I am the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, March 19, 2009). After Writer Rejected picked up on my story in my Psychology Today blog--I shamelessly linked to this blog and let WR know it--I was asked to do a Q & A about my journey to publication. One of the comments here said, “The last thing I would do is ever make it public that I read this blog, let alone comment.” Hey, if you get published, you enter the promotional phase where all you care about is that they spell your name right, link to your web page, and let folks know how to buy your book. Who am I to turn up my nose at a popular blog like this? I am ever amazed at how many writers there are out there. The agent, Nathan Branford--on his blog--had a first-paragraph contest. The winner got a full read from him. In a day or two, he had 2,000 entries. Recently I had a full-page write-up in Writers Digest, but my agent emailed me: “Hard to know if it will sell books, since writers are so jealous.” I know I am.
When did you start writing the book?
As a nonfiction writer, this is sort of a trick question. I didn’t start writing the book until April Fool’s Day 2007. That’s when the one-year contract clock began. I sold the book on proposal. My proposal was 25,000 words long--most of it a sample chapter along with detailed outlines of the other chapters. The contract specified that I had to deliver a 75,000 word manuscript--so I’m thinking, “Hey, I only have to add two words to each word in the proposal and there’s a book.” But it wasn’t that simple. I wrote the proposal in early 2005. So here it is only four years later and my book hits the street on March 19, 2009. A multitude of people have started and graduated from college in the four years from idea to a bookstore near you--only twice the gestation period of an elephant. I hope it’s not a white one.
What prompted your interest in it?
The oldest and most platitudinous rule about writing is to “write what you know.” And I know nursing homes. At first I wanted to write a book about my medical history with a rare tumor, but disease memoirs are a dime a dozen. I thought a book about eldercare had a unique quality to it. I’m a psychologist, but one with the garden-variety fantasy of being a writer, so I tell people not to think of me as a psychologist writing about his professional area of expertise, but as a writer who happened to have an interesting job to write about.
How would you describe your writing process?
Despite being a debut author, I had great confidence in my writing chops. (If we can’t indulge in a bit of grandiosity, what’s the point?) But I had never written a book. So despite my editor saying, “Some people with contracts simply say, ‘I’ll get back to you in a year’, I took him up on his offer to work closely with me. I’d send him a chapter, and we chatted about it via phone and emails. Each chapter took about six weeks--times seven equals forty-two weeks--a couple of months short of a year. When I threw in a vacation during which I tried, but did no writing, and general goof-off time, I was able to have it all done with about three or four weeks to spare. Then he did a line edit, and we worked on that. The contract said 75,000 words, but I handed in more than 80,000. You always want something for your editor to do. He chopped off huge chunks, and the final product is around 65,000 words. My editor said he was eliminating material that impeded the narrative flow. “It will make the book more commercially viable.” Artist that I am “commercial viability,” which sounded in my head like cash register ringing was music to my ears. Besides much of the work on the cutting room floor may find its way into future work. Writing the book was one of the pleasantest years of my life. I found it to be simplicity itself to wake up each morning and know that all I had to do that day--when I wasn’t on my reduced schedule day job as a psychologist--was to put fingers to keyboard. It helped to have deadline pressure. I’ll confess I could be more of a self-starter, which may be why I didn’t write a book until someone gave me a contract--and the deadlines--to write one. Now, in the midst of promotion, which sucks, but you have to do it, I feel great nostalgia for the writing part. Writing is introspection and observation. Promotion is extroversion and performance. The two sides of me--and I suspect other writers--don’t always play well together.
Who read your drafts?
Until quite recently, only two other people had read my book--my editor and my agent. I told my wife what was in it--particularly the parts about her--but she didn’t read it until only a couple of months ago. Same for my brother who has a featured role. There were no beta readers, no critique partners. I relied on the judgment of the professionals I had the good fortune to be working with.
How did you decide which comments were important and which you didn't need to heed?
I trusted in the advice of professionals. There were a couple of situations where I dug in and insisted on the inclusion of some material that I believed was among my finest writing. As writers we can fall in love with stuff that may not work in the context of a larger work, but sometimes you have to fight for it regardless.
What was your overall rejection experience with this book?
Prior to this book, I already had spent a year of my time working on a dead-end project. It was a proposal for a science book, specifically a book about psychology for the juvenile market. I had very little interest from agents. One very much liked the material I sent him, but having a PhD was not enough of a platform for him. He wanted me to be a celebrity--stuff like being not just a speaker but the keynote speaker at major psychology conventions, many TV appearances, being quoted by others, and op-eds in national newspapers. So I took his advice and published a series of articles in children’s magazines. I approached him again and he told me that was a start but he still wanted me on Oprah, or the like, before he would consider representation. I was already turning the page and moving on my current book, so I was able to laugh that off--thinking that if I had the credentials he was demanding, why would I need him, or anyone else, as an agent? It made me realize agents can be lazy, looking for writers with platforms sufficiently impressive so that books can sell themselves with little work for them. For Nasty, Brutish, and Long, I first worked up a brief sample and still somewhat naïve about the whole thing, I shot an email to an agent--and I don’t know why I picked her--who immediately responded it was a great concept, but said the writing would be key. This is before I had a proposal. I polished the writing for a few days and sent it to her and she thought it was terrific, and encouraged me to work on a proposal. I’m thinking this is easy, that is, until out of the blue she sent me a Dear John email saying she had “decided not to take on anymore clients.” Disappointed but undaunted, I pressed on thinking that if the one and only agent I had submitted to liked it, everyone else would. Fat chance. My queries received a fair amount of interest but I would get comments like “too depressing” or “this is good but I can’t think of any major house that would buy this.” After about eighty submissions, I found the one, an agent who looks for books that lift the veil on unknown but interesting aspects of our culture--in my case, eldercare. Looking back, despite the eighty rejections--it’s amazing how fast you can send out eighty queries--it took only five months to get representation. After my agent and I whipped my proposal into--those magic words again--“commercial viability”--we were ready to submit to publishers. For about a year, I thought that landing an agent was merely a ticket to a higher level of rejection. As the rejections piled up--close to twenty--I hung my hopes on the fact that few of the rejections were due to lack of literary merit. It was more like, "Best title ever, but too depressing. People just don't want to hear about the walker before it's time." Or, "The material depressed me horribly and I couldn't see readers (or my sales force more importantly) rallying to this." A year later--when I was about to give up and was thinking about literary Plan B or C--my agent happened to have lunch with a newly promoted editor who was looking to build his list. This editor saw past the depression and got the jokes, and a deal was at hand. I had a year to write the book, and yet another year after I finished, the book will be coming to a bookstore near you. And the rejection train never ends. As part of the promotional effort, I get to be rejected by op-ed pages, magazines, TV and radio shows, reviewers, and, most important, but I hope not, buyers and readers of books. As my wife says, “I don’t care if they read it as long as they buy it.”
Where were you when you found out the book had been bought?
I live in New Haven, and was sitting with my dog in the Yale Divinity School Dog Park. I like to chat up the Yale coeds, although in my mind when I think I’m flirting, I’m sure they’re thinking, “Gramps.” One of the things I like about living in a prestigious academic community--with which I have no affiliation--is that almost everyone has written a book. Howard Bloom lives a couple of blocks in one direction and last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for biography a couple of blocks in the other direction. Despite such luminaries, a friend of mine said that compared to all the dissertations turned into university press books, people will actually want to read my book. So I’m throwing a ball to my dog--two weeks since my agent had had his fateful lunch. I’m on pins and needles. I knew there was interest. I had talked to the editor and he sounded positive, but I’m prepared for the worst. I try to be a pessimist because optimists are always disappointed while pessimists are sometimes pleasantly surprised. My cell phone rings. It’s my agent. The answer is yes, and they’re going to pay me not enough to totally change my life but enough to spend on some nice things. I did the happy dance with my dog, but all he cared about was when I was going to throw the ball again. Dogs and families keep you grounded. My kids are totally unimpressed--which is the way I’d want it to be. I’d prefer they judge me on the type of father that I am, although my younger son helpfully informed me that I’ll only have to earn $600,000 to send the three of them to college.
Who was the first person you told?
After I told my clueless dog, I called my wife.
What words of advice would you give to a writer, rejected on the journey toward getting published?
My agent maintains that despite appearances no worthy book goes unpublished. You have to totally believe in your work, but your belief has to be a valid one. We have to be sharks. Keep swimming or die. Actually, writers don’t have it bad as actors. We have to spend months or years before we can experience rejections. For actors, auditions and rejection can happen every day. But I’m already worrying about whether they’ll buy Book Two. It never ends.
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