Tuesday, June 03, 2008

On "Letting Go" of My First Novel--A Reply

Last week, one of our commenters responded to this post on "Goals and Priorities" and asked: "Erika, I'm curious as to why you abandoned the goal of publishing a novel?"

Well, I haven't necessarily abandoned the goal of publishing a novel, but I have pretty much abandoned the idea of publishing my first novel manuscript. I promised our commenter a more detailed response, and here it is:

Once upon a time (the summer of 1996, to be specific), I discovered a file in the French National Archives while I was conducting dissertation research in Paris. Although the file lacked direct relevance to my doctoral project, it was an amazing find. Because its contents sparked the idea for an entire novel.

For the next several years I worked on that novel. I split my time three ways: I taught (I was an advanced graduate student, after all); I worked on my dissertation (which I finished in 1999); and I worked on the novel. I enrolled in workshops locally (in Massachusetts) and, for four consecutive summers, at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I applied to and was admitted to a Master Class at the 92nd Street Y. I attended the inaugural session of the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I obtained two in-depth consultations. I shared work-in-progress with my writing group, and with my colleagues in Harvard's History and Literature program.

By the time my Harvard colleagues got a peek at the work, I was looking for an agent. I'd already received a few very generous referrals, but none had panned out. So when one of my colleagues told me I should go ahead and contact his agent, I was thrilled.

The agent didn't snap up the manuscript right away. But she seemed to "get" what I was doing, and she made editorial suggestions I was willing to try. By the spring of 2001--very shortly before I was to attend the first residency of my "low-res" MFA program in North Carolina, the novel was officially "agented."

Although the writing sample I'd submitted with my MFA application was, in fact, the novel's opening chapter, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to be submitting chapters for critique while the book was simultaneously making the rounds in New York. Was that a mistake? I don't know. What I do know is that for the first three semesters of my MFA program I focused exclusively on short fiction. It was only by the fourth semester that I was back to "workshopping" the novel.

And that was because it hadn't yet sold. My relationship with my agent had not been easy. I found it difficult to get her on the phone, or to receive responses to my e-mails. Between 9/11 and her own series of health problems, she was, understandably, distracted. More significantly, she was primarily a nonfiction agent--which I should have realized and appreciated as soon as my colleague-her-client, a nonfiction writer, recommended her. But I was so happy to have "found" an agent who was willing to take me on, that I'd jumped right in.

By the winter of 2003 she'd told me that the novel had been rejected by many, many publishers (though I saw only a handful of the responses). One of the few she did share with me came from a Major Editor at a Major House. This editor really liked the first half to two-thirds of the novel, but thought the rest of it needed a lot of work. And she said that was willing to review the manuscript if I revised.

I was willing to revise.

So, in my last semester in the MFA program, I thought I'd try to focus on the novel again. But I really had no sense--nor had I received any advice concerning--how to workshop a novel over a semester. I figured the group had to see the first chapter. Big mistake. I didn't really want feedback on the first chapter. I needed help on the later segments, but had no idea how to get it. What happened in that first workshop that semester destroyed my trust in and respect for the instructor, and, I am quite aware, made her dislike me equally.

I soldiered on, though, and tried to revise more or less on my own. The Major Editor rejected my revision, and my agent was clearly losing interest. We soon parted ways. For a year or so I tried submitting the book to contests and independent presses on my own. No success.

Meantime, I'd become quite entranced with the short story form, and had begun publishing some of the short stories I'd written in the MFA program. My energies seemed more naturally directed toward developing a collection. But every time I approached agents with the collection, they wanted to see a novel, and the novel I had to show them had, well, been around. I needed a new novel, but I had no inspiration to write one.

I'm not sure when, exactly, I gave up on the novel. Publishing a snippet in 2006 seemed to help me close this "chapter" of my writing life more than it motivated me to continue with yet more revisions. Go figure.

So here I am. I want to write a new novel, and for the first time, I have some glimmers of hope in that regard (hopefully I can share more about that as the summer goes on). But when I return to that first one, I simply don't have the passion for it that I once did. It's almost painful for me to read it. Stubbornness aside, I've let go of this project. For now, at least.


Anonymous said...

As someone new to the novel process, this was really helpful. Thanks for sharing it, and best of luck.

deonne said...

Erika, thanks for answering my question! I'm about to start an MFA program and was planning to workshop a novel that is in the very early stages, assuming I'd finish that as my thesis. But from hearing other people's stories about their first (written) novel, it seems likely it will be more of an exercise than anythign else - a valuable exercise, of course, but it won't be the book I publish first.

Thanks for sharing your experience. It helps the rest of us who are behind you on the published writer curve.

Erika D. said...

Thank you so much for the feedback!

novaren said...

This was so interesting and, I must admit, really helpful to hear. I've given up on a novel manuscript myself (a decision I'm not even sure I've fully admitted to yet). I like how you say "letting go." It's hard to let go.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. It is stories like this one that are so helpful to all of us as writers, that remind us we are all human and deal with rejection as writers. It's easy to get frustrated with the agent/revision/critique process and how long it all seems to take. Thanks again for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Erika D: I came across your blog while looking to kill some time from my own battles at landing a "major agent" or a "big-time publishing house." I have self-published two novels and done very well. It's the only way to go, unless one wants to build a paper house full of rejections that come in those envelopes that(you)the writer pays for. Talk about self-abuse! Try it yourself. You will succeed.

Sam Moffie
author of Swap, The Organ Grinder and the Monkey and God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut!