Originally published on my website www.lisalregan.com
Nathan Bransford, author and former agent, had a blog post called “The Case for Putting a Manuscript in the Drawer” which you can read here. Heather Sellers has a chapter in her book Chapter By Chapter about “the book under your bed”. Basically they are both talking about books you write that are not saleable. They are not quite there yet. They don’t belong on the bookshelf of your local bookstore. They belong in a drawer or under your bed. I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about this and like Bransford, the book under their bed or in a drawer is usually their first novel. I once read an interview with Karin Slaughter—one of my favorite writers—where she talked about how she started out writing historical fiction. She had written a historical novel but her agent was unable to sell it and suggested to Slaughter that she should write that thriller she always talked about. The result was Blindsighted which is one of my favorite books of all time.
I have a book under my bed, metaphorically speaking. Actually it’s not really under my bed. It’s on a flash drive in my nightstand. If you read my blog, you know during high school I wrote four novels. Real crap. Then as an adult I started five or six novels that I never finished. Then sometime around 2000 I started my first real adult novel. It was called The Space Between. I bring this up because although I have a book that belongs in a drawer, I don’t believe that as a general rule, writers should put away their first book. I think it depends on the writer and the book.
My experience was a lot like Nathan Bransford’s—I was trying to do way too much with The Space Between. It didn’t really have a plot to speak of until later when I realized that a plot was pretty essential and I started carving one out of what I had already written. All the book really consisted of was me writing about every single thing that ever happened to me or people I knew or people I didn’t know, every single thing that ever concerned me, touched me, moved me, disturbed me or made me question my world. Pretty much every serious thought I had ever had in my life to that point went into that book in some fictional form. I realized pretty quickly after having written it that I hadn’t written it to kickstart a career as a novelist. I’d written it because I needed to write it. It was a catharsis.
I made no attempts to revise it after the third draft. I cut a lot of stuff out. It started somewhere around 179,000 words. Between the first and third draft when I was trying to impose some kind of plot on it, I found that a lot of stuff just didn’t fit so I dropped 49,000 words—not because I realized that 179,000 words was too many, just because those 49,000 words didn’t work well with my new plot!
As I recall, one or two people read it. I know my stepdad read it because I will never forget the conversation we had after he had read it. It was a good one—he had nice things to say. It was sometime after I finished it before I considered querying or trying to get it published. For a long time I just basked in the glow and fuzzy good feeling of having written it. At that point in my life I had gone from writing like a fiend in high school to not being able to finish a damn thing in my early twenties. The most important thing about writing that book at that time was that I proved to myself that I could finish something again.
Eventually I did take a stab at finding an agent although I only sent out nine queries. Here was my query letter:
I am seeking representation for my novel The Space Between, complete at 130,000 words. Presently, my work is not being reviewed by any other agency or publisher. While researching the publishing industry, I discovered your website using a search engine for literary agencies specializing in literary fiction, particularly those dealing with the lives of women. My novel is driven primarily by the inner lives of its female characters.
When five year old Carl Shelby disappears from a mountain road, the lives of the women of Reneau, New York, are irrevocably altered. Gena Shelby has carefully constructed a quiet life built on small lies and inconsistencies, keeping her hellish past a secret even from her current husband. A woman ill-equipped to deal with the emotional demands of adult life, the potential loss of her son threatens to destroy Gena’s life and her tenuous relationship with her adult daughter, Sera. A successful figure skater, Sera is deemed an ice queen by her own mother for her notorious coolness under pressure. When her brother disappears, Sera’s inner calm cracks and leaves her floundering in a sea of foreign emotions.
In the search for her son, Gena enlists the help of two local women. Joining the search is Brenda Reyes, Carl’s kindergarten teacher. Brenda is deeply affected by Gena’s grief. Carl’s disappearance reminds her of the searing loss of her own child six years earlier. Kadeisha Douglas is an attorney turned stay-at-home mother who stopped practicing law when her husband was murdered. She agrees to help the Shelbys handle the legal concerns that accompany the disappearance of their son.
Haunted by the past, groping their way down the jagged path that loss has cut into their lives, the women find themselves forging new emotional connections with one another at strange crossroads. Each woman struggles to find her place in the dynamic between herself and those closest to her while leaving painful past experiences behind.
In all honesty, I wrote this novel simply because I was compelled to do so. I lost several loved ones while working on the first draft. As I continued, it became important to me to tell a story about the themes of loss, grief, and how past traumas affect current relationships in peoples’ lives. Writing the novel was an act of love for the people still left in this world, managing as best as they can to continue to live in a world that is far less hospitable than it once seemed.
With your permission, I would like to submit the manuscript for your consideration. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Education. I have enclosed a SASE for your convenience. I realize that you are very busy and I appreciate your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you.
Okay, so there is that next to last paragraph that I would not include if I were querying today. At that point I had done very little research on querying. All that came later, after I had written Finding Claire Fletcher and got serious about being published. And by the way, the book is nowhere near as well-written as the query! And I got nine rejections pretty quickly.
As you can also see, this novel was my attempt at literary fiction. Ultimately, that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I didn’t really find my “niche” until after I had written Finding Claire Fletcher. So you see, writing The Space Between was a transition for me. Although I have long considered taking some elements of the book and using them to write a mystery/thriller, the book as it exists and has existed since 2002 belongs under my bed or in a drawer or on a flash drive in my nightstand. I will always love and cherish it like my own child but it is not meant to be consumed by the general public. I re-read parts of it every year or so just to remind myself that oh yeah, I’m right, it’s not very good. I think there are flashes of brilliance but not enough of them to make up a whole book.
So when I read posts like Nathan’s or comments or blog posts by other authors discussing this very same experience, I can definitely relate. However, I don’t think that every author has or has to have this same experience.
My friend and writing soul mate, Nancy Thompson is the exception to this rule. She is currently querying and while the theory I am about to propound has yet to be proven via publication of her novel, I believe with absolute conviction that I am right.
Nancy and I started out as critique partners. The first time I read her novel, The Mistaken, I was blown away. Although that early draft needed some work in the first few chapters, overall the book was extremely well-written and most of all, tightly constructed. I could not believe this was her first novel! Here was a book with a very tight, suspenseful plot, well-developed characters and very concrete themes. Nancy wasn’t trying to do too much with this book as most first timers do. She was trying to do a few, very precise things and I think she pulled them off wonderfully. It took me years to get to where she is and even as I was reading her book, I STILL wasn’t quite there! Although she sometimes gets discouraged, I do believe her book will find an agent and a home with a publisher. Will she get better with time and with more books under her belt? Absolutely. But I think that right now, at this moment, she has a saleable novel.
Now that’s not to say that she won’t have to write another book before The Mistaken finds a home. I hope that’s not the case but you just never know what will happen. I have two novels on submissions right now. I have no idea which (if either) will appeal more to an editor or publishing house. Or maybe it will be neither one of them—maybe it will be the one I’m working on now or the one after that. As I recall, John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill wasn’t all that popular at first. But later, after one of his subsequent books put him on the map, A Time to Kill became a sensation. That is one of my favorite books as well—I’ve read it more than once.
My point is that every writer is different and every writer’s journey—every writer’s story—is different. I do have a manuscript “in a drawer” so I related to Nathan Bransford’s recent post. I think it’s true that some books belong in a drawer. I remember telling my stepdad that I wasn’t pursuing publication for The Space Between and he made some comment about how fear of rejection was stopping me from pursuing my dreams. I can’t remember exactly what he said but he basically implied that I was a coward. I was quite sensitive back then and I remember being surprised that his comment didn’t even sting. It didn’t bother me because I knew very early on that The Space Between belonged in a drawer. There was some very calm part of me that realized that that book was just a precursor to something better. Writing The Space Between was like batting practice. I knew that whatever came next was going to be the real, live game and I was fine with that.
On the other hand, some authors don’t have a book in a drawer and I think that’s okay. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t count yourself out just because some of us take a more circuitous route to writing a good, saleable novel.