Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Publishing history of the Aud novels, part III

[Recap of Part I and Part II: The Blue Place was published in 1998 by Avon, which was then absorbed by HarperCollins; they currently publish the ebook, and Perennial the trade paperback. Stay was published in 2002 by Nan A. Talese; the trade paperback is from Vintage and the ebook from Knopf Group.]

I'd always intended Aud's story to be four or five books long. In 2002 or so (my memory of this time is a bit hazy) I sat down to write a detailed outline of Book III, working title Always, and a lighter sketch of books IV and V. I wrote the first few chapters of Book III, then took it to my editor at Nan A. Talese, Sean McDonald... Only Sean had left Talese and taken a spiffy new job at Riverhead (part of Penguin).

Due to contractual obligations (aka an option clause), I had to submit the chapters and outline/s to Talese anyway, where they were read by the new editor. He liked it well enough and made an offer--though only for one book. (I think he was uncertain about a) my ability to pull off the layered double narrative I had proposed, and b) its utility.)

The offer was okay, but I didn't know this editor, and I didn't want a one book contract, I wanted a three-book contract. I wanted all the rest of these Aud books to come out from one publisher, in a unified design, and no faffing about. So I approached Sean. He made an offer--for two books. (Reading between the lines--I have no inside knowledge about this whatsoever; I'm speculating--Penguin was not allowing three-book deals at that time.) But it was a good offer, and it included the foreign rights for all the Aud books (which made me think they might all be published, in unified design, in the UK, which was a huge temptation). I accepted the offer.

I settled in to write Always. It was tricky; I couldn't make the emotional arc work with the structure, the two-ply narrative I'd outlined. (In which Aud, in the first timeline, goes to Seattle where she meets her mother and has sundry other adventures, and in the second she comes back to Atlanta to teach a bunch of awkward women self-defense.) Emotionally, it just didn't add up. I tried everything I could think of. It didn't work. So I threw away the structure, started again, and wrote a single narrative timeline. It came in at 140,000 words (or 135K--long, anyway). I thought it was pretty damn good. (When I read bits of it now, I still think so--just different from what was published.)

I sent this uni-layer book to Sean. No response. I sent a follow up email. Silence. I sent more email. He said: Hmmn, still thinking. Not good.

Months passed. Kelley and I sold our house. We bought another in a completely different part of town. We did a big remodel (complete with insane contractor--but that's a story for another time). Plus a whole bunch of other stuff.* We moved. Still no word from Sean. I was, to put it mildly, tense. In February of 2005 I got email: Sean was coming to be in Seattle next week, would I like to have dinner?

When we met he said, What happened, why didn't you give me the book you outlined? Because I couldn't make it work, I said. The emotional arcs don't make sense with the split timeline. Hmmn, he said, have you thought about doing Atlanta/the self-defense first?

I blinked. I ordered another drink (a kamikaze, my third--very large, very strong; the bartender liked me). I sipped. I said, Let me think about that. We moved onto other things and then I said, abruptly (in the middle of a conversation about Dan Brown's books), Bloody hell, Sean, that's a lot of work! I'd have to throw away a perfectly good 135k novel and start again! Yes, but could you do it? he said. I don't know, I said. And he said: If you write this book, the one I know you can write, I'll break you out.

Break you out is a magic phrase in publishing. It means a game change, a state change, a full-bore effort from the publisher.

I went home. I phoned Sean the next day. We chatted some more. He reiterated his offer. I said, Give me two weeks to think about it.

I quailed. Time was short. It would be a brutal amount of work, tight turnaround, fiendishly difficult. But it would make it a better book... I phoned back. Yes, I said, as I'd known I would, as I'd had to, as I always do. And then my MS reared up and bit me: I went numb from the armpits down and stayed that way for seven weeks.**

It didn't stop me working. I wrote an enormous multi-layered novel is just a few months. I wrote about 160,000 words in three timelines. I thought it was pretty damn good. I trimmed it, squeezed it, sent it to Sean...

...and in return got the hugest editorial letter in the world: pages and pages and pages. We went back and forth, hammer and tongs (etc.). But time was very, very tight now. I kept getting cover comps; I kept rejecting them.*** I had to work with everything switched on, wide open, no time for second-guessing. It worked. Eventually we agreed it was good. The book went to copyediting. I went back and forth with the copyeditor. Hammer and-- ah, never mind. The galley proofs arrived less than a week before Christmas with a note: please turn this around within ten days, proofreaders are waiting.

The next day my mother died.

It was a nightmare. I tried on the proofs, I really did, but I did a sad job. And the production of Always was horribly rushed; the hardcover ended up riddled with errors. I didn't like the cover we ended up with. No one would give me a blurb (it's a big book; there was no time). There was no tour to speak of. Publishing was in a terrible state, book review pages dwindling to almost nothing. Sales were not good.

So until a few months ago here's how things in Aud World stood: three novels in the same series from three wildly different publishers. Foreign rights languishing. Unpublished in the UK. One Aud novel still owed to Riverhead but Sean, my editor, no longer with the company.

But I'd left Aud in a really good place. All three books have won awards. All are still in print. New readers discover Aud every day and fall in love; I'm proud of those books. And now I've got the foreign rights back. It's possible that one day the planets will align and I'll write the last two books. But only if I can publish the whole set under one roof, with unified design and gorgeous, lush, non-noir covers. And, hey, I'm a writer. I have psychotic self-belief.

And now there's Hild--and the story about that I'm not allowed to share, yet. Let me just say: things are looking up...

* I joined the board of the Multiple Sclerosis Association, which turned out to be a dreadfully broken organisation. I poured eighteen months of my life into that thing before I finally understood it was like pouring water into sand. Also, I published a chapbook of short stories. And wrote a memoir.
** At the time, I had no idea whether I'd get my feeling back. It was entirely possible I'd stay that way. Can you spell stress?
They look a lot better with hindsight--and certainly a lot better than what I ended up with. Ah, well.
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