Thursday, March 25, 2010

Out of the Drawer

At least temporarily, the MS is out of the drawer and winging pixelly through cyberspace toward the electronic reader of an actual literary agent in New York. Upon his request, in fact, very kind and most appreciated, following a query with pages to his editorial assistant. Oh, one other thing--the crucial thing I think in such matters--the query was accompanied by a note to the agent from someone he knew, a client, in fact, with whom I'd actually met the man in New York a number of years ago.

How does it actually feel--the using of a personal connection to request this access? Like a stroke of undeserved good fortune, mainly. More precisely, it feels like watching a crack appear in a door you're sure can open even though it bears the smooth, knobless surface appearance of magic portals in a childhood fantasy.

As that may also convey, it feels vaguely dream-like. When he agreed to look at the whole thing, I did a quick re-read myself. Not much one can do in those circumstances. Trying to tweak what seem to be especially clunky sentences can merely throw paragraphs out of whack. But it's a fairly irresistible temptation, after all. The real danger is that you will find something major that just screams to be changed, after which the whole edifice will crumble. (Don't re-read is what I guess I'm saying.) Anyway, I hope I did resist all of the above. Or much of it.

I don't in fact have high hopes for success in the larger sense of publication from this. My story has not so much as one vampire or rogue virus, and it involves no elaborate government conspiracies. It's just people in a family--mother, daughter and grandmother--who have been lying to each other about some very important matters for many years.

The agent who will read this has a long and distinguished career, with much commercial literary success. I am honored to have my MS read by such a person, whatever happens.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hanging out

So here I am at the Starbucks in Brenham while our neighbor burns off his fields. Yes, that's right--a controlled or prescribed burn. Very thoughtfully, considering how close the two properties are, he has waited for a south wind, so the smoke will waft elsewhere.

I'm taking no chances. Little computer and I are off to the big town nearby, where we'll sip coffee and work.

Well, the first part is fully accounted for. Coffee. You bet. And there are a couple of people working on laptops over in the corner. I take my drink and sit down, near enough to make clear we're a laptop area, but not right on top of them.

Open the screen and start reading. I want to see if my character Paul’s internal musings make any sense. To do that, I need to hear him.

One of the nearby laptops leaves. Tapping away, I scarcely notice.

Latino dance music comes on the loudspeaker. Very nice. Lively, lilting.

The remaining laptop person starts to talk. "Dude," he says. "You all want mountain view or ocean view?" The venue is Hawaii.

Ocean, I think.

Meanwhile, my character Paul is putting away his lawnmower and wondering if the garden rake could fall off the wall.

The music grows livelier. I can see flashing feet and bodies whirling, not the garden shed where Paul is wondering if the rake might stab his four-year-old in the heart. Paul is about to turn the rake to the wall, where its long tines will do no harm.

“Dude! Ocean view for $199. Five nights...Yeah, dude, if you can book it through Expedia for cheaper, do it.”

An old Beatles song comes on. "Blackbird flying..."

"Why don't you take my code and check it out for yourselves...Here you go."

He gives the full code, too, complete with passwords. I thought about writing it down to warn him that he shouldn't do that kind of thing in a public place. His boss might not approve. But I didn't.

I'd never do a thing like that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I’ve been re-reading the manuscript, finding things to adjust, small things for the most part. Actually, that’s what I’ve been trying to do this week, but the job intervenes.

This job, like many, involves managing multiple projects, each of which is at a different stage of completion. My mind wants to take them in order: finish one, then begin another. But that’s not the way it’s done.

Instead it’s like a system of country roads. Each project is the big highway, maybe the interstate if that’s not giving it too much weight. So here we are, rolling comfortably toward a destination, when along comes an exit, a state highway that we are compelled to take. If we ignore the state highway, we’ll soon be so far along the interstate that we can’t double back. So we take it and are making good progress, whatever that is, when whoops! Gotta take that farm road. It won’t wait. A few miles after that, we turn onto a county road, and it’s dirt, and it’s looping past fields we’ve never seen before. Other dirt roads veer off from it, too, but if we are, at last, able to stay on one road, ignoring others, we eventually end up back on the state highway, and after that, possibly the interstate again. Now, where was it we wanted to go?

Many people do such work, fielding unrelated emails and phone calls while an important project--or two or three--simmers on deadline and clamors for attention. They do it, moreover, for forty years.


I hope they don’t find it as stressful as I do.

Meanwhile the manuscript waits in its metaphorical drawer. Fortunately (!) I’ve heard nothing from the agent I queried. (It’s much too soon for that.) The weather outside is beautiful and I need to go have a “consent to pool” notarized.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lit Biz, 1

This is how it's supposed to work:

Major in English lit; grad school for your MFA in creative writing where you learn much about craft and make valuable connections. (Note those connections for later.)

Your thesis will usually be a collection of stories and you will be encouraged to send them out individually to literary journals--what used to be called the "little magazines" because once upon a time many "big" magazines published short stories. A few still do.

The fresh MFA recipient thus graduates with a dollop of hope--first, from the literary agents out there trolling the journals for "new, compelling voices"; second, from the network of industry contacts accumulated by his or her professors. The professors recommend their students to agents and editors, thus vaulting the student over the mass of poor wretches clamoring at the gates.

(I believe I'm detecting a trace of bitterness in my tone. Let's squash that right now.)

Because I had my shot at that process years ago when I was in the UH Creative Writing Program. No less than Don Barthelme gave me an agent to contact using his name. Did I do it? No. I already had an agent. Did I keep the name for future use? I'm sure I must have, but I've never been able to find where I squirreled it away. Almost like I willed myself to lose it, right? Exploring the possible reasons for that would take several novels, most likely.

Anyway, I had an agent for several years. She loved my novel manuscript and sent it out to editors. (Yes, novel. We were told in those days that there was no market for short stories. This was at the beginning of the boom in writing programs whose graduates have created the very market the programs currently exist to supply.)

My agent at the time--a former editor of Hale's at Doubleday--sent out the manuscript, DINNER PARTNERS, to 23 editors at last count, and every one passed on it, with kind and sometimes even enthusiastic comments about wanting to see the next manuscript. It's easy to see why they passed, too, since I hadn't figured out how to bring the varied elements of a novel together.

In fact, I hadn't learned anything about how to construct a short story, either. Focused obsessively on the health of individual trees--sentences in this case--I had missed the architect’s plan for the forest. I had absorbed practically nothing about the craft of narrative structure.

Teaching craft has evolved wonderfully since then, of course, with all those MFA grads out there teaching their competition to surpass them. The stories in the magazines today seem marvels of competent writing. It almost gives one hope for the printed page and for thoughtful communication in general.

The rest of us blog...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wait, wait, don't stop

I sent off another agent query on Thursday, and have been trying to catch up with other tasks since. Plus work, of course.

I've been a bit down in the dumps, though, because I don't see how anyone is going to want to read my "quiet" novel, however well written and well constructed it may be.

The publishing industry used to be interested in such books. Now the editors have become overwhelmed by their marketing responsibilities which trend toward "louder" books, and the agents troll the literary magazines looking for interesting short story writers who might have a novel manuscript in the drawer.

That makes less sense than it seems on the surface since even a great short story writer might be quite inept at the novel form. But the short story writer has been vetted. By that I mean that their writing has stood out sufficiently from the pack to attain publication. Thus, they're less risky.

Why would risk matter to an agent? Time, as much as anything. Taking on an author requires a significant investment of time. In a market overburdened with writers of competency (thanks to the multiplicity of writing programs), it's more difficult to winnow out excellent work from the merely competent. Finding that a prestigious journal has selected someone's work means that one's own judgment is not merely floating out there untethered, an easy target for failure.

The moral of this story for a writter is probably not to spend years working on novels, hoping to master the form. Get those shorts out there, the more the better. Too late for me, in that regard, probably, but I intend to try. I had success with the first two short stories I sent out for publication. Both were accepted. At which point I thought: goodie. Now for the main course. Ah, well.

The short story is a highly compressed and refined object quite different from a novel. I have my doubts about writing one now in this ferocious market, but it will be interesting to try.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fresh Look

Today things look better. I apologize for the crack about menopausal felines, as perhaps I am one of their ilk. (I've always preferred canines, truly.) But an afternoon's walk on the beach in the sun can place much in perspective. Maybe it's all the death at one's toes, or the wonderful simplicity of birds feeding.

I've been trying to figure out why I'm so burnt out. My day job has involved an awful lot of back and forthing between attorneys, it's true, to no great constructive purpose that I can see. Business seems to be a matter of projects, and one of the good things is that there are resolution points. They don't last forever, maybe, but they're attainable. So when I'm involved in a process where there appears to be a willful refusal to attain any such resolution point, I become frustrated.

This is especially true when there is no time allowed for life in the interstices. I've been in the process of editing my manuscript for a year. I've written new portions, but I haven't had the opportunity to start anything new and I'm so stale in the dailyness of everything that I perceive it as misery. It's really not misery, though. Misery is illness. Stress is merely stress, and I don't handle it well.

We need help with stress, as people, as a country. That's what fuels the beer and wine industries. That's what sells tranquillizers, too, and supports many of the fitness emporia. In the past couple of years, I've become unable to enjoy the first of these, tolerate the second and have very many options to engage the third. Maybe that's why I miss the place my mind goes when I'm beginning a story.

I really miss it terribly.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The story of pages

It seems to me that millions of people are right now at 1:05 AM all over the world busy tapping away on keyboards, many of them hoping the taps will eventually emerge from the world of pixels and lodge between the boards of a hardbound book. Yes. Book.

Most of the tappers, I suspect, have day jobs.

Some have tapped through stacks of what would be real paper if it sat on your desk, or on the floor by your chair, instead of residing in vitals behind this screen. Some have thumbed their way through chapters under the ledge of the conference table on a BlackBerry, hoping one obsession will be taken for another more closely related to that day job. Some just jot down character insights on the backs of used envelopes, and then lose them.

This blog is for all of them--for us. That's the short form of what I'm trying to say.

First my day job--herding cats. I will admit to poaching the image as everyone can easily see, but it does the descriptive job so well. I have a herd of largely feral cats, scattered in neighborhoods around the country where they are for the most part well fed and housed. Some pretend to domestication. For many years, in fact, some have given excellent impressions of perfect domesticity and agreeableness. All things change, however, and now they are roaming the backalleys and snarling over the tiniest disruptions. Feline menopause, perhaps. Why not? It becomes worse the closer we get to our annual meeting.

And I have just completed a 350 page manuscript of a literary novel that I have to launch into the equally irksome world of unsolicited book submission.

The first thing I've learned about that is that I should have been blogging and networking all those years instead of trying to make my characters and language perfectly reflect the situation they find themselves in, as they attempt to make their lives different and better.

There will be posts to come about the process of novel submission, to agents, to editors, as my little stack of pages exits the screen, then the door, on its way to a better fate, I pray, than the nearest rubbish bin or storage closet. Come along with me on that journey. We can help each other. If we don't who will?