Time, by Judy van der Velden / flickr

A history of writing in my life (part 3)

This is part three of the history of my writing life. If you missed it, here’s part one and part two.


I already talked about my early years and my schooling years, so now it’s time for a short foray into the years since then.

I wish I could be a writer full time, though I can’t imagine getting any more writing done than I already do. Now, I have to squeeze writing in time during my lunch break, on the weekends, in the car (Google text to type is both great and awful at the same time), before bed — any time I have a few minutes. Mostly, though, I’m just exhausted and uninspired and don’t write at all. Still — I have a feeling that if I ended up with the time and ability to write full time, it would end up as a constant list of things I did instead of writing.

I’ve written a lot since graduate school. One short story, a handful of poems, several novels. All of the novels are YA. I’ve queried four of them. I’ve had no offers of agent representation. It’s a maddeningly, frustrating, seemingly-endless loop of write, revise, re-draft, edit, set aside, read, touch-up, query, reject, reject, shelf it — start over again with something new.

As I started out five years ago, I tried to remember to stay on top of the trends. Instead of vampires, I tried a riff on werewolves. The novel, The Moonstone, is not one of my best. In fact, it’s probably only slightly above my MFA thesis in terms of writing, plot, and longevity. To be honest, I don’t even like werewolves and the supernatural / paranormal / fantasy obsession in YA fiction. What business did I have writing it? I know now that I was so eager to publish that I thought hitting the edge of a trend would work. Too bad werewolves never picked up post-vampire age.

Moving on, I tried to merge the uniqueness of my birthday (February 29) with a fantastical notion of what happens after death. In-Between and Ever-After came out of this, and I still adore this novel. It’s unfortunate that I was about a year behind on this trend, too. I started querying about the same time as Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and a few similar novels popped up. Even though I queried a little bit with The Moonstone, this second novel felt more a part of me than the previous. So getting rejections from both queries and requested manuscripts was more devastating than before. It also taught me a lot about the process, about “agent speak,” and about my own expectations. I still love this novel, and I probably always will. But what I know the most is that I really want to make sure that somewhere, sometime, in my career, I revisit the meaning and interest of Leap Day.

Ah, Birthright. I was so very, very convinced that this was my break-out novel. Birthright was going to be my debut. Alas, this was a very real example of my feelings being so completely off-base. At the time, however, there was no question about it. One, it featured a male POV, something I think is sorely lacking in YA. Two, it had adventure, romance, and intrigue — all the makings of an exciting YA story for both girls and boys. Three, it dealt in alternate history and steampunk, the latter of which hadn’t really been done in YA before. It was unfortunate, then, that I was several months into my querying process when the first steampunk YA novels popped up. Once again, I was a half year behind the trend. If only … yes, if only I had finished the novel sooner, maybe I could have paved the way. But I didn’t.

Querying Birthright did a lot for me. It hardened me. It forced me to understand that despite the positive responses and a lot of initial interest I wasn’t going to get an agent with this book. It confused me. I had two agents who, after reading the full manuscript, both gave me a large amount of feedback (without any revision or resubmitting requests, unfortunately) — a large amount of conflicting feedback. What one agent said, the other contradicted. It left me with nowhere to go. I understand subjectivity when it comes to a novel, but to read two sets of feedback that completely contradict the other? It didn’t work. My number one agent declined without even reading (she had requested the manuscript then got back to me a few weeks later) because of a client conflict (she had someone on her client list propose a similar idea to her recently; that novel, as far as I know, never materialized).

Can I say it took out a hole in me and rearranged my insides? The fact that Birthright didn’t get me an agent? Yes. I can. Because it did. I was so sure it was ‘the one.’ It had everything I needed to make a great debut. I am still so very proud of that novel. Most days I’m still sad I didn’t succeed with it.

After that, I moved away from trying to anticipate a trend and instead focused on these two things: ‘write what you know’ and ‘write what you want to read.’ So I went with summer camp, pop-stars, and fun — light-hearted fun. It wasn’t ‘high concept” enough, was too “cute,” and didn’t have a big enough ‘hook.’ I didn’t take any of that as a criticism because my intent was to write a cute, contemporary, romance for teens who didn’t like being inundated with death, cancer, abuse, dystopias, and other ‘issues’ that plague the YA world right now. The problem is that these agents felt like there wasn’t a place for my sweet summer camp, mistaken identity romance. Again, I suffered a major and continual disappointment. I tried high-concept and it didn’t work. I tried adventure and it didn’t work. I tried contemporary fun and it didn’t work.

I hoped that by querying agents who had read previous manuscripts of mine again, I would show what kind of writer I am. I’m not a paranormal writer. I’m not a romance writer. I’m not a dystopian writer. I can write all of the above. I can stretch out of my comfort zone and write something completely different from my previous work. I’m not stuck in a box or a rut. I’m not a ‘one and done’ kind of writer.

I tried a high-concept novel at the request of an agent who said she loved my writing and was willing to look at something from a WIP. I worked hard on the first 50 pages, outlined the entire thing for the first time in my life, stressed over what it meant to develop such a high-concept plot. I sent it off, feeling good about the strong voice, the twist in the novel, the story — everything. When she came back to say that the voice wasn’t strong enough to carry such a heavy novel, I sputtered, threw up my hands, and gave up. That’s a bad thing; I know. I want to return to it eventually. I thought the voice was what made the novel so far, so to have someone say the opposite…? I know she’s one agent. Another agent might love this concept and the voice. But I was too disgruntled to go on.

So I started over. I wrote fast and furiously and my current WIP is almost done. I love what I’ve created. The problem? I don’t see a ‘hook.’ It’s not ‘high-concept.’ It isn’t an ‘issue’ novel. My main character’s ‘stakes’ aren’t high. As much as I love this book, as easy as it’s been for me to write, I still don’t see any chance of getting an agent for it.

Which means that, in my writing life, I’m going to be looping back around and starting all over again before the year’s out.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing about your journey! I LOVED the summer camp novel and really thought it would get picked up. Clearly I am uninformed about the industry, but you know, I represent the average reader. 🙂

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