Thursday, March 21, 2013

Getting A Second Chance

Elizabeth Zelvin

Any day now, my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, will be available in a new e-edition from Edgar-winning mystery author Julie Smith’s booksBnimble Press. The book was first published by St. Martin’s in 2008, after a long quest involving 125 agent queries, 35 publisher queries, and several rewrites over a six-year period. I did most of my learning about both the craft and the business of writing fiction during that period. But since then, the learning curve has continued.

It’s not that I didn’t hear everything I needed to know long before the book was published. When I started networking with other mystery writers by joining Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America as well as various e-lists from DorothyL to Murder Must Advertise, I got plenty of good advice, from “lose the adverbs” to “kill your darlings” to “don’t burn through your agent list with a first draft—get critique before you send out.” But my ability to hear these things has unfolded gradually over a long period—the same period in which the publishing industry has been tumbling through space looking for a place to land and not quite sure it will ever find one.

St. Martin’s published the book in hardcover, and when the e-book market exploded, they put it and the next book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, out in e-editions as well. But when they stopped marketing the books and I sought reversion of the rights, they pulled the e-book editions off the Internet. Now these books are getting a second chance.

My e-publisher was pleased when I offered to send the final version of the manuscript of Death Will Get You Sober for formatting, rather than having the printed text of the hardcover scanned. I did this because I had been stewing about errors that had crept in during the publishing process ever since I spotted them five years ago, when the book first came out. Rather than perpetuating them, we could start with a clean manuscript and offer readers an error-free product.

I had long since corrected the errors in the print book in my Death Will Get You Sober-current-ms Word document. Going over it slowly and carefully, I found a handful of small errors that we hadn’t caught. But more important, I discovered that I have become a better fiction writer and editor in the past five years than I was when the book came out, even after all the revision and editing that I’d done back then. Redundancies and awkward phrases leaped out at me, along with lines that could benefit from tightening to improve the pace. With my new publisher’s blessing, I cut about a thousand words—many of them, I confess, adverbs.

This second chance provided me with an even more satisfying opportunity. The main victim in Death Will Get You Sober is Godfrey Brandon Kettleworth III, a déclassé Park Avenue aristocrat who ends up along with my protagonist, Bruce Kohler, in detox on the Bowery. Godfrey is, as he says himself before his untimely death, an arrogant sonofabitch who calls himself God. “Hi, I’m God, I’m an alcoholic.” I thought this was funny. So did everybody who read the manuscript—except my legendary editor, who thought it was a funny-once at best and insisted that I change it. I tried three times to change her mind. Nothing doing. Even at age 90, Ruth Cavin won her editorial battles.

So I figured out a work-around. I gave God a younger sister who had mispronounced his name as Guffy when she was little. And I made the nun in the detox forbid him to call himself God. So he became Guff, and that’s how readers of Death Will Get You Sober have known him—until now.

For five years, I’ve found it impossible to think of him as Guff. All this time, I’ve been saying “the victim” whenever I mention him. When I asked my publisher if I could take the opportunity to give God back his real name, I expected her to say no. Instead, she said, and I quote, “Well, this is the beauty of ebooks! You get a second chance. If that character thinks he's God (and so do you), then he's God. (Fiat God?) And so it will come to pass.” Bless her heart!

So God he’ll be to e-book readers. I hope those who’ve read the book before won’t be too jolted. I hope the devout won’t be offended but take it in the spirit of fun in which it’s meant. For me, a wrong has been righted. And isn’t that what mysteries are all about?


Edith Maxwell said...

I like your tale of change, Liz. And since I somehow never made it to the first edition of Death Will Get You Sober, I look forward to reading the new improved version!

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm glad you got your rights back and God got his name back. :-) Best of luck with the new edition!

Susan Oleksiw said...

That's quite a story of persistence and professional growth. Good luck with the new edition and your next writing project.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm excited about having all the books available for e-readers again.

Julia Buckley said...

A very nice thing about e-publishing: second chances like this.

Dorothy Hayes said...

Good luck, Liz, on your brand new e-book edition!

I loved your book, and I'm sure it will do well!

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