The path to publication
Mystery writer Thomas O'Callaghan describes the 12-year journey of Bone Thief, from concept to published book.
Published: November 9, 2005
|I was never much of a reader until one day, in the early 1980s, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This is an often-used adage, but I couldn't put it down. The author's attention to detail fascinated me. After that, I was hooked on novels depicting murder, mayhem and suspense. I soon discovered such notables as Thomas Harris, John Sandford, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, just to name a few. Unlike Helter Skelter, where the story line was based on an actual murder, Harris, Sandford, Block, McBain and company created murder and the intrigue that surrounded it. I was enthralled all the more. Read on, I said, and so I did.|
After I finished reading my 12th 87th Precinct novel, I thought: I could do that! And so, on a gloomy, rain-soaked Friday afternoon, I began writing Nightkills, which would later become Bone Thief. That was 1993!
No one had even heard of "cut and paste" back then--at least I hadn't--so a typewriter was the vehicle to write on. There I sat, pounding away on an old Smith Corona, a large supply of correction fluid at the ready. After three hours of pecking away at the keys, voila! My opening chapter. As I recall, it had something to do with a woman returning videos to a local retailer. As she was returning to her car, she was abducted. We meet her again, bound and gagged in chapter 2. That's how it was written for Nightkills and, after a bit of editing, that's how it's featured in Bone Thief.
On I went with my writing. Along the way, I had the luxury of having flexible hours on my real job, a quiet room in which to write and a very supportive wife. If she hadn't given me my first laptop one Christmas, I'd still be using the correction fluid. And I hope my former boss doesn't find out, but I used my "field time" to write what was sure to be a blockbuster. In my mind, at least.
I've discovered much along the 12-year trail toward publication. I learned when to use "lay" in place of "lie". I found out that laptops don't operate at peak efficiency after being dropped on a tile floor. And I discovered that friends like to be featured in your book--even if they appear as a corpse.
A background in sales helped me deal with something that new, idealistic, hopeful and naive first-time novelists don't plan on: rejection. And lots of it! You see, there's a nurturing chain that exists on the road to getting published. It starts with the writer pecking away at a somewhat confusing arrangement of the alphabet, twisting and turning those little letters into words, paragraphs and chapters. Next, when you think you've put the final spin on your collection of words, you visit the number-two guy on the chain, the fellow at the copy center. I once read that a very famous author, whose name eludes me right now, once mailed an original manuscript to his editor and--you guessed it--it got lost in the mail. The author hadn't kept a copy, so the novel went unpublished. That's why the guy at the copy center holds an important place on the chain. An hour or two later, you've got one or more copies. Where to now?
The number-three person--the point man, if you're a basketball enthusiast--is the literary agent. Here, you've done your homework. You've gone to Barnes and Noble and purchased any one of a number of books detailing how to get your work published, and each and every book suggests submitting your manuscript to an agent. Letting the agent submit it to the publishing house gives you a better shot at seeing the work in print. What you hadn't planned on is the agent not liking the book. Good grief! Why not? It's brilliant writing, you reason. Not so, in the eyes of the agent. Here's where the years start to accumulate. Rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Remember, writers write, but published writers rewrite.
Got the rewriting part down? Good. Armed with a copy of the current year's Guide to Literary Agents, you narrow down your search for literary representation. You target one, two, three or more agents that are open to receiving work in your particular genre, and you send them a query letter. Here's where the tough part starts. You've decided to target a dozen agents, or if you're like me, a hundred. In either case, your query letter produces either a friendly "no thank you" or ... a "please send the entire manuscript." If the latter applies, you've broken ground. The number-three person on the nurturing chain likes your idea for a story well enough to want to read all of it. Wow! You sprinkle some holy water on the box, cram your manuscript inside, and hand it over to FedEx for an overnight delivery. Then you sit by the phone and wait and wait and wait. Did I say wait? No one warns you about the waiting part, unless you scrutinized the notation in your Guide to Literary Agents that reads: "This agent responds in four months to requested manuscript."
Over the next several months, you've amassed enough paper rejection slips to wallpaper your office, either from the agent that agreed to read your book, or others whose door you chose to knock on. Along the way, though, a helpful agent suggests you seek the help of an editor, a book doctor of sorts. It'll give the book marketable legs, you're told. If you're like me, you'll follow the advice. I hooked up with a wonderful freelance editor named Dick Marek. He helped me successfully forge the manuscript into a book.
Then it happens. An agent writes to say that he wants to represent your work and market it to the publishing world. You scream. Your first impulse is to tip the mailman. You plan dinner out with your spouse. You tell everyone you know that you're now represented and that it's just a matter of time before your book hits the shelves. Finally, after rewriting the work again, this time to satisfy the agent, your agent, he sends it out to one or more publishing houses. The rejection slips come in. (If you have a considerate agent fielding the slips, like I had in Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, you don't see them.)
Then it really happens! You get the call. Number four on the chain. An editor of a publishing house--in New York City, no less--likes the book and wants to offer you a deal. In my case, that editor was Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Books. A delightful person to know, and an insightful person to work with.
But, guess what? You wait. From this point on, it takes a considerable amount of time and energy and a bit more rewriting to get the book on the shelf. But this time the effort and the waiting aren't as difficult. You have a contract. Anxiety isn't casting its shadow over the immediate future.
In closing, let me give you some words of wisdom. Along the way, you'll discover that you talk to yourself; who better to bounce dialogue off at 3 in the morning? You'll resolve a plot issue while showering. What will you do? You'll skip the conditioner, climb out and write down the resolution while a puddle forms at your feet. Then, the word that's been escaping you all day pops into your head just before falling asleep. Mark my words. You'll hop out of bed and write it down, and while you're up you'll find yourself writing down other words. Strings of them! You'll need a bigger piece of paper! Don't tell my former boss, but I use the flip side of the business cards from my old job. And one thing more you should know: You'll meet some truly amazing people along the way.
Three cheers to the chain!
Copyright © 2005 Thomas O'Callaghan
Thomas O'Callaghan is the author of Bone Thief (Pinnacle Books, January 2006). A member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, he lives with his wife, Eileen, in Belle Harbor, N.Y., where he is working on his next thriller, featuring NYPD Lt. John Driscoll (Pinnacle, 2007). Web: www.thomasocallaghan.com.
--Posted Nov. 9, 2005