Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The One That Got Away

(A version of this article originally appeared in Speculations, April 2001.)

"They decided to withdraw the offer on your novel."

I hesitated, not quite believing what my agent had told me. "What? Why?"

"The editor said she was no longer 'comfortable' with the book. Whatever that means."

The publisher in question had made an offer on my novel The Harmony Society over a month before. Not for a large advance, but they had seemed enthusiastic about the book. After years of trying to sell a novel, I thought I'd finally done it -- finally was a Writer with a capital W. And now this.

My agent commiserated with me a bit before promising to keep sending the book around. I thanked him and hung up. I knew publishing was a volatile business and that this particular house had a reputation for somewhat eccentric business decisions. But no longer comfortable with my book?

I felt awful. I'd come so close to achieving my dream of being a published novelist, only to have it yanked away from me -- two hours before I was due to attend a local science fiction convention as an author panelist.

Needless to say, I didn't feel like going. Even with dozens of short story sales to my credit, I felt like a failure and a fraud. I didn't want to have to sit on panels and pretend that I knew what the hell I was talking about. Didn't want to have to face friends and acquaintances and have them ask how things were going with my writing.

I was angry at my agent for pushing the editor too hard for more money and better contract terms, perhaps scaring her off; angry at myself for having been dumb enough to believe that the offer had been a firm one in the first place. Angry that I had no clue exactly what had happened to screw up the deal and that I probably never would. But most of all, I was angry that I had wasted so much time pursuing my dream. A dream which had turned around and bit me hard on the rear.

In the end, I went to the con, if only so I'd have some friends to complain to. They were all perfectly sympathetic, of course, but several of them said with a wistful tone, "At least you had an offer."

I felt like telling them the grass was definitely not greener on this side of the fence, but I didn't. I knew they wouldn't understand. I wouldn't have either, not before.

I moped around all weekend, felt miserable, talked about quitting writing, and stuck more than a few mental pins in an imaginary voodoo doll labeled EDITOR.

Then the con was over, my friends returned home, and I was left with only my wife to complain to. But I didn't feel much like talking anymore. I realized that I'd actually been fortunate to have a con to go to. While it hadn't exactly kept my mind off my stillborn book deal, it had, if nothing else, kept me busy and provided some measure of catharsis.

But now it was Sunday night and stretching before me was my first full week as a failure. The question was, what was I going to do with it?

The next day I sat down and started to write another book.

I wanted to get back on the horse, was afraid that I might never write a novel again unless I did. I used an outline which I had completed some months back so that I wouldn't have to worry about developing a plot and characters. I could just write.

And write I did, well over ten pages a day in between teaching college composition courses and caring for my then one-year-old daughter. I took all the emotional energy churning inside me and channeled it into my book, writing like a man possessed. I finished the novel, titled Necropolis, in twenty-nine days.

I tinkered with the manuscript, editing and revising over the next several weeks, then blasted it off to my agent. But now doubts began to set in. What if I'd written Necropolis too fast, hadn't revised enough; what if it was absolute crap?

Sure, my writers' group liked it, but how could I trust them? They were my friends; they knew how emotionally fragile I was just then. I could have probably scribbled out a grocery list and they'd have praised it as a surefire Nebula contender.

The con had taught me that I needed to keep busy, but I couldn't bring myself to write any more fiction, not then. Nearly a decade earlier, I had worked as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, but I had written very little nonfiction since. Still, I occasionally thought about getting back to it, and now seemed the perfect time.

I threw myself into reading about nonfiction writing techniques and researching markets. I tossed around different article ideas, finally deciding to write a personal essay about my experience with testicular cancer. I developed a query letter, sent it out to fifty magazines, and sat back to wait. A few days later I received an e-mail from an editor at Penthouse. He was interested in seeing the article.

A couple weeks more, and the article was finished and in the editor's hands. The check was welcome, of course, but I had gained something far more important than money: I felt like my words were valued again -- not by my wife or my writers' group, not even by an editor of a national magazine. But by me. And I needed to feel that way, needed it like a man lost in the desert needs a drink of cool, clean water.

I toyed with the idea of saying to hell with fiction altogether and writing nonfiction exclusively, but I couldn't do it. Despite the instability (and occasional insanity) of a fiction writer's life, I loved it too much to quit. I returned to working on short stories and noodling around with novel ideas. My agent called to let me know he liked Necropolis and would start submitting it to editors.

I'm not the only one who's had a book deal go sour on him, of course. SF novelist J.R. Dunn (This Side of Judgment, Days of Cain, Full Tide of Night) once had an editor send him a two-page letter of revision for a novel. Dunn made the revisions, turned the novel in, and it was rejected.

"Naturally you're going to be furious when your book's rejected," Dunn says, "but you want it to be rejected for good grounds, not a minor technical point." It turned out the editor "basically didn't understand what a radio was. I told my agent to drop the publisher and go on to another, and that's what we did." The novel, This Side of Judgment, came out two years later in hardback to good reviews. Dunn says the moral is "not all editors are idiots" and advises writers to "keep banging your head against a wall" until your book finds a home.

Editor Gordon Van Gelder says that having a book deal fall through is "definitely not common at all." He advises authors to research a publisher to determine size, longevity and stability before submitting. Smaller houses are especially precarious financially.

Van Gelder assures that there is "no stigma" for authors who've had book deals collapse on them, and that actually the book's more attractive to other editors because it had a deal before. For instance, Van Gelder once bought a book by Tanith Lee that had been abandoned after the Abyss line of horror novels folded. Not only did Van Gelder think it a fine book, but it was a sequel and he felt Lee's fans should have a chance to read it.

"It was the right thing to do," Van Gelder says, "plus I made some money for St. Martin's in the process."

Given the mergers and downsizing in publishing over the last few years, and the fact that The Harmony Society was a slipstream novel not easily pigeonholed, my agent and I decided to investigate the possibility of placing the novel with small-press publishers. A recent start-up, DarkTales Publishing, seemed a likely prospect. They published offbeat horror/dark fantasy novels and brought out work by such authors as J. Michael Straczynski, Yvonne Navarro and
Mort Castle, among others. We decided to give them a try.

And they took my novel, with every intention of publishing it. But after a couple of years, the publisher realized their business had grown too big, too fast, and they needed to slow things down. DarkTales would still be bring out my novel, but they couldn't say when. So, after letting out a long sigh, I decided it was off to market once more.

In 2003, The Harmony Society finally found a home with Prime Books (then a new publisher). The book came out, folks read and reviewed it, and eventually it fell off people’s radar, as
books do. But that was okay. I’d managed to get it out into the world, and I had other books to write.

Since that time, I've had a few dozen more novels published – including a revised, expanded version of Nekropolis (now with a K) – and I’m thrilled that this month Dark Regions Press is bringing out a new edition of The Harmony Society for readers to enjoy. In many ways, it’s the novel of mine that means the most to me, and now that you’ve read this far, you know why.

And what, as the saying goes, is the moral of my tale? Simply this, my friends: despite my successes -- or perhaps because of them -- I've learned the most important lesson an author needs to learn: I don't need publication to feel like a writer. The only thing I truly need is to keep writing.


As you no doubt surmised from the foregoing, The Harmony Society is now available from Dark Regions Press: http://www.darkregions.com/the-harmony-society-by-tim-waggoner/

You can read an interview with me about the book here: http://www.darkregions.com/pages/Blog.html

And you can find out what folks have said about the book here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/568043.The_Harmony_Society