Anatomy of a Book Deal
January 11, 2019 § 59 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
It’s the thing you most need to write, so for years that’s what you do, between teaching jobs and magazine gigs, between kids’ soccer games and the holiday dinners where you sit with the restlessness of the story wanting to be told, most inconveniently when your family expects your presence, but all you can do is wonder if the homemade gravy was worth the hours away from words.
You write and rewrite through the seasons, until autumn circles around again, and you find yourself making a familiar wish on your lovely white cream birthday cake: to finish your memoir and find an editor who takes it.
At last, one autumn day it’s done, and you send out queries, and when the email arrives like a Christmas miracle, your family dances you around the kitchen in the fading winter light. There’s a phone call and a contract and a trip to NYC where you sit across from your spunky agent in a Union Square diner on a custom-made spring day, and between bites of a salad, you whisper your thanks to the literary goddesses.
You go back to Boston and rewrite again, this time with—that magic word—representation. Then the agent sends it out, and you cross your fingers and look for signs—pennies, trinkets, stones, and fortunes—that the publishing world will soon shout yes.
Random House says, “It’s wonderfully written, earnest, humorous, and endearing. The problem is the author’s small platform.”
And Viking says, “I’m sorry not to be able to take it forward at this stage. She’s a compelling writer and something about the voice is quite good.”
And with every “almost, but…no” comes a pain as real as a punch to the gut, one that radiates to the heart, the head, the limbs. But then you recover and dive back in and tweak again and wish again and send again, until your birthday comes around again and your favorite cake tastes less like Chantilly cream and more like longing. You are starting to feel like you are made of longing.
Your writer friends throw lifelines, doing for you what you have done for them, reading and editing, praising, cheering. And you toast to their book deals with a bittersweet joy, wondering if your turn will come. At night in bed you count the years like mistakes. In the morning you scan LinkedIn for a job—any job—that’s not baring your soul into a void.
But then Cynthia says, “It’s no. It’s no. It’s no. Until it’s yes.”
And Erica says, “It took me 27 fucking years!”
And your husband says, “I believe in you,” which makes you cry because you are struggling to believe in yourself.
You are afraid to doubt. You are afraid to hope. And you’re afraid not to hope because the universe can hear the tick of your uncertainty. You plant a crystal in the dirt outside of the Flatiron building, but when nothing grows, you call Lisa in despair. “Trust that your book is strong enough to make the journey,” she says. But it’s your birthday again and the journey has worn you down, and you don’t really want the cake that your husband carries to you, as if cradling your pain.
Another Christmas. Another New Year’s. Spring flashes past, then it’s summer again, you rewrite again, and Graywolf says you have a great eye and a strong, resonant story, but it’s not a bulls-eye for our list.
And that’s when you quit.
You quit the agent. You quit the pain. You quit pretending that you can wait anymore for one of the cool kids to want you. So you shut your eyes and sail your words off to a place across the country where you feel like they might be heard.
An hour later the editor calls and wants more. Two hours later, she wants a phone call. And the next day, you talk to her, the editor you’ve been waiting for. But she’s only read half, so you have to wait. Five days later the email comes. “No, but almost…” She wants it shorter. She wants less thru lines.
You whet your knife and cut 100 pages, take it right down to a sharply focused story about a girl so full of longing that she spends her life on a search for treasure.
You send it back, this tiny gem that you’ve been shaping and polishing for years. You wait. Then one sunny December day you have a phone call. When you hang up, tears are streaking your face, and your heart is just a big, beautiful ache of gratitude.
Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove will be published by Brown Paper Press in the fall of 2019.