Monday, July 30, 2018

My First Time: Gina Wohlsdorf

My First (Almost) Agent

It’s putting the matter mildly to say I wrote a lot between 2007 and 2009. I lived alone, I had a flexible work schedule, and I was—also putting it mildly—very dedicated. Mornings were for fiction. After earning my living every afternoon, I spent evenings either revising stories or writing essays. A topic I seemed to veer toward frequently in my nonfiction was pop culture and the sociological consequences of celebrity worship.

That sounds pretty high-falutin’, but these essays had titles like “I’m Not As Pretty As Megan Fox, and Neither Are You, and That’s Okay” or “Three Pieces of Investigative Reporting That Totally Never Happened [With Brackets to Denote the Dim, Distant Voice of My Sanity].” I’m almost ten years gone from when I wrote these, and I still like them. As standalones they’re well organized, funny, pithy, and intelligent.

The problem was, I thought they worked as a collection.

The other problem was, I finished assembling the book in 2008, when the housing bubble popped, too-big-to-fail banks got bailed out, and the publishing industry imploded.

People frequently mistake me for confident when I’m actually just oblivious. This served me well as I raided the library for any and all resources on getting a book published, as I shelled out thirty bucks for the current Writer’s Market, as I began composing query letters in an attempt to secure representation for my essay collection, which I confidently called Storytelling In-Psycho-Media: How Celebrity Worship Is Hurting Us and Them.

Let’s first have a good long laugh at that title. I was trying to make a wordplay on “encyclopedia” while saying mass media was psycho, and the two efforts canceled each other out beautifully.

Next, let’s talk about where I lived: Edina, Minnesota. Nowhere near New York’s pub hub, where you can troll around and try to make the right friends and get to the right parties and descend on your dream agents in a bird-of-prey manner I’m sure they all really appreciate.

Last, let’s look at my writing credits: I didn’t have any. This is kinda-sorta okay-ish with novels, as long as you have the Aaron Rodgers of publicists, which I now do. With essays, not okay at all. A platform is so crucial in nonfiction, it’s practically required unless you’re writing a memoir—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So off I went, highlighting my money’s worth in that Writer’s Market, giving my printer the aerobics class of its nightmares, personalizing each query, spending I don’t know how much money I didn’t have on postage, and creating a spreadsheet to track responses. Looking back, this is adorable: I really did believe I could land a deal. That delusion that began its slow death as the ‘Responses’ column on my spreadsheet began to fill with line after line of ‘Form Rejection’. I considered making a stamp so I didn’t have to write it so often.

But the nutty part was, I got a handful of responses that were positive. One was extremely positive, saying they’d very much like to take the book on and they would if the economy weren’t such a steaming vat of feces at the moment. More common were the scrawled notes in the margins of the form rejections. One read, “You’re an excellent writer—don’t quit!”

I was dim enough to take this advice. I continued alphabetically through every American agent who was accepting query letters for nonfiction. For all you number people out there, that meant 209 agents. Every single one was a no.

There were even con artists. A married couple who ran an agency in San Francisco had written a book on how to craft a nonfiction proposal. They sent me (what I thought was) a very nice letter saying if I used their method to write my proposal (meaning, buy their book), they’d give me greater consideration. I bought the book, wrote the proposal, and they wrote back saying, “Didn’t we reject this already? Ha ha, thanks for the 16.95!” I’ve mostly forgiven them but I still hope, on principle, that they burn in hell.

When the rejection tally was nearing the two-hundreds, I called my friend Jenny and told her I was giving up.

“But it’s good!” she said. This was high praise coming from Jen. She’s harder to please than Simon Cowell—though she’s not British, so her criticisms don’t have quite the same cutting authority.

“Dude, it’s over. I tried everybody.” I looked at my list. “Well, almost everybody.”

“How many left?”

“Two. In England.”

“Try ’em, Gina. You can’t say you tried everybody if you didn’t try everybody.”

Factually, this was true. I wasn’t sure my ego could take any more. I wrote the queries, sent them off, packed in Publishing Command Center, and waited for these last two rejections so I could dig a hole to die in.

Except I got an e-mail. Maybe a month later, from the very last agent I wrote to—let’s call her Betty. Betty wanted the full manuscript. I sent it of course, and by this point, it was so polished it could blind. I got another e-mail about a week later that she wanted to phone me.

I thought, This is it! I’m on my way! I’ll be Stephen King by this time next year!

And then the phone convo with Betty went pretty much like this.

Betty:  I loved it!
Me:  Wow, thank you!
Betty:  But there’s no way I can sell it.
Me:  Oh. What?
Betty:  I don’t know how to describe it to people.
Me:  Oh . . . Can’t you just say you loved it? (Adorable.)
Betty:  Have you thought of writing a memoir? Memoirs are big right now; they’re about the only thing that is. Do what you did here but with a memoir, then we might have something.

To most artists of any kind, this might sound like an impossible demand: hey, create another project in a form you’ve never even dabbled in. But I’m me, so I read a dozen popular memoirs and established a schedule. I had a draft for her in ten weeks.

I still like the memoir, too. Its title is better—Prism Diaries: Movies, the Milennium and Me. Since I was a cinephile throughout my youth, what I did was take films that had had a profound impact on me as a kid (Goonies in early childhood, Karate Kid Part II around first grade, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade just before middle school), and I juxtaposed them with formative challenges or incidents from my life (coping with my parents’ deep and deeply confusing sadness, beating up the schoolyard bully using—true story—the crane kick from Karate Kid, landing the lead role in the sixth grade play and realizing I might have what it takes to leave North Dakota).

The result was memoir-cum-film-criticism. I turned it in feeling great about it.

And then the phone convo with Betty went pretty much like this:

Betty:  I loved it!
Me:  Uh. Thank you?
Betty:  But there’s no way I can sell it.
Me:  Do you not know how to describe it to people?
Betty:  Exactly! How’d you know?
Me:  I’m a writer, Betty. We’re perceptive.

I’m being an asshole here—Betty was never anything but polite and professional and encouraging, but she didn’t offer to rep me. She and I kept chatting back and forth for the next several months. I convinced her to read an earlier draft of Blood Highway, but at that point it was still trite and undisciplined and thematically sloppy. She passed on it, with good reason.

Honestly, she had good reason to pass on all of this stuff, because the truth was, I wasn’t ready yet. I was a batch of cupcakes that look golden brown when you flick on the oven light, but you stick in a toothpick and it comes out damp with batter. And my initial exposure to the agenting world was educational in another way. I learned that my work was tough to classify, and tough to classify can mean tough to sell. So I needed an agent with the nerve of Houdini and the war wits of Sun Tzu and the inventiveness of MacGyver. I needed HouTsuGyver. I decided to wait on approaching agents until I had something so weirdly original that the one who was meant for me could not pass it up. It took another two years.

This time when I went looking for an agent, I found her on the second try. Emma Sweeney had me revise the beginning of Security, then she got me a deal within a month. Chuck Adams, my editor at Algonquin, taught me a ton about my strengths and weaknesses while we worked on Blood Highway together. He was those last few minutes in the oven.

If I’d gotten a book deal way back in ’08 and the reception for my work had been vicious, or even tepid, I’m not sure my sense of self would have been up to the task of soldiering on.

But I know who I am as an author now. And I’m not going away.

Gina Wohlsdorf is the author of Blood Highway and Security (both published by Algonquin Books). She was born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota. She graduated from Tulane University, taught English in the south of France, and earned an MFA at the University of Virginia. She currently lives in Colorado. Click here to visit her website.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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