A few hours ago I finished off the second draft of my next novel and sent it to my new editor at Bantam/Random House. My previous editor, whom I’d worked together with on eight books, recently left to pursue her dream of becoming a freelance editor scratching out a living. My wise counsel and admonitions fell on ears as deaf as Easter Island stone. She wished to be free of the shackles of 401K plans, health benefits, and weekly paychecks. She sought the boundless freedom of being forced to grind out every penny earned just like a freelance writer does. Via con Dios, little butterfly.
My new editor is a starmaker, handler of many of the world’s bestselling authors, champion of overlooked titles that start off with rejection and soon become blockbuster hits. Her association can only help where publicity, promotion, and notice is concerned. By all accounts she’s a first-rate editor too, who can only make the work inherently stronger.
The recently completed novel The Last Whisper in the Dark is a follow-up to The Last Kind Words, due out from Bantam this spring. LKW will be my first hardcover release from a major NY publisher. It’s garnered terrific blurbs and some nice buzz. I’m hearing from certain corners that it is my “breakthrough book.” For those not in the biz, a “breakthrough book” is a mythical creature not unlike the mermaid. It is occasionally seen from afar by dehydrated Italian sailors on the verge of madness. Hunting for it may leave you smashed upon the rocks, yet few of us can resist its haunting siren song.
After twenty years in the midlist wasteland I should know better, but I’m beginning to get excited. My long-dead heart is fluttering, and I feel a sluggish ebb of blood. I’m starting to dream again about major sales, significant reviews, cross-country book tours, paying down my heaping credit debt. Such dreams are dangerous for a midlist mook. A kernel of optimism can grow at an alarming rate. It can turn into hopefulness without much nudging at all. You’ve always got to be aware, my friends. You’ve got to keep your exuberance in check. Make your blue cornflower eyes brown.
There may be a time to do the Snoopy dance of joy, but that time isn’t now. I’ve been down the road too many times before. So, probably, have you, if you’ve been writing for any length of time. You’ve had nibbles from Hollywood. You’ve been told beaucoup bucks were about to fall out of the sky into your waiting arms. You’ve let your imagination run away with you because that’s what you do. That’s how you spend your time. You live inside your head. You can already see yourself sitting poolside in Beverly Hills, drinking top shelf brandy. You don’t like brandy but for the purpose of this visual metaphor you’re drinking brandy. You know exactly what you’ll say when Scorsese phones. You call him Marty. He’s a paisano. He promises to ship you a box of cannoli straight from Sicily.
In an effort not to let my vivid fantasy life run away with me I usually do the thing I am most comfortable with. I rip out my own guts.
I turn up the heat of my self-doubt. I prod my painful memories. I remember the times I’ve been lied to. I recall the broken promises, the wasted efforts, the disappointing pitch meetings, the boffo West Coast execs who wined and dined me and then flash-burned my number. I make note of all the lost time. I stare in the mirror and rediscover my scars. This is what grounds me. I jam candle wax in my ears to combat the mermaid’s melody.
My joy has wavered throughout my life. My confidence has occasionally abandoned me. My many chances have grown leaner year by year. But my need to write has never left me. That need, I long ago realized, comes from pain. That’s not a woe-is-me whining. That’s not a pimp for applause. It’s a simple statement of fact. I picked up a pen to discover how to learn to live with early loss and trauma. I pecked and plucked at my first typewriter to relate anger and pain. I’m a moody fucker and always have been. I am drawn to the dark. I am noir. I smell lilacs on an ill wind. I find safe harbor in sorrow.
My breakout book may or may not ever come. It might be The Last Kind Words or it might be the next novel following or the stars may never align correctly. The cosmic winds will still blow. You’ll get your chance. You might hit big on the slots with the first pull or you might turn grey looking for three lemons. Hold tight to the process. The work will get you through the fire. The reasons you do the work will always be there even if you don’t remember them anymore. Your path is a lonely one. You are set apart from others. You have to learn to love the loneliness. Your faith will be tested in the publishing business, count on it. That’s the nature of faith. If it’s never challenged then it’s not really faith at all.
Now please excuse me, I’ve got to take this call.
Marty on line two.