“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

--T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Once again, I’ve begun the process of querying agents to represent my book, Charlotte Dent. To steal a turn of phrase from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, it’s making me feel a wee bit Prufrockian.

Last week, I sent out a small batch of emailed queries to carefully-selected agents who represent material similar to mine (I use AgentQuery.com to find names, then visit the individual agency websites to scope them out and double-check their submission requirements). Email is fast: I’ve already had six rejections. Five form replies, one sweet and encouraging personal reply. This is not an unexpected result -- in the publishing world, the supply of unpublished novels far, far outstrips demand. Agents are deluged with queries and thus only request material they feel passionately about. This week I sent out five more queries -- snail mail this time, printed on crisp white bond paper with sample manuscript pages and the de rigueur self-addressed stamped envelope. I write a good letter. My sample pages are strong; my completed manuscript is very publishable. And yet it’s hard not to feel a wee bit hopeless about this whole process.

I’ve been through this before, with this same novel. Last summer, I sent out the first wave of query letters. Three agents asked to read the full manuscript. Agent #1 read it and declined. Agent #2 was still considering it, when, on August 14th, I received this email from Agent #3:

Dear Morgan,
I'm sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. This summer has been a whirlwind. Are you still looking for representation? I did finish reading and you're a very good writer. There were some things I thought could be trimmed for the sake of pacing and some plot points that could be expanded. But let me know if you're interested in hearing more.
(Agent #3)

I wrote back stating I was very interested, though, as Agent #2 was still considering it, no decisions could be made before hearing from her. Agent #3 replied immediately in a lengthy email about himself and his agency. He was a longtime assistant at the agency -- a very good, very well-respected agency, with a client list I would have been honored to join -- who was just beginning to build his own client list, which he hoped would include me. He concluded his email thusly: “I have already put together a list of editors whom I hope will fall in love with CHARLOTTE.”

Encouraging, no?

I went back to Agent #2 and advised her of Agent #3’s interest. She considered the manuscript for a couple more days, then ultimately (and very graciously) passed. I went back to Agent #3 with the news. On August 22nd, I received the following from him:

Dear Morgan,
Well, I’m sorry the other agent was shortsighted. Never a good feeling for a writer. But a happy day for me. Why don’t I go through the manuscript again and make some notes and then get an editorial letter together so we can discuss possible changes over the phone. It should take me a day or two, so I should have the letter for you Monday at the latest. I can also FedEx the manuscript to you with the notes if that seems helpful. Your initial query letter stated your themes so well and I think those will be my focus with the suggestions.
More soon—
(Agent #3)

Monday came and went with no word from him. On Tuesday, August 28th, I received the following email (titled, “Tomorrow, hopefully…”)

Sorry, I wound up with houseguests this weekend and didn’t finish. I live at the beach and if the weather is nice, you never know who’s going to come knocking.
More soon—
(Agent #3)

Curiously, this was the last I ever heard from him.

Agents are busy creatures. Obviously, current clients take precedence over prospective future clients. So the silence didn’t concern me much at first. I waited two weeks before sending him a quick, casual email, saying I figured he was very busy, and that I was just making sure he hadn’t sent me anything I’d missed. I didn’t hear back.

Another two weeks went by. I fired off another fast email saying I hoped all was well with him. I kept the tone very casual and low-pressure: I vetted the content carefully before hitting “send” to make sure no trace of my growing unease had crept in.

Again, no reply.

Two more weeks. It’d been six weeks since his “Tomorrow, hopefully…” message, so I went ahead and called the agency, because if he’d quit or been fired or was lying in a coma after being hit by a bus, I’d feel awfully foolish about firing emails into the void. Per the receptionist, he was in the office, but was too busy to take my call.

I left a message. He didn’t call me back.

Two more weeks. I knew it was over. Still, I like closure, so I sent one final email, polite and professional and entirely neutral in tone, explaining how I figured the lack of response meant he was no longer interested in my material. I mentioned I’d appreciate confirmation of that from him, so I could submit the book elsewhere.

No reply.

I don’t know what happened on his end. I would suppose, though I have no way of knowing for certain, that he decided he was not as enthusiastic about my book as he initially thought. Okay, fair enough. Not an ideal outcome, but it does happen. A two-sentence email to me along those lines would have let us both off the hook, and while I would have been disappointed, I wouldn’t have borne him any ill will. I’ve been rejected before; I will be rejected again. Life goes on.

This is not the worst story ever told. It’s just a dumb anecdote about someone not behaving in an especially professional manner and causing me some frustration and inconvenience as a result. From his emails, he seemed like a nice guy. He probably is a nice guy.

The only part I regret is this: I got my hopes up. I told family and friends I had good news. This made it far, far worse, because then I had to tell them no, I was wrong, he wasn’t interested after all. It made me feel foolish and desperate.

I hate feeling foolish and desperate.

It’s sort of appropriate, I guess: Charlotte Dent is a book about the film industry, which is another way of saying it’s a book about rejection, about foolishness and desperation, about wild bursts of good fortune that turn sour without explanation. I made some revisions to Charlotte (for his flaws, Agent #3 had some good points about the pacing) and submitted it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, where it reached the semifinals and received a sterling review from Publishers Weekly. So all’s well that ends well, or all’s well that has the potential to end well at some indeterminate point in the future.

As a whole, writers are a fragile and paranoid bunch. I’m aware of this in myself, so I try to remain vigilant against it, because fragility and paranoia are not especially attractive character traits. And yet when things like the incident with Agent #3 happen, it feeds right into that over-sensitivity and fuels the lingering suspicion that this is how the entire publishing industry works, that agents behave like this because they can, because to them, writers are a disposable commodity. I know this isn’t the case, but, as I’m typing up my query letters, so crisp and tidy and careful and hopeful, it’s hard not to feel a little melancholy.

This is the last I’m going to write here about the Great Agent Quest, as I think it’s of limited interest to anyone but myself, and because dwelling on it provides me with too many opportunities to drift into self-pity. Just know the process is ongoing and often frustrating, though I still retain hope the ultimate outcome will be a positive one.

I’ve been a bit starved for new material here since the switch to this new format (keep it under your hat, but I might have been a bit starved pre-migration as well). In the interest of fresh content, starting Monday and continuing through the end of the month, I’m undertaking a character-by-character analysis of Volume Two of Heroes. I’ll take a look at what turned out well (Nathan was pretty cool all season, right up until he gave a lame speech and got riddled with bullets) and what was botched (Peter, dear, I’m looking in your general direction). Hiro will be up to the plate first. That’s Monday.


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