Every year the Pacific Northwest Writers Association holds their summer writers conference at the end of July or the beginning of August. One of the many benefits of the PNWA conference is the ability to meet with literary agents from New York and points beyond. By my second writers conference, I had developed a strategy of talking to as many as three or four agents, usually all of whom would ask for sample chapters of my manuscript.
I never sent out the sample chapters right away. My thinking was — correctly or incorrectly — that everyone who the agents met at the conference would likely be sending in their writing samples in the days following the conference. Maybe if I waited a week or two, I thought, I might avoid the big post-conference pile. By the end of August, though, all my requested materials would be in the hands of the agents and the waiting would begin.
Every year September would be a month of Hope, capital “H”. These weren’t just sample chapters sent out with blind query letters. I had met these agents, pitched my project, and the words of enthusiasm they spoke sparked the inevitable daydreams of landing representation.
September inevitably would pass, October would creep in, and one by one the crushing rejections would come, killing off each parcel of Hope corresponding with each agent packet I’d mailed. Eventually, there were no more queries left unanswered and the bone-crushing sense of defeat seeped in, defeat made all the worse by the weeks of optimistic fantasies that had preceded it.
Perhaps my toughest rejection came after one of my most dramatic agent encounters. I’d just pitched my novel in a one-on-one agent appointment and she’d loved the idea. Looking furtively from side to side, she bent closer and whispered. “I never do this but… Do you have any sample chapters with you?”
By some crazy miracle, I did have a few sample chapters. Every year I printed out sample chapters “just in case,” but I always felt foolish at the end of the conference when those sample chapters remained untouched in my briefcase. Of course agents aren’t going to ask for sample chapters! They tell you as much at the conference. The agents have to fly back to New York. The last thing they want is to lug around piles of paper. That year I almost hadn’t bothered printing anything. Almost.
I surreptitiously slipped the agent my pages as if a drug deal was going down. That, along with samples to four other agents I met at the conference, made me feel success was only steps away.
That September I traveled to London. For ten days I walked and walked. Kensington High Street. Kensington Garden. Hyde Park. Oxford Street. Trafalgar Square. Oxford Street. Covent Garden. Soho. The Theater District. And with all that walking came thinking. Even though I knew it was folly, I daydreamed of book deals, cover art, book signings. It’s positive visualization, right? What is wrong with that?
The final rejection came in the middle of October. (I do miss the days when rejection letters came in your physical mail box, when at least you could mentally prepare for their arrival.) I was in a restaurant having lunch with my parents, who were visiting Seattle, when the email reached me. It was from the agent who had taken my chapters at the one-on-one meeting. Two months had passed and by then I’d guessed the outcome. But Hope was strong. What made it worse was that I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was slump under the table and curl into a fetal position. That would have been, I don’t know, awkward.
That day, like I did every year when the last PNWA conference rejection came, I asked myself: Why am I doing this again? Is this really worth all the pain?
I’d think about all the countless hours I’d spent writing and think, Why? Why am I torturing myself? Am I just wasting my time?
So I quit writing. Then what? I’d mentally projected ahead five, ten, twenty years into the future, when I’d realized there was something missing in my life. An emptiness that would at first be unrecognizable until I realized… Writing! I haven’t been writing. I must start writing again!
Then I’d think back on all those imagined years that I hadn’t been writing, years wasted! I’d be sick to my stomach with grief at the lost opportunity. Why had I given up? Because a handful of agents hadn’t taken me on as one of their clients? That didn’t mean my writing sucked. It didn’t mean what I was doing wasn’t worth while. It meant that those agents weren’t part of the path to my success.
Then I’d be back in the moment, still heartbroken by the recent rejection, but understanding that, in the end, I’d feel worse if I stopped writing than if I persevered through the pain. There was a moment in every successful author’s journey when they were not a successful author. They eventually made it because they performed through the pain.
Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.