Monday, August 26, 2013
Coming Back to Life
This is a story with a moral. It’s the story of a writer, well-known and respected, who fell by the wayside for several years before being granted a surprising reprieve. Once upon a time, he was a bookseller at a famous mystery bookstore, and he wrote six novels in six years that were published to general acclaim. He had many fans and admirers, and even Hollywood came calling, making a film of one of his works and optioning two others. Then, at the height of his popularity, this writer did something peculiar: he stopped. He didn’t stop writing, mind you; he merely stopped publishing. Why he did that, and what happened to turn his fortunes around, are the subjects of the tale.
First, my life. You’ve heard of the “one-two punch” that sends a boxer to the canvas? Well, I received five punches in a row, and I was staggered. I worked for two years on a really ambitious thriller to follow Scavenger, but I picked the wrong subject, the then-unknown abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I knew about it beforehand, from an investigative reporter friend who was working on the story in Connecticut long before it became public knowledge. I handed the manuscript to my agent just as the worldwide headlines arrived. Oops! My prophetic thriller was instantly Yesterday’s News, and no one would touch it. Two years down the drain. (First punch.) I lost my mother in 2003 and my sister a year later (second and third punches), and for a while I wasn’t able to write anything. In 2006, Murder Ink®, the bookstore where I worked for many years, closed its doors forever, so I was suddenly unemployed. (Four.) Then I parted ways with my agent of fifteen years. (Down for the count.)
Then something wonderful happened. S. J. Rozan, my writer friend who lives near me, yanked me out of my house one day and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a meeting of her writing group. I’d always sworn to eschew any sort of reading/commenting group situation, so this was the last thing I needed--or so I thought. But once I got there and saw how these people worked, how they helped and encouraged one another, I was hooked. I liked their company, but if I wanted to join them, I’d have to bring samples of my own work-in-progress. So I started writing in earnest again, and soon I was writing a new novel, A Penny For The Hangman. We met every two weeks, and I got involved in their work as well as my own. Next thing you know, I had a completed manuscript, and the group told me that it was time for me to go out and find a new agent.
The manuscript made the rounds for two years and racked up an impressive number of rejections from editors who obviously didn’t even look at it. And why should they? It isn’t just the industry that’s different—the really seismic change of the last decade is in the book-buying public. My thriller doesn’t have teenage vampires or shape shifters or ultra-right-wing Special Ops agents, and there isn’t a single “shade of grey” in sight, let alone fifty. What on earth was I thinking?!! I was out of step with the new reality, and I was beginning to despair, bracing myself to slink off to the sidelines once more.
Did I mention my new agent? And my writer friends? These two life-saving entities came to my rescue. My agent went to work, hammering out a “classic” deal with Random House, and my writer friends encouraged me to take a chance, to step out into the void where no writer has gone before. E-books are uncharted territory, they told me, the new frontier in publishing, and somebody has to be Neil Armstrong! And while you’re at it, they added, start a website (I did) and a blog (ditto) and bring back all your out-of-print titles as ebooks (double ditto). Thanks to them, I’m published again, and it feels like I’m coming back to life. Which is exactly what I’m doing.
The moral of the story: Writers need one another, and we need agents. We’re entering a brave new world of publishing, and—thanks to my agent and my writer friends—I’m in the first launch. I don’t know what I’m about to discover, but the view from here is lovely.
If you’re in my predicament, learn from my experience. Take chances. Get out of the bathrobe, get out of the house. Join a writing group. Find a good agent. And always be willing to help your fellow writers, because they’re always willing to help you.
Tom Savage is the author of four suspense novels: Precipice, Valentine, The Inheritance, and Scavenger. He also wrote two detective novels under the name T. J. Phillips, Dance of the Mongoose and Woman in the Dark. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and anthologies edited by Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, and Michael Connelly. His bestselling novel, Valentine, was made into a Warner Bros. film. Raised in the Virgin Islands, he lives in New York City, where he worked for many years at Murder Ink, the world’s first mystery bookstore. His new novel, A Penny For The Hangman, will be published by Random House Alibi in 2014.