I’ve thought quite a bit in recent weeks about the submission process with the latest novel. Without name dropping, some impressive agents requested partial and full copies of the manuscript. Even when they passed, they let me know they were impressed by my writing and what I was attempting to do with the story.
Mentioning this to some friends, they wonder why, then, agents would reject something well written with potential. To them, if agents liked something, then…that’s the book they should represent. But I know it’s not that easy. Most people who love books love a wide range of stories. At the same time, most people who sell and buy book have “their things.”
Agents make their living selling the kinds of books they represent best to publishers and editors they have established relationships with. So if you’ve made a living selling literary fiction to publishers, you’re not as likely to sell a full blown space opera to someone. (If you write space operas, you want an agent who specializes in that kind of story.)
I cannot say for certain where in A Magic Life agents decided they would have a difficult time selling it, but I can say with at least some confidence that it probably happened when some genre elements creep in. One agent read the first 10 pages and then requested the first handful of chapters. After that, they requested the manuscript.
It didn’t take long before they passed on the novel. (About the time more fantastic elements creep in.)
There are a couple extraordinary things that happen in the first several chapters of the book, but it’s written in a way that maybe it’s a young girl’s perception of her life in a circus. But there comes a point where it’s clear the protagonist has true magical powers — even though she does her best to not use them. (She wants to become a stage magician like her father, devising illusions all her own…not “cheating” and using a gift she seems to have.)
So I understand why an agent representing some of the biggest literary authors out there might reach a point where the lines between literary and genre are blurred and they decide it would be a hard sell to the people they know. (And I understand the couple genre agents who passed because it’s still a book leaning more literary than fantastic.)
But What About…?
Still, some people I know mentioned other writers who walk the line between literary and fantastic. “David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas jumps all over the place, and Haruki Murikami is known for blurring lines. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a ghost story.”
And so on…
They’re not wrong.
Maybe I could have pitched the book better, making it more clear some thresholds are hazy. But I suspect if I did that, I’d not have had even the partial and full manuscript requests that came my way.
When I pitched my first novel, Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors, I researched agents specializing in quirky family stories and humor. Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors is a humorous coming-of-age-story about a family traveling cross country in a possessed station wagon, and I spent many hours researching agents I thought would love it.
Most replies were, “I don’t represent horror!” despite it not being a horror novel in the least bit.
Had I mentioned the protagonist in A Magic Life does some actual magic (and struggles with that and her dream of becoming an illusionist), I suspect I would have been met with, “I don’t represent genre fiction.”
I took a chance that someone would see beyond the fantastic elements and represent the book.
It didn’t work.
One or the Other…
I’ve been asked why I don’t just strip out all magical elements from the book and write a straight-up literary novel (or go all-out on the genre side of things).
I’ll go back to this oft-cited Toni Morrison quote:
If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
A Magic Life is the book I really wanted to read.
So I wrote it.
What A Magic Life Is
A Magic Life is about a girl named June who is born in a circus in the 1920s and rises to fame as a magician during the 30s and 40s. It’s about a young woman who fights back against a system that tells her she’d be better off tending to children and a home — not traveling the country as a performer.
It is a story of friendship. June’s childhood best friend becomes more like a brother to her, the two working together toward a shared dream. It is also a story of loss: June never knew her mother, and many of the people who shaped her early life in the circus become memories when June’s father moves west to find work during the Great Depression.
And sure, June can do some truly magical things, but those things serve to further shed light on her struggles and symbolize the grief she carries for all she’s lost along the way.
I’m still deciding what to do next with the story, but I know with certainty that it will eventually end up on Not About Lumberjacks if the last couple plans don’t work out…