Monday, October 01, 2007

It's Never Easy

So we're announcing the sale of Time of My Life this week. Yay! And I thought this would be a good time to tell you the story of the sale because, well, as the title of this post indicates, it's never easy. This career is never easy. Making it as a writer is never easy. Selling a novel is never easy. (Get the theme here?) And as I've said countless times before, if you're easily discouraged or have a thin skin, this ain't the career for you.

So here's what happened:

As I've mentioned in the past, I wrote a manuscript years ago that never sold, though it did land me an agent. In retrospect, it was a blessing. I mean, it just wasn't that good of a book, there was too much exposition, my conflict wasn't quite realistic, my characters were too unlikable...you get the point. Though the book wasn't great, I was still drawn to the themes behind it: friendship, betrayal, etc. So in January or so, I started to rework it, taking it apart nearly entirely, creating a different protagonist with different conflicts, and weaving in a few of the scenes from the old story because some of them still worked (and they weren't all bad) and as I said, I liked exploring these themes. This wasn't easy work: in fact, there were times when I thought it might easier to start from scratch rather than trying to rebuild something that was broken, not unlike a house remodel vs. demolishing and starting over.

But I kept at it. And at 150 pages, my agent read it, and we both agreed that we really liked it. Maybe we didn't love it, but we liked it well enough, and both felt that my writing had been elevated since The Department. We were anxious to nail down the sale of my second book, so the ms went out to editors. And the response was...fine. Fine, completely fine. Editors enjoyed it, and it looked like we would get three or four offers, but these weren't the big, frothy offers that we hoped for, offers that would slam-dunk my second book as a sure-thing. In fact, a few editors (who explicitly said that they weren't offering but who believed in me as a writer) set up phones calls and/or coffee with me, and all of them said the same thing, "You're capable of a bigger book. A better book. This one is too quiet. This one doesn't have a hook. Try something else, and come back to me."

Sigh. So my agent and I faced a decision: sell this one for less than we'd like (and risk that indeed, it would be a quiet book, which is industry-speak for "small print run and probably not a lot of readers"), but still register a sale (and hey, a sale is still a sale), or gamble and walk away from these potential offers, and try to come up with something new.

I went out for a run after having one of these decision-making conversations with my agent, and as I circled the running loop in Central Park, I was also replaying the words of these editors, editors who really wanted to work with me but who knew that I could deliver something better. And part of me knew that I could deliver something better too. And as I replayed their words, I was struck with an idea for a new book. It came out of nowhere, and bam - I already had some of the scenes and the characters and the conflict before I got home. I ran (literally) back to my computer, banged out 15 pages, and sent them to my agent.

She read them within the hour, and we both immediately knew that this was the book that we should be selling. It was what editors call a "big book," with a big hook, and with relatable, challenged characters...and their scenes and stories flowed easily every day that I sat down to write. It just felt so instinctively right, so much more so than my other effort which was agonizing and frustrating and not particularly enjoyable, and within two weeks, I'd written 100 pages. We sold it soon thereafter, and I wrapped my first draft last week.

That other manuscript still sits in the bowels of my computer - another lesson learned, another practice run for a better book. There's no shame in this for me. Instead, it's just proof that there is no ceiling on the learning curve for fiction writing: you can be as good a writer as your knowledge and effort and yes, some natural skill, allow. And it's also proof that even when you've established yourself in this industry, you have to keep proving yourself again and again. There's no coasting, there are no half-efforts, there are no assurances that because you sold one book to a publishers, you'll sell another.

It's like the old cliched adage says: try, try again. In our industry, that's the only way to succeed.

12 comments:

Jen A. Miller said...

I have the utmost respect for fiction writers. I don't think I could take writing a book -- twice -- that doesn't sell. I don't think I have it in me.

But I wanted to comment on something else: isn't it amazing how running can help your writing? I'm convinced I'm a better writer because I have that mental free time while running. I've solved problems in my non-fiction manuscript that way, or figured out how to fix a problem with an article, and come up with countless pitches while on the road. And it helps me stay in shape, which doesn't hurt either!

Jen
downtheshorewithjen.blogspot.com

Trish Ryan said...

What a great post! One of the things I'm realizing about this business of writing is that tough love from editors and agents can be the most valuable feedback we get. Sure, it's hard to hear. But if everyone had humored you and said, "what a nice little book," you might never have gotten to the great, big book.

I'm already in line to read it :)

Larramie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larramie said...

A "quiet" book vs. a "big" book, is there any contest -- particularly for someone willing to run the extra mile?

I'm excited!

Dara Chadwick said...

Allison, thanks for sharing this story. It couldn't have come at a better time for me. While we all love success stories, I learn the most sometimes from hearing about what didn't work for other people and how they handled it.

And I'll second what Jen said. A good workout does wonders for clearing the mind and getting down to business.

Angela Williams Duea said...

What a great inspiration for me. So glad you got the encouragement to keep writing, and the desire to share your story. You've given me encouragement to keep slogging on with my second, and I hope better, book.

Eileen said...

I felt like I should raise a lighter and sway back and forth during this post yelling out the occasional AMEN.

Manic Mom said...

It's so true that one ms might not be that good, but you can glean from it and make a better one!

Is 'glean' the correct word?

Good for you!!! Congrats!

Gretchen Roberts said...

Allison, you're so generous to share this backstory with all of us. Thank you. I have to admit that, though I don't have any fiction experience in this vein, in my non-fiction writing when something flows easily it usually ends up being crap, and the stories I sweat through end up shining. So I kind of laughed when I read your story, thinking it would have been the first book that would have worked out for me, not the second. But then again, there's always the "eh" factor, as in, "eh, it's ok." It's got to be better than ok.

Time of My Life sounds fantastic, and I can't wait to read it.

Carleen Brice said...

Thank you for sharing this! I've been thinking about what I want to write for my third novel (the second one is in progress), and it's great to hear the "big" book vs. the "quiet" book story. Novels 1 & 2 have pretty good hooks. Now I know for sure novel 3 better have too. Really, thanks!

Leah Ingram said...

I'm so impressed with your ability to write fiction. I love to read it but I just don't "get" how to write it. Maybe someday I will.

But what I really wanted to say was I'm glad you explain the importance of rewriting, rethinking and re-editing. I think that too much of the time, writers are so in love with their words that they take suggested edits as a personal insult. It's not--especially if it comes from an agent or editor with whom you have a relationship.

I've learned to hold my tongue when a pro offers edits, maybe go out for a long walk with my dog (sorry, I don't run) and then come back to the table and take another stab at my work. It takes time to process these things and, as your post and the comments of others can attest to, sometimes physical exercise is the best way to speed up the processing process.

Speaking of my work, the proposal for my next book grew out of my blog here: http://suddenlyfrugal.blogspot.com

Congratulations, Allison!

Leah

kerry dexter said...

Alison,
a fine story well told, and congraulations on the sale too. however one gets there, sometimse there's just the need for quiet to allow the creative voice to speak clearly. good for you for having the courage to listen, and to act on that.