"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I really need your help. You’re a well-read man who writes and teaches writing, and I’m a writer with a project that isn’t going where I’d want it to.
I recently finished a manuscript for a novel, that I started shipping off to publishers around nine months ago. Most of the publishers shipped it right back with no explanation, but one gave me a three-page letter with a lot of helpful advice, and then this line toward the end of the letter: “We would recommend the writer to rewrite the manuscript, and send it to our YA-department.”
Why don’t you just hold this sword for me so I can fall on it properly? Receiving personal feedback is excellent. Everything would in fact be excellent had they just not written that last line.
Yes, many young adult novels are great. The Harry Potter books, for instance, are brilliant, and clearly work for all ages. However, I haven’t written a young adult novel, and if I try to turn my manuscript into one, that means I’ll have to rip out all of the subtext and symbolism, which frankly is the reason why the manuscript exists in the first place. I’m completely willing to rewrite the entire thing in a multitude of ways, but to turn it into a YA novel would mean not just removing some parts, but to castrate the entire plot.
So dear, sweet Cary, can you please tell me how I can turn my manuscript (that you haven’t even read) into brilliant, adult literary fiction that someone might want to pick up someday? Is there a formula or a support group for people with sloppy manuscripts?
No young ‘un
Dear No Young ‘un,
Learn the business.
It is good news that you are willing to rewrite the novel and it is understandable that you do not want to rewrite it as a young adult novel and you don’t have to. That was just one suggestion based on one company’s needs and view of the market.
You do, however, need to learn the business, the peculiar, insular, subtle, exasperating, beautiful, historic, deeply important business of book publishing.
Those who know the business are getting published. They don’t necessarily know the intricate mechanics of the book business but they understand who is reading and why. They write for someone. They do what is necessary to be taken seriously and to be comprehended. That means learning things like comps and pitches and queries.
I for one am doing my part to learn the business. It is not easy. But I want to be heard. I want my work to be heard. I want it to appear in forms that will last. So I am trying to learn the business. I suggest you and anyone else who wants to publish novels do the same.
Too many otherwise interesting writers risk being ghettoized in their own coolness. The very people who could rescue our culture from its sleepy consumerist sameness — the crazily creative types who lurk in temp jobs and basements of our great cities, writing in secret, or publishing only in zines and blogs if at all — risk not being heard by a larger audience unless they learn the business.
So no, don’t turn your novel into a young adult novel. But while you rewrite it for the umpteenth time, to your own specifications, also redouble your efforts to learn about the business. For instance, I noted that you shipped your manuscript to publishers. It is my understanding that literary agents are almost uniformly employed to make such approaches.
Study the dress and mating habits of publishing professionals. Mingle among them. Gain their trust. Attend writers conferences. Sit with agents and talk with them. Look at their jewelry and note the restaurants they mention. Listen to how they talk. Dine with them. Look at the writers they like. Note the kinds of jackets these writers wear. Consider buying similar jackets.
Above all, make your text sing. Keep making it sing. Be stealthy and cunning and ruthless and keep at it and you will get this novel published the way you want it published and you and your agent and your publisher will all be happy.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)