something that is quite far from being salable and yet want to support potential. And the process varies with the individual author. It sure isn’t easy!! Occasionally, I’ll read a submission and simply be WOWed and immediately start hoping no other agent has seen it yet! Often a writer has already done her research or met me at a conference and determined that I will be the best match. The best message here: don’t give up!! Anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first!
I am in the exact same situation that you were in when you sent your manuscript to your first agent, now your rep. I got an encouraging note from the agent I contacted through a friend but with advise to seek editorial help before re-submitting. I am desperately in need of a good editor. I tried to get the contact information for the two editors you mentioned but could not. And I am wary of reaching out to just any editor I locate on the web.
Any recommendations (and contact information) for a good editor would be greatly appreciated.
The Independent Editors’ Group is a highly reputable group of NY editors. Here’s their website: http://www.bookdocs.com/
Best of luck with your manuscript!
Sherry, thank you for being so open in sharing your personal experience regarding the journey most of us hope to take, that of publication. I will tell the other members of my writing group about this site. Not sure if our dear and mutual friend Connie has had time to visit yet, but I know she will soon. I am wondering about the importance of creating a website and other e-marketing venues as I am being told that is a valuable component prior to sending out query letters. Just how much marketing of one’s self should an author do?
I am sorry to post a comment probably in the wrong section of your website, but I tried to email you and found that it bounced back. Firstly, I am really praying that you actually read this email, or your secretary does at least, because I wanted to thank you for writing such wonderful, powerful, passionate books, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Reading the Jewel and the Sword of Medina for me was like looking into a crystal ball and looking back in time to what life was like in seventh century Arabia. For me you made these two historical figures into real people and I have to request you please please please do not give up writing a third part to Aisha’s story, as I am sure her story does not end with the Sword of Medina?
I am based in the UK, and I cannot tell you the problem I have had in trying to locate both books. I am disguisted at how many people in this day and age will not open up their minds and read a novel and appreciate it as just that a very wonderfully written story. But as I said you have brought these two people to life for me, and I am now absolutely fascinated with their lives. I am sure if more people in this world would open up their minds and read these novels they would have a better understanding about the wrongs and the rights, the mistakes and the good people make! I truly believe that if more people would read your novels they would accept that every religion has flaws because it is man’s interpretation of what a Mighty Soul, whatever the name of that Mighty soul is.
Please do not let any individuals dissuade you from writing further about Aisha, as I am first on the list waiting to read and learn more. I salute you for the research you have done, for the love you have poured into writing these two books but most of all I am sure that these two individuals Mohammed and Aisha must look down on you and smile, as you have done them both a lot of credit!
Kind regards always
Annie from the UK
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