If you’ve been around this business for even the shortest amount of time, you have heard people talk about THE call. It’s the call every writer dreams of. The call where an agent, a real-life professional in the publishing industry, calls you, the fabulous but vastly underappreciated writer, to offer representation. In this dream scenario, the agent gushes about your talent, raves about your story, and insists that your manuscript will sell immediately! And the agent is amazing. She has a great track record in your genre, and is a wonderful communicator. All of her clients love her. She’s editorial, professional, and as a bonus, funny! She is everything you’ve ever dreamed of and more, except…
…THE call never goes exactly like that. At least, none of mine did. I have had throughout my writing career, for various reasons, phone conversations with 5 different agents. And while all of the agents were lovely and amazing in their own way, none of them were perfect. And none of them thought my work was perfect. In fact, I think I would have been hesitant if they tried to say it was.
Recently, because of the release of my debut middle grade novel, Annie B., Made for TV, I’ve been reflecting on one of those agent phone calls. It was a call that I really and truly believed would lead to THE call, but things didn’t go as planned. It was, however, THE CALL that changed the trajectory of this novel, and helped shape it into the story it is today. So I’m sharing it with you because it illustrates what a wild and crazy ride the submission process can be. And also because before I was agented, I was fascinated by all the details of agent relationships. So if you’re like me, enjoy!
I originally wrote the Annie B. character in a picture book. But every single critique I got said the same thing. The main character reads older. Have you thought about writing a chapter book instead? Okay, I thought, I can try a chapter book! I wrote it (all 10,000 words) and queried a few agents. I got full requests from two of them and sent them out. Six weeks later I got an email back from one saying that she loved the voice in the manuscript. She stated very clearly that she was NOT going to offer representation, but wondered if I might want to chat about the story and hear some of her thoughts for how to improve it.
Whoa. Um, yes please! Now, I definitely wanted revision notes and her thoughts on my work, but let’s be honest here…in the mind of every writer is the thought that maybe, just possibly, that critique will turn into an offer, am-I-right? That’s why we love those conference critiques so much. Because it represents possibility. The possibility that the person reading our work and giving us feedback will say, “I love this! Send it to me!” And that’s ultimately what I was hoping for. That she would give me notes, I would revise, and she would become my agent. Here’s what happened…
She gave me notes. Lots of wonderful, challenging but spot-on, notes. Her biggest one was that I should turn it into a middle grade novel. She said it was like a quaint little single-story house, but thought it had the potential to be a spacious, valuable, two-story home. She also gave me suggestions for changing the title to give it more of a hook and leave open series potential. I left the phone call excited to write my first middle grade novel, and hopeful that I could send it to this agent when it was finished.
Then, a few weeks later, a curveball. I received an offer on a picture book manuscript I had sent to Sterling months ago. The book would become Maurice the Unbeastly. Now I had an unfinished MG, and an offer on a PB. So I decide to go back to the agent who called me to see if she might want to represent me in this deal. The revision wasn’t finished, but she already likes my writing, and now with an offer in hand, how could she say no? But guess what?
She. Said. No.
She said a lot of other things, including that Annie was the best voice she’d read in a MG in a long time. But I couldn’t hear that part. All I heard was NO. That rejection hurt probably more than any other I have experienced. I felt pathetic. I couldn’t even get an agent when I walked up to her and handed her a deal? I must be terrible. Nevermind that she loved the voice in my manuscript so much that she took the time to call and give notes to someone who is not her client. In that moment, I couldn’t see the positive. I had my hopes up pretty high for sure, and boy did I come crashing down.
So then what? Well, I couldn’t see it at the time, but cutting that thread was one of the best things that happened for Annie B. After I stopped chatting with the agent, I was able to finish the revision without the pressure of an agent relationship riding on it. It was freeing, and the manuscript benefited from it. And the real happy ending of the story is, of course, that I signed with a different agent and Annie B., Made for TV sold to Running Press Kids! In the middle of final edits, I sent THE CALL agent a note thanking her for her pivotal role in developing this story. It was a lovely exchange.
So the next time you see a Facebook post asking, “If the agent is calling me, it means they’re offering representation, right?” you can share this story. Not every call with an agent is THE call. But hopefully, it will be THE CALL that pushes you one step further toward your ultimate goal.