On Publishing and Writing: A Sale, and a Study in Perseverence

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Some of you may have seen this news on Facebook, but I wanted to share it here, as well:  I have recently signed a three-book contract with Baen Books for a contemporary urban fantasy.  The series is called the Weremyste Cycle, and the first book, Spell Blind, will be coming out in about a year.  Obviously this is big news, and I’m very excited.  But the sale of this series is important to me in a number of ways and lends itself to what I hope will be an interesting post.

I first mentioned Spell Blind (or at least the book that eventually became Spell Blind) on Magical Words back in June 2008, in a post titled “The Book I Love and Can’t Sell.”  At that time, the manuscript had a different title, a different magic system, a different plot, and a different conceptual core.  Which I suppose begs the question, “Was it even the same book?” In many ways it wasn’t — it was something quite different.  But the central characters were the same, and so I have always thought of it as one project. I should also say that even at that time, in 2008, it had already undergone one significant rewrite that altered its structure from its very first incarnation, which was written back in 2005-2006. 

Still, selling the book proved difficult, in large part, I believe, because that original version had some qualities that made it a) super dark, and b) very difficult to market.  The rejections we got on the book reflected that.  They all tended to say something along the lines of, “Love the character, love the writing, but don’t really think it’s for us.”

In June 2009, a year after I wrote that post about the book, I had an epiphany for a new magic system and plot.  I was so excited about the new concept — I immediately opened up a word file and started writing out all of the new ideas so that I wouldn’t forget them.  This rewrite involved tearing the book apart, piece by piece, throwing away huge swaths of prose and entire conceptual underpinnings and themes.  Remember, this is a book I adored, a book that already for four years had been closest to my heart of all the books I’d ever written.  And I essentially burned it to the ground and started over.  But I knew that the new concept would not only be more marketable, it would also just be better in every way.  I rewrote it over the course of several months and showed it to Lucienne.  She loved the new concept and agreed that it would be easier to sell.

Still, there were problems.  For one, by this time the urban fantasy market was getting full — it wasn’t yet glutted, but it was much harder to sell contemporary UFs than it had been a few years before. More to the point, the book was still flawed.  The character work was the best I had ever done (still is), but the plotting, particularly in the first 120 pages or so, wasn’t right.  I didn’t see this at first, and neither did Lucienne.  But I had mentioned the book to a friend of mine who is an editor, a guy named Edmund Schubert, of whom some of you might have heard.  He took a look at it for me, and after reading the first 120 pages sent me a demoralizing email that basically said, “Yeah, the writing is good, but I can see why you haven’t sold this yet.”  He then went on to read the rest of the manuscript and sent me a second email (and then a third and fourth) that followed up that first discouraging email with, “Wow! After the first several chapters the book takes off and is really amazing; you need to fix those early chapters so that you can get this published.”

So, in August 2011, I began one last rewrite.  And that really was my attitude.  I still loved the novel, but we’d gotten so many rejections, and I had rewritten and reworked it so many times, that I couldn’t imagine spending any more time on it.  I would do one last fix, and if that didn’t work, then I would have to accept that either the book was flawed in ways I couldn’t see, or it just didn’t have a place in today’s market.  I did the last rewrite, and in 2012 Lucienne sent it out to the few houses left that hadn’t yet rejected it (or that agreed to take a second look at it based on the fact that it had changed so much). More rejections came in, until there were only a few publishers left that hadn’t yet responded. 

And then, in August of this year, just before DragonCon, we received an offer from Baen. It seemed to come totally out of the blue — to be honest, I had given up hope.  But even more remarkably, days later Tor made an offer as well.  Suddenly, we were able to get better terms on the offered contracts because one house was competing with the other for this book that had gotten more rejections than I did in high school. (–rim shot –) In the end we went with Baen, because for the most part theirs was the better offer, and because it made sense for me to have this series there while the Thieftaker books are still being published at Tor; I won’t be competing with myself for in-house publicity and marketing resources.

The point of this whole saga should be fairly obvious. We’ve all heard stories of the authors who become big hits after enduring one rejection after another.  I don’t know if I’m going to be one of those authors.  I think this series can do well — I still consider Spell Blind the best book I’ve ever written, and I’m thrilled that I will get to write at least two more books with these characters and this new magic system.  But even if this isn’t my break-out project, it is another sale in a market that has gotten harder and harder.  And it came because Lucienne and I refused to give up on the book. Or, to be more precise, I refused to give up on the book, and Lucienne refused to give up on me.

I was fortunate, in that I had several friends who gave me lots of support along the way.  Edmund’s feedback was more valuable than I can say.  Kate Elliott read it for me around the same time Edmund did, and she loved it, which helped me keep the faith.  And speaking of Faith, she read the final incarnation of Spell Blind last summer, around the time when we were sending it out one last time, and she assured me that it would sell because she, too, thought it was my best work to date. But even without the encouragement of my colleagues, I would have fought for this book.  I love it, and have for eight years.  I’ve poured my heart and soul into it again and again.  Yes, I had to tear it apart in order to save it.  Yes, the rejections were heartbreaking.  But the sale was that much sweeter for all that the manuscript endured.

So, if you have a book that you love, that you know is your best work, and that you can’t seem to sell, don’t give up.  Read it with a critical eye.  Get your beta readers to do the same.  It may be that some core elements of the book are outstanding but others are not.  You might have to rip the thing apart, rewrite it from first page to last and then do it again.  That’s all right.  If you love it, it’s worth the fight.

You’ll hear a lot more about Spell Blind and the Weremyste Cycle in the months to come — you know me: I’m not shy when it comes to talking about my projects.  But right now I want to hear from you.  Is there a book that you have in a drawer (or a hard drive) that you are desperate to sell but just can’t seem to get right?  Would you be willing to tear it to the ground in order to save it?  Tell us about it.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com

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33 comments to On Publishing and Writing: A Sale, and a Study in Perseverence

  • Wow, I remember that post. I’ve been hangin’ around here that long? I think I commented on that one in 2009ish. Good to hear it’s picked up (or at least a version of it). Yeah, Rogue 5. I just recently sent it back out and am awaiting word, but that’s the one. It’s also the first full length novel I actually finished writing, so it holds a special place in my heart. I’ve torn into it too many times to count (well, not really, I just forgot how many) and sent it all over (even to Lucienne, who gave me some good advice on the opening that I hadn’t seen until she mentioned it), even to places that didn’t necessarily say they took that kind of work because, hey I’ll fix, repair, rip out, whatever it takes, if they like it but find some aspect they don’t normally work with. There are really only a couple things I won’t remove, but those are the elements I feel make the book unique. Of course, it’s those unique elements that I think is making it a harder sell. I hope it gets picked up this time, but even if it doesn’t, I’m not giving up on it. I’ll toss it at a second set (third set?) of betas, revise it, and self pub it if I have to. I’m that confident in the work.

    Congrats on getting the book you can’t sell sold, and I can’t wait to check it out. :)

  • I needed to hear this message of perseverance this morning… I’m currently tearing down a novel-of-my-heart that hasn’t sold, despite being in its third iteration. I have high hopes this time, but it can be hard to keep the faith… I can’t wait to read your Baen debut!

  • [...] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, John Hartness, Mindy Klasky, and several others.  The post is called “On Publishing and Writing: A Sale, and a Study in Perseverence,”  and it gives the long and tortured background of a series — a contemporary Urban Fantasy [...]

  • sagablessed

    First: CONGRATS!! Not sure where I was when this was on FB, but you go boy!
    Like Mindy, I needed to read this, today. Have you considered a career as a motivational speaker?

  • Wow, congrats, David! I also needed to hear this right now. I am in the process of tearing down and gutting a project like that. One that I started when I was much younger. After finally realizing I was hitting a wall with it following numerous rewrites (each one which improved my craft) I put it away for six years, and went to work on something else instead (and, again, improve my craft, but this time with something new, which I had to do in order to get better). Now as I try to sell that other project, I finally feel ready to come back. Changing the magic system and refining the science were part of it. I also ditched a few characters and changed the POV. I finally feel like things are going *right* with this project, which I’ve always referred to as my heartsong. And reading what I wrote so long ago was educational, because it showed me what I am capable of and also how much I’ve progressed. Thank you for this message: it can be done. I can’t wait to read your new series!

  • Keep the faith? I am always here for you guys. (-bored rim-shot-)

    David, I am so happy for you. Hugs and congratulations!

    I have a book concept and opening that I’ve dreamed of writing, but I think I finally killed that idea, smothered it under other things and other books. Will I ever writer it? Not in the next 20 years, so no. Probably not. In other areas, I’m still waiting for my breakout novel!
    Cheers, ‘m dear!

  • Daniel, yeah. Scary, isn’t it? Time flies when you’re pursuing your dream . . . Thanks for the kind words. And having that confidence in your manuscript is a good thing — that’s what got me through all those rejections.

    Mindy, I think we all need to hear stories like this one periodically, especially when it concerns that one project that we love so much. Thanks for the kind words.

    Saga, thank you so much. Motivational, speaker? Not so much. But I am thinking of contributing to a site that offers advice and encouragement to aspiring writers. Oh, wait . . .

    Laura, thank you. It sounds like you’ve done as much to your labor-of-love as I’ve done to Spell Blind. It is fun to see the progress we make, as measured in those older manuscripts. It’s also fun to read those passages that made it the book-we-love in the first place, the ones that make us think, “Wow, look what I did.” Hope all your work on your heartsong pays off soon.

  • Thanks, Faith. I hope that you do write that dreamed-of book. I’d love to read it. But I thought I remembered you telling me once that BLACKWATER SECRETS was a labor of love, a book that you totally adored but had trouble getting published. Or am I remembering that incorrectly?

  • David> Congrats! I don’t specifically remember the MW post, but I do remember talking to you about the project at Con Carolinas and you thinking about how concerned Lucienne was because you were rewriting it again. :) It’s great that it worked out well. Sarah and I have torn apart Knyctspelle a ton. At first because it was the first thing we’d written and we had no idea what we were doing so it was so much “this needs editing and revision” as “this needs to be burned to the ground.” Now it’s with an agent, and I hope she likes it, sells it and all that. If she doesn’t like it, we’ve got other plans for it (and it’s sequels). I’ve also had a short story that I’ve tried to write a few times that’s never quite worked. I talked to some folks at Atomacon about it who noted that it might be a novel. Oops. That might be a problem with it, but I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to it as anything that long yet.

  • Ken

    Congrats on the sale, David!! I’ve heard loads of stories here about how some works needed some serious (re)construction to get to where they need to be. Here I am on the cusp of finishing my first book and I already know that I’ll need to tear chunks out of it (and that’s without letting it cool off for a while…). Like you said, if you love the story, whatever you have to do to it to get it out there will be worth the effort.

    Looking forward to the new series :)

  • Congratulations! I can’t read fast enough to keep up with all the new books going in my queue.

    As to your question about being willing to tear down a book I love in order to save it, I’m too new at this writing thing and don’t have anything written down I love that much yet. But at a conceptual level I think I’d be willing to do it. Having my love sit hidden away on a hard drive as nothing but magnetic bits and bytes seems kind of pointless, so whatever it takes to get it in front of people.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay yay yay! What excellent news! I’ve been so curious about this project ever since you first mentioned it and now I’ll have a chance to read it!

    As for mine – I’ve been tearing into my WIP for *quite* a long time now, the first round of revisions had something on the order of 60,000 new words, and this round is looking like it’ll be at least 12,000 new words. I’m getting to the point where I’m really ready to put it away for a while and work on something new, but *it* is getting to the point where I will be able to show it to someone else and *not* worry that they’ll just point out all the things I already know are wrong with it, so I have hope for it still. It was probably too ambitious for a first book and may not ever work because of that, but if I was going to start writing, this was the book, so, Oh well, I guess. It is the landscape I have inside my head.

  • Emily, thank you. I would imagine that collaborating on rewrites would be complicated — never even considered that before now, but it would be fascinating to hear from you and Sarah about that process. Maybe a future MW post. Thanks for the good wishes.

    Ken, thanks very much. Every book needs some reworking. At least every book I’ve written. And first books usually need quite a lot. My first needed extensive rewrites that took well over a year. But as you say, if you love it, it’s worth it.

    Thanks, Dave. “Whatever is takes to get it front of people.” Yes, words to live by. And you’ll have something you love that much soon enough, I’m sure.

    Hep, thank you. Ambition in writing is a very good thing. I think I posted about that at one point a couple of years ago. Why bother with a project if it’s not going to push you, challenge you, make you stretch as an artist? I struggled with this book because in terms of the character work, it was the most ambitious thing I’d ever done. And all that I went through with it made me a better a writer and it a better book. So while I understand what you’re saying, I’m not sure there is any such thing as “too ambitious.” Best of luck with it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you, David. For me, there are also the facts that a) my attention span is such that if it *isn’t* a large, complicated project, then I probably won’t bother finishing it and b) by this point, I’m too close to the story to tell how good it is or isn’t. I can see lots of places where the *writing* or individual chapters have improved and am heartened by that, but otherwise I just can’t tell.

  • In such a case I think it would be interesting to read both the rework and the original. Have you considered making the latter a freebie for those who buy the former?

  • David, yes, Blackwater Secrets was that book that never sold. But I have another in me. Don’t we all have that???

  • I haven’t yet gotten to the rejection stage–haven’t finished it yet– but I am currently making major revisions to the WIP. At some point I realized it wasn’t working, tried to change it on the run, realized that wasn’t working, and now I’m more or less starting over. Most of what I wrote originally was me wandering through the ideas I had in search of a plot. Now I have a much clearer vision of what I want the book to be, so the rewrite is actually going fairly well, when I have time to work on it. Once I finish this, I think it will be a book I love, one I won’t give up on. In general I’m willing to tear down and rebuild if that is going to make my vision clearer to readers. Not sure how I’d respond if the advice was to change the vision.

  • Hep, it’s always hard to tell — that’s what beta readers are for. And distance. Distancing yourself from the work and then coming back to it will help with that.

    Rez, I’m sure it would be interesting, but no I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Sorry. Some things are best left to one’s imagination . . .

    Faith, yes, we all do.

    SiSi said, “Not sure how I’d respond if the advice was to change the vision.” That raises an interesting point. Some would look at the changes I’ve made to the manuscript and say that I did change the vision. But I’m not sure I did. The stuff that I kept — namely the lead characters and the dynamics of their interactions — were always a core element of the project for me. And so in that way, the vision has remained the same. But as I say, others might disagree.

  • quillet

    Congratulations! Such wonderful news, I’m delighted for you — and for me, ’cause I get to read it, yay!

    Yep, I’m currently working on my heartsong project (thanks to Laura for that word :) ). I wrote it ages ago and then worked on three other projects before returning to it with writer’s dynamite. Sifting through the rubble gets hard, sometimes. I have certain ideas stuck in my head just because that’s the way they were before — and then I realise those things can change, and should change. But I love the characters and the central ideas, and I really love the new form the story is taking. Would I explode it again to improve it? Or perform more delicate surgeries if someone pointed out flaws? Yes and yes. As Dave said: whatever it takes to get it in front of people. Words to live by indeed.

  • Vyton

    David, well done. Congratulations. What a story of sticking with it through thick and thin. Powerful imagery there about burning it to the ground. Wow. Congratulations. I look forward to reading Spell Blind.

  • Razziecat

    David, that’s fantastic news, and the book really sounds fascinating. I’ve never been big on urban fantasy, with a few exceptions, so I’m looking forward to acquiring a new taste when your book comes out ;D

    As for that project that’s your “heart and soul”…funny you should use those words, because that’s the title of my NaNo WIP. This year I decided to write something for me, and went back to my space opera people who’ve been living in my head for 30 years. And lo and behold, I’m three days ahead of schedule and enjoying the bejeezus out of it. When I’m done, I’m going to think about that very, very hard, especially in light of this post.

  • Quillet, thank you! You bring up one of the hardest parts about those massive rewrites. It’s not just blowing up the thing you love — it’s getting it out of your head and finding a new way to tell the story. Overcoming those passages and plot points to which I was emotionally attached was probably the hardest part of the process. Thanks for the comment!

    Thank you, Vyton. Kind of you to say.

    Razz, thanks. So glad that you’re enjoying your NaNo this year. Hope it continues to go well.

  • Razziecat

    David, it’s showing me something that I was reluctant to see before. I love fantasy, but of all the characters who live in my head, none are as “alive” as the people falling onto the page with wild abandon this month. There’s always been a touch of fantasy to my space opera. So…we’ll see.

  • David, I’d probably argue that if you (or any writer) believes the vision is the same, then it is. The writer seems most likely to know what the original vision was. Also, congratulations! I wrote the previous entry in a hurry and realized later I forgot to say that.

  • Sounds like you’re having fun with it, Razz, which is the most important thing. Best of luck with the rest of the month.

    Sisi, thanks very much. And I think you’re right: that’s one of the (few) things that the writer gets to decide all on her/his own.

  • I’m so very glad to hear of your perseverance paying off, David! It gives hope to me and my “story which refuses to be written”.

    I find it interesting you chose to go with Baen rather than Tor. Does that affect your relationship with Tor at all? Is there a publishing house loyalty expected of writers?

  • henderson

    Congratulations, David! Looking forward to hearing more about SPELL BLIND.

  • Mark, that’s an interesting question and one that could be answered in an entire post. The short answer is this: Baen made a better offer, and Tor has an unstated policy of publishing one book per year by its midlist authors. So a) I wanted to sign the best contract possible, and b) I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to wait until after the publication of the fourth Thieftaker book before this one came out. I do not believe it will have any impact on my relationship with Tor. They make business decisions all the time, often to the detriment of their authors. This was a business decision I made. As to the question of loyalty, the fact is Tor feels little or no loyalty to me. Nor should they. We work on a contract basis, and they base future contracts on the performance of my previous books. For a while, I did view my relationships with publishers through the lens of personal feelings, and I got burned again and again. When a publisher lowers an author’s advance or decides not to make an offer on a book, or even cancels a series before it’s completed (which has never happened to me), they are not acting disloyally. They are making rational business decisions. We can question the wisdom of those decisions, but as soon as we authors start saying “You owe me a contract out of loyalty and affection,” we will be laughed out of the room. And that is a two-way street. I have to make my decisions based on what is best for me financially and professionally, and I believe that the folks at Tor who Lucienne and I dealt with in these negotiations understand that.

    Thanks, Henderson.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I already said this on Facebook…but I’m so pleased!!! I’ve been rooting for the success of this book for years now.

  • Thank you so much, Jagi. I’m grateful for the support.

  • ajp88

    Very inspiring!

    Congratulations!

  • Question: Do you plot out all the books in a series before you begin writing? I’ve read all three of your series: Lon Tobyn, Winds, and Blood and am working on a six part saga of my own, but my plotting often goes astray as I get into each part and I keep having to revise the ending.

  • Xman, I usually have a very general sense of what is going to happen in each book before I begin. I find that doing so helps me pace the series on a book by book basis, letting me know where I need to be in the story arc as each book ends, and thus allowing me to construct my narrative arc for each volume. Things do change as a series progresses, and so I have to make some adjustments as I go, but I’m a plotter, and that means having at least some idea of what happens when. Also, in this day and age, it’s hard to sell multiple volumes to a publisher without having at least brief synopses of each volume. I would say that some revision of the plotting is to be expected. You can’t know every step just as it happens from page one, at least not if your book is going to have any spontaneity.