When people won't give up on you

I get to share some news tomorrow that makes me extremely happy. I found out about it on Friday, and it had me grinning all weekend (although, to be fair, I also got to celebrate the 90th birthday of one of my dearest friends).

Here's the thing. I almost gave up on myself before this happy piece of news came about. 

A couple of years ago, I'd parted ways with my children's literary agent. While I have an agent for my adult work who is beyond patient and wonderful, I wanted to work with someone who focused exclusively on children's books, as it's a small and focused industry. With her help, I signed with someone who seemed just perfect, but who eventually and understandably got very busy with a new venture. I wasn't able to wait months and months for feedback on my manuscripts, and deep down, I knew that the long waits were in no small part because my work wasn't ready. 

After some blistering months of revision, I thought I was ready, and I submitted again to someone I'd met in New York. Someone I admired. Someone who was a good fit for reasons too dull to go into here. A few weeks later, I got a rejection so painful I almost quit.

Jill and I are making a Brenda Bowen sandwich at SCBWI-LATrying to be kind to me, the agent rejected me over the phone. Her reasons were many, and I dutifully wrote them down in neat script so that I would have something to focus on besides just listening to the long, long list of reasons the book sucked. I had to hold my breath when she was talking so that I wouldn't cry out loud. Truly. 

My characters and writing weren't appealing. My world wasn't consistent. I should consider hiring a freelance editor to help me. It would cost $4,000, but it would be worth it. But really, she didn't see an audience for this book. "It was hard for me to get through. I can't imagine who would read it." 

And this is just the beginning. I filled a page with feedback and believe me, this extremely savvy agent didn't have a single positive thing to say about my writing, and some of the things she was saying were so basic, I thought I'd learned them years ago.

It was a low spot, to be sure. After working for a decade on various novels, with three discarded manuscripts in a metaphorical drawer, I was ready to give up. What right did I have to keep hoping to do this after so many years of work without success? What right did I have to keep taking those hours from my family, who deserved my time and attention? I had no answer for those questions, beyond this: What would life feel like without this particular dream in it? 

I'd wanted to do this for so long I couldn't imagine what it would like to step out from under its shadow. Wanting a bit of advice, I reached out to my friend Jill Corcoran, whom I'd met at an SCBWI writing retreat in Los Angeles. She asked me to send her the manuscript and I felt completely embarrassed. I wasn't pitching her. I just wanted to know whether I was a hopeless case. 

That was on a Friday. That weekend, she finished the book and offered me representation. A very big part of me felt not ready. This was the same manuscript that had been found utterly without merit by someone who knows what she's talking about. But Jill reminded me that a lot of it was a matter of taste. Not every book is for every reader, a lesson I learned in a most painful way.

With a small spark of hope reignited, I decided to revise again. And while Jill drew up a list of editors to submit to, I rewrote big parts of the book. I'd lost track of the revisions I'd made to it at that point. In all, I've probably rewritten the entire book completely five times--changing points of view, changing tenses, changing the tone, the speech patterns of one of the protagonists. And there were countless smaller but still significant revisions--moving chapters, cutting scenes, adding new ones. I literally have dozens of versions of the book in my document folders. Dozens and dozens. At one count, I think I'd hit sixty versions. 

After all that, Jill ended up not sending the book to that big list of editors. At the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles a few weeks after we joined forces, she chatted with Arthur Levine, who'd bought my picture book the year before, and who'd heard the opening chapters of this novel at the very same retreat where Jill and I met. He'd asked me to send it even then. Even after all that time, he hadn't forgotten it. Not long afterward, he bought it.

Over the next few months, I revised again, with help from Arthur, Emily Clement, and others on the Scholastic team. So many good things have happened since then ... I am in disbelief over it all and can't wait to share.

Even in my most improbable dreams, I wouldn't have asked for things to turn out this well. I had huge amounts of help and support along the way. My family, my friends, my critique partners, the SCBWI. But without Jill who was willing to believe in a manuscript that needed work, who had such an excess of faith in my writing that some of it made its way back into me, I don't know where I would be. Not here, though. No way.

Everyone writer should have such a guardian angel. Thank you, Jill!