The Path (#1): Getting to the Book I Was Meant to Write
In this series, 'The Path', I'll discuss my journey, as it's happening, in going from manuscript to commercial publication for the first time.
In future 'The Path' posts, I'll talk about things like querying for and signing with a literary agent and all that has unfolded since then, but I thought it was important to start with the journey of getting to the book that precipitated getting the agent and eventually the deal. It's been a winding, challenging, and edifying road, to say the least, and worth a few words here.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I think most people who write hold similar innate knowledge as kids, even if it's unclear how that might manifest. It's just the thing you do when you have that bug. You write. I wrote stories and poems and fanfiction in spiral-bound notebooks, on loose leaf paper, in journals, eventually on word processors and then computers -- a bunch for school but mostly in secret at home, for myself. I couldn't help but generate it. I didn't know why or what I aimed to do with it. It was just something I loved doing. A hobby. A passion.
That passion turned into formalized study as an undergrad at the University of Maine, where I majored in English in the Creative Writing track. When graduation was coming up (2009), my mentor and friend, a professor then in the English Department, encouraged me to apply to the English MA program at UMaine. I did, and was accepted. For those two years I again focused on fiction writing, producing a master's thesis titled AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE. As graduation was yet again approaching (2011), that same mentor and friend said I should really try to keep going -- that maybe an MFA would be good for me. That maybe I could really Do The Thing. This was pretty revelatory to me. I had made projections for myself -- maybe I'd be an English teacher who continued to write for fun, as an avocation. My friend, Dave, was presenting me with another idea. Maybe I could be a published novelist. Maybe I had what it takes. (Not that anyone needs an MFA or any other degree to be a published novelist, and a great one, god knows. But I liked school and the idea of training further into the field -- leaving options open for perhaps becoming a professor one day, etc).
I applied to several MFA programs and was accepted at two with full rides; the University of Utah and the University of Notre Dame. I accepted Notre Dame's offer and off to South Bend, Indiana I went. By graduation (2013) I had thoroughly re-workshopped AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE and had produced another novel-length manuscript, ALL OF THE EVERYTHING. I also had a few literary agent referrals in hand from a mentor at Notre Dame (none of which would ultimately pan out), and was ready to take a break from school for a while. Pursuing a Creative Writing Ph.D. had crossed my mind in a serious way, but it felt like time to sort myself out as a person by that point. Going further, for me, felt like pushing off some sort of important reality-check I needed. Not everyone needs that pause, but I did. What did I want to do with my life? What kind of writing might fill that life? Where AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE was a fairly pure innovative/literary curio cabinet of a book, quirky and decidedly not commercial, ALL OF THE EVERYTHING had a little more of an accessible, commercial New Adult sensibility. Each was so different and neither was then published. It left me feeling a little confused about the kind of writer I was or wanted to be and what kind of project might interest me next.
By this time (2012-2013), I had discovered my passion for crime and thriller novels. Gillian Flynn was the one who really popped my cherry. GONE, GIRL snuck up on me and devoured me, as did the mystery/thriller Pendergast Series of novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, as did Stephen King's canon. I couldn't get enough of the cleverness, of the dastardly motives and biases that drove people to do extreme things, scary things. Soon podcasts like MY FAVORITE MURDER, THE LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT, and CRIMINAL started to be in regular rotation. I adored and admired these stories and storytellers, their thirst to understand the darkness and vulnerability and resiliency resident in all of us. I consumed so much content, a consummate fan, but didn't cross over into production. These were the kinds of podcasts I loved to listen to and books I loved to read. But it didn't cross my mind to try to write the kind of story that I loved so much. (Weird, right?)
After graduation from Notre Dame in 2013, I moved back to Maine and in with my parents and did what must be done -- I countenanced my sky-high student loan debt (which is still sky-high!) and sought work, ending up with two concurrent temp jobs. Eventually I landed a steady office job at my alma mater, the University of Maine (a job at which I still work), all the while reading more crime and thriller novels, listening to more podcasts of the same ilk, struggling to reconcile who I wanted to be ( a writer!) with what I was: an office worker with two unpublished manuscripts.
In late 2013, after two years (Nov 2011 - Oct 2013) of trying to find a small press publisher for AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE, one came through. Mammoth Books would publish my weird little book that I was so proud of -- it felt amazing that AV had been my first attempt to write a novel, and here it was about to be a published work! It was such a wonderful and amazing feeling. The book came out in the summer of 2016 (yes, it took that long to publish, and yes, it is still available for purchase!). Small press publishing meant dedicated, boutique handling of my work, but it also meant a significant lack of promotion, etc., due to budgetary constraints. I knew this going in and was okay with it. Knowing that readership would likely be minimal, I figured that at the very least it would be good to have on my CV -- especially if I ever wanted to teach creative writing as my career one day.
I let ALL OF THE EVERYTHING sit for two years after graduating from the MFA, for reasons I can't quite remember. I probably wanted some space from it. I then probably wanted to revise it. I then probably got swept up in work on publishing AV with Mammoth. And life. Just life. But in June 2015, midway through the publishing process for AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE, I started querying (I'll talk more in depth about the querying process in next month's post) both literary agents (including the few that Notre Dame mentor referred me to) and small presses. ALL OF THE EVERYTHING, which I really loved, seemed to me to sort of straddle the line between innovative-literary and commercial-literary. Despite how much I believed in it, no one else did. I sent it out to
fifty-three (53!) agents and small presses (hedging my bets on both sides), and was rejected, slowly and painfully, over two years, by all fifty-three (53). But that's how it goes sometimes. A year or two to write it, another year or two to revise and query -- and bupkis. Such is life. Writing is full of such
heartbreaks. Which is not to say it was a failure (though it felt that way at the time). I learned a lot from my experience with AOTE. It forced me to think about the business side of writing and publishing. It forced me to write synopses of various lengths; it forced me to write and re-write query letters and pitches; it forced me to think about the marketplace. It is probably the case that AOTE is neither "here" nor "there" -- not quite innovative enough for small presses, not quite
mainstream enough for commercial publishers. All lessons well, if painfully, learned.
So what did I do in the midst of this several-years'-long-conversation-with-self about genre and marketplace and publishing and where I fit and what I wanted? I experimented with the opposite end of the traditional spectrum -- self-publishing a romance novel (2015-2016)! It was quite liberating. I wrote one book under a pseudonym; it was a love triangle story involving a young woman working on the crew of an indie film on the coast of Maine, a complicated, passionate local boat captain, and an emotionally unavailable fuckboy from the woman's past for whom she'd always carried a torch. Fun! It was a really great experience in which I wrote totally unselfconsciously, very much toward genre convention, and with the advice of a friend who is a very successful self-published romance writer. I self-published through Amazon after trying to get it published by more conventional outlets like Harlequin, etc. (chalk up seventeen (17) more rejections!) and had my first experience of having great, enthusiastic reviews (multiple! many!) from people I was not related to or in workshop with. People who did not know me from Adam (or Eve?) who simply liked the book. It was a thrilling experience. It was also an experience that taught me that the romance game was not quite right for me, but that being read by a wider audience was something I *did* want. It felt good to write something people wanted to read, something there was an audience for. I eventually took the title down from Amazon after only a few months, but the efforts of writing the book, doing early-stage audience building, and getting honest feedback from people who didn't feel obligated to me through friendship or familial kinship was super valuable. Through these reviews, people told me what they liked about the work. They told me what they didn't like. But most of all, people actually *read* the thing! It was great.
Know what's also great? Talk therapy. I started seeing a therapist in 2015ish when I was feeling sort of down and lost in my life personally, artistically, and otherwise. At that inflection point, I acutely needed what therapy provided. I still see the same therapist, but now it's all about semi-regular, casual tune-up and let's-keep-improving vibes. There's always stuff, you know? Body image. Impostor syndrome. Planning a wedding (lol but true).
It was during one of these sessions that I had my EUREKA! moment about my writing and sense of self as a writer. I asked: Why am I not writing the stuff I love to read? Why am I not writing thrillers with my sensibility, artistry, and point of view?
Say on, said my therapist, say on!
I thought a lot about this. I realized that, in part, I had been hesitant to explore this instinct because of learned attitudes. Graduate programs in English and Creative Writing don't always instill an open-minded perspective about the merits of works that are popular or commercially successful. Would I be "selling out" if I wrote a book in a genre that was commercially viable? In a way that was commercially viable, even if it still had my voice and my craft-based values? It mattered to me, somehow, what People might think if my writing strayed from the small press/"literary" world and its ethos. Some of this judgement and pressure is real, some of this is imagined, some of this is self-imposed -- I get that. But I've spoken to enough of my friends and peers with similar experiences to know that it's not *all* imagined. And what we seem to agree on is this: there are great books on all parts of the literary spectrum, there are crappy books on all parts of the literary spectrum -- even the parts that end up on grad-level syllabi. So a person should do whatever the hell they want and not worry about any of that external (and sometimes internal!) bullshit.
I also realized that I hadn't pursued this instinct to write what I love because it meant admitting to myself that I didn't want to pursue a career in higher ed. I realized the goal of becoming a full time professor/instructor was not something I actually wanted to do. It only felt like something I *should* want to do, based on my training and experiences. I kept my toe in the pool, adjuncting and advising creative writing students part-time on and off up through the spring of 2019 while still working my full-time office job. But I'd known for quite some time that teaching those classes was fun for me perhaps only in the small dosage I was taking them on. My heart wouldn't be in it to make a career of it. What I really wanted was to work a job and to write books. Emphasis on the 'write books' part, come what may.
Besides wanting or not wanting to devote myself to teaching, it became a matter of ability: *can* I work full-time, teach creative writing part-time at the college level, and write in a consistent and substantial and quality way? Some people can do some version of this. I admire them. I couldn't. During periods when I was teaching, I focused so much of my energy on that and my day job that I left myself no mental energy to then go write in my spare time. The creative, energetic well was dry. I had to give something up. It brought me to an important Sophie's Choice: if it comes down to it, and I can either only Teach or Write (well) in addition to making a steady income, what will I do? It clarified things for me in such an important way. I gave up the teaching/advising, and it has been a key to getting writing done. As much as I enjoyed parts of teaching (and the supplemental income it provided -- remember, sky-high student loan debt and a wedding in there!), at the end of the day, I want to be a writer. So I had to take a gamble on myself. Do away with the supplemental income and get down to the work of writing. I had to be willing to bet on myself and my work.
So. The eureka!
In July of 2017, I started to write a thriller in earnest. I stayed true to my voice, using all I'd learned (and sometimes, unlearned) from my schooling and reading experiences; using the hard lessons I'd taken from writing and failing to publish in the past; using the insights I'd gained by going to therapy. Eleven (11) months later I had a completed draft of what is now called BENEFACTION (Sourcebooks, 2021) and was then called THE AGONY RECORD. In June 2018, I was ready to start querying agents, feeling more confident about making it just a bit further in the process this time than I ever had before. Helpful feedback rather than boilerplate rejection would be good enough; I could take an incremental gain. I'm in it for the long haul.
It ended up going a lot better than that.
Am I saying I was not "meant to write" AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE or ALL OF THE EVERYTHING or that romance novel? Hell, no! I was definitely meant to write those. I love AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE and will always be so proud of it. I did some good work there and was fortunate to see it published. I loved AOTE and learned so much from it, though it was never published. Same with the romance novel, whose public life was short-lived. Those were the books I was meant to write at that time. BENEFACTION is simply the next one in that legacy, that evolution.
But BENEFACTION also represents a synthesis and reconciliation of parts of myself that the other works do not. The parts that value craft + quality and the parts that value storytelling + accessibility. The parts that value art and the parts that value commerce. (As if any of these are ever truly mutually exclusive.)
BENEFACTION proved to me what I had been sensing for a while: that I should do exactly whatever it is I want to do. To follow my instincts, which are allowed to change over time.
Next month, in 'The Path #2', I'll write about how I successfully queried for BENEFACTION. How understanding my book and my goals for my book led to a better query letter, which, besides the book itself, is the start of everything when seeking literary representation. Also: persistence. (See the six years, several manuscripts, and 60+ rejections above).
Until next time, happy reading!