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Original Essays

Like Nothing I'd Ever Done Before

by Martha O'Connor
 
  1. The Bitch Posse

    The Bitch Posse

    Martha O'Connor
    "Compulsively readable...delicious and slightly macabre details of the mid-1980s alterna-teen culture." The Washington Post Book World

    "A sizzling page-turner." Cosmopolitan


I didn't set out to write a dark, gritty, controversial novel. I certainly didn't expect to! No, I was supposed to write something else. Something pleasant and appropriate and nice.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

In the years previous to the conception of The Bitch Posse, I'd been trying like hell to get published. Yet that Secret Formula had somehow eluded me.

Now I'm quick to admit that my first book, which I wrote at age fifteen, was horrible. It was the most pathetic fantasy novel ever written, and could have been used as the textbook for a How Not to Write a Novel class. It was filled with pages of unnecessary description and exposition, clunky dialogue, and was boring, boring, boring. It was so bad, in fact, that my grandmother is hanging onto it to blackmail me! I have no illusions about that work's quality, but with each and every work you grow. You learn. You get better.

The second was a novel about a girl and her sister whose parents go out of town and the girls have a huge party. Yup, that was basically the plot. The entire novel. I learned something there, too. It's nice in a book if things actually happen.

The third was a coming-of-age novel about a girl going off to college. That novel actually got me some attention and encouraging letters from literary agents, but again... no offers of representation.

Before I began my fourth novel, I decided I was going to Do This Right. I was going to do market research, and then the whole process would be easy as pie. So I spent some time in bookstores, walking up and down the aisles. Book after book had sprung from the Bridget Jones phenomenon. Funny, sassy, thirty-something heroines abounded. Perfect! There was Ingredient #1. After some more bookstore wandering, I decided the other element to my Secret Literary Weapon would be a mystery. A chicklit mystery! Perfect. I would definitely get published now!

I sped home and began writing. What came out wasn't a bad effort, for what it was. The plot had twists and turns, and the heroine was funny and likeable. The setting was painted in nicely. It was a competent work.

I landed an agent for this novel, a New York agent with sales and certified by the American Association of Authors' Representatives. Out came the champagne. It was a matter of weeks, if that, I was told. "This is just what everyone's looking for."

The first rejection didn't really bother me. After all, pity the dumb publisher who had missed the boat on the book that was going to make so many people rich, including me. The second rejection didn't bug me much either. But by February of 2003, the tenth rejection had come back, and my once-enthusiastic agent wearily informed me that we were beginning to run out of options.

Dejected, I felt sorry for myself for awhile, then did what I always do — threw myself into something new. To my surprise, what came out wasn't like anything I'd ever done before. It wasn't cute and light and adorable. It was dark and raw and angry, maybe because that's how I was feeling at the time. It was upsetting, and it was full of sex and violence and nothing nice whatsoever. The only women I could think of who wrote remotely like this were Mary Gaitskill, A. M. Homes, and Joyce Carol Oates at her darkest. And I remembered how much I loved their work. Then it clicked. I didn't really like to read light, pink, sweet stuff. How the hell was I supposed to write it?

Hot damn. I had finally found my voice. And the words poured out. It was like I was watching a movie and transcribing what happened.

Fifty pages into the novel, I wanted a little feedback, so I showed the work to my husband, also a writer and my first and best reader. When he had finished reading, he extended his hand. "Congratulations," he said. "This is the one."

But I didn't believe him. Brilliant me, I decided to send the pages to my agent for some "industry feedback." Sure, I was a little nervous, because this was so different from the mystery, but I brushed aside my worries. When I read her email message, my mouth dropped open.

It wasn't the type of thing I should be writing, she said. No one would ever want to read anything this dark. She couldn't see an audience for it at all, and she recommended that I put it away forever and instead write another mystery with the same character. That, she could sell.

Wow. Somehow I didn't expect that kind of response over something I knew far surpassed anything I'd ever done before.

After some initial upset, I said to my husband, "You know, I don't care if it's published or not. I have to find out what happens to the girls." If you've read The Bitch Posse, you have an idea of how much trouble Rennie, Amy, and Cherry have gotten themselves into by that point in the novel. I wouldn't abandon friends in that much trouble. How could I abandon my girls?

So I sat back down and let them take me wherever they wanted to go. They held my eyes open as they recklessly tore through their lives, and they led me into some very dark corners, sometimes places I was afraid to visit. In retrospect, my agent's curt dismissal was really freeing. No one's ever going to publish this novel, so who the hell cares? I told myself. I'll self-publish it, maybe, or maybe some foreign press will have the balls to take it. There's always Kinko's. So do what you want, Bitch Posse girls! No one's watching.

At a certain point, I did express a little worry about Rennie's... um, habit... to a friend. She said something very wise. "Just let her fuck her little brains out," she said. "There must be a reason she does it." (And there is.) "And by the way," she said. "It will be published."

I couldn't write quickly enough. Sometimes, I wrote all night. Six weeks later, I had the first draft. Now what do I do? I wondered. Is it really true, what my agent said? Is it hopeless? Will something so dark, so gritty and raw, ever be published?

Well, clearly she thought it never would be. So the next logical step was the letter I wrote dissolving our agreement.

I spent the next several months revising, and by the end of summer, I began sending The Bitch Posse out to other agents. Within two weeks, I had several offers, and I signed with Mary Evans. I worked on the novel for a few more months with her guidance, spending quite a bit of time on the ending and the last two pages in particular. At last, in November 2003, we both agreed the novel was ready.

She sent it out to several publishers, and those old worries came back. Would anyone take a risk on this book? Was it really as hopeless as my other agent had implied?

But I didn't have to worry very long. Within four days, we had four offers, and St. Martin's bid was the highest.

So what do you think? Should I send this former agent a signed copy of the novel, or would that just be too bitchy? Then again, if the shoe fits... spacer

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