When people ask me what I’m working on these days, I tell them the truth: my novel. And then I get cagey. Questions inevitably follow, questions like, “How’s that going?” Or “the same one?” Or “Must be about done by now, huh?”
The fact is, I’ve thought it done a few times now. First, about (gulp) ten years ago, when I wrote what seemed to me the most achingly beautiful ending I could imagine. (When you start to think of your own sentences as achingly beautiful, watch out.) My trusted readers didn’t get the imagery, and pointed out a few other problems, too. Then life (specifically, major depression) intervened, and when I got back to writing, I decided to work on a memoir. After the memoir was finished, and published, I went back to the novel and revised it. I sent it to my agent and waited. And waited. Some four months later, I got an answer by email. “Sorry. Too quiet.” I waited a few days and called her for something a little more specific, a tad more precise. Wasn’t Gilead quiet?
The market’s just so hard right now, she said. She doesn’t want to go out with something she can’t be 100 percent excited about. Etc. I hadn’t expected her to say it was perfect—although I wouldn’t have complained if she had—but I had hoped for a little more engagement. Maybe something like, You know, it really loses momentum around page 50. Or We never understand the main character’s motivation, or Can you tweak the middle hundred pages? I was disappointed to learn not only that my agent had passed on the novel, but that she had no investment in my making it better.
I read a statistic a while back, in reference to writers and rejection, about how women writers tend to retreat after hearing “No,” even what I call a “nice No” (when an editor asks to see more). Most women don’t submit again. Men, on the other hand, do.
Now I’m breaking from responsible reporting here by not citing the source (although it had something to do with a VIDA conference, I think), so you’ll have to take it as anecdotal. I did. Because it made total sense to me. Whether because I’m female, or because of what some mean teacher once said to me, or because the stars were aligned a certain way on the day I was born (or conceived)—it doesn’t matter the reason—I retreat after rejection. I’m not one of those to get back on the horse.
So getting back to the novel took some time. Another trusted reader looked at it and gave me wonderfully, specific, illuminating suggestions. I took notes. And, last summer, I rewrote the first chapter, showed it to my writers’ group. They were so enthusiastic that I felt compelled to keep going, which I’ve done. This time, I’ve made big changes. No more tweaking of sentences here and there; now I’m cutting whole chunks and writing new material to “forefront the drama” as a grad student might say.
About a week ago, I hit a snag. A big snag. I’d set all my people in motion, poised to act—and now they needed to act. But how? I put them in the same room, the same bar, the same scene. Now what? I went out for coffee. I checked email. I wrote a few options, which felt like swimming in wet cement. I listened to the voices in my head, some of which said “Take a break” and others of which announced “You have to sit with the anxiety.” Ultimately, I had to get up and shut down the laptop or I’d be late for the dentist.
That was two days ago. I fear repeating the past—taking a break that ends up a year-long retreat. I’m determined, this time, to force my way through. Yes, I’ve told myself that perhaps this is the novel meant to live in a drawer. (Every fiction writer has one, right?) I’ve told myself that I’m no longer the same woman who began the novel X many years ago, and therefore my initial impetus has dried up, my motivation lost its drive. But I can’t stop thinking about the characters. So I’ll push through. Maybe not today, but Monday.
What longterm project do you keep returning to? Have you given up on something only to return later? How do you respond to rejection? How do you know when to walk away—or not?