In a corner of my garden, I keep a compost bin. Next to it is a bunch of things I might reuse at some point—stakes for tall plants, a few cinderblocks, pots of various sizes, some tools I don’t use all the time. It’s a workaday little spot, not glamorous but useful.
Much like a certain corner of my imagination, where I store intriguing facts and that documentary about child hunger, and all the episodes of a BBC show I like and the names of all the Winsor and Newton watercolors and anything else I might need. It’s messy, but it’s invisible. No one knows it’s there but me.
Here’s the thing. I just had to throw a solid chunk of a novel into that compost heap. It was not easy. For two years, I’ve been working on this thing. It was something I loved in about seven incarnations, and loved the last one quite a lot when I sent it to my agent, hoping she’d like it.
She wanted to.
She did not.
I finally had to admit that as much as I loved one of the characters, a character as vivid to me as anyone in my own family, the story was just not going to jell. Maybe ever. It was time to let it go.
I do not do this, just toss things aside. I am a commercial fiction writer with dozens and dozens of books under my belt and I can make anything work. I understand that my readers want women they can root for and perhaps aspire to be. They want escape from their daily life and a chance to be someone else for a day or a week. They want a book they can safely read on an airplane, or at the bedside of a dying loved one, or on the beach. If I weave a little life in there, and make some observations on the nature of being a woman in this modern world, that’s good, too.
I know how to do this. I’m not being arrogant, just factual. The pages contained good solid stuff about friendship and organic farming and community…all the things.
And yet…..after 6 or 7 or 10 rewrites of the first 200 pages, trying to find the story over two solid years, I finally had to admit that my agent was right. The book was fatally flawed in some way I couldn’t locate. My instincts, usually very reliable, were just wrong.
My agent broke the news that she didn’t like it while I was attending the Writer Unboxed conference, where we were also undergoing the agony of the elections. I was very depressed about all of it—not in a clinical kind of way, but in a very specific, situational way. Dear agent offered to send said novel on to an editor, and I was about to agree…maybe a second opinion?
I woke up the next morning (this was the day after the election) and emailed her urgently, telling her not to send it. I had a new idea. One sentence, that was all I had, but she and I both knew it had heft. I told her I’d have something for her after the new year, and immediately started working. [Read more…]