The Big Baby


Sometime in 2013, I wrote my first novel.

Originally, I began it not because I had a burning story to tell the world or because of some inspiring experience I had had, but because I found myself, for one reason or another, with a lot of extra time on my hands (no, I wasn’t in prison) and because it seemed like an admirable challenge.  I had always dreamed of writing a novel and now seemed to be my chance, various forces of the universe dropping hints and nudging me in this direction all the while.

It turns out that writing the novel, as arduous as it is, isn’t half as hard as getting it published, or, as I discovered, even read by any of the powers that be.  It wasn’t until after I proudly typed the words, “the end” did the real work begin.  Not knowing anything about the publishing world, I began doing a bit of research and disappointedly realized that it wasn’t as easy as plopping your manuscript into an envelope and dashing it off to some publisher like something out of a 1940’s movie.

I balked at the idea of now having to secure an agent, write a synopsis, a query letter and perhaps even an outline and nearly gave up there, already exhausted from having written the novel itself.

Eventually, however, after a good shaking, I scolded myself for being faint of heart.  After all, I’d just written a novel, for God’s sake! Surely I could get it together enough to write a skimpy synopsis and a query.  I was determined to master this process.

In the meantime, I began researching agents and turned to the Guide to Literary Agents, intensely studying what agents were looking for specifically.  Somewhere in that process, a giant cloud came to hover over my work, threatening to destroy the whole project altogether…the cloud being the shocking discovery that most agents were looking for manuscripts with 80 to 120,000 words.

The big baby that I had given birth to and which I was now awkwardly cradling, weighed in at a whopping 224,000 words!  A bit too chubby perhaps, I worried, drumming my fingers against my lips.

Still not knowing much – nothing, really – about the publishing world, though, I naively believed that somewhere out there some agent would simply love this story and pick it up anyway.  After all, The Goldfinch had recently come out, and I pointed to Outlander as well – huge, break-the-shelf novels!  If they existed in the world, why couldn’t mine?  Ah, poor me.  I look back on those days now with pity for my as of yet impenetrable idealism.

Ignoring my baby’s weight problem, I determinedly set about sending off queries and first pages to over 200 agents in the course of a couple of months.

Depressingly, not one was interested.  As a way to encourage myself, I masochistically read horror stories about how Joseph Conrad kept a whole book of rejections, now charmingly on display in his house for tourists to peruse; how Agatha Christie tried for five years to get published; and I read, not with any real pity, actually, how JK Rowling had had an astonishing 12 rejections (12?  Try 200!) before she landed a deal.

Confused, I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I had exhausted the Guide to Literary Agents; there didn’t seem to be anyone else to send it to.  I then began to have delusional, paranoid thoughts in which I imagined a group of agents in New York all out to lunch (they probably all know each other, I reasoned) where I somehow come up as the butt of their joke (as if they have nothing else to think about), “Hey did you get the Michelle Cox query?” one would ask.  “Oh, that thing?  Yeah, we tossed it.”  “So did we,” another would chuckle.  “Can you imagine?  How ridiculous!  224,000 words!  Who does she think she is?  JK Rowling?” the first one would say as she tossed back a martini.

I realized then that I had to get a grip on reality.  Of course they wouldn’t be drinking martinis, it would be some sort of soy latte or frappe, or whatever they’re called these days.

Eventually, to make a very long story short, I continued on a quest to find a publisher for my big baby, even carrying it all the way to New York to The Writer’s Digest Conference in hopes of finding it a home.  Sadly, I did not, but I did meet with various agents and other writers, gathering up priceless information, the whole of which led to a later phone conversation with a hybrid press publisher in which she finally explained to me that no one was ever going to publish this thing, no matter how excellent it might be, because of the length and because I was an unknown.  If persisted in this, she told me gently, it would just be a vanity project.

That word hit me hard.  Vanity.  Was it vanity?

Perhaps it was, I admitted.  To be whining and complaining about how this thing should be published, pointing to other authors, stomping around, jumping on planes (okay, just one plane) to New York, etc.  It all seemed so silly now, I realized.  And in that one phone call I was done with my first novel, and sadly, with one last kiss, I put it to rest in a desk drawer.

But was it a waste?  Did the rejection scar me?  Not at all.  The whole experience was a definite learning process, the silver lining being, of course, that I became a better writer because of it and tried again.

And with that, I’m proud to say that my new novel, A Girl Like You, is being published next spring with She Writes Press.



Michelle Cox has a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College in Chicago.  She stepped into the working world as an editor for Amoco Oil, then trudged through the pre-press industry before finally wandering into social service at a nursing home for Bohemian immigrants, where many curious stories of the past were told to her.  She currently lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago suburbs.