Listen to Your Heart

By Mark Stevens

According to one website, the first draft of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire was 1,400 pages long.

400,000 words.

He has since whacked it down by one-third, but the projected 900-page novel drew a $2 million advance.

The deal was announced a few weeks ago.

First novel.

Hallberg had previously published one novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, way back in 2007.

It was 144 pages long and, apparently, out of the ordinary in its own way.

Check this description from an online review: “…a compendium of brief one-page thoughts titled alphabetically and matched with a photograph that illuminates the words written. And as if this weren’t clever enough, the entire book is a marvel of design, taking the form of a notebook one would take on a journey, a collection of musings, paraphernalia, variations in paper types and typefaces, and printed in such a way that the reader feels almost guilty about opening the cover of someone’s private diary, so intimate is the structure and the content. This is an art book—but it is so very much more.”

Sheesh.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I just ordered a copy.

I guess we will all have to wait on City on Fire, see what we think of the 900 pages. (No publication date is set.) The advance buzz is, of course, quite buzzy. As with all hype, it’s over-the-top. Hype: short for hyperbole.

But can you imagine querying an agent today? “Dear Literary Agent of My Dreams: I have recently completed my first novel, a 300,000-word novel about…”

I sit here and think, yeah, Hallberg lives in Brooklyn—right there in New York City. He can move in those circles. He can flash snippets of his prose here and there, pique the interests of the Publishing Powers That Be. And it’s a novel about, get this, New York in the 1970’s. New Yorkers love New York. New York publishers love books about New York. (Okay, who doesn’t?)

Turns out I’m way off.

Hallberg isn’t saying much about the sale or the novel, but he’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t write for people in the publishing biz.

“They’re all very bright and good-looking and well intentioned — but they’re not the ideal audience to have in mind when writing, I don’t think,” he said.

Good looking, really? Maybe flattery got him what he was after.

In the two-day bidding war for City on Fire, 10 publishers offered over $1 million. (I didn’t know there were 10 publishers left that could offer those sums; I thought we were down to “The Big Five.”)

Anyway, somebody knows how to stage a frenzy.

So, great for Hallberg. (Film rights have already been sold, too.)

That whopper of an advance is great news: reading is not dead. Twitter hasn’t turned us to monsters who require ideas fed to us in rapid-fire fashion one minuscule morsel at a time.

Publishing lives.

I hope Alfred A. Knopf makes a bundle from their $2 million investment and turns the dough right back around to support 100 other up-and-comers, too.

I love Hallberg’s audacity—circulating a 900-page doorstopper. I love that the agents and publishers are going to make it happen—and the fact that they believe there are enough readers out there (book buyers!) to make this happen.

And I already like Hallberg—taking six years to execute the story he imagined.

He listened to himself, followed his own instincts, set his own course.
He wrote the story he wanted to write. How many times have we heard THAT advice?

Bottom line? You gotta listen to your heart.

It’s art.

There are no rules.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the President of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

You can learn more about Mark and his novels at his website. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Listen to Your Heart

  1. Julie Luek

    Mark, this is wonderful. I love the point you made; it encourages my writer’s heart. Yes, be mindful of the market, perhaps. But always write what you should– need to be– be writing. Like you, I’m glad the publishers are backing this writer. It offers hope to everyone else out there with an opus.

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    Writing to the market is a dead end for most of us. Some romance and cozy writers do just fine by writing fast and writing what their fans want, but it leaves no room for the writer to explore other genres and styles. I love the stories about writers who do exactly what they want in spite of the market, and succeed, all because they believed in their ideas and their abilities. Excellent post, Mark.

    Reply
  3. Dean K Miller

    This warms my heart…first novel, first draft should be done this week, nearly 3 years in the making…pulls in at just over 150K words. Doesn’t mean I’m equal (or even half of) Mr. Hallberg. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong either. I wonder what we would have thought if this post was just the last three lines? The journey is always easier when others have shared the path with us, whether they are ahead, behind, or along side.

    Reply

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