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Zack Proton -- From Zero to Hero!

An unpublished, unagented writer makes a slush-pile submission to Simon & Schuster and comes away with a three book deal for an original series.  Unlikely, I'll admit, but not impossible.  This is Zack Proton’s story, from concept to sale.

Roger who?

Zack Proton began life in January 2003 as a fictional cyberspace hero named Roger Ramchip, a riff on the 1965 cartoon series Roger Ramjet.  I was teaching a computer class to fourth-graders, and planned on creating a series of worksheets that would guide the kids through the inner workings of computer hardware as Roger Ramchip searched for his lost cyberspace rangers. The worksheets never happened, but my daughter had been tearing through chapter books at an insane pace, and the idea of a cyberspace hero searching for his lost crew struck me as a fun idea for a series of children’s books.

Goodbye cyber, hello space.

Once I started developing stories and characters, I realized pretty quickly that “cyberspace” required too much explanation to be a viable fictional setting.  But there were no outer space comedy chapter book series on the shelves, and that struck me as a gigantic hole in the market.  So Roger Ramchip traded his mouse and keyboard for a plasma beam disintegrator (who wouldn’t?) and left cyberspace for outer space.

I knew all along that I would have to change his name, and that was the first order of business.  My story notes during this time were littered with obscure references to particle physics – things like “Leapin’ leptons!” and “Stop that, you bosons!” – and at one point I came up with the name Electron John.  Despite its creepy similarity to Elton John, I still liked the name, but it sounded too much like a sidekick and not enough like a hero.  My notes for February 20, 2003 end with, “Proton is a good name for a hero.  Something Proton.  Military rank or other title perhaps?”

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

It took me only three days to go from there to Commander Zack Proton.  Omega Chimp appeared in final form almost immediately, along with a pesky lawyer and space hero wannabe named Richard Readwrite (“reader of writs and righter of wrongs”).  One day later I came to my senses – no kid wants to read the outer space adventures of a lawyer – and Richard Readwrite vanished faster than a snowflake on Mercury.  But the name indicates that even though I had made the transition to outer space, I still had computers on my mind.

In the commander’s chair

I started writing the manuscript for the first book on February 23, 2003.  Working on and off without a deadline, I finished the first draft six months later.  I continued to tweak it every so often for the next nine months, and then, following the advice on Linda Sue Park's web site, I sent out six query letters along with the first four chapters on June 1, 2004.  Ordinarily editors expect to see the first three chapters of a book, but mine were short chapters and there was a major plot development at the end of chapter four (the appearance of Big Large) which I wanted to include with the query.  At this point the manuscript was written as a conventional chapter book -- ten chapters long, and about 7000 words, not at all like the Zack Proton book that eventually saw print.

A word about query letters

Linda Sue Park’s web site includes the query letter she sent out with her first novel, Seesaw Girl.  Here is the query letter I used for Zack Proton.  Notice the startling similarity between the two.  (Notice also that my query says I’m sending the first three chapters, when in fact I sent the first four.  Oops.)  I didn’t steal Linda Sue’s query letter format because I was clueless, I stole it because it accomplished exactly what a good query letter should – get in, make the point, and get out.

No, no, no, no, no, and yes.

The form rejections started arriving six weeks later.  One editor didn’t even bother with a form letter, she just crammed the manuscript into my SASE and sent it back to me without further comment.  By mid-October, I had been flatly rejected by five of the six publishers I queried.  Then I got an e-mail from an assistant editor at Aladdin Paperbacks asking to see the rest of the manuscript.  I hadn’t looked at the manuscript since June, and I wanted to give it a quick once-over before sending it out.  Unfortunately, she contacted me on the second day of my annual sleep-deprivation marathon known as the Austin Film Festival, and six long days would pass before I finally e-mailed her the entire manuscript.

Next:  The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton in the Big Apple

Zack Proton gets accepted, rejected, rejected, and accepted all at the same publisher.