When you pick up the phone to discuss the novel with your agent, which is trembling more, your heart or your hand? At first you pass pleasantries. You try to detect from her tone of voice any clues about what she’ll say. Is she going to tell you she doesn’t think the book is right for her, isn’t “big” enough, that she’s cooled off on the idea, isn’t right for teens—all euphemisms for hating it, all euphemisms you’ve heard from other agents, other editors?

“So, let’s get started,” she says, and you listen to her run through the trouble spots she sees in the book, the characters she believes need more rounding out, the plot points that need sharpening. You spend the next three quarters of an hour concurring, wondering why you can’t refute anything she says, flogging yourself for not having seen the flaws she seems to have been equipped with a special radar to uncover. You jot page after page of notes that you realize usually do not contain verbs or subjects or some other integral element that renders them almost unintelligible.

She asks you a specific question about why you took the action in a certain direction, and your mind blanks, you can’t think of anything, you begin to believe that you’re an imposter, you’re not a writer at all, you didn’t even write this novel because you can’t defend it, and you can only blather on about why, inventing reasons that might not have anything to do with the book you wrote, until you trail off, and a silence hangs between you.

Then, as if she knows that you crave a crumb of praise, she saves you from total deflation by complimenting the development of a certain character, the description in a certain passage.

There is hope after all. She doesn’t hate the book. She just wants you to rewrite it—substantially rewrite it, but at least not junk it.

“I’ll send you the manuscript with my notes and a letter to follow up,” she says, and you hang up, the realization that you’ve moved ahead another place in this literary chess match dawning on you, even though you know the rewrite, and the rewrite after that, and on and on, have not yet begun.

You’ve passed the first hurdle. Why is it, then, that the trembling takes so long to subside? 

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