“In the beginning was the Word.”

Those are the first words of the New Testament, of course. They also constitute the opening epigram of Primacy, my thriller set to publish this fall. This reference has special meaning for the premise of the novel, which I’ll get to in good time, but it’s worth noting its significance for all acts of creation.

Publishing a novel is an act of transmission, but, before that, writing a novel is an act of creation.

So: first things first.

I had an agent before Primacy began, a guy named Brian who’s served a distinguished career in publishing as editor, executive, and now the founder of his own literary agency. I knew him from our days together in the Bantam Doubleday Dell conglomerate, and we got along well, both of us appreciating the challenges of book publishing and the opportunities, and doing so with a sense of humor. We always shared a laugh when we spoke. He had also made me some money by bringing me non-fiction projects to ghostwrite.

When I settled down to write fiction with a serious sense of purpose, I began by showing Brian a list of six or eight ideas I had for novels. I wrote a precis for each idea and over lunch asked him to react to the list, to see what struck his fancy.

Sadly for me, he chose the two that in my mind were most amorphous. The one he liked best was the story of an overseas crime syndicate, but I soon realized that it would require foreign travel and a year of research before I’d get a word down, and I was eager to start writing. The other he pronounced a great title: The Christmas Horse.

From a commercial perspective it helps to begin with a great title but it’s better to begin with a great idea. Unfortunately I had the former without the latter.

I gave it a try anyway, even writing some strong material, which Brian and a writer friend readily agreed to review. Upon reading, they were both kind, but I sensed little real enthusiasm. And no wonder: I had no idea myself where the story should be going. I had no outline, a thin premise, thinner characters and a modest sense of place.

Around the time this realization hit, I was driving in the car when a “what if” floated into my consciousness. A “what if” can act as the germ of a great story idea. What if an ambitious associate goes to work for a law firm that turns out to be owned by the mob? — The Firm. What if scientists try to clone a dinosaur? — Jurassic Park. What if a king decides to divide his holdings among his children but one of them turns him down? — King Lear.

What if the first ape to mutate for speech shows up, of all places, in an animal testing laboratory?

That’s the premise that hit me driving in the car. I liked it a lot because it led immediately into dramatic complexity, which might also be expressed in the form of questions: Whom would this circumstance excite and whom would it threaten? Would the laboratory part willingly with this bit of its inventory? How might the animal rights movement view this creature? On whose side would the government come down?

Some of the answers seem obvious at first, but they’re not obvious once you create characters within the context of the story and set them in motion.

Liane Vinson, the young researcher who discovers the animal, turns out to have a complicated past, for example, one that makes her initially more cautious than she otherwise might be. Corey Harrow, the man leading the animal rights group — to take another example — sees the potential for this animal to change the game he’s been losing, but do the stakes involved justify making that animal’s interests secondary?

There were a lot of moving parts — as there always are — but early on I saw the prologue in my mind and, more important, the climactic scene. Brian responded well to the prologue, a flashback of a terrorist raid on an animal testing facility, so I began researching and writing and plotting in earnest. I started taking chapters to a workshop I’d been attending in Philadelphia and showing more polished sections to Brian. In less than a year I had a first draft.

Then I made a rookie mistake. In my enthusiasm, I showed the manuscript to Brian too soon. He liked a lot about it, critiqued it, and said it wasn’t ready, emphasizing that, in today’s market, a novel has to be just about perfect. We went round and round, more revisions, more reads, more criticism, more telling me it wasn’t ready.

We wore each other out, is what we did. And, in retrospect, it was my fault. To make matters worse, having been an editor and agent, I should have known better than to show him all those drafts. All I can say in my defense is that when you switch seats, the view changes. We agreed to part ways.

Editorially speaking, Brian had been right not about everything but about many things. I got more reads, made more revisions, and quickly found another agent. What happened then is a story for another post. My broader point right now is not the process of being agented or being published but this: we often forget that conception forms only a subset of creation. And conception, in many ways, is the easier part.

The complete novel that I sent to Brian was not fully formed. It would scarcely be recognizable to him today. Oh, the premise is the same, many of the scenes and characters, the general shape — but those are really all part of the conception. The period to which I didn’t devote enough time at first was the gestation, the work that makes the novel cohere, that enables it to stand up and walk on its own.

This distinction between conception and gestation might apply equally to the publishing process itself. There is the idea of how to publish the book, but then there is also the execution — how one puts that into action. Creation of the book has always been the author’s realm, of course. Today, increasingly, the creation of a publishing plan also falls to the scribe.

When I put on my publisher hat, one of the things I like about Primacy as a publishing project is that it has potential appeal to a core audience that reaches beyond genre — that is, beyond the general thriller audience. The book’s subject matter should appeal to animal lovers, and animals lovers — in theory, at least — can be located for marketing purposes.

The idea of finding that audience is part of my conception of the Primacy publishing plan. Will I indeed find them and win them over? That depends upon how well I follow through with the publishing gestation period.

In the beginning was the word, the premise, the creation, the publishing plan. Like any great thriller plot, this thing’s already getting complicated.

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 2: Dare Authors Engage in Commerce?

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Follow Primacy on Twitter: PRIMACYBOOK

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

11 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 1: 
Act of Creation

  1. Irene Zion says:


    I think you have a leg up on all of us because you have a background as an editor and an agent.
    First, you know what publishers and agents are looking for, and second, you know publishers and agents, so you have pathways to get them to read your writing.
    Can’t wait to read “Primacy.”

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Perhaps I do. Then again, you’ll see that the biggest breakthrough of this project had little or nothing to do with prior connections.

  2. Joel,

    You raise some very interesting points, but chief among them, I think, is the fact that you recognize the typical writer’s situation of getting excited about an idea, and wanting to see if it has legs, and then (everyone does this; everyone has trouble keeping any kind of secret) sharing it too soon with the agent. When we do that, we get more ideas, sometimes, from people who want to help us (usually, the agent) create a winning project, but in the end, I think we might also get too many cooks spoiling the dish.

    I went through exactly this, but of course (as a writer), I thought my project was finished when I subbed it to agents. I found an agent pretty easily. I went through a couple of rounds of minor revisions with her–hard to do because of my teaching and grading zillions of papers all the time–and then one last, so I thought, major round before she’d try to place it. Then, to my shock, my agent decided she “wasn’t feeling” the project…after I made all sorts of things different to be the way that she wanted. I did not necessarily agree with all of her changes, but I made them because I so wanted to get the novel sold.

    I don’t mean to bitch about this–I am just saying, I hope, that we never know what’s final. We never know how much to share about our work. In the end, I think the writer has to trust herself, or himself. Even the people we believe are working with us may not actually be. We have to be our own advocates, but it is nearly impossible not to ask for or seek another person’s advice. We do so because we think it will help us, but it can also hurt us, too–even when we expect the opposite.

    The irony is that no one really knows what’s going to sell. Back in the day, when I worked at a major commercial publishing house, I recall the world’s cheesiest ms making the rounds. We were all laughing at it; it was so saccharine. An editor had bought it. We all thought she was insane. This novel went on to become a ridiculous bestseller, proving us all wrong, and proving what the editor knew: that wide swaths of America really loves a cheesy holiday story.

    I haven’t had enough coffee yet, and I have tons of stuff to do…hope I made sense.

    Thanks for this great post.


    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yes, I agree that the writer has to trust his- or herself — to some extent keep one’s own counsel. Yet, we must also do this within a framework of wise counsel, if we’re lucky enough to get any, and not delude ourselves. The marketplace, ultimately, decides where the line is. Problem being, of course, that “ultimately” may take a very long time.

  3. Just as well. Your idea about the monkey having speech reminds me of the movie Project X, except American Sign Lanugage was the monkey’s mean of communicating.

    Although I certainly could see the irony in having hearing scientists taking the lab monkey more seriously if the monkey could talk in voice rather than in signs. Maybe you can explore that?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      A few people have mentioned Project X when they heard the premise of the book. I only learned of that movie after I wrote the novel, however, and still haven’t seen it. Chimps using ASL is a tad old-hat, not something that would shock the reader into deep philosophical contemplation the same way a leap in evolution would.

  4. To me everyone learning (or even trying to) A.S.L. is a bigger leap in humankind evolution than a monkey learning speech. And it does force me into deep philosophical contemplations that people would take someone who speaks more seriously than someone who signs. Thanks for the response to my comment. though. 🙂

  5. Kathleen L Smith says:

    Ah, come on folks. Let’s just be excited about a new thriller coming out. Everything does not need to be politically correct all the time. I just want to read Primacy ! Trying to get it in ARC, as it is hard for me to hold up a hardbound book. Wish me luck.

  6. […] about it. If you’re interested in the changes taking place in the publishing industry, here’s the first entry in his “Publishing Primacy” series about the […]

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