Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trust Me

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from my editor at Clarion Books, Dinah Stevenson. In it she said she knew I was working on a project for her, but would I put it aside to work on another newer one (so new that the contract hadn't yet come through). She worried, she told me, that someone else might beat us to the topic.*
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The request made me sit up straight in my chair in panic. I had already begun writing the first project, which meant that I'd done the research, interviewed experts, thought about the structure of the text, played with themes and second guessed every decision I'd made several times over. And I'd gotten into the text enough that I felt I'd almost (but not quite) found the zone, that place where I feel I've finally worked out the right voice and writing rhythm. If I stopped now (I didn't think I could work on both projects simultaneously and meet the proposed deadline) I worried that I might lose emotional energy and have to go back to the very beginning and puzzle out the problems all over again.*
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And then there was the problem of pushing the second project forward at (for me) what would have to be break neck speed. I wanted, for instance, to search out as many as twenty individuals for indepth interviews and follow up questions, a task I'd calculated could take a year to accomplish. To stay on schedule I'd now have to do this in less than six months. Which did not include the time it would take to write and rewrite the text or gather together images. My head was spinning a little as I imagined all sorts of other disasters that would delay or undermine the project.*
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And then there was the simple matter that I felt the first project was much more likely to be done by someone else because it had begun to appearing recently in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Why abandon a project that was just gaining momentum and launch into another that had more questions associated with it then answers?*
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So I called Dinah and told her my concerns. She listened and then she worked her magic. Don't worry about the first project, she told me. There's no rush about getting it done so you'll have plenty of time to solve any new issues that arise. And what's more, she didn't think anyone would beat us to the first topic. As for the new project I asked if she had heard of anyone else working on or even considering the subject; no, she answered. She just had a feeling that we needed to move the second project ahead of the first.*
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I know what you're thinking: this doesn't sound altogether reassuring. It didn't come with a guarantee of any sort; it was a hunch, pure and simple. But then I thought back to the many years I've known and worked with Dinah -- the way she made thoughtful and strong comments and suggestions about my texts, but never tried to force her opinions on me, the way she guided each project through its many phases and resolved one knotty problem after another with seeming ease, even the way she celebrated whenever a book received a nice review or got some other sort of positive notice. Book making has always been a partnership with writer, agent (yes, my agent does more than just pushing contracts through), editor, designer, production and marketing departments all working toward a common goal. But with Dinah I've always felt another deeper level of energy and committment -- first, to helping me do the best job possible, and, second, to making sure the book has every chance to succeed. *
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When I write I let my instincts lead me down many paths, most of which don't turn out to be deadends. And I had a feeling that Dinah was doing much the same thing here. For some combination of reasons she felt the newer project should be done before the older one. In a way she was saying "Trust me." And I, relying on my writer instinct, did. It will be an interesting (to say the least!) journey and I'll report on it at some future date. Wish me well.
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3 comments:

Laurie Thompson said...

It's nice to hear about this kind of dialog between author and editor--and the end result, too. I wish you could tell us what the subjects are, but I know we'll just have to wait and see. I know I can't wait to see them BOTH, now! Good luck, Jim!

Steve Sheinkin said...

Same here, Jim, I really want to know the topics. No hints? Oh well, I guess I can accept waiting. Best of luck!

Susan Kuklin said...

Oh, Jim, can you imagine how many writers are currently quaking in their boots about your HOT topic? Is that also my hot topic? Ah, the joys of nonfiction. But thanks for sharing this important subject with us. It's wonderful that you have such a strong team behind you. And that includes your nonfiction - slightly jittery - colleagues as well. Best of luck to you.