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3.17.2008

Editors and the Phone Call

Writers of novel-length fiction both dread and revere the ring of the telephone. We dread it because it often interrupts the day's work. It rang twice this morning around these parts. One caller wanted clothing donations for missing children (we gave a batch last year to aid Vietnam vets). The other wanted to sell us Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets. Neither had a book contract, but to be fair I never asked for one from either caller.

But when a book is out on submission it's very natural to be hopeful when the phone rings. Writers are hoping it's their agent on the other end--the bearer of good news. I'm polishing my work in progress and attending to my duties over at the college, but a small part of me is also waiting for the Phone Call.

In the February 1986 issue of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, Stephen King recounts his reaction to the bidding war that erupted over Carrie (his fifth completed novel but first sale). He mentions that Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday, called one Sunday afternoon and intimated that they could sell Carrie as a paperback. King expected a sum in the neighborhood of $5,000-$12,000 with possibilities of $60,000 on the table. The deal would call for him to split the advance, and of his $30,000 he states: "I could quit teaching for two years and actually get out from under the eight-ball and write two books, maybe even three if I wrote very, very fast."

When the offer came in at $400,000, King's reaction, to say the very least, reflected the enormity of his good fortune. "I hung up, and I walked around the house, running my hands through my hair, stopping, then sitting down for a minute and looking blankly out the window. Then I would get up and walk around the house, running my hands through my hair some more. The thought going through my mind was that I had to do something--I had to mark this.

After about twenty minutes, I finally decided that I was going to get Tabby a present...so I went downtown and bought her a hair dryer for twenty-nine dollars." So certain was he that he would be struck down crossing the street after his purchase, King says he "scuttled across those streets, looking both ways."

A great story from a gifted writer. And it raises a couple of interesting questions. How much research do you do into the backgrounds of editors? Do you keep tabs on which editors are acquiring which books?

Also, what will you do when the Phone Call comes? How will you celebrate?

Some interesting questions. And also, as a matter of minor importance, Portland State University (my alma mater) will play Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. Those Jayhawks better be ready...

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