Getting the Call

Let me set the stage for you: It’s a Wednesday, three days after returning from my first SCBWI conference in NYC. I’m high off agent roundtables, keynote speeches, and meeting new writerly friends. I’ve been querying fast and hard for roughly six weeks and I have one partial and five full manuscripts out, none of them older than a month. After weeks of diligently researching and sending query letters, I’ve settled into a holding pattern. I have an almost daily mantra I must perform, reminding myself that this process could take months, or (gulp) even a year. I need to be patient. You’ll catch onto this about me eventually, but patience isn’t a word anyone would associate with me. I’m working on it, though. With all of my fulls out, marinating with agents, I’m finally feeling a tiny bit more relaxed than I have the last six weeks. I occupy most of my time by stalking twitter, just to see if any agents have posted something like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve found it! This is the music-infused YA contemporary romance I’ve dreamed of! #mustsignhernow’ You know, something subtle like that, that could hint that they’ve actually finished reading it.

It’s 6:00, and I’m standing in the family planning aisle of Walgreens with my husband, perusing pregnancy tests. What? You didn’t expect this was how my “Getting the call” story would start? Well, it does. Weird, I know. So I’m standing there—debating between boxes that cost $16.99 and $21.99 (thinking I’m definitely in the wrong industry because I’m about to pay ten bucks for something I’m going to pee on.)

And my phone rings. It’s a New York number.

Now, in my day job as a wedding planner, I have clients from all over the country, so I’m not really fazed at this point. And because I have potential clients that call at all sorts of strange hours, I rarely pick up my phone if I don’t know the number. I held my phone up to my husband, jokingly saying, “Oooh, maybe it’s an agent.” He laughed, I laughed, I let it go to voicemail. I let it go to voicemail! Have I mentioned I have the worst cell phone reception known to man (thanks T-Mobile) so I wouldn’t have picked it up, even if I KNEW it was “the call”?

 A few minutes later, the voicemail popped up, and I listened. My husband, being unusually optimistic, began recording me on his cell phone, so SOMEWHERE on one of our computers, we do have video proof of my dorkery.

The voicemail is from Michelle Wolfson of Wolfson Literary, and here’s the jist of it:

“Hi Jessica, it’s Michelle Wolfson at Wolfson Literary Agency…”

At this point, I’m waving my hands in the air and pointing at my phone like she’s IN THERE.

“I was just calling to talk to you about Second Chance Serenade (original title of LS&OL), WHICH I LOVE.”

Now I’m whisper-screaming at my husband, ‘OMG SHE LOVES IT! SHE LOVES IT!’ 

“Give me a call when you get a chance….”

The fact that I didn’t cry in that Walgreen’s aisle really is a sheer miracle. It doesn’t take much. I’m the person who cries at most online videos and Hallmark commercials, and any sports movie where someone achieves their dream. I had shed at least one tear during every keynote at SCBWI. When the voicemail message ended, a sort of frenzy overtook me and I basically dragged my husband out of that store (sans pregnancy test) screaming, “I have to call Emily!”

Who the heck is Emily? Well, Emily is all sorts of fantastic. In fall 2013 I took an Intro to Fiction class at StoryStudio in Chicago (which is equally fantastic), and Emily was my instructor (she’s also the author of two fantastic novels). I was just dipping my toes into writing fiction then, after years off from writing anything but college papers and blog posts. I always enjoyed writing, but had never tried fiction. I had never even written a short story. (More about this sudden fore into fiction writing in another blog post). My excitement was high, but my confidence was still really low. If you had asked me at that point, if I thought I’d write a novel and seek representation, I would have thought you were crazy. But after that six-week class, Emily invited me to join another class that started in January 2014. It was called “Novel In A Year” and it’s where I gained confidence, wrote what is now Love Songs & Other Lies, and met a group of ladies who are the very best kind of motivation and support you could ask for.) Queue those tears I mentioned earlier.

But I digress. At the end of the Novel In A Year class, Emily spent an entire session talking with us about the querying process. There were two important things she told us during that session:

1) When writing your query letter, remember they’re looking for two things: they want to know that you’re a strong writer and that you’re normal. They may have to work with you for a long time, in a professional relationship. So, “strong & normal” became a sort of mantra in our writing group…we put it on coffee mugs, binders…I put it on a shirt.

2) When you get “the call,” don’t panic….call me and I’ll talk you through it.

So two months after getting the “strong and normal” in-class pep-talk, my husband drove me home from Walgreens and dropped me off at our house. It was his weekly guy’s night. “You’re going to leave me here alone,” I said. “What if my phone breaks or my reception is crap?” I channeled my inner Liam Nelson and muttered, “So help me, T-Mobile, if you screw up this call, I will find you and I will make you pay. You will rue the day you lured me into your shoddy service.”

Once safely in the house, I messaged Emily, telling her it had happened…an agent wanted to talk to me! Have I mentioned upon arriving home I put on my “I am a Strong & Normal Writer” t-shirt? Yes, this is a real thing, and I totally put it on. I’m not sure if that makes me normal at all, but it did make me feel a bit stronger. Like my writing group was huddled around the phone with me. Emily told me to call her, and…my phone promptly died. Deciding this was a sign of issues to come, I packed up my charger and phone and drove three blocks down the street to my office where I DO have decent cell service (Did you hear that, T-Mobile? Three blocks).

I called Emily, recited the voicemail to her and told her that upon receiving the call, I had promptly forgotten everything I was supposed to do. Emily is at the gym when I call (that’s how wonderful she is) and after she reminds me that what I really want to do is gauge Michelle’s interest in my novel (and make sure we’re both on the same page with our vision for it) she asks me if I’m going to call back in the morning.

I was going to call her now, I said. It’s 7:30pm. Wait until tomorrow, Emily said, and I promised that I would, even though it would ensure a sleepless night. In the meantime, Michelle Wolfson had also sent me an email, wanting to set up a call for the next day, and I opted for a 10am phone call.

I woke up bright and early (not normal for me—I’m a night owl), once again put on my “Strong & Normal” t-shirt, and settled in at my desk with my list of questions for “The Call.” Things flowed smoothly and Michelle was wonderful. She was excited about my book, part way through the call she offered representation (I pulled off normal, apparently) and by the end of the call, I was already envisioning her as my agent. The main edit she envisioned for the book was one I had already been thinking needed to be done (you know, one of those areas you know you need to tweak, but enough people say they like it, so you leave it alone). Of course, at the end of the call, I told Michelle I’d need a week to offer time to other agents who were reading, and she graciously agreed. We were both headed off on week-long trips, so the timing was perfect—we’d re-connect once we had both returned.

That afternoon, I emailed the four other agents who were considering my full. I didn’t bother emailing most of the outstanding queries I had, as I knew just based on my research alone, I wouldn’t have picked them over Michelle. I didn’t feel like it made any sense to send a nudge to anyone I already knew I wouldn’t decide on going with. This isn’t necessarily industry etiquette, but it made logical sense to me not to waste anyone’s time making them read my manuscript, so I went with it. So by Friday I was back to the waiting game, and back at Walgreens, in the family planning aisle where it all started.

The next six days were crazy. I found out I was pregnant with our first the day after my call with Michelle. I spent six days on vacation in Palm Springs, re-writing the opening of my novel, to take my mind off of waiting. Ultimately, at the end of the week, I called Michelle to accept representation. Which was a fantastic decision that I’m still very happy about. A year ago, my awesome editor Amy at Tor Teen bought my book, and a year from now, Love Songs & Other Lies will be on a shelf for all of you lovelies to buy.

I’ll be the one in the bookstore sobbing by the shelf.

Jessica Pennington

Jessica Pennington writes swoony books for young adults (and young adults at heart). Her debut, LOVE SONGS & OTHER LIES (Tor Teen/Macmillan) will be available January 30, 2018. She loves music, french macaroons, and all things penguin.

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