Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The Cards You Have Been Dealt
Five years ago I thought my novelist days were over.
My two-book contract with Random House had not been renewed after I didn't earn out a mid-six-figure advance. I had no prospect of publishing with a new major publisher since leaving six-figures on the table was tantamount to career suicide. I could no longer afford my house, or my Jeep. My wife, who married me when things were going great in the literary life, no longer felt so eager to be married to a man who couldn't get his third book published, even after we'd just had a child together. In her defense, we were hitting financial rock bottom.
While her family was screaming at me (sometimes literally) to "get a job" and "write on the side," they had also begun to initiate the process over which my wife would eventually cave in. Her family made her a deal she couldn't refuse: leave the bum and we'll take care of you. Buy you a new house, pay for your living expenses, help you raise your daughter.
My wife was left with a difficult choice to make. Stick with her husband and soul mate, and work through this very hard period, or choose to side with her family. She chose the latter. In doing so she played her hand, cashed in her chips, and removed herself from the gaming table. But at least she became financially stable again and wasn't even required to get a job in order to maintain her bank account.
I too chose not to get a job, but to stay the course of the writer. However, the hand I'd been dealt didn't look too sweet. It consisted of a whole lot of low cards with a couple of jokers tossed in. But there was nothing left for me but to stay the course no matter how bleak the future. I'd lost my wife, my child, my house, my money, and possibly, my career. You'd think I'd lose my sanity at the same time? But writing was my sanity, and it was my solace and my art, and no amount of outside pressure was going to extinguish the fire that burned from within. Call it stubbornness in the face of absolute calamity. Call it stupidity. Call it what you will. But like the bulldog that gets its arm stuck in the trap, I'd rather chew it off then die on someone else's terms.
So what did I do?
I downsized. I rented a 900 sq.ft. apartment with my two sons, and decided to start all over again. In other words, I didn't fold my cards, but instead, decided to persist at the gaming table and play them no matter how much bluffing and game-facing it was going to take. Curiously, in the immediate wake of my marital demise, doors started opening for me. I went back to freelance journalism, and began to build up a cache of published articles, professional blogs, global assignments and a new reputation as a foreign correspondent and photo-journalist. Within a year of splitting with my wife, I found myself on assignment in Africa, Moscow, Italy, Spain and other exotic locals. I was living and working in places like Florence, Italy for up to a month at a time, and making money at it. I became happy, but I also became a bit perplexed. Why wasn't I able to take advantage of these working opportunities when I was married? What was it about the marriage that made it impossible for me to succeed? Were the two related, or was my new found success in the absence of marriage entirely a coincidence?
While my non-fictional life regained momentum, I also went back to serious fiction writing. I wrote MOONLIGHT FALLS, THE REMAINS, CONCRETE PEARL, and PATHOLOGICAL, all within a 36 month period. I found a new agent who loved my previously published work and the new work even more, and who committed herself to finding me a new home, even if that new home were a smaller press than I was used to. In terms of playing my hand, it wasn't a matter of walking away with the entire the pot at this point, it was a matter of getting back into the game and staying there, improving my hand the entire time with each and every ante.
Things happened. Good things.
I contracted with a small press for MOONLIGHT FALLS. Despite all expectations, and a new-found appreciation for social media marketing and virtual tours, it hit the hard-boiled bestseller list on Amazon and stayed there. It was my first experience ever being a bestseller of any kind. That one experience led to a new contract for THE REMAINS. One which caught me off guard. Up until a few years ago, I really had no idea what an E-Book was. But my agent was so excited about the new opportunities in this medium that she could hardly express herself without hyperventilating. She informed me that she was about to strike up a new deal with a new publisher out of Boise of all places. A new young, maverick publisher who was making waves in the industry by publishing mid and back-listers like me, who although previously published by major houses, had found themselves treading water in a purgatorial sea of uncertainty, disbelief and utter terror at what the future might hold.
The publisher, StoneHouse Ink, would publish THE REMAINS in E-Book first and then paper. Which at the time, I thought was bass-ackwards. Paper always comes out first, followed by the e-book and audio. My agent persevered and asked me to give it a try. There'd be no advance, but I would be offered instead a 50% royalty rate on all E-Books sold. What's more, the book would be released within two months from contract execution. Something unheard of in traditional legacy publishing realms. Believing the whole endeavor would crash and burn, I nonetheless trusted my agent, and said to myself, "What the hell!" I anted up, and stayed in the game deciding to keep on playing the new cards I'd been dealt.
Then something wonderful happened.
I not only hit the bestseller list in Hard-Boiled Mystery. But I hit the Romantic Suspense and Psychological Thriller lists as well. The numbers kept improving. Encouraged, StoneHouse Ink started a new imprint for hard-boiled writers like myself and called it StoneGate Ink. They published my former Random House books, THE INNOCENT and GODCHILD, now that the publishing rights had been released. These books would go on within six months of E-Book publication to not only make their respective bestseller lists, but to hit the overall Amazon Kindle Bestseller Lists, not just in North America, but in several European countries as well. In fact, THE INNOCENT would go on to grace the Kindle Top Ten Overall Bestseller's list for 7 weeks, and the Top 100 for almost 20 weeks. At one point I was selling 3,000 E-Books per day and moving more units than Stephen King. In the end, "Innocent" sold over 100,000 copies during the Spring rush. Within five years of contemplating cashing it all in and folding my cards, I'd become an International Bestseller. Poor Random House. If only they'd had faith that my books had the potential not only to earn out my six-figure advance but also to make a nice tidy profit, they might have kept on publishing me instead of remaindering all of my work and holding the rights hostage for ten years.
That was five months ago. Things haven't been the same since.
The most dramatic change has been the new cards I've been dealt. I've now signed a new lucrative contract with the renegade Amazon powerhouse publisher, Thomas & Mercer, the major player who is publishing not only my new novel, Murder By Moonlight, but nearly my entire back-list. But that doesn't mean I can't maintain my relationship with the StoneInks and continue to publish as an independent. It also means I will continue my work as a journalist and an explorer. Because in the end, I've learned, it's not the cards you have in your hand, it's how you play them. It's also a matter perseverance, a steadfast belief in one's self and one's talents, and an ability to keep on working even during some of the most tumultuous, depressing, and indeed, angering times you will ever experience in a single lifetime. It means developing the skills never to be defeated and to grow stronger in the broken places.
This past weekend, my ex-wife and I took our six year old daughter for a ride out in the country to pick out pumpkins and apples. It was a bright sunny Fall afternoon on the Upstate New York/New England border with the leaves on the trees having turned all shades of brilliant red, orange and yellow. One of those days where you can get away with either a sweater or a light jacket. We spent the day as if we were a tight knit family. And in a way are tightly knit and certainly even closer than some marriages that exist in a state of siege. My ex and I were able to look into one another's eyes and realize that all the anger over what happened when my career temporarily tanked is past. There remains now only our child and bringing her up knowing that she has two parents who love her and who will be there for her thick or thin. No amount of literary success or sales can ever replace that.
But I recognize a distinct sadness in my ex-wife's eyes now when I peer into them. I believe the sadness is wrought over something that could never be changed or reversed once it was put in place by the very same people who were once responsible for her well being as a child and adolescent. Her adult life decisions and the effect it has had on her now as a middle aged woman ring out and reverberate with an irony so intense, it is both deafening and bone shattering.
But my ex-wife and I, we are no better than anyone else. Life isn't exactly fair. You win some and you lose some. But one thing however is for certain: we, as writers, are all victims of our desires, slaves to love, and powerless in the face of blind passion. We are artists and we are as much blessed by God as we are doomed by the fallen angels.
My ex-wife and I still love one another. We often remind each other of it. Many times I don't get off the phone with her without saying, "Love you." But we cannot have one another any longer. Perhaps it's too late to rekindle embers that have not only grown cold, but have disintegrated and seeped into the earth over the course of the many seasons. But if we are the least bit intelligent, we have both learned a vital lesson five years in the making. When you're dealt a hand of cards and you are forced to make the final decision on whether to stay in the game no matter the quality of the hand, or to fold them and walk away from the table, the decision better be the right one. Because when the time comes for the great dealer in the sky to make His call, and all bets are suddenly off, you will be left alone with your choice, right or wrong.
That choice had better come straight from the heart, because it will be something you must live with for the rest of your life.