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.