My husband has a friend who falls in love every week. Ed meets women at parties or around town, talks (or not) with them, and falls. Sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard – but either way, regardless of what transpires, he’s a goner. Until the woman lets him know she’s not interested, until a dud first date, until the relationship sours. And then he’s out the next weekend, falling all over again.
This resiliency in romanticism amazes my husband and me. Ed gets back on the horse, but my husband and I, when disappointed in love, went off and nursed our wounds for, oh, a decade or so. I first heard about Ed, in fact, when my husband and I were still speaking in code, testing the thickness of the ice, speaking in slanted comments and abstractions that hid the risky specificity of “I’m falling for you.” Or, in my case, “All I want to do is kiss you.”
I’m thinking about this because I recently started revising my novel (again). Two years ago, I sent it to my agent. (Actually, I dropped it off in person, conveniently having flown to New York for a friend’s surprise 50th birthday.) I wanted her, of course, to pick up my 304 pages and not pee or eat until she’d finished reading. But – as I kept reminding myself, week after week, as I heard nothing – my novel wasn’t the center of her universe or even the only manuscript on her desk. I waited a month, checked in.
Polite, noncommittal reply. Another month. The same. It wasn’t lost on me that our communication had been downgraded to one-sentence emails sent from her Blackberry as (I imagined) she zipped uptown to lunch with a fabulous editor about to make an offer on someone else’s manuscript. Once, she’d lavished me with “Brava”s at my book proposal’s garnering interest from a hard-to-please editor at an esteemed publishing house. Once, she’d bought me lunch.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” she wrote sometime in late July. And “I want to read it when I have time to give it the read it deserves.” I didn’t bother her in August. (We all know what happens in New York publishing in August.) Then, finally, after a week of her being at the US Open every time I phoned, she emailed.
Three sentences telling me the novel “didn’t quite work.” That it was “too quiet.” That “the market’s really tough right now for fiction.” That she was sorry.
Heck, Gilead was quiet. Didn’t “quite work” how? I knew the market was tough – but an agent is an advocate, right? She didn’t need to sell something she didn’t believe in it; no, I didn’t expect that. But I did expect some details, some editorial guidance, some level of investment, some suggestion on moving forward. This read like a kiss-off.
I talked to two published writer friends. I talked to my therapist. I made a bulleted list of talking points. I called, she took my call, we talked. She gave details – hers and those of the three outside readers she’d sent the novel to. We agreed, for this novel, to part ways. Many writers, she said, have one agent for nonfiction and another for fiction, and while I didn’t like the sound of that, I did see her point. I’d gone with her because I liked her no-nonsense manner, her good reputation among editors I talked to, her track record with books like the memoir I was then shopping around. But I could leave her now, with dignity intact, telling myself and any future agent I approached, that she didn’t do my type of fiction.
Dignity? Several friends pointed out that mine hadn’t been compromised. But here’s where we get back to Ed. Ed doesn’t think about dignity when he professes love after hearing a folk singer at the local coffee house – and he doesn’t need to. His hasn’t been compromised. He may be ardent, and overly eager, but he’s not abject. He doesn’t let rejection ruin his optimism, his eagerness.
My agent and her readers made valid points. I knew that I could improve the novel, tighten and dramatize key elements, and look for new representation, sending out the best first fifty pages I could come up with. What I didn’t know was that doing so would take so long. What I didn’t realize, until recently, was how stung I’d been, how fully I’d retreated.
So, as I revise, as I look for agents to contact, I think of Ed. And I think also of the man I love, the man I am married to, the man I wouldn’t know at all if we hadn’t each taken a deep breath and broken through the code.