File It Under H: Heartbreak, Hope and the Holy Grail of Publishing
Something sent me to my old file drawer today; I was looking for an address of an agent for a friend, and I knew I’d queried that agent in the past. In my files, I pulled out a dog-eared, overstuffed, tear-stained file folder.
I remember creating that file, when I sent out my initial three agent queries for my first manuscript. I’m a fairly organized person, but for some reason I didn’t take the time to type out a label. This file folder bears one Sharpie-squiggled word on the tab: QUERIES.
And in it, I shoved a heck of a lot of heartbreak. But that’s not all that’s in that folder. There’s something else between those tattered edges. Something magical, something elusive, something that begs to be shared.
I started querying editors and agents in the early months of 2000. A copy of every one of my letters can be found in that file. So neat, and, yes, so overwritten. In the beginning, my manuscript was called STARSTRUCK. How appropriate. Here I am, agents, your next star! It’s all there’the clever opening line, the pithy one-graph storyline, the take-me-seriously bio, the plea.
The letters are individualized and customized; they are typo-free, right-hand justified, and oozing with optimism. As the quantity of queries increases in the file, the letters evolve. I changed the title of the book. I re-ordered the paragraphs of my query. I stopped comparing myself to other writers and started referring to our recent meeting at a conference. I boasted about contest wins. I tried funny. I tried dry. I tried straightforward and businesslike. I tried. I tried. And I tried. I tried so freaking hard it hurts to remember how hard I tried.
Behind all those copies of my letters, separated by lists of names and notes, is the big fat section of real heartbreak.
The colors of the letterhead vary, the quality of the type is sporadic. Some are sloppy copies, and some are clean originals, but the message is consistent: Not at this time...your story is original, but not for us...thank you but we regret that...we are not seeking unpublished clients...not sufficiently enthusiastic....pardon the impersonal nature, but...I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on this one...and my favorite ‘ arriving two years and seven months after sending the query’sorry for the delay in responding.
Let me tell you something, writers. I loved going through that file. It was a snapshot of my tenacity, a testament to persistence, a two-inch think monument to one woman’s stubborn refusal to take no for an answer.
Just behind that file, hanging so close that the two pendaflex folders practically kiss, is another neatly tabbed section of my life. This untyped label says: CONTRACTS. In it, dated twenty-seven months from the date of my first query letter, is my very first contract. Behind that juicy legal-sized document are several more just like it. All signed. All sold. Money sent and (you can bet) spent.
So, this afternoon, I sat on my office floor and read every one of those rejection letters again. The vast majority ‘ about thirty ‘ were from agents. All were in response to a manuscript which has yet to sell. (Hmmm. Maybe they were on to something.) Tears threatened to dislodge my contacts, as the old ache returned. Like when I occasionally read a passage from MORNING GLORY, just to revel in the emotion of LaVyrle Spencer, just to feel that tug at my heart and know I’m human. Yes, I cried. I cried to remember how it felt to stand in my driveway, ripping open an envelope that I had typed, but a nameless secretary mailed. And the words were just too familiar. Thank you for your submission, however’. That hard knot would form in my throat as I sweat in the afternoon humidity, the relentless Florida sun grinding me into the asphalt like some giant, imaginary heel ‘you can’t do this’you can’t achieve this’you’re dreamin’, girlie.
And every time, I’d return to the air conditioned comfort of my home to quietly slip the rejection into my QUERIES file. And I’d seek my solace. I’d turn to my husband and my kids for humor and comfort, for validation of my skills. At night, alone, I’d release the tears, but never the confidence that had gone with that original query. Never, never my dream.
The next day, I’d write another letter and slip in one more ounce of optimism. The supply, I learned, is never-ending.
One day, my self-addressed envelope didn’t boomerang back at me. Instead, I received a call; someone heard my voice. Literally. And liked it. And nearly a year later, I answered another call. The one that I’d imagined. The one that I’d role-played a thousand times. The call I knew would come if I continued to write and work and believe. The QUERY file was closed.
Until today, when I had reason to open the file and retrace my steps over that steep, dangerous, winding, poorly-marked, but irresistible road to publication. Revisiting that brief but difficult journey made me want to share that experience with my chaptermates and friends. It made me want to repeat ‘ no, no, to holler at the top of my lungs ‘ my mantra: Persistence and determination and tenacity and sheer bulldoggedness are as important as talent in this business.
Did you hear me?
In the back of the file, I found a yellowed cartoon I’d clipped from the newspaper. It’s Snoopy, opening his mailbox. Dear Contributor, states the letter he reads. We are returning your stupid story. You are a terrible writer. Why do you bother us? We wouldn’t buy one of your stories if you paid us. Leave us alone. Drop dead. Get lost. In the last square, Snoopy rests on his doghouse. Probably a form rejection slip, he thinks.
Oh, yeah. Snoopy knows where to file that rejection. His dream is protected, his heart is in tact. File that letter under H for Hope, that dream-sustaining elixir, the Holy Grail of publishing.