So I mentioned in a previous post that two of my “query buddies” had found agents…
Remember picture book author and Rejection Survivor Brian Gehrlein?
If anyone has told you no, that means you are a true artist. That means you’ve knocked on a door. No door ever opened without someone knocking. So knock. Obnoxiously. Relentlessly. With abandon and joy… all we have to do is outlast their ability to say no… and everyone has a breaking point… because while they’re busy saying no, we’re busier perfecting the art of knocking.
When I read the email from his mailing list announcing this news, I legit cried from joy. And then I reread his interview and cried again. No one deserves this like he does.
I reached out to him for a few follow-up questions now that he’s finally found his “yes.”
My sincerest congratulations, Brian. Tell us how it happened!!! Every juicy detail!
They say things happen in threes. In this case, the third time’s the charm and supports that idea.
I originally stumbled upon Sally Apokedak back in the summer of 2018 (Apokedak Literary Agency). Melissa Richeson is her assistant and she screens all submissions before sending them on to Sally. I had sent her two books prior to the one that grabbed her attention (early July, and then mid-August). The third book I sent her is about a ninja who uses his ninja skills to make noodles. It’s fun. So I sent this story to Sally mid October and a few weeks later I got an email from Melissa that she liked it. She wanted to forward it on to Sally for consideration but requested that I include a few more stories so she could get a better feel for my style and voice.
I sent them in and waited. FOR THREE MONTHS OF SILENCE. My son being born was a welcome distraction. After three months, I nudged to see if Sally had made a decision. Melissa emailed back to set up a phone call to ask me some follow up questions! This was late January. Melissa and I spoke on the phone and it felt a little bit like an author interview. It was really exciting! She told me she didn’t know what Sally would decide or if she even had room to take me on, but she said she had been advocating for me to Sally. So I asked the question every writer should ask on a phone call like this, “Why me?”
Melissa said she really believed in my humor, my voice, and that my stories needed to get out there. Best phone call I’ve probably ever had. So a few more weeks pass and I get another email to set up another phone call. Either this was THE CALL or I was getting an undeserved, personal rejection. This was February 15th. Four months to the day that I had submitted my ninja story. She started the call by saying she had good news and bad news. Great. Melissa said Sally didn’t have room to take me on as a client but told me she had been promoted to Associate Agent and would be building her own list. AND SHE OFFERED!
I don’t remember much after that moment. Probably because I had floated to the ceiling and was trying to figure out how to get my feet back on solid ground. I do recall asking her to give me two weeks to decide so I could reach out to other agencies to let them know. A week later I sent Melissa a list of questions that an author friend encouraged me to ask. Her answers set all my doubts at ease and I was ready to say yes. The next day I called her and did just that!
From the first query to signing our contract took about 7 months. But 4 of those months I had no idea I was making any sort of impression or headway. From my perspective it felt the same way it always did. To read a better take on my journey, check out Melissa Richeson’s recent blog on Manuscript Wish List where she tells the story from her side. It’s far more interesting and I think encourages writers not to give up.
How do you feel?! Is it just pure joy, or are there other feelings mixed in?
Great question. How do I feel? I hadn’t thought about that until this moment. It is a mix. I feel a sense of release and relief. The struggle and tension of achieving this thing has been, well, achieved. I feel like I am catching my breath from the hustle of the last two years. I also feel a little bit of Impostor Syndrome where I doubt any of this is real and that I am not worthy of being represented. I suppose now it’s a matter of coaching my heart to be grateful and keep the focus on the stories. Ultimately, I should behave as if nothing has changed. I am still the same person. And I wholesale reject the narrative that I am “better” than those who haven’t gotten an agent yet. I categorically refuse to tell my heart, “you’ve arrived… slow down… relax.” That’s a recipe for bitter resentment and an impossible context to foster the type of playful creativity that got me to where I am in the first place. It’s the climb. The journey. The walking feet. I wrote a poem about the concept of “arriving” in one’s career when I was sorting out what to do after making the decision to leave teaching. I think its message applies to the querying author.
I set out to the place I know that I so longed to be
And if I worked I would arrive and finally be free
A mountain peak so beautiful you couldn’t see the top
I vowed to only look ahead and that I’d never stop
The path I walked was filled with those who sought the same high place
but as we hiked I realized…it felt more like a race
The daily walk became a hike and then became a run
I don’t recall exactly when…the journey wasn’t fun
Close to the top, we rushed and pushed and fought just to survive
We all knew that we’d be complete if only we’d arrive
And finally…I reached the peak—my soul and feet felt light
With pride, I looked below and saw the most alarming sight
Once at the end, an icy truth sent chills into my heart
The journey never happened and I never left the start
The point is… there is no end point. So I can’t treat getting an agent like it’s an end point. It’s more of a turn. A bend on the road. Maybe a fork on a path that will lead to another part of the same mountain I’ve been on.
What are your concerns and fears about the way forward from here? How are you dealing with them?
I’m not too fearful or concerned. Mostly jazzed. Even though I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m usually a comfortable person with building the airplane in the sky. That’s life. There’s no script. We all just make it up. So far I’m enjoying navigating this new season.
You DOUBLED the number of rejections you received from the time we did our interview until the time you signed with Melissa Richeson. Did sending submissions get harder or easier as you progressed? Have you had any more insights about the process since our interview?
I think toward the end of the summer I came to a realization that it was okay if I slowed my submission process. Slowed not to stop submitting, but to intentionally focus more on revision and the stories I was sending out. I had gotten some feedback from some other authors that I may have been sending submissions too closely together. In retrospect, I think I may have badgered agents a bit with my unceasing submissions (sometimes, to my shame, more than one a month). DO NOT DO THAT! I started giving agents a full 8 weeks between submissions and that felt like a better, more respectful pace. But honestly some agents may even think that’s too aggressive. Everyone is different. During this time, I took a hard look at my manuscripts and which ones I really still believed in. The ones I absolutely had to tell. I focused on making those the very best they could be. And I continued to develop new stories. The ninja story was an idea that I got late in the summer. It went through more revisions than I usually went through with manuscripts. I really stuck with it to make it work. And I didn’t query it until I really felt like it was something.
So I think ultimately it still felt the same, but I had developed a more sophisticated approach and was willing to slow things up in order to be more effective and serve the stories I was telling in the best way possible. Finding an agent, it seems, is less like fishing with a shotgun, and more like…patient, persistent, precise hunting. Don’t be trigger happy, friends. Make every shot count!
I think it’s interesting to see, in Melissa Richeson’s blog post about her experience with Brian, that she believes the “magic ingredient” in Brian’s approach was his polite persistence. “He could have given up on our agency after the first—or second—submission. But he didn’t. As an agent, this display of perseverance is important to me, because it tells me he’s developed the staying power to hang in there as I submit his manuscript to editors. He believed in his writing enough to fight for it (politely!), however many times it took.”
In other words… while Brian is clearly talented, skilled, and hardworking, at the end of the day, it was his creative resilience–his ability to continue creating and persisting in the face of so much rejection, or, in his words from our interview last summer, “perfecting the art of knocking”–that tipped the scales. It was those five words I cited in my first post on this blog; the small, still voice inside him that kept whispering, “I believe in my work.”
And that’s what it’s all about, folks.
You can read Brian’s full account of his querying journey on his website, PBSpotlight.com, where he features interviews with picture book authors and agents as well as insights from his own brilliant self. You can sign up for his mailing list on there, too, and you can follow him on Twitter at @BrianGehrlein.
Once again, hearty congratulations and the best of luck to Brian!!!
P. S. If you’re also a creative person who’s endured a lot of rejection–at any stage of your career–I’d love to interview you for my Rejection Survivor series. Get in touch with me via the contact form!