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Where do you get
those crazy ideas?

 

Ideas are the easy part of writing. Figuring out how to develop an idea into a compelling story that many total strangers will spend their valuable time and money to read... that's the hard part.


However, "Where do you get your ideas?" is perhaps the single question that writers are asked most often. I usually give a brief, flip response, along the lines of, "I buy them from a dealer at the corner of 12th and Vine." But some of the emails I receive ask questions so specific that I've realized some people would like to see a real answer now and then.


So where did I get the idea for the Esther Diamond series?

DN cover
June 2012

From earliest stages, I envisioned this premise as an ongoing, chronological, urban-fantasy comedy series about a struggling actress in New York City, and the befuddled magician with whom she has supernatural adventures as they protect the city from Evil.

The premise of the first book, Disappearing Nightly, emerged out of a joke that I or a friend (I don't even remember now) made casually one day, just making a play on words. But the phrase stuck in my head, and I soon thereafter envisioned a magic act going wrong. But I found that just one unexplained magic-act disappearance wasn't enough juice for a book; however, multiple disappearances all over the city—now that would work!

I had trouble figuring out the denouement of the mystery—why were so many characters disappearing? It must have been driving me crazy, because I did something I never do: I discussed my work with my parents. And sitting with me in a local coffee shop one night, listening to me explain the story, they suggested the solution, i.e. the reason there are a number of disappearees over the course of the story. So... thanks, Mom & Dad!

DisNightly
Out-of-Print


Making Esther Diamond an actress was a natural choice for me, since that was my first profession of choice (but I was totally unsuited to it), and so I have a great affection for actors and the theatre.

And making Esther an actress led me to the concept that the supernatural adventures would typically start with Esther encountering something strange in her regular life as a struggling actress. So in Disappearing Nightly, Esther wants to go on with the show... but becomes convinced she'll disappear if she does. In Doppelgangster, she gets emeshed in a strange and deadly situation while working as a singing waitress. In the third book, Unsympathetic Magic, her life is mystically endangered due to taking a job coaching young performers. And so on.


However...
the story behind the Esther Diamond series is as much a story about the publishing business—and about being a working novelist—as it is about where those crazy ideas come from.


Way back when I got the idea for Disappearing Nightly, I had published a dozen romance novels with Silhouette Books, under the pseudonym Laura Leone, but had so far been unable to sell any other type of novel. I had, however, recently won the John W. Campbell Award as the Best New Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer, on the basis of the sf/f short stories I was selling. So, since it was a market where my name was becoming marginally familiar to editors on that basis, I was trying to propose some sf/f novels. So when I found myself thinking about this urban-fantasy series idea, I worked on it.

My then-agent sent the proposal to three publishing programs. None of them were interested, and the agent refused to send the project anywhere else and responded negatively whenever I raised the subject thereafter.

VoodooMoon
One of my old romance novels


So Disappearing Nightly went into my trunk. (In the computer era, my "trunk" of unsold projects is a folder on my hard drive, rather than a physical box.) I go through my trunk once every couple of years and re-read any projects that are in there. In some cases, thanks to the distance from the material that time has given me, I realize it's just not very good; in other cases, I realize I've moved on, and I'm no longer that same writer or still interested in that story. And so I delete the file. (Yes, some people save everything. But I have no desire to hang onto old proposals that I don't even like or want to sell anymore.)


But every time I read the proposal for Disappearing Nightly... I still loved it, still really wanted to write the series, and was still eager to sell the book. So I never deleted it from my trunk. It stayed there for eight years. During that time, I sold a traditional fantasy trilogy and also sold a couple more romance novels, so I kept busy. I also, fearing I'd never get to do the Esther Diamond series, cannibalized the basic premise of book two, Doppelgangster, and turned it into a short story, "Doppelgangster," which has been published twice. (It has none of the same characters or events, just uses the same basic hook: gangsters die mysteriously after seeing their own perfect doubles.)


Meanwhile, the market was changing. TV shows that mixed paranormal elements with real-world settings became hugely popular, such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then some urban fantasy/horror novelists, such as Laurell Hamilton and Charlaine Harris, "broke out" to bigger audiences. So urban fantasy and "cross-genre" fiction were becoming popular and sought-after.

So after leaving the above-mentioned agent, I decided to dust off the Esther Diamond proposal and see if I could sell it myself. However, one thing the market was clearly asking for was a love story or romantic subplot within a cross-genre series, to attract a larger audience of women readers (who buy most of the fiction in this country) than straight-genre fantasy typically does.

Angel coverBuffy cover
I contributed essays to these two nonfiction books about the popular paranormal shows,
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.


So I rewrote the proposal before sending it out. In the original series proposal, Lopez was Esther's nemesis, rather than her love interest. He was a good-looking, self-centered, womanizing opportunist who treated Esther like a sub-par sex object, and who advanced his career on the police force by taking credit for cases that Max and Esther actually solved.

Revising a character who only appeared in two scenes of the original book proposal for Disappearing Nightly sounded easy when I decided to do it... but it turned out to be a hair-tearing project, since the character had to change drastically, or else there was no way a sensible woman like Esther could be attracted to him. With none of my efforts to rewrite Lopez working, I finally wound up removing his scenes from the manuscript altogether and starting them over from scratch. Virtually nothing is left of the original Lopez except for his skepticism, throughout the first book, about what happens to Golly Gee and the other disappearees.


Within a few weeks of sending out the new proposal, I got a three-book offer on the table. Agentless at the time, I hired my next/fourth agent to negotiate the deal for me. The publisher was enthused about the series, enthused about the finished manuscript I delivered, and enthused about my future there... until they informed me that, due to weak sales on the first book, they were cancelling my contract and discontinuing the series after just the one book. (Yes, this is very upsetting. It's also not that unusual an occurrence in this business, and that publisher cancelled a number of contracts that year.)

By then, the publisher had already prepared a cover for the second book, Doppelgangster (which they renamed Doppelgangsters, for corporate reasons not worth going into). Since the release was cancelled, the cover was never used, of course; I include it here strictly for your interest. Frankly, although the publisher was well-intentioned, I thought both of their covers were wrong for this series, completely missing its three main marketing cues: urban fantasy, comedy, series. And if the packaging misses the marketing cues, then the book's audience doesn't find the book, and sales are weak. (See my five-part article series on packaging, A Book By Its Cover, elsewhere on this website.)

Old Doppel
A cover that was never used


The agent whom I had hired back when I had the Luna offer on the table didn't seem to be wildly enthusiastic about trying to sell the second book of a cancelled series—and not wildly enthusiastic about me, either. So I left that agent and looked for a new one. No one I contacted was interested in me, and several agents told me I wouldn't be able to resell this series. So, not feeling in urgent need of still more dismissal and rejection from literary agents, I gave up on that front and, once again, submitted the Esther Diamond series to publishers by myself.

A few weeks later, I got a good three-book offer from DAW books, an excellent publisher with which I had long wanted to work, for Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, and Vamparazzi. Rather than look (yet again) for a new agent, I hired a literary lawyer to negotiate the contract.


Like Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster also began with the title. A friend one day said that she had recently seen my döppelganger, i.e. someone who looked just like me. And my mind somehow jumped to the word doppelgangster—which immediately got me thinking: döppelgangers (a perfect double whose appearance means you'll die by nightfall) and gangsters. And if you want to know more than that... read the book!

 

The cover you see here is the DAW Books cover for Doppelgangster, the edition of this novel that was actually published.

The illustrator here is the talented Daniel Dos Santos, who also did the fabulous covers for Unsympathetic Magic and Vamparazzi, as well as the upcoming Polterheist. The new cover for the DAW reissue of Disappearing Nightly is by David Palumbo, another terrific fantasy artist.

I think it's easy to see how much more eye-catching, interesting, and dynamic these covers are than the packaging that the series had at its former publisher. These covers clearly indicate the novels are urban fantasy, and they give you a strong sense of the tone, setting, and flavor of these books.

Here's hoping that excellent packaging, as well as well as the marketing support this series is getting from DAW, will lead to a long and healthy life for Esther Diamond and her friends!

 

Doppelgangster


DAW Books, 2010

Anyhow, when people ask me, "How do you know if a book is marketable?" or, "How long does it take to sell a book?" or, "How many rejections should I endure before I give up on a book?"... There is no "right" answer, and I can only answer from my own experience:

* It can takes years to sell a book, or only weeks. Or (see above) both.

* An experienced, respected, successful literary agent who tells you a book is unsaleable may be right. Or wrong. Or only right in the current place and time. Or dead wrong even in the current place and time. Or (see above) all of these.

* If you still like a project when you read it, even after setting it aside for a couple of years, then you shouldn't give up on it. If you still like it eight years after setting it aside, then you shouldn't give up on it. Fashions come and go in publishing, and a good book will find a home, sooner or later, if the writer is persistent enough.

                                                                                                                           —Laura Resnick
                                                                                                                            


Lightbulb
Click here to see where my previous guests
got those crazy ideas for their books.