A Setback Circa 2004

I was paging through an old journal recently, and I found the following entry:

August 14, 2004: Well, it’s beginning to look like I’ll have to publish The Grievers on my own. We came home today after house-sitting for my uncle, and there were eleven or twelve rejections in the mail. These were the results of my 3rd round of queries, and they always say the same thing — it isn’t that the agents don’t like my writing, it’s that the market is so tight… Oh well. One heartening thing, though: We were watching the bonus disk that goes with the Office DVD, and someone commented that the show’s characters were unsympathetic — which is exactly what one agent said was the problem with my book. And The Office is one of my favorite shows!

For me, it was interesting to stumble upon this entry for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that I’d actually forgotten how close I was to self-publishing The Grievers. If not for the fact that Chuck Palahniuk convinced me not to, I probably would have published the novel on my own, and it probably would have gone nowhere.

I say this, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I thought The Grievers was as good as it was going to be. But since I decided not to publish it on my own, I was unknowingly giving myself some much needed distance from the project and, in turn, giving it a bit of breathing room. As a result, I was able to be much more objective in my approach to the project when I returned to it a couple of years later.

All of this is to say that getting the novel rejected when I did was probably good for the novel and good for me as a writer. It forced me to start a new project (The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl), and the experience of getting that novel published in two very different editions taught me a lot not only about editing but about the book industry in general.

When I eventually returned to The Grievers, I understood things like pacing, plot, and character development a bit more solidly, and that allowed me to make some major improvement to the novel. Perhaps more significantly, I had a better understanding of some of the realities of the “market,” which helped me to understand why agents were rejecting the book.

To wit, The Grievers probably wasn’t going to be a “blockbuster” in the Harry Potter or Twilight sense of the word, so even if agents did “like” my writing, they weren’t really going to get much money out of any deal they could get for me. Like Wonder Mom, it’s probably more suited to a small press that appreciates my quirky and admittedly dark sense of humor than to a big press that wants the next Da Vinci Code.

Needless to say, finding the right small press was no cakewalk. I had to do a lot of research — by which I mean reading a lot of books from a lot of different presses — before finding one that matched what I was doing. But this work eventually payed off in a lot of ways. It made me realize that writing isn’t a solitary venture, and that writers need to figure out where they fit into the bigger picture of the publishing landscape if they want to find the right publisher.

Additionally, all of that reading helped me look at my own work from a new perspective. I wouldn’t say that I specifically wrote The Grievers to suit the needs of a particular publisher, but it is fair to say that reading works by certain authors I admired helped me to understand how I might do a better job of making it the kind of book I wanted it to be.

Yet while rejection was ultimately good for The Grievers, there was no way for me to know that at the time. It still stung, and I still feel a bit of a sting any time something I’ve written gets rejected or a bad review. But that brings me to the second point that struck me when I read my journal entry from 2004: I wasn’t willing to give up, and I wasn’t going to write a more marketable brand of fiction just because agents were having trouble figuring out how to sell my work.

Based on that journal entry, I’m guessing that the most specific feedback I got from any agents at the time was that my characters were unsympathetic. A rational human being probably would have responded to this criticism by making sure the characters in his or her next novel were highly sympathetic. But the decision to write fiction isn’t exactly the mark of a rational human being, and my next novel was about a drug dealing soccer mom who gets high around her children and frequently puts them in danger. Characters don’t get much less sympathetic than that.

Which isn’t to say that Wonder Mom isn’t engaging (at least by my standards), and it also isn’t to say that my protagonist isn’t an interesting if highly flawed character. It’s just to say that she does a lot of things that the average person would disapprove of. But my comment about The Office tells me that that’s the kind of story I like.

David Brent is as flawed as an office manager can be (apologies to Michael Scott!), and that’s why I’m drawn to him. And I’m drawn to flawed characters in every medium. Max Fischer in Rushmore. Grady Trip in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Lear in King Lear. Bill Clinton throughout his tenure in the White House. As Elvis Costello once said, “If the failure is great, then it tends to fascinate.”

The lesson, if there is one in all of this, is that I didn’t need to abandon my fascination. I just needed to find a publisher — and an audience — who shared it. And that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d jumped into the fray and published The Grievers on my own in 2004.

A Novel Approach, pt.1, (All the Wrong Reasons)

On Saturday, I gave a talk at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Here’s the description I turned in for the brochure:

So you want to write a novel. Or maybe you’re three chapters in, and you’ve hit a wall. Or maybe you’re slogging through the third or fourth or fifth draft of something you dimly remember loving a long, long time ago and wondering where the magic has gone… Wherever you are in the process, Marc Schuster has been there, too, and he’s here to help you fall in love with your novel all over again.

And here’s the talk:

Apparently, I promised to help you fall in love with your novel again. This happens every year. The guy who runs this thing asks me to come up with a description of the talk I’m going to give, and I come up with something that sounds really awesome where I make all kinds of promises about magic and overcoming hardship and falling in love, and then when I sit down to figure out what I’m going to say, I have nowhere to go with it.

This is largely the same problem I have with writing novels. I’ll come up with a great premise, but two chapters into the project, I’ll lose interest. I’ve heard people say that writing a novel is a lot like running a marathon. Never having run a marathon myself, I wouldn’t know. I’m pretty sure, though, that there’s a lot more sitting involved in writing a novel than there is in running a marathon.

So I think the better comparison is to being in a relationship. We all know that there are all kinds of relationships, but I’m going to start with the really, really bad kind. The kind of relationship where it starts off kind of cool, because you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m talking to this person!” or “I can’t believe this person is interested in me!” because he’s so hot or she’s so cool or I’ve never actually ‘been on a date’ before, and this is all so new to me!”

And then a few dates into the relationship, you start to notice weird things. She always talks about her ex-boyfriend, for example. He always gets his mother to drive. You find yourself thinking about the latest episode of Glee when you’re making out on the couch. And you don’t even watch Glee. You don’t even own a TV.

But you keep with it for all the reasons people stay in bad relationships. She’s so hot. He’s a really nice guy if you get to know him. You’ve put so much time and effort into this relationship, it would be a waste to break up now. And, besides, who else is going to date you?

I’d argue that the same rationale keeps a lot of people working on projects they hate for far too long: It’s such a great idea! It’s bound to be a hit! I could probably make it work if I just changed the point of view or added some comic relief or told the story in present tense. But the bottom line is this: If you don’t love the project you’re working on, you’ll eventually start to resent it.

To put it another way, you should be writing because you want to, not because you feel locked into it. Writing because you feel locked into it is the best way to kill a project, or at least to produce a stillborn project. At worst, sticking with a project for all the wrong reasons might even kill your desire to write. So that’s my first point: Know when to quit a project—or at least when to put it on hold.

Michael Chabon speaks to this very issue at some length in his essay, “Diving into the Wreck,” and his novel Wonder Boys does a great job of bringing the quandary to life. In the latter, the fictional novelist Grady Tripp is struggling with a manuscript that’s already 2600 pages long. His sunk costs in terms of time and effort are immense. But the book is a millstone around his neck. An albatross, if you want to get literary about it. And it isn’t until he abandons that project that he frees himself up to start not just a new novel but a new life.

Sorry if I ruined the ending for anyone.

(Continued tomorrow.)