Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Rock in the (Main)Stream

Zestful Blog Post #87

I hope the holidays treated you well. I'm pleased with how Left Field is doing, but I have much more promo work to do. This week we’re back to my journey through the publishing world. This post necessarily contains spoilers from Holy Hell and The Actress. But they’re worth it, baby.

Let’s call this installment:

6) A Rock in the (Main)Stream

It took me about a year to write The Actress, then I sent it to Cameron (McClure, at the Donald Maass agency, who had expressed interest in the idea; see post #84). She liked the book a lot and offered to represent me. At the time, she was fairly new at Don’s agency. Before agreeing, I asked her why she thought she was right for the job.

“You already know I think you’re a great writer,” she said. “I’m young and hungry, and Don’s reputation opens all the doors for us.”

I said that sounded good. She replied, “From now on, it’s my job to be a bitch on your behalf.”

Such lovely, lovely music.

Some agents are hands-off and never make editorial suggestions; others are quite involved with their clients’ projects. I found that Cameron was into making suggestions. She got back to me with a long memo on The Actress, known as ‘notes’. This is the same thing as in Hollywood, where the producer or director or whoever tells the scriptwriter “I have some notes for you.” This can be ominous, signaling a horrifying ordeal for the writer, or it can turn out to be a most helpful, cooperative kind of thing.

Fortunately, I felt Cameron’s notes were valuable. While I rejected some of her ideas (which she insisted upon knowing reasons for), I adopted many of them, and the book became stronger for it.
I might note that early in the process, even before I wrote the whole book, one of Cameron’s suggestions was to kill off a main character. “because once you do that,” she explained, “your readers will never feel safe.” So I made sure to kill off a main character in The Actress.

During this, I reflected that in Holy Hell, my first title with Alyson Books, I made an opposite move. When my editor there got down to work on the book, she called me and said, “You know, I really think you shouldn’t [spoiler alert] kill off Minerva LeBlanc. She’s such a great character. Think what you could do with her in future books!”

I said, “Well, that’s the way the story goes. I needed a dead body to be found in Lillian’s apartment so suspicion falls on her and she has to deal with it. Like, you know, I’ve put her up a tree and now I’m throwing rocks at her. I wrote Minerva solely so I’d have an appealing character to kill off for this purpose.”

“Well, couldn’t you put her into a coma or something instead? So at least you have the option of bringing her back in the future?”

I thought for a minute. “Yeah, I could do that. I could have Minerva be viciously attacked in Lillian’s apartment while she’s away, and it would be attempted murder instead of murder, and Lillian would still be the natural first suspect for a serious crime.”

“OK, that’d be great.” And that’s how it worked out.

When both Cameron and I felt The Actress was in top shape, we discussed strategy. She knew I wanted a contract with a big publisher, so she prepared a list of the top ten, as well as a pitch email and so forth. I did not ask to see her pitch materials, trusting her to get the job done.

I didn’t have long to wait.

A few days after she started telling publishers about my book, she phoned me. We’d gotten one no-thanks from one of the ‘big six’, but another was expressing serious interest. Great, right? Just one hitch.

[Rocks make it dangerous--but fun.]

An editor for this publisher’s main crime-fiction imprint had read The Actress. She told Cameron, “I read the first half and thought it’s fabulous! I jumped up and ran down the hall to our contract department and said, ‘We’ve got to put together a offer for this book! It’s terrific!’ Then I went back to my office and read the second half. When I got to [spoiler alert] Gary’s death, I went, ‘Oh, no! She can’t kill off Gary! Rita and Gary have to get married and then solve crimes in the courtroom together!’”

This editor asked Cameron to see if I’d be agreeable to changing the book and the trajectory of the series. “What do you think?” Cameron asked.

This was a tough situation, but I said, “Well, no. I mean, I could put Gary into a coma”—hey, with one hand tied behind my back, lots of experience with coma-inducing injuries here—“and have him recover in the next book, but this can’t be a lawyers-together courtroom series.” I had initially conceived of a series of linked stand-alones, with some characters recurring, and I wanted to go forward with that. I wanted the next in the series to feature a different protagonist from Rita Farmer.

Cameron said, “Every editor who sees this says it absolutely has to be a series starring Rita. Everybody wants to know what happens to her next.”

“Well, I guess I could keep Rita as the main character, but I don’t have the background to write a lawyer/courtroom series, nor do I want to. I want [spoiler alert] Rita and George [the private eye in the story] to be together at the end of this one, and I’d be comfortable writing them working together going forward. I’m going to put Rita into law school, because she’s so interested in law after this one, but she’s not going to have a career as a lawyer. Maybe she’ll flunk out or something, I don’t know yet. I can write her as an actress, but not as a lawyer.”

Cameron explained all this to the big-shot editor, who said sadly that she wouldn’t be making an offer on the book after all.

She was sad. Righto.

However, Cameron had already heard from another couple of editors who were very interested in the book.

And we’ll have more on that next time. This is getting pretty detailed, but I feel the full story is worth telling.

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  1. I love TV shows and books where I, as the viewer/reader don't feel "safe." I remember the first time I read King's THE STAND (many, many years ago) and gasping when one of the main characters dies. I literally went back and re-read the scene, positive I had missed something, that the character was really alive and well. But I was wrong. And something in me thrilled at that idea. :)

    1. That's a great story, Madeline! You were a perceptive reader from the get-go...

  2. I love that "I did not see that coming" scene(s) within a book, tv shows, etc. I become even more embedded in the story and have to continue to find out what can possibly happen next. Sleep? Who needs that.

    1. Right, Lidy, getting slammed by something unexpected means you can't be confident guessing what's next.


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