A friend texted me the other day and was like, “I can’t get thaup any enthusiasm to work on my novel projects, when I know that there’s a good chance the book won’t sell, and it’ll all be for nothing.”
I wrote back, “That’s the life!”
Right now I’m in the final stages of editing my novel-for-adults, The Lonely Years. Originally I had allocated three months for this stage of revision, because at every stage this book has taken much longer than I thought it should. I would go into a revision intending to just fix one little problem and discover that I needed to rewrite 70% of the book.
But now I’m having a sneaking suspicion that the last rewrite did it. I had a sensation when writing the ending that I had finally, for the first time in the drafting and revising process for this book (and perhaps for any book), written an ending that worked. The final image just popped into place, and I realized that the whole book was leading up to this, and that it couldn’t possibly have ended any other way. And when you’ve got an ending that works, usually it means the rest of the book works too.
I don’t know. I think this book might just need another two or three weeks of work. Then off to my agent, who’ll take anywhere between 1 and 3 months to read it. And afterwards…who knows? It’ll go on submission at some point, and maybe get rejected all around town. Selling a literary novel for adults is very different from selling a young adult novel. Even YA novels frequently fail to sell, but literary novels are much worse. The number of debut literary novels that sell to major publishers, including the big independents, each year is, well, I’m not going to make up a statistic, but it’s a very small number! And when you think of the 150 MFA programs in this country churning out 3 to 10 graduates in fiction each, every single year, and all the people writing literary novels who aren’t in those programs, well, it’s depressing.
But what’s not depressing is my book! I love it! The book is good book! It’s scary to be in this stage of editing a book and to be like, well, I can’t fix these words later. These are the words. Editors will read them. And from those words they’ll form a judgement about whether to buy the book. It’s making my heart race just writing about it.
At the same time, I feel very grateful to have written this book. I’ve been working on it now since January of 2018 (which is, okay, not that long I guess). But it deals with themes I’ve been trying on since, well, at least since 2013, when I started trying to write a follow-up to first novel. I think The Lonely Years does something that’s very technically difficult, at least within the framework of the standard three-act novel. It looks honestly at loneliness and anomie in a way that’s not hysterical or diseased. I think the book gets deep into the sense of isolation that comes with being alive, being uprooted from your community, and being transplanted to a new place where you’re supposed to be having the time of your life. It’s not an easy thing to write a book about the absence of conflict and the absence of drama. Each time you attempt to do it, you need to solve a bunch of problems anew, and solve them in a way that fits the specific situations you’re writing about. I think the solutions I used in The Lonely Years are extremely clever and, dare I say it, beautiful. I certainly hope that y’all get a chance to read them someday.
If you want a hint, though, you can read my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal, in which my problems were almost the opposite. Early drafts were way too full of conflict and event, to the point where it distracted from the things I was trying to write about. In each draft, I dialed back the conflict, focusing more on the specifics of the characters and their relationships, and the result is, I think, as intricately plotted and well-structured as a thriller, but without any of the overt plot scaffolding.