Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing is a Disease! part 1

By David A. Kearns

Writing is a disease that makes you crazy. It’s a malady whose only known cure is more writing; to hopefully bring us all the acclaim, fame and wealth we crave.
I believe that anyone who works at it more than thirty hours a week struggling to get published, wants all of the above. They tell you no? They are after some esoteric, cathartic release? I say they are lying, if not to you then perhaps to themselves. Yeah, maybe they desperately want that book to be seen on shelves, not for the money, but then why? Fame. It’s the ultimate ego boost “I did that! I mattered! This book is now in the Library of Congress. Go me!”

Nine years ago, I got serious about getting a book published. I chose a story I knew well, the plane crash and rescue of my father and his shipmates in Antarctica in 1946/47. This had the best shot, I thought. I was right and Where Hell Freezes Over, was the result. There’s the book cover, right there. See it? GO ME!

Non-fiction is an easier sell if you can claim attachment to the story, if you are an expert. I had attempted to get numerous fiction pieces published. All rejections. All day long.

I don’t do what most writers do; try to get one piece published, find no luck, then quit the industry. I move on to the next project, the next idea, the next book. I must have six completed novels in various stages of draft. Some of them are pretty damned good, if I do say.

Tired of the erosive rejection process, I began what seemed a monumental task of interviewing two survivors, numerous ancillary figures, experts on everything from the military, to glacial geology.

Meantime I got a top-flight agent interested, which was a HUGE boost to the ego. That, in itself, can save a project; having an agent say yes. Writers don’t talk about this enough. That deal might not work out, as was my case, but knowing an accredited agent deep in the industry even looked your way, can keep you going, when it seems the entire world is against you.

Too bad it didn’t work out with her. Why? When we got the proposal together and sent it out to publishers, history stepped in at the last second. The date she had chosen to send the proposal out? Sept. 19, 2001; eight days into the 9-11 tragedy.

Months went by. Finally in December, my agent hooked me up with a smaller, military publisher. She sent me a long list of rejections from the big houses. The words “plane crash” were instant killers. There was only one plane-crash topic worth talking about now. No others existed, nor would they, in the minds of the publishing houses. The platitudes were all there; the usual boiler plate language, “we don’t know how to market this.” Etc. etc. ad nausea. One did think the writing could be tighter. One admitted my lack of platform was an issue.
But these latter rejections only serve to make one work harder. So we went with the smaller house who said yes. Here’s where things got dicey; having a publisher, in my case, a bad one. I had signed a deal giving my agent a healthy cut of the movie rights since she and a subagent in Hollywood, also a huge name, would split the commission. If the book deal was sold, they would retain these selling rights in perpetuity.
But, that didn’t happen. Why? The publisher was in the process of drastic cutbacks and restructuring, leaving one man to handle too many projects, mine included.Still, I would not give up. I adhered to the letter of the contract. I held up my end.The advance was $4,000. Two-thousand up front, $2,000 due after completion of the first draft.
That second installment never came. My one-armed paper hanger at the publishing house let deadlines slide by without a word, well outside the confines of the contract. An effective no sale. Excuses, and more excuses. No edits, only a two-page document with general, meandering comments leading me nowhere.They were not willing to even consider drafting amendments to the contract, which would have been a show of good faith, in my view. A contract un-followed, un-adhered to is what? What is that? A guideline? A ‘sort of’?I was forced to fire the publisher.
They might not have had time for my project, but now, having plodded down this road, to the exclusion of everything else, professionally, I certainly did. And by now, I saw the full potential of this project. I began to believe it was worthy of a big house and I was right all along, damned right.
I tried to warn everyone that my train was leaving the station. No one took me seriously.
My agent expressed a strong desire for me to stick with this publisher. Looking at it from her end, you see why: the movie rights. If the sale sticks, she has exclusive right to sell these, forever and ever, amen. And it will make a fine film one day. I remain convinced.She and I were now outside the timeline of our own contract, as well, and there was no sale here. I advised her to draft a new one and I would consider it.
When she balked, I said I was moving on. Through her assistant her agency effectively threatened to sue me if I went to someone else or through another agent.
I fired off many nasty grams and crazy letters at this point. I could not help myself in this regard. Mistake. Big mistake. Not leaving her agency, but smite leaves an impression. “I break with thee, I break with thee, I break with thee!” Utterly a useless activity in business. If you get into this situation, tell them once, move on. Don’t hit people over the head with a frying pan. Don’t build imaginary voodoo dolls and Santero curse altars in your mind; don’t drink yourself into a state of infantile stupidity like I did and going “I smite thee as I leave thee” That sort of bullshit. It’s a waste and it haunts in the end.
(more to come)

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