Wednesday, August 26, 2015

So, About That Book Thing I Was Mentioning


Sorry to have been so cryptic in the recent podcasts. I can tell the story now, although some names will be omitted because I didn't ask them if they would be OK with using said names. In reading what follows, keep in mind that everything negative involved is entirely my fault, even if it seems like I'm hinting at the opposite.

In late July, a commissioning editor, affiliated with a "real" publisher (i.e. a publisher that pays authors, not some "hey, if you pay US we can print your book" outfit) contacted me about writing a short book. In general, the topic area ran to the digital counter-economy (Bitcoin, Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, etc.). I had been referred to this editor, by the publisher of a fairly prominent lefty magazine in which my op-eds have frequently appeared, as someone acquainted with the subjects.

In short order, I had popped together some sample material, suggestions for filling in the outline, etc., and it looked kind of like a go. Then came the first change -- that book was no longer on their prospective fall list, but would I be interested in doing one on torture instead? Sure.

Once again I wrote the requisite sample material. It was at this point that things started getting hard for me. Putting together the 2,000 word sample chapter, which I'd expected to take a couple of hours, took more like a full day. I kind of hoped that this was just a bump in the road -- it's been years since I've written a) long form stuff, b) under another editor's supervision -- and that doing it would get me over that bump. Or, to use a different analogy, this was a bicycle I hadn't been on for a long time, but hey, once you know how to ride a bicycle.

I was also already developing, somewhere in the back of my mind, some content concerns. On closer examination, both the outline and some editorial suggestions bespoke a post-modernist/critical theory orientation. Those of you who know me know that not only am I not a post-modernist/critical theory type, but that I loathe that approach and have, now and again, railed against it.

But enough of that. I don't mind doing hard things, even when the topic changes and the deadline shortens and I'm a little concerned about the direction. I got offered a contract with a very nice number attached to it. Before signing the contract, I decided I should get some more writing done.

Complete bust.

I got stuck at about 350 words on the next 2,000 word part.

The research gave me the first political nightmares -- yes, real nightmares -- I've had in a long time (after the Gulf War and after Madeline Albright's public assertion that 500,000 dead kids was "worth it," I had nightmares about my role in THAT). I dreamed I was a mysterious, probably CIA-affiliated, American I was reading about in Jennifer Harbury's Truth, Torture and the American Way -- a guy who went around supervising torture, and paying for the information it produced, in Guatemala.

The calls for language about e.g. "social construct," etc. set off louder alarms in my head. I would be the last one to suggest that people whose beliefs run that way should refrain from writing that way. Mine don't ... and I suddenly realized (as I should have much earlier) that I couldn't do that kind of stuff well or, more importantly, honestly. Even if I could crank out acceptable copy, I would not want my name on that particular kind of copy.

So I kicked out. Told my editor I couldn't do it. She tried to talk me off the ledge and was very courteous and positive in her approach (I hope she was cussing me, brutally, out of my hearing; I deserve it). So courteous and positive, in fact, that when I made it clear I had already jumped and was not coming back to it, but that I'd be glad to sign over any "intellectual property rights" in what I'd written if they wanted to use it, she told me to have my agent (yes, I have an agent -- that's another story) invoice them for the kickout fee that I would have received if they had dropped me.

So that's my book story. Countless writers, myself included, dream of real contracts with real publishers. I didn't even have to seek this one out. It came to me. And I blew it right out my ass in about ten different ways.

I'm a short-form libertarian polemicist who mostly works either for himself alone or in close, equal partnership with a few friends. That's how it's been for a long time. That's all it's been for six years. Trying to become a long-form, short-deadline, supervised writer overnight was not going to happen and I should have known better than to lead on people who expected it to happen.

The only test I passed here, I think, was the honesty test, and that only at the very end when I stopped pretending and confessed that I'm not the man who can do this job. Which is better than nothing, but not as good as most people make it out to be when they've messed up and are trying to save that last shred of dignity.

On the good side, in the last 24 hours I've cranked out several hundred words of copy on the novel I was preparing to start (having spent a week or so on research) when the publisher contacted me. So maybe there's long-form hope for me yet.

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