Thursday, May 23, 2013

First Contact

I won’t lie, there’s something exhilarating about meeting one's agent or editor for the first time. To a writer, the term “meet your maker” is fairly applicable. After all, the agent and editor are the professionals who make our dreams come true. 
Initially we get to know them on a genial level via phone and email before the face-to-face, so there’re no illusions of giant floating heads and fireballs a la The Wizard of Oz.

But it’s still an exciting prospect to shake hands with (or for the more honestly expressive, bear hug the crap out of) those who have signed on to become our business partners, creative muses, therapists, friends.

There are very few introductory meetings in a writer’s life that will hold this kind of weight: The doctor that spanks us like a ketchup bottle, dislodging that first breath free. The soul mate. The rug rats. The fan at the head of the line at our first book signing. The second soul mate. The mortician. Meeting our agent or editor can feel that important to the writer who’s struggled for years to arrive at this stage in the journey towards publication. Most writers go through a period of bobbing in the vast sea, treading water to the point of exhaustion, waiting to be tossed a lifeline. So when someone comes along who thinks were worthy of fishing from the drink, we love them for it.

In 2011 I flew from South Carolina to Boston (my old college stomping grounds) to meet my agent, the insert honorific adjective here Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency. We had lunch at a semi-fancy eatery and I ordered one of those eat-with-a-fork burgers with a side of the kind of quality fries that potatoes aspire to be. Lauren was everything I surmised from our phone and email exchanges: bubbly, personable, savvy, informed…I had this vision of Lauren charming editor after editor and then, when she has them all entranced, WHAM! She drops the hammer--Auction, eight figure deal, we keep all rights (including English, why not?), million dollar signing bonus, all while I’m standing off to the side, tenting my fingers like Mr. Burns. “Excellent!”
I joke, but I left our luncheon with my confidence in Lauren as solid as ever.  In the winter of 2012 Lauren brokered a two-book deal with Disney-Hyperion on my behalf. Confidence rewarded.

A few weeks ago I flew to New York to meet my editor Ricardo Mejias for the first time. The plan was to go over final edit notes for my first book, Frenzy, and to discuss my next project. I forwarded four synopses in advance, anxious to find out which, if any, he envisioned as the second half of the contract.

It's story time.

We agreed to meet at the Disney-Hyperion offices at the end of the afternoon, and like the good Southern boy I am, I was a few minutes early. I entered the building and signed in at the front desk. Everything had that sleek, sterile look that says, “Welcome to the Umbrella Corp.” I received my visitor’s pass…

and headed through the turnstile to the bank of equally sterile elevators. I picked one. There were no UP and DOWN arrow buttons. Instead there was a numbered keypad. I reasoned that I needed to type in my floor number, but when I did, nothing happened. The screen remained blank.
This is the point where my country mouse started steering my body Ratatouille-style. An elevator to my left opened and a gentleman stepped in. I leapt in behind him. Inside the elevator there were no buttons at all. At all!

I had no choice but to ride up with the other passenger to his destination, step out, and try again. This time, when I pressed 33 into the keypad, the building decided to stop screwing with me and the elevator descended to Floor Thirty-Three. Now, I know my plight doesn't seem like a big deal (and Lauren made this very same journey just a few months earlier, and will probably wonder what’s wrong with me when she reads this), but I was understandably nervous and all of the little stresses were amplified a bit. In my mind’s eye, I conjured up a scenario where the Disney-Hyperion staff were watching me via hidden video cameras, monitoring my heart rate and possibly spraying invisible stress-inducing chemicals (wasp pheromones, maybe?) into The Box to unbalance me in advance of any remaining edit negotiations. Are there more stressful elevators out there? Sure, I suppose so.

When I escaped from the hellevator, I walked down the empty hallway and came to a glass wall with heavy, glass double-doors in the center. Locked. Another indecipherable keypad. Oh, Obi Wan. I feel your pain.

I started to wonder what exactly I was going to have to do to make my appointment on time.
Here’s a Robert factoid. When I was a kid, I had a mild case of entamaphobia, fear of doors. I wasn’t afraid of walking through them like others afflicted with this ridiculous condition (slightly less silly than ostiumtractophobia, fear of door knobs), but I had doubts about my ability to open them, especially in public places where people would see me fail at such a simple task. It’s rather embarrassing to push when you should have pulled, or worse yet, when you can’t get the door to open at all. This happened once at a crowded diner (I quickly returned to the table and informed my mother that they’d locked us inside, which wasn't the case, obviously).I thought about joining a support group, but I feared I wouldn't be able to open the door to the meeting room. 

Fortunately, I passed the phobia along to my nephew and have been opening doors with great confidence since 1989. It’s only in certain high-tech, modern buildings that The Fear creeps in again. It’s like they expect you to have an intuitive understanding of their one-of-a-kind, computerized entrance technology! I am not R2D2. I was not born with one of these.
It was nearing the end of the afternoon, and it appeared as though everyone had left for the day. Fortunately, someone eventually walked by and saw me fogging up the glass.

I was in.

Let me preface this part of the story by saying I had some inflated expectations as to what the Disney-Hyperion offices would look like. This stems from the fact that I once worked in the bullpen at Marvel Comics, and Marvel was everything you’d imagine: superhero art adorning the walls and columns, action figures lining editors’ shelves, famous artists stopping by to drop off freshly drawn pages, a pot-bellied guy in a Spider-Man costume leading visitor tours through the hallways… a fanboy’s dream (I’ll discuss my time at Marvel in another blog entry soon.)

I carried similar notions with me to the Disney-Hyperion offices, although I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d find. Jack Sparrow as the receptionist (his booted feet on the desk, a jug of rum resting on the fax machine.) Tigger bouncing around the hallways, tossing shredded manuscript pages around like confetti. Editors traveling through the halls via cars salvaged from the defunct Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
(Thanks for nothing, Google.)

Of course, this was just the imagination of a writer and die-hard Disney fan working overtime. My illusions of whimsical grandeur were quickly wiped away.

I was hoping for THIS:
 Would have settled for THIS:
But got THIS:
There were a few stacks of Disney books on shelves and tables, but otherwise there was nothing Be-Our-Guest-ish about the place. I was later informed that these were just temporary digs as the publisher’s staff waited for new offices which were still under construction in another part of town. Bummer.
I found Ricardo's office and introduced myself. Pleasant and soft-spoken, he immediately put me at ease after the Great Elevator Debacle of 2013. We sat down to talk.
So you know what’s infinitely better than meeting Mickey Mouse? Brainstorming with an editor who not only gets the way you think, but who also shows enthusiasm, gives spot-on feedback and has appreciation for the topics that interest you as a writer. I’ll be eternally grateful to Ricardo for seeing a deeper story inside of Frenzy and pointing it out to me. It’s an adventure story and a horror story and a survival story, but he found at the core of it a modern morality play. Ricardo asked the hard questions and with his guidance I was able to pass them along to my readers: What do we owe each other as human beings when the $#!+ hits the fan? Is it ever okay to give up?  Are there lines that must never be crossed, even when our lives are on the line?

This is the job of every editor. They see the buried story, hand the writer a shovel and they say, “Start digging.” And then when the writer has unearthed the bones and assembled the beast, the editor—the co-excavator—hands them a toothbrush and says, “Now get every last bit of crud off until it’s sparkly clean.” The best editors have ground-penetrating radar. They can see deeper, with more clarity. As writers, we’re lucky to have them.

So maybe the Disney-Hyperion offices weren't as awesome as I’d envisioned. That’s okay, because in the end I wasn't there to meet Mickey Mouse. I was there to meet my editor, and that meeting was worth the trip. 

My goal has always been to encourage people to keep following their dreams. If you’re an unagented or unpublished writer, just know that if you keep plugging away, treading the water, writing the words, all of the awesome emotions associated with meeting the professionals who will guide your career will be yours too someday. And, yes, those emotions are as cool as you’d imagine (except for entamaphobia. That one’s not cool at all).

There are a few interesting notes I can share from the meeting. 1). First, the release date for Frenzy will likely be bumped up from Summer 2014 to April 2014. So right now I’m planning for a spring launch. 2). Ricardo liked two ideas I presented for my second book, and we decided that I would develop them simultaneously. One is an intimate horror and the other is adventure/horror on an epic scale. I’ll release more details as I’m able.  

Some noteworthy news:
1). My agency sister Brian Quinlan has been working on something awesome, and even though she hasn’t told me how to find it online, it was released into the wild this week, and I know it will be worth the hunt. You can follow Bria for more cryptic info here: If the secret project has even an ounce of Bria’s brand of humor, it'll be great.

2). Honorary agency sister Stacey Lee recently signed a deal with G.P. Putnam’s Sons for a winter 2015 release of her book Golden Boys. According to her website, When a 15-year-old Chinese girl kills a Missouri landowner in self-defense, she and a runaway slave disguise themselves as young men and seek their freedom in the frontier with a band of cowboys.
Sounds pretty cool. I’ll let you know when it’s available for pre-order.

3). Agency sister Lizzie Friend’s YA thriller book Poor Little dead Girls is available for pre-order at Amazon.

4). Two more of my fav agency sisters have books out on submission. Fly lttle books, fly!!!

5). Fellow Disney-Hyperion writer Polly Holyoke’s book The Neptune Project is out this week. It looks right up my alley. You can learn more about Polly and her books by visiting her site.

6). Zoraida Cordova’s follow up to Vicious Deep hit stores earlier this month. I’m almost finished reading Vicious Deep and looking forward to the next.

And in news to make you jealous, I’m going to see Star Trek again tonight, this time at a private screening at the Skywalker Ranch where much of the Star Wars saga was put together. Very surreal. The new Trek is a blast. I liked it infinitely better than Iron Man 3 and highly recommend it, so go see it and support our Federation troops.