Stay True to Yourself and Your Project

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This essay first appeared in the Publishing U series on The Booklist Reader.

I worked in children’s publishing for a few years, so I had pretty realistic expectations when my agent, Brooks Sherman, and I went on submission with MORE HAPPY THAN NOT, my debut novel about a teenage boy who wants to undergo a new memory-relief procedure to try and forget that he’s gay. I expected rejections and there were plenty of those. What I wasn’t counting on were editors from major publishing houses who wanted me to revise and resubmit my book with one teeny-tiny change—make the narrator straight, and I would have a book deal. And I don’t mean make Aaron Soto straight because he’s journeying towards that very thing himself in the book. I mean it was suggested I excise his homosexuality completely.

Adam-Silvera-author-writer
More-Happy-Than-Not-book-cover

Column by Adam Silvera, debut author of NYT bestselling novel
MORE HAPPY THAN NOT (June 2015, Soho Teen). Adam was
born and raised in the Bronx and is tall for no reason. He was a
bookseller before shifting to children’s publishing where he worked
at a literary development company, a creative writing website for
teens, and as a book reviewer of children’s and YA novels. He lives
in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.

Keep in mind that this went down in November 2013, which was before the We Need Diverse Books movement and before the victory of marriage equality. I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx and couldn’t afford to go to college, so being offered any money for a story I created was incredible, of course, and tempting. But I don’t write books with the whatever-it-takes-to-pay-the-bills mentality. I write because writing is my favorite thing ever and writing has saved my life time and time again. Ultimately, when presented with that offer, I chose poverty and sticking to my guns instead of selling out and rewiring my narrator to make him more commercial and accessible.

(How to be an agent's dream client.)

Changing the narrator’s orientation was one critical suggestion. The other touched on the book’s dark tones brought on by all the violence, fade-to-black sex scenes, mentions of drug use, homophobia, grief, suicide, et cetera. The ending in particular was described as “too harrowing for teenagers,” and, while I firmly believe children and teenagers need to see hope and victory in fiction, it’s equally important for young readers to witness unforgiving realities where someone must reinvent himself or herself to survive unfair trials.

Then we had a call with Daniel Ehrenhaft, editorial director of Soho Teen, the only editor that offered on MORE HAPPY THAN NOT. For any new writers reading this, it’s very common for the writer and editor to have a phone conversation to make sure you agree on editorial visions. (It would suck to accept an advance and later find out you’ve been paid to rip out the heart of your novel and switch your narrator’s orientation, right?) I reviewed the feedback we received from the editors who passed on the book and asked Dan where he stood on all these things and all his answers were perfect:

1. Aaron would remain gay.
2. Aaron would remain Puerto Rican.
3. “The ending was bittersweet but fitting.”

I got off the phone with Dan and told my agent we had found our guy. Then we locked it down and got to work on a lot of editing and rewriting and deleting. It’s rare that a novel goes untouched after being acquired by a publisher, even if you have a very editorial agent like I do. But those edits, while difficult, are exciting and promising because you’re working with someone who wants to enhance your vision with their trained editorial eyes, someone as obsessed about, and protective of, the book as you are. So, while MORE HAPPY THAN NOT is not the same book it was when it sold, Aaron is still a Puerto Rican teenager struggling with his sexuality with an ending that is bittersweet but fitting. I’m positive down the line I’ll reread a passage or page or chapter of More Happy Than Not and wish I had done more of THIS and less of THAT, or used a different adjective on THIS page, or started off THIS chapter with a funnier joke. The cringing is inevitable, even if I swore I wrote the best book I possibly could at this point in my life, but I will never regret my choice to preserve my narrator’s identity.

(Listen to agents define what makes a writer an ideal client.)

I really, really hope any writers facing pushback on projects they’ve written with love and blood and sweat and tears will stand strong and not poison their book’s heart. I can’t imagine this hellish universe where I made Aaron Soto straight because someone basically suggested that coming-of-age, coming-out stories are inferior to coming-of-age stories with straight characters. But I’m sure Alternate Universe Adam is pretty damn unhappy with his copy of MORE HAPPY THAN NOT.

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