Year One: My Butt Gets a Headectomy
The question people have asked me most often since I sold I, Superhero!! (On sale now! Hint!) is, “How did you get your book published?” I’ve seen that other writers, and I use that term in reference to myself only very loosely, have blog entries on “How I Achieved Fame, Fortune, and a Moderately Good-Sized Twitter Following” on their sites, so I guess it’s obligatory. As an added bonus, I’ll point out all the mistakes I made along the way (there were many) so any aspiring writers can learn from them.
It started ‘round about October, 2007, shortly after Grant was born, when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Well, I’ve always wanted to be a writer; I guess what I really decided was that I wanted to make a real effort towards achieving writerdom. The first thing I sat down and wrote was a longish short story/shortish book called The Sinister Mr. Wigglebottom. The story centered on an evil elf at Santa’s north pole compound who goes rouge and starts a minor criminal empire based on black market elf-urine aphrodisiacs (I’d tell you more about the plot, but my creative counsel – i.e. The Amazing Wifebread – has come out strongly against that, as she still believes I can sell the story at some point). Basically, the story was kindofa “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “Commando.” Yes, it was that awesome. However, Wifebread and I were apparently the only ones who thought so, because I couldn’t get anyone else to touch it with a 10-foot editing pen. I then tried a few other short stories and book ideas, all of which failed to garner any interest. At that point, I was about ready to give up.
Then one day, I forget how or why, Wifebread read a short chapter of a non-fiction/memoir-type piece I’d written for practice. I’d been thinking about why there were no superheroes in real life, and what it would take to become one. For me, the first step would have to have been getting in shape, so I started an exercise regimen and wrote a chapter about my first attempt to work out to a DVD called “Walk Off the Pounds Express,” where you fake-walk in your living room while a little woman on TV talks about how good it feels to fake-walk in your living room. I also had some notes on my research, which had uncovered an entire subculture of “real-life superheroes” (RLSHs) already out there. Wife, having her finger on the pulse of American popular culture and literary trends as she does, suggested I submit the “average guy tries to become a superhero” idea to some agents and see what happened. I was doubtful, but I followed instructions like any other well-trained husband would.
Expecting to get no bites on the idea whatsoever, I committed a minor sin and emailed queries to several (probably a dozen?) agents at once and failed to mention it was a simultaneous submission (fancy writerly talk for when you submit something…um…simultaneously). I thought that if no one wrote back—and they wouldn’t, of course—then the sim sub wouldn’t be an issue. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever submitted anything to a literary agent before, odds are you haven’t, but it can take anywhere from a couple of days to infinity minus one to hear back from them, if they deign to respond at all. Needless to say, it was a bit of a surprise when I checked my email five minutes after sending out my queries and already had three responses, and they all wanted to read whatever chapters I had finished and ready to go. The thing was, I only had one chapter, and it wasn’t finished and ready to go. I thought I’d have weeks to polish it, add to it, and get it agent-ready. Instead, faced with an unprecedented crisis of interest, I picked the agent who responded first and sent him a five-page “chapter” (Note to aspiring nonfiction writers: Five double-spaced pages do not a chapter make.). To my continued and ever-escalating surprise, he again responded within minutes, asking to see more. I quickly emailed the other agents with a short but polite “Thank you for your interest, but I’m talking to someone else right now, get back to you if that falls through” and started to prepare my other material. My other material that, as stated above, didn’t exist. Dang. All I had was the one chapter he’d already read and a general idea: “real-life superheroes.”
LESSON ONE: Before you query agents or editors, you should actually have a fairly solid idea of what your book will be about.
LESSON TWO: Before you query agents or editors, you should have more than 2,500 words written.
Despite having broken these rules, the agent, Matt McGowan from Francis Goldin Literature, was kind enough to take me under his proverbial wing and, taking a firm grip on my shoulders, helped jerk my head from out my butt with a sound not unlike that of a cork popping from a champagne bottle.
Not only did Matt have pity on a poor amateur blindly flailing around in the waters of the publishing industry, he also had the foresight to at least recognize that I had, quite randomly, stumbled upon one of the few interesting topics in the entire world about which no books had yet been written. Literally: there is not a single other book on RLSHs on the market.
LESSON THREE: An original idea can be worth more than great writing.
That’s not to say I think I’m a horrible writer: I think I’m decent, but not great. Being “decent,” however, wouldn’t have landed me an agent if I was writing a book on World War II. Why? Because there are literally tens of thousands, of books on World War II. However, if you’re merely decent, but can deliver a book about how you were able to successfully cross-breed a puma and one of the cast members of Jersey Shore, then someone will probably pay you to write a book about that. It’s all about originality and standing out in a crowded market. RLSHs stand out, just like Guido pumas would stand out.
And so, armed with an agent, we started working on our proposal. What’s a proposal, you ask? A proposal is lesson three:
LESSON FOUR: Have at least an outline of your proposal done before you start querying your book.
Unlike a novel, which has to be completely finished before you start querying, you only need a proposal and a few sample chapters for a nonfiction book. The proposal should include a projected table of contents, summaries of each one of your proposed chapters, and marketing information (What other books are out there on the same or similar topics, how yours is different from theirs, who your proposed audience is, and how you think the book should be marketed to that audience.) in addition to the sample chapters. As I’ve indicated, I had none of those things when I started querying.
I hadn’t contacted any of the people my book was going to be about, had done only the most cursory research, and I was damned if I knew how to write a proposal. I came clean with my freshly-found agent, and he told me roughly what to include. In my excitement, I threw together something as quickly as I could and sent back about ten pages of material. Luckily, again, Matt was extremely patient, sending it back with a few pointers and the newsflash that they’re usually closer to 30+ pages long.
This back and forth went on for about six months, Matt suggesting changes and me getting more and more beat down with the thought that I was wasting this poor guy’s time (Not that he ever suggested that. He was 100% nice and encouraging about it the entire time.). There were debates over who to include in the book, whether or not to include a section on “RLSH’s from history (Sampson, Rasputin, the circus guy who shot cannonballs into his own gut), and whether or not to include myself in the book at all. I even took a trip to Minnesota that we could ill afford, betting that someone would buy the book and give us enough cashola to recoup our losses.
Then, one beautiful late August day, it finally was done. The proposal was ready to show to editors. Or, if not ready, as ready as it was ever going to be. At this point, my agent supreme took over and worked his magic, and just a couple of months later (which I’ve learned is an eyeblink in publishing time), sold I, Superhero to Kensington Books. Contracts were signed, champagne was imbibed, and there was much rejoicing.
Now I just had to write the darn thing….