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The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton in the Big Apple

They love it.

Four days after receiving the manuscript via e-mail, the editor (my editor?) called and said she loved it.  Over the next week or two the manuscript was shown around to other editors at Simon & Schuster, and the response was positive.  My editor called again to say she was taking it to the acquisitions meeting the following week, where a decision will be made whether or not to buy Zack Proton.  She was upbeat and confident that it would go over well at acquisitions.

They hate it.

The acquisitions meeting came and went, but my phone didn’t ring.  Of course I knew what that meant.  Later that day I got an e-mail from my editor.  The meeting had not gone well at all, and Simon & Schuster was passing on Zack Proton.  But my editor felt strongly about the project, and told me to hang in there while she consulted with a few people about it.  Three weeks of silence followed, and at that point I was convinced the project was dead.  But she came back and suggested we overhaul the format from a regular chapter book to a more illustration-rich, gimmick-filled format.  She wanted twice as many chapters, but with a maximum of 4000 words, and with lots of amusing little sidebars, comic strips, and so on thrown into the mix.  The story's structure, pacing, chapter breaks, etc. all had to be heavily reworked to fit the new format, and I had 40% fewer words to do it in.

They really hate it.

My first rewrite was disastrous.  I cut the fat from the story, but there really wasn’t that much there to begin with.  I asked my editor if I could have 5000 words instead of 4000.  No.  How about 4500?  No.  So with the fat gone, I started carving out flesh.  Then scraping bone.  By the time the word count was finally down to 4000 my hair, fingernails, and sanity were all gone, and what was left was a partial story that was partially funny.  I didn't like it, my editor didn't like it, and her editorial group didn't like it.  My editor even mentioned submitting it elsewhere (never a good thing), and at that point I was certain the project was dead.

But she asked me to give it one more go before we called it quits.  I was still convinced that the project was dead and that this second rewrite request was really just a formality before finally laying the project to rest, but I was already thinking of where to go with it from here.  I could either submit the original 7000-word manuscript to other publishers, or bring the current version back to life in the new format, and submit that instead.  I decided to flesh out the reformatted version first, and then decide.  I fattened the story up to 4800 words by restoring my favorite funny bits and smoothing things out, and sent it back to my editor, expecting that that would be the end of it.

They love it again.

This time everyone liked it.  My editor was given the green light to contact an illustrator to do some sketches on spec.  Once she had the illustrations, she would take the revised manuscript and the illustrations to acquisitions and present them as a package deal.  She went to the Internet looking for the right style of art for the series, and came across an online portfolio by Australian comic book artist Doug Holgate.  She immediately knew she didn’t just want that style, she wanted that artist.  She called me on the phone and gave me the URL, and Doug’s artwork blew me away.  He was perfect for the series.  If she could get Doug to do the sketches, I knew the package would sell.

Time Out

While we’re waiting for Doug’s decision, I should mention what it was that attracted my editor to Zack Proton in the first place.  The slush pile has a notoriously low hit rate – even the most generous editors say that only about 1% of what’s in there ever gets serious consideration.  What was it about Zack Proton that made my editor ask to see more?

I had written Zack Proton as a conventional chapter book, but my editor was looking for something that could be developed as a chapter book with a lot of pictures inside, like Captain Underpants or Franny K. Stein.  The visual writing style of Zack Proton fit the illustration-rich format she wanted to produce.  Of course it helped that she thought the story was fast-paced and funny, but an equally funny story that was not as visual might not have caught her attention in the same way Zack Proton did.

Doug agrees.

Doug Holgate drew a couple sketches each of Zack, Effie, and Omega Chimp, and one page of a comic strip from the book.  With Doug's artwork part of the bargain, I was confident the series would sell.  My editor took these sketches along with the revised manuscript to the acquisitions meeting in March 2005, and this time it sold – a three-book deal for an original series from the slush pile.  I wasn’t home when she called, but when I got home and saw the light flashing on my answering machine, I knew we had a deal.  The message is still there.


Obviously, my editor is the true hero of this story.  She rescued Zack from the slush pile and then kept believing in him and fighting for him even after two major setbacks.  She was the engine that drove the reformatting of the book to its current form, and she brought Doug Holgate to the project.  Unfortunately, shortly after Simon & Schuster bought Zack Proton, my editor moved on to another publisher, and wasn’t able to see the project develop into its final form.  Another editor at Simon & Schuster who is just as passionate about Zack Proton stepped in to replace her, and has been guiding Zack ever since.  I named a character after my first editor.  You will meet her in book four.

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