“No Hugging, No Learning”: Saying No When Hungry and Things that Don’t Work Until They Do

It is hard to say no when you are hungry for work. Writers are always hungry for work and therefore we are prone to jumping into deals that might not be the best in the long run. We’re afraid that if we say no we may never get another offer again.  Once I had an editor act indignant when I said that a point on a book contract was a deal breaker for me.  “Most writers are grateful for the work,” he said.

Last week I was contacted by an enthusiastic agent who was interested in representing a new novel I am shopping.  He said he was a fan of my work, said lots of complimentary things about it and gave the impression that he saw it as a potential best seller.  We were not long into the conversation, though, before it became clear to me that the partnership wasn’t going to work well.

He felt that to have a shot at selling well a book had to give the audience what it wants which means to follow a particular narrative structure that American audiences have come to expect. It is the only narrative that is satisfying and the only one which has a shot of generating the word of mouth that leads to book sales.  He went on to suggest I rewrite the book so it more closely followed a particular path and he went on to describe the plot of every romantic comedy ever made. To be clear, I am open to notes and suggestions. I have nothing against a great new take on an old story.  The only problem was that my particular novel actually made fun of the very romantic comedy convention he was hoping I’d adopt.  I wasn’t sure how I could reconcile those two aspects in this one novel.  I would have to give a lot of thought to what kind of story I wanted to tell and what my goals were for it.

In the end, the reason I felt I had to say no to this partnership had less to do with the particular revisions he suggested, but that I didn’t feel there was enough give and take.  I always have felt listened to with the agent who has represented my most recent non-fiction projects. Anyone I worked with would have to be open to my point of view and willing to admit that there is a subjective element in publishing and a blind luck element as well. No one can guarantee they can turn your book into a Twilight or Davinci Code.  You can do everything that the experts say should be a smash hit but that doesn’t mean it will be. The flip side of that is that doing the so-called wrong thing sometimes works.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the years I have been writing and publishing books it is that the very thing that one editor is certain makes your book unmarketable is the very thing that will excite a different editor.  Sometimes the changes I made to satisfy a particular agent or editor are the very things that get criticized in reviews. The same is true with published books– every negative note I read in reviews is contrasted by a glowing review by someone else for the exact same writing choice.  This doesn’t mean feedback is useless or that you shouldn’t listen to what readers have to say.  What it means is that y0u have to learn how to listen to what they have to say and to have an internal compass that tells you whether a criticism is one you should take to heart and when it is simply not someone’s taste. The other thing I have come to understand about editorial notes, especially on fiction, is that the person’s objection may be based on a real shortcoming, but the way to fix it might be different from what the reader is suggesting. For example, they might say, “I don’t like what you did with this character in the third act.” When you think about what the problem is, it might not be the plot point at all but that you didn’t set up the situation in the right way or elaborate enough on a particular aspect of the character to make the actions make sense.

Of course, I have been thinking about this ever since it happened– wondering if I did the right thing, wondering how much of this agent’s point of view is worth exploring and how much I need to follow my own compass.

Today I got to thinking about Seinfeld. It was just about the most popular sitcom in history.  The writing staff’s motto was “no hugging, no learning.”  Most every other sitcom on the air had a predictable formula.  The (dead?) blog Dead Comedian’s Society put it this way: “One of the first rules of story-telling is character development. In every story the characters must change and be affected by the events of the story. If they do not change the story feels fake, and more importantly, it is boring. This principle applies to all forms of media from books to movies to television. Thankfully, nobody ever told that to Larry David.”

I’m sure people did tell that to Larry David. They must have said his idea could never work and if it did it would only attract a fringe audience of hipsters.  Writing a “no hugging, no learning” television comedy absolutely can’t work– until it does. A lot of things can’t possibly work– until they do.  Then people follow that path trying to write “Seinfeld-like” comedies because conventional wisdom has it that that is what sells.

I did not say any of this to the agent, of course, this is all Treppenwitz.  Here is some more: At one point the agent asked me, in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “Do you think you’re (name of famous literary artsy writer)?”  I mumbled something about what kind of writer I think I am. I wish I had sat up a big straighter and said, “No, I think I’m Laura Lee.”

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