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The Wall of Unwanted Books
By
Charles
Atkins
” I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the
direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he
will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
–Henry
David Thoreau
Do all authors
have a drawer of unpublished books?  Or
is this just me?  As I hit the final
pre-release weeks of one-such manuscript that will finally be published, there
are numerous lessons to be learned.  But
as so much with writing it’s more about the showing than the telling.  So here’s the story of how VULTURES AT
TWILIGHT, which I wrote over a decade ago as a charming Connecticut cozy with
two older female protagonists (for those not used to the term “cozy”
it refers to a not-terribly gory murder mystery often set in a small town–Agatha
Christie’s Miss Marple is the archetype), will now come out as my first lesbian-themed
novel.
How does this
happen?  Well, in the late 1990’s I
achieved a major score–or more accurately my agent did–by landing a two-book
deal with St. Martin’s Press.  My first
novel–THE PORTRAIT–did well and so I set about crafting a follow up
book.  My editor at St. Martin’s was Ruth
Cavin–a legend in the field–who at the time was in her early eighties.  I was also working as a geriatric psychiatrist.
My thought–write what you know–was to
do a mainstream mystery but this time have heroines in their late seventies and
early eighties.  I set the book in a
fictional Connecticut town that thrives off the systematic fleecing of its
older residents as they downsize and die. 
It was a theme I knew well from my day job, and so I constructed a
darkly comic mystery where the local antique dealers were getting bumped off
one by one.  I finished the manuscript,
had a few people read it, did a rewrite or two, then off to my agent who
submitted it to Ruth at St. Martins…who hated it.  Her rejection letter was scathing.  This was not going to be the second book in
that contract.  And therein lies one of
the many lessons I’ve learned–read your contracts carefully.  A multi-book deal does not mean that the
publisher is obliged to print whatever you send.  Ruth did not care for the book, and so it was
not going to press, at least not then and not with St. Martin’s.
My then agent, shopped
it around a bit, but clearly I needed to get back to the drawing board and come
up with something to fulfill my contract and so VULTURES AT TWILIGHT–at the
time it was actually named DOILIES UNDER GLASS–landed in a drawer.  To be fully accurate this is more of a shelf
that over the years has taken on the look of a brick wall made out of tightly
stacked manuscript boxes with titles of the enclosed, often with dates, written
on the side in black sharpie.  Time
elapsed I came up with two more books for St. Martin’s, which they did publish.  Between books I’d dust of VULTURES AT
TWILIGHT, give it a rewrite, send it out, read the rejection letters and then
slide it lovingly back into my wall of unwanted books.
At one point
there was a near hit with a small specialty publishing house–they will go
unnamed.  They had a series of professional
readers review the manuscript, it looked promising.  They held onto VULTURES for eighteen months
as an exclusive submission, before ultimately rejecting it.  At least here, I could read the critiques
from their readers, and came away with the conviction that indeed this book was
publishable.  I gleaned anything of value
from the reviews and I re-worked the manuscript yet again.  But with no likely buyers in site the options
were limited.  Do I self publish?  Or…back onto the shelf?
Here, I was a torn.  Self publishing has become increasingly acceptable
and affordable.  Yet part of me clings to
the notion that if no one in the “real” publishing world is ready to
give it a go, maybe it needs to stay on the shelf.  And while the differences between
self-publishing and having a publisher bring out a book have become fewer there
are still some big hurdles that the self-published author must consider.  Most notably, how do you get a self-published
book reviewed in the bigger publications? 
Not to mention I really do like that initial advance check.    
So VULTURES sat
on the shelf until I got a call from my agent Al Zuckerman–and any author
should be so lucky to have an agent like Al. 
He’d just had lunch with the editor at a gay-themed publishing house,
and he’d brought up my name.  He wondered
if I was interested in writing a mystery or thriller series with a gay
protagonist.  Looking back at my wall of
unwanted books, I spotted my very first manuscript–a rambling six-hundred page
story of a conflicted gay surgeon.  It’s
part love story, part action adventure, part mystery, part buddy book and total
mess.  It’s quite possibly the worst
thing I’ve ever written.  So I told him
I’d think about it, and while I was deep into another project gave it serious
thought.  Which is when it hit me.  What if…What if the two women protagonists
in VULTURES fell in love with another? 
They were already the best of friends, was it such a leap?  As it stood, the book had no love line and
this made tremendous sense.  In
discussing it with a gay friend of mine she thought it would work, but I’d need
to make them a bit younger–and so I did. 
It took a solid two months to get a strong rewrite, and what emerged is a
book that is a tremendous amount of fun. 
However….
By the time it
was ready to be submitted to the gay-themed publishing house, they’d gone
through radical restructuring and the editor I’d written this for, had left.  So back to the shelf…or so I thought.  And this is where we get our happy ending, or
maybe a fresh start.  Unbeknownst to me,
my agent had forwarded the new gay-themed VULTURES AT TWILIGHT to Severn House,
a British independent who’s published my last two hard covers.  Sure enough they wanted it, but only as a
series.  If I could commit to at least a second
book with my two heroines–Lil and Ada–it was a go.  And now VULTURES AT TWILIGHT will be released
in January 2012 in the U.K. and later this year in the U.S. with the e-version
to follow a few months later.  And the
moral of this story, which is old and worth revisiting, persistence does pay,
and often in unexpected and wonderful ways.               
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