Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 8

Bad Thoughts and private clubs

I was sidetracked yesterday putting out the last issue of Hardluck, and it really is a hell of an issue--12 strong noir/hardboiled stories with terrific illustrations by Jean-Pierre Jacquet. This is as strong a collection of short crime fiction as I've seen over the past two years, and highly recommend people checking it out. Anyway, back to lessons learned...

The agent I was working with back in ’96 gave me the following idea for a book he wanted me to write: a young girl whose parents are killed by a serial killer later grows up to be an FBI agent, and hunts down this same serial killer. I think the movie Silence of the Lambs was out then, and this type of derivative and calculating plot might have done well and probably would’ve been more “commercial” than anything I was going to write, and I know I’m being a bit hypocritical after stating earlier how I wanted an agent who could help guide me on what publishers would want, but I think it needs to be a two-way street, not just an agent dictating to a writer what to write like you're some sort of work horse. Any case, I didn’t want to write this type of book—and I morphed the idea into something I did want to write—something that would be a book I’d want to put my name on, and what I ended up with was a wild and grim noirish thriller that mixed horror and crime, and this became Bad Thoughts. My agent was not happy with this, and after he gave me what I thought was an awful vampire screenplay to novelize, and I tried writing it as something that would actually be good, we parted ways.

At the end of ’92 when I was sending out query letters for In His Shadow, over half the editors responded positively. In ’97 when I started sending out letters for Bad Thoughts (at the time titled, Just Around The Corner) the world had changed. Because of the Internet and PCs becoming more of a commodity, publishers were being flooded with manuscripts (PCs made it too easy for anyone to write 300 pages--it takes much more commitment using a typewriter), and were instituting “agent-only” policies. The same editors who had responded positively to In His Shadow and had invited me to send them my next book were no longer responding to my query for Bad Thoughts. The only editor who asked to see it was from Warner Books. He read the manuscript and wrote me back a nice letter telling me how much he liked the book but that it had a major problem for him. The letter wasn’t asking me to fix the problem and send it back, but I agreed with that he had to say, did revisions to address this, then sent him back a letter telling him how I had addressed his problem and asking if he’d like to see the new version. He did, and after I sent it back, he wrote me how there was yet another problem that would keep him from buying the book. Once again I agreed with what he was saying, made revisions and sent him another letter, and once again he asked me to send him my new version.

While all this was going on, I read a collection of con man stories, and I sent the editor, who was with Dell Books, one of my own con man stories which I thought would’ve fit with her anthology, asking her to consider the story in case she did another anthology. She ended up calling me, telling me how much she loved this story, and how she wanted to use it in a new anthology, but that she could only use Dell Magazine reprints. She further told me she would submit this story to the editors of Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, and let them know that she needed them to publish it so she could use it. According to her there was no reason why they wouldn’t do so.

So here I am, expecting Bad Thoughts to be bought and a story to appear in both a major magazine and a book anthology. I am actually thinking at this point that I’m finally going to break through. Within three days I first get a letter from the editor at Warner books telling me that he couldn’t get my book accepted, then a letter from one of the editors at AHMM or EQMM (I can’t remember which) saying something to the effect of “as you know so-and-so asked us to publish your story but we’re not going to.”

The story that I had sent was “Money Run”, which ended up being published 10 years later in Ellery Queen after Janet Hutchings became the new editor. Back in ’97 after I received that letter all I could think was that there was a private club which I would never be allowed into, and I gave up writing after those two setbacks, and it would be over 5 years before I would start up again. Whether or not there was private club with the old regime at EQMM and AHMM, I can’t say—it could’ve been office politics, it could’ve been simply the previous editors at those two magazines just didn’t like the story enough to want to publish it. What I do know is I’ve gotten to know Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, the current editors at EQMM and AHMM, having sold both of them several stories, and if there ever was a private club with those magazines, it’s not there now. There’s no doubt in my mind that both Janet and Linda are sincere in honestly evaluating every story that comes in and buying the best stories they can for their magazines. While sometimes in might feel like the publishing world is a private club and the doors are slammed shut on you, the reality is most editors are looking for the best stories and novels they can find—although they all have their own biases and tastes, and “best” might be defined by them as most commercial or other criteria, not necessarily best written. The trick is understanding what editors are looking for, and writing that, or if you’re going to be a stubborn SOB like me, having the patience to find the right editor for your work, and accepting that there are certain publications you’re never going to get into—not because the doors are shut to you, but because what you write doesn’t fit the taste for that particular editor.


Anonymous said...

This may be one of those things wannabe writers never get. Yes, hard work counts. Yes, consistent production counts. And, yes, the totally arbitrary tastes of whomever's assistant happens to read your typescript counts.

The trick for me is not becoming totally disheartened by that last bit.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sam, there's so much luck involved with selling your first novel to a major house. In my opinion, a lot of times the editors are looking for reasons not to buy a book than the other way around since it's a lot easier to reject a book that to fight for it to the board. My book Small Crimes, which has been getting great reviews in the UK, and which Ed Gorman reviewed recently, calling it "one of the finest dark suspense novels I've read in the past few years" was rejected by just about every NY house. This week I received an email from an editor from one of the NY houses which rejected it twice telling me how he thought it was one of the best noir novels he's read in years. So after getting rejected over and over again, the book ends up accepted by one of the most respected and hardest publishers in the world to get into. The random nature of it is so maddening, but if you have the talent (and if you're the Sam I published on Hardluck, then you have the talent) and you stick with it you'll eventually break through.