Home > The Words We Lost

The Words We Lost
Author: Nicole Deese





Every tap, tap, tap of my editorial director’s blood-red fingernail against her ceramic coffee mug feels like another second closer to the death of my career. And unfortunately, my only chance at an exoneration is currently limping his busted bicycle through the soggy streets of San Francisco on this uncharacteristically wet day in July. Below the conference room table, I twist the black sea glass ring on my right index finger, wishing it held the power to summon an ETA text from my assistant. Preferably one that starts with: Just arrived! Be right up! But instead, when a notification brightens my silenced phone, it reads: Can you stall for ten more?

“You’re up next to pitch, Ingrid,” SaBrina Hartley says, managing to draw my two-syllable name into three. It’s a practice she’s perfected since her transfer and subsequent promotion to our division nine months ago, along with her many lectures on the importance of signing established authors with established platforms. “You ready?”

This, of course, is a rhetorical question. Nobody ever tells SaBrina they’re anything but ready.

“Uh, yes. Sure.” I surrender my phone face-up on the conference room table, as if Siri might sense my panic and offer me a preemptive bailout plan. Sadly, no such thing happens. Heat prickles at the base of my neck when I open the cover of my iPad and stare down at the proposal for a dual-time novel I know far too little about to discuss intelligently.

Of the two critical meetings scheduled during the summer publishing season, this is the one I’d allocated to Chip, the young, enthusiastic editorial assistant I’d trained straight out of college. He’s also quite possibly the only reason I still have a corner office and the title of Senior Acquisitions Editor. While I’d been overloaded with deadlines for our national sales conference at the end of the month, he’d completed all the prep work for today’s meeting. Not only was Chip the one who’d reviewed the manuscript and researched every comparable title for the proposal we’d planned to pitch together—with Chip shouldering the majority of our shared talking points—he was also the one best-equipped to answer SaBrina’s cross-examination questions about the book and author. Truth is, I’d only managed to read the first couple chapters before I handed it over to Chip, and not even the most accomplished editor in the world could successfully pitch a manuscript for publication after reading so little of the story.

Another truth: there’s no mystery on how long it’s been since I last acquired a new book contract.

More than nine months and twenty-six days ago.

I hook the lock of dark hair obstructing my vision behind my right ear and lift my gaze to the exposed brick walls of our rectangular conference room. The space is bookended on either side by shelves filled with plaques and awards and the internationally recognized bestselling fantasy novels most of those accolades belong to. Their astonishing success single-handedly launched our midsize printing press into an entirely new stratosphere roughly five years ago. Consequently, they are the same best-selling titles that shoot a flaming harpoon through my ribcage whenever my gaze lingers too long in their direction.

I divert my attention to the half dozen unsmiling faces of our acquisitions team: four editors and two assistants who rarely lift their eyes from their laptops. It’s strange to think that once upon a time—back before SaBrina Hartley arrived from our New York imprint and before my brain short-circuited to a pace slower than dial-up internet—that this was once my favorite meeting of the month.

Under past leadership, this space was a welcome reprieve from the endless cycle and demands of publishing—a safe launching pad where fresh ideas and premise hooks sailed back and forth like a crowd-pleasing game of hot potato. We’d laugh over the scrambled coffee orders we’d have delivered and swap them with ease the way we once swapped inside jokes and stories from around the Golden City. The only stories we share now are the ones we pitch in an atmosphere as hospitable as Alcatraz.

I tap my iPad screen and stare down at the proposal Chip emailed on my behalf to each editor in this room while I’d been cramming for a sales conference I might be uninvited to after today. I clear my throat and twist the underside of my ring with the tip of my thumb, turning the band around until the oblong piece of frosted black glass is tucked safely against my palm.

“Moonlight on Sutter’s Mill,” I begin in my most professional-sounding voice, “is a dual-time narrative that’s unique for several reasons, the first being that the setting is the iconic sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas where gold was first discovered in 1848.” I swallow and try to remember any other snippets of interest Chip might have shared with me while I continue to panic-skim the digital proposal. I glean whatever I can from the summary, throwing key terminology out like a magician practiced in sleight of hand: generational family feud, unsolved mysteries, debauchery and scandal, and a secret Romeo and Juliet love affair. “‘But perhaps,’” I read directly from the fourth paragraph, “‘the most interesting fact is that the author herself, Mary B. Jespersen, is a direct, albeit distant, descendant to the Sutter family.’”

My vision warbles in an obnoxiously familiar warning. I blink twice in vain, though I know from experience that the only remedy for the coming onslaught of brain fatigue is time.

Unfortunately, time is the one thing I never have enough of.

“And is this the reason you’ve listed no previous works in her bio—because she has a connection to a distant, dead relative?” SaBrina interjects before I can locate the notes Chip wrote about the author’s platform. But in the same way I can predict the ending of nearly every work of fiction I’ve ever read, I can also predict SaBrina’s next words. “As I’ve stated before, Ingrid, I have no interest in taking on a debut author in our current market—far too much risk for far too little reward. Fog Harbor Books is interested in authors with established platforms only.” She sighs in that dramatic way Chip loves to emulate, second only to his perfected pronunciation of the capital B in our boss’s name. Rumor has it, SaBrina only became S-a-B-r-i-n-a upon her transfer here, as if adding a second capital letter to her first name would give her more professional clout. “Established authors mean established readerships, which in turn equals higher pre-order sales, visibility, and marketable placement on best-selling lists.” Her gaze finds me again. “Great story hooks don’t sell books. Platforms do.”

I clamp my teeth together as a rebuttal builds behind my closed lips. It wasn’t too long ago that Fog Harbor Books said yes to a no-name author after she was submitted to an editorial director via a no-name editorial intern who was so passionate about the power of story that she was willing to sacrifice her career track to see it published. But I don’t say this. Not only because the legendary tale of how I snuck Cecelia Campbell’s manuscript onto Barry Brinkman’s desk is as well-known as the five-book deal she struck because of it, but because it still hurts too badly to speak about my best friend in past tense.

With everything in me, I fight to recall the reason why Chip was so convinced he could get Ms. Jespersen’s novel sold despite all the contracted authors SaBrina hasn’t renewed for lack of sales this last year. But try as I might, I can’t remember, so instead, I go with what I can remember about the two chapters I managed to read. “Mary Jespersen writes with a rare blend of old-soul and a twist of modern snark. She also has a pitch-perfect sense of time and place. The tension and conflict is evident from the first few sentences in each storyline, which isn’t often the case with dual-timelines. I was impressed with the current-day plot and the focus on the great-granddaughter, who is the historical protagonist, and the inheritance she means to—”

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