Blackbirds: Ten Years Later

(art by Joey Hi-Fi)

So, it was about ten years ago I was in Los Angeles on the day of release for my first original novel, Blackbirds. (For the sake of the pedant, this was 4/24/12.)

I was there for a twofold purpose: first, to launch the book that night at Mysterious Galaxy’s Redondo Beach store — a branch that has woefully closed, though the flagship store remains (whew) — and second, to meet with various film and TV folks about the book.

Both of these things were pretty weird for me. In terms of launching a book, I’d never done a proper book signing before for one of my own books. I’d been to Gen Con and a few other gaming conventions to sign some of my White Wolf game work. And I’d had a novel out previously, the yes-it’s-my-idea-but-sadly-it-was-still-work-for-hire-so-I-own-no-part-of-it Double Dead. But this was different. This one was mine. It had taken me a long, long time to get to this point (more on that in a moment) — and the book had a little tiny dollop of buzz humming around it. In part I think because of the stunning Joey Hi-Fi cover, in part because my blog at the time was something of a known and growing commodity in the writing/writer space, in part because (er, so I hope) it was an interesting book with a compelling hook —

Miriam Black can see how you’re going to die when she touches you. She knows the time of your demise, but not the place. She believes, falsely, that she can do nothing to change the course of fate.

That, I think, led to the film and TV interest.

The first meeting I took was near ICM, the agency representing the book, and I met David Knoller and Byron Belasco, and it was nice — they totally grokked the book, didn’t want to softball it, were looking to roll hard with the adaptation. And they said a thing I found hilarious at the moment: they said someone else is going to try to ruin it. Someone were going to want to turn it into like, a TV primetime police procedural and they’d water it down and change it entirely away from its premise, and I laughed that off, said my goodbyes, and immediately drove to Beverly Hills for a second meeting. (Where, incidentally, I did not know of byzantine LA parking rules where if you park on X street between certain random minutes, there are street-sweepers or something and you get a big fine, oops.) Upon taking that meeting, they proceeded to pitch me a version of the show that (wait for it) would air on primetime CBS and (wait for it) would be a police procedural (wait for it) where Miriam had a cool ghost for her detective partner (what the fuck) and they solved murders before they happen. I was like, “That sounds great, so you should go make that show and not put my name on it.” (I was probably more polite than that, if we’re being honest. But my enthusiasm for their idea was not present.)

I took other meetings, and none of them really sang, and eventually the show landed at Starz for a while with David Knoller and John Shiban. It never quite made it to the starting line, but got close. (Rumor has it Starz was ready to roll, but then American Gods came into their stable and they didn’t have the money to make Blackbirds, nor were they enthusiastic about having two ‘urban fantasy’ shows on. And so my eternal battle against Neil Gaiman continues.)

(I have no battle against Neil Gaiman, in case that’s not clear. I met him once and he was genuinely polite and lovely.)

The book launch that night was stellar. Stephen Blackmoore, excellent friend and also the author of the fucking badass Eric Carter series which you need to be reading right now JFC FFS, drove me to the event, and he was like, “So the event is at 7PM, I’ll pick you up at 4PM.” Which I thought was laughable because it was maybe fifteen miles or something, map said 30 minutes, and then I heard the direness in his voice when he said, “I’m picking you up at 4.” And he did. And we were nearly late. Los Angeles traffic is a sluggish Mad Maxian nightmare realm, a slow-moving digestive track in some great macadam beast.

Anyway! We got there. We did not die on the highway.

The launch was great. People showed up! Mysterious Galaxy had evil cupcakes with sinister predictions! I signed books! It was great. Ten out of ten. My career had begun in a rush of black feathers and cupcake frosting.

For better or worse, it was the moment that you all were stuck with me.

What Happened Before

(art by Adam Doyle)

Blackbirds took me years to write. Five years. Five fucking years.

The book came out of a feeling of powerlessness over death. It’s trite, probably, but sometimes the simplest and most guttural of urges connects easily — I was young, and grappling with the reality that people around me were getting sick and dying, and that I too one would day take the eternal dirt-nap, and I thought, well, fuck, that fucking sucks. I was a hypochondriac and anxious all the time and so death felt like a rheumy-eyed chihuahua ever biting at my heels, so I wanted to write something about death. I wanted to explore a twisted, grim power fantasy of someone who sees how people are going to die, but can’t see her own death, and further, isn’t sure she can really do anything about it. Again, probably trite, but that fate vs free will struggle was one that had some tasty meat on the bone. It’s also where I found power in writing about my own anxieties, about using books as a summoning circle in which to conjure those demons and Fight Club the fuck out of them wherever possible.

I’ve told this all before, so I’ll try to keep it capsule, but the gist was, I’d get about 75% of the way through the book before it would unspool like a ruptured testicle. I was lost in the story. Couldn’t figure out where to go or what to do. So I did what any floundering novelist would do: I won a screenwriting competition. (Yeah, no, I dunno either.) The prize: a mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco. I chose to ask him help me adapt the unfinished piece-of-shit book I was trying to write into screenplay form, so then I could use the screenplay as an outline to write and finish the novel. I had zero interest in actually writing movies or television at the time, though that would change soon after (and that relationship is what ended up getting me to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with writing partner Lance Weiler).

Anyway. It worked. He told me to outline, I said, ha ha, we novelists don’t do that, we speak to horses, we listen to the windswept grass, and that’s how we find our muse. He said, well, how’s that going for you? Which, okay, good point. So I learned to outline, and from that wrote a script, and from the script wrote a book. (As a sidenote, some people take this story as suggesting that you, too, must learn to outline. That’s incorrect. The only advice to take here is that, when your process isn’t working for you, change your process.)

From there, I queried a bunch of agents. I’d done this dance before, and was disappointed with the results of it — my fault, not theirs, to be clear, as I was writing and querying all the wrong books. Books that weren’t really mine, but rather, books that were my idea of what would get me published. I was chasing the wrong genres, the wrong voices, trying to be like other authors instead of trying to just be like me. Blackbirds came out of me hitting rock bottom with my writing. I hesitate to suggest I was depressed, but I’d written five novels before that, none of them good, and I’d queried a couple to no good result.

So when it came time, I thought, I’m going to try one more time. One more novel. And this one, I don’t give a shit. I’m going to fling all the fucks but one last lonely fuck out of my fuckbasket, and I’m going to write a voicey book in third-person present-tense and it’s going to have an unlikable character who starts the book by looking in the mirror and it’s going to be horror-crime and it’s going to be violent and it’s going to vulgar and weird and I’m just going to put it all out there. The book itself felt like a big angry middle finger, both as a story and in its writing. It was enough to get me going. To get me to start — and eventually, after those five years — to finish it.

So it shocked me that the agent hunt yielded almost immediate results. I had a range of agents interested across the spectrum. My query letter was probably a middling one, but the hook of the book was enough, and so quite a few requested the manuscript. I had one bigger agent at a bigger house who was on vacation, but his assistant kept emailing me, “Oh, he’s on vacation and isn’t technically reading anything, but he’s really loving this.” “Oh, he’s supposed to be out canoeing today but he can’t stop reading your book.” “Oh, he forgot to feed his children and they wandered off into the woods and had to wrestle a meal away from some coyotes, that’s how much he loves this book.” And I was like, ooh, okay, that’s rill good. A week or so of this went by and then:

Radio silence.

So I pinged a few days later, hey, how’s he liking that book?

No response.

A few more days went by, as I chewed my fingernails down to the bloody quick.

A response finally rolled in: “He’s just not feeling it.”

End of conversation!

Needless to say, he’s not my agent.

Which, as it turns out, is a good thing.

Thankfully, at this time I was also having a conversation with Stacia, who would eventually become my agent. She’d been an editor but was newer as an agent, and she really just understood the book from the get-go, and had good suggestions to bring out the best version of that book. She offered to represent me, and at that point I think you’re supposed to do the polite, politic thing of emailing all the other agents who have the book and saying, “I have an offer, and if you’re considering making an offer of representation please do so by XYZ date,” except I was so happy to have the agent I had, and I felt like the fit was really right on, that I just emailed them all and was basically like SORRY YOU MISSED OUT, YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE, AND YOU SNOST SO YOU LOST. I don’t think it was quite that aggressive, ahem, but it was definitely a “the door is now closed” kind of email.

(It was the right choice. Stacia’s still my agent today, even though I’m sure there’s days she resents that decision due to my relentlessly anxious author emails. Sorry, Stacia!)

Blackbirds got me an agent quickly, but not a book deal. It went around and around and around, from publisher to publisher, and uniformly I received what were the nicest rejections possible. They would follow a rough pattern: “Oh, I love this! This is great! But our sales team doesn’t know how to sell it, so it’s a no.” And at that point I was still desperate enough that I’d plead with them, “Just let me know what to change, how to make it work for sales,” and the editors would say, “No! We like it as-is. We just can’t sell it.” And so the book fell into this widening chasm of art vs. commerce. Great story, can’t sell. The end.

I don’t quite remember how long it took to actually get to a sale, but it was a good while. Over a year out on submission, if I recall. But then suddenly, there arose a sudden effervescence of interest over the book, and we landed with Marc Gascoigne and Lee Harris at Angry Robot, and from there, ended up with the fucking amazing cover by Joey Hi-Fi, and then? HISTORY WAS MADE. I CONQUERED ALL OF PUBLISHING IN A ROAR OF BLOOD AND FROTH AND

Uhhh, I mean, okay, maybe not.

What Happened Next?

(art by Galen Dara)

It took me five years to write Blackbirds.

It took me 30 days to write the sequel, Mockingbird.

Angry Robot had me write a third book to complete that trilogy, The Cormorant, and they were not keen on extending that trilogy — and so we were able to get the rights returned to us, where we sold to S&S and got an additional three books, Thunderbird, The Raptor & The Wren, and Vultures. All six books got a reskinning with the wonderfully ethereal bird art of Adam Doyle. Nobody ever really knew how to label them in terms of genre — I wrote them as horror-crime, Angry Robot called them urban fantasy, S&S called them, if I remember correctly, supernatural suspense? (Powell’s Bookstore in Portland shelves them all under horror, which is baller, and I goddamn fucking approve.)

If I can offer a little toothy commentary, I don’t really think that the new publisher handled the series well. They released hardcover and paperback at the same time in a confusing manner. They advertised a TV show that wasn’t a done deal on the re-release of the first book. I spoke to bookstores who wanted to have me tour there with the series and who wanted to support the books and who never got a response. There were cover SNAFUs and branding/rebranding issues and the edits on the latter three books were late not to mention very sparse when they finally did arrive — listen, things happen in publishing, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, but some of this stuff felt really problematic. Needless to say, the books didn’t really set the world on fire, but I had a great deal of fun writing them and was at least afforded the chance to do something a lot of writers don’t get to do: finish out a series. Hell, not just a series, but six full books.

And it’s not all bad news, to be clear: weirdly, because of film/TV options and because of foreign rights sales, the series has been one of my most profitable in terms of actual income. Some of the foreign editions have been huge. There was a flashmob event for the books in Poland because wtf? The initial advance for the first book was like, I dunno, after the exchange rate, somewhere around $6-7k, and to have a book with a low advance end up being really successful in the long run shows the value of the long-tail in publishing if you can manage it. And somehow, these books managed it.

So. Six books. Not to mention a pair of novellas (one in Three Slices, one in Death & Honey, and in each you’ll also find stories by best pals/excellent writers Kevin Hearne and Delilah S. Dawson). I feel very lucky that these weird books got to exist. It felt like a gift and I’m glad still for the chance.

What Comes Next?

I mean, nothing, technically? Six books and two novellas exist of Miriam Black, my favorite asshole protagonist. And that’s it. It’s done. Game over. Will there be a TV show? I’d love for there to be. Despite having lost the Starz option way back when, I will note that someone else did option it and the show continues to be wrapped up there, though I can say no more than that. I’ve long thought a comics adaptation would be cool, though to what end, I dunno. I’d deeply love a six-book special edition set that allows for each to have a Joey Hi-Fi cover — not that I don’t adore the Doyle covers. I do. But there’s something lurid and puzzle-boxy about the JFH covers that make me happy every time I look at them. I find my eyes roaming over them like ants searching up a crumb of human food.

Would I ever consider continuing the series? If there was a story there, sure. The last book ends in a way that definitely wraps everything up, but leaves a different door open for a different kind of story, but the vagaries of publishing make it difficult to get anyone to want to buy and produce those books.

So, they exist as they are, out in the world.

Maybe you wanna check ’em out, I dunno.

You can, of course. Doylestown Bookshop has them and I tend to sign them by predicting your demise, so that’s fun. But any bookstore will get you there.

Miscellaneous Debris

Hey! Here’s some random trivia bits about the series.

– It’s the only series of mine that I think has inspired both tattoos (!) and cosplay (!!). If you haven’t seen the amazing Sadie Hartmann’s cosplay, well, click.

– Very early on, the book was under consideration as a movie and not a show — using my original script developed during that mentorship. Trivia nestled within the trivia, that ended up poorly, and I got horrendously yelled at over a voicemail by what is now a major producer of films for reasons unknown to me, but he was super jerky and that pretty much made sure I wasn’t going to go that route.

– Mila Kunis reportedly had interest in playing Miriam Black, which, if you’ve seen Black Swan, totally would’ve worked.

– I’ve had many fan-castings sent to me as to who could or should play her, though my current personal choice after watching Only Murders in the Building is: Selena Gomez. Her dry, dark delivery in that show? Chef’s kiss.

– The Starz TV show originally would’ve been set in the Southwest, not the South. Which I like! Desert motels and shit. Very Breaking Bad — which, given John Shiban’s influence, made sense.

– If I had to list the books in order of my most to least favorite, I’d say The Cormorant, Vultures, Blackbirds, The Raptor & The Wren, Mockingbird, Thunderbird. I love them all, I really do, and I haven’t gone back to re-read them — but that’s my gut-check on remembering writing them.

– I remember getting to talk to a Penn State class about the books, as they were doing a whole class about women and feminism in genre books and comic books, and one of the young women students was like, “I loved how you totally inverted the PRINCESS IN THE TOWER motif by putting Louis in the lighthouse to be saved by Miriam,” and I was like, “Yes, that was definitely on purpose, thank you for noticing that,” which was a huge fucking lie. (I copped to that then and there, giving the woman full credit for totally picking up on something I didn’t even realize I was laying down. I confessed I had no idea I was doing that.)

– The Chinese covers for the books are super weird, almost Celtic.

– The series has its own TV Tropes page!

– And that’s it. Ten years. Holy fucking shit. Thanks for reading. And thanks to Miriam Black for living inside my head like a chatty, beautiful tumor.