Friday, May 25, 2012

Reject me if you will, but publish my novel

The vast majority of fiction writers, both actual and imaginary, have had to cope with the ineluctable, unequivocal, occasionally debilitating reality of rejection at the hands of literary agents. The old saying circulating around would-be writer's bars, usually late at night, after enough alcohol has been consumed to cauterize even the most glaring psychic wounds, is that if you're not rejected a lot - read as, A LOT - you can never fully appreciate the dedication, perseverance, intestinal grit and sheer masochistic obsessiveness required to eventually see your work in published book form.
Granted, the writers who say this have generally been rejected A LOT.

Literary agents, for those of you not familiar with the species, represent a kind of collective interface (some would say impenetrable barrier) between the writing and publishing worlds. They tend to be extremely picky, relentlessly subjective (i.e. arbitrarily fickle) and rarely amenable to clever counter-argument - a bit like children, but with a great deal more power. The agent interface is more accurately viewed as a very small aperture through which you must accurately project your manuscript in order to reach the promised land of barely mediocre book sales. Aim, needless to say, is critical. 

In all fairness, however, agents do not have it particularly easy. The average literary agency receives an enormous number of submissions; one agent confided to me that her agency gets "like a million a month." (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration) Still, considering this sort of submission submersion, it's not so surprising that agents will typically spend no more than 30 seconds reading and evaluating the book proposal you've spent two agonizing weeks composing. A proposal, lest we forget, based on a novel it took you a year to write.
Does this seem fair, you may be inclined to ask?

Notwithstanding the fact that there is very little fair about life on Earth, even less within the publishing industry, try putting yourself in an agent's shoes. They might as well be working in a landfill for all the garbage that gets dumped on them every day. The simple, heartless truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people submitting book proposals can't write. They have no business even trying.  Despite utopian claims by fuzzy-minded utilitarians, we do not live in a world where everyone can do everything. Writing fiction is not the same as learning to ride a bicycle. And it's not as if agents don't warn the writing public upfront. Check out any literary agency website. Their current rejection rate is the first thing you notice, posted in bold face, sometimes flashing, highlighted by quivering lightening bolts, or skulls and crossbones. For "friendlier" agencies, the rejection percentage is usually around 95%. The more hardline, no nonsense pros proudly proclaim a rate of 99.9%. And yet hordes of would be novelists remain adamant that they undoubtedly belong in this one-tenth-of-one-percent elite. How hard can it be, they ask? It's just about words, sticking them into sentences, right? I know how to do that. 

Is it any wonder that literary agents are forced to pursue their profession with what can only be described as ruthless, totalitarian-like efficiency, that agency shredders are running 24 hours a day? But let's assume for the moment that the seemingly impossible does happen; something about your proposal causes a single neuron in an agent's brain to momentarily flicker. She may also experience a sub-sonic humming in one ear. You have passed the first hurdle and are due an actual reply.
Most likely something along the lines of ... "I am vaguely intrigued, in a clearly minimalist sort of way, by your proposal. Please send me the first 15 sentences of your manuscript."

And you're thinking ... huh? 15 sentences, did she say?  Your manuscript, after all, is 437 pages long. How can the sheer lugubrious brilliance of it be comprehended in a mere 15 sentences? In human terms, of course, it can't be. But these are literary agents. They have transcended the general human condition of befuddled indecisiveness, possess intuitive insight rivaling that of a Zen master, instantly know things with a quirky, eerie confidence that most of us can only fantasize about.

A real life example may suffice:  After submitting a proposal for a novel, I received a reply asking to see the first 2 pages of the manuscript. A short time after sending my 2 pages, I got an e-mail from the agent in question, stating that while she thought the book had potential, she was somewhat dismayed by my apparent inability to convey any sense of depth regarding the main character. Who is he really, she wanted to know? What makes him tick? ( true story)
I, of course, wrote back thanking her for her cogent comments - as a rule, agents don't do this - but also couldn't refrain from asking what seemed like the obvious question: "Are you willing to at least concede the possibility that the intricate and mysterious depths of my main character might be revealed somewhere beyond page 2?"

Still waiting on an answer to that.....

Friday, May 18, 2012

My dog don't read no books...

Glancing back at my previous, coincidentally also my first, posting on this blog, it occurs to me that it may have been something less than an auspicious beginning. And not because it is for the most part haphazardly written gibberish, or that it refers to an obscure fictional event conspicuously unrelated to the everyday concerns of the average hypothetical blog reader (assuming such a person exists and that his/her concerns can ever be known). The issue here, it seems, is figuring out how to connect; as we all live within our own fictional worlds, discovering common ground can be a serious challenge. If we're willing to concede that the world is exclusively as it is perceived, and that no two person's perceptions of any single event can ever be identical, then the entire notion of commonality is very likely an illusion. 

A case can certainly be made that the whole point of fiction is to remind us that there is no such thing as a shared perceptual experience. Fiction is the admission of our inherent existential isolation. It's also a fairly pleasurable way to explore this uncomfortable reality; clearly better than, say, being hit by a bus in Shanghai and having to lie there suffering in the street for an hour while half a million Chinese walk by ignoring you. Once we accept the probability that we're on our own, we can relax, cuddle up with a dense, disconcerting, hopefully deranged novel and begin the task of re-imagining ourselves and, for the more ambitious, the world.

Those who claim to want fictional characters they can relate to on a deep and profound level - i.e. characters who will somehow validate their own muddled emotional/intellectual states - belong reading somewhere in the 19th Century; reader remnants of the Enlightenment, which, lets face it, wasn't particularly enlightening, considering the amount of darkness that continues to pervade the planet.  I personally prefer my characters to be abrasive, alienating and blatantly shallow.
"There is no depth!" shouts the postmodern coal miner trapped a mile underground.
There are only obscure, shifting surfaces, quantum field states within which nothing exactly is and and anything can in theory be.

And yeah, yeah, we all get the idea that nature, the universe, is a vast interconnected web. You burp in New York, a star in the Cygnus Constellation twitches and some guy in Cape Town gets a migraine. Cosmic cause and effect in the no-time zone. You want to buy into this with all your heart, but then you try having a conversation with the guy across the street and it doesn't take long to realize that his quivering, mutating brain is light years - perceptually speaking - from yours. You might be able to reach an uneasy consensus on the weather, but beyond that you're forced to conclude he's a totally witless psycho on a mission to annoy the crap out of you. His wife, you can't help noticing, appears to be in a perpetual state of seeing ghosts. He ices the cake on your accelerating sense of impending doom by admitting that he supports the Tea Party because he is an avid tea drinker, and is confident that with enough Tea Party candidates in office the price of tea will surely go down.

At the very least you're forced to consider the possibility of multiple universes.
Or that you would like the guy a lot more if he was a character in a novel.

But getting back to the original point:
This blog purports to be purely fictional.
Only through the fictional act can the non-existent soul be redeemed.
The best fiction writers (and readers) are monsters at heart; phantoms, beyond desperation, a bit like serial killers, but with a better sense of humor.
The best language is employed as a weapon; the optimal result a bullet-ridden insight into the possibilities of a disturbed mind.
Realistic prose is an oxymoron.
The most interesting fiction cares less about describing the world, more about convincing the reader there is no world to be described.
Random, seemingly gratuitous sex scenes are more important in a novel than a consistently believable plot.
True suspense in fiction always occurs on the level of the single sentence.
Fictionists are by definition fictitious. They assemble/disassemble fictive versions of themselves with the ease of a skilled schizophrenic; they are generally transparent and mostly insubstantial, which explains why people are continually trying to walk through them.
Welcome to the void / part 2...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Implied Risks of Multifaceted Communication Within The Void / Part 1

I was just talking with A who was at the same time talking on line with B and C. B was simultaneously chatting with the parents (D) of A's boyfriend (E) telling A everything E had told D about A. C, also talking with B, immediately informed his girlfriend (F) what E had said - via D - about A. He then informed both A and B that F had expressed interest of an indeterminate nature about this, suggesting that D's assessment of E's comments concerning A, further filtered through B, were perhaps less than entirely accurate. C relayed this to A and, somewhat inadvertently, to B, who subsequently waxed indignant to A, C and D; her natural, god-given ability to repeat everything she hears verbatim and certainly without any trace of editorial license is apparently above reproach.
This, we are forced to conclude, is precisely what B would say under the circumstances.
(It should also be noted that, caught up in the conversational moment, C blurted out the gist of this ongoing online adventure to an elderly Chinese woman busy sweeping the street just outside his apartment. The Chinese woman spat once, tugged at her not insignificant chin hair and, apparently missing the point entirely, replied in her native bark ... "Crazy stupid westerners don't even eat dogs.")

So much for the already fuzzy concept of cross-cultural communication.
It is fairly common knowledge, particularly among techno-nincompoops, that each time a piece of information is repeated the content of said information is gradually deformed.
A case in point, E's original information to D about A:
"She is a really cool chick with big blue eyes and a terrific sense of humor"
Becomes over time, "She's an excessively chilly barnyard animal with bulging new eyeballs and an horrific fear of tumors."
The mutated version, while no less interesting than the original, is hardly something we would expect a boy to tell his parents about his new girlfriend.
Interestingly, as the original version of this collective communicative act mutates its way around the planet,  it is eventually told to G, a distant friend of A, who immediately informs A of what some anonymous boy E told his parents D about this girl A he's interested in.
At this point the original content appears thus:
"She's a compulsively frigid hen-like creature with bulbous Bulgarian bedsores and an iffy fascination with East Timor."
A, needless to say, has no idea what G is talking about, assumes she is just making stuff up, or has stopped taking her medication, and decides then and there to have no more to do with the girl....