DeFlip Side #34: Trail of Tears

DS34.mp3

Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Attention all would-be writers out there. You always hear people say that getting your first novel published is the hard part. That once you make that initial leap, it gets easier and easier to see your work in print. Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s a load of crap. As any working writer knows, the trick is not getting published; it’s getting published consistently. The proof is in my own wacky experiences. So listen up if you want the inside track of what being a writer is really like. And get comfortable. This is going to take a while.

If you’re a long time Destinies fan, you were there when it all began, back in February of 1998 when I made my Destinies debut, plugging my first novel, Foreknowledge, part of the now-defunct Quantum Leap book series. At the end of the interview, Howard asked me what I was working on next and I outlined my grand plans to publish an original novel called Tears Of The Messiah, a near-future apocalyptic thriller in which a lovable humble sociologist gets caught up in a quest to find a set of holy relics that will bring salvation back to mankind. The plot hinged on a simple question: what if the Second Coming had been averted because the reborn Jesus was killed at the hands of the Third Reich during the Second World War? Rounding out the story was a supporting cast of Nazis, golems, alchemists, secret societies, angels, demons—even Satan himself.

I started writing Tears on the eve of the new millennium, and felt it would appeal to both genre fans and a mass audience, since I was basically adapting the tried and true Fantasy Quest formula to exploit the then-current Y2K doomsday mindset, using easily accessible Judeo-Christian mythology as a basis for the plot. How could I go wrong? As it turns out, in just about every way possible.

My first task was finding an agent. I had managed to sell my first book without one, since I had gotten friendly with the editor of the Quantum Leap novel series on my own. But even she told me that it was in my best interests to have someone representing me if I wanted to make the leap to original fiction. So out went the query letters.

I must have solicited about a dozen agencies, and all the responses were basically the same: they admired my achievement in getting my first novel published on my own, but they couldn’t represent me. It wasn’t my writing. That was fine. But due to its controversial subject matter, Tears would be a hard sell at best and none of them thought they could peddle it successfully.

Of course, as a young writer full of my own success, I was taken aback at what I perceived to be their narrow-minded fears. What was so controversial about the story? How could anyone raise serious objections to my little make-believe scenario? I mean, I knew my writing was good, but good enough to cause a commotion? I highly doubted it. And even if that was the case, think of the sales…

With persistence, I eventually did find an agent to represent me, though he was based in California. I was unhappy with that until I realized that he would be good to have if ever the project was optioned for the screen. As I said, I was a bit full of my success at the time.

So Tears finally started to make the rounds to publishers. As is customary with the publishing business, the progress was glacial. But after a few months we started hearing back. And you’ve probably already guessed what they said. No sale. Can’t touch it. You’re kidding right? You must be out of your mind.

I can’t say I was surprised, given my experience with the literary agencies. I’d come to accept the fact that my book would, indeed, be hard to sell. But I had no idea the extent to which my chosen subject matter was considered taboo.

Things finally culminated with the last editor to which we sent it, John Ordover, who, at the time, headed up the Star Trek novel program at Pocket Books. After reading the sample chapters, he called Tears Of The Messiah, and I quote, “The single most offensive thing I have ever read.” Cue the sad walking away music. Bring down the lights. Humanity would find no fictional salvation. Not at my hands anyway. Tears Of The Messiah was dead. There was no one left to send it to.

A word to would-be writers out there: apparently, unless you’re William Styron writing Sophie’s Choice, fictionalizing the holocaust to suit your creative purposes is as big a faux pas as you can commit. I still don’t see how a what-if scenario centered on one of the biggest events of modern times can be considered offensive, but there you have it. The mainstream publishing industry has collectively placed it off limits.

Still, I felt strangely honored by Ordover’s assessment. For my writing to provoke such a visceral reaction on his behalf, it must have been very compelling indeed; I guess he thought so, since he invited me to submit proposals for the Star Trek series. And that invitation held its own special gratification. In my first daydreams of being a writer, it was always a Star Trek book I’d written. Unfortunately, the Star Trek book never materialized either. Again, it wasn’t a question of my writing. Ordover just didn’t like my ideas. Shortly thereafter I dropped my agent, sick of hearing him make excuses as to why we couldn’t move forward with my career instead of trying to figure out how we could.

Okay. Fast-forward seven years. I haven’t published anything since my Quantum Leap book, and, aside from these DeFlip Side segments, I have pretty much stalled in my writing altogether. I’d like to blame it on the bad taste left in my mouth by the whole Tears ordeal, but the real reason is two-fold.

Both Foreknowledge and Tears Of The Messiah just sprang up in my head, almost unbidden, their plots fully formed. The same with the Star Trek proposals I’d made. All I had to do was write them down. Since then, I have yet to discover another fully-realized story floating around my brain. The second reason I’ve not written, to be honest, is that the Tears fiasco shattered my confidence. It took me a long time to realize that, but I can now see that it’s the truth.

Still, I’ve tried to keep active in the professional writing community, mainly by maintaining my membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, otherwise known as SFWA.

Every year, SFWA hosts an informal authors and editors get together. Determined to begin making things happen again, I decided to go last year, mainly to say hello to my Quantum Leap editor, whom I hadn’t contacted in years. After all, what could it hurt? Of course, once I got there I didn’t know anyone and I had that cocktail-party-from-hell experience where you get a drink and keep circling the room intently, trying to make it seem like you have important business to get back to, while the whole time you’re praying that no one notices you’re a desperate loser with no one to talk to. It got so bad after a while that I took it upon myself to horn in on a group centered around author Keith DeCandido. Keith is a frequent Destinies guest whom I had met once or twice in passing thanks to Howard. It was initially uncomfortable, since I could tell that he didn’t really remember me, but I was past caring.

Soon enough, I was chatting up other writers and floating around the room, leaving one group, meeting another, until I stumbled upon one containing the infamous John Ordover. He had by this time just left his job at Pocket Books to start his own book packaging company, which I heard him announce right here on Destinies. Once I had his attention, I shook his hand very ceremoniously and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Chris DeFilippis. You once said that I had written the single most offensive thing you’d ever read.”

He laughed, along with everyone else in the group, and pretended to remember, which was very gracious of him. So I figured even if nothing else was accomplished that night, at least I’d given people a good laugh. But as I moved off to get a drink, another person joined me. He introduced himself as Keith Olexa, an editor with Phobos Books, and he wanted to know what had been so offensive. I briefly told him about Tears and he seemed intrigued. He invited me to send him a copy of what I had written so far. At first I thought I had misheard. I had been hitting the gin pretty good all night. But the offer was genuine. And just like that, I was back in business.

The first thing I had to do was reacquaint myself with the story, which I hadn’t even looked at for at least half a decade. But it was amazing how the plot and all its intended nuances started coming back to me. A word here to avoid confusion. At the time I began trying to sell Tears I had only finished the first five chapters and an outline, which is really enough for any editor to make a decision where a published writer is concerned. Once it became apparent that I’d never sell the book, I never bothered going any further with it. So I tweaked what I had, mainly to incorporate our post 9/11 realities, and sent it to Phobos. Then it was time to do what all writers spend the majority of their time doing besides writing: waiting. Three months is the industry standard for hearing back on anything.

So I took advantage of that time to get to know Phobos a little better. I liked what I found, at least as presented on the company’s website. Committed to publishing edgier Science Fiction, Phobos had already released two successful anthologies and was pushing a new novel called Nobody Gets The Girl by James Maxey, whom Howard interviewed back in April. The book is certainly good, and original. I think the so-called edginess comes in because the plot deals frankly with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and offers a somewhat unique solution—one Olexa told me he initially felt was too offensive to print, but which he ultimately felt was justified in the context of the story. All I can say is that it didn’t offend me; I didn’t even think it was especially controversial. If this is what’s passing for edgy in mainstream Science Fiction, the genre is in big trouble.

So the three months passed, and no response. My attempts to follow up were met with silence. After another month, the Phobos website was no longer working. Things were going south again, I could feel it. My fears were confirmed a short time later by a press release announcing John Ordover as the new editor-in-chief of Phobos Books.

Re-cue the sad walking away music. Bring down the house lights again. I had no official word, but I knew as surely as I’m speaking to you now that Tears Of The Messiah was a dead project once again. Ordover hated it in 1998, and there was no way he’d be behind it now. I just stared at the release, the scene from Wrath of Khan playing in my head where Kirk, in a fit of rage, screams Khan’s name to echo throughout the cosmos. Only in my head he was screaming “Joooohhhhhhhnnnnnnnn!”

So there you have it. A parable of inside-publishing irony, years in the making. Okay, so it’s no “Gift of the Magi.” But what are the odds? Of all of the publishing houses in all the world, he had to walk into mine…

Shortly thereafter, I spoke to Olexa, and he drove the official nails into the coffin. Still, perhaps things worked out for the best. So many years have passed that I’m a completely different person than I was when I started to write Tears, both ideologically and emotionally. I don’t really believe the same things that I did when the book was freshly bursting from my head, and I don’t know that I would be able to write it with the same emotional honesty that I would’ve if I’d just finished the thing way back when. I realize now that not finishing it was my biggest mistake of all, because anything I write now will feel like I’m just going through the motions.

So I’ve decided to let Tears go once and for all and chalk it up as a learning experience. I have since moved on, and hope to get a short story published in an anthology due out next year. I’m also hacking away at a new novel, and have even toyed with the idea of making an animated short of my Christmas poem, “The Last Little Elf,” which I read on the air last December. I’ve once again come to realize the simple truth that got me published in the first place: if you want to be successful in this business, you have to create your own opportunities and make things happen.

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to follow my example and persevere, that the work is its own reward and things get better over time. But that’s just not true. Writing can be a pretty lousy way to make a living. You sit alone in a room for long stretches, struggling to create a plausible, believable world while the real one passes you by. Publishing houses are shortsighted, fickle beasts that routinely reject bestsellers, and most books that they do get behind are Danielle Steele/John Grisham type garbage. And even if you’re the best writer in the world, odds are that you will be routinely rejected—a feeling that sucks, and never stops sucking, no matter how many times you go through it.

There really is only one reason to keep at it: when you’re holding that published work in your hand—whether it be a short story, the great American novel, or a crappy little TV tie-in book—you’re holding a slice of your own immortality, and there’s no telling how your ideas might inspire someone long after you’ve turned to dust. That’s a feeling like none other, and one that no amount of myopic editors can ever take away from you.

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