Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tips for Writing Success: Source Material (#1)


   [Frankly, I'm bored with posting comments about other people's books. Ditto for posting snippets of my own ill-starred novel. In the interests of blog evolution and giving back to the (literary) community, I'm embarking on a new endeavour: guaranteed overheard and relatively context free phrases trouvés
   If you like one, feel free to use it. The postings are a public service, and I consider them public domain.]

   Holiday Inn Express (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October, approximately 9:30 am.
   Two fiftysomething women and one of their mothers are seated at a table in the breakfast area (see photo for revealing details).

   "When they take jobs overseas, that's an act of terrorism. Giving jobs to foreigners while we're looking for jobs. It's plain terrorism."

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: The Rejection Letter

   Were there a new, adult-oriented volume in the Hardy Boys series called The Mystery of the Ambiguous Rejection Letter, I'd read it in a heartbeat. Others would too, I imagine: there must be a  ready market for the revelatory sleuthing of those two brothers.
   While knowing the truth isn't always what one actually desires (re: "Your ass does look fat in those jeans and you're a lousy lover and not a single soul welcomes your 'world-famous' fruitcake at Christmas"), having the ongoing mystery of rejection letters solved—or at least decoded—is something I'd welcome. (I think that right now; by tomorrow I might desire all the pretty white lies publishers send my way.)

   Consider Exhibit A (there's also Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, and so on; this example is merely the most recent to have appeared in my inbox):

Dear Brett:
Thanks very much for sending us [name of writing project] and sorry to have taken so long with it.
[Name of writing project] is certainly audacious, well-written and wonderfully cynical about the business of making movies. Despite its merits, however, we have reached the conclusion that the book just isn’t the right fit for our publishing program at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing this quirky insider novel of yours. It deserves to find a home.
Best wishes,
[Name of Acquisitions Editor]

  A letter such as this instigates a number of responses, not least of which is the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (minus the acceptance part, which arrives much later if at all).

   There's also the Accept-at-Face-Value Response that tries to be rational and accepting (though in fact reading the words feels like being dumped by someone you felt attracted to, and the reason given for the breakup something terribly empty and vague, like "It's just not working out" or "We're not on the same page at this time, that's all"). 
   With a face-value reading, you (tragic, dejected, rejected, self-pitying) understand that there's your novel in front of you and their "publishing program" over yonder and, well, as Kipling wrote, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." 
   You calmly tell yourself, "No big deal" and "It's the nature of the business" and hum (maybe after catching a Kelly Clarkson song while buying a carton of soy milk), "What doesn't kill you makes me stronger/Stand a little taller." 
   You remind yourself it's not personal, it's just business, and that the rejection in no way reflects your lack of talent. 
   Later, though, despite all the adult maturity and temperate acceptance, questions may arise. Such as: "What is this doctrinaire 'publishing program' exactly and why is it so narrowly defined?" and "What specific qualities does my writing have that make it a non-fit, a quirky outsider that the cool kids take pains to exile?" Even in the face of knowing better, these questions persist.

   Another reaction is the Classical Seer Manoeuvre. Ancient seers, you'll recall, read farm animal guts (in the manner of tea leaves today) for signs from the gods. The seer's interpretation would be heard by VIP generals or kings about to make empire-building decisions; after hearing what the guts spelled out, General A or King X proceeded accordingly. 

   Repurposed for letters of rejection, the seer/neurotic recipient of said letter, stares at the words with grave intent, seeking to extract the precise Platonic truth that floats below the illusory surface of the words themselves. 
   Stare, ponder, see beyond the mirage of surfaces: "audacious," now, does not mean "showing a willingness to take bold risks." Since it's part of the rejection, there's another, truer meaning to the word. Rather than being a positive, an indicator of admirable risk-taking or literary daring, then, it means "unsalable" or "too sexually graphic" or "this crosses the line into vulgar bad taste." 
   (There are compelling reasons for believing in the seer's strategy. If you don't, and prefer the face-value reading, the publishing is essentially stating, "Your book is audacious, but since our publishing program is categorically against audacity of any sort, you are not a good fit for us." You're correct to doubt that a publisher will say or believe that.) 
   Each word—"quirky," "well-written," "wonderfully cynical," "merit"—requires study, interrogation, interpretation in order to find its true meaning. Study all of them long and hard enough, and their truth will seep out and enlighten your previously befuddled mind. (All the while try to suppress the knowledge that often times seers were and are wrong.)

   Still other possible readings exist. 
   There's the every-word-is-diplomatic-doublespeak reading. 
   In this case, the truth is entirely absent from the letter. The truth is in fact simple: the publisher didn't like your book for reasons A, B, and C, and, furthermore, the publisher cannot imagine anyone who will so there's no aesthetic or economic reason to pursue a contract with you. 
   Instead of that painful, brutal response, the heart-of-gold letter writer opts for flattery ("It deserves to find a home") that, unfortunately, is so laudatory the recipient might mistake it for a letter of acceptance. Good means bad, maybe, or else good means good, but also something else...
   You'll go crazy with this approach. Think of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, maybe, and that trying to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time is one of the bases for that dystopia. 

   I was watching a documentary on PBS the other night, The Botany of Desire, and one of the segments discussed how marijuana's THC mimics a chemical that the brain produces naturally, all the time. Released to neural receptors, this chemical (and likewise THC) encourages us to forget. 
   The scientist theorized that evolutionary value of the chemical, speculating that humans need to forget because with so much stimuli (visual, auditory etc), our systems need to forget most of it to prevent us from being overwhelmed. Forgetfulness, then, is adaptive, a benefit of the evolutionary process.
    Take heart, you might tell yourself, knowledge of the rejection letter in your inbox will degrade and disappear, just like the knowledge of what you ate for dinner three Sundays ago. 
   Forgetfulness is good.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth'

   [This commentary about Sweet Tooth refers to the particular 'secrets' of the novel's final chapter. If you dislike when people reveal plot twists the author purposefully leaves out until the conclusion, then please don't read what I've written because...well, for the obvious reason.]    

   Though I don't normally procrastinate, I did with my review for Sweet Tooth. Thankfully, my deadline wasn't really looming: the review is for an American publication, and the novel will not be released in the U.S. until November. As I was circling around my desk and readying myself to write, I realized two questions that bothered me needed to be answered beforehand. The first was "What is Sweet Tooth about, really?" and the second was "Why aren't I warming very much to McEwan's writing strategies?" Both questions seem straightforward until the final chapter. The revelations in that last bit force readers to reconsider the entire book.

   At a glance, the mechanics of the plot involve narration from the present day. The apparent narrator, Serene Frome, recalls her days in MI5 in the early 1970s. As for her life between 1975 and 2012 we learn nothing. As such, the novel invites us into that seductive world of espionage and superpower rivalry and secret missions and double agents, and so on, and, better yet, from the point of view of a lowly clerical worker (who's also regarded as a beautiful but ultimately lowly woman in a manly man's world). 
   As the plot progresses she's given a secret mission that requires her to deceive a young author: Serena poses as a representative of a funding agency that will enable this guy to write novels (and in doing so, he's also expected to produce literature that will serve the needs of democracy, capitalism, and generally the dominant ethos of the West). Serena falls in love with this graduate student, Haley, and grows more focussed on the state of her heart, her relationship with him, etc. And when, at (near) last, a journalist uncovers this secret plan (codenamed Sweet Tooth), MI5's scheme and her deceit become public knowledge.
   The final chapter reveals that the novel Serena's writer lover has been feverishly working on for the preceding several chapters of Sweet Tooth is none other than the story of Serena's history at MI5 and her stewardship of the Sweet Tooth operation. In other words, the novel is not McEwan narrating as Serena Frome. It is McEwan narrating as Haley who is narrating as Serena. The story, then, is not Serena's. Haley has wrested the story from her; and apparently for her betrayal of him he's told her story (and in doing so, arguably, made her appear vain and shallow and tiresome with her stereotypically feminine concerns). 

   After the initial surprise of that last chapter, any reader is forced to re-evaluate the preceding story. If until the final chapter you've wondered (as I did) why Serena's narration seemed to move increasingly away from the subject that might appeal most to a reader (early 1970s spy games told from a woman's POV) and instead veer toward "Does he love me?" and "And then we made love," well, mystery solved. Ditto the lack of information about Serena after 1973. 

   The novel shifts from one genre (ie, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and its brethren) to a story about unreliable narration as well as, I suppose, betrayal and retaliation. When she re-rendered as a character in someone's plot (both McEwan's and Haley's) the personal investment Serena you've made in the story is necessarily reconfigured too. No longer truly about MI5 or espionage or the Cold War, Sweet Tooth turns into a small house of cards whose intricacy isn't especially dazzling or, to me, interesting. And when this edifice blows down, the loss barely registers.

   As for why I didn't close the book and say, "Wow, that twist sure caught me off guard and left me intellectually stimulated," it's because I felt tricked. And instead of being intrigued or mesmerized by the sleight of hand, my sentiment fell closer to being conned and ripped off.