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It ends in a box


Sorry for the long note. Try to stick with me.

I’m sitting around here today getting fat and doing not much at all. After wasting most of a morning and the afternoon, I took up a book I’ve been reading and have just a few pages left. (It’s a fascinating biography of Claude Monet’s last years.) I was laying around, not so much feeling sorry for myself as just not wanting to do anything when I thought, hey, I could do some writing today. Thus, this missive.

It’s all right, I suppose, to have a day when nothing much special happens. It’s been quite a while since I had a day devoid of appointments, social or otherwise. It’s disturbing, on the other hand, not to be motivated to write. I just went through a thorough rewrite of my book. A friend of mine went through the chapters one by one as I finished them. He’s a good reader, in that his opinions embrace more than, oh, this is good or this is garbage. His comments and insights were incredibly helpful.

Now that I’m through that particular period, I have to start schlepping the book to agents and publishers. The process is a long slog and one that may not end well.

(Aside, from T2: Trainspotting:

Begbie: “Go ahead, Spud, tell us how it ends.”

Spud, ominously: “In a box.”)

I may have told you that a hundred or more agents will say no to this thing before I get someone on the hook. But I accept this fate and move on with other work.

It’s not fun looking for an agent. They all want to be loved. They want you to know their work and what books they have done, and that sort of thing takes a great deal of research or the magic hand of the healer or raw intuition—or all of the above. They want you to know what awards they’ve won. They want you to acknowledge their prowess. Frankly, it’s a shitty game, as no one writer can possibly know these things unless they are told or happen to find out. Plus, although I read a lot, there’s no way I can possibly read books from all the agents I’ll submit to.

And if this wasn’t frightful enough, most agents want you to come to them with a “platform.” That is, built-in sales, a sure thing. While the public may be under some delusion that agents and editors and publishers work only with good material, the truth is that they are a very conservative, if not reactionary bunch. The merit of a book lay not in it’s worth as a piece of literature, but whether it will move itself magically from the bookshelves or the bins at Amazon. A platform would be something like a blogger with 25,000 readers a week, or a TED speaker who has audiences of millions, a daily podcaster with thousands of followers, or YouTuber with millions of subscribers.

The platform is the great Catch 22. How do you get famous? By doing something that cultivates thousands of followers. How do you get thousands of followers? By being famous.

The problem, of course, is that while someone may be a good blogger, TED speaker, or podcaster, they may not be a good author. I have read more than one book recently by people with platforms, and the books are shite. As an example, I read a book about introversion written by a TED speaker who had given her talk to three million people. She had a blog following and was a professor at a college somewhere. I thought I would find some great truths about the advantages of introversion. The book, unfortunately, read like a long TED talk.

Now, TED talks are interesting for twenty minutes or a half hour. But a 300-page TED talk is just drivel. When I read books, I tend to stick with them and force myself to finish them, no matter how crummy they are. This particular book, however, was so TED-y that I was just 40 pages from the end that I gave up. I gained nothing from the experience. She didn’t say anything after page 40 that she didn’t say in the first 39 pages. It was terrible. (In other words, she gave her TED talk and then went on for hundreds of pages . . . blah, blah, blah.)

But this is the kind of thing that gets published because of a platform. See, with tens of thousands of followers, a publisher can count on the fact that at least several thousand of them would buy the book—recovering the book’s cost and generating a profit. Agents and publishers want book sales already baked into the formula. Now, you can’t, in the capitalist paradigm, blame publishers for wanting to make a profit. But a guy like me, a steady and reliable writer who writes well and writes interesting and important stuff, doesn’t stand a chance without a platform, and I have none.

As soon as I say that, however, there are still agents out there looking for good material. I only have to find one, and only by contacting hundreds of agents, will I find the one who will return me an affirmative answer to my query. And that’s only if I have a bang-up query letter, pitch-perfect proposal, and flawless and interesting sample pages.

I go through this to grouse a bit. I understand, even before I commence, what’s in store for me. And, who knows, I may just get lucky and find an agent after four or five or fifty tries. I may even find more than one, in which case I get the struck-by-lightning chance of being able to choose.

The thing is to put it out there two or three times a week until someone takes it. I have used this formula for getting published in literary magazines. Instead of submitting to hundreds in a short period of time, I get ten or twenty submissions out there over the course of a couple of weeks and keep that number out there all the time. I get a rejection, I put another essay out there. I get one published and put out as many submissions as replace the submissions for the published work.

This method has snagged me five literary magazine publications in less than six months. More, I’m sure, are on the way. I told a prof friend of mine that I had a number of publications recently and he was flabbergasted. He said he had prof friends and MFA students who are lucky to get one publication a year, if that. (See this one if you haven’t already. It’s short and good.

It’s a numbers game, I said. The more you put out there, the greater your chances are.

So it goes with the book. I believe in it. It’s something of a masterwork and one that transgresses the boundaries of memoir. Usually, a memoir is told in chronological order. Really good memoirs approach the material thematically. They are far and few between, but they are classics, like Angela’s Ashes or In Pharaoh’s Army or The Things They Carried. I’m attempting to tackle the post-modern memoir in that same vein. I’m telling a multi-layered story with a subplot. If I was smart, I’d label it fiction and start from there. I might stand a better chance posing it as a novel. But I must be true to the work and to myself.

Thus, I go into this with a great deal of faith in the story and the writing, as well as the theory and substance of the book. I just have to convince someone inside the machine that this book will fit into the machinery.

Otherwise, here at home all is quiet and people are happy. I’ve just come off a memoir-writing workshop I conducted for a literary arts center, and it was four Saturdays of fabulous. I also did a couple of one-session, two-hour workshops—advanced nonfiction and travel writing—at a local library. These are all paying gigs that make me feel a little less shitty when I watch Virginia drag herself through the door after working so hard for us. Meanwhile, school keeps rolling along. We are nearing the end of another semester. Things look great, so far, and I’m hoping that the past weeks have inspired some of my students. I just have to be careful. Sometimes the writing takes my eye off the school ball. I’ve found myself with my pants down a couple of times this semester but, fortunately, pulled them up before the students noticed.

Enough of me. I’d like to hear of you and your joys and travails.

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