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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Timing is Everything
Attempting to forge an even minimally successful career as a writer (especially in New York) is dependent upon a number of factors—luck, connections—of which "talent" is the least important, if it's an issue at all. That's a discouraging thing to say, but we live in a discouraging world. Besides, anyone who's given it a go knows that it's true.
The most important element of all, oddly enough, is timing. I say "oddly enough" because in general, publishing is such a slow process. But that's just it—publishing crawls along at a snail's pace while the rest of the world is in a state of constant acceleration.
I've had my share of luck in this business—but at the same time, I'm also a man of absolutely atrocious timing, and I can't tell you how many projects have dissolved beneath me on account of it.
Or maybe I can. Let's see.
In 1990, I began trying to sell a book about freak shows. Specifically, it was about the evolution of the freak show from the 1940s to the present, and how the structure of the traditional sideshow had been adopted by the mainstream media. Tabloid papers and television, celebrity culture, the music industry—even the fine arts were using the techniques developed by carnival promoters in the first half of the century.
Well, publishers weren't much interested in freaks at the time. Just as well, too—even as I was writing, I realized that the world was getting so weird so fast that the book would be outdated long before it was ever published.
But wouldn't you know it—a mere 18 months after discarding the idea, I happened across an entire shelf in Tower devoted to new books about sideshows. The timing, I would learn through later experience, seemed to indicate that it was about 6 months after I tried to sell my manuscript that publishers suddenly decided they couldn't get enough freaks.
My second (well, second published) book was a memoir about my stay in a Minneapolis psych ward. And the release date just happened to correspond not only with the release of that Dave Eggers memoir, but also with the film version of Girl, Interrupted. (Both did a little bit better than mine did, and my book went quickly out of print.)
In 2002, I released a novel called The Buzzing. Now, while there wasn't a similar novel or movie released around the same time, it was released right around the very instant that the American book buying public decided that they were no longer interested in fiction (except that Harry Potter fellow, of course). For the novelists across the country, it was the beginning of a very dark period which continues to this day.
I wasn't aware of that at the time, and the publishing industry itself was only beginning to become conscious of just how bad things were. So, though I had another memoir finished and scheduled for release, I sat down in a frenzied marathon and wrote a crime novel about an ATM thief loosely based on a New Jersey case. Morgan provided me with the Greatest Title Ever, and I figured it was a gimme. But the editor I'd worked with on the previous novel returned it to my agent, explaining that it was just too implausible. Even after I sent him the news clippings about the original case, it was a no go. The other thing, this editor explained to me, was that the industry was in such a state that he could only afford to pick up sure things—which this wasn't.
About a month later, there was a report of an almost identical case here in town. The editor admitted that the scenario wasn't so implausible after all—but now it was just too late.
I followed up that failure with another novel proposal (this time I didn't bother to write the whole thing first). It was another crime novel loosely based on a case out of Wisconsin involving a ring of corrupt morticians.
I turned that one in in 2004, when no one in New York was much interested in thinking about morticians doing bad things with corpses. The proposal didn't even get as far as the last one had. Instead, the editor—a very nice and smart fellow—suggested that my next book focus on my own personal take on the Godzilla movies. That was cool, I could do that, so I spent the next 8 months researching and gathering notes. But by the time I turned in the proposal, he'd changed his mind. He'd made the suggestion the day after he saw the original 1954 Japanese version, which was in theaters to mark the 50th anniversary. Now, though, he couldn't see much interest in the book, given that the 50th anniversary had come and gone.
So I set that one aside, too.
Now, I don't lay these things out on account of any bitterness or sour grapes (though I may have been a bit disgruntled at the time). Far from it—I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Fact is, another book came out in the meantime, and the next one will be coming out in a few months.
No, it's just evidence, again, of some mighty bad timing on my part. If I'd waited another ten minutes—or in some cases been 10 minutes earlier—it might've been a completely different story.
Then again, there's always the possibility that those other books just really sucked.
Just a little something to keep in mind if you can't figure out why no one's bothered to recognize your obvious genius yet.