Staring at the Inbox
By Mackenzie Littledale
November 3, 2020
Michelle sat staring at her inbox since 5:30 AM, nearly two hours. It wasn’t even a weekday, but her literary agent worked odd hours, so it could come at any time. It -- the announcement of whether or not the next publisher on the list was offering to buy her manuscript. Already, five publishers had been given the chance. Three declined and two remained silent. Michelle considered them a practice round to make sure the pitch was tight like a hermetically sealed glass jar. The publisher she dreamed of signing with was next on the agent’s list. This one. This would be ‘the one’. Michelle was altogether sure of it, because she’d prayed, she’d wept, she’d thrown herself at the mercy of the gods, she’d donated money to a worthy literacy program.
In the beginning, specifically September 2017, her only dream had been to start writing the story. Six months later with seventy-thousand words committed, the dream expanded to finishing the story -- getting to ‘The End’. Michelle nearly shit herself when typing ‘The End’ turned out to be far from the final stage. Not only had she found typos, but there were several steps to learn, like querying literary agents but not until after editing, which should come after beta readers have a crack at reading through the manuscript. From there, revisions and rewrites may come into play, and other foreign stuff that could easily swallow up an additional year. In the meantime, she saw more and more authors offering their books for ninety-nine cents and often even for free. Michelle despaired that she might not make a dime, especially if she went the self-publishing route.
Long before the beginning, she’d attempted to write three novels but without any idea of craft, plot, character development or scene-setting. She’d tossed out her floppy disks with the crusty leftovers, and put her dream on the backburner. Again. This manuscript was stored in the cloud and on USB drives. So many decades had gone into this dream.
A reliably busy period at work had arrived two years into this go-round with writing a novel and she’d known she wouldn’t have two free minutes to write for the entire two months of the promotion. During those two months, Michelle’s manuscript had been with beta readers. Michelle chuckled thinking about how naive and green she was. When she began writing, she didn’t know what a beta reader was. Trusting the circle of writer friends she’d made along the way, she laid out her idiot-proof plans.
Since the story touched on bipolar disorder, she had a shortlist of psychology professionals. It mentioned leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, so she tapped her ex-JW friends. Her neighbors were avid readers, so she asked them to read. Her shortlist was a dozen deep. She invited each person to read the first chapter and let her know if it was something they’d read and provide feedback on. Seven had ignored her or were out of the country or declined. Resisting the temptation to wither in the dismal grey clouds of rejections, Michelle clung to the five yeses.
Four hours at FedEx Office printing hard copies, binding the manuscripts with vinyl covers, and shipping with return shipping paid cost her a pretty penny. She’d convinced herself that the expense and effort were worth it just so her manuscript would be returned safely to her, not dangling in the cloud. The beta readers signed non-disclosure agreements and had a full two months to read and provide feedback without so much as a peep of interference from Michelle. Just as she’d predicted, work wiped her out, ruined her shoulders and neck, and left her reeling in pain every night. She couldn’t have written if a baby’s life depended on it.
The process from typing the first word to waiting for her agent to email had taken three years and three months. In that time, her family had been who they’d always been.
“You’re a pretty good writer,” said her brother.
“Gee, thanks,” Michelle answered.
“I wish you the best,” her mother said, and returned her attention to her favorite TV show.
Michelle remembered sharing a vision for becoming a motivational speaker and selling out the college theater. They’d been sitting around her brother’s dining room table having an otherwise enjoyable time.
“You have no credentials,” he’d said, eyes hostile, fists pounding. “You need a college degree, and you need to sell books, and be famous, and have a string of successes in your wake. How are you going to sell out a theater?”
He would have gone on, but Michelle waved her hands. “All right, dream assassin. Enough.” The roasted salmon lost its flavor and sat heavily in her belly.
Three years and three months. She hadn’t earned a dime on this manuscript yet and hoped with every ounce of her being that the dream publisher would make a generous offer.
“What do you mean by ‘generous’?” her agent had asked.
“I mean a full year’s pay, so I can spend an entire year writing without worrying about bills,” Michelle said. “Fifty-thousand...or more. I won’t turn away more.”
“I can’t guarantee a result,” her agent said, still in a chipper voice.
“I know. I’m not asking you for a guarantee on anything, but I won’t be lowballed. We both saw the Publishing Paid Me hashtag on Twitter. We know what’s up.”
“I will certainly try my best. As your agent, I don’t get paid until and unless you get paid, so I’m definitely on your side and want to get you as much as possible. It works for both of us.”
Michelle sipped her Coke. “Exactly. We’ve both worked our asses off for this, and you know I’ll do some heavy lifting to get the word out.”
“Publishers will be very happy to know you’re willing to do that,” her agent said.
“Good. One of my beta readers said my story’s message is so important for people who struggle with bipolar. It gives them hope. A publisher has to see that.”
“The right one will.”
Michelle let out a wispy breath. The daydream burst out of her mind’s vault again. Multi-city book signing tours with eager readers lined up around the block. “How do writers do book signing tours with covid-19 going on?”
“If we get a deal from a large publisher, they’ll have an in-house publicist who coordinates the events. Instead of touring fifteen cities, you might only have three virtual events. Cross that bridge when it’s in front of you, okay?”
Michelle pursed her lips for a moment, begging herself for internal fortitude and patience. “Okay.”
“After a publisher signs, it means their sales and marketing team are sold on the book’s potential as well. The editor, the whole team will be on your side.”
Michelle hoped her agent wasn’t tiring of her, even though the agent’s voice still sounded crisp and forward-looking. She couldn’t be tired. Not yet. “You still believe in the book, right?” She inspected her cuticles and resisted the urged to pull on the desiccated strands.
Without missing a beat, the agent cheered. “Of course! I love your writing, and your beta reader is so right. The story is important, and I love the edits you made. The ending is going to give readers the satisfied feeling they want.”
Michelle nodded. “That’s so important. I don’t want to let readers down at any stage of the reading experience!”
“They’ll love it as much as I do.” The agent took in a deep breath. “I have to get back to work. You’re doing great things. Keep it up. And send me more of your short stories.”
Michelle jumped in her seat, giggling. “I will. They haven’t won any major contests yet, although I did get that honorable mention in Texas.”
Here now at 7:30 AM, staring at her inbox, Michelle wondered if an email from her agent would arrive. She started feeling stupid for being so anxious, for giving an iota of credence to mental telepathy. “Can’t you feel my energy calling to you? Email me. Now. Please.” She waited a second. “Okay, how about now?”
She threw her hands up at her own hopelessness. “I need coffee. That’s what.” She went to the kitchen to brew a mini-pot of French roast. Ten minutes later, she took her steaming cuppa Joe back to command headquarters: bed. Her laptop screen had faded to the randomizer light show, so she tapped the space bar.
No email from her agent, but her cell phone dinged, a text message. “Figures,” she mumbled to herself. “Probably a damn message from an election candidate.”
The text was from her agent: Can I call right now? Good news!
Michelle’s eye sockets could barely contain her eyes. Her heart pounded with a joy that only mother’s felt when they held their newborns. Michelle’s grip on her phone slipped, and she spilled her coffee. Reaching for a Kleenex, she dabbed at the coffee on her white comforter and grabbed the phone. No need to wait for a call, so she dialed the agency. Three years’ worth of tears -- each one tattooed with 97,000 words -- built up and choked Michelle. Her entire manuscript got stuck in her throat and rendered her capacity to speak null. She breathed in to a count of five but had trouble letting the breath back out. In an instant, her eyelashes were soaked and tears dripped to her comforter. No amount of tears could halt her smile.