Monday, March 26, 2012

Memoir Monday: You better work

The older I get, the less respect I have for intelligence and talent. Not that those things aren't valuable, but I've come to believe that the ability to work hard is just as valuable…and twice as useful. All three are in the same family, of course, but if there is room for only one of these siblings, I'd pick hard work every time.

Dan and I came up with The Duchess of the Shallows back in 2007 as an RPG. It was this vague idea of a thief operating in an urban setting that was something like Seattle and a bit like San Francisco, adding our own ideas, of course. As the game went on, the city became something distinct from either, and the character became less of an archetype and more of an individual. Soon enough we had Rodaas and its first named inhabitant, Duchess.

The game went on for a long, long time, and in November 2008, Dan surprised me by presenting me with a manuscript based on the game he'd produced as part of NaNoWriMo. He planned to have it printed and bound as something we had shared, which was sweet and romantic. However, when I read the manuscript, it felt more like a summary than a story, so with Dan's permission I began to enhance and enlarge it. Dan, may the gods preserve him, had recorded every single session, so I was always able to go back and check what we'd originally done in the game. After a month or so, I presented him with a dramatically expanded manuscript and a suggestion that we continue to work on the thing with the goal of eventually publishing it. Reluctant at first, Dan quickly came on board and we got to work. And for the next year we did, on and off, until in early 2010 we had in our grubby little hands a manuscript that was ready to send into the world.

In doing so, we learned some lessons about the world of publishing. The first was that publishers really don't want your damned book. They want the next James Patterson or JK Rowling, and the major houses won't even consider manuscripts from lesser, un-agented authors. We were neither Patterson nor Rice, nor did we have a literary agent, so we focused first on the small presses who were willing to take un-agented manuscripts. Turns out the small presses really don't want your book very much either, and we received rejection letters aplenty. The only avenue that remained was the literary agencies, who are the gatekeepers to the mainstream publishing industry.

We approached and were rejected by many, but in March 2011 we finally hit pay dirt with Rebecca Strauss of McIntosh & Otis. We were awed and delighted to have secured the representation of so substantial an agency, and although we were willing to work on the revisions Rebecca requested, we privately resolved that, no matter what, we would not lose control of our vision. I'm proud to say we never did, but in maintaining our grip on our vision we let the process slip through our fingers. Rebecca put us through months of revisions involving the addition of tens of thousands of words, and we engaged it all without a word of complaint. As spring turned into summer, and then summer into autumn, we began to wonder when this was going to end. We had dramatically expanded and improved the manuscript, which was originally scheduled to go before editors in June, but there we were in September with no sign that the revision process was anywhere near complete. Sure, we could revise indefinitely, but as any writer knows there is a point of diminishing returns, and we were keenly aware of the artists' prayer: "Let me finish this work before I fuck it up."

We felt uncomfortable pushing back, however; Rebecca was the only agent who'd agreed to represent us, and as anyone who's only gotten one invite to the prom knows, you dance with them what brung ya. Besides, she was thus our only point of entry to the world of publishing, so there was a definite power differential and it favored her. At the same time, we had been writing and rewriting our manuscript for more than half a year, and we were discouraged and demoralized enough to push back. And so we did, politely but firmly, stating that the manuscript was as good as it was likely to get and that we felt the time had come to unleash The Duchess of the Shallows upon the publishing world. We felt good about reasserting this control; even though the seas were stormy, we were finally steering this ship.

Rebecca felt otherwise, and when we took the helm she headed for the lifeboat. She unceremoniously ended our business relationship – by email, if you can believe it, which is kind of like getting dumped via text message. My initial reaction was anger at the way the entire situation had been handled, and relief that the seven-month revision process was finally over. Dan felt much the same, and that day we did two things. First, we went out for a walk to process the situation, our feelings, etc. Second, we began our final proof-read of the manuscript in preparation for self-publishing. The Duchess of the Shallows might die an ignominious death, but we were determined that it would do so on sale and not on our hard drive. And that's true whether we sell five copies or five hundred.

Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. You not only have to write and edit a novel, but commission artwork, lay out the print file, format electronic versions, keep records, and of course conduct the costly, thankless, and endless task of promoting your work. Lots of things are like that: getting your master's degree, building a house, raising a child. If you're going to turn back every time you hit a bump in the road, you might as well not get in the car at all. So although the twins Intelligence and Talent can create your dreams, only their sister Hard Work can bring them to life. So whenever I go on a ride, I always save her a seat.

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