Contemplating Failure


The photo on the right is entitled Meditation by Caleb Sconosciuto. It is used in accordance with his copyright restrictions. You really should check out this talented individual’s photostream.

Anyway, Erin and I have been working hard getting Icarus Down into submittable shape as part of a major search to find me an agent that can help me break into the American market. In the past six months, we’ve decided that Icarus Down is our best shot so far to make an impression. The story is strong, the protagonist is sound, there is action, mystery and an epic plotline. In the meantime, we’ll hold The Dream King’s Daughter in reserve as a potential follow-up. It has a simpler, possibly younger storyline and lots of fun action and imagery. The two together should make a good one-two punch.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may notice that this is backwards to my writing history, and that one unpublished novel is conspicuous by its absence. It has been two years since the publication of my most recent fiction novel, The Young City and a lot has happened since then. Erin’s found success with Plain Kate, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a good run of non-fiction books for children, but my first love has always been fiction, and so the last two years have been frustrating for me. But I have to face facts and admit that although The Night Girl is my fourth written novel, it just isn’t ready to be considered for my fourth published novel.

I started writing the story in 2003. I made good progress for a year or so before I hit a wall, and paused to focus on edits to the Unwritten Books sequence. Finally, after breaking through the wall, I finished the first draft in June 2007. The story is about a young woman living hand-to-mouth in a rented apartment near downtown Toronto finding work as the secretary of an employment agency charged with finding work for goblins and trolls. The book was a departure for me; a lot funnier, and more mature. As often happens with authors, I liked the book, and I fell in love with the protagonist, young Perpetua Collins. I looked forward to seeing it published.

But it didn’t work out. The publishers who received the novel didn’t bite. I tried a rewrite to address issues and improve matters, but no go. In the meantime, I somehow managed to write two other stories which might prove more marketable.

The problem? It was spelled out to me by a former editor of mine who gave me possibly the best rejection letter ever. It was encouraging, optimistic, glowing, and very thorough in detailing why The Night Girl could not be published by his company in its current form. Here are some quotes:

  • “Perpetua is far too old for a character in a YA novel. Some authors can get away with older characters (usually those authors have strong track records), but for the most part it’s virtually impossible to find a YA audience for a book with a central character as old as 19 or 20…

  • “The goblin revelation comes far too soon. We spend very little time being curious about what weird things this employment agency is involved with - which is a shame, because there’s a good opportunity to build up our curiosity and create dramatic tension… …Since the cover is blown relatively early, the novelty of the goblins wears off quickly, and we get the sense that the author is enjoying the quirkiness of the story more than we are - we’re just looking for the resolution.

  • “Perpetua-Fergus. I don’t find that this works as a love story - it seems forced. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much point to having a love story in the book, and when love stories pop up with no compelling reason, it feels as though they’re there for the sake of having a love story.

There were other reasons, but Perpetua’s age was the deal breaker. The editor went on to say the following:

“Seventeen is possible, but it’s a stretch. Really, for this to work for the audience, Perpetua would need to be 15 or 16, and that presents some obvious problems in this book. She is, after all, finished high school and is living on her own in Toronto. The character would need to be reworked so that she’s either in school, or there is a reason why she’s not in school; plus, she’d either need to be living at home or with friends/relatives (and of course, there would need to be a reason for the latter).

“It gets more complicated: if she’s not in school, then suddenly that becomes a significant aspect of the character. If she is in school, the job must be a part-time job. In both cases, there would have to be a reason why she needs a job so desperately.

And of course, if Perpetua is 15 or 16, how old can Fergus be?

As you can guess, this sort of advice can be a hard to take, despite how important it is for authors to accept such authoritative and detailed criticism from professionals in the field. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t ignore it, especially because the advice came at the same time as another critique by a YA/Middle Grade author who sent copies of The Night Girl to her daughter and her daughter’s friends. The reaction was disturbingly consistent: the girls all loved the first chapter, but had abandoned the book by chapter four. Things were just going on too long, the story was too focused on the goblins in the office and the kids were getting bored.

And that’s when it hit me: The Night Girl tries to tell office-related humour to teenagers. An entire rethink was necessary.

I faced similar problems when submitting an earlier draft of The Unwritten Girl (back when it was called Rosemary and Time). At one point, the editor of Orca Books expressed an interest in seeing the whole novel but, after looking at it, turned it down, saying:

“…Your story does not quite fit within one age range. In some ways it is a teen novel. The main characters are teens; there is a love interest. At the same time, the writing and story line would appeal to ten to twelve year olds, I think, so the two do not match.

In the end, I got The Unwritten Girl published by making protagonists Peter and Rosemary twelve instead of fourteen, and committing the novel as middle grade. It looks like The Night Girl faces a similar choice. A friend once said that I seemed to like dancing in the margins, writing about people that were on the cusp of their teenage years, or on the cusp of adulthood. And I do find a lot of interest in these transitions; they’re dynamic and fascinating moments of potential transformation. It can make these books hard to market, however, and so the edict by publishers is to pick one genre or the other.

I did have two other novels in waiting, both of which might address the issues my former editor identified in The Night Girl. In The Dream King’s Daughter, Aurora is 15, going on 16. The same is true Simon in Icarus Down. Both tales are far more action oriented, and deal with issues that may be closer to the heart of younger readers. I’ve had a fair amount of interest in both books (with The Dream King’s Daughter winning an Ontario Arts Council grant), so it makes sense to focus on these as my potential breakout book, and set the Night Girl aside for later.

But what am I going to do with it? Take up the challenge of rewriting it with Perpetua four years younger? Or try to submit it to non-YA fantasy publishers like Tor as an adult book? Or just sit on it? It wouldn’t be the first time that authors have abandoned whole finished (and rewritten) novels. I still like the story, though, and the characters, and especially the protagonist, and I want to see them published someday. It may be that I simply have to refocus, and treat The Night Girl as a fantasy novel for older audiences — a completely untested market for me.

I guess the lesson to take here is that you never stop learning, and you will never stop working. Even after publication, whole novels can be abandoned because the story doesn’t develop in quite the right way. You will always have times when you have to try to learn from your mistakes and move on, and some projects just don’t go as smoothly as others. But they are all valuable, precisely because of the opportunity to learn.

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