Jeaniene Frost (frost_light) wrote,
Jeaniene Frost

Rejection, Rudy, and no regrets.

I get asked a lot about how I landed my first agent/contract. To help me with illustrating, I'm using the movie Rudy. It's where a young college boy longs more than anything to go to Notre Dame and make the football team. For those of you who've seen it, you'll understand my parallels. Those who haven't, well, rent it and then come back ;)

At the beginning of the movie, we learn how Rudy is obsessed with the lore and legacy of Notre Dame football. More than anything, he wants to make the team. Problem is, he's short, not very athletic, and doesn't have the grades to get into Notre Dame (in my case, I've never been to college, I'm not gloriously gifted with intelligence, and I don't have ANY 'in' with the publishing world). So Rudy goes to a local college and studies his ass off, also trying to get into shape for that magical day when Notre Dame will approve his transfer to their campus. (read: I buy books on writing, try to figure out what the hell is a 'good' query letter, and hunt down agents in my genre).

Every semester, Rudy applies to Notre Dame (or I send out multiple query letters and sample pages to agencies). Every semester, Rudy is turned down (or I get back those dreaded form letter rejections). No one in Rudy's family thinks he has a chance. Neither do his few friends (for me, it was hearing lots of "writing is a nice hobby"). But Rudy is determined, despite the odds (and so was I. Or more accurately, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was already unpublished, right? So there was only one way to go from there).

Rudy would get his rejections on good days and bad ones. So would I. Rejection has no mercy for timing. One day sticks out in particular: I had a blasting migraine, and I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital where we were going to have to take my grandmother off life support. Why I stopped by the mail box first, I'll never know, but I did...and found not one, but two rejection letters from places I'd thought were 'sure things'. I'd been querying for about a year then, and that day, I almost gave up for good. However, my grandmother hadn't let a paralyzing stroke ruin the last eleven years of her life, so I decided I couldn't quit so easily, either. I kept revising my novel and query letters, and kept sending more out into the field. About three months later, out of a batch of five I'd recently sent, three came back with form rejections...and two were requests for more.

Let's jump back to the movie. Remember when Rudy opened that letter from Notre Dame, knowing if it was a rejection, he'd miss his last chance to transfer in time for football try-outs? How he sat on a bench outside, read their acceptance out loud, and started to cry? Well, when I opened the email from an agent who'd rejected me before and who I only sent to again because I figured it couldn't get any worse...and saw her reply asking for my full manuscript, yes, I teared up. For Rudy, his chance was being accepted into the college where his beloved team played. For me, it was having an agent read my book for possible representation. I sent my manuscript off to the agent. As a side treat, just a few days later, a small-press publisher also requested my full. I was delighted.
And then after a few weeks, the agent sent me a detailed reply saying that while she liked my characters and my writing 'voice', my book wasn't strong enough. She cited several reasons why. Ow, ow, ow! Think Rudy being bashed around in football try-outs by all the bigger, more athletic players. But at the end of her critique, the agent invited me to resubmit if I wanted to revise. Here is where my reaction was different from Rudy picking himself up and going right back at it without complaint. My first instinct was to email the agent back and tell her how WRONG she was, because my book was perfect, perfect! (yes, I was young and foolish ;).

However...I took a deep breath, emailed her instead thanking her for her time, and then later that night, looked at her critique with my wounded ego locked up. I decided to revise (cue me being like Rudy again, getting up to go back for more abuse). A few weeks later, I sent my amended book off to the agent, confident she would sign me.

To summarize her response: Better, but still not good enough. I was awash in disappointment, but I said Serenity Now! several times and once more thanked her while promising to fix all that was still wrong. I revised again (flash to Rudy getting pummeled by the merciless linebackers), and when I sent it to her a couple weeks later, I was positive this version was a winner.

Her response? Not quite there yet...

In my newbie immaturity, I confess to wondering if she was a sadist just tormenting me for her own amusement (of course, I know now that agents are far too busy to do that). The ironic part? Later that day, the small-press publisher who'd requested my manuscript called me to tell me they LOVED it and wanted to publish it - in its original form. So, I had an agent who didn't want me yet, but a publisher who did. It was instant gratification versus more uncertainty. My family didn't get my hesitation, either. "You want to get published, here's your chance!" was the paraphrased version I heard from them.

I was torn over what to do. The publisher was legit - no fees, no scams, no hidden cost-sharing. But the initial print run would be very small, and furthermore, after revising twice, I didn't like my original version anymore. So, with a lot of fear over burning a bridge behind me and possibly kicking myself for the rest of my life, I told the publisher no. And I revised my novel again, sending it off to the agent a third time.

Six weeks later, she said yes. Cue the Notre Dame coach telling Rudy he's made the team.

The next three months, I'll compare to the part of the movie where Rudy was a member of Notre Dame football team - and no one but him really cared. His family didn't get to see him on TV, because Rudy wasn't a starter. So, he practiced with the team, but never got to play in the games, which made it not 'real' to them. Rudy's coach promised him that one day, he'd let Rudy dress and run out onto the field so everyone could see him as an official Notre Dame team member (much like my new agent told me she thought she could sell my book). But as in life, there were complications. In the movie, Rudy's coach retired in the middle of the season and another one took over. Rudy didn't know if this new coach would let him play, still, he trained every week with the team.

Time stretches. Rudy gets despondent. At one particularly low moment, he bitterly wonders if all his efforts have been a waste of time. But with the help of his teammates (in my example, it was my agent sending my book out to several editors), the news finally comes. Rudy will dress and run out onto the field in the last game, showing everyone that he's accomplished his dream of being a Notre Dame football player. And for me, my agent, away at a conference, emailed me to tell me that a two-book deal was offered for my novel by Erika Tsang of Avon/HarperCollins. Erika loved Halfway to the Grave so much, she offered a deal before she'd even finished reading it (not kidding - Erika swears to this).

My contract with HarperCollins felt similar to Rudy finally running onto the field of the school he loved to be counted amongst people he'd grown up admiring - the Notre Dame football team. For me, my team was the publishing world, and I had my chance to be counted amongst the people I'd grown up admiring: authors. It was more than worth what it took to get there. Now, of course, I'm hoping/dreaming the rest of my story will be similar to Rudy's -  that I'll get time to play on the field, sack the quarterback (or the odds against being a successful writer), and maybe even get hoisted on my friend's shoulders at the end of a job well done.

I'm not done dreaming yet :)

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