Perspectives on Trunking My Writing

A few years ago, I went to a writer’s conference, and a friend of mine pitched a book that I’d thought he had a great background to write. He pitched the book in person to the agent, and the agent had told him specifically that he couldn’t sell the book in the form it was in; he would be able to sell it if the author rewrote the book from a different perspective. My friend was upset by this; it wasn’t the book he’d written, it wasn’t what he was trying to say with his book, and he said that he wasn’t interested. He was polite; he was professional; there wasn’t anything in his manner that anyone took offense to.

 This rocked the conference like wildfire. There were a lot of hopeful writers there who were saying they’d write their books from any angle the agent wanted if that meant they could get their foot in the door.

 I’m ashamed to say that I was one of them. And it’s an understandable position. Aspiring writers toil away, sometimes for years. It’s a long, slow journey that’s successful for some, and not for others, and generally talent doesn’t have a huge part of that. The successful writer may not be as talented as the writer who can’t seem to make a sale. Sometimes it really is the lightning bolt of luck; sometimes it’s the right book for the right market at the right time. There is really no way to gauge that except to keep writing. Is it any wonder that all the writers at the conference were shocked and dismayed by someone saying that they might make a sale if one of their own made specific changes, and the writer refusing to do so?

 Well, even if the changes were made as requested, there’s no guarantee here that the book would actually sell. There’s no guarantee that the agent would have signed that writer; it was merely a suggestion based on the way that agent perceived the market at the time. It wasn’t necessarily a bad suggestion. I did think my friend had the background to write that book. He had no interest in doing so.

 I now completely understand his point of view.

 SHADES OF GRAY was the first novel I ever wrote. I’ve slaved over it, rewriting and editing and work shopping and critiquing until I’m sick of it. I’ve done several drafts, each one better than the last, and I learned something from the entire process. I’m a better writer for having gone through all of that. My first drafts are cleaner. I’m making fewer grammar and syntax mistakes. My analogies work better and my metaphors are clearer. In short, I wouldn’t trade the whole process for anything.

I made the difficult decision to trunk the novel; to file it away in a desk drawer (or a flash drive, whichever the case may be) for now. I’m no longer submitting it at the moment. This was a difficult decision, but my mind is made up, and at this point, I am concentrating on other projects.

Why did the memory of my friend and his refusal to rewrite resurface now? Well, that’s a bit of a long story. Let me see if I can summarize.

SHADES OF GRAY is a werewolf story, about a rookie cop learning that police work just isn’t what she sees on television. It’s a story about love, crime, redemption, secrets, reality, humor, and relationships. It is not a horror story. It is not a murder mystery, although it does have elements of crime solving in it. I was inspired to write the book because of all of the shiny new rookies on the police department that hit the streets with a gung ho go-get-‘em attitude, and have to learn about real life police work. Those new recruits either burn out very quickly, become very jaded, or turn into some of the best officers on the streets. It’s fascinating to watch the transformation. I also wanted to show an angle to crime writing that one doesn’t see often…the reaction of a victim to a violent crime.

Along the way, I’ve had several agents tell me to ratchet up the sex in the book. I’ve had agents tell me that they want to see more violence in the beginning. I’ve made some changes to the beginning of the book, starting it off with a faster scene, tightening up some wordy passages to jump a reader faster into the story. After I did that, I started getting more requests from query letters to send the full manuscripts, or to send a partial manuscript, than I had gotten before.

Most of the rejections I’ve gotten from the fulls or the partials have not had specific concrete criticisms. Some had criticisms that I disagreed with, for one reason or another. One or two had legitimate beefs that I took into consideration. I kept hearing a request to kill someone early, or to turn it into a murder mystery. When I announced my decision to trunk the book to my critique group, they protested immediately and then all decided that the book needed more blood and violence, that I should rewrite it that way.

Could I write that book? Sure. I’ve got a degree in criminal justice. I’ve got a law degree. I’ve worked as an investigator on murder cases; I’m an assistant prosecuting attorney now, with eight years experience. I have the ability and the background; the platform, if you will, to write that book. Why don’t I want to write that book?

I don’t want to write that book because that’s not why I sat down to write the book in the first place. I’m afraid that I would lose the point I was trying to make with the book; that police work isn’t glamorous, that victims of crime have very real struggles, and the rookie dynamic I was so infatuated with. I’m very much afraid that writing the book in the manner that has been suggested only adds to the glamour and mystique that I was trying to get behind in my book. And doing so loses the focus on victimization that was so important to me.

I feel for my friend from a couple of years ago, and I now agree with his stand. You have to write the book of your heart. If your heart’s not in it, it may sell, but it’s hard to make a career out of writing things your heart isn’t in. And if it sells, the industry may well want more of the same. And if your heart’s not in it, you won’t enjoy it. And then why do it?

I write humor. I write fantasy. There’s generally some element of mystery to my work, or crime elements, because that’s what I do for a living, that’s what I spend my day surrounded by and that’s what I feel compelled to write. I may someday write a murder mystery, or a story with horror elements. It’s not this book.

 SHADES OF GRAY will be put in a drawer for now. It may resurface at some point. It may be that I decide, a year from now, two years from now, a decade from now, that it’s time to revisit and maybe breathe new life into it. I may decide to rewrite it at that point into something like others have suggested, but for right now, this is the right decision.

 If you’ve read any part of this novel for me, I appreciate your help and your suggestions, but I am not going to change my mind right now. Your help and your suggestions have strengthened my writing skill; it is not effort wasted.


Truly Mooooo-ving

RECOMMENDATION ALERT: I have received no compensation of any kind for this recommendation. I bought the book with my own funds, and personally made donations as listed below.

 Patrick Rothfuss is one of my favorite authors.

 Pat’s book, THE NAME OF THE WIND, took my breath away when it was first published.

 I generally have a hard time with epic fantasy, because too often the writer gets carried away with the cool world they created and forget that they’re supposed to be telling me a story. I love a good fantastical story. I hate reading about the cool weird bush that the characters just happen to ride past on their way to slay demons and dragons and evil wizards. The bush has nothing to do with the story. I don’t want to read about it ad nauseum for ten pages. It makes me give up on slogging through it.

 This book did NOT do that. It was amazing. I’ve recommended it all over the place. I’ve pushed it on friends who read fantasy, friends looking for gift recommendations for fantasy fans, for wives to buy their husbands, for husbands to buy their wives, for mothers to buy their teenagers, and on and on and on. Words actually fail me when I start trying to explain the awesomeness of this book. It’s just that cool.

 So when I got the chance to meet Pat in person last year (2008) at GenCon in Indianapolis, I was surprised that I was actually able to be cool and normal and not the gushing fan goo-girl I was afraid I’d be. Pat’s a hyper guy…but really nice and really enthusiastic about writing and fantasy in general. I actually sent him an email last year as he was getting his first book off the ground, telling him that his was the first in a long time that I’d been able to read without getting out the red pen (since I’d been editing my own work so much). He was gracious enough to personally reply. Cool guy.

 Completely unrelated to all of this, Pat last year launched a matching campaign for Heifer International.

 Heifer holds a special place in my heart. My siblings and I presented my parents with donations made in memory of both of my grandfathers to Heifer as part of their Christmas presents last year. Both grandfathers spent their entire lives in agriculture, and in working with family farmers. My maternal grandfather was an auctioneer; my paternal grandfather founded the family business, a feed mill and farm supply company that my father runs today. It meant a lot to me that we gave back, in their names, to a charity that would have fit their legacy.

 Don’t tell my parents. I’d like to surprise them. I’m planning to do it again this year.

 Check out Pat’s fundraiser. He’s got some cool prizes up that you might win. And you’re helping out a worthwhile cause at the same time. And there’s absolutely nothing cooler than that.