Right Writer, Wrong Book

Once, a long time ago, I wrote a book. A mystery novel called Little Girl Blue. I wrote that thing, and re-wrote it, and sliced it and diced it and took it apart and put it back together again. After much labor and effort and care, I wrote up a query letter and sent that baby into the world.

You will never read this book. Not ever. It’s not a bad book, not at all. I just read through it, and I’m still pretty proud of it. But it’s the wrong book. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, Little Girl Blue was not the first book that I started. There were other, sophomoric efforts that collapsed under their own weight, or shifted focus so wildly that they had the frenetic feel of seventeen novels crashing into one. These you will similarly never see. These I am not proud of. 

But LGB was different. It was the first book that I had written that was utterly and completely separate from me. It had legs and eyes and skin and hair. It had breath and hunger and thirst. It moved. And of course that’s interesting because it was the first time that I had drawn deeply from my own experience to create a fictional world. Prior to that, my main characters had been fifty year old women or aged ex-priests or drug dealers or Harley riders. My main characters were entirely not me. Indeed, fiction was my way of being not-me, of taking a break from my neurotic, complicated self. 

And, of course, I wrote a lot of crappy fiction. More stuff that you will not see.

In LGB, I wrote about a woman around my age, an ambivalent mother, wife, and teacher. And that ambivalence was crushing her. In writing this book I was trying to unpack an experience I had working at a school in Oregon that had, two years before I arrived, had Aryan Youth protests that got ugly. At this school, there were kids who were on lists, and I was told to memorize them. Kids who were known AY. Kids who were white supremicist sympathizers. Kids who were there when they should not have been. There were key words that I was to listen for and phrases that I was to report and behaviors that should be written up instantly.

At the time, I was twenty five, pregnant for the first time, married mid-way, and just barely getting by. I was in a time of transition, of saying goodbye to the life I thought I was living, and trying to embrace the life that I now had.  It took many years to be able to make sense of what happened that year – of what happened to me.

changed. And it wasn’t comfortable. The transition from single person to married person. Wonderful, sure, but uncomfortable. The transition from non-mother to mother. Uncomfortable. The realization that people can think and do terrible things – and that you’ll love them anyway. Uncomfortable. And the careful maneuvers in a closed society made crazy in its response to crazy things. Very, very, very uncomfortable.

So I explored this discomfort in the context and form of a mystery novel. I poured who I was then into the character of Abby Blue, and she, in turn, became entirely separate from me. And her story became her own story. And her book became real, true and alive.

I still really like it.

So I sent it out.

I wrote query letters and scattered them across the four winds.

I queried wildly, inappropriately, and with gusto, abandon and verve.

And I got a lot of rejections. And then I got a lot of requests to read the book. These were universally followed by another rejection. I got kind rejections and brusque rejections and impersonal rejections and form rejections that mask themselves as personalized but secretly are not. I read through my rejection notes like a medium reads tea leaves. 

I was addicted to my email. Obsessed. I would wake up three or four times a night to check if anything came. I was impossible to live with. 

Finally, an agent (I won’t give out her name, and honestly she likely doesn’t even remember her kindness to me. The best kind of kindness is that which is unaware of itself. The best kind of kindness spontaneously generates. This was the best kind of kindness) wrote me back. She was a known entity, both a mover and a shaker, and well regarded to be very good at what she does. She represented something called “up-market women’s fiction” which I still can’t entirely define (or even slightly define) but it seemed to me that Little Girl Blue qualified. I queried her. She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. Two weeks later she wrote me back.

“I’ve read your manuscript three times,” she wrote, “and I really like it. But….”

(There’s always a “but”, I thought.)

“There’s a thought that keeps creeping in, and I can’t shake it. The more I read this book – and you really did a good job. The prose is tough and resilient, the characters intricately drawn, the pacing is heart-pounding. But with each page I find myself thinking, “Right writer; wrong book.” If this was your third or fourth book, I’d likely be able to find a home for it. But it’s not the book for you to come out of the gate with. Also, I feel that this isn’t the book you were meant  to write. Write me the right book. Then send it to me.”

I was telling somebody this story recently, and she said, “Oh, that must have been so hard to hear!” But the thing is, it wasn’t. I had been querying and requerying LGB  for months.  I had stopped writing. I had stopped reading. I stared at my computer, all dead-eyes and zombie skin. It was draining my soul away. The moment I read that, I felt a terrible weight lift from my body.

That letter set me free.

The next day I started The Mostly True Story of Jack. And that was the right book. 

My mother asks me from time to time if I’ll ever try again to get LGB published. Probably not, I tell her every time she asks. Because why waste time on the wrong book when the right one is spinning itself, even now on the scribbled notes on my desk, in the stories I tell my kids in the dark, in the quiet glow of my computer, in my wide, wild mind. I’ve learned how to find the right  book – for this writer at this moment.

And for you, dear readers, I hope for the same. I hope that you also encounter a kind person who will tell you if you’ve deviated from the path that you need to be on. The path that you are.  I hope that all of you, perhaps today, will be writing the right book. 

And I hope that I will get to read it.


13 thoughts on “Right Writer, Wrong Book

  1. This really spoke to me. Partly because I wrote 3 books (2 MG and 1 Adult) after my first one was published which were not right, and especially because I just signed with a new agent (I know! Yay!) who didn’t offer me representation on the first 2 manuscripts I sent her but on the 3rd because it was the right book at the right time for her.

  2. That’s just an amazingly incisive thing for an agent to tell you. What a relief to know that there are people out there who are really good at their jobs.

    • It really was an unimaginable kindness. I really feel for agents, honestly. I mean, they’re in that business because they love books, but they become so overrun with manuscripts that there’s honestly no way they can engage with – or even scan – them all, which makes her kindness all the more extraordinary. But more than that, it’s made me re-think how I engage with people kinda day to day, you know. I mean, what made her advice to me so meaningful is that she looked past the book and saw *me*. And sometimes we just need to be *seen*, you know?

      Anyway, she made me want to work harder to see people. And hopefully, I’ll be able to duplicate that kindness someday.

  3. I finally read The Mostly True Story of Jack this weekend. I loved it and I couldn’t put it down. Although I’m not a writer, your story of LGB speaks to me about the best kind of feedback. It’s specific yet encouraging. So lovely that you were able to see past the rejection to inspiration.

  4. I can’t tell you enough how much this speaks to me. I’m a writer/illustrator, and I’ve heard similar things like, “we love the story and illustrations, but this isn’t the book you’re going to come out of the gate with”.
    I have old stories that my mom *still* wants me to publish, despite feedback that it wasn’t right (and trust me, this story is so rough it’s not going anywhere)
    Thank you for the encouraging words and inspiring others to find a new path. I feel like I’ve done that with my work, and now can put together the beginnings of stories for my career.
    Nicole Gsell

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