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How Long Does it Take (to find an agent? sell the book? get published?)

February 15, 2012 Agents, Editors, Publishing, Writing 24 Comments

By Randy Susan Meyers

Recently, a thread in an online writer’s community popped up, beginning with someone (who hadn’t begun querying) asking why folks sent query letters to so many agents.

Did they have that many “dream agents?

Why not send to just one or two top choices?

And, really, how long does it take?

Answers flew in—achingly honest and reminiscent of everyone’s distant and not-at-all-distant (often painful) publishing journeys.  I thought back to how long it took me.

The answer? You got some time?

My published-too-young book: In my twenties, I co-wrote a nonfiction book (under my former—married—name, Randy Meyers Wolfson) Couples With Children. Co-author Virginia DeLuca and I, in our work with pregnant and post-partum women, saw that suddenly shaky marriages were of more concern than diapers. And we wanted to write. We bought How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum, wrote a proposal and a sample chapter, sent it off and shortly thereafter had a contract. I won’t go into the many mistakes we made after that (the only thing we did right was selling the book) but this ‘easy’ sell offered (extraordinarily) undeserved confidence.

Soon after, I got divorced. Now I was a single mother and talking about marriage and children seemed, um… embarrassing to say the least. And fiction was really my love. The nonfiction Couples With Children was left to languish.

In between raising kids, badly-chosen men, working in human services by day, and bartending by night, I co-wrote Novels 1 & 2 with Ginny: Two mysteries. Got an agent. We thought we had a series. Didn’t sell books.

Moving on, still submerged in bad men and fantasy, still not applying myself to learning the deeper tenets of writing fiction, and skating on sheer want, I wrote Novel 3, which should have been titled: The Book That Helped Me Pretend I Wasn’t Screwing Up, My Life By Mythologizing It.

No agent. No sale. No memory if I wrote a query. Probably not, because a friend insisted on sending it to his wife’s cousin-the-writer, who called it… execrable? Deplorable? Tripe? He didn’t soften the slam by deeming it poetic or lyrical. Because it wasn’t.

Got depressed.

Had a drink or ten.

Thank goodness I had that inappropriate guy to lean on!

Fast forward: Sent kids through college. Lost bad guy/s. Found good one. Got serious about writing. Embarked on my homemade MFA and wrote my trilogy:

Novel 4:

Dove in. Joined a writer’s group. Finished. Got an agent. As soon as she put it out for submission, I began writing:

Novel 5:

Showed it to said agent. She liked it so much that she replaced the now-limping and ten-times rejected # 4 (are you still with me) with newly minted # 5. And I began writing:

Novel 6:

 Showed a bit to agent. She loved it. Said keep going! Meanwhile, she kept trotting out #5 to a few editors.

Then my agent turned more attention to representing a different genreand it seemed right for us to part ways. Leaving this agent was wrenching. The ‘bird in the hand’ theory pulled, but I felt a sweet spot with # 6, and felt that I needed the right person to represent it (aware many would find it dark.)

No hard feelings, a virtual handshake goodbye, and agent and I said goodbye.

Back out on the agent-hunting circuit, feeling like a confused divorcee. (Do I talk about the ex? Pretend it never happened?)

Six months later I signed with new (wonderful and current) agent. She read. She edited. I revised. She sold #6 (The Murderer’s Daughters) in 8 days.

How long did it take to sell my debut novel from when I began writing fiction?

20+ years

Six novels

Three agents

What I learned:

1) To take heart from positive words embedded in rejections and believe the good things they said about my writing. Believe when they said ‘the work just wasn’t for them.’ To take their criticisms seriously and pay attention to ideas generously passed on. (Well, not the one that said, “she was so over domestic violence.)

2) To believe that writing, like any craft, requires honing, and not to beat myself up over unsold books. They weren’t wasted time—they were my education. I doubt Georgia O’Keefe sold her first paintings. Or Grandma Moses, who I feared I might pass in ‘firsts.’

3) To surround myself with supportive writer friends and take heart from their success (even when I felt green and evil.)

4) To learn when to fold them.

5) To know when to hold on.

6) To realize there is no such thing as a pre-met ‘dream agent’ anymore than there is a pre-met ‘dream husband.’ The dream agent is the one who loves your book—because s/he’ll make your dreams come true. You’ll know them when you find them.

I held on through years of rejection, chanting the old joke:

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, practice, practice.

Getting my craft to match my passion and thoughts took many years. I would never have said it back then, at my personal ground zero, but I’m happy that it worked out as it did. The Murderer’s Daughters was the right book for me to debut with. Had I sold any previous novel, I don’t think I would have ended up feeling as right as I did.

I think, like with a partner, when you have the right material, there’s a magic click, and you fall in love—whether it takes six books or sixteen years on one book.

Maybe that’s how long it takes. As long as it takes to feel the click, and have someone else agree.

And now, making up for lost time, I just turned in Novel # 7, (The Comfort of Lies) and am on chapter 7 of Novel # 8, working with, yes, my dream editor at Atria Books.




Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. Whenever you talk about your path to publication and lay bare much much writing you did, persistently, I’m wowed by you all over again.

    Great answer to the question, How long does it take…. Which I’m so glad I didn’t know when I first began writing.

  2. Sue Katz says:

    As always, Randy, an honest, clear and lovely piece. Thanks.

  3. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Randy —
    I know I’m speaking for so many writers out there when I say THANK YOU.

  4. Erika Robuck says:

    Thank you for your honesty. This is the truth. I’m so glad I didn’t know this when I started a decade ago.

    I can’t wait for the next novel! :)

  5. This is so helpful and hopeful. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this post. So inspiring.

  7. S. Pinneo says:

    I’m so happy for you. Also, I needed to read this. You never know “where you are” on your publishing road. I am going to stop trying to guess.

  8. Joan Mora says:

    I needed to hear this today! Thanks for sharing–no, it mustn’t have been easy to write. My favorite line: “The dream agent is the one who loves your book—because s/he’ll make your dreams come true.”

  9. Chris Jones says:

    So it takes as long as it takes. Got it.

    Interesting how the appropriate man helped find the real writer in you. I don’t think that’s coincidental. Writing is so much harder than people think; having the right support, from all quarters, makes a critical difference. Glad you’re working on #8. Can’t wait.

  10. Julie Wu Julie Wu says:

    Great post, Randy! I think non-writers are the most surprised by how very long it can take to publish that first novel. I went/am going the 10-years-on-one-novel route. Like you, I’m now glad, because if it had sold 6 years ago it would have been a much lesser book that I might eventually have found embarrassing. More importantly, I wouldn’t have had the experience of making it the best it can be. Rejection hurts, but, as you say, listening carefully to those rejections can be a valuable opportunity to grow.

  11. Randy,
    I’m deeply appreciative that you took the time and had the courage to detail your particular “long and winding road.” I too, as someone else said, will stop wondering where I am on my way to publishing and keep doing the work. Surrounding myself with other writers and believing the good parts of the rejections is the feels just right now. The most helpful line for me was the ignore the “so over domestic violence.” the one I have too ignore is “too introspective”- the depth that readers have loved! You give back SO much.

  12. K. Lyn Wurth says:

    Randy, this line sings for me: ” They weren’t wasted time —they were my educaton.” Thanks for the encouragement, just as I begin revision of my fifth novel manuscript. With each new page, I understand and appreciate the value of all those unpublished words, as I learn to do the best work of my life…

  13. Kate Flora says:

    We all cheered when Charlaine Harris became an overnight success after 25 years and two series. I tell aspiring writers two things…you have to have the hide of an alligator, because there’s so much rejection in this business, and you have believe deeply in your own work, because no one will value it as much as you do. And a third…I suppose…don’t quit your day job, or marry someone with benefits.

    I only spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner…and as you say…they were the learning years. As are the years when things go badly and we’re forced to take chances. Sometimes those chances lead us in important directions.

  14. Honest and inspiring, as always, Randy. Thanks!

  15. Randy Susan Meyers randysusanmeyers says:

    “At the risk of sounding quite overly dramatic,” she said, sighing at her use of dialog tags and modifiers, “the comments made me actually teary.”

    This was a hard post to to write–thank you all.

  16. Fantastic post! A toast to your tenacity! Thank you for sharing this story.

  17. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie Ebbert says:

    I really needed to hear this right now! Gorgeous post. Thanks, Randy.

  18. Rita Arens says:

    It’s so interesting to read this. When I reviewed your book, I wrote it didn’t feel like a debut novel, and now I know why. :)

    I wrote a novel in my twenties. It was terrible. Then I edited Sleep is for the Weak, which was a nonfiction parenting anthology (and about the only thing I did right was get published). Then I wrote a picture book, couldn’t find an agent. Then I wrote a YA novel, for which I’ve found an agent. I always wonder what I should do if he can’t sell my novel. After reading this, I think I suck it up and write another novel, whether or not this novel sells. It’s a horrific road, isn’t it? But you’ve got to do it anyway.

  19. Tracy Strauss says:

    Randy, this is an encouraging and real account of the reality of being a writer. I really appreciated this essay for its honesty and persistence and drive in the face of all the obstacles you encountered on your path to success. Many people think that publishing is a “1-2-3 Deal!” kind of quick endeavor, and maybe for a handful of lucky few it is, but for most writers it’s a lot more complicated. It takes a thick skin, and a real commitment to the years of continual hard work involved in writing and publishing a book. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Keep your eyes on the prize. And other important missives.

  20. Amy Jarecki says:

    Oh my gosh, thanks for sharing. It sounds so familiar, so heart wrenching, but true to life. How would we come up with such great material otherwise?


  21. Necee Regis Necee says:

    Randy–I’m getting caught up on my BTM reading after being away last week. THANKS for this! Like others have said, it’s just what I needed. Need.

  22. Thank you so much for writing this post, Randy, and for sharing it! I think my journey is turning out very similar, though I haven’t gotten to the reward yet. Here’s to perseverance. I am deeply inspired by yours. Thank you!

  23. BubbleCow says:

    I take a different view on agents. I don’t actually think it is important an agent loves your book. Instead, I think it is important that an agent sees commercial potential in your book. An agent’s job should be all about the money. A good agent is one that finds you an agent, negotiates a good deal and chases your publisher when they are slow to play.


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Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers
The dark drama of Randy Susan Meyers’ debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, published by St. Martins Press in January 2010, is informed by her years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence. She was raised by books, in Brooklyn, where she could walk to the library daily. Each book she read added to her sense of who she could be in this world. Reading In Cold Blood at too tender an age assured that she’d never stay alone in a country house. Biographies of women like Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackwell opened doors to another world and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn taught her faith in the future. Each time she read it, she was struck anew by how the author Betty Smith knew so much and dared to write it. Read Full