Making the Book: The Debut Author

What are books? What is this thing known as "reading"? And how does one do it? In an ongoing series called "Making the Book," I'll look to answer these questions by interviewing folks who make books. And what better place to start than with someone who has crafted a story that will eventually become a book, commonly referred to as "a writer." In this first edition, I interview Christian McKay Heidicker, whose novel, Cure for the Common Universe, I recently acquired.

So, I hear you just sold your first manuscript to one of the best editors in the business. What was that like?

Amazing. I tackled the first Doberman Pinscher I saw (fortunately there was one in the house I was housesitting) and I rolled around the floor with her and laughed and cried . . . and I might have playfully bitten her ears a bit. This isn't some exaggerated, authory simile for my feelings on having sold a book. This is a real thing that actually happened. The Doberman's name is Tesla.

Seriously, I was elated. When my agent, John Cusick, sent over the initial list of editor submissions, I zeroed in on Mr. Trimmer's name. I mean, he'd worked with Rick Riordan and Mo Willems for Christian's sake. Little did I know he also edited what would become one of my favorite graphic novels of all time: Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert. For those of you who haven't read it, buy it. Buy it now.

You took the bait! I was totally fishing for compliments. (Thank you--they were very generous.) Also, I hope Tesla gets a shout-out in your acknowledgments.

I'm glad you brought up Mr. Cusick, who is just a brilliant agent (and writer). A lot of the folks reading this are probably dreaming of their own future book deals, but first they have to get agents, which is not easy. How did you end up as one of John's clients?

Landing an agent is like trying to date in middle school. After you finally muster the courage to ask someone to check out your goods, you get rejected again and again and again and again . . . until one day you don’t . . . seven years after you’ve left middle school and stopped caring.

I was pretty fortunate. After being rejected by about twenty agents, my old writing partner, Valynne E. Maetani (her book Ink and Ashes is out in May!), courted John Cusick for us both. It was like she went to his lunch table and asked him out while pointing at me across the cafeteria . . . and he said yes! 

 The author waits to hear from agents.

The author waits to hear from agents.

In the seventh grade, I frenched (one of my favorite verbs) Becky J. after seeing Child's Play. I wasn't expecting the kiss (or her tongue) on that particular night, but the following Monday, I was feeling all kinds of confident as I walked into school. Before first period, I learned that Becky had started dating Vic F. He was taller than I was, more popular, with dirty blond hair and bright eyes, so I understood her choice. I would have picked him over her, too. Still, it stung. 

You made out after watching Child's Play?! I went on a doll-burning spree . . . that hasn't stopped since .

The doll in Trilogy of Terror messed me up, but Chucky didn't really bother me. So, to use your metaphor, Becky is like the agent who is promising representation . . . only to sign someone from your writing group and then ignoring you in pre-algebra. Is that accurate? I'm going to guess that a fear of rejection keeps people from pursuing representation in the first place. Did you experience that anxiety? If so, do you remember the moment when you decided to take the plunge?

Your agent metaphor is eerily accurate. (Except the pre-algebra part.) I played the hot and cold game with a few agents before John Cusick came along and made it all hot, all the time. (Our relationship is strictly professional.) I know plenty of writers who sit on their brilliant manuscripts because they're afraid of rejection. I was never one of those. I was bold as brass as an early writer, ecstatic to fling my pages at anyone in the business. The truth is . . . I was just okay. I had lots of enthusiasm without much technique or anything to say. That changed with years and heartbreak and hours at the keyboard. I actually experience more anxiety sending things out now because I'm more aware of how hard it is to be good and how much talent is out there.

For anyone who does feel anxiety in submitting to an agent, I'd remind them that rejection is good. Keeps ya sober. Keeps ya workin'. Keeps ya chasing after that next project . . .

That's great advice. You have to experience some "no" before you get the "yes!" It makes the accomplishment all the sweeter, right? It's just like that song says: "The black the berry, the sweeter the juice."

Now, I have insider knowledge that you recently received your first editorial letter (in which an editor details his/her suggestions for strengthening a manuscript). How did that feel? As someone who has asked many a writer to make major changes in the next draft, I've often wondered how one begins the revising process. I mean, you've turned in a version that you feel really good about, and now you're being asked to rethink major components of the story. How do you begin the process?

 The author goes gray upon reading the editorial letter.

The author goes gray upon reading the editorial letter.

I think I'm different than most writers when it comes to editorial letters. I've heard stories about authors receiving theirs, sobbing uncontrollably, and then locking themselves in a dark room for a week. Most describe it as an unpleasant experience. Not me.

I DEVOURED your editorial letter. I realized that you had found the heart of what I was trying to do and wanted to clear away all of the cobwebs so the reader could feel it beat. You walked into my book, tipped over a cardboard cutout of a character I thought was hilarious, passed your hand through walls to prove they were holograms, and showed me that the timelines were all messed up. Once I saw what you were seeing, I took every single suggestion you made, including the bits that I disagreed with at first. 

It's pretty overwhelming tackling a 60,000-word document. Once you dive in, it's easy to get caught up in dialogue or that joke you love or how oddly alien your own voice sounds. It's tough to see the big picture. After I got your letter, I didn't reread the manuscript for three weeks. Instead I used your letter as a map, writing scenes you felt were missing from scratch, reordering the chapters, and searching and deleting any parts you thought didn't work. At that point I had a Frankenstein's monster of a book. I've been trying to make it presentable ever since.

The process is difficult, but I am also very grateful for the opportunity to improve. I don't think anything I write is perfect. I'm sure whatever version of this gets published won't be perfect. But I'm confident that we'll come as close as I'm able at this point.

 The author works through a particularly challenging section of his revision.

The author works through a particularly challenging section of his revision.

I remember an author, the lovely Robin Mellom, telling me that she didn't cry after reading the first editorial letter I sent to her. I didn't understand what she meant--why would she have? (Forgive my naivete--I was still pretty new to the business.) I have since learned that many authors shed tears after reviewing the contents of that particular package. It is always my aim not to make my authors cry (or puke or faint, for that matter). I've mostly succeeded.

Where do you like to write? And what do you wear on writing days?

If I ever send you something sub-par, please feel free to make me cry (or puke or faint, for that matter).

I write at home in the mornings and in coffee shops in the afternoons, but when I first started freelancing, I trained myself to write absolutely anywhere any time. Just so I'd have no excuses. I once wrote a chapter while walking 17 kilometers across Spain. I tripped a lot.

I'm not very style conscious. Or very shower conscious. I like the idea of wearing a suit to the writing desk every day as a sort of gratitude of being able to do what I do . . . but then I think about how much time that would take away from writing and I don't do it. The other day my financial planner told me I look like a writer, which is kind of a backhanded compliment . . . and also great. I just hope the lack of personal hygiene manifests in the writing itself. Otherwise I look unkempt for no reason whatsoever.

Before I let you go, can you tell us what your book's about? But here's the challenge: you have to do so in ONE SENTENCE. Imagine you're in a pitch meeting with some hot young development executive in Hollywood--what's the one line you give to hook his/her interest? 

Cure for the Common Universe is about a kid who scores the first date of his life only to be promptly committed to video game rehab, which he must now escape.

(But under the surface, it's about how easy it is to believe you're doing the right thing.)

(Is that cheating?)

Nice! Sounds like an MTV Films movie to me. Last question: what are you reading these days?

I'm almost finished with the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. It's excellent. I just started The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of my favorite authors). Sitting in front of me right this moment is El Deafo by Cece Bell. I got teary-eyed on the SECOND PAGE. All highly recommended.

What are you reading?

Your revision!

Cure for the Common Universe is on sale in Summer 2016. Check back soon for the next edition of "Making the Book" featuring The Agent.