Mystery Scene continues its look at authors’ writing process. Here, Jack Getze discusses how a souvenir led to his novel The Black Kachina, though the process wasn’t smooth.
A former Los Angeles Times reporter, Jack Getze’s news and feature stories have been published in more than 500 newspapers and periodicals. His novels include Big Numbers, Big Money, Big Mojo, and his latest The Black Kachina. His short stories have appeared in A Twist of Noir and Beat to a Pulp.
Chasing the Black Kachina
By Jack Getze
Once in a shop for tourists I was attracted to a bright, stitched emblem of Nataska the Black Ogre, a kachina (spirit) of the Hopi tribe. The horns, his hand saw, his alligator-like mouth, and sharp teeth poked my curiosity.
He was described as The Punisher of Wicked Children; so I hurried to the cashier to make my purchase.
A wonderful story of revenge and justice lurked around such an inspirational character, I decided, and the hunch proved accurate. Others will decide how wonderful it is, but my new thriller from Down & Out Books, The Black Kachina—based on that emblem—hit the market this month.
The only rub? That souvenir shop purchase was 23 years ago—the summer of 1994.
What follows is a nasty tale in bullet form, a warning for newer writers (“If my novel took that long to see daylight, I’d hang myself,”) authors of some experience (“Nice to see another manuscript start out so badly”) and for readers, perhaps a peek behind the creative curtain.
The first part of this tale—say at least the first decade—is not about persistence in the face of obstacles. It’s about me improving my craft. Two million words as a newspaper writer and two published novels in the first person didn’t totally prepare me for telling a third-person tale from multiple points of view.
And that’s my message for other writers here: Sometimes other people are better judges of your strengths and weaknesses.
Listening to your critique group, your agent, or your new, would-be editor is always a solid idea, and sometimes taking their advice to heart is the best thing for you and your story.
Over the course of two decades, at least two dozen people have put their finger in this pie, writers, half a dozen paid editors, two different agents, a New York book editor who showed interest, and finally Down & Out’s copy editor, Chris Rhatigan.
I wrote every single word. I made up each and every character’s crazy actions.
This is my work. But all along the way, I grabbed and held onto bunches of good advice.
Summer 1994: I work on character scenes and a potential outline. I want to write about a guy who dresses up like a scary kachina.
Spring 1998: At Writer’s Retreat Workshop, my outline looks interesting to others, but the opening chapter, not so much. Seems I know very little about writing third-person fiction. Being an ex-newspaper writer had drawbacks. In particular, point of view escapes me. I study published novels.
Spring 2002: Taking my first version of The Black Kachina to this year’s writers workshop, a New York agent agrees to help me with a chapter-by-chapter rewrite. “Don’t tell anybody,” she says.
Fall 2004: My agent says the latest version of Black Kachina sucks lemons, do I have “anything else in the drawer.” I send her Big Numbers, my first person story featuring Austin Carr. She likes it, finds a small publisher, and I drop the kachina story for years. (I’m not that guy in the critique group who won’t change novels. Bruce Lee says you must “be like water.”)
Summer 2009: The agent hasn’t sold Austin Carr numbers three and four, nor does she like a much revised Black Kachina. I’ve paid two professional editors to tell me what’s wrong with it and made revisions on their comments. I do notice the story gets better as I follow some of the editors’ advice, but I’ve had it with my agent. The feeling is mutual.
Summer 2012: With more editors, another major revision, the Black Kachina manuscript attracts a new agent. She loves my characters, especially a new one, Air Force Colonel Maggie Black. In fact, the new agent thinks Maggie should be the star. I tell her I’ll add more Maggie but this is not Maggie’s story.
Spring 2014: My rewrite gets a year of rejection, but one editor calls the agent nine months after saying no, tells her he can’t forget Colonel Maggie. He reads the manuscript again and wants to talk to me on the phone. He loves Maggie but thinks she needs to be the star—“it’s her story, her series.” He says he can’t take Black Kachina to his board the way it is, but he’ll work with me if I agree to rewrite Maggie into the main role. This is the first big shot who ever called me, I can tell you, so I say yes and work hard all summer.
Summer 2014: I started making Maggie the star and realized the truth within one week. It is her story. It always was her story. She designed and then loses a secret weapon. She has to get it back. If I could slap my forehead here, I would. Why was I so stubborn? The answer is too much research into Cahuilla tribes.
Fall 2014: My agent forwards a brief rejection of my rewrite from the New York editor. My agent can’t understand, calls it mysterious because she loves the new draft and the editor had agreed to work with us. Her email sent me to the shrink. “I can’t take it!”
Fall 2014: Weeks later, the editor gets fired. That’s the solution to our mystery, my agent says. Maybe she was trying to make me feel better. I don’t know. But I’m glad he didn’t sign me and then get fired. My agent keeps shopping Black Kachina.
Fall 2016: Over dinner and maybe a few drinks, I previously wowed my Austin Carr publisher Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books with tales of The Black Kachina and a stolen missile. I mail him the book and he thinks it’s great. Especially Colonel Maggie.
August 2017: The Black Kachina—and a Colonel Maggie series—sees print.