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.]