Chasing the Whale

20094 years ago today, I took one of the biggest gambles of my professional life. Based on a handshake and a few glasses of scotch, I sent off the best book I could write at the time to an editor I barely knew, who worked at a company I knew exceptionally well.

I have the letter I wrote him, the monstrous 10 page synopsis that in 2009 pushed the limits of what was acceptable for submissions, and the first three agonizing chapters of the then 108K manuscript in front of me right now.

While in retrospect the first two didn’t serve me as well as they might have, the latter bears only a superficial resemblance to the one I touched up today. About half that material remains, with some excised entirely, some shuffled into other parts of the manuscript, and even more just whittled away by a tone-changing edit conducted three years ago.

The 10 page synopsis is still valid, as is the 2-pager I’ve been using for the last year. There are elements of this story that haven’t changed since I first imagined it over 20 years ago. It’s still relatively the same book I spent far too much money on printing out to take to WorldCon in 2007, after a blistering month of unemployed creativity added another 65K to the story and split it into two well ordered books. A year later, it had progressed into three volumes, and I started marketing it as a franchise in the making.

I’ll be honest, I spent over a year checking my mailbox for the self-addressed, stamped envelope I included with the pages mailed to New York. It never arrived, and a couple July’s later I met that same editor at the same conference, who over more drinks remembered the submission and that he had comments he never got around to sending.

I used that book to gain a hypothetical agent, who then became a lifelong friend.

Based on that book, I’ve moved into writing Horror as well, and as a result have even more people to add to the latter category.

Excerpts from that book impressed another friend/editor into taking a further gamble on my creativity that became Hearts of Iron.

You need not question how many barrels my ambition will yield. My answer will always be the same.

All of them.

I pitch it the same way every time, and editors all get a bit misty at the simplicity of the sentences I use. The rejections I get are also quite consistent. They like the work, like the tension in the prologue, but not so much the slow burn of worldbuilding that comes after. It’s never the right fit at the right time, always missing something that would bump another manuscript off the schedule.

I just chopped the head off the worldbuilding dragon. That particular darling’s death (formerly known as “Chapter One”) reduces the book to just over 96K. I no longer care about the Crusades, or the fall of Moslem Spain. The vagaries of ecclesiastic bookmaking are gone, as are the details of daily duties in a Benedictine order.

The history of the ground my Hero walks on are pushed back into other chapters, and the recitation of the giants whose shoulders he stands upon are gone. Your introduction to him now is not as a serene, disciplined man in a well-ordered cell, but as an awkward boy spitting that same dirt from his mouth and wincing as it presses into his palms.

These cuts took me all of 20 minutes to make, and just as I now look back on the 2007 and 2009 versions and wince, I’m kicking myself with a writery peg leg for not doing do sooner. When preparing my last extract for submission, I saw clearly that the book was dragging, yet pressed on secure in the knowledge that the book as a whole more than makes up for it.

A book that most editors will never see, and I damn well knew better.

So why do I write these words today, instead of dedicating this time to finishing another book which DOES start strong and keep building until the end? Because I have to thank each and every one of the editors who’ve taken a pass so far. They should not have bought that book, because hypothetical readers wouldn’t have either. They told me again and again that something wasn’t right, and I’ve finally grown enough as a writer to hear what they’re saying.

I’m not entirely sure the newest version will sell either, but with every new voyage of the Pequod, I get that much closer to my ultimate goal. I can’t say whether it’s Starbuck or Ishmael I’m listening to at the moment, or which one will lead me to writing books other people will enjoy. But I am listening, and the results should be resultful.

And perhaps, if we’re all very lucky, in a few hundred years someone will turn it into this:

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