Contemplating Failure, Seven Years Later


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I was reminded by Facebook the other day that, seven years ago, I gave up on The Night Girl. I'd started writing the story in July 2003, and I finished the first draft in June 2007. It was a substantial departure from my previous three novels. It was more mature, and I'd gained the confidence to try for more overt comedy. I'd taken an idea that Erin had given me (that the TTC, in building new subways, had "delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled") and just run with it. I was an exhilerating experience.

Then, four years later, after the publication of my Unwritten Books series, I'd come up with exactly bupkis in terms of selling the book to publishers. Moreover, my formative editor, Barry Jowett, had explained to my formative agent, in detail, why The Night Girl was not the right book for me at this time, if I wanted to have a break-out novel.

A few things softened the blow. For one, I hadn't stopped writing with The Night Girl. I pressed on with ideas, producing drafts of The Dream King's Daughter and Icarus Down, and winning Ontario Arts Council Works in Progress grants for both of them. If I couldn't publish The Night Girl, I at least had these more marketable books to fall back on. And Icarus Down was as much a departure for me as The Night Girl had been, earlier. I felt good about that book, and knew it could be my break-out moment.

But I was still left to wonder what to do with The Night Girl: a 64,000 word story that I'd spent four years writing, and another four years revising and trying to sell. Eight years was a lot of work to just toss into the metaphorical dustbin. Should I create a website and serialize the novel for free, as a means of building my reader base?

I asked my agent at the time, John Cusick, and he suggested that I hold off on that plan. He saw potential in The Night Girl, and he wanted to have a chance to figure out how to rework it into something that could sell. Sadly, other things intervened which took me away from that agency, but I did find another great agent in the form of Emily Gref, who sold Icarus Down, and took a good long look at The Night Girl. She saw similar potential.

And the other thing that made Barry Jowett's earlier rejection of The Night Girl easier to handle was that he didn't just say 'no'. He offered tons of advice. It was daunting advice to be sure, but it was still good advice. Even the parts that I don't think would have worked in the book's favour isolated and revealed the real issues that I needed to address. Perpetua Collins was not a YA protagonist, he argued: 19 is way too old for such a character, but even if you age her down to 17 or, more preferably, 16 or 15, you're going to have to address the fact that this character is now of high school age, and why was she not in school?

The solution to that quandary was the understanding that the real problem was not that Perpetua was not a YA character, but The Night Girl was not a YA book. Even though this was a coming-of-age tale, this was not a story about high school drama. This was a story about first jobs and first adult relationships. I was expecting teenagers to read a book full of office humour. No wonder my 30-year-old readers were enjoying this tale more than my 14-year-old ones.

Under the guidance of Emily, who'd helped me work Icarus Down into a good enough shape to sell to Scholastic Canada, I threw The Night Girl into the dustbin. Then I took it out, smoothed out the pages, opened a new Word document on my computer, and started rewriting the tale from the very beginning. I aged up Perpetua to 21. I added a new antagonist in the form of the faerie Christina Bell. I revised the social structure of the world to include the faeries. And I took liberally from those scenes which worked in the original Night Girl, and left out what didn't work.

We got interest from other publishers as a result, and finally an offer from REUTS Publications. The Night Girl will see print in Winter 2018-9.

So, what do we learn from this? Well, back in 2011, I was "contemplating failure", and my mother said that no writing is failure, even if it remains unpublished. The work put into making the first draft of The Night Girl made me a better writer, by encouraging me to take chances and push my envelope. And to make The Night Girl publishable, I had to push further beyond those boundaries and acknowledge that the story was not a YA novel but a "New Adult" one (or just a good old fashioned urban fantasy). I had to be brave enough to throw things away, and savvy enough to figure out what to pull out of the waste bin. And I guess the big lesson is: if you have something you like that you think has potential, don't give up on it. Maybe approach it from a new angle.

The journey is not quite finished. I still have a round of substantive edits to do for REUTS. Then there's line edits and copy edits. I look forward to seeing how the cover design turns out. Then there's marketing, release planning, all of that stuff. But the end is in sight, and I'm ever so grateful for this journey.

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