I have been hard at work on a complete revision of my novel Reply All. It started when I got a thoughtful and constructive rejection from a really great agent whose main issue was that he didn’t know where the book would go on a bookstore’s shelves. He also had some problems with the basic structure of the novel, which is a cross-generational story about how a mother’s adolescent freakout led to the child’s problems and adventures and self-realizations.
The revelation I had, while driving my two dogs up to Little Bennett Regional park here in Maryland, was that the other main character should be female rather than male. When I realized this, I actually felt my heart twist in my chest and I teared up. It was the exact right thing. Not only was it the way out of the box the agent had pointed out–the problem of audience. It was the exact right thing for the novel itself.
The main character is a Nashville session musician, a dobro player. How much hotter is a chick dobro player? The main character after learning the mother’s secrets, goes in search of the three men who could be the father. How much more nuanced is that quest when it’s a girl rather than a guy? As my friend Susan put it, there’s the “bat squeak” of sexuality between a father and daughter. A road trip for a girl even now is more edgy than for a guy. Hanging in bars is edgier for a chick. Talking football is cooler for a girl. Everything is better, including releasing something in me to probe mother-daughter relationships, father-daughter relationships. And the sibling dynamic is much more interesting now that it’s three sisters rather than two sisters and a brother.
AND the change puts the novel firmly in the category of women’s fiction with a whiff of chick lit. Young women will read about their mothers’ lovers. Older women will read about their daughters’ search for themselves. Women will read family sagas. Guys — not so much.
Again, to quote Susan, it’s the beneficial influence of form following function rather than entrapment. In other words, changing the novel to appeal to its true audience is not a sell-out; it’s taking the story to a higher level.
All this said, don’t think I’ve abandoned Robert for Vivi without a pang. I always thought Faulkner was talking about bits of writing you like very very much when he said writers must be strong enough to “slay their darlings.” I never thought of actually killing off your darling characters. I’ve slain characters before without much of a pang, but Robert is different. I love him. And he now goes into a strange half-life, literary limbo, because he’ll always BE there. He just doesn’t go on with this novel. It’s very sad.