In November, my literary agent and I parted company. She was the second agent I've worked with since 2009. Two of my novels have gone out on submission and neither of them managed to find a home. Granted, it's a tough market for literary fiction and God only knows what editors are buying these days. But I now find myself without an agent and without a book on submission. I have a new manuscript for a philosophical detective story that I'm querying with agents, but I query in a pokey, half-interested sort of way. I wrote that book mostly to amuse Mighty Reader and a few close friends. I think it's a good book, but I'm not really a mystery writer so I'm hesitant to really push forward in an attempt to get it published. What if a publisher wants more detective novels from me? I'm not writing detective novels now, and I didn't write detective novels before that one.
It used to be that I'd read publishing industry blogs voraciously. Every Monday I'd check Publishers Weekly to see who had a shiny new book deal. I could celebrate friends or people I vaguely know via the interweb, or also roll around in bitter troughs of envy if it was that sort of day. The last time I looked at Publishers Weekly I had the feeling that I was peeking into a madhouse, that the frenzy and stress of the industry was totally unnecessary and not something I want in my life, at least right now. "What the fuck?" is actually what I said.
My first real novel, which was the second novel I ever wrote, the novel that got me interest from the first agent, ended up being rewritten about ten times, once completely from scratch, in order to fit into that first agent's idea of a salable manuscript. I think the final version of the book is pretty good, but I spent years on revisions that had, in the end, not much to do with my original conception of the book. When I told that agent about my plans for my next novel, his opinion was that it wasn't marketable at all and I should only write it if I had to get it out of my system; I shouldn't count on anyone buying it. I wrote it anyway. It's a good book, a beautiful book, a great tragic story but possibly too dark for the current marketplace because my second agent couldn't find a home for it. I'm submitting it on my own now to a couple of very small publishers, just to see what will happen, but I really have little hope of it colliding with an editor who will fall in love with it enough to convince her boss to publish it. And I've got the philosophical detective story as well, but I don't quite know what to do with that.
But the thing is, I realize as I start making plans for a wider range of increasingly strange future projects, I am no longer writing with any eye to what might be publishable. I'm back to the mindset I had when I was writing the first draft of my first real novel. I'm in no hurry and for the first time I find myself working on more than one project at a time. I've got the novel I'm writing now (Go Home, Miss America), I'm planning the next novel (Nowhere But North), I'm working on a story for the "Variations on a Theme" anthology (and oh, what larks it's being and it's nothing like anything I've written before), and yesterday I started what might be a novella-length piece based roughly on Moby-Dick. So I'm having a lot of fun writing, and I no longer think about agents or publishing, and I think I'm doing the best work I've ever done. I think I'm writing more bravely than ever. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of the Moby-Dick piece I might write:
Damn the whale, the whale, the devil white whale. Whale hail hale hole whole hell. Damn him and his accursed jaws, his hated maw, his despised gullet down which he swallowed mine leg and me, your humble servant, very near after. Damn him, damn him to hell, consign him to the deeps never to sound nor surface nor swim nor blow again. Nothing lives in the whale, nay, nothing at all. He is a bleached sack of emptiness, a pale pit of despair, a white wurm in the surf devouring all that is good in thine holy eyes, lord. Make me thine instrument and I shall sink him forever, keeping neither bone nor flesh nor baleen nor oil nor ambergris for mine own profit, the beast's death to thine glory only, oh lord. Make me thine instrument of divine retribution, a cleansing hand, a burning brand, a scourge, a fire, a plague upon the pharoah of the fishes, I shall lead thy people unto the promised land, oh lord. Make me thine holy instrument. Damn the whale.
That's fun stuff. And that's really the point now. I know a lot of you are writing books and you're keeping in mind all the things you read on agent blogs, and all the things you've read in Donald Maass's books, and all the things you hear at conferences and conventions. That's all fine, and good luck. But I realize that three years ago I figured that because I can write pretty well, it was inevitable that I'd be published if an agent got my books in front of editors. Now I've had two books in front of editors and I don't have a book deal, and while I must admit that it was devastating for a while and I was miserable when my last agent took me off her client list, I also have to say that the idea that now I'm just writing to write, for the discovery of finding the piece out, for the joy of language, for the amusement of Mighty Reader and me and for no other reason, I feel a freedom I haven't felt in years. I feel very hopeful about the whole thing now, with faith that I'll really do some interesting things with my fiction. I have no idea if this feeling will go away when I finish the new novel and start querying agents who rep literary fiction. I am hoping that my lack of awe for the publishing industry will be a permanent thing. We'll see.