Anyone who has read this blog is aware that it has two distinct threads: there’s the history thread (which began with a focus on ancien régime France but shifted to 19th century America) and there’s the writing thread. I’ve blogged a bit about my writing process and given sporadic updates on where I stand in the querying game.
I am pleased to announce that I have signed as a client with Erin Niumata at Folio Literary. I am now one that rare bread of exotic and elegantly plumed birds: an agented author.
The work that snagged me representation by the wonderful Erin Niumata is a historical novel, Channing. It’s set in the Antebellum south and is about a young woman who ends up married to the owner of a large Georgia plantation, and a Quaker who ends up in Georgia for very different reasons.
Now, before I go any further, an explanation of what getting an agent does and does not mean: It means that I have cleared that first, crucial hurdle in the pursuit of becoming a real-live published author. Agents are the primary gatekeepers, and they get (electronic) piles of queries. For a writer, querying agents is a monumental, soul-sucking effort. It’s hard just to get a response, no less an offer of representation from (more on the numbers below). Suffice it to say, it’s kind of a big deal to get an agent. It is, however, just the first step. It means I get to pass on to the second round of gatekeepers: the editors at the publishing houses. They will decide whether to buy the book and publish it. Getting an agent means that I’m a step along a very long road. It could take years before the book is in bookstores near you. And no, there is almost no chance I will get rich (that seems to be something that people think who aren’t familiar with how publishing works). First-time authors generally don’t make enough to live on, so I’m not going to be the next J.K. Rowling.
Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Channing.
Channing began in 2010. I was studying abroad in England, getting my Master’s degree in Publishing. I had recently finished my most recent project, Grove of Venus, about ancien régime France and had been querying agents. I was getting good responses but needed to start on something new (I can’t not write). For some reason, I hit on the idea of a duel. That was the spark of an idea that became Channing.
(For the record, Grove of Venus wasn’t my first manuscript. I wrote a 120k word novel set in Roman Britain, but that one is permanently trunked. As for Grove of Venus, it is on the back burner but definitely not forgotten. My response rate for that novel was pretty good, better at least than for Channing. It was, I think, the name “Marie-Antoinette” that attracted attention.)
At first, Channing (which of course wasn’t called that at the time) was going to be set in Georgian England. Mostly, I think that was because there is a limited number of times and places where dueling—of the kind I was picturing—actually happened. I chose England in the late 18th century because, well, I was living in England and dueling was a Thing there in the 18th century. My original idea was something like: girl falls in love with guy, girls and guy are secretly engaged, guy is killed in a duel right before they’re married, and—well, that was as far as I got, really.
Two things changed my mind: a book titled Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman, and a memoir by an English actress named Fanny Kemble who ended up married to the owner of a large Georgian plantation. As it happened, Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation had a much greater influence on me and, consequently, on Channing (by the way, the title is the name of a plantation, not a person, and has no special significance). The memoir inspired me to place my duel not in Georgian England but in the state of Georgia before the Civil War. It was April 2010 when I started thinking about placing the story in Georgia. In July of that year, I returned to the United States. It’s also the first time I labelled a file as “Channing”.
After I returned to the U.S., I lived with my brother in the old house where I grew up. I’ve always loved that house, and I think it influence me deeply as I started forming an actual plot around my idea of a duel. During that year back home, while I was trying to get a “real” job, I read Gone With the Wind. It was a very different vision of slavery than what was represented in Fanny Kemble’s Journal and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d read while in England. I enjoyed the romance and escapism of Gone with the Wind, and I liked Scarlett’s pluck. But I also loved Fanny Kemble’s clear moral stance and her sympathy with the slaves. I wanted to meld these influences into something that was not quite any of them.
It took time to sort it all out. I have files named things like Greenlynch and populated with odd, nebulous characters that barely resemble any of the characters who ended up in Channing. Some names remain, though the characters have changed entirely.
Everett, the male main character, started out as a real Rhett Butler type and became a Quaker (ha!). Augustine was once the surly slave owner (that role was taken over with gusto by Harry, who was once a mild-mannered suitor). Caroline, the female main character, remained for the most part unchanged: she was always a young woman who hadn’t taken sides yet and who found herself pressured into doing so.
Over the next two years or so, I wrote, rewrote, edited, agonized, refined, and agonized some more. Meanwhile, I queried Grove of Venus on and off. And in August of 2011, I got a full-time job and moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Previously, the early parts of the novel had been set in Baltimore. In fact, for several months after I moved to D.C., I continued to research antebellum Baltimore. Yet, as I wrote these early scenes, something just didn’t click. Finally, it hit me: why not set the early bits in Washington City (known as Washington, D.C. today) instead of Baltimore?
Once I made that switch, everything seemed to fall into place. I still had some issues with structure (chronological? flashbacks? alternating chapters?), but I had my story, and it began with a duel. I think my structure problems actually were down to a slight mental block: I wanted the duel to begin the novel because it was the spark of the entire novel (it also is the crucial point of no return, and it also mirrors nicely with the show-down at the end). But in any case, by June 2012 I felt confident enough in what I had to send it to beta readers—that is, to other writers who could comment on the writing and the story. I took feedback, revised, rinsed, and repeated for about a year before I started sending our queries.
And what a daunting experience that can be! I had a relatively poor response rate. For those who don’t know, it’s not unusual to never get a response from agents. I got quite a lot of silence. I ended up with several requests, though the reception was hardly overwhelming. For the record, here are the numbers:
75 queries sent
2 partial requests, rejected
1 full, rejected
1 partial that turned into a full, rejected
1 partial that turned into a full, that turned into a revise-and-resubmit, that turned into another revise-and-resubmit, that turned into an offer of representation
So, that last one obviously is the most important one. In February 2014, I received a request from Erin Niumata for the first several chapters of Channing (that’s what a “partial” is). She liked it enough to request the full manuscript. In April, I received a note from Erin declining the manuscript, but providing some extremely valuable (and spot-on) feedback. I felt I could address all of it, so I asked whether she’d consider a revision. She said yes, so I set to work. I sent the revised manuscript back, and Erin had some more input (again, it was great stuff). So I got to work on another revision. I sent it to her, and. . . . waited. Now, publishing is slow, but I started getting anxious and discouraged only after several months. Then a feeling of foreboding started to set in. Was this her way of declining the revised manuscript? Were my revisions that bad?
I sent a few follow-up emails but got no response. Eek. I was getting that familiar, sinking feeling that this whole trying-to-get-an-agent thing was just an endless game of trying, trying, trying, and never succeeding. I’d been trying for a long time, and hadn’t succeeded yet, so the feeling of dejection was somewhat familiar. On something of a hunch, though, I sent an email from a different email address. And lo and behold, I got a response. I was so incredibly relieved. It so happens that my emails had been trapped by Erin’s junk email folder. She’d been wondering what had happened to me! She asked me to resent the latest revision, so of course I sent it asap.
That was in February of this year. At the very end of March, I got an email from Erin saying she wanted to call to talk about offering representation. I cannot say how ecstatic I was. It has been five years since the story first began to grow in my mind. It had been two and half years since I first asked for beta-reader input. I had been querying for over a year and a half. And I had been writing all my life, querying various projects, always trying to get to this point, always knowing I had it in me somewhere. And finally, there it was: that rare prize, an agent. Validation, a sign I wasn’t crazy, someone who cared about my writing.
Now, by some strange cosmic irony, I had planned a trip to go to Georgia and see the Sea Islands at the end of March. The previous spring, an airline had screwed up my flight, and I got a travel voucher to make up for it. I’d determined to use it to see the setting of Channing. I didn’t know at that point whether I would get an offer of representation from Erin or anyone else, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go to Savannah, and not only because of Channing. I also wanted to see Butler Island, the place where Fanny Kemble stayed while in Georgia, and I wanted to experience the beauty of Savannah. My trip had been booked for months. Then, just a few weeks before the trip, the offer of representation came. I received the paperwork (electronically) while I was in Georgia. It’s eerie, how the timing worked out. I was heading on an exciting trip to see the setting for Channing just as I was signing a contract with an agent for the manuscript . . .
You might wonder why I’ve kept all this under wraps for so long. After all, it’s now August. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but partly it’s because I haven’t gotten around to it, and partly it’s because there wasn’t much happening yet. There were two more rounds of revision after I signed the contract, and we haven’t yet sent the manuscript out to publishers. Why now, then? Partly because I got around to it, and partly because it looks like we’ll be sending the manuscript out on submission next month.
To be clear, not a lot is likely to happen soon. Publishing works at a glacial pace, so it could be several months or longer before a publisher makes an offer (if that happens—sometimes it doesn’t). It could then be a year or so until the book was actually published. But I now have an agent and we’re almost ready to send it out into the world. So . . . buckle your seatbelts!
I’ll leave you with the first sentence of Channing:
Not long after the robins returned that year, Caroline Hanleigh received an invitation from her dearest friend Ellen McIntyre to a house party.