In the mid 1990s when I was in college studying writing, dreaming of one day being an author, I got a job-placement for a few weeks at a literary agency downtown Toronto. My job was to sift through the enormous pile of manuscripts that were lucky enough to get requested, and see if there was anything worthwhile. At the time I was working nights as a bartender in a place where drinking on the job was a requirement. The boss didn’t allow us to turn down a drink if someone wanted to buy us one and usually those drinks were in the form of shooters. So, somewhere between a third of a bottle of Jack and 3am , I’d get home drunk and fall into bed. Then if I was able to, I’d grab a few hours sleep before having to get up hung-over, and hauling my skinny ass downtown to the agency.
There I would sit with a caffeine drip, in a little cubicle with a manuscript that some poor shmuck had taken years out of his life to write and submit to this agency in the hopes of getting representation. I was literally holding his dreams in my hands; his blood, sweat, and tears; his “baby”; of which all new writer’s think of their first book, until they release it to the world and discover that it was never a baby, but a product the entire time. So here I was with the great responsibility of being the gate keeper to whether these manuscripts would get a second glance or be sent packing. And what was I doing? Sleeping. Most days I’d be slouched in the chair with the manuscript propped up in front of me but the pages were not being turned because I was fully submerged in dreamland. I was an overworked student putting in nights trying to pay my bills and most days I was hung-over. And, I’m sorry, but caffeine does not keep you awake. At least not me. I could eat a bowl-full of espresso beans for dinner, wash it down with a six pack of RedBulls, and still sleep like a rock the entire night.
On the days I actually got some decent sleep the night before, I would read the manuscripts with an eye out for something I thought was good. Then when I found one that seemed to have merit I’d bring it to the attention of the agent whose wing I was under. Her reaction was always the same on these occasions. Yet it always surprised me. She’d give a heavy sigh or sometimes groan, and make a face, disappointment welling up in her eyes. She was already swamped and wanted nothing more than to send back all those manuscripts clogging her hallways with a standard rejection letter that told the author not to take it personally but “it’s just not right for our list at this time”. So it was with great reluctance that the agent would then take the recommended manuscript and put it on her to-skim-through list.
After college I continued to focus on my own writing; short stories and at that time (in my mid-twenties) I started my second novel. I had a computer by then which made writing a lot easier. I’d started my first manuscript at the age of 18, which I still have. It’s in a three ringed binder, hand written in pen on lined paper—all four hundred and some odd pages. The manuscript was a novel for a ghost story about a little boy who dies and comes back as an angry spirit to haunt his family. It was 100% pure limburger. But at the time I thought it was Shakespeare.
I also continued, after college, to attend any creative writing classes I could find in an effort to hone my craft. Then one year when my second novel was near completion, I enrolled in a class that was offered by another Toronto literary agent. It was a two hour lecture on how to break into the publishing industry. Half way through the class, however, the instructor began to pack up her briefcase and got ready to leave. When we pointed out that there was still another hour left in the class, she became flustered. She’d made a mistake and thought, for some reason, the class was only going to be an hour. But there was no way she could stay, someone was waiting for her at the bus station to be picked up. Trying to figure out how to make it up to us, someone in the class (bless his creative little heart!) said, “Read our manuscripts.” She agreed. She even offered us a full written critique. This was fantastic news! It was more than any of us could have hoped for. A true stroke of luck.
So I sent off the early hard-copy manuscript for what would eventually become my debut thriller, “Scarlet Rose”; the story of a psychotic former burlesque queen who forces her daughter into a life in the sex-trade and then tries to get her miserable hands on her murdered ex-husband’s fortune. Then I waited about six months. As promised the agent sent back my manuscript with a three page critique. As soon as I read it I knew immediately she’d passed off all our manuscripts to one of her hung-over student flunkies who probably slept through the entire thing. Isn’t life wonderful how it works sometimes? Regardless of who’d done the critique, (I’m certain is was a drunk college student) they did offer me some valuable points that I actually took seriously and I made some significant edits to my novel as a result. But it was being able to have someone critique my manuscript in the first place that gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going with it.
All I have to say is, cheers to all the drunken student gate-keepers down at the literary agencies trying to catch some shut eye. What would would all us aspiring writers do without you?
Bio : Julia Madeleine is a thriller writer and tattoo artist living on the outskirts of Toronto. Her acclaimed second novel, No One To Hear You Scream, was published in May of 2011. Her latest novel is The Truth About Scarlet Rose. She is one of the contributors to the Drunk On The Moon anthology.
Visit her here for more information: www.juliamadeleine.com
(This post first appeared a couple of years ago.)