The One That Got Away
by Tim Waggoner
"They decided to withdraw the offer on your novel."
I hesitated, not quite believing what my agent had told me.
"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
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
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."
Happy ending time. My first daughter is now seven, and my
second is two. I've long since gotten over my anger at my
agent and continue to have a great working relationship with
him. The editor who rejected my book because she was "no
longer comfortable with it" was fired years ago. I have
a full-time, tenure-track job teaching creative writing at
a community college, and I've published over sixty stories
in various anthologies and magazines.
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
seemed a likely prospect. They publish offbeat horror/dark
fantasy novels and have 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.
The Harmony Society finally found a home with Prime
Books. The advance was less than that offered by the original
publisher, but the overall terms are much better. More important,
my book is with people who are enthusiastic about it and who
intend to do their best to promote it. If the original publisher
had brought out the book, while I would've made more money
on the initial advance, there would've been little to no promotion,
and most likely The Harmony Society would've come and
gone without much notice. I'm confident that Prime will do
my book justice. Who knows? We might even sell a few copies,
Since placing The Harmony Society, I've also written
an erotic mystery novel called Dying For It for Foggy
Windows Books and published a short story collection called
All Too Surreal with Prime Books (www.primebooks.net).
As for Necropolis ... well, it's still making the rounds.
I'm hopeful that one day it'll be published too, but if it
isn't, it won't be the end of the world -- or my career, for
Because 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.