I just received my first manuscript rejection from a New York literary agent.
I’m relieved to have this mandatory hazing ritual out of the way. Strangely, I feel more like “a real writer” now than any minor successes have ever caused. Perhaps I am consoled by a small sense of pride that this didn’t emotionally phase me. The juvenile phase of self-righteous indignation whenever someone calls “my baby” ugly has come and gone, thank God. (If fact, for a rejection it was quite civil).
I know that I’m happy with what I wrote; I know it can make some money for myself and some press; and I know there isn’t an agent or press on Earth who’s going to tell me “it’s perfect as it is; we’ll print it at once!”
There is an eerie peace to be had in knowing that it is now beyond my strength to alter without the aid of a professional editor. In some metaphysical sense, the process is already over. I just have to keep submitting.
The first draft began around Christmas 2018, but the idea is much older. It came to me in Calhoun, Georgia around the age of seven or eight. It must have been informed by my mom telling me that the land we lived upon had once belonged to the Cherokee natives. We were, after all, only five minutes’ drive from where the Trail of Tears began. I remember ranking Andrew Jackson as my least-favorite president after I learned the back-stabbing role be played in the Cherokee removal. And I also vaguely recall being awed by Sequoyah–whom the sequoia redwoods were probably named after–an illiterate who made a written language from scratch to preserve what was left of his people’s culture.
The idea, quite simply, was of a sickly medicine man teaching his apprentice everything he knows before he dies. Eventually, a secondary layer was added: how might a powerful medicine man have tried to prevent the Trail of Tears if he had foreknowledge of it?
After a decade and a half of letting this concept simmer in the subconscious, my two main characters eventually let themselves in and began telling me their story. It seems that theirs is a sort of American Divine Comedy or Cherokee 300–romanticizing yet simultaneously reappraising the mythos of the United States in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Understanding them has so-far required two feet-worth of reference books. Cherokee culture is singular and thus challenging to learn; the lingering presence of any inapplicable “Cowboys and Indians” tropes (teepees, horses) is disastrous, especially when the story’s main setting predates Columbus and De Soto. My general ignorance of forestry/ecology has also had to be addressed. The goal, of course, is to notice all that they would have noticed.
Without such details–simply jotting down the 5 W’s of the plot–their story is novella-length at roughly 15K words. But I will not be content until it’s a seething mass of fever-dream-like attention to detail at least in the neighborhood of novel-length. As far as timing, I am intentionally maintaining a slow-and-steady pace, because if I have one complaint with my previous self-publications, it’s that I was in too much of a hurry and it occasionally shows. Because this one will be pitched to literary agents or at least small third-party publishers, I am taking my sweet time and will continue redrafting until I’ve read something that could at least shiver in the shadow of American Greats like Jack London or John Steinbeck.
That being said, my best guess is that I will finish in 2020, which puts publication into 2021 or 2022. Now that I am well into the third draft, I not only hope but expect that it will be worth the wait.