Just after the new year began my agent called to tell me that Harper, which published my first novel and had a right of first refusal on my second, had indeed exercised this right.

They said no to Novel Two.

I have no doubt that my editor tried to convince the publisher to buy the book and I appreciate his efforts. Based on the feedback my agent received I also have no doubt that none of them really got it. They told me it was too much of a risk to bring out a book about poetry.

Novel Two was a comedy. It is not about poetry any more than The Financial Lives of the Poets is about poetry, or Infinite Jest is about tennis. My book poked at the corrosive effect of money and an odd intersection of power and the arts.

The rug is slipping out from under the publishing industry and they are understandably risk-averse. Every day a new technology or content delivery platform takes market share away from Bookworld. Borders has gone tits up, publishers have not yet figured out how to properly market eBooks and Amazon or Google is a short time away from signing exclusive content deals with authors that could sideline traditional publishing.

The publisher told me that if I were a more established author they would feel better about taking risks. But my debut novel, published in February of 2009, the nadir of the Great Recession, did not sell enough copies to justify such risk. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is an industry in which the phrase “debut novelist” works magic and they’re always looking for fresh virginal sacrifices. Those of us recently deflowered make the walk of shame alone.

At first I was devastated. Two years of work shelved. I grieved for dialogue and jokes that had no better homes elsewhere, scenes that would never see the light of day, characters I would miss. One character was a germaphobe who would touch things only with blue Nitrile gloves (hat-tip to Joss Whedon’s Firefly). Then those blue gloves evolved, became a plot point of their own, a happy accident that made sense only in this book.

I couldn’t talk about it, not to my wife or close friends. After many years of rejection in the writing world you become accustomed to the Yes, and the subsequent No becomes that much harder. Novel Two was the big thing occupying so much space in the depths of my consciousness. Even when I wasn’t thinking about it I was thinking about it. Rejection pulled me into a creative void.

What was needed was a change of scenery, physical exertion and the healthy dose of fear brought on by black diamonds on telemark skis. So I went skiing in Lake Tahoe for a long weekend and let myself indulge in thinking about other things, like mountain air, sore muscles and terror.

People have asked me why I don’t self publish.  I have all the respect in the world for self-publishing, and I did it myself with my comedy record: having total control was incredibly fun. If I ever turn a profit on this record I’ll do it again.

The reason I don’t want to self-publish a novel is because I don’t want to also self-market, self-publicize, and self-get-it-into-bookstores. It’s not that you don’t have to do a lot of publicity yourself when you go through a publishing house, but they still have levers to which I have no access. Harper got me onto NPR. I can’t do that.

After my ski jaunt I decided to kill Novel Two. Partly because I want to keep the door open with my current publisher, and partly because the rest of the publishing houses are equally skittish. Right now Harper is the frigid spouse. If I send in something that gets them hot and bothered we might get smoochy again, but if I start seeing other people it’s all over. And I’m not ready to make that move.

So I started writing some short stories. And some comedy essays, including one which I read for a very rowdy and supportive group of Portland Nervous Breakdown fans, and another I’m performing at a storytelling show in Southwest Washington. Shorter pieces helped remind me why I’m in the game.

When I found enough clarity I jumped right into a new novel. It was liberating. Not just liberating to start a new project as it always is. But liberating to let Novel Two die.

Even though I doubt it will see the light of day, I’ve learned something from writing Novel Two. There are certain craft problems I solved while writing it, and that knowledge is something I can apply to the next work. This is important: after finishing every story or novel, it’s critical to ask that work what it taught you.

Novelists, especially at the beginning, are paralyzed by certainty. That this is the book they have written, the only book they can write, that it is brilliant and immutable and if nobody wants it then they will take their ball and go home. If there is any justice the next book you write will be better than the first one because you will have solved some things. And one of the things you solve is learning to let go, to politely excuse your fragile ego from the room, send it off to a padded cell so you can create a new thing.

I know this because it happened to me.

Between 2002-2004 I worked on a hot mess of a novel about female revolutionaries in Central America. Because you write what you know. I’d had a few short stories published and I figured I’d have a go at it. It was about 420 pages, had been workshopped at The Attic Institute, where I now teach, and I sent one query to one agent. Who turned it down.

By that point I had done so many line edits I couldn’t even recognize what I was looking at. I had no perspective. In his wonderful book On Writing, Stephen King makes the audacious claim that you might only have six chances to look at a draft of a novel before you achieve total burnout. I know I’d gotten there on that piece of disaster fiction and I learned, if nothing else, how to revise without constant line editing.

So I shelved it. Took a break and started writing Captain Freedom, which Harper published in 2009. I haven’t looked back.

There’s no promise that my next book, once finished, will find a buyer, and I might end up like so many other first-time novelists who become one-time novelists. But I’m excited to write it, thrilled to try it out, and look forward to what the new book will have taught me when it’s done.

[Photo is of Novel Two all ready to be sent to New York City via armored dirigible.]

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G. XAVIER ROBILLARD is a comedy writer, performer and novelist. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Comedy Central and on NPR. Robillard is the author of the comic novel Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves (Harper Collins), and producer/writer/performer of the comedy album G is for Gangsta. You may entertain yourself with more of him at All Day Coffee and on Twitter.

21 responses to “How I Killed My Novel”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    First of all, I’m sorry Novel Two didn’t get the kind of treatment you wanted. I can very much relate.

    “After many years of rejection in the writing world you become accustomed to the Yes, and the subsequent No becomes that much harder. ”

    Wow, what a great point. I can imagine it feels like you slip backwards somehow, and remembering the climb to get there in the first place…um, yeah, tough to deal with.

    Self-publishing is an option, just like listening to your car stereo with the bass booster off is an option. You turn on the booster the day you get the thing and never turn it off, unless your woofer blows. If that happens, you may choose to listen without the booster, or you may prefer the sound of the wind coming through your open window instead.

    Good luck with Novel Three, G.

    Art

  2. Quenby Moone says:

    I love this piece! This is so relevant and timely in my life–full of a sort of momentum which feels like I can’t control it–and reminds me of both truths: the hill goes up. The hill goes down.

    The down slope is always tricky for me; I assume it’s personal. I assume that it’s a mark of certainty that I am, in fact, a flop. Not the work (having not submitted too much in the way of writing to people who are in positions of “judgery” I have to recall other rejections) is the flop, or even just not in the right hands, but that I am, in fact, not worthwhile.

    It is hard to go back up the hill under your own momentum once you (or your book) has slid to the bottom, but it’s unbelievably satisfying to read about you doing it. Thank you.

  3. Sadie says:

    I’m selfishly sad I won’t get a chance to read it and certain you won’t be a one-timer.

  4. Matt says:

    Ugh, sorry to hear that they exercised the first refusal option, especially because from the description provided it sounds like something I’d enjoy reading.

    It’s always a tough thing to kill a project you’ve dedicated so much time and energy into completing. I wrote my first (and so far, only) novel over the course of 2004 – 2008. Aside from one short story, it was the only fiction I’d worked on in that time. I set it aside for a few months and went on to other things. However, when the time came to revise it, I was forced to come to the conclusion that it simply didn’t work. No amount of revision (which I did copiously) helped it – and in some cases, that just made it worse. Begrudgingly, and with regret, I made the decision to kill it. Which was, as you describe, actually a very freeing decision, and allowed me to then go and focus on other projects.

    Good luck with the next one. And who knows, maybe Novel #2 will pull a zombie on you, if the stars happen to align just right.

  5. Gloria says:

    Those of us recently deflowered make the walk of shame alone. – – – Wow, Greg. You’ve convinced me that my slow-to-be-finished first manuscript is safer where it sits. I was already convinced of that anyway. But, ugh. What a description. (A great one. But ugh, ugh.)

    Actually, the sex metaphors run rampant through this thing – to the point that I’m starting to think we’re all fucked. *rim shot* No, but really…

    Seriously, though – sorry you had to shelve your second novel. Your attitude about it appears to be really good. Yes, yes to excusing your fragile ego. And thank you for reinforcing the formidable little jewel that is On Writing.

    Good luck with this new project, Greg. You’re wicked funny. I’ll bet it’s gonna be great.

    G

  6. Thomas Phillips says:

    Sorry to hear about novel two. It’s tough out there. It’s even tougher when you finally sell something and think you’ve made it, only to be told no again. I had a similar experience with Hollywood and it can be soul-crushing. But all it takes is one hit and pretty soon they’ll want to publish the notes stuck to your refrigerator.

    Good luck on the next.

  7. I so appreciate this reminder that sometimes the reward is how we’ve furthered our craft as artists rather than publication, but I still feel deprived of your novel number 2! Also, I’m reminded of an interview I did with an author regarding her first novel. It wasn’t actually her first novel, she’d told me, but her fourth. It was just the first to be published. She called the previous three her “practice novels.” I loved, loved, loved that story. Seeing as I have a couple of practice novels of my own. Good luck with the new project!

  8. Caleb Powell says:

    Good friend of mine’s going through the same problem. Unbridled published his first novel, got some good press, but sales didn’t hit, then Unbridled exercised ROFR with a pass on #2.

    Good luck.

  9. I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve recently been toying with the idea of putting to death my latest (and greatest, but not necessarily great) attempt at writing a novel. It’s alright is all I ever feel when I read it. I can’t think how to make it better, and it seems to good to let die. But it’s not great. I only ever sent it to one publisher and they very kindly wrote back (and I’m paraphrasing): “It’s well written for the most part, but it’s just not that inspiring.” Which is true, but it sums it all up.

    Maybe if you write Novel Three and it sells well Harper will be willing to take the risk and publish Novel Two.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    “Novelists, especially at the beginning, are paralyzed by certainty. That this is the book they have written, the only book they can write, that it is brilliant and immutable and if nobody wants it then they will take their ball and go home. If there is any justice the next book you write will be better than the first one because you will have solved some things. And one of the things you solve is learning to let go, to politely excuse your fragile ego from the room, send it off to a padded cell so you can create a new thing.”

    Heh.

    Nice.

    Although, I was kind of hoping for a more noir-ish feel. And also kind of a how-to.

    My new novel came home, and, as usual, narrowed its eyes and started to bleat about the state of the house. Have some of this cake I made, novel, I said. It’s your favourite. And it isn’t poisoned at all..

    That lack of perspective after edit after edit is such a killer.

    Just like you.

  11. J.E. Fishman says:

    In a certain sense, it is a mark of professionalism to be willing to walk away from a particular work, presuming that by “walk away” one means “get going on the next one.” But giving up on the work’s PROSPECTS is quite another matter.

    There used to be a kind of loyalty publishers had to those they’d recently published. They viewed the first couple of novels as an investment in a career. No more. Now if you don’t hit a home run on the first novel the air goes out of the publishing house. (As if not hitting a home run on the first swing never happened before.)

    We can’t judge our own work too well, as this piece and the comments confirm, but I couldn’t help wondering what your agent thought of Novel #2. If he/she believed in it — really believed — there’s no reason to quit on it. And if he/she didn’t believe, then unless it was part of some broader strategy (i.e. getting out of the contract), it never should have been shown to the editor.

    I hate to send you back into the fray, having made your peace with the current outcome, but I say: keep working on the new novel but don’t give up on selling Novel #2 so easily!

    Football coach Terry Bowden said, “There is nothing less important in life than the score at halftime.” Ascribing meaning to the rejection of one publisher is like quitting after the first four downs. Get back out there, son!

    • J.E.,
      Thanks for your response.

      Neither my agent nor myself has given up on the prospects of the second book – it’s that we’re both pausing thinking about it for now. I want to get a chance for the publisher to evaluate the third book, and if they ding it then our relationship is over and I’m free to do what I want with either book. If they take the third book I’ll just beg/insist on some contractual wizardry to free the second book so it may be published elsewhere. i know at least one small press that’s shown some interest in book two, so it does have a future, but it’s at least a little tied up to contractual obligations and expectations.

  12. Great post, GXB. I must say that I really respect you for moving on to the next project.

    I talked to a guy the other day who has 4 novels out with a quote unquote big New York house. The last one didn’t sell well, and his agent has suggested possibly changing his name and starting over…to play that debut novelist card.

  13. Greg Olear says:

    If it makes you feel any better, the same thing happened to me. Sold the first book, and the Mother Ship passed on the next one. It sucked at the time — I was warned the decision was coming at the launch party of Book #1 — but it wound up being the best thing that could have happened. My new book is orders of magnitude better than the one they passed on.

    If you’re in it for the long haul, shit like that happens. All you can do is grieve the loss and move on. As Mary Pickford once said, “Failure is not in the falling down, but in the staying down.”

  14. Summer Block says:

    Great piece! I too am in the process of letting go of Novel One to move on with Novel Two and this was good to hear.

  15. Echoing Greg up above, greatness isn’t about staying up. It’s about getting up.

    You seem pretty even/level-headed here. Which is great. Maybe you’ve already gotten any teeth gnashing out of your system? Either way, the next work always has potential, and the best work is always still ahead. So great luck forging so. You’ve made it farther in the corporate publishing realm than many have, so well done there.

    I’m a little confused by something you note to Joel; you open the essay by noting the publisher had rights of first refusal, which they exercised, but then you mention to Joel someone else has already expressed interest but the rights are held up? That seems . . . odd. Shouldn’t right of first refusal be just that (the right to decline)? How can the rights still be held up if the publisher refused to buy them? Shouldn’t their exercise of the refusal have freed up the rights?

    Or is it more a case of the idea that you have one book with them already, and hope to have another one down the line, so you don’t want to publish elsewhere for fear of . . . like, fragmentation, or something?

    I totally get your reluctance to publish independently, but you may want to keep it mind down the line. Independently publishing a novel is becoming different from doing so with other media (like the comedy record you mentioned), and Kindle is pretty fantastic for independence. I have to joke about your mentioning you don’t want to self-market, self-publicize (don’t you have to, anyway, even with a corporation behind you) and self-get-it-into-bookstores, but as you note, “Borders has gone tits up,” and Barnes & Noble’s bestselling product right now is the nook color (and where it’s putting all its publicity), so I have to ask “What bookstores?”

    It really is a joke, but only just.

  16. Leslie Jamison says:

    I really enjoyed this piece–in a particular sense of enjoyment that involved some deep part of my psyche being dredged-up and counseled. It’s terrifying to be a writer, and to do what we do without any promises of appreciation or acknowledgment, and no matter what you do–or how successful you are–it never gets any less terrifying, much less the daily act of staring at the blank slate, the blank page–and it feels wonderful to hear other another author speak these daily rituals of fear and frustration.
    Take on other terrors: snow, steep slopes. Speed. A new manuscript. These things sound right to me.
    I can’t wait to read your work, however and whenever it appears in the world.

    • Thank you Leslie so very much for your kind words. Although it doesn’t get any more terrifying to face a blank page, what I’ve noticed is that I actually feel improvement, specifically a better handle of the craft than I had a year or two ago, and that in and of itself is a small victory.

      How much changes from February to May. Winter to Spring. Though you wouldn’t know it here in Portland, as it’s raining now as much as it was two months ago. But that three months of writing has meant I have 57000 words of a new manuscript. Happier times indeed!

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