An Improbable Cause
I first gazed up at the summit thirteen years ago. It looked close. I was writing a memoir about my father and the 1960’s. Memoirs were hot and my father was still quite famous. It shouldn’t be hard to get there. While I imagined a modest pile of gold at the top, what got me climbing was the vision of a circle of readers, enthralled by my strange tale. Thirteen years later and I’m still climbing.
I had no sooner set off up the mountain when, as is often the case with real mountains, I lost sight of the top. I didn’t mind. In those early days the journey seemed its own reward. Meadows, fragrant with newly discovered memories. The satisfaction of flexing new writer’s muscles. Startling perspectives that altitude lends to previously settled versions of the past.
When I finished the book I sent it to my agent. He made comments. I wrote another draft, and I sent it again. And again. Here’s where I began to suspect that there was something funny about this mountain. With each draft my agent assured me that I’d made progress, but there were always new things to address in the next draft.
It went on for years. I felt like a character in a drawing by M. C. Escher: each stairway only led up to the foot of the same stairs. Finally a draft came which my agent didn’t have the stomach to read. I abandoned the memoir and began writing fiction.
Four years ago my agent submitted book one of a series to editors at major publishers. They all rejected it without comment, except for one, who called it “clever.”
A year ago my current agent submitted a re-written version of the same book to a limited list of publishers – the previous rejecters being off limits. By late summer they’d all said no. This time some said nice things about the story or the writing before passing.
In the fall I sent my agent a new book. He loved it and submitted it to editors. Rejections have been coming since. Most say something nice about my writing, the story premise or characters, before complaining about something else (the writing, story or characters.)
An old friend, the most successful writer I know, has guided me up some of the more treacherous parts of my journey. He assures me that the book will get published. As he says, writing is a “business of no.” If my agent loves my book, some editor will too. And it only takes one.
After speaking to my friend for a moment I see the top. I’m almost there. The last bit is very steep, the air’s thin and winds howling, but…
I find courage in this website. If I’ve been rejected, I’m in good company: J.K. Rowling, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner, Tolkien, Vonnegut…Mary freaking Shelley.
My writer friend and agent tell me that getting rejected for different reasons is good. If several editors see the same problem, then it’s something to worry about.
But worry I do. And in a way I didn’t with the first two rounds of rejections. Or with the whole exhausting journey up this pile of rocks. I can’t explain it, but I think it has to do with vertigo. If I look down, I see how far I’ve come, and what a long way it is to the bottom. Which is where I’m going to be in a few months if someone doesn’t bite.
But what about self-publishing? I will if I must, I suppose….though so many are doing it that it seems as futile as tossing a grain of sand in the ocean and expecting anyone to notice the waves.
I’ve been writing more or less full time for thirteen years. By the measure of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours to achieve something I’m homing in on twenty.
As I wait on publishers I’m working on yet another book. In the past I’ve taken rejections in stride. Not this time. Each “no” pokes another hole in my balloon. When an editor calls my story “a little contrived” I lose it. Every plot point, every snippet of dialogue is at risk. No sooner have I type it on the screen than the mad army of second-guessing attacks, like the wicked witch’s monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, tearing each sentence apart, eviscerating every scene. It’s painful. I have to wonder why I’m still at it.
What I need now is perspective. Clarity on what motivated me to set out in the first place. And I see that as I moved from memoir to fiction, that motivation evolved. Writing my personal story came from the need to tell the truth about my life and my father’s. It’s different with the novels. They come from my dissatisfaction with existing books. Just as I once composed the music I wanted to hear that hadn’t been made yet, I need to write a book that hasn’t been written, the one I long to read.
That impulse starts with the book, the music that satisfied a hunger even before you knew you had it. That like a morsel of dark chocolate lit up a pleasure center deep in the brain.
For a long time I got my thrills from horror books. I burned out on that genre around the time that it burned out on itself. I turned to detective stories and police procedurals. Most bore me, because they follow such well-trodden ground, littered with exhausted tropes. The protagonist drinks too much and only listen to Jazz. Cops secretly sleep with fellow cops. They’re forever snarling at each other and hassling with their superiors, who threaten them when they break the rules…And then Internal Affairs shows up, and I’m out of there. I’ve read that book too many times.
Around the time that I started my first novel, I lucked on a number of books that provided a zing I hadn’t felt in years. All mystery/thrillers with one thing in common: they stretched the limits of the genre.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy presented a fresh mix of family psychodrama and official intrigue with the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander, an anti-hero who was neither cop nor gumshoe, neither straight or even quite sane.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher was no conventional hero. While in most genre series the books derive comfort from familiar surroundings (I’m looking at you, LA) Jack Reacher lives nowhere. Each book takes place in a different setting.
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody may be a PI, but she weaves disparate story threads together across time with a rare depth of characterization.
Peter Abrahams also barked up the literary branch of the mystery tree, with a fearless need to invent a new sub-genre with every book.
I’d read all these authors but didn’t get my socks knocked right off until fellow Open Salon blogger Bellwether Vance turned me onto Gillian Flynn. Sharp Objects and Dark Places were fresh and spicy. Something told me their author was still getting her legs. And that once she got to running all bets were off.
I didn’t know it would happen so soon. Days after finishing her first first two, she published Gone Girl. Flynn’s unreliable narrator Amy set up a delicious surprise at the midpoint of the story. So delicious that I practically lost my taste for other authors.
And frankly, they didn’t help. While Lee Child has mostly kept up the good work, the others pooped out. Peter Abrahams unaccountably abandoned adult fare for YA. Kate Atkinson quit mysteries for weird alternate reality historicals. The follow up to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was a bore, though Stieg couldn’t be blamed. He was dead.
Worst of all, with the exception of a fine short story, “The Grownup,” Gillian Flynn became her own Gone Girl. She stopped publishing. I wanted more of the quality she was selling. Needed more. But there wasn’t any.
So I work trying to write that book I long to read. Inspired by groundbreakers, I’ve marked out territory at the very edge of my genre (if not over it.) My protagonists aren’t cops, private eyes or reporters. The seemingly ordinary world they inhabit has been distorted by technology. The past lives on, almost more vital than the present. People are rarely who they appear. My fascinations with basements, caves and Victorian architecture sneak into the stories.
It’s my own peculiar vision, not the product of the market, but my tastes. Top editors seem obliged to say good things about it. So why won’t any of them buy it? It’s a question that spoils my writing days and haunts my nights.
My writing career has always been an improbable cause. At best I hoped for a small niche readership. But thrillers are big business – and outside of the hothouse of literary fiction, publishers have succumbed to the same bean counter mentality that helped ruin the record business. It’s based on the unarguable math that says you make more money with a single Gone Girl than ten thousand also-ran novels. What could possibly justify publishing something if it doesn’t have a shot at becoming that next blockbuster?
Maybe nobody will buy this book. I don’t like to think about that.
But any day my agent might call. I’ll race up the last steps to the top of the mountain. After the excitement dies down I’ll find this chair and this laptop, and the job of facing down ten thousand conundrums, the reality of writing a novel.