How It Happened by Jennifer Hillier

Query Hell was a totally miserable, stressful, awful, soul-sucking experience and it was the greatest day when I signed with my agent because it meant I could get off the merry-go-round of “your writing doesn’t resonate.” I don’t know if I can make this funny because my How It Happened really wasn’t funny, or even interesting. Honestly. It was statistics and tracking rejections on a spreadsheet and endless tweaks of my query until I got plucked out of the slush pile. I don’t have a cool story like Chris Holm.

That said, here’s my story.

I wrote my very first novel in 2007. It sucked.

I started my second novel in 2008. It wasn’t quite as terrible. I had a tingly feeling, maybe thirty pages in, that if I could just finish it, I might have a shot at doing something with it. I finished the first draft in six months. It took another eight months to revise it four more times, and during that time, I’d workshopped the novel twice. By the fall of 2009, I knew the book by heart, and was completely, utterly sick of it.

That novel, Creep, was ready.

I started querying agents. Query writing, I learned, is a skill completely separate from novel writing, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. I sent out queries in batches of ten, tweaking as I went, depending on the response.

Three months later, I’d sent out almost a hundred queries and had only received nine requests – eight for a partial and one for a full (but I’d read that this particular agent’s MO was to always ask for a full). All eight partial requests resulted in rejections. I’d heard nothing back from the full.

I forced myself to reread my first fifty pages. Something had to be wrong with the opening, because agents weren’t reading any further. After three months of not working on the book, I finally had fresh eyes and spotted the problem immediately: chapter three was the culprit. It didn’t need to be revised. It needed to be deleted. And not just deleted, but burned at the stake, its ashes scattered to the wind.

Almost a year earlier when I was workshopping Creep, a fellow workshop participant – let’s call him John – told me that he hated my story. The writing was fine, he said, but my main character – a sex addicted psychology professor who’s having an affair with her grad student – was “gross.” Not only was she unlikeable, but nobody – especially no guy – would want to read about a woman who’s a sex addict.

The criticism stung, and based on John’s feedback – given so vehemently and authoritatively – I revised the early chapters of the book so that my protagonist would be more likeable. I took out the sex addict part. I made her more apologetic. I riddled her with guilt and remorse over her “one mistake,” and then stuck her in a therapy session in chapter three, where she basically repeats everything that happened in the first two chapters to her therapist.

And that’s where the book tanked. A little over two chapters in, I had killed the book’s momentum. In my attempt to make my protagonist more likeable, she became less interesting, less flawed, and less conflicted.

I deleted the third chapter and then revised the first half of the book for flow. When I finished what became the sixth revision, I felt the best I ever had about the novel. I then re-queried the one agent who hadn’t yet rejected me, presumably because she hadn’t read the book yet, who happened to be the one person who’d requested the full. I know they tell you not to query an agent twice with the same book, but I figured I had nothing to lose. I politely explained that I had revised the book, and the new version was attached, and would she mind reading this one instead? Oh, and I should mention that this actually wasn’t the second time I’d queried her with Creep. It was the third time. The first time, I used her agency’s website upload feature, and suspected the query might not have made it past their intern.

The agent didn’t reject me. I don’t even think she was aware I had sent the query three times. She called a few days later, halfway through reading the manuscript, and offered me representation. “I really think I can sell it,” she told me, as I tried not to hyperventilate.  

She put me through another two rounds of revisions, and then we were on submission. Two months and three rejections later, we got an offer from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The book even snagged a great blurb from Jeffery Deaver which they still use on all my promo today.

You’re probably thinking that the moral of the story is to never listen to criticism and to write the book exactly the way you want, other people’s opinions be damned. And also to break the rules when it comes to querying. I mean, if I hadn’t done those things, I wouldn’t be published, right?

Not exactly. What John’s feedback did was make me think – really think – about what I wanted my story to be. Was I okay with having a potentially unlikeable main character? Was I okay with potentially turning off some readers? The answer, I discovered, was yes…so long as it made the story better. It was a good lesson, and one that helps me even now. I probably follow about 80% of the suggestions my editor gives me, but that other 20%, I don’t. But I think about them, and by the time the book is published, I feel good about everything that’s in the story.

As for the querying, you could do what I did. Or not. Your call.

Jennifer Hillier writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s author of CREEP, FREAK, and THE BUTCHER. Her new standalone thriller, WONDERLAND, is out now from Simon & Schuster/Pocket Star. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

Click the covers below to order the following Jennifer Hillier novels:

creepfreakbutcherwonderland

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Comments

  1. Jenny Milchman

    Oh, Jennifer, I feel how tough your road was–but you actually were so smart each step along the way. I am so happy you got where you’re going! Till the next part, right 🙂

  2. Wendy Tyson

    Great post, Jennifer! I also struggled with the likeability of my first protagonist, a driven female attorney from my first novel (who lives on a shelf in my office in a never published contemporary women’s fiction manuscript). I suppose we could have a whole conversation about female stereotypes (e.g., sex addict is forgivable in a man, not a woman; “driven” equates with b-tch, etc.), but aside from that, I it can be darn hard to learn to trust your gut as an author. I remember so vividly the time a writers’ group member lambasted that character. Was she right? In retrospect, a little. But I lost my mojo and, frankly, it took book #2 for me to get it back. Now I know how to take feedback for what it’s worth (positive and negative) and trust my instincts. I’m so glad things worked out for you. Thanks for sharing!

  3. G Robert Frazier

    Congrats, Jennifer! Way to stick to your guns and learn on the go. Yours is a great inspirational story to all the other writers out there . Best of luck with the novel!

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