I have mentioned this before: I am quiet all day long, usually. Living in my head. I don’t talk on the phone a lot. I don’t have to. No one is really looking for me, or if they are, they can find me on a screen. I have a few friends who don’t care about screens. They like to talk-talk. And I find I do, too, when they reach out to me. Then I remember the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I don’t even know how I feel about something at all until I’m in the midst of a conversation. I am always in the process of figuring something out.
This week I had a call with my friend Ladee. It was a sunny day in New Orleans, and I was walking through the neighborhood. Ladee was in Iowa, where she’s teaching, and it’s much colder. What do we talk about most of the time? We talk about work.
I was talking about this novel I've been writing forever and ever and which is due at the end of March. It's pretty tight, but on the other hand (is there not always an other hand?), it needs some work. You can read it now and get an entire experience of reading a novel — there is a beginning, middle, and an end to it. I've had maybe half a dozen readers on it, and I've gotten some valuable feedback, particularly from my agent, who is one of the sharpest readers in the business. The book is humming along.
But I'm not really going to know where it's at until my editor, Helen, reads it. We are collaborators on my work, most certainly, and there is a back and forth there that is necessary to its success. Ultimately I am the one writing the book, though. And ultimately she is the one who says yes or no to it. Unless you self-publish, no one else can push a book through to the finish line but an editor. This is simply the way the business works.
In this conversation I was having with Ladee I was expressing a concern — one that I would imagine many working writers have — about my editor possibly not liking my book. I mean I certainly think she will like it! I stand behind it, and we've done so many books together already. I have an idea of what she values and enjoys about my writing, and also what she appreciates in other authors and from a book in general. Still, this is just a normal thing that writers go through. We worry when our friends read it, and then we worry when our agent reads it, and then we worry when our editor reads it. (We shall not discuss how we worry when the rest of the world reads it.)
Also, in this conversation, I was thinking about my schedule. I heard myself worry about my summer, when I had planned on starting a brand new book. It's possible that even if my editor liked my novel, it would still need more work. Like what if it was a lot of work? And then this is how my summer would end up: revising away, tossing, chopping, rewriting, moving chunks of text around until they fit into their correct location. The question was this: would it be a little work or a lot of work?
Ladee said she was sure it would be fine, because this is what we tell our writer friends, that everything will work out, we are all beautiful geniuses, yes! But she also asked if that had ever happened before. If there had ever been a time where my book had been rejected. No, it’s not quite rejected — although yes, I’ve had books rejected — but where I would have to start over in a significant way.
And this has happened three times to me, as I recall. And since these are longish stories each time and there are different lessons to be gleaned from them, I’m going to break these into two newsletters.
The first time this happened was with my third book, The Melting Season, which Megan Lynch edited. (Megan is now the publisher of Flatiron Books, and also my friend now for many years.) That version of it was a fairly different book. It had been written as a response to this dark reading I’d had of Phillip Roth’s The Breast, probably one of the more personally offensive books I’ve read in my life, wherein a man turns into a giant breast. I had found this book on the bookshelf at a residency program, and I had written this novel-in-response in a flash, from a deep, heated place. (What a little bubble these residency programs are, where we can spend time thinking the world is waiting for us to write something inspired by an obscure Phillip Roth novella published four decades before.)
This first version had a different title (“The Prick”) and operated more in a near-futuristic, speculative realm, was much more concerned with that territory, and the final third of the book was entirely different. Although it was still about the same character, a woman running cross country away from her husband, but the place where she landed was just a super weird vision of an extra-plastic-surgery-ridden Los Angeles. This book was written in 2008. I would have to re-read it to see how close it hews to how the world is now but I would never be able to bring myself to read a book I’ve thrown away. Once I’m gone, I’m gone, baby.
Megan gave me a “no” on submission, although not a NO. I did not like this feeling. Not a NO but boy was it not a YES. There were notes, there were suggestions, there was something to work with. I was 38 and I was trying to sell my third book and I was still working in advertising and I hated it and all I wanted to do was write my way into my future, but that future was still another 4 years away, although I didn’t know that yet. I looked at the notes, and I sat down, and I began again.
I asked Megan about it all this week. She said that the original text, “…felt like a response to [Roth’s book] instead of something that stood on its own, and then you worked on it and you developed the characters and it became something much deeper.”
It made me think about what happens when we write when we’re angry, which was my initial impulse when writing this book. Nothing wrong with writing when you’re angry! But is it enough to hinge an entire book on anger and frustration? Eventually things have to shift. Eventually characters have to come into their own in the world you’ve created.
I spent about three months or so revising it and was finally able to sell it to Megan.
She and I messaged a bit about the process of getting not-quite-rejected. She describes this process as “hitting reset on a project.” She said it was, “Revising in a way that basically requires starting over…like changing the way weight is put on different elements of a story.”
In my memory of these revisions I made things less “weird,” which meant I dragged my gaze away from my interest in what this off-kilter world looked like, its peculiarities, its response to the fantastic world Roth had created in his book, and turned my attention more deeply toward the people in the story, the characters, and, particularly, the relationships between the women, and the family. I could still process a particular kind of frustration and transform it into something new by giving it this more stabilized universe. It made it so the book was sellable, publishable in the mainstream literary market, which was important to me at the time for my professional and creative purposes, and still is. This might not be as important to you, or even important at all. We all have different reasons for writing, potentially different imagined audiences. I can only speak to my experience and priorities. And anyway it’s still kind of a weird fucking book.
I know some of you would want to ask this question: Do I wonder about that other book that was much, much weirder, sometimes? It’s possible this book might sound terrible to you or, alternately, totally great and either way I would say you’re probably right. I don’t lose sleep over it, I can tell you that. I do not think about it like it was a lost love, but rather just someone interesting and memorable I met once and never saw again.
But that is the kind of writer I am, for better or worse. I write things, fast, I try them, and then I move on if they don’t seem to be working or serving me. It is all part of my process. Sometimes it seems like half our job is just figuring out what our process is and then respecting it.
Anyway, as intense as it all seemed at the time, in retrospect this feels like the natural evolution of developing a book. A hot flash of inspiration. Picking a point of view and running with it. And then someone telling you no or maybe or try again this way. Happens all the time. I could have thrown it away and started a new book entirely. If it were a harder “no” I might have. I liked her, though, this narrator. I liked her odd voice. I identified with her struggles. It felt worth it to try again.
Have you ever hit reset on a project? Leaving the comments open today for you to discuss.
Hope you’re all staying warm.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to New Orleans African American Museum.