That Certain Something

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© 2008 Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

I was addicted.

Unlike the mid-1990s, when I first started on the long road of attempting to get a novel published, in the 2000’s it was possible to query literary agents by email. No more dropping snail mail query letters with a SASE into the post box and waiting weeks or months for a reply. No more wear and tear on my printer, and no need to schlep to the post office to send out a partial or, if I were lucky, a full manuscript. Now when an agent asked to see all or part of my novel, I could send it as an attachment, or paste an excerpt in the email itself.

When my writing life wasn’t going too well (which, unfortunately, was a lot of the time), I’d send out email queries, about a dozen at a time, to brighten my spirits, hoping a miracle would happen—that I would find the agent who wanted to sell my book. I’d click on the “Send” button as if pulling the arm of a slot machine, then sit back to await my fate. Maybe this was the day my life would change. I fixated on my computer screen like a day trader, watching for the slightest stock movement, clicking the “Get Mail” icon every few seconds to see if a reply had come through.

By early 2006, in the midst of querying on my fifth novel, with the hundreds of rejections of the four previous novels behind me, I had become a full-fledged email query addict. And I was getting results. Along with the quick responses (some received in less than two minutes after sending the query) of “thanks, but not for me,” my luck was improving. Some agents were asking for the full manuscript.

One morning I sent an email query to “Agent X.” A big New York agent and a popular one, I’d been reluctant to pitch to her. This isn’t her kind of book, I thought, while another voice in my head said, “What have you got to lose? It’s just an email.” I held my breath, hit “Send,” and waited.

A reply flew back. “Can you send me the first three chapters by email?”

Uh, sure. In less than a minute she had them.

Next reply, about fifteen minutes later: “I *love* this! Can you send me the rest?”

Stunned, I loaded up the attachment of my 245-page manuscript and sent it on its way.

The weeks that passed turned into a couple of months, and I had yet to hear from Agent X. In the meantime other agents I’d sent the novel to were getting back to me, some with praise, but not one taker; more rejections to add to the not insignificant pile. But I had yet to get a rejection from Agent X.

As luck would have it, Agent X was going to be at a writers conference I was to attend in a few weeks. She, along with fifteen other agents, would be participating in something called Speed Dating with Agents.

I was not a virgin when it came to agent speed dating. At another writers conference a few years before, where I’d been pitching Novel #3, I paid twenty-five dollars for the privilege of crowding into a hotel ballroom with about two hundred other desperate-to-be-published writers, standing for over an hour in haphazard, zig-zagging lines for the chance of having five minutes with an agent. Twenty of them sat at desks lining the periphery of the room, kings and queens holding court, awaiting pitches from the masses. The only difference between this ballroom and the Harris cattle ranch I’d passed many times on Highway 5 on the way to Los Angeles was the absence of the smell of manure. However, I’m sure a plentiful amount of b.s. was being thrown around in that room just the same.

But this was a different conference, a different speed-dating experience, and this was Novel #5. The organizers promised the event would be civilized, not a cattle call. You would sign up for three agents ahead of time and receive a ticket for each, then visit each one in order. A proctor would ring a bell after your five minutes were up, and you’d go on to the next agent on your list.

I’d considered contacting Agent X before the conference, telling her I would be there, but I didn’t want to pester her. Agents don’t like pests, I’d been told many times. She was a busy New York agent and she probably hadn’t even finished reading the manuscript. Besides, she said she loved it—at least the first three chapters. I was nervous, but still held out hope. I hadn’t heard back, but no rejection had arrived either.

As I took the seat across from Agent X at the Speed Dating with Agents event she looked at my name tag with interest. I introduced myself, told her the title of my book, and asked if she remembered me.

She smiled and said, “Of course I remember you. I really liked your book.”

She really liked the book.

“Wow. Thanks. So, I haven’t heard back yet and. . .” I stammered.

“Oh! I guess you didn’t receive the rejection email yet.”

It took a moment for me to process what she’d said. “No, I guess I didn’t.”

“My assistant was sending out a whole bunch when I left for here.”

“I see. Well, was there any part of the book you felt needed to be changed? The voice, maybe?”

“No, the voice was lovely.”

“The protagonist?”


“The part with the gangsters?”

“No, I liked that.”

“Then, ah. . .”

She looked me straight in the eye. “It’s a wonderful book, but it just didn’t have that certain something.”

But you said you loved it, I wanted to say, but kept quiet. Like dating, it seemed that a novel needed to have chemistry with an agent or else it was just not to be. Clearly this was only a coffee date, with no chance of it turning into a fancy dinner leading to romance.

That evening in my hotel room I called my husband.

“So how was it?” he asked, an urgent tone to his voice.

“Great. Agent X said my book was wonderful.”

Really? She’s going to take it?”

“No,” I said. “But it was a really positive rejection.”

“But she’s not taking it.”

“No, she’s not taking it.”

I guess you have to be a writer to understand the comfort of a “positive rejection,” and to appreciate the obsession of querying by email to search for that one agent who has to be out there, the one who thinks your book has that certain something.

A few months later Wendy Nelson Tokunaga found a wonderful agent who got her a two-book deal with St. Martin’s. Her debut novel, MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT, was published in September 2007. Her next book, WISHING ON A KIRA-KIRA STAR, is due out in Spring 2009. She is set to receive her MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco in Fall 2008. Visit Wendy’s Web site at: