Thursday, July 24, 2014
Rotten Timing Meets Good Luck
By far my worst experience with traditional publishing came about with the short novel that will be my next release. For now let's refer to the book as RC.
By the later 90's I had published four novels with two major houses and had spent years working on a pair of short Christmas thrillers that two agents loved but couldn't sell: too short, too dark, too funky...Rather than give up I decided, defiantly, to do one with a Millennial tie-in, a period novel set on the world's greatest train: The Twentieth Century Limited. This one would have more plot twists than a fun house maze and the timing would be perfect--if we sold the book in time to hit the stands by or in 2000.
I knew I had to sell the book by late 1998 at least in order to allow for a year's lead time with the publisher. I wrote frenetically and approached LP, the agent who'd sold my third and fourth books. I explained the timing and asked her--in mid-summer--if she could read the book in a couple of months because of the timeline and get back to me by fall. She laughed and said Of course. She could read a book this short in a couple of weeks...guaranteed in a couple of months. I asked if I could follow up if I hadn't heard from her by October. Once again, she agreed and gave me her home number in case of emergency.
I followed up with a post card in October. Another in November. Then in December, when I still hadn't heard, I risked calling her at home. She was livid. Here I was pestering here at home in the holiday season--because she hadn't read my book in only half a year. I was devastated. Now the book had no chance and I knew it. Worse still, LP went on to write about an unnamed has-been who had the nerve to call her at home--the sort of aggressive, selfish behavior, she maintained, that had tanked the loser's career.
My luck didn't get any better when the central plot device began surfacing in films: a hero's repeated return to the past to either solve a mystery or correct a wrong. This may not have been unique 20 years ago, but it was still unusual--and I'd put a cool twist on the ploy: a man returning three times to a three-hour window of time--but each time losing an hour and all memory of what had occurred.
Just recently, in fact, I died a little more when Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow opened--with what sounded like a mirror image of my game. But no, the differences between that flawed film and my book are pronounced. It got a lot of things wonderfully right: grounding us quickly each time, for one thing, in the problem and time Tom returned to. But it failed to do something I'd spent years trying to perfect: showing how my hero reprograms himself each time before he loses his memory.
So, rotten timing and bad luck--along with a treacherous agent--combined to bury a cool little beauty about The Twentieth Century--the era and the train. But as I started reworking the book, I saw that a third factor had joined us: my good luck in having time to learn what needed learning to really nail this book. For one thing, when I first wrote RC, I'd gotten my first word processor. And I'd grown obsessed with typographical tricks: even dividing the page into multiple 'screens' as Brian DePalma would do. And I'd set the key clues off in boxes so readers couldn't miss them from one time pass to another.
But as I've written elsewhere, such stunts wouldn't play in an ebook, where formatting rules are quite strict.
Still, I'd learned enough in fifteen years to work around such problems. Finally, I knew, I could deliver a book as sleek and streamlined as my favorite train.
Coming your way this December, thanks to a fortuitous blend of rotten timing, plus bad and good luck.