Writer As Dr. Frankenstein and Willy Loman

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United Sates and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Richard currently resides in California.

“There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

Hello.  Today I would like to take a quick, careening run through the writing of my book, seeking and landing the agent and getting the sale.

Every writer knows the agony and the ecstasy.  Yup.  Let’s talk ecstasy.  I am—and so are you—addicted to the brain opium, the seven-percent-solution of what I will call the ‘writer’s vivid-dreaming cinema’ (does that work?  I think so.  Too precious, but it works), those sometimes brief, sometimes lengthier periods of floating euphoria when your story and characters erupt, fully formed, from a hidden cave in your mind; they rush past you in the chariots of a Roman triumph, always threatening to escape, to exit the screen before your frantic fingers can make the capture on the keyboard.  You are nothing but a spectator at that point— a journalist, an eyewitness.  Fear and Despair perch on your shoulders, watching with black eyes, whispering distractions, hoping that you will stumble and the movie will dissolve away, leaving you to miserably struggle to draw juice from the dried lemon-husk of what was once a fruit ripe for the picking.  This ‘vivid dreaming cinema’ is the greatest joy of the writing life.  It is as rare and unexpected as a Tasmanian Wolf sighting in a week of digging fencepost holes, and when it happens you are as euphoric as Dr. Frankenstein, hair wild, lightning-struck, exulting over the beating heart of your newly-born monster.

Jeff describes the moment, the ‘rush,’ wonderfully in Booklife: “…at base, that rush is what it’s all about—about the almost sensual pressure of your fingers on the keyboard or the press of the pen against the notepad, the point at which you stop thinking and you’re channeling something through your fingers and you almost don’t know how you got to that point.”

If I may be brash and adjust (one word) in my Emerson quote from yesterday: “…our story is descending into us from we know not whence…”

So, about my book.  Having pressed the pause button on my Russian trilogy behemoth, I wrote Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders in three months (first draft), researching along the way, in a high-octane blaze (for me) of creativity.  The speed was part of the release, as if I had swapped an elephant for a racehorse.  Three months after that I had a manuscript that I was happy to submit.  I wanted an agent.  I got out my old, battered, Willy Loman briefcase and my pavement-pounding shoes.  My plan was three-fold.  A decade of screenwriting had earned me a few (and by a few, I mean three) contacts and friends in the book-writing industry, pals who could open a door or two for me at the higher levels and they had all kindly offered to assist.  After that, I would mail the query letters, aiming high at the big agencies and working my way down.  If nobody bit—and you know the odds are always that they won’t—I was ready to self-publish, and I was excited about the prospect of starting out that way.

My best ‘in’ was my longtime pal and highly-successful writer Julie Kenner.  She offered to submit my book to three agents whom she knew and who might be interested in the steampunk subgenre.  Julie read the manuscript and offered one bit of advice, which was to eliminate as much of my up-front exposition and world-building as possible.  Get to the story, she said, and dollop in the background along the way later.  Brilliant advice—and I took most of it.  One of the most common complaints about the book (so far) is that it is something of a slow starter.  I accept that criticism with a nod.  I know that I take my time at the beginning (the first 60 pages)—very much against the conventional wisdom, I guess—but I wanted to introduce my world and my characters in the fashion I felt the story demanded.  If you do read the book, whisper a thank you to Julie for her input—I did eliminate half of the chapters (mostly world-building history) in the beginning and I am glad I did, for that much brick-building was probably intolerable.

Two of the agents rejected the manuscript, but the third one popped.  Julie has an agent named Kim Whalen who works at the large New York-based Trident Media Group.  Julie gave the book to Kim in October of 2011.  Kim does not work with science fiction, so she passed the manuscript on to a freshly minted agent with a brand new Publishing M.A. and a passion for science fiction named Adrienne Lombardo.  Adrienne loved the book and we inked a contract in November.  They say that it is good for a new novelist to be represented by a new, young agent and I could not agree more.  Adrienne made a few small suggestions regarding the manuscript that I agreed with and reworked through December.  She got things rolling quickly in the new year, first submitting the manuscript to her top five or six sci-fi publisher ‘wish list.’  There was some interest and some rejections, but in March of 2012 we got an offer.  Alex Carr, the Senior Acquisition Editor at 47North (Amazon’s new science fiction imprint) tabled a 2-book deal and after some finer-point negotiations, Adrienne and I happily accepted.

Tomorrow I will talk about the editing process and working with Jeff VanderMeer as my development editor on the Romulus Buckle series.  Yesterday was the release day for Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders, and it was an awful lot of fun for me.  I may tire of the guest blogs and interviews someday, but as a brand new novelist I am finding the process to be fascinating.  Romulus Buckle registered in the #1 position in the Amazon Kindle store Science-Fiction/Steampunk category last night, which was exciting.