Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Zombies From Space

Yesterday Davin was talking about a reader not connecting with one of his stories. One thing Davin said about this was "On the one hand, I have [received] some very valid criticism. On the other hand, I have my own personal interests."

Davin concluded his post with this:

"More and more I buy into the importance of pursuing one's own unique vision."

Today I'd like to follow Davin with more about pursuing one's own unique vision. So I will tell you a story.

In 2007 I was reading Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for the twelfth or twentieth time (I have no idea; I've read it many times). In the play, Hamlet repeatedly refers to the Horatio character as trustworthy, and sees in Horatio a noble soul who happens to agree with him that Uncle Claudius is guilty of murdering Hamlet's father. What I noticed during that particular reading was that there is nothing in the text of the play to support these claims made by Hamlet. Horatio never actually says he agrees with any of Hamlet's beliefs. Horatio also, in one scene, acts as an agent of the king. Just because Hamlet trusts Horatio, I realized, that doesn't make Horatio trustworthy. At one time Hamlet trusted Ophelia, and his mother, and even his Uncle Claudius. What if, I wondered, Hamlet was wrong about Horatio, too? What if Horatio was a sort of Iago character, maneuvering in the background to bring about the downfall of the Danish royal family? "I could write a book about that," I thought. And so I did. I made Hamlet a nice guy but naive and I made Horatio sort of slick and shifty and duplicitous and had him in league with Gertrude, and I made Uncle Claudius innocent of the murder, a good solid guy but sort of a dupe of the Queen. It was fun stuff.

I bundled all this up and wrote my novel and in early 2009 got the interest of a literary agent. We met in person and he told me that he loved my writing but he didn't like where I'd taken the book. He wanted Horatio to be a hero, not a villain. Could I do that?

Of course I can, I told him. Give me a couple of months. And for the next year and a half I rewrote the story over and over again, giving Horatio a backstory, a wife and kids and a dilemma in which he is forced to sell Hamlet and Hamlet's family out in order to save his own family. The usual stuff. I produced six more versions, all fairly different, in the hopes that one of these versions would satisfy the literary agent. Over time I liked the novel less and less. It became something that had nothing at all to do with my original conception, with the impulse that got me to write the damned thing in the first place. After a year and a half I finally threw up my hands and admitted that I couldn't do it. I could not write a version of my novel that would make my agent happy, that he was comfortable submitting to publishers.

I began to work on a different novel, about a dysfunctional love triangle among criminals in Colonial America. The agent in question had already told me he had strong doubts about, that there was no market for it. I wrote it anyway and I was very pleased with it. But during the writing of that second book, I had an idea for my Hamlet project. What if, I thought, I took the characters from Shakespeare's play but told a different story with them? What if Hamlet's father hadn't been murdered? What if there was a plot to murder him? The famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in 1601 (the year Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet"); there is real-world evidence to support that Brahe was murdered; there is some real-world evidence pointing to the king of Denmark being behind that murder. What if Hamlet's father was assassinated in revenge for the death of Tycho Brahe? That's good stuff, I thought. I could write that. So I did. Horatio is the main character, court astrologer, secret assassin and friend of Prince Hamlet. It was not the book I'd had in mind in 2007, but it was pretty cool anyway. So I wrote it. Agent hated it. End of relationship with agent.

A new agent submitted both the new Hamlet book and my Colonial American criminals book to publishers. Nobody made an offer. The books are both tragedies, and publishers don't want tragedies right now. I wrote another book, an odd little mystery set in 1935 featuring an odd little detective. My agent told me she didn't know how to sell it. End of relationship with second agent.

Currently I'm writing a new book, with themes of self-doubt and self-image and the search for significance, with two alternating storylines (one about a middle-aged university employee whose efforts to maintain his machismo have comic results, the other about a 20-something year-old woman whose missionary work in Africa fails to fill the spiritual holes in her life). I have no idea if anyone but me will like this book, but I am writing it anyway because it seems important that I write it and, honestly, it's the loudest voice calling me right now and I always write whichever book calls loudest.

I don't know if I will be able to find an agent to represent the mystery novel. I don't know if I will be able to find an agent to represent the WIP. I tell myself that the WIP is The Book, the one that will break out, but there is no reason at all for me to tell myself that.

Where's all this going? Here: the most miserable I've been in my life was when I was revising that fucking "Hamlet" novel over and over again, just to make it fit into the narrow confines of what some guy I didn't really know considered "marketable." I really hated being a writer then and I ended up with seven different versions of a book I no longer even liked. It was a good exercise in revising, but it was not a pleasant time. What I do now is to write the books I want to write. I have no idea if I'll get a publishing deal. For a few months the idea that I might never get a book out was devastating, but now I see that in the end, publishing doesn't matter. The writing is what matters. I know that I'll be a happier person if I write what I want to write, thinking about the things I enjoy thinking about, solving the problems I enjoy setting for myself.

Way back in 2008, when I was getting the Hamlet novel ready to submit to agents, I told Mighty Reader that I'd put zombies from space into my books if that would help them sell. I thought I meant it, I really did. Turns out I was wrong. And I'm happier being wrong about that.

Tomorrow, I hope, Michelle will post about how she's followed her own muse but managed at the same time to hook up with a small publisher, all without putting zombies from space into her books.


  1. No zombies from space? Oh, didn't you read the final published version?


    Love this. Most of my books are fairly marketable, but you never know if a book is going to sell. Every time you write something, it's kind of a gamble—but if you, the first reader, don't love it, it's so much harder to make it into something someone else will love.

    I decided to write two sequels to a book that I hadn't even tried to sell yet, just because I loved it and loved the characters, and loved the idea. I knew it was a gamble. I knew that year of my life and all three books could be a waste. But I also knew I didn't have deadlines and contracts and commitments hanging over me, and I could write whatever I wanted right then.

    And wonder of wonders, more than two years later, the first book sold. Now back to revise those other two.

  2. As I said yesterday, one should never compromise, especially with their intergrity.

    I would give my eye teeth for a chance to read that very first Horatio/Hamlet novel. I remember you writing the Tycho Brahe novel and thought what a wild imagination Mr. Bailey must have, to dream up such a concept.

    At the time I wondered if I would even be able to get through it, (with the vocabulary and science, and the way in which you write). However, I would have given it a chance.

    Because as Domey said yesterday, instead of changing your world to fit the view of someone else, you change the view of that someone else to be able to see your view.

    (I'm also leaning toward the discussion last week about disorienting prose style and how we should stretch our wings and try it every once in awhile.)

    And I think if you put zombies in any of your novels, Mr. Bailey, puppies would fall over dead. And we don't like the thought of dead puppies.

  3. Jordan: That's the thing, I can't believe the books didn't sell. I think they're beautifully written and insightful and original and perfect. But it's also true that, because I no longer worry about the market, I feel much more free when I sit down to write. I can do the weird SF thing, or the weirder Moby-Dick thing, or the really weird other thing.

    Anne: I don't want your eye teeth, but I might let you see an early version of Horatio. I'll consider it. I'll have to re-read it, of course, because it might just be embarrassing now.

    My current publishing philosophy is that I should write what I feel. I'm also exploring the small publisher route. We'll see.

    And about this post: I know, it's too long.

  4. The more I think about this issue, the more I see a problem with the concept of marketability. Because, really, your Hamlet book is marketable. In my opinion, you just wrote about it in an interesting way that would make me want to get it. The problem that business people are focused on isn't marketability but profitability, right? They care about getting a return on their investment.

    I think what I'm saying is that what I see as the key is the figuring out how to market each book to get to the right group of readers that will want to read it. A writer needs a good marketer, not people who don't know how to market but want to make a profit.

  5. Way back in an earlier century...let's see, 1997, I believe, I got a serious nibble from an editor at a major U.S. SF/fantasy house for a novel which had a romantic relationship at its core between two men. The editor loved it. The publisher, however, wanted to magically change one of the guys into a woman.

    Well, I was younger and hungrier then, so I said I'd see if I could do that. And I re-wrote it at least twice -- and hated, hated, HATED the results. Six months after that chat with the editor, she contacted me again to say the publisher was nixing all first novels because they'd lost too much money on a ghost-written SF novel "by" Newt Gingrich.

    So, no big book deal for me. Just a rotten manuscript and a firm dislike for Mr. Gingrich.

    I rewrote it a third time, with the original intention and with the two guys -- and a mere 12 years later, sold it to a Canadian house, without any major changes whatsoever.

    These things occasionally take a long time to see the light of day, but it was worth the wait. It's the novel it was *meant* to be, and that's all that truly mattered.

    -Alex MacKenzie

    P.S. Of course, I probably should have made them alien zombies in love instead!

  6. Your stories sound pretty interesting.

  7. You know, I think the Horatio story sounds interesting just the way it is. I really think there's a line in a story when, if you just make that many aspects of the story, you've just come down to a whole different story, and if you'd wanted to be writing a different story, you'd have written the different story.

  8. Great realization. It is what it is and I the author knows best. I hope. =)

  9. I'm no expert on book selling, but I have to agree that if you don't like what you're writing, how can you expect someone else to love it.

    Literary just isn't selling from new authors right now Scott. Maybe that's just the plain truth. Has nothing to do with poor writing; just the market speaking to only a specific purchasing group. Trends end. May seem like they take forever when you're waiting on the change, but I expect you writing style will come back into fashion.

    You've found several Agents that like your style, so at least you have that to go on.

    I had to change the ending of my Scent short story to get it published. That changed my whole concept of the the Werewolf's motivation. Well, its sold, and out there, but I think I'd be much more pleased with it if I'd been able to keep my ending.

    Keep at it Scott. I know you will have your stories published someday soon.


  10. Scott, your books ARE beautifully written and insightful and original and perfect, and it pisses me off that they are not published yet, which has less to do with you than you think and everything to do with how things are in publishing right now - or have always been, I guess. Which you know, I'm sure. And I think your earlier version of Horatio was divine, but probably not as divine as the first one, which I sadly never got to read. The last version you sent me was lovely, though. It just made me really, really cold! There was so much snow, lol. And that's not a criticism of the book. :)

    I highly disagree with changing our stories just to get them published. And I disagree even MORE with adding zombies from space. Or zombies, period, just to sell. I'd rather put a knife through my foot.

    I knew the moment Rhemalda Publishing told me they didn't want to change anything major on MONARCH that I had found my publisher. I've always felt that if an agent or publisher asked me to change significant things in my stories, I would not work well with them, and I wouldn't change the stuff, so we'd never have the chance to work together, anyway.

    Tomorrow, I will talk about what you suggested. Yay for a subject!

  11. I really like your Hamlet idea. Have you ever thought about self publishing it?

    I completely agree with you that writers should write for themselves first and if the agent doesn't quite get where the story is going, maybe he/she isn't the right agent.


  12. I'm at home right now while a pair of nice young men drill holes in all the exterior walls and blow in cellulose. Which means that the house is noisy and also that my internet connectivity is intermittent. So I'll try to be brief in what will be, apologetically, a general reply for now.

    I think that my former agents and the publishers who passed on my two novels knew what they were doing; it's just that what they were doing isn't what I'm doing. The advice handsome Agent Number One gave during the 18 hell months of revisions on the Hamlet book would've been spot-on had I been trying to write a commercial novel. The problem with that relationship was that each of us imagined the book in a different way. I didn't have that problem with lovely Agent Number Two, but she couldn't find an editor who thought the books could be, as Davin mentioned above, profitable for their companies. Everyone said very nice things about my writing, but those novels are pretty dark and dark only sells today if there's light at the end of the tunnel.

    My WIP is not a tragedy (though there's plenty of mess, let me tell you), and my detective novel isn't a tragedy unless you're a murder victim in the book, and so possibly I'm now taking the advice of the publishing world and writing more for the market. I'm not sure about that, and I'm not sure how I feel about it if I am. Right now I'm reading Dickens' Great Expectations. Dickens' first ending was a bit of a downer, so his publisher talked him into writing a happier one. In later years Dickens stated that the happier ending was a better ending and he was satisfied with it, though he didn't change any of the existential agony of the rest of the book. So I don't know. We'll see. Maybe I'm selling out. Maybe I'm just interested in seeing if I can write something beside tragedies. I really don't know.

    I do know that a lot of people want to read standard sorts of fiction that's somewhat predictable and takes them away from real life for a while and there's no harm in that and I don't condemn it. After all, I watch BtVS and Dr Who and probably we'll start watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey, so I like my entertainments just as much as the next guy does.

  13. Yeah, I don't condemn any of the more entertaining stuff, either. I just think it's sad if writers are putting aside what they really want to write just to get published. I don't see much point in it, I guess, since the stuff the writer really wanted to write isn't even getting published. However, a door may be opened for future work that wouldn't have been published otherwise, and that's something to think about.


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