Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Right now, I'm in the middle of the copyedits for my second book, FML. It'll be published by Simon Pulse next summer. This maybe be the last time I have the chance to change anything about this book. The truth is, I wouldn't change a single word except that I'm prone to making stupid mistakes. Luckily, I have a fantastic copy editor.
The funny thing about FML is that it almost didn't happen.
Writing a second book is a bit of an exercise in frustration. Not for the reason some people think. Many authors' first books are manuscripts that they've slaved over for years. And when it comes time to deal with the second book, they have only a year or less to do what took them years to do previously.
That wasn't my problem, though. My problem was much more complex. In many ways, I was lucky with Deathday. It was the first book I tried to sell. I got an agent on my first try, sold it to a great publishing house on my first round of submissions, and generally had a great experience.
Fate, it seems, has a sense of humor.
See, I had no problem writing another book. In fact, between the time I sold Deathday and the time I sold FML, I wrote four full manuscripts and half of at least four more. My problem was that my second book had to do a lot of things, and none of the manuscripts I'd written were doing them.
Deathday was full of crude humor and touching character moments. The first full manuscript I wrote after Deathday was a much darker book. Even if I'd been able to get it into publishable shape, many of the people who read and loved Deathday would have been turned off by the darkness and violence.
And that hits at the heart of my problem: I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be. Just because my debut was a funny book didn't mean all my future books would have to be comedies too, but it did mean that my next book couldn't (or shouldn't) be so wildly different that I'd betray the people who'd supported me.
I struggled to discover out what I was good at. I remember having a conversation with my agent where I told him that it just wasn't possible for me to base an entire career on dick euphemisms. I felt like I had to expand. I attempted to write another comedy but the jokes felt forced and I frequently imagined a stern nun standing over my shoulder with a whip, demanding that I be funnier.
Finally, after Deathday had been out for a little while, I wrote a book that my agent thought had potential. My editor didn't hate it, but didn't think it was my best work either (and rightfully so). Instead, my editor at Pulse, the wonderful Emilia Rhodes, asked if I'd be interested in developing an idea that she had come up with.
My initial reaction was to say no. I didn't lack for ideas and I worried that if I worked on someone else's idea that I would be surrendering control. And anyone who knows me knows that I hate giving up control. But Emilia is a wonderful editor, and I love Simon Pulse and wanted to stay with them, so I agreed to discuss it.
Emilia described the idea as Sliding Doors meets Can't Hardly Wait. Basically, it would be a story about the love life of a young man over the course of one crazy night. The twist being that a decision at the beginning of the story would cause his reality to split and we'd get to see the outcomes of both paths.
I liked the concept but was wary of becoming too fluffy. I wanted to write serious stuff. Now, that might seem silly, especially if you've read Deathday, but the one thing I'm really proud of in regards to Deathday is that it tackles some really heavy issues. It might not have the depth of some other books, but that was the point.
Still, I was intrigued, and I respected Emilia so much that I agreed to write up an outline and some sample chapters.
I honestly don't remember much about those sample chapters, but they were good enough that Simon Pulse bought the untitled party book. It was scheduled to come out in 2012.
Clearly, that didn't happen.
When I began writing the book that would eventually become FML, I was calling it A TALE OF TWO PARTIES. Emilia and I spent a lot of time talking about what this book needed to accomplish. We were all immensely proud of Deathday, but the truth was that there simply isn't much of a market for crude teen comedies. Not only that, but I felt like it was the kind of book an author can only get away with writing once. Emilia and I both agreed that my second book would need to be less kooky and more sensitive.
This might sound calculating to some people, but A TALE OF TWO PARTIES had a big job. I had to satisfy the people who'd loved Deathday while proving to people who'd hated it that I was capable of writing more than just a book full of masturbation jokes.
And the hardest part was that no one dies in this book. So instead of being able to tap into the impending death of my main character to create pathos, I had to really dig deep into my characters for the emotion necessary to elevate this story beyond a simple party book.
In my first draft, I failed miserably.
I shoulder 100% of the blame for that. Because I was looking at two timelines, I made the decision to write the book in third person. I'd never done it before and it was difficult for me to get into the heads of my characters. Now, since that time, I've learned a lot about how I write. My first drafts aren't even first drafts. They're actually just really, really, really, ridiculously detailed outlines. But when I wrote the first draft of A TALE OF TWO PARTIES, I hadn't realized that yet. I tried out some different techniques to help me get into the heads of my characters. I broke the fourth wall and had sections where the different characters stepped out and spoke in first person. I inserted needless conflict and drama into the story. It was a disaster.
My first and best beta reader is my best friend Rach. She's been reading my stuff since high school, when I would fax her (literally, I used a fax machine) my pages as I wrote them. She read my first draft of A TALE OF TWO PARTIES and gently but honestly told me that I'd created characters so unlikable that she didn't want to spend time with them in one reality much less two.
Frustrated, I tried to make some changes, but ended up sending it to Emilia anyway.
After going through this process, I have so much more respect for my editors and for editors everywhere. If our roles had been reversed, I would have likely cancelled the contract. The draft I gave Emilia was terrible. She responded with amazing grace and tact. I am ashamed to say that I not as graceful.
I knew the draft sucked, and I honestly considered withdrawing from the contract. Here's what you have to understand: I have very strong ideas. I know what I want to say and how I want to say it. With A TALE OF TWO PARTIES, I was frustrated because the idea hadn't come from me. I didn't know what I was trying to say with it. It felt rudderless and confused. When I sold Deathday to Pulse, they had some ideas about what worked and what didn't. And when I went into revisions, they were easy because I had a strong grasp of the story and knew how to translate their ideas into my words. With A TALE OF TWO PARTIES, I had no such grasp. I felt like I was writing blind.
Emilia pulled me back from the ledge and we brainstormed ideas. I returned to the manuscript and tried to reshape it into something I could be proud of. But I still wasn't sure of myself. My confidence was low and I didn't know what I was trying to say with the story. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was building Frankenstein's monster. I was doing my best to write my story while incorporating all of the ideas that Emilia had given me.
I'm a stubborn man. I freely admit that. It's not my best quality and can sometimes become a detriment. Emilia was trying to help me reach a broader audience. It was a real vote of confidence that she believed in me enough to write this.
But I wasn't sure I believed in myself, and that made me very frustrated. Writing that second draft was a horrible experience for me. I hated getting up to write every day and spent a lot of time procrastinating.
As I neared the end of the rewrite, I began to worry. I still didn't love it. I felt like the characters had potential and that the story had something going for it, but it lacked heart. It lacked that certain something that made people love (and hate) Deathday.
Whenever I'm writing something, I know it sucks if I'm bored while I'm writing it. If I start to get distracted in the middle of a scene, I know that my readers will too. That's how I felt about Two Parties.
I finished it though. And as I prepared to turn it in, Emilia left Simon Pulse to pursue another opportunity. Editors leave all the time. It's part of the business. I'd never experienced it, but I'd had friends who had. I worried what it meant for the book. Two Parties had been Emilia's project and I worried that Pulse would see how much I'd struggled to write it and decide it wasn't worth keeping.
At the same time, I was also relieved. Not that Emilia had left, but at the thought that Pulse might scrap the book. Because then I'd never have to admit that I'd failed. I could say that circumstances beyond my control had led to the book being scrapped. In my heart I'd know that I failed, but no one else would.
However, Anica Rissi, who was the amazing editor who'd initially acquired Deathday, read the second draft I'd submitted.
She asked for a phone conversation. No editorial letter, no notes on the manuscript. Just a phone call.
To say I was nervous was something of an understatement. I wasn't nervous about talking to Anica, she's a really special editor that I'm supremely lucky to get to work with. Instead, I was worried that she was going to call me out for turning in a big pile of crap. I knew it was crap. I knew I was capable of better. But I wasn't sure how to get there.
These were dilemmas I never faced with Deathday. Even when my agent called me out for my disastrous misuse of commas, I still had confidence in the book.
Anica was more than kind during our conversation. She gave it to me straight, laying out what worked for her and what didn't. I admitted to feeling lost and asked if I could have some leeway to make a few major changes. I wanted to return to a first person POV and shake up the characters. Anica gave me the go-ahead. It is a testament to Anica that, even after the giant turd I'd turned in, she gave me time and freedom to figure things out. I was and am, very lucky.
When I got off the phone, I spent the next couple of days thinking about the book. Not just the book, but the process and my career and everything having to do with it. Before I could dive into the revision, I had to figure out what I wanted to say.
I spent a lot of time watching movies and reading books and surrounding myself with things that inspired me. When I was finally ready, I decided to make a fresh start of it. I wasn't going to do a revision, I was going to do a rewrite. I made a new folder for a new draft. I put all my old notes away. I even began calling it WRONG IN ALL THE RIGHT WAYS rather than A TALE OF TWO PARTIES.
And then I went to town. Somewhere in the middle of the draft, I fell in love with the story. With the characters. With the whole damn thing. I didn't dread writing, I looked forward to it. I wrote the first draft and then immediately turned around to revise it. I used index cards to map out the similarities between the two realities. Since the story covers only one night, certain things had to line up in both parties. Getting all those little details right was time consuming, but the story was worth it.
When I was finally done, I felt that I'd written a book I could finally be proud of. I had the confidence back. I loved the characters so much that I could have spent a million realities partying with them. And when I finally sent it to Anica, I knew that no matter what happened, I had nothing to be ashamed of.
A month later, I was up in NYC and I got to have lunch with Anica. She hadn't read the draft yet, but I told her that I really loved the characters this time around and that I think it showed through in the story...finally.
I like to think that she agreed. When I got the revisions back a short time later, they were pretty minor, with lots of hearts and smiley faces in the margins. I've never been more relieved.
And now I've got the copy edits for the book now known as FML. It'll be out next summer and you'll get to meet Simon Cross and his crazy friends Ben and Coop. You'll get to see him F his L in two different timelines, one of which has a blind dog in it, and both of which have the best aquatic version of a Shakespeare play you're ever likely to encounter. There's beer pong and kissing and bed jumping and bartering and golf balls. I'm pretty sure that parts will make you laugh and I hope that lots of parts will make you fall in love with Simon and his friends the same way that I have.
It's taken me a long time to get this book right, but I honestly believe that it was worth it, and I hope you will too.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I first got on the phone to talk to Emilia about a crazy idea that was part Sliding Doors and part Can't Hardly Wait. But I'm glad that she and Simon Pulse believed in me enough to ask, and I'm glad that I said yes.
Things don't always work out the way you expect them to. Sometimes, they work out better.