I’ve got, once again, those agent hunting blues. For the past few of years, I’ve been on-again-off-again looking for an agent for one of two books: the novel that I wrote as my MFA thesis (and have revised to the point where it’s barely recognizable as the same story now), and a children’s book I’d been working on for several years. After I signed my first book contract—for a short story collection, which I would have never bothered trying to find an agent for—I thought my chances of being taken seriously by an agent might dramatically increase, so I worked through another thorough revision of my novel (my children’s book is, at the moment, floundering, unsubmitted, in a file on my computer) and sent out a new set of queries.
On two separate occasions since then, within days of my having sent the query, an agent requested to read the manuscript. I thought that was pretty encouraging. I’ve had a handful of manuscript requests since I’ve been trying to find an agent, and they usually do come within days of the agent having received the query (my theory is that if an agent is interested, they’ll usually let you know right away; if you don’t hear anything for several weeks, it’s pretty safe to assume that when you do, it will be a rejection, but there are always exceptions), but still, I chose to see this is as a sign that perhaps having a book already published was going to help me finally land an agent.
But in both cases, the result was exactly the same as it has been in the past: an encouraging, brief response, letting me know that I’m a good writer and this is a good book, but the agent in question just didn’t fall in love with it. I should keep sending it around, though, as another agent might feel differently. This is always what they say. I’d heard, once upon a time, that when an agent actually reads your manuscript, even if they reject it, you’ll still benefit, because they’ll tell you why they rejected it, and you can use that feedback to revise further. “You’re a good writer and this is a good book, I just didn’t fall in love with it,” though, doesn’t give me much to go on for another revision, unfortunately.
Because they all suggest I should keep trying with other agents, I would probably assume that there is nothing inherently wrong with the book if it wasn’t for the fact that several agents have requested the manuscript and come to the same conclusion. I have to think that I need to read a bit more closely into this abstract idea of “falling in love” with a book. They all agree that the book is well-crafted, but nothing about it is pushing them over the edge, into love.
I can’t help but wonder if, in all my attention to craft and technique, I’ve inadvertently revised out the visceral core of my book (I hate the word visceral—so pretentious—but I think it’s the only word that really fits in this context so I have to use it just this one time). Early drafts of my novel, which were, admittedly, terrible, had a sort of emotional foundation that I think the current draft lacks. Those early drafts were written early on in my MFA studies, and the way this book evolved links noticeably with my progress through my MFA program.
The thing is, MFA programs are inherently peopled with intellectuals. These programs are part of academia, and in order to get in you have to have earned a bachelor’s degree with a high GPA; you have to have strong letters of recommendation from previous instructors; etc. Yes, you also have to have a strong writing sample, and most programs say that the writing sample is far more important than anything else. But the other things do matter, and it is true that the people who end up in an MFA program are, whether they see themselves that way or not, intellectuals.
I wrote the first, more emotionally driven draft of my novel my first summer as an MFA student. Then I spent the next few years revising it, focusing on craft over emotion. I don’t know that I consciously tried to make the story less, I guess I should say sentimental, since that’s the word the MFA community would use, but I definitely did try to rework the story going on certain assumptions, like that it isn’t inherently sad that the main character has been stifled by his parents' overbearing values. Nothing, from an intellectual standpoint, is inherently sad. In the MFA world, there is something of a consensus (and I think it’s a good one) that good writers don’t tug on their readers' heart strings. Good writers get their readers to care about what is going on in a story by the writing and the well-roundedness of the characters.
So I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel, focusing on logic and the specific dynamics of this specific family and trying to make the characters as well-rounded and complex as possible. I think all the characters now are very believable, and the events that occur throughout the story feel right, but still, the emotional reaction I had when I first came up with the idea is gone. And based on the responses I’ve been getting from agents, I can tell that the story isn’t reaching other people on that gut level, either. I think if you read a book and think it is good, that means the book is well crafted, but in order for you to “fall in love” with a book, there has to be something more.
So I’m sort of at an impasse. I like the way this particular novel has turned out. I like that it’s intellectually rather than emotionally driven. And I’ve been working on it for about five years now and am ready to move on with my life, to be honest. It’s a good book, like all the agents who have read it have said. It’s just not the kind of book that anyone is going to fall in love with. I can accept that, even if it means it will never get published (although I’m not giving up yet—there are still small presses out there). But this issue of inciting an emotional reaction from the reader is something worth thinking about for the next book I write. Perhaps I’m pretty good at craft, but I still have something to learn about engaging my reader on a gut level, and I do know that it’s possible to do both. My favorite writers (Rick Moody, for example) very successfully engage readers on both an intellectual and emotional level. I’m definitely not there yet. But at least I know, now, what I should be working on.