I started writing The People We Keep in 2006 while working on my first novel, Stay. I was trying to write pages for my writing group when iTunes shuffle paired “Iowa,” by Dar Williams with “This Is the Sea,” by The Waterboys. I had the sudden thought that traveling musicians must have many lonely nights. And then I could see her in my mind’s eye: this girl with wavy brown hair and a battered guitar. I felt the depth of her heart and the intensity of her need like a sharp longing I couldn’t push away.
I spent the night writing close to 6,000 words about a folksinger named April who, in homage to the lyrics of “This Is the Sea,” takes things and leaves things behind as she moves through the world. The words came out fast, in a series of very polished parts, like random pages torn from a book. I was already in love with April.
After Stay was published in 2010, I assumed April would be my next book, but the agent who shepherded my debut into the world didn’t like my April chapters. She signed me because she fell in love with a book that was very different from the one I showed her next, and while some of the things we loved about Stay overlapped like a Venn diagram, what she loved most about my writing and where I wanted to go were on opposite sides of those circles. Eventually, we parted ways.
I didn’t know then that once you publish a book, you’re generally seen as what you’ve published. Finding people who could view me (and April) with clear eyes would take another 10 years. Stay had carved out a small box for me, and everyone seemed to expect my writing to fit in it neatly. I was encouraged to push April to the back burner and write books that fit in the box. Working with two more editors and three more agents, I wrote and published two novels that could be marketed in a similar vein to Stay, but I couldn’t stop writing about April. I wrote several drafts a year.
I’m proud of my first three books. Sometimes constraints are an excellent tool for creativity. Once Stay created the box, it was useful for writing Why Can’t I Be You and Swimming for Sunlight. But when it came to April, I didn’t need constraints. I needed someone to help me break out of the box.
Over the years, when I showed April’s book to other writers, I’d receive breathless praise and functional advice. When I showed the book to people I worked with or people I wanted to work with, the wild what-ifs flooded in. What if your teenage traveling folksinger trying to exist in the world of adults stayed in one place and had friends her own age? What if you put a dog in it? What if you wrote a different book instead? Or, the most dreaded of feedback on any female character, What if April were nicer? That last what if often came in the form of many tiny edits that chipped away at the core of her character. They chipped away at me, too. Of all the characters I’ve written, April’s heart feels the most like mine, and there was no place for her. It was painful.
From this vantage point, I understand that when someone offered wild what-ifs, it was a sign that we weren’t on the same page. It meant they liked my work enough to wish we could meet on a page, which is ultimately a lovely, generous effort. What-ifs were an attempt to acquire a project they would know how to sell because writing is an art, but publishing is business. Whenever I tried to bend my book to fit a what-if, I broke it. (There’s a rom-com draft of The People We Keep, and it’s absolutely horrible). When I attempted to smooth April’s prickly edges, I could picture her glaring at me, heartbroken by my betrayal.
Chris Pureka has a gorgeous song called “Compass Rose.” She sings, “Someday, someday, I’ll offer up a song I was made to play….” I started thinking of April’s story as the book I was made to write. If my art didn’t fit into the business, I had to be okay with that. You can’t bend the work you were made to create and hope no one notices the resulting cracks. It’s too important to risk. So I quit on the business and just did the art. The what-if drafts weren’t earning me money anyway, so I wasn’t giving up anything real. I was the only person in the world who could write this book, and since I loved this book, I would finish it for me. I stopped hearing the what-ifs in my head. I scrubbed out all the changes I’d executed in the hopes of making someone else happy and restored the book to my original vision.
When I was done, I decided to take one last stab at the business, content to walk away if I couldn’t find the right people for my book. My agent, Deborah Schneider, read The People We Keep on an airplane and e-mailed immediately upon landing to say she loved it with all her heart. Deborah understands my vision, which means she knew how to find an editor who would understand, too. The moment I heard Hannah Braaten’s voice on the phone, telling me how she cherished April, I knew I was placing this book I was made to write in the hands of the person who was meant to publish it. Deborah and Hannah both had brilliant editorial suggestions that supported my vision of the book, but there were no what-ifs because we’re all on the same page.
It’s a cliché to find what you’re looking for right after giving up. But that’s what happened to me, and I understand why. As a novelist looking for an agent, we are desperately hoping to be chosen. Too often, we’re also searching for validation, and that clouds everything. What-ifs sound really good when no one has been talking about your work at all, and you’ve spent months compulsively checking e-mail. Much of the agent-search advice out there is geared toward teaching writers how to be chosen, how to be pliable. Going in with that mindset means what-ifs sound like a problem you have to solve instead of a sign that you don’t share a vision.
If there is one piece of advice I have to offer to a novelist at the start of their career, it’s this:
You are not waiting to be chosen. You are searching for the right match.
Your work is important because it’s your work and you love it. Write until your book feels like the truest art you can create. Validate yourself and then send your work out into the world to look for your agent. Feedback that supports your vision is wonderful. What-ifs are a warning sign. You’re looking for people who understand your work, and that takes time. It’s okay that it does.