Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Writing Life: Beaten to the Publishing Industry’s Proverbial Punch

Sunday morning, about 8 A.M., I pulled Keeley’s highchair up to the computer, set her bowl of cereal along with my coffee on the computer table, typed NYTimes.com into the URL bar, and went to the “Books” page. This is something of a weekend ritual—a bite of the porridge-like goop for 9-month-old Keeley, a sip of black coffee for me as I am slow to wake, and a scan of the reviews, best-seller lists, and feature articles. This week, though, it did not take me two cups of black regular to be fully alert. My eyes were instantly wide when I read the headline of one review.

You may recall me blogging about a new series I have begun, which my agent is currently shopping—non-golf, third-person point of view, even featuring a female sleuth. A fresh, new start and an exhilarating challenge for me. The book reviewed in the New York Times featured a protagonist whose occupation is the very same career I found so unique that I thought it would make the basis of an excellent series.

I gawked at the screen in disbelief. The same job? The same goddamned job?

Keeley pounded her tiny fist on the highchair’s clip-on table breaking my stare at the monitor. I turned back to her with a spoonful of cereal. As she ate, I read the review, my mind tumbling like a platform diver who had leapt from 200 feet hoping to hit a thimble.

I’d been beaten to the publishing industry’s proverbial punch.

I e-mailed the review to my agent with the message that I “nearly threw up my Cheerios.” Then I turned to my wife. “I’ll vacuum the whole house,” I said.
Lisa narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

As I ran the vacuum through the house, I thought about the three years I had spent on this new series, all the ride-alongs, all the interviews, all the rewrites. Then I thought about the review I had just read. It was not, in my opinion, extremely positive. And there was not much in common between my novel and this other hardworking writer’s book, save the sleuths’ profession. The characterization, according to the review, was far different starting with the protagonists’ sex. Also, the book that made my heart stutterstep is not a procedural.

It’s not the same book, not the same series. Just the same job. If anything, the review I read should have immediately confirmed my belief that what I had judged to be a highly unique profession is truly an excellent concept for a mystery series. (The book being reviewed, after all, was published by Knopf.)

By the time I finished vacuuming the house—I even did under the furniture, for God’s sake—I was able to breathe again. And my wife once again echoed her mantra, “This is the life you chose.”

8 comments:

Charles benoit said...

So it's been done.
Now you'll show them how it's done right.
As an author, I feel your pain. But as a reader I have no problem jumping into yet another story with a cop as a protagonist. Or a priest. Or a cat burglar. Or a tattoo artist. Or a copywriter. Or a fill in the blank.
Whatever the job, you will bring your unique voice to the career and the differences will be clear to the reader by the end of page one.
(Note to others out there: Aren't you really curious about this unusual occupation? John's managed to build a strong interest in his book before his agent has even inked a deal. THAT is a writer's writer!)

LABANAN said...

Hi John,
Yikes, how frustrating. I live in fear of that as I too have a protagonist with a very unusual job. In fact there were only five people who had it EVER and it doesn't exist anymore. But I digress. I'm glad you and the vacuume cleaner communed and you are carrying on. I am rooting for you and although I'm desperate to find out the career of your person, I know how to wait. Boy do I know how to wait!
warmly, Jan

Vicki Delany said...

They say there are no new ideas. All you can do is give your idea a new twist. I can see it was a shock to you, but now you can just go forward. After all, what's the first thing a publisher wants to know about a new book? What's it similar to?

Rick Blechta said...

John, bottom line: you're a good writer. The new series is not in jeopardy since that good writing will shine through -- and I think that's what ultimately sells books.

When you think about it, it's all been done before.

You just have to set out to do it better.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

My foremost thought when reading your blog was, "What's John writing about?? I'm interested." I've read your work, and know you're a terrific writer. And it's all in the writing, isn't it?

My second thought was, "why doesn't my husband use the vacuum to overcome frustration?" I may suggest it...

John Corrigan said...

To my Type M Family: Thanks so much for the encouraging comments. To Debby's question re: "all about the writing"--the word I'm getting is that many editors are terrified to take on a new project right now.

Jared said...

I know exactly how you feel, John. I had the same thing happen to me last year. I finished a book including a protagonist with a job I hadn't seen in print before, and last April, a well-established award-winning writer came out with a "first" novel featuring a very similar protagonist. But then I read it. Y'know what? It's not the same thing. Not at all. Same job, different focus, different tone. Sure, I'm onto other things right now, but I'll get back to that idea, and it'll be all mine.

Donis Casey said...

I've broken out into a sweat more than once over the realization that another author has dealt with what I thought was my once in a lifetime idea. I used what I believed to be an extremely rare regionalism for the title of my third book, "The Drop Edge of Yonder," and a Western novel with exactly the same title came out two months later. Thank God mine was first, since the other author is much better known than I, and I didn't fancy having to explain myself. There's nothing new under the sun, as my mother used to say. It's how you deal with it that makes it yours.