Back in the day, when I was just finishing up The Whispering Ferns for the Delacorte Press contest, I was contacted by an agent out of the blue. She said that my story looked intriguing and that, when it was ready and after the contest deadline had been passed, she would be willing to consider my manuscript. Now, any agent saying this would have been great enough, but this came from a well-respected newer agent, with nothing but good reviews and an excellent client list.
It took a long time to get it there. I re-wrote the beginning, cutting over a thousand words of lead up and added some elements throughout the story as well. I also shattered my right arm and moved cross country to Maine, which contributed to the delay.
Finally, I felt ready. Even better, a few days after sending it, she wrote back and told me that she remembered me and though she was busy, she looked forward to reading my sample chapters.
Man... I confess, I let my imagination get away from me that day. I'm usually pretty reserved in my flights of fancy, but the idea of actually getting an agent occupied my thoughts for days. Off of that simple note from an agent. Ha!
Eventually, for it did indeed take her a while to get back to me, I kind of set the book aside in my mind. I started working on a Post Apocalyptic Crime novel and inched my way towards finishing Graves, I also started drawing again, which has been long overdue. So the waiting was a good thing, no doubt.
When her response did arrive, as I'm sure you've surmised, it was a rejection. But I had expected that. Honest. I may have let my mind wander to happy published fun land, but I figured a rejection would get here eventually. For one thing, no one writes their first book, is approached by an agent and gets that agent with his first ever query letter. If that person exists, there are a lot of aspiring authors out there that want to spit on him or her.
But what a rejection! Polite, personal, chock full of genuinely useful constructive feedback... As much as I wanted to be despondent and give up, this letter wont let me.
So what did she say? That I have a "neat setting" and a "great premise" and that's about the extent of the outright good comments. But that is okay. Who wants a letter full of praise and raves about your book that ends in a rejection?
The important part is what I did wrong, and not only does she point them out in a useful way, but to my surprise, they were exactly the things that I had started questioning myself.
The story starts too slowly. Despite trimming off two full chapters, nothing continues to happen for another few. At the time, I felt this important to build the world and the supporting characters, to immerse the reader in the misty world of Moonstone Bay, but that doesn't work with Middle Grade books, or any modern books for that matter. You want to start with some action, you want to "hook in the young readers." I'll be honest, I didn't do this out of my own stubborness, much to my regret. I hate books that start with some exciting sequence, only to flash back to where the story really starts, just to get the readers attention with a splash. That seems disingenuous to me and often, it is very blatant feeling. However, a book can do this effectively, I just have to figure out how. And with modern readers having a ridiculously short attention span, I don't have a choice.
She also confirmed my earlier suspicion that my story was written in a too old-fashioned a manner. I wrote about this a bit ago, asking whether there was room in today's world for a timeless feeling book. The resounding answer was yes, there is room. That gave me a lot of reassurance and helped me sleep at night, but since my rejection arrived, I've reached a caveat to that statement.
There is room in the modern world for Timeless Books - But they have to be written in a modern style.
I mistakenly believed that because my book had a timeless feeling and setting, that it would still resonate with modern readers, but what I didn't register is that my style of writing is dated. I took a formal storyteller position while writing The Whispering Ferns and it never gives the reader a chance to get into Smith's head, to really join him on his adventures. A novel can be what I want it to be, I'm certain of that, I just have to cater to the audience I'm selling it to, and that is not me as a ten year old. Heck, even when I was ten, they probably weren't designing books with me in mind. I was a weird kid that used to read while he walked home from school, lowering the book between page turns to check whether my path was clear in front of me.
So what does this mean? I think it means I need to re-write the Whispering Ferns from Smith's point of view. I should jump into the action, perhaps even creating an earlier conflict to dive at. I may still send off a few more query letters, if only to keep my hopes up as I dive back into a story that I'd hoped was finally finished.
It's a little disheartening, but I believe in Moonstone Bay and I think it's a world that kids could really enjoy, so if this is what it takes to tell my story, I will happily do it!
And though I'm not sure how much agents like to have their name and words bandied about, I do want to take a second to thank the agent. For her time, her willingness to consider me and Smith and most of all for her feedback. I think it will help me become an author. Someday.