When Emmy-nominated TV writer Gayle Abrams discussed her book with a literary agent, she found it wasn’t quite ready for publication. Many writers do this: They can’t get their first novel published right away, so they put it in a drawer and write a second one. Here, Abrams discusses the decision to put that first novel in the drawer and move on to book two, or to persevere with the first.
By Gayle Abrams
I listened as the agent launched into an enthusiastic list of compliments. “You write amazing dialogue, you know how to create characters, I love stories about female friendship…”
Hearing her praise my book was exciting, of course. But still I braced myself. If I had learned one thing from my many years writing TV shows and pilots, it was that executives always lead with the positives.
For the last two decades I have worked as a TV writer, but then I decided to change course when I lost my friend Barb to cancer. Her death taught me to try for my dreams today, because I might not get tomorrow. I had always wanted to write a novel…so I wrote one.
And now I had a seasoned literary agent giving me feedback. The fact that she’d read my book and was taking the time to give me her comments was a big deal, and I was grateful. I scribbled down every word.
“My first job in book publishing was in the publicity department! Just like your characters!” she told me. “And I also met my best friend while I was working there, so I feel like I was fated to read your book!”
“Wow! What a cool coincidence!” I told her. There was no question the call was going great. Yet I continued to wait for the other shoe to drop.
Then it did.
“Have you heard of the novel in the drawer?” she asked.
“Well, most people who are trying to write novels, you know like MFA students and so on, they don’t publish their first book. In fact it’s very rare that people go out with their first book.”
I had prepared myself for rejection. I had braced myself! But still I felt like I had just gotten kicked in the gut.
Of course I knew what she meant by the novel in the drawer. I had read many essays by novelists who had had this experience: I wrote a book… then I rewrote it… then I rewrote it again. And still I couldn’t get it published, they said. So I put it in a drawer and started the next one. It was a common story. It was THE story.
In fact, not that long ago I’d found an article on a writer’s website titled: “Dear Writer: You’re Not Special” and it was about EXACTLY THIS. Only this writer had put her first novel in a drawer and then wrote a second novel, which she was SURE would find a publisher, but that one ended up in a drawer as well. And it wasn’t until 10 years later—and a great deal of anguish, soul searching, and despair—that she’d found an agent for her THIRD novel, and it had sold to a publisher and had been released into the world.
But honestly, I DID think it would be different for me. It’s not that I thought I was special exactly, but more that I was experienced. I knew what I was capable of. I knew I could get to the end of something. I knew if I wanted something badly enough, I could get it.
“Look, you wouldn’t expect a novelist to know how to write a TV script the first time they tried, would you?” The agent continued.
“Uh, well, hmm,” I mumbled.
I mean it WAS true at times I had really struggled with writing the book. I would lose track of what tense I was writing in. Did the adverb go before the verb or after? Some days, I felt like I could have put together an Ikea bookcase more easily than I could string together a single sentence.
But still! It wasn’t like I’d just written the first thing that came into my head and sent it off.
THAT version of the book had actually gone to my friend Gina to read. And after she had given me her notes, I had rewritten the book from start to finish and gotten notes from a second writer friend.
Then there was another draft, another friend and another set of notes.
Then I had hired a developmental editor and written a fourth draft.
That version felt like a keeper.
And in fact I had asked a lot of people to read it. They said things like “I’m glad you’re writing books now because you’re good at this!” They saw themselves in the pages. They stayed up late reading. They laughed. They cried.
“It’s really compelling,” one friend told me, a particularly tough critic. “I gobbled it up. I couldn’t put it down.”
So was it just that they knew me? That they were rooting for my success? I don’t think so because I had also reached out to my favorite English professor from college. This was an expert in fiction. He had edited the Norton Anthology of Friendship and the Kenyon Review. He read the book quickly and wrote me a long letter afterward. “I was deeply moved,” he said. “You write with amazing ease and precision.” “You have a highly accomplished novel on your hands.”
But that’s not what this literary agent was saying. Far from it. “Have you heard about the novel in the drawer?”
My mind started to drift. I could always self-publish. Plenty of writers had been rejected by traditional publishers because the establishment didn’t get their work. E.E. Cummings self-published his poems. Marcel Proust self-published Swann’s Way. And look at 50 Shades of Grey! Sure a publishing house swooped that up, but only AFTER it was making money in droves.
But didn’t I need a lot of confidence to self-publish? And how did someone decide their book was good enough to bypass the traditional publishing route anyway? How could I turn off the voice in my head that said: if these people in the industry don’t think I’m there yet—maybe I’m not.
Or maybe I SHOULD put the novel in a drawer and start something else, I thought. I do have another book I want to write. I’ve started writing it in fact. Some chapters are done. There are notes….
“If you really do want to publish this—“ the agent continued.
“I do!” I practically shouted into the phone… answering my own question.
“Then I highly recommend you hire a freelance editor.”
Somewhat sheepishly I admitted I’d already done that.
“Well in my opinion you’d need to do a pretty serious edit to get it into submission shape. We have a list of people…”
I told her to send me the names.
So I guess I’m going to be rewriting my book again.
And maybe after this next rewrite, I’ll still end up self-publishing it. But even though the call with the agent was disappointing, I learned something really important from it. Just like Barb’s death had made me realize I wanted to write a novel, now I knew I had to find a way to get it published. I was certain about it…
…because I don’t want to put this novel in the drawer.
Gayle Abrams is an Emmy-nominated television writer and producer whose credits include Frasier, Spin City, Gilmore Girls, 90210, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and many others. She is currently re-writing her first novel. Learn more about her at gayleabrams.com.