Friday, April 4, 2014

THE KING AND I: HOW MY FIRST BOOK GOT SOLD




Side by side--in my dreams!

We’ve all heard stories about how celebrated best-sellers were repeatedly rejected before achieving their ultimate success and bringing untold pleasure to millions of readers.

The list of distinguished authors who struggled past initial rejections is surprisingly long. It contains legendary names like John Grisham, John D. MacDonald, Vince Flynn, Louis L’Amour, Tony Hillerman, Zane Grey, even J.K. Rowling—and a whole lot more.

A textbook case is that of Stephen King. His first novel, CARRIE, about a tormented girl with telekinetic powers, racked up 30 rejections; whereupon its disheartened creator tossed it in the trashbin. Only to have his wife fish it out and prevail on him to send it around again.

Shows you the value of a “Yes, dear” marriage.

These turnaround tales offer frustrated writers more than consolation; they are endlessly inspiring. They tempt us to construct a syllogism along these lines:

Many best-selling books were repeatedly rejected. My book has been repeatedly rejected. Ergo, my book will be a best seller.

Alas, 99.99% of repeatedly rejected manuscripts do not become best-sellers. (But maybe if they’d been submitted just one more time…)

Like CARRIE, my first book, LAIR OF THE FOX, was repeatedly rejected, yet ultimately—after I‘d abandoned all hope—was published. Alas, its sales trajectory and my writing career did not continue to parallel CARRIE’s and Mr. King’s. Not hardly.

And yet there are some additional and interesting parallels in the publication stories of LAIR and CARRIE.

I started my writing career with at least one advantage over the schoolteacher from Maine. When I began plotting and writing LAIR, I was working on the copydesk of the L.A. Times Syndicate, under a managing editor who had worked for some years as a successful book editor with a mainstream New York publishing house.

With some hesitancy, my boss agreed to look over my synopsis and three chapters—the accepted formula at the time for any book submission. It took several weeks, and a few followup nudges from me, to get her actually to open up the manila envelope I’d given her and read through my proposal, but in the end she was enthusiastic and agreed to send it, along with a cover letter, to a prominent New York agent.

This woman, head of her own agency, sent me an encouraging note several weeks later. I felt like Sally Field at the Oscars. Two savvy women in the book biz liked my novel—they really did! The New York agent even invited me to meet her for breakfast on her next West Coast swing at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

At that meeting, she gave me some good suggestions; I nodded my head vigorously at each one. “I can sell this,” she said, “but three chapters won’t do it. How soon can you give me 100 pages?” A month? Two months? I can’t recall what number I came up with. But, writing furiously before and after work and on weekends, I met the deadline.

Then I waited for the magic phone call.

What I got instead—every few days, it seemed—were No. 10 envelopes from my New York agent, each containing one or more Xeroxed rejection letters from big-time editors at big-time publishing houses. Not form rejection letters, mind you, but friendly notes to my agent, politely dismissing my book—for a puzzling variety of reasons.

How many major publishing houses were left? I wondered.

Then—hallelujah!—I got a Xeroxed letter from a publisher with an enthusiastic cover note from my agent. An executive editor at New American Library—a highly respected guy, she wrote—was willing to consider buying LAIR if the author would make a certain story change—a pretty major change, with drastic ramifications affecting the rest of the downstream plot.

I telephoned her back and said yes. What the hell else could I say?

Then I set to work. Reconstructing my intricate plot proved even trickier than I’d imagined. The new structure kept collapsing. But, of course, it had to work. After several agonizing weeks I managed to cobble together a new synopsis and send it off to my agent, who forwarded it to the interested editor.

For days and days I didn’t hear a thing. Finally I called to check. “You took too long,” my agent admonished me. “He’s no longer at NAL, and his replacement isn’t interested.”

When the power of coherent speech returned to me, I asked her if she was going to continue to send it out to other publishers. Sure, she said, but added that there weren’t that many left on her list.

A few weeks and several rejection slips later my New York agent phoned to say that she was truly sorry, but she’d given it her best shot and there was nowhere else she could send LAIR.

“Write me something else,” she said.

So, just like Stephen King, weary of seeing his beloved CARRIE turn up in his mailbox yet again, I set LAIR OF THE FOX aside. Stuffed into a filebox, not the trashbin, but it amounted to the same thing—a quick burial without ceremony. Despair congealed around me like a straitjacket, but within a week I began plotting a new story. “Something completely different,” as Monty Python used to say.

Clearly I needed a new approach, a new voice, maybe a new niche. But my wife, like Stephen King’s, hadn’t given up on my firstborn. And she had an idea.

An interesting thing happened in book publishing just about then. The first in a brand-new genre, the “techno-thriller,” Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, suddenly shot to the top of the best-seller lists. The book bore an unlikely imprimatur—the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md. HUNT, it turned out, had been roundly rejected by all the mainstream New York houses before finding its modest home.

Why not, my wife asked, send LAIR OF THE ROX to the Naval Institute Press? And if that doesn’t work, what about other second- and third-tier publishers, university presses, and so on? What have you got to lose?

Of course, she was right. When isn’t she? So I wrote my New York agent and politely inquired—since she’d run out of places to submit LAIR—if she’d mind if I tried to agent it myself. Starting with the Naval Institute Press.

Two weeks passed without response. Okay, I thought, so I’m chopped liver, I’ll just go ahead on my own. Finally she called me—to tell me she’d just sold the book.

“It's not a major publisher,” she cautioned, “and not a big advance.”

I didn’t care to whom or for how much, I’d finally sold a book! Well, she had, but it was my dream that had just come true at last! Thanks to my wife’s advice, which had apparently prodded my agent into flipping beyond her favorite section of her Rolodex.

At that point I was scribbling the details—a small independent New York publisher, Walker & Co., was offering $2,500 for LAIR. Would I take it? Yes, I would.

Walker was giving me six months to finish it—remember, I’d written only 100 pages. No problem, I told the agent. The rest would be easy. After several days of celebrating and telling the good news to everyone I could think of, I set to work.

I’m a slow writer. Sometimes really slow—a fact that had already cost me the NAL sale. Knowing that, my wife began measuring my daily output against my six-month deadline. “You’ll never make it,” she concluded. “Not even close. You need to ask for a leave of absence.”

She showed me the math, and I saw she was right (what else is new?). I went to my editorial bosses and begged; they understood what a big deal it was, bless them, and a three-month leave was arranged. Even then, working full time—and double time the last few weeks—I barely made it, rushing down to Fed-Ex on the final afternoon.

My editor was enthusiastic. He loved my writing, he said. There was only one slight problem. The manuscript was too long. It turned out that Walker & Co., after careful calculations of their manufacturing costs against pricing structure, was forced to limit all their books to no more than 80,000 words.

LAIR OF THE FOX weighed in at 120,000. So 40,000 of those words had to be removed.

I was stunned, but my editor was treating this as no big deal. “If you like,” he said in a helpful vein, “I can take care of it. I think I can find a couple chapters you could do without.”

“No, please, don’t do that!” I protested. “I’ll do it. Just give me a week or two.”

So I went through my precious, polished, perfect manuscript again—line by line and word by word—with a predatory eye and a No. 2 draughting pencil. (For hints about how best to do this, check out my blog post on Kipling’s “Higher Editing.”) The first pass didn’t come close; radical surgery was needed. The second time through I became reckless. Sentences vanished, then entire paragraphs; long scenes turned into vignettes. I stopped just short of excising whole chapters, as my editor had so blithely proposed.

When I got to the magic number of 80,000 words, I Fed-Exed LAIR OF THE FOX-lite off to my editor. “I couldn’t have done it better!” he generously conceded.

More importantly, he thought the book was the better for the reductive process. He was right. Rereading LAIR today, I don’t miss any of those well-chosen words that aren’t there anymore.

Now it was time to start marketing efforts, because my little publisher didn’t have any budget for this, it turned out. Walker & Co. sold mostly to public libraries.

So I crafted letters to various thriller writers I admired, hoping to charm at least one of them into reading, and favorably commenting on, an advance reading copy or galley proof, when they became available.

These were purely shot-in-the-dark letters, addressed to famous names in care of their publishers. But two of these celebrity authors—Clive Cussler and the late Ross Thomas—eventually wrote back and said they’d be happy to look at a galley. Cussler gave me his address in Colorado, Thomas in Malibu.

Weeks later, after I’d sent them copies of the first galleys, both these generous gentlemen responded with timely endorsements which I use to this day.


My editor was impressed with this, but told me that reviews were far more important than author blurbs. “Keep your fingers crossed,” he said after the review copies went out.

I’d be lucky if LAIR OF THE FOX got reviewed at all, I thought. Why would Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, the L.A. Times et al., bother with a title from little Walker & Co.?

But they did. Not only that, they actually liked it—that Sally Field thing again. Publishers Weekly gave LAIR a starred review and pronounced it a “classic can't-put-it-down thriller.” The N.Y. Times and the L.A. Times provided similar superlatives. Only Kirkus was snotty—“they always are,” I was told. “Nobody pays attention.”

LAIR OF THE FOX was starting to look like a contender.

Good news continued. Not long after the hard cover was published (if you could find it), reprint rights were sold to HarperCollins for its brand-new paperback line. It wasn’t a financial bonanza, but several times what Walker had paid for the hard cover, and I was now under the aegis of a prestige publisher.

As an “added bonus,” in the tautology of the infomercial, the editor who bought my book at Harper was the same guy who had turned it down when he was editor-in-chief at another publishing house. I had a copy of his earlier rejection letter and the original of his new congratulatory letter to prove it!

“But wait, there’s more” (another infomercial refrain). A month or so later the agent sold my second “book”—this time only a 10-page synopsis and a brief opening chapter—to another major publisher, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

This sale was a bonanza, at least in my world. “Are you sitting down?” the agent said over the phone, preparing me for her bombshell news. When I said I was, I heard those magic words I’d dreamed of for so many years:

“You can quit your job!”

Dizzy-making details followed, all about the hard-soft contract and schedule of payouts. And there was one final coincidence—the Pocket Books’ editor I’d be working with on the new book was the same guy who demanded I change the LAIR OF THE FOX plot back when he’d been at New American Library.

There aren’t many days like that, no matter what your profession. Considerable detours and reverses were lurking farther down my writing career path—remember, this is my story, not Stephen King’s or any of those other famous names’—but I’ll leave the dreary negative stuff for another post. The good news is that I did quit my job, and not long afterward my wife and I set off for a research trip to Europe and even splurged a bit.

Moral? One, for sure, is: Marry well—and listen to your spouse.

Postscript: Thanks to the digital publishing revolution, LAIR OF THE FOX and my other titles are now enjoying a second launching and are starting to build the kind of readership that I always hoped for. The last chapter has not been written.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

THE THIRTY-SIX DRAMATIC SITUATIONS



For your writer’s bookshelf, I recommend you pick up (or download) a copy of Georges Polti’s Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. The work of a French academic and classicist, the slim volume (my well-thumbed copy runs to 180 pages) was first issued in Paris in 1895, translated into English in 1916, and has been reprinted continuously ever since.

I’ve never read it, mind you. I don’t think it’s meant to be read straight through. It’s more suited to skimming and sampling. Sometimes in a lazy search for ideas I find myself going back over Polti’s time-tested list,* which attempts to categorize every dramatic situation that might usefully occur in a story or drama.



(*Wikipedia offers Polti’s list here. And if you want the complete English text, the Internet Archive obliges here.)


In our days, of course, “list” titles are a glut on the market, from songs (Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”) to Cosmo headlines (“69 Shocking Things Chicks Do in Bed”) and quickie self-help tomes (“10 Power Secrets of Ruthless Leaders”). But, with the notable exception of Moses on Mt. Sinai, I’m thinking Polti might have been the trendsetter on catchy list titles.


He’s certainly had no shortage of copycats when it comes to how to plot. Google any number + “plot” and you’ll get oodles of competing lists—"7 Basic Plots," "17 Stockplots," "20 Master Plots" to name a few.


I was reminded of Polti’s old warhorse last year when I watched Saving Mr. Banks, the film about Walt Disney’s decades-long quest to bring Mary Poppins to the screen.


I realized, at some point, that the heart and soul of this touching tale was based on what Polti regarded as the most neglected of all the dramatic situations. Indeed, the Frenchman gave it pride of place in his list of three dozen:
No. 1 — Supplication

A Persecutor; a Suppliant; a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
Modern writers, Polti laments, have evidently “found the First Situation too bare and simple a subject for this epoch.”



In the climactic scene of Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks, in a brilliant evocation of Walt Disney, gets down on his knees before author P.L. Travers (wonderfully played by Emma Thompson) and begs her to allow him to bring her characters to a wider world.


Coincidentally, in another of last year’s films, Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks entreats Somali pirates to spare the life of his crew, so he’s clearly mastered the art of dramatic “Supplication.” But it’s still novel to see a hero, or a male protagonist, on his knees.


The other way around, genderwise, is stereotypically quite common. Polti mentions the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone, begging her Uncle Creon to be permitted to bury her slain brother, Polynices.



And in my considerable span as a reader, just about every tough guy hero—from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—can’t seem to get out of chapter one without closely encountering a damsel in distress. In Child’s Echo Burning, the seductive supplications go on for several chapters.


I do not complain, mind you. Nor would Polti, I’m thinking.

Friday, October 11, 2013

TO PLOT OR NOT



Plot Outline Map from Hollywood Story Structure Guru Robert McKee
When it comes to plotting a novel, there are two basic approaches and, thus, two kinds of writers. There are the naturals, the seat-of-your-pants folks who “just do it.” Their stories “just grow’d,” like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
 
Then there are the rest of us, writers who, like me, need to build an elaborate track and know exactly where they’re going, or they end up nowhere. Or stranded, at some accidental and inconclusive terminus.

That’s happened to me—especially during the long, frustrating years of my apprenticeship—more times than I want to count. In my garage are stacks of cardboard boxes full of false starts and miscarriages, some of them hundreds of pages long. There’s even some good writing in those fragmentary projects, but so what? It’s all overdue for the recycling bin.
Elmore Leonard
 
But what about the “naturals”? How does yarn-spinning work for them?
 
The world recently lost one of these naturally gifted storytellers, Elmore Leonard, a writer who never outlined or plotted in advance.  Here’s how he once explained his process:
           
“Most thrillers are based on a situation, or on a plot, which is the most important element in the book. I don't see it that way. I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to each other, and the plot just sort of comes along.”

In fact, “Mr. Leonard is so comfortable allowing his characters to control the pace and action of his stories that he didn't know how Bandits would end until three days before he finished it.” (Elmore Leonard quoted by Michael Ruhlman, New York Times Book Review, Jan. 4, 1987)

Joe Wambaugh
This approach is usually described as character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven. Another best-selling crime writer, Joe Wambaugh, places himself emphatically in the character-first camp beside Leonard:

“I sort of relegate plot a little bit down on the list of importance in my mind. I don't really have an outline when I start a book. If I did, it wouldn't be any good. I create characters and, if you're really cooking, they take over. They direct you. You follow them.” (Joe Wambaugh interviewed in the San Diego Reader, Nov. 4, 1993) 

Howard & Frazetta's Conan
I remember reading about Robert E. Howard, a pulp-magazine writer back in the ‘30s who famously created Conan the Barbarian. Howard had scant success with his adventure yarns until one day, as he recalled, he had this overpowering vision of a big, musclebound, wild-eyed barbarian dude. The visitation drove Howard to his typewriter; and, from then on, the stories just flowed—and sold.


Stephen King
I love these examples, and I love the mystic process of being possessed by characters. But it rarely works that way for me. I'm more like Stephen King, at least in this one regard:

"For me, it's the idea [that comes first]. The characters are a perfect blank. Everything about the character is a blank... the first thing that comes is the situation, and the next thing that comes are characters that will fulfill that situation." (Stephen King, Writer's Digest,  March 1992, p. 24 & 25)

Dickens
Of course, most writers, including me, have experienced to some extent both kinds of writing—switching back and forth, as it were, from left brain (plot-analytical) to right (character-synthetic). The great novels of Charles Dickens are indelibly character-driven. His unforgettable players come alive on the stage of the reader’s mind and drive the story forward, installment after installment. And yet, before launching on each new book and letting his conjured creatures consume him, Dickens would scribble cryptic notes—names and places, touchstones and benchmarks—for the great narrative journey that stretched ahead.

I suspect that even sly old Elmore Leonard had an inkling of where he was letting himself be led. John D. MacDonald, whom I have quoted so often in past posts, once described a novel-writing process that sounds to me like a hybrid between plot-and-character driven:

JDM
"He explained that he never plotted in advance, but let the story form itself as he wrote. Story elements, he said, were in a kind of hopper tapering down to a point where they came out. If you tried to grab them all at once they'd jam, but if you picked them out one by one they'd come in proper sequence." (MacDonald paraphrased by Walter Sheldon, "Plotting the Novel," 1973 Writer's Yearbook)
 
So—to plot or not to plot, that is the question. It would seem there are two equally valid answers. But for me, alas, there is only one.


            *


Up top I described myself as one of those “who need to build a track and know exactly where they’re going, or they end up nowhere.” A writer friend of mine put it this way: “Learning to write is track-laying. Writing is running on the track. What people are always trying to do is run without a track.”


In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about how I eventually learned to lay that story track. The learning process, for me, was methodical and laborious, but utterly essential, lacking as I did (and still do) that unerring narrative gift or instinct with which some writers are so wonderfully endowed. And, as I say, careful plotting is still essential for me, all these years and novels later. Novel construction has not gotten noticeably easier. Each new project I undertake, like the building of a house, requires careful blueprinting and frequent piece-by-piece inspections to assure solid story structure with satisfying character trajectories, plot tendencies, resolutions, declining action and so forth.


And I suspect I’m not alone in my predicament. So, if you are like me, stay tuned to this space as I pass along some hard-won tips on plotting, from short stories to long-form novels.