Writer’s Anemia

My fantail goldfish Ted sometimes swims upside down. I know this sounds like a symptom of impending death, but he’s been doing this since we got him a year ago, and he’s still alive and splashing. And he doesn’t do it all the time. As soon as I walk into the room, he flips rightside-up and swims over to beg for food. So what’s going on with ol’ Ted?

I’m beginning to think he just wants to see how the world looks upside down.

Which is something we writers occasionally need to do. We need to get out of our comfort zones and talk to strangers. We need to imagine the world through different eyes. We need to board a plane or climb in a car and head into the unknown.

When you write, you are opening a spigot from your brain, pouring out memories and thoughts and dreams onto the page. Leave that spigot on too long, without refilling the source of your creativity, and what you get is a drained and exhausted writer.

That’s how I felt when I turned in the manuscript for THE MEPHISTO CLUB. Emptied out of all my creative juices. I call it writer’s anemia. Real anemia leaves you weak and exhausted and pale. Writer’s anemia is much the same — except that the pallor shows up on the page. Your writing loses all color. Your plot feels dead. Your characters wander through the story like ghosts of themselves.

The only cure is a transfusion — not of blood, but of real-life experiences.

And that’s why I’m going to Libya. Honest.

For the next two weeks, I’ll be away from my computer (and probably away from the internet). I won’t be blogging or answering email; instead I’ll be recharging the old mental batteries. My iPod has been loaded up with 80 hours of lectures on ancient Egypt. I’ve got my maps and my guidebooks.

I’ve got my sunscreen.

And I’ve got my notepad. Just in case.

The Evolution of a Book Title

I’ve been getting a lot of email from readers who are confused about the title of my next book. No wonder they’re confused; until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what the title would be, either! Readers may think that authors choose their own titles, but they would be wrong. The title (along with the author’s name and the cover design) is a crucial marketing tool, and a bad title can kill your sales — or it can make them.

Which is why my publisher, my in-house publicist, my agent, even my UK publisher, all get into the act.

It can drive an author crazy.

About a year ago, I provided my publisher with the bare bones of what I thought the book was about. I told them that a continuing character named Joyce O’Donnell would get murdered, that there’d be Satanic overtones to the death, and that I didn’t know much more than that. My editor took a cue from one of our rambling phone conversations and suggested the title COPYCAT. I loved that title, and I told her I’d try to make the book fit it.

If that sounds like putting the cart before the horse, you’re absolutely right. But everyone at Ballantine was so enthusiastic about the title, I thought I should try to make it happen.

The problem is, as I wrote the book, it changed into an entirely different creature. That’s what my books do. They change shape, they morph into something unexpected, and I have no control over that. It just wasn’t turning into a COPYCAT story.

It was turning into a book about the history of Satan.

As the book took shape, I was able to give Ballantine enough of a description for a flap copy, and here’s what it will say:

“If the darkest, most inhuman impulses could live, breathe, and walk among us, what shape would they take? What face would they wear? And who could stand against them? If anyone can answer such questions, it’s New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen, in this jolting new novel of suspense.

Christmas Eve in Boston is no longer a holy night for medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles when Detective Jane Rizzoli summons her from midnight mass to the scene of a chilling homicide. A young woman has been butchered in an act of carnage that has left even veteran cops in shock. Scrawled in blood are mysterious ancient symbols and the phrase, in Latin: I HAVE SINNED. But the one clue that truly astonishes Isles and Rizzoli is the identity of the last person called from the dead girl’s phone: Dr. Joyce O’Donnell, a controversial celebrity psychiatrist who’s made her her name defending serial murderers. Who placed the final call? The victim? Or her killer?

True to form, Dr. O’Donnell isn’t inclined to cooperate with police. She’d rather push Rizzoli’s buttons with taunting reminders of their past clashes, reawakening Rizzoli’s nightmarish memories of another killer who nearly made the detective one of his grisly trophies.

Then a second victim is butchered on the Beacon Hill doorstep of The Mephisto Club, of which Dr. O’Donnell is a member. This eccentric society is led by the enigmatic historian Anthony Sansone, who is obsessed with tracking down evil. He hopes to confirm his startling belief: that Satan Himself actually exists — and walks among us.

Now Sansone’s theory may be about to be proved. For evil itself stalks the city of Boston, in the guise of a killer who taunts Isles and Rizzoli with ever more eerie clues.

A killer whose work has only just begun.”

Whew. So that’s the story. And COPYCAT suddenly seemed completely wrong for the title.

So I came up with my own title, and my number one choice was THE MEPHISTO CLUB.

But it presented problems, because Ballantine felt that the vast majority of the public wouldn’t have any idea that “Mephisto” was short for “Mephistopheles.” They thought it would whiz right over the heads of the majority of the reading public. (And they may be right.) The title that they suggested was EVIL.

I thought that one was okay. I wasn’t wild about it, because it felt too diffuse, too nonspecific. But we went with it… for awhile.

Until my UK publisher said, “Absolutely not. We hate it.”

Back to the drawing board. We came up with some alternatives: FALLEN ANGEL. THE DARK. THE FALLEN. None of them made me stand up and cheer.

And I never stopped thinking about my old favorite, THE MEPHISTO CLUB. It was my first love. It still called to me.

I began polling independent booksellers. I showed them a list of all the possible titles. Every single one said, “THE MEPHISTO CLUB hooks me right in. I want to read that book.” EVIL left them with the blahs. FALLEN ANGEL caused some “Huh?” looks. My literary friends (and yes, my friends do tend to like literary fiction) all went for THE MEPHISTO CLUB, too. None of them liked EVIL or FALLEN ANGEL.

By now, it’s already January, and I still don’t have a title. And the book’s almost finished. It has to go into the publisher’s catalogue. What are we gonna call it — THE UNDECIDED?

I’m getting more and more cranky because this story I’ve been working on for almost a year now, the book I’ve struggled to give birth to, is going to go out in the world with a name that’s a newborn baby’s equivalent of “Elmer.” (No offense to the Elmers of the world.)

But then — a miracle. My editor calls to tell me they’ve decided the title will be THE MEPHISTO CLUB. I’m stunned. “What changed everyone’s mind?” I ask.

The answer? Barnes and Noble.

Yep. The buyer of Barnes and Noble was consulted about the title, and she (or he, I don’t know) said THE MEPHISTO CLUB was the title they were excited about.

So in a roundabout way, I ended up getting my way. I’m delighted about it. I realize that many readers will not understand the significance of the name “Mephisto.” They won’t connect it to Mephistopheles, the servant of Satan.

But I have a high regard for my readers. I think they’re like me — curious about the obscure, the unexplained. They’ll look at that title and wonder who — or what — “Mephisto” is. They don’t need a punch-in-the-face title like KILL KILL KILL or BLOOD AND GUTS. They’ll go for something that appeals to their intellect and their curiosity.

At least, I hope so.

(And an update, for all of you who wanted to know — yes, today, I finally washed that flannel shirt!)

You think this writing gig is EASY?

Today I turned in my manuscript for THE MEPHISTO CLUB. Oh yeah, you’re thinking, Tess just cranked that baby out, kicked it out the door, and now she’s sitting around waiting for the royalty checks to start rolling in.

Here’s what really happened.

I’ve spent the past months obsessing over this mess of a book. I’ve tossed and turned at night, thinking my career was over, because the book wasn’t coming together. I’ve written and re-written some of the sentences five times. And then went back and changed them.

I haven’t changed my shirt. This is true. I’ve worn the same plaid flannel shirt (this is Maine, after all) every day for the last, oh, three months. When I get up in the morning, I’m too distracted to think about what I’m going to wear, so I just reach for the same shirt I wore yesterday.

I think it needs to be washed.

I can’t remember when I last went out for a walk.

I can’t remember why I thought this plot was such a great idea.

I can’t remember when I last called my mom just to say hello.

I have been teetering on what feels like the edge of insanity, because this book has moved into my life and filled every single crevice of free time, has sucked up every ounce of energy. I used to love it, but now I hate it with the passion of a woman who wakes up one morning, looks at the jerk she married, and wonders what the hell she was thinking.

That’s what writing a book is like for me.

But today, it went off to my editor in NYC, and I’ve spent all day obsessing about what I should have changed before it went off. I know it needs one more scene — I just can’t decide what that scene is.

Some writers can pound out a manuscript in a few months and send it off and let it go. I’m not that writer. I fuss and tinker until I lose all perspective and can’t tell if it’s any good.

Editors have told me that that’s what they like about working with me. “Your manuscripts come in so clean and almost ready for the printer,” one of them said. Which makes me wonder if I’m the only writer who’s so damn obsessive compulsive that I can’t bear to let a manuscript leave my hands with even a single misspelling.

But now the book’s off. And guess what?

It’s time to start thinking about the next one.

The Power of the Backlist

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be polishing up my final version of THE MEPHISTO CLUB, because my deadline’s in two weeks. But I can’t resist blogging today about a subject that came up over at The Publishing Contrarian (http://www.thepublishingcontrarian.com/) a blogsite I enjoy very much because Lynne Scanlon makes you re-think some of the accepted wisdom about publishing. She advocated bringing back “work for hire”, and dispensing with the traditional advances-against-royalties contracts because she thinks it’s advantageous for authors to simply forget about future royalties and get all their money up front. As her reasoning goes, few authors actually earn much beyond their advances anyway, so why not get as much as you can on the front end?

The topic was picked up over at Galleycat: (http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/) , where readers (yours truly included) offered comments on the whole work-for-hire issue.

What no one’s mentioned though, in this entire debate, is the potential earning power of an author’s backlist.

Scanlon’s correct on a number of things. Most authors don’t make enough to live on. Most authors won’t earn much beyond their advances. Most authors won’t sell movie rights or foreign rights or hit it big like Dan Brown. Ergo, her belief that giving up future rights to your own work isn’t such a big deal.

I’m willing to agree with her that for NONFICTION, this may well be true. Nonfiction books usually rely on current events or current fads or the hot new celebrity. Within a few years, the book’s no longer relevant, and you can’t even sell it on the remainders table. That baby ain’t coming back from the dead, ever.

But FICTION is a whole other story. And I’m the living proof of it.

Years ago, I started off my career by writing romantic suspense novels. I wrote nine of them. My advances back then ranged between five and ten thousand dollars per book. Quite honestly, that’s about all I could have expected to earn out on each title, because these sorts of series romance paperbacks come out, they have four weeks on the store shelves, and then they disappear, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t have seemed too crazy to accept a work-for-hire deal, in which I would have given up all rights and just took the ten thousand bucks and walked away from future rights, forever.

But then something strange and wonderful happened to me. And it was called HARVEST.

With HARVEST, I suddenly became a New York Times-best-selling author. My publishing deals climbed to whole new levels. I wasn’t a genre novelist anymore; I was a mainstream author, writing mainstream suspense. And as I became better known as a suspense novelist, my former romance publisher, Harlequin, wasn’t sitting deaf and dumb in some closet. They were paying attention. (As Harlequin is known to do.) They realized that they held the back-list of an author who was starting to do very, very well.

To no one’s surprise, reprints of my old romantic suspense titles started appearing in bookstores. Not just here in the U.S., but around the world. These were titles that I thought had long since finished earning out, and would never be seen again. And suddenly, they were selling again, and selling well, and now I’m being paid royalties that add up to many times the original advances I was first paid.

Had I accepted a work-for-hire deal when I was still a romance author, I wouldn’t be seeing any of this money today.

Yes, I know that most authors won’t be as fortunate. But if anyone’s going to have faith in your career, shouldn’t it be YOU? When you write a book, don’t you hope and dream that THIS BOOK will make it big? Or if not this one, then the next one, or the next? Don’t you harbor a secret belief that one of these days, you’ll be on the bestseller lists?

If you ever do make it big, every single novel you’ve ever written suddenly becomes a valuable commodity. Your back-list will come back into print, and it will provide a steady stream of money that you never expected to earn.

But only if you held onto your royalty rights. If you’d signed those rights away under a work-for-hire contract, your back-list will be worthless to you. But it’ll be a bonanza for the canny publisher who got you to sign that contract.

It makes me sad to think of any novelist who feels compelled to sign a work-for-hire contract. It makes me think he has no faith in his own future as a writer. Because you never know when you might be sprinkled with fairy dust. You never know if something you wrote five years ago, or ten years ago, might suddenly start earning unexpected royalties. Don’t give up your rights to your own future.