Riding the RollercoasterBy Susan Henderson
April 03, 2010
Around the time I was still being congratulated for landing my first book deal, and for landing it at a big house without an agent, things started going downhill.
I’d been feeling under the weather ever since I received the edits on my manuscript. I always get a little tender when people strike out favorite passages, or write “NO!” in the margins, but I expected that. I even swallowed down the idea that this editor planned to market my book YA so many of the edits were about dumbing down the language and adding training wheels to the storyline. But what was breaking me was something that, in retrospect, I should’ve spoken up about. The editor had asked me to change the voice of the story, to have the character see the world differently. And for me to do that, every single sentence of the book, and every single action taken by this character would have to change.
I never spoke up. Never defended my position. I didn’t want to be one of those difficult types. I remembered what it felt like to have no book deal, and who was I to complain?
So I was driving my kids to a local amusement park, where they were supposed to sing with their school and then enjoy the rides. It was my first real day coming out of the fetal position. (You think I’m kidding.) And halfway there, I got a call from the editor who asked if I could get these changes to her by the end of the month. I pulled over on to the side of the road and just started sobbing with my poor, confused children looking on from the backseat.
A few weeks later, I was on a panel at a conference and had lost so much weight, friends wondered aloud if I had cancer. Against all instincts and without a plan, I had dismantled the entire book and had no idea, and no interest, in how to put it back together. The despair I had felt in trying to get this book published didn’t come close to the feeling of overseeing its destruction. After the conference, I went out to dinner with some writer friends (Patry Francis, Tish Cohen, and Bella Stander). It was a delicious African-fusion meal, and afterward, we went to a writer’s party, though I wasn’t in the mood.
At the party, my friends introduced me to Dan Conaway, who changed everything.
The last person I wanted to meet was an agent–I was that fed up with the business–but we got along easily, talked the next day, and eventually (though I fought hard against the idea at first), I signed with him. Over the next several months of working with him, we broke contract with that publishing company as I went to work finding my way back into the novel. I no longer had a book deal, which was scary, to say the least, but I was going to get this book right. Gradually, my body got healthy again, I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I am ever so grateful for that chance-meeting!
I didn’t tell a soul that we’d canceled the book deal. I didn’t want to invite the kinds of questions or tell the kinds of stories that would bring me down again. I just got to work.
An incredibly valuable story, Susan. One I hope every writer reads. Your vision of the story must stay true, if not, the beautiful lark that is your subconscious voice will not only stop singing, but will damn well throw a tantrum. And a BIG one. Good for you for having the courage to let go of something that seemed real (a publisher) for what is actually real — your vision and voice. All my best as you find a new home for your book.
It was truly scary to let go of that deal, but you’re right–the sense of completion isn’t in having a physical book in hand, it’s knowing that you responded to that inner voice and told a story you felt destined to tell.
Luckily, I do have a home for my book now, but it was a real gamble and meant going back on submission with no guarantees. I’m glad you understand how important and real that vision and voice is. That means a lot.
My mom taught me that sometimes the right choice is the hard and scary choice, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it. She’d have been proud of you! You are my personal idol. The knitting is coming along… I have the front redone. 😉
Another hard but scary choice I could have made might have been to speak up. I might have found out my editor and I had simply misunderstood each other. But it all worked out in the end.
I’m very much looking forward to the story of you re-knitting your sweater. And I’m impressed you’ve already redone the front!
Good story, Susan. I do believe that you were in the fetal position. Glad you got out of it.
Yeah, me too.
I can appreciate your struggle and stance, but I have to say that your comments about dumbing down for YA are incredibly disrespectful and unfounded. There are many fine works of literature for teens, and the idea of putting training wheels on a storyline is certainly not a sentiment that children and YA writers share.
Hi Grier, I’m a huge fan of both YA and children’s literature so apologies if it seemed I was disrespecting the genre. Thanks for speaking up.
Wonderful that you went to a party that night despite not being in the mood; it never fails to amaze me how chance plays such a mischievous role in many circumstances!
Congratulations on finding your way back to hearing your inner voice.
Hi Marisa, and well-put about the mischievous role of chance!
I had a similar experience w/ a short story. Gordon Lish (yes, THE Gordon Lish) accepted one of my stories for his literary journal. Based on a detail in the story, he decided my narrator’s voice should be more elevated, sophisticated. Well, who was I to argue, right? So I struggled as hard as I could to elevate the narrator’s language. It didn’t come naturally, though, and when the story finally came out, I realized I had not only made the voice sound artificial, I had destroyed any sympathy the reader might feel for the narrator. I wish I’d had the strength to say “No,” but I take some comfort in knowing that even Raymond Carver had trouble saying no to Gordon Lish–and some of Carver’s work may have suffered for it, too.
Thanks for a great post!
I’m so glad you brought up Gordon Lish. Some people think he’s a genius (if you count the awards given to the stories he’s touched) and some people think he basically co-opts other people’s creative work and makes it his own. But it’s cool he noticed your writing, and your story is a great example of that weird place that writers find themselves–wondering how much weight to give to editor’s opinion and how much to trust their own.
Wow. Fate, karma, stupid dumb luck, whatever, made me stumble here after a night of drinking cheap wine after (and during) writer’s group tonight. Lucky me. I’ve written the rough draft of a manuscript, poured my silly soul into it for the past 5 years, have agonized over every plot point, adjective, characterization, etc. ad nauseum. What happened to you is what I’ve been most afraid of and is what has secretly driven my revision into oblivion. Bravo to you for standing up and sticking to your narrative guns, I will gird my querying loins with your example.
Best of luck, can’t wait to see your book!
I’m so glad if I encouraged anyone to stick up for their voice or their characters. I have to reiterate that my agent pulled me out of this deal AFTER I had destroyed the book. What I’d been asked to change, I discovered too late, was the very fiber and essence of the book, the very urge I had to write the book to begin with, and when I began to tinker with that, it was like messing with a sand castle until I had only a pile of sand in front of me.
When I rewrote the book, I dropped two years and five characters. But the quality I’d been asked to lose became even more pronounced. My character stood up, bold, and said, oh no, you are not going to take that away from me. In the end, I think learning to fight for my vision made my choices more intentional, but you can bet I’ve learned a number of lessons and I won’t make this kind of mistake again.
Looking forward to YOUR book, Vanessa.
You are my hero. We imaginary characters need all the protection and nurturing we can get.
Awww. Hey, Bones, are you going to BEA?
The man who types up my stories wishes he could go. Maybe next year.
Drat because it looks like I’ll be throwing a party.