The Long & Winding Road: Part 1- Writing The Novel
The Long & Winding Road is a multi-part essay about how I wrote my first novel, found and secured my agent, my experience revising both with and without an agent, what happened when we tried to sell my first novel, and where I now stand on this ever changing road toward publication.
IN THE BEGINNING
In late 2004, at the painfully old age of 28, I started writing my first novel. It happened a bit by accident. The idea was to write a screenplay, because I was living in Los Angeles, and that's what people do in Los Angeles.
I had written one other screenplay, nearly a year prior, for the Project Greenlight Competition of all things. It was a brisk 90-pages and was dismissively deemed "Hmmm. Short." by my film school 'almost boyfriend'. He was being generous with those words and the screenplay would later be called both "stupid" and "boring" by some of the more erudite of my Project Greenlight readers. They were not wrong (though I still harbor serious doubt as to whether either of those words are remotely helpful as constructive criticism).
So, with one horrible screenplay behind me (and me trying desperately to pretend it had never happened) I decided to try again. I had recently re-watched Bonnie and Clyde and had become a bit fascinated by Faye Dunaway's performance. Her Bonnie had inspired me for a modern day version of Bonnie and Clyde in which I thought I'd give them super powers. The latter because I come from a comics culture and so I like to slap super powers on everything - seriously, tell me what doesn't get better with superpowers? I was still going to call the lead Bonnie and I had given it a title I loved: Superhero Junkies.
About fifteen pages in, I realized I had no interest in the Clyde character and what I actually wanted to write about was two girls at odds with one another. By the time I was done fleshing out the new idea, all that remained of the original was the name Bonnie, the super powers, and the title. As I began again with the new idea, I found myself naturally writing prose, instead of a screenplay. I should probably mention here that I'm a bit slow to figure things out. I like to blame this on spending my formative teenage years in Utah, which is not the most progressive of places, but in truth it's probably a deadly combination of several things (only one of them being the archaic but otherwise lovely state of Utah). As a result of this "deadly combination" I am a bit of a late bloomer. Late to get into serious relationships, late to drinking and drugs, late to discovering Bukowski, late to having sex. Hell, I took forever to get a damn iPhone. Thus, I was also late to figuring out that I was writing my first novel.
I was also slow at actually writing it. I had no outline, was not sure what it was really about, who it was for, or how many pages it should be. I was the definition of naive and this was the definition of a “first novel” in that I made every mistake you could make during the process. And when I finished the book in late January of 2007 (more than two years later!) it was only 55,000 words. Despite my insecurities about the book, I still felt that sense of relief and accomplishment that only typing “the end” can bring you. Superhero Junkies had become a novel about a young girl with super powers, trying to come to terms with her life and her power. I intended it to be a trilogy, but the first book was a complete story in and of itself, which was probably the only rookie mistake I didn’t make.
Part of me wanted to send the book out immediately to agents. While writing Superhero Junkies I’d simultaneously been researching agents and how both the query and publication process worked. I had some good knowledge in my hands, but no experience and a lot of trepidation. I had even picked out someone I deemed to be the ideal agent (heretofore referred to as “ideal agent”). His address was dangerously accessible in my dog-eared 2005 copy of Writer’s Market. But I was scared. Up until this point my bumbling attempt at a novel had been mostly private, my naivety had been my own. Venturing out into the world with query letters would end that privacy, and was likely to bring reality, rejection, and possibly even humiliation.
I gave Superhero Junkies to a few close friends to read, which as anyone that knows about these things knows, is not the best of ideas. I was too sensitive and they were too kind and as a result little to nothing happened in the way of revisions.
And then I sat on Superhero Junkies for six months.
Sitting on the novel wouldn’t have been a bad idea had I made significant changes to the manuscript in those months, or learned anything significant about the process of finding an agent. But I did neither. I also didn’t take that time to really think about the book and come to it with fresh eyes. My decision to sit on it was not some well-reasoned idea about making the book better, it was 100% fear based. It wasn’t then (and isn’t now) the end of the world of course, but knowing what I know now about how long this process takes, even if you yourself move like lightning (which I do not), I frequently find myself wishing I could get those wasteful six months back.
In July of 2007 I bit back the fear and drafted my first query letter for Superhero Junkies for “ideal agent.” Query letter writing came surprisingly easy for me, in part I suspect because there’s a lot of advice out there and enough horror stories to keep you from stepping on the obvious landmines. A lot of people have trouble with this part of the publication process, but perhaps because I’d written many professional letters for my job it wasn’t such a foreign task to me. My book was also relatively “high-concept,” which I was able to lean on in my query.
Since I was interested in also writing comics at some point in my life, and my book was essentially about superheroes, I had narrowed my agent search to agents who also represented writers of graphic novels and comics. This limited my agent pool considerably, which worried me, but I figured I’d cross that bridge (the “I’ve run out of agents who want to hear from me” bridge) at a later date. After a few drafts of the query letter I sent it out to “ideal agent” via snail mail.
And yes, you read that correctly, after six months of sitting on my novel, I sent out exactly ONE query letter in July of 2007. And then I sat back and fretted endlessly. Just so we’re clear, I do not advocate this as any kind of recipe for success. That said, by August, a near miracle had occurred, I had an email from him. The best kind of email. He liked the sound of the book and requested a 50-page partial.
Two plus years of writing, fifty-five thousand words, six months of sitting still, one query letter, and now someone would actually be reading it… someone amazing, someone huge, someone who could turn me into a “real writer.” I would of course fret endlessly again later, but for that moment at least I went from neurotic worrying to “I can conquer the world bliss,” all thanks to a three sentence email from a stranger.
My book was officially out there. And who knew what would happen?
Make sure to come back for Part Two next month to find out what DID happen. Was my first and only query the end of my agent search? Was "ideal agent" the agent I eventually signed with?
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