Last year I wrote a 360-page book that attracted the attention of one of the world's most celebrated literary agents. He was so moved by my writing that he immediately took me on as a client and, one week later, sold my book to one of New York's leading publishing houses. My editor there absolutely loved the book, but felt that I had "gone on too long" in several places and requested that I tighten up the writing before publication, which, I am pleased to say, I did without much complaint, leaving me with a much leaner and meaner 272-page manuscript.
The publisher's focus group, however, a vital part of the editorial process, noted that one of the chapters -- the longest one -- seemed better suited for the sequel -- an observation, I thought, that was actually quite astute and also inspiring, as I had not, until that time, thought my book was good enough to merit a sequel. So I got to work, excised the too-long chapter, tweaked a few segues and, in just a matter of days, was the proud papa of a still-very-commanding 189-page tome, "destined", my publisher declared, for the New York Times Best Seller List.
My publicist, an industry heavyweight since 1973 and an upstanding member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was delighted to be representing me, but suggested, with all due respect, that I should more carefully consider my demographic -- a slice of the global population, her research indicated, that was increasingly struggling with ADD and, if I was still committed to my book becoming a commercial success, I needed to seriously consider trimming it down to 120 pages, which, she explained, was the ideal length for my particular market.
While I found it a bit disconcerting to re-enter the editorial process once again, what my publicist said made perfect sense and, since one of the reasons I had written the book in the first place was to make the extra money I needed to pay for my daughter's college education, I battened down whatever hatches I had left and got busy. It took me three weeks to make the changes, but with the unflagging encouragement of my best friend and some top shelf tequila, I nailed it, leaving me with 120 pages of what my editor was now referring to as my "modern day Rilkean prose".
Not only had I gotten my book down to fighting weight, I finally understood what Michelangelo meant when he explained, centuries ago, his process for sculpting his iconic David. "I simply took away everything that wasn't." Though outwardly my book was now smaller than before, inwardly I had been transported back to the Renaissance and the emerging essence of my opus grande. Life was good.
When I showed the manuscript to my wife, a highly intuitive visionary with a knack for seeing what was invisible to me, she was miffed. One hundred and twenty pages, my dear wife explained, was more like a "booklet" than a book and did I really want to be known as a writer of booklets?
She was right, of course. What writer wants to be associated with the word "booklet?" Certainly not me. So I dropped my 120-page paradigm and decided to cut my manuscript in half until I had the perfect 60-page story that could easily be serialized for Esquire -- one 15-page story per month for four consecutive months, the first one appearing in September, the same month my daughter would be heading off to college.
The idea to have my writing serialized in Esquire was an unexpected stroke of genius, I must say, since many a serialized story in that highly regarded publication, I came to realize, had caught the attention of Hollywood's biggest studios, many of whom paid big bucks to buy the movie rights and, by the way, I would be getting not only a screen credit and a hefty paycheck, but be invited to the Oscars should the movie make it big.
What I didn't see coming was the mistress of my Esquire editor, a stunning, red-headed, erudite woman who, though she adored my writing, believed strongly that Chapter 2 was far superior to my other three chapters and, since she was angry at her editor/boyfriend for spending Valentine's Day with his wife and kids, threatened not to have sex with him for six months unless he agreed to only publish Chapter 2. This was, shall we say, somewhat deflating for me, but I had to agree that of the four chapters, Chapter 2 was, by far, the strongest.
As I reflected on this unexpected turn of events while walking the three blocks back to my hotel, it dawned on me that buried within the 15-page chapter my editor's mistress preferred, abided the perfect poem -- an epic poem -- a classic genre of writing, I believed, that could easily be revived for the modern day reader, a genre that would deeply honor my early roots as a poet. Wow! How great would it be to have my epic poem published in Esquire and reach an audience of millions!
My editor loved the idea, but when he pitched it to his protege, a 22-year old wunderkind from Hong Kong recently hired to help Esquire tap into the Far East millennial market, he discovered that while Asian millennials DO read poetry, they do not read epic poetry. Haiku is their preferred medium, it being so ultimately pristine and, in today's Twitter-dominated marketplace, the perfect length to deliver a powerful message to as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Was I reluctant to translate my epic poem into Haiku form? Yes I was, although, upon further reflection, there was something about the challenge that intrigued me, having always been a big fan of the form and, in fact, when I was 22, owned a first edition of Basho's haikus, a beautifully crafted tome complete with tissue paper overlays of the most elegant calligraphy I had ever seen. So, Haiku it was -- a form, I soon came to realize, that was easy to imitate, but hard to master -- kind of like the difference, as Mark Twain once wrote, between lightning and a lightning bug. So I drank a lot of sake, downloaded some Koto music, and got to work.
In less than a week, I had myself a stellar haiku, one that my editor, his mistress, and protégé were so taken with that they took me out to dinner, that night, to the most expensive sushi restaurant in all of Manhattan. Finally, after months of endless editing I had the perfect piece of writing for publication! Hallelujah!
What I didn't understand at that precise moment was that the sales staff of Esquire's advertising department, newly back from an intensive Tony Robbins seminar on the Left Coast, was so unbelievably empowered that they had just broken all previous sales records and sold out every single inch of space in the magazine for the next four months. Translation? There was no room left in the magazine for my haiku. All contracts had been signed and unless Esquire wanted to pay their advertisers hefty rebate fees, my haiku wouldn't be appearing for at least five months, which meant, of course, that I would not see a paycheck until February, 2016, which was several months after the tuition for my daughter's Freshmen year was due.
Though I admit to being understandably depressed at that particular moment in time, my spirits soon lifted upon hearing the latest news from my editor. The September issue, he explained, was going to feature a two-page spread by one of the world's most up-and-coming graphic designers from Amsterdam -- a creative genius with well over five million Twitter followers and, if I could just reduce my Haiku to a single word, the designer would find a way to feature my word in his spread -- the centerpiece of the September issue, I was told -- an issue that was going to be majorly promoted by the sales staff and, as a result, would likely bring a global, tidal wave of attention to my word.
Friday is my deadline, but... um... uh... I'm having some trouble with the final phase of the editing process. I wouldn't say I was "stuck", just needing a bit of feedback. What do you think the word should be? Please understand that I'm not asking you to write the piece for me, just suggest some possibilities and I, in conjunction with my wife, editor, editor's mistress, protege, publicist, and advertising team, will select one.
If I end up using the word you suggest, be assured, I will generously acknowledge you in my acceptance speech.
Mitch Ditkoff is the President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. His forthcoming book, WISDOM AT WORK, will be published in September. He's pretty sure it will be longer than a word. And yes, his writing roots go back to poetry.