The Big Idea: Susan McDonough-Wachtman
Posted on February 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
They say good things come to those who wait. They also, however, say that the waiting is the hardest part. In both cases, Susan McDonough-Wachtman has reason to understand each aphorism, and in this Big Idea for the aptly-named Snail’s Pace, she explains why.
I started writing Snail’s Pace in 1984. 1984!
I typed the first draft on a word processor I bought when I was working at Montgomery Ward — it used thermal paper. I’d like to say I was inspired by Orwell, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I had read any Orwell at that time. I had read Heinlein and Asimov and watched classic Star Trek over and over. But my true delights were romantic suspense novels ( I was 24-years-old). I was inspired by Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, intrepid Egyptologist, and by Mary Stewart’s The Gabriel Hounds which introduced me to Lady Hester Stanhope, the British “Queen of the Desert.”
I thought: What would happen if one of those fearless, sanctimonious, oblivious British women went to space and met aliens from other galaxies? Wouldn’t she be just as charming and aggravating and self-righteous as ever? And I came up with Susannah McKay, British orphan stranded in Hong Kong and looking for a job.
Susannah jumped at the chance to tutor an alien aboard a ship — she naturally assumed the child was Chinese and that the ship had sails. She considered it a great adventure to take this job — and also her duty as a “civilized” person. She did not anticipate snail aliens on a humid spaceship. The hardest plot problem I had was to come up with a reason for the aliens to want Susannah. This is part of the explanation I created for myself:
“Simtlack admired Queen Victoria. She had longevity —unusual in an Earth ruler. She also had self-discipline and a very strong sense of right and wrong. Just the things his son most needed to learn… Simtlack’s tentacles wove thoughtfully. Yes, she sounded quite smooth. He directed the Captain to set course for Earth, then oozed his way out of the communications center. The slimer had to clean up after him.”
I wanted to pit Susannah’s innate sense of superiority against an advanced alien civilisation with shocking table manners. I had a lot of fun creating shocks for Susannah’s sensibilities. Unfortunately, my “quirky” premise has never appealed to any traditional publisher.
I was a veteran of the short fiction trenches then. I had spent a considerable amount of time and money sending out typed paper manuscripts in their SASEs. I got some very nice rejections from George H. Scithers and others, but the only story I actually sold was to a publication which went out of business before my story went to print.
I got an agent for Snail’s Pace in fairly short order (so exciting!), but these were the sort of responses we got:
(ALT TEXT – “Dear Mr. Rhodes,
Thank you for sending SNAIL’S PACE by Susan Sanchez. While I found some of the protagonist’s alien adventures quite amusing, the story was so far-fetched that it was difficult to develop an emotional interest in the characters. In general, we prefer science fiction with a real grounding in science to this type of satire.”)
(ALT TEXT -“Dear Mr. Rhodes:
Enclosed is SNAIL’S PACE, by Susan Sanchez. We publish few science fiction stories, because there does not seem to be a large market for them among young adult readers.”)
(ALT TEXT -“Dear Mr. Rhodes:
I’m returning SNAIL’S PACE, which came to me as I’m the new editor-in-chief of Four Winds Press, and am sorry to say that I won’t be making an offer for it. It’s an imaginative story, but I was concerned that its quirkiness might make it difficult to sell.”)
My agent gave up. I gave up. I spent the next ten years raising children and writing stories for and about them. The computer age arrived. I got an Apple with 8 inch floppies, typed stories in Appleworks, and created a homepage on Netscape. When I read about PublishingOnline.com’s $10,000 writing contest, I dug out Susannah’s story, typed it anew, revised, and sent it in. I went to Seattle’s Hugo House where I was awarded $5,000 for second place and Snail’s Pace was published!
I was given a wonderful review by Lisa DuMond at SF Site, who suggested the title “Anna and the Snail of Siam.” She liked the quirkiness of Snail’s Pace! I thought I would soon have tens, if not millions, of readers! But PublishingOnline was not Amazon, and my story was the death knell of another publisher. That’s how it felt, at least, when the company disappeared a few years later.
So here I am again, trusting Susannah’s “quirkiness” to another publisher. I cried when I read in their acceptance that Water Dragon’s Acquisitions Editor said, ““Love it, read the whole thing, already want a sequel.” I did warn them about my track record.
It seems appropriate, in retrospect, that Susannah’s fraught journey, begun with confidence and not a little hubris, should mirror my own. She faces her challenges with courage, as I hope I do, and she weathered her dark night with the help of her friends. (I had an online women’s writer’s group through Netscape, and later joined OnlineWritingWorkshop.com.) Susannah is inspired by her dead parents, as I am, and in particular her father. My father, Francis Michael McDonough, was a big fan of Susannah’s story. It was he who named it Snail’s Pace. My first grandson, Chaol Francis Michael, was born February 4th. It feels like the perfect timing to send Susannah out into her quirky universe again.
Snail’s Pace: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Thank you for sharing this! Too bad itbis not an ebook, which is my preferred format these days. For tge author. Is it better to order hardback or paperback, or is there no difference? I plan to order (and read) this weekend nce i know the answer.
Please ignore the above. I did a search and found the ebook! Which I bought!
Wow, the editor who responded
“We publish few science fiction stories, because there does not seem to be a large market for them among young adult readers.”
That is the one of the dumbest things I have ever read. Proven wrong in the golden age with the Heinlein juveniles, proven wrong later with such mega-hits as the Hunger Games. Proven wrong by me, in the 80s, devouring all the SciFi I could get my hands on.
If I’d had the resources as a teenager that I do now, I would have been published all OVER the place!
The StoryGraph: https://app.thestorygraph.com/books/a2ca8f37-d978-4b42-83e8-0d3f044496e6
Gilbert Sorrentino is one of my all-time favorite writers. His works are seriously quirky, above and beyond the call of duty.
His masterpiece Mulligan’s Stew was rejected by a great number of publishers at the time. Eventually his employer, Grove Press, agreed to publish the novel. Added were endpapers containing nearly verbatim copies of the most ridiculous rejections the manuscript received. Only the names were changed.
I am so stupid sometimes. The Sorrentino novel is Mulligan Stew. No apostrophe-s.