Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sell Out?

"I'd love to read more as soon as you get rid of the incest." Sure, in most of our daily lives, having less incest is typically a good thing. Unless you've got a Play Boy Bunny sister you've never met lurking out there somewhere, I'm guessing having no incest at all is at the top of your daily goal list. And to be sure, I've never met anyone with "have sex with my sister" on his bucket list. But when your entire novel is based on a pair of teenage twins coming to grips with their incestuous secret and their feelings about one another, the quote above is hard to process.

So when I sat across from an agent who I liked a great deal after her panel presentation and certainly respected the opinion of and heard those words, I should have been devastated. The fact is, however, I anticipated such a conundrum from the beginning. Daniel Asa Rose and I had already discussed this possibility and ways to get around it. Step-sister? Adoption? Just an inner lust without action? All could work. But by eliminating the edgiest content in the novel, am I a sellout? Am I throwing away all of my artistic integrity to get published and make a buck? Certainly some would see it that way.

My response? I don't think so.

First off, my desire to get published has very little to do with making a buck...or a quarter or penny for that matter. The dream isn't about money, it's about widespread global adoration and validation--duh! Actually, the truth is that nobody can be confronted with the ideas in the novel and struggle with the moral ambiguity presented in it unless they read it. And in order for anyone other than me, my wife, my brother, a close friend, and a few people who read part of it and give up or never get back to you after begging for a chance to read it (you know those types...we've all got 'em), it has to get published.

Secondly, I think I've found a way to make sure a good portion of readers will still be uncomfortable with the subject matter and will still be forced to contemplate those same issues. They will kiss (in a drunken haze), which will still enable Allan, the protagonist, to be ostracized for his incestuous thoughts. He will still be attracted to his sister throughout, and he'll even fantasize about her and a world where they can be together forever happily. It just won't happen. Even in the original version he didn't end up with her and realized he was confused about his emotions, so the results are still the same without them actually doing the deed.

In the end, readers will get the same effect without getting myself blacklisted. Like most things in life, it's perfectly fine to have a twisted thought, we all have one from time to time, but acting on it is just unacceptable. Probably as it should be.

And as for that agent, I'm hoping once I'm convinced the changes are just right that she'll be interested in representing me. I really liked her and can easily imagine working with her on starting my career. I got a second opinion, and it was basically the same anyway, so no resentment. For now I'm making the changes to The House on Bittersweet Trail while she digests my query for Scout's Honor.

So have I sold out? I'm interested in hearing what y'all have to say.


  1. Quick answer – no.

    I was only first exposed to your piece during your reading last week. As uncomfortable as the subject matter was, it was still drawing me in wanting to hear more. Yes, it's a totally taboo subject, but with a grim reality – incest happens regardless of how many people do not want to recognize it.

    It's all a business: an agent picking you up, a company publishing the book, and selling the books through different channels. A publisher is only going to spend the money and resources on a product that has a chance to sell. Otherwise, why be in the business?

    I think you have already answered your own question. As you have pointed out you can maintain your artistic integrity and storyline without much compromise to make it sellable. You could always go the self-publishing route and not change the story at all, though the risk of success is likely greater. You are on the right track. It is still your creation – kind of hard to sell yourself out when the piece has not been publicly released, i.e. published.

    And I would read it and get back to you if given the opportunity. Best of luck!

  2. I agree very much with David - you haven't sold yourself out at all.

    I've just recently completed the first draft of a book I'm quite proud of. In it, the main character often speaks of his Uncle Henry, the man who stole his virginity from him when he was only four. To intensify that connection and to bring Uncle Henry more into the foreground of the novel, I considered implementing a major change to the manuscript. Uncle Henry's journals, which he wrote because his therapist advised it, were going to be laced throughout the book. In fact, they would provide a sort of structure for the book.

    It was in conversing deeply with a friend--someone who'd acquired a Bachelor's degree in YA and Children's Literature--that I discovered the effect this new idea would have on the book as well as its intended audience. Which only enticed me further. But as I pondered why I'd written the book in the first place, how the book had been shaped, and where I truly wanted it to go, I reconsidered my position. The change was not implented, and the book, I think, is better for it. More sellable? I'm not sure.

    When asked why so many subplots in TENDER MORSELS, Margo Lanagan replied: "It's my book, that's why." Every writer must take this position if they aim to last, especially the novelist. Because, above all other professions, we can dictate the shape of our book, the words we choose to place on those pages, and the situations we deem worthy to illuminate. Its taken me 10 novels and 7 years to understand the value of being my own man.

    As a writer, this understanding is paramount. I wish you the best, and I can't wait to read it when it hits shelves!

  3. Thanks for the pep talk. My version of uncle Henry is my protagonists own father. In therapy Allan admits that his father's penis was his first memory. It's a rough book, but I think it gets at the heart of the traumas so many teens have lived through and what they've done to them. As for reading it on the shelf, I'm just thrilled this is the second time today that I've gotten blog comments from somebody I don't personally know.