Monday, November 19, 2007

so this is how it happened

Last May, I received an e-mail. I get a good amount of e-mail from readers of this website, most of which I never return because my heart is shriveled and dark like that of Ebenezer Scrooge before his psychotic break (er, that is, before he "turned good") but this e-mail was a little unusual, because it was from a literary agent. This agent said that she had been referred to this page from an editor at one of the many big publishing houses in the city, blah blah blah, insert laudatory nonsense here, but anyway...had I ever thought about writing a book? She closed by saying that her office was in Manhattan (specifically, in the West 50's--the real estate market can call it "Clinton" all they want, but no real New Yorker is ever going to call it anything but "Hell's Kitchen"), and if I was interested, she would take me out for lunch so that we could talk more.

Being a good cynical little New Yorker, of course, I immediately figured this was a scam.

I even had a whole vision of the scam structure. I figured, here was a person who trolled on the blogs, looking for vulnerable victims. Upon locating such a person, said scam artist would e-mail, posing as a literary agent, prey on the blogger's intrinsic sense of vanity, and lure them in with all this fancy book talk so as to rob them blind. I took a little while to answer (during which time I did a bit of research as to what constitutes a real literary agent and what should set off alarm bells) but in the end figured that thus armed, it could not hurt to at least meet with this person. At the first mention of a "reading fee" or any such nonsense, I would know enough to turn tail and run away, but with a healthy sense of suspicion, at the very worst, I figured would get a free lunch out of things. I was on vacation in a few weeks anyway, so I e-mailed back and we set up a time and day to meet at her office at the beginning of June.

Suffice it to say that Sharon (that's my agent's name--Sharon) is not a scam artist. Turns out she is not only a very professional and accomplished literary agent (and former literary editor herself), but also happens to be a really nice person. We probably spent about 40% of our lunch talking about literary prospects, and the other 60% talking about our jobs and our kids. Very nice to meet cool people overall, even nicer to meet cool people over Cajun food.

One question that I had right off was--how the hell does this work, anyway? I mean, why did she e-mail me in the first place when I haven't actually done anything yet? In all of my limited exposure to the world of publishing (that is to say--from reading Stephen King's writing memoir, and not much else), I always thought that you had to actually write a book first, then find an agent, and then hopefully get an editor to read it. Sharon very kindly skipped over the part where she might have told me that I clearly didn't know anything about anything, and instead explained that these days, most non-fiction books are sold on the basis of proposals, not finished products, and that it would, in fact, be harder for her to sell my book were it already fully written. Her job, to put it succinctly, was to find the potential for a book within me, teach me how to go about marketing my idea, and then help convince editors that this could indeed be a book that people might want to read. But first, I would have to write a proposal.

(Is this really boring? You don't have to read this all if you don't want to, I'm not really sure if this is really all that interesting to anyone except for my parents, but I personally would have loved all these little details before embarking on this whole thing. Kind of a black box process from the outside, you know?)

Anyway, a couple of hours after the lunch I got an e-mail from Sharon with a few sample non-fiction book proposals that she had just sold, just to give me an idea of what a book proposal was and how I would go about writing one. I spent a good deal of time just looking over these other proposals which, while very different from what mine would end up being (one was a memoir from a Moonie, the other was a cooking guide), gave me at least some idea about structure, content, how a book proposal should read, and how I should try to sell my ideas.

There were some parts of the book proposal that were relatively easy to write--the overview I think I basically dashed off in a few days, and the annotated table of contents I had already mentally laid out, as I had some idea from the outset of how the book should proceed. But the hard work came with the writing samples, wherein I basically had to write a few chapters of the book to represent the whole. In short, these would be excerpts from a book that did not yet exist outside of my head, strong enough to stand alone, but interesting enough that it would make people want to read the rest. The writing samples, obviously, took the longest for me to pull off. Especially because, you know, of my actual real-life job, and the fact that I never really had any time to work on anything once I got home and Cal got a whiff of me. But you know, I had a lot of night work while I was on OB, so I tried to write during those times when I wasn't in the OR doing a stat section or starting epidurals. 2:00am to 4:00am is a magical time, people.* I also cobbled together a few daylight sessions here and there, working during some of my non-clinical days on cardiac and stealing an extra hour or two on the weekends when Joe was home. I worked on this thing basically the whole summer. Maybe I could have gotten it together faster if I had more free time, but possibly not--there's nothing like having time limits and restrictions to really force you to be efficient. Well, anyway, I wrote when I could, and by Labor Day, I had the first draft of my book proposal to e-mail back to my agent.

[* However, for the benefit of anyone in my program that may be reading this, I did not do any real writing until after July 14th, because I was studying for the boards. All night every night! Studying! So hard! For the boards! Ah ha ha! I'm fired, aren't I?]

I sent Sharon my proposal first draft and I waited. And waited. There was a lull in the action. What I didn't quite realize was that August is kind of a dead time in publishing, and that I had timed my proposal submission to come right when everyone was getting back to their offices and swamped with all this crap on their desks that had been ignored for the last several weeks. So I just sat tight. I didn't want to be annoying e-mailing incessantly, asking her, "SO, WHEN ARE WE GOING TO SEND OUT THE PROPOSAL?" (not dissimilar to when parents in the ER would come up to me every two seconds asking me "SO DID THE X-RAY REPORT COME BACK YET?") so I just figured she just must have thought that it was not very good and was trying to silently drop me from her client list, like a girl trying to give a prospective suitor the brush-off by just never calling him back.

But eventually the post-summer logjam cleared up, and Sharon and I batted the proposal back and forth a few more times, getting it shiny, before we (OK, she) compiled her little packages and mailed it out to about a dozen publishers in the middle of October. She warned me that after the proposal went out, we might be playing the waiting game for a while. Sometimes proposals can take months or even years to sell, she told me, so don't be too concerned if we didn't hear anything for what seemed like a long time. Well, waiting I can do. It was a little hard in the beginning, but after a couple of days I just sort of forgot most of the time that we were in the middle of shopping a proposal around, and things just, you know, went back to normal.

In the interest of discretion, I will gloss over the next part somewhat, only to say that I first heard that we were getting some interest at the beginning of November. Then there was about a week of back and forth, some e-mails, some phone calls, and probably a good number of conversations that I was never even aware of (which is probably for the best--I could never pick up my phone in the OR anyway, but any time my phone rang and my agent's phone number showed up on the screen, I would start freaking out--I eventually just gave her my pager number so that she could reach me like everyone else). But at the end of it all, Friday two weeks ago to be precise, I got a call as I was leaving work that "Scutmonkey" had found a home at Grand Central Publishing.

So anyway, that's pretty much the whole story. I realize that so much of this is serendipity--maybe this is going to make some people want to punch me in the mouth, but I had never really set out to do this from the outset. I mean, I've kept this online journal for seven years now, and never once have I done even the bare minimum of what normal people would do to drive up traffic, networking with other bloggers, trolling for publicity or whatnot. (I guess I am just not very good about self-promotion, though I understand this is going to have to change somewhat. I just get all flustered and embarrassed--see how I had to post that video of Cal and the farts to get the announcement about the book deal off the top of the page. TOO MUCH ATTENTION! FEELING SHY!)

But of course, I had always thought about writing a book. I think probably most people who enjoy writing have at least fantasized about such a thing. I thought, well, maybe someday, but in the meantime, I just wanted to keep writing here, partially for you guys but also for myself, just to document the journey with some sense of accountability, and help me remember what it was all like. The fact that I find myself in this position now is just something I never quite envisioned. Sure, there's a lot of work ahead, and a lot of writing to be done, but--that's all fun, you know? Writing is fun. Hard work is, like, studying for Step 1 of the boards, or taking overnight call in the ICU. That stuff is just back-breaking. Writing, I enjoy.

The book is not going to be just a bunch of blog entries cut and paste together on paper, by the way. That would be a cop-out, and anyway, the medium is totally different. The thing about writing a book is that it allows for a longer narrative, lots of stuff and stories that I never even put up here, just because it was just too long and detailed and I didn't really think that it would fit. This is going to be fun. I can't wait for you guys to read it.

As for whether or not I will keep updating this blog--of course I will. Writing the book has nothing to do with updating the blog. In case you haven't noticed, for the past month and a half or so, I've actually made a concerted effort to post an update every day. Not always the longest update, sometimes just a picture with a caption or some little observation, but I have been trying to at least post something. This has been an effort, after the proposal first went out, to try and create some sort of discipline about writing. I just want to have a good work ethic about this whole thing. I don't need to write a whole lot, but I just want to at least write something every day. The exercise has helped, believe me. The book is really coming along. And hey, if anything, I have more to update about on the blog now. This writing gig is a whole new world for me, obviously very different from my day job. And it's nice to have all of you with me, along for the ride.