Last month, I wrote about how I was (not) handling agent rejections. I struggled mightily with the sense that each pass, no matter how politely phrased, was a subtle affirmation of the “you’re not good enough” voice that lurks deep within me. Instead of being able to approach the process like shopping for the right pair of shoes—and being able to try, try again until I found the ones that looked great, felt great, matched the outfit, and made me want to click my heels together—I felt like the new neighbor bringing Jello-O salad to the block party that already had three dozen Jell-O salads, all better than mine. I slunk away each time with the sense that my untouched, scorned, passed-over salad shouted to the world of my deep inadequacies as a cook, a guest, a creator, and a person.
I remember saying I didn’t want to rewrite the MS, that I liked it as-is. I decided to send to a couple of publishers who take submissions directly, two of which wanted a longer synopsis than the one I had prepared. I decided I would look at the MS again to write the more detailed synopsis. I’d keep swinging, as the agent who suggested a revise/resubmit, then declined again, told me to do.
I put the synopsis on the bottom of the to-do list, and left it there for a while. Things were going merrily along on the first draft of the next novel, the one with my feminist reformer in 1792 London, which I completed for NaNoWriMo and is about 40,000 words too long to be accepted anywhere. Then I got word that people were actually reading an old novel I’d posted to a group-read site on a whim last summer (well, actually, posted for a contest, but it didn’t win—no surprise.) I went on a two-week, red-eyed revision bender, crunching four or five chapters a day to rewrite that book into something I wasn’t ashamed to bear my pseudonym.
Then I came back to the novel I’d been shopping, Thomasine’s story, The Lighted Heart.
And as I read some way into it, I realized I could understand why I kept hearing from agents that they weren’t feeling a connection. I wasn’t feeling the connection, either. It was well-written, I still love the characters, and I like the overall arc, but something about the scenes were falling a little flat. I had pages and pages of witty banter, but where was the conflict? The drama, the tension? What were the stakes?
Where, I kept asking myself, is the problem here?
Turns out the time away from the MS proved beneficial. With the other two novels, I’d been reading for revision, looking hard for what I could cut, what characters needed more development, what scenes needed more tension, what needed to be added, and what needed to be completely rewritten. And I came back to Thomasine’s story with these revision goggles on, rather than, as I think I had been doing before, trying to make sure the revisions I’d already made kept the plot development intact. Instead of just looking to make sure everything fit, I was looking to make sure everything worked.
And not all of it did. Or at least, not as good as I wanted it to be working. I could see room for improvement.
But did I want to dive in and rewrite this story one more time? I wasn’t sure.
I’ve put this novel through ten drafts over the course of 5 years (with some time lost due to birthing and tending babies). I have friends who have read it two or three times now (and I love them deeply for it). I’d envisioned a historical novel in the vein of Jane Austen, with biting social commentary layered into the story of a young woman’s maturation into a vocation, a sense of self, and adult relationships, including romance. Following the advice of a couple of agents and published writers, I had later reframed and pitched the book as historical romance. Even though I didn’t think it really fit as a historical romance, and that didn’t capture the soul of it.
I met with one of my writing groups (I have three) and told them about an idea that had been growing for some time, but which I’d resisted because I didn’t want to revise yet again. It would change the stakes considerably for my protagonist, give her a new and added problem and motivation, and lead to a greater payoff in the climactic scene. As I spoke with my friends, the energy of this idea sparked from me to them. They know the character almost as well as I do and could see the implications: what would she do when–? What if–? And then what if?
I scribbled notes and left the meeting buoyant and determined. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. New pieces of the story were unfolding in my head. Again.
I pulled up the last draft I had loved, before I got the advice to cut it down significantly because of the word limits publishers will accept, before I got the advice to turn it into a romance. I went back to the draft that had been the book I wanted to write and I decided to revise it into the book *I* wanted it to be.
Not a book I thought I could sell. The book I wanted this to be.
Something magical happened. Actually, two magical things. I fell in love with the story all over again. The characters feel as real to me as the people in my life. I fall asleep watching them move around their stage. Some scenes compressed. Some scenes grew. I cut out the hero’s p.o.v. altogether. This is a challenge, because now I have to show his inner life and his struggles only through what the heroine sees. With every change, I grill myself on my intention: am I just trying to lead in to the next scene I’ve already written, as I had been doing with previous versions? Or am I writing the scene that has to be there, that couldn’t happen any other way?
Revision is hard, in some ways harder than writing the draft, where there was little worry; if I didn’t like a scene, or it didn’t fit later, I could just cut. Now things have to work. There has to be a problem. There has to be tension on every page. There have to be agendas and cross-purposes and I get to add back in all the lush historical detail that I kept paring back because editors said it was too much. It’s an incredible challenge. The characters keep unfolding to me in new and deeper ways. I feel what they feel. Sometimes, I admit, I feel the resistance coming up again: I’m changing so much! Do I want to? What if I’m killing it?
And I’m in love with the process all over again, even with how hard it is. I love how much this is demanding of me, to write my story, or rather her story, to watch my character learn and cry and grow, rather than trying to hit plot points or genre features or themes that readers love.
I also feel silly that it’s so hard. Why did I pick something so hard to love? In my first job out of college, when I was writing software code, nothing matched the frustration of trying to work through a particular bug. Nothing matched the exhilaration of finding the code that worked and made the whole program come alive.
When I read what I’ve revised so far (I’m about 80 pages in), it feels utterly familiar. I keep having to look at earlier drafts to remind myself what’s changed. I like to think this is because everything there belongs. This version also sings to me in a way the story hasn’t before. There’s a new thread of excitement running through it, and through me. There’s more at stake now, in every respect.
Of course I hope this version will sing to an agent and a publisher and readers, too. I didn’t start down this path with the daydream of posting a book online that no one actually reads.
But even if agents and publishers don’t like this version, either, I feel differently about the story. I’m behind it more than ever. I’m writing the best book I know how to write, and I’m letting it change me just as my characters are deepening and growing in new ways. No matter what happens to it—if I self-publish and sell 20 copies to my cousins, best friends, aunts, and mom—this is the story I want to tell.
Sure, I’ve considered whether revising one more time is just an avoidance tactic, pulling my book from the line up so I don’t have to come up to bat and strike out again. Am I afraid of success? Am I afraid of failure? Am I afraid of finding out I don’t really have what it takes to get and agent and land a deal with a traditional publisher? All of the above.
But, once again the process, not the recognition, has become the reward. This isn’t about writing a bestseller. This is about learning how to write a good novel. And I’m reminded, every day when I sit down to my computer, why I’ve been writing stories since I was seven years old. I love to write. I get to spend part of every day doing something I love this much, creating something I think is meaningful, that brings me joy, and that I hope will bring as much joy to others.
It feels great. And, oddly enough, the rejection doesn’t hurt anymore, because it brought me here: back to the work, back to the love, back to the long slow patient process.
Everything’s going to be okay. In fact, things are blooming.