The Silver Lining | From inspiration to agent: my journey

I promised I’d post the story of how I got my agent.

This story probably starts way back when my other novel, THE ART OF SELLING MY SISTER, was on submission. I had gotten some close calls on that one. I mean thisclose. Frustratingly, heartbreakingly close. More than one editor loved it enough to try to buy it. Except the marketing departments were concerned that it wasn’t "big enough to stand out on their tight list."

To which I said to myself, "HA! Next time I’ll write a novel that IS big enough! So commercial and high-concept they can’t possibly turn it down!" This was actually easier than it sounds since I already sort of had an idea what how I could accomplish this. I was inspired by several things: 1) 10 Things I Hate About You became a TV show on ABC Family. I loved the original movie and I particularly loved that it was a contemporary retelling of a classic story. 2) Gregory Maguire’s series of fairy tales told from the villain’s POV. I thought it was brilliant marketing and author branding and I wanted to do something like that but different enough to be my own spin. I thought something like that might make me stand out to the marketing department without me being an already established name. 3) Books like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES started getting a lot of buzz. Retellings were in style. Not only that, I started seeing more of them selling on Publisher’s Marketplace. I knew this was something I could do to set myself apart and so I started mulling over ideas on what I could write. I was originally going to write a retelling of Robin Hood with Robin as a girl but I discovered some of the plot element ideas I had were already done in a Devon Sawa movie. Doh! 4) Sci-Fi aired a science fiction retelling of The Wizard of Oz called Tinman and I loved the creativity of it. They really made it their own while still sticking to the plot of the original. 5) I made a New Years Resolution to read more classic novels and when I was at my parents house one day, I found my old copy of Alice In Wonderland and dove in. 6) And then there’s just the usual inspiration such as I love to write and read contemporary (and I was getting really burnt out on paranormal), I love fun and quirky characters, and one of my strong suits is writing humor.

As I was reading the original Alice, I started to realize that it could work really well as a non-fantasy novel set in high school. I got excited by the idea and immediately went to research if it had been done before. I was shocked to discover it hadn’t. There were tons of retellings but all of them fantasy or sci-fi based. Nothing truly contemporary. This was it! I had a marketable angle for the story and I could make it my own! I ran a logline by my crit partners and got the obligatory "OOOH! You better start writing immediately so I can read it!" response. I fell in love with the idea.

Too bad I wrote it completely wrong in the first draft. Now, I admit, I didn’t put that much effort into researching the original as I should have. I got the idea about two weeks before nanowrimo and wrote an outline. But it was a quick outline and I was working crazy hours since October/November is always my busiest time of year. There had been a short story of mine that I loved but never was able to sell and I based my retelling angle off of it. It involved fake IDs to alter Alice’s identity instead of growing and shrinking. But I learned very quickly that what I was writing wasn’t working. I would take single sentences from the original book and develop them into full chapters. Most of my adaptations were metaphorical, not literal. I was 30k into the book and still only on chapter 2 of the original. FAIL.

I read a whole bunch of retellings and figured out what was wrong with mine. I had to be more literal with my retelling elements. Each iconic scene from the original needed to be immediately recognizable in my version. I also needed a more coherent retelling angle to tie my plot together with the original plot. (And yeah, I still kind of needed a PLOT not a collection of scenes like before.) What did my Alice want? That was the key question. After some advice from readers, I threw out everything I had so far and started over. I decided to become an expert in all things Alice and Lewis Carroll to figure out a better angle for the retelling. I read the original about ten times. I studied Lewis Carroll’s life. I learned all about the real life Alice’s family history. And sometime during all this, I realized something. In the original book all Alice wants is to get inside the beautiful garden.

Suddenly it all clicked into place. I’d been wanting to write a book about teenage environmental vigilantes for a long time. At one point, I actually wrote 10k of a story about a girl who starts a fake secret society at her school as a way to trick the other students into helping her do philanthropy stuff. I abandoned that story for a number of reasons but I realized the two basic ideas: students doing environmental good deeds but in illegal ways, and a fake secret society could work really well with an Alice retelling. Several scenes came to me immediately upon coming up with the angle. The pool of tears, the baby turning into a pig, and several others. I was excited. I started outlining by writing the original scenes and how I could adapt them in my version. It all fit together so well!

I went through the usual revise, critique, revise (wash, rinse, repeat) process and was getting ready to send it to my former agent. Except before I could, she stopped agenting and I was orphaned.

But it was OKAY because I had a shiny new book that was super marketable. I’m a glass-half-full person so I saw this as a good thing. I tried not to worry about it. I did have to take some time off from polishing the manuscript for a teensy weensy minor thing that took up all my free time for several months: planning a wedding, getting married, and going on my honeymoon.

I wrote the query rather quickly. I think I only went through two versions of it before my CPs declared it good to go. I’m the rare breed of writer that actually LOVES to write query blurbs and it’s another thing I’m very good at. This might be because I don’t start writing a book unless I have a super hooky logline. But I’ve also had a lot of experience writing pitches for the day job and critiquing other people’s letters that have gone on to receive representation.

So I was pretty confident in my query letter and I wasn’t disappointed by my near 95% request rate. I sent about 30 queries total during the process. At the beginning I received a few rejections that were all very complimentary (love the voice, love the premise, love the characters), but they had vague reasons for rejection "I didn’t connect as much as I would have liked" or "I didn’t fall in love." I thought maybe it was subjective and I would find an agent who did connect and did love it.

I remember the day I was researching agents and I found Sarah LaPolla’s blog. She had written a blog post where she said these two things about contest entries:

"My love of "fractured fairy tales" is what won me over with this one. I also like the idea of a taking a lesser known fairy tale character and creating an entire story from his perspective."

"Like the previous pitch, this one grabbed me because of its attempt to put fantastical characters into a more realistic setting."

I seriously stared at the screen thinking, OMG, this agent is perfect for me! She was basically describing my book exactly. Fractured fairy tales. Putting a fantastical character into a more realistic setting. I couldn’t believe it.

Of course, I sent a query to her immediately and had a very good feeling about it, mostly because I hoped my book was exactly what she was looking for. She requested the full and I sent that off while keeping my fingers crossed.

Flash forward a few weeks and I get a lovely email from Sarah. In it, she explained that she loved the voice and a lot of the plot elements but she had trouble connecting to Alice in the beginning of the novel but wanted me to revise and send it back to her. Unlike the other agents who had rejected for "not connecting" she had ideas on how to fix the problem. Awesome ideas, I might add. Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. THIS was what was wrong with the book. It wasn’t a subjective thing or a generic rejection. Alice wasn’t likable enough in the early chapters. Huzzah! I could fix this. And I loved all her ideas for fixing it. They sparked some more ideas for me and I knew what I had to do. I had to rewrite the first two chapters from scratch. Alice needed to be more active, needed to be "victimized" by her friendships so the reader had a reason to feel bad for her. I also wanted Alice to sacrifice herself and take the blame for something while letting her friends escape scot free in a Save The Cat method. Because people who do selfless things are sympathetic. Sarah also had a few other ideas that I incorporated.

I really loved the way the new opening came out and it got the thumbs up for my crit partners but I was still worried when I sent it back that it would be a rejection. I’ve seen lots of writers get R&Rs that came back as rejections. It happened to me also during this query process. So my glass-half-full attitude went a little glass-half-way. Some days I’d be optimistic and other days I’d be pessimistic.

But then I got an email from a different agent saying she was halfway through the novel and loving it and would get back to me soon. The optimism returned and I waited as patiently as possible for the answers from both agents.

Both ended up offering within a day of each other completely independently. I talked to both on the phone and Sarah’s vision for the book completely matched mine. I LOVED her other revision ideas and couldn’t wait to get started on them. The other agent was awesome as well but I had just been so impressed by Sarah for figuring out how to fix something in the book that I was too close to the text to see. And I liked Sarah’s submission strategy and vision. It wasn’t a difficult decision to decide to sign with her. I knew it back in July when I first found that blog post!

So 27 partials and fulls. 3 R&Rs (though one I turned down because I disagreed with most of it. That’s rare for me. My philosophy on revisions is that I’d rather sell with something that doesn’t quite match my vision than stick to my guns and get stuck with it in a drawer forever. Not only that but because I work in a creative field in my day job, I’m used to working with clients and doing multiple rounds of revisions. Sometimes I agree with the changes, sometimes I don’t. I have no choice either way, I have to do what the client wants. It’s led to me being very agreeable and desensitized to any changes I might have to do. This is why I feel so lucky that Sarah shares my vision! I don’t have to compromise it!!). 2 offers.

That’s my journey! 

Here’s the query blurb of the book:
Sixteen-year-old Alice suppresses her need for rebellion after a petition to start a farmer’s market receives more snickers than signatures. That is until Whitney Lapin, a girl who speaks in cryptic riddles and spends her free time turning abandoned warehouses into beautiful gardens, leads her on a rabbit trail into the underground–aka secret society–of Wonderland High. Curiouser and curiouser.

Even though Whitney’s group of teenage environmental vigilantes operates on the wrong side of the law, Alice has never felt more free to be herself. Soon she stomps on her good girl image by completing a series of environmental pranks to impress them: flooding the school and disguising a pig as a baby in order to smuggle it out of a testing facility. But the group refuses to help with the farmer’s market or reveal their hidden agenda. She wants to trust them, and she especially wants to trust (or maybe kiss) Chester Katz, a boy with a killer smile, a penchant for disappearing, and a secret that will really turn Alice’s word backwards. When one group member tries to frame Alice for all the pranks, she must figure out their secret before she ends up in front of a jury that’s screaming, "Off with her head!"

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12 Responses

  1. OMG! That is just simply crazy and amazing. And the blurb is FANTASTIC! I am so happy for you and I do hope the first book will get another looksee!

    Congratulations! (and yes, I still need to send you an email re: story ideas to throw off of you!)

  2. Inspiring

    Thanks for sharing. It is so cool to see the thought process when it comes to writing ideas and gives some of us at Query Tracker hope for the next book if the present one doesn’t work out.

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