Friday, November 6, 2009

Raising the Dead Manuscript from Its Grave: Part 1 by Robert W. Walker

I published myself after a lifetime of eschewing any sort of vanity press. And I did it using a “dead” manuscript about a “dead” subject filled with “dead” historical characters in a “dead” time period which one editor, a true pro, said of: “It is the hardest time period to write about, to make come alive, and especially to display any sort of sexual encounter, but in your hands Rob, if anyone can pull it off, it’s you.” That sort of trust and confidence in my writing and even rejection letters laced with lovely and positive remarks has kept me going back and back to the grave to unearth this dead manuscript. Rejected hundreds of times and stowed away off and on for some thirty years or more. I had every reason to lower it into the ground of my past writing attempts and leave it buried and chalk it up to part of that large graveyard of previous work that stays in the grave but represents lessons learned, craft-building, and I am a firm believer that book X could not have come into being as it is had I not failed on book Y from which I learned so much of what to do and what not to do.

Recently as July I began putting up ebooks on the paperless bookstore called Kindle (for the Kindle reader) and I put up a number of out of print titles, and a book of short stories, and a how-to book that is doing well there, and then I decided to place up an original never before seen anywhere else title – Children of Salem, one of my books that had been buried by a stack of rejections so heavy as to be used as the headstone.

Why put it up on Kindle, a book rejected by EVERY New York publishing house twice over in various permutations? A book turned down in fact by any and all publishers, editors, and agents who ever took a look. Was I just being arrogant and publishing the work out of anger or angst or what? No frustration is the word. Fed up with traditional publishers who could not SEE the possibilities of this novel, a novel I had kept faith in for over thirty years, with agents who loved it but couldn’t sell it…with editors who could not turn it down without writing personal notes about how it affected them, etc., etc., I saw the new technology as a godsend for Children of Salem and decided to take the bull by the horns and put it out there. My risk? Only my reputation.

Maybe all those people who had rejected the novel were right, but I didn’t think so and I trust that readers will agree with me, and at least one has! One who has given it a Five-Star review on now finally. It feels freeing and great to have taken control and vanity or not, whatever you call digital publishing, for me it was and is VINDICATION as Children of Salem is outselling all my other ebooks save my how-to (Dead On Writing). To see the review and the fantastic cover art my son, Stephen, designed for Children of Salem you need only click here:

I kid you not, I never give up on a novel idea once I have determined it is a worthwhile project, worthy of my time, energy, blood, sweat, and rewrites. This goes for this manuscript that may even be thirty years old, rewritten countless times, given the “drawer” countless times, but never thrown into the flames or fed to the landfill. Is this a good or a bad thing? I suppose it depends on the idea and the execution of the novel, the crafty crafting of the craft.

I bring this up because my Children of Salem, which for decades went by the title of Bloodroot, and I tenaciously held onto the title until I changed my attitude toward the novel. Bloodroot as a title for me was a double entendre: poisonous nightshade or bloodroot posed the idea of a poison in the blood of Puritanism, and it held the image of a rooting in the old world, a poisonous idea that followed mankind on the ships that led us to America and the Bay Colony of Massachusetts.

The title simply felt like a good fit, and the novel was a serious, heavily-heavily researched and layered tale of the Salem Witchcraft episode as it was never portrayed before—a unique look at the economics, the politics, the theology of witchcraft, as well as the geography and history and sociology of the belief and use of that belief during an election year to condemn and thus win reelection. I saw so many connections to modern life in what happened to “us” in 1692.

I can’t count on two hands the number of editors and agents who turned the manuscript down with the proviso that it was a great book “But I can’t sell it.” So it was stashed away again and again, trotted out every couple-few years and rewritten again and given its chance with a new agent or another editor only to chalk up more rejections than Babe Ruth strike outs. But always with the warmly worded, “I can’t get the scenes out of my mind and I loved the book BUT I can’t sell it.”

Again to the bottom drawer, literally. It fit no “commercial” needs or cubby holes, no pigeon holes and no category. It was historical but scary as in real—reality-based terror in which neighbor hangs neighbor but it was also a sociological tract that shed a light on human activity that points a finger at us all. No one was safe and everyone was guilty, and even our hero, Jere Wakely, had unspoken issues that only helped to fan the flames; and it was a condemnation of church and state in bed together, and it was multiple point of view, and somewhere in there a romance was at work….

Little wonder it has always been a hard sell; loved ones considered my angst with this novel as simple—the book had a curse on it, and it had control of me, and it would never give me my freedom. It was a deep well and I was its ghost with chains upon my feet. Loved ones confused my passion with obsession, and at times I too decided it was all a cursed foul matter that I should burn in the nearest roaring fire. Instead I would pull on something within me that insisted this story could be reshaped to get something other than a wonderfully kindly gently worded rejection.

I intend to carry on this discussion NEXT FRIDAY here at Acme so do return. There is a great well of resolve required to have faith in your own work for as many years as I held this belief for my Salem Opus. And so this blog needs be split. Hope to see you back here then and in the meantime do leave me a comment as we make it soooooo easy to leave a comment here.



Morgan Mandel said...

Two Wrongs was a dead manuscript I had tucked away and forgotten about. After 10 years, I got inspired and did some heavy editing and updating. The result was it got published. It can be done!

Morgan Mandel

Rob Walker said...

You rule Morgan, and exactly right. It is never too late for an old and aged manuscript and often it is gathering dust so as the rest of the world can cstch up!

Anonymous said...

Rob: I've got a novel in the same (leaky) boat. Please contact me offline, I need your opinon/ieas on something if and when you have time.
Thanks and continued good luck,
Jackie (Toni? :-)

Deb Larson said...

You are so right! Time passed doesn't matter when it comes to a good story. Glad you pursued this.
DL Larson

Margot Justes said...

Great blog,I agree a good well written story is timeless.
I love the comments one hears when pitching, 'I want originality, new ideas, fresh voice, like Nora Roberts' or the most current best seller du jour. Ours is a tough and humbling business.
Margot Justes

Thomas said...

You are living proof that tenaciousness eventually pays. Great article.

Rob Walker said...

Wow you guys are humbling me; blushn here. I never give up on a manuscript I believe in, and it is painful in the utmost so many times to see it rejected; I feel like a freed Nelson Mandela type character now that I have allowed this manuscript to FLY free aboard the Kindle Express. Authors whose work is out of print have an avenue now,and in fact can make more money via ebooks than ever before.

Debra St. John said...

Hey Rob,

I am in the process of trying to revive an old manuscript, so this post was timely. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Tom Schreck said...

Imagine big publishing house editors being wrong? Could that ever be possible.

I love the idea of Kindle and letting the free market decide. Why the hell not?

Ff'in Konrath is going to put his kids through college with his kindle earnings.

Everyone in the mystery community knows Walker can write. If publishing made sense he should be living Patterson's lifestyle.

The "great book book--but I can't sell it" makes me crazy. I hate hearing it.

Unknown said...

I resurrected an old science fiction I wrote years ago. I sort of forgot about it when I switched over to mysteries, but stumbled across it one day and polished it up. It's now sitting with my ebook publisher and will eventually see the light of day. It's no longer my chosen genre, but I still liked the book after all those intervening years. If no one likes it, so be it, but at least now it has a chance of being seen.

Rob Walker said...

So right Tom, so right...but then again if I were living the Patterson life, I'd not 'ave time for ya cause I'd be in the South Pacfic on my boat sipping at a drink with a tiny umbrella in the glass and giving thanks to the Sun God. Frankly, I try to read a Patterson book and I can't wade through it; for me it is like reading a fouth grade reader. See Spot Run as I recall the title being. Not that there's anything wrong with that but then why can't room be made for the serious layered complex novel? Cannot tell you how many times agents and editors have asked me to dumb it down...Maybe cause I can't do that is why I am not on the bestseller list, eh? Can't write that badly; not in me genes or me jeans.

Rob Walker said...

Food for the soul, reviving an old script if you ask me. To be or not to publish or not to publish. I wrote a short story once entitled The UnRead...about a ghost who brokers a deal with a sex starved librarian to get his unpublished novel off the dead shelf and into a publisher's hands. From the grave, he was still trying to get this book published. The spirit was my alter ego you might say. He wouldn't've have had to compromise himself and all his integrity had he had digital publishiing platform. Good to hear from each and every one of you. I will check back later.

Debbi said...

Great post, Rob! And I'm with Tom. Why not put the book out there and let the market decide if it's good?

The publishing industry as an institution frowns on authors skipping the middleman. Is this such a surprise? With digital platforms making it so much easier to self-publish, no wonder the industry's in turmoil.

Right now, the market for e-books is really small, but it's growing so fast, you have to wonder what will happen to publishers in as little as 10 years?

Kelly said...

This has given me new hope for a manuscript that I was considering simply posting on my web site because it is a prequel to A Deadly Wilderness, which is being published by Five Star in January. I love the story and the characters and I think readers who like A Deadly Wilderness will want to see how Ray and Susana met. Definitely something to look into. Thanks Rob!

Rob Walker said...

Kelly - you should be forewarned before going digital (or putting it up on your site for download) that Roz and company with Tekno/Five Star will not look at a book that has been previously there is that drawback. If you sold in the thousands, they might decide their rule is as foolish as I think it is. This has already happened to me and I learned it the hard way.


Austin S. Camacho said...

Rob, you are an inspiration to us all. you're right about e-books being a way to prove your concept! I think writers are willing to do what agents aren't - look at ALL the ways a story can be told - novel, short story, continuing story - they all work well electronically! Keep it up, man!!

Rob said...

hey thanks Austin; blusing at this face, I mean, not my rear. I see that on JA Konrath's blog that Joe lays out a day in the life of a Kindle reader and it sounds a lot like heaven. Check it out everyone.