Monday, January 27, 2014

My First Time: Jennifer Tress

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 Jennifer Tress, the author of You’re Not Pretty Enough: Extraordinary Stories from an (Un)ordinary Life and founder of the You’re Not Pretty Enough movement. She currently resides in Washington, DC, with her husband Dave. Tress performs stories live in both Washington and New York and produces a monthly show. Find more information at  Jennifer also hangs out on Facebook and Twitter.

My first query to an agent

Nearly every writer, at some point, believes his or her work is the stuff of genius. Or at the very least, believes his or her work deserves attention from an agent or an editor. Just peruse the hilariously morose SlushPileFromHell (in which an agent anonymously shares portions of his correspondence) and you’ll get a sense:
Have you ever wished you had represented the author of the Holy Bible and placed it with a publisher? While I don’t have a religious manuscript, I do have one I believe is as important as the Bible, [and] which has the sales potential of the Bible.
Or one like this:
Dear agent, it’s xxxx here, the guy who sent you seven manuscripts recently. Listen I just finished another one. GET READY TO BE BLOWN AWAY BY THIS WORK!
I relate to this type of magical thinking. I need to believe my work is meaningful and worthy of readership (I especially needed to believe that when I was working on my first book, a collection of essays) because writing does not come easy for me. Even though I love it, it is work. But goal achievement drives me, so I push on. A couple of years ago, when I felt I had a few solid chapters, I contacted other authors in my genre to get advice on the appropriate time to contact agents. Their input varied, but one theme emerged: it must be your best work.

So I sought feedback on the matter. I joined a writing group, took workshops, had friends review, did live readings and storytelling, published pieces and finally, when I felt like I had my first solid manuscript draft, hired editors. My last was a former in-house editor for one of the “big 5” who works freelance.

She edited the book over a three-week period and then scheduled a call with me to relay her thoughts, which were quite positive and enthusiastic but also vaguely unsatisfied. I ignored that last part. I was cocky, and urgently so, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. That’s where magical thinking screwed me. I heard only the good and then made it GREAT.

What my editor said: This is a fun and compelling read and you are an engaging, accessible writer. But story X is too long – you give too much weight to it – and I feel like you have more, maybe different stories to tell.

What I heard: This is great, you are great. Time to find an agent!

And there was only one agency I had in mind: Don Congdon Associates (DGA), humorist David Sedaris’ agency. Sedaris had always been my model. His nonfiction collections – especially Me Talk Pretty One Day – were everything I hoped I could achieve in my own work. I daydreamed about opening up for him on a book tour where we’d become fast friends who emailed each other snarky, movie-related comments forevermore.

Ignoring the advice make sure it’s your best work and the editor who reinforced my feeling that it wasn’t, I sent my first query to DGA in early May 2011.
June 2, 2011
Dear Ms. Tress: I am an agent at Don Congdon Associates. Your query was addressed to Katie here, but since your project wasn’t quite right for her she shared your letter with me, rightly thinking it would be up my alley. Your description and sample essay appeal to me very much and I’d love to consider YOU’RE NOT PRETTY ENOUGH for possible representation. Please send the complete manuscript and I will respond within about a month of my receipt of it. Also, please let me know if this can be an exclusive submission, or if other agents are considering the material simultaneously. I look forward to the reading. Thanks.
I was floored. And when I looked up the agent who did respond to me, I was double-floored. It was Susan Ramer, the agent behind the mega hit, The Help. I sent her the manuscript that night and got her reply 12 days later.
Dear Jennifer: I had a chance to read your manuscript over the weekend. You have an engaging voice and I thought the first several essays were excellent, but I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic about those that followed. Maybe I just didn’t find them as compelling or distinctive in comparison to the strength of the earlier ones, but given the high bar for selling any essay collection, I’m afraid I have decided to pass. I very much appreciate the chance to consider the project, however. Tastes vary widely among agents and I’m sure others will respond differently; I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for your work.
Of course I wanted a different outcome. But I had to admit it. It wasn’t my best work. Ms. Ramer was gracious enough to answer my follow-up questions thoughtfully and I appreciate her input to this day. I think ignoring the feedback from my editor stemmed from what felt like a desperate desire to escape the life I was living: one of 65+ hours a week in the corporate world managing complex projects and people. I wanted a new life and I wanted it now. Plus, I didn’t want to go back to the writing. I barely had time for my marriage, let alone my writing. But back to the writing I went...for two more years.

And I continued querying along the way. The feedback came back in three phases, the first set being similar feedback to Ms. Ramer’s. And so I re-wrote and then went on to Phase 2: you need more of a marketing platform. So I built that up significantly; and finally, Phase 3: all of this is great, but you're not famous enough yet. Contact me when you are! I was ready to share my book with readers, and realized I could through self-publishing.

In August 2013 I did so through Amazon (and subsequently with Smashwords). Marie Claire and The Washington Post did profiles on me and from there I got a lot more media attention, which gave me sales and put me on Amazon best seller lists and promotional emails. Then studios and talent agencies contacted me about film and TV rights. So now I have two agents, one literary and one in TV/film.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I know one thing for sure: persistence pays. That first response from Ms. Ramer, though disappointing, gave me a real confidence boost. It validated that I had something good. It just wasn’t ready. And though David Sedaris hasn’t called me yet, what has happened up to this point is wonderfully surreal. It feels like it’s “enough.”

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