My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Maura Weiler, author of Contrition, a novel about twin sisters separated at birth who reconnect through art, faith, and a father who touched the world through his paintings. Maura grew up in Connecticut and earned her BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, respectively. She is a former columnist for The Connecticut Post and a trash artist whose work has been featured on NBC Television and in galleries and shows across the country. As Director of Development at Blue Tulip Productions, she helped develop the screenplays for such films as Speed, Twister, The Paperboy, and Minority Report. Contrition is her first novel.
My First Agent
(Or, “A Bird in the Hand is Worth About Ten Years”)
I was ridiculously lucky when I first submitted my debut novel to book agents way back in 2003. And then I wasn’t. Or maybe I was just foolish. I’ll let you decide after reading the alternately cautionary and inspiring tale of my road to representation and publication.
Two of the seven agents I queried in 2003 asked to represent Contrition, my new manuscript about an ambitious journalist who discovers a world-class painter and wants to break the story, only to have the artist—a cloistered nun—refuse to show or sell the paintings she dedicates to God.
A New York agent wanted to submit the book to publishers immediately with minimal changes. A California agent ultimately had to rescind her offer of representation when the founder of the agency didn’t approve it. What the founder did do was provide me with detailed notes, including a suggestion to turn the journalist and the nun into twin sisters.
While I respected the agency founder and agreed with most of her notes, that last one was a doozy. Making my main characters twins, raised apart, was a major structural change and felt a little too much like a soap opera plot to me. I wanted no part of it.
It played, alright. It played well and added multiple layers of emotion and complexity to the plot. I was thrilled. I was also pokey. The rewrite had taken me three years, during which time the New York agent had left her agency, and the new agents I queried in 2006 declined to take it on. Enter self-doubt, self-loathing and continual kicking-of-myself-in-the-pants for walking away from a sure thing all those years before.
I spent another year tweaking the manuscript before working up my courage to do one final agent push via a query service in 2007. I knew that the use of query services was tacky, but I was out of ideas on where else to submit and figured I had nothing left to lose.
I paid around $200 to have my query letter sent to hundreds of agents at once. One of my first responses was a kind but frank rejection from an agent who told me that letters from query services were easily identified, heavily frowned upon and harmed my reputation as a writer. I was chastened by my blunder, grateful for his honesty and in full agreement with him.
And yet, I couldn’t argue with the return rate. Fifty agents from various agencies requested my manuscript, including the head of one of the majors. Back then, most agents still wanted hard copies, so I pulled all-nighters printing and packaging and mailing my book in excited anticipation.
After a few weeks, “no, thank yous” started rolling in. Some requesting agents never replied at all. I’d like to blame the ensuing crickets to the economy’s 2007 nose dive, but I believe it was query service karma coming back to bite me. In addition, I reminded myself that Contrition’s major theme is to embrace process over product, a lesson I apparently still needed to learn.
I gave myself an “A” for effort and started writing my next book. Meanwhile, my new husband loved Contrition and encouraged me to self-publish. Exhausted by the query effort, I balked and hoped that my next book would garner enough of an agent’s interest for them to consider Contrition as well.
Still plugging away on my second book in 2011, I received an email from a Pennsylvania-based agent that read “It is with contrition of my own that I write to apologize for my delayed response to your 2007 manuscript submission. I love the book. Do you have an agent?”
I did not have a book agent and quickly signed on the dotted line with delight. My new agent submitted the book everywhere and received encouraging rejections. After a year, I didn’t hear from her much anymore and assumed that our contract had run out along with her interest in the book.
By the end of 2013, I still hadn’t finished my next book and was running out of excuses to give my husband whenever he said we should self-publish Contrition. So early in December, I made the decision to drop to part-time at my day job to focus on doing just that, as well as finishing my second book.
Two weeks later, my agent called to say that she had just sold Contrition to a new imprint at Simon & Schuster. I was alternately floored and ecstatic. I’d never spoken to her on the phone before and had no idea that she was still submitting the book after almost three years.
Two months ago, the book Library Journal called “Fast moving yet philosophical…[A] fascinating debut” hit the shelves. Last month, it went into its third printing. Needless to say, I made my agent a very large batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Contrition’s plot may be fast moving, but the journey to publication was a snail ride on a rocky road. If I had to do it again knowing a rewrite would delay the novel’s publication by over ten years, I would have gone with the New York agent. Maybe she would have sold it. Maybe not. But I’m grateful that I don’t have a “do-over” button. The ensuing years enabled me to tighten the story and add layers of emotional depth that I wasn’t capable of back in 2003, and the joy of holding my published book in my hands is all the sweeter for the wait.