Trivial times demand trivial writers

Richard Brautigan was a big deal writer in the 1960s. He sold a lot of books, had a bunch of lovers and, according to a NYT review, got to hang out, get drunk and shoot guns with writers like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. I had forgotten the guy even existed until I was reminded by the appearance of surely the definitive biography on this poster child for 1960s whimsy. Jubilee Hitchhiker, by William Hjortsberg, is 852 pages long. As I recall, Brautigan’s books had the decency to be short, short enough that I usually was able to finish one before the excessive sweetness became intolerable. Smoking dope made them a lot better.

This quote from his Trout Fishing in America, gives an idea of the level of whimsy the guy practiced: “He created his own Kool Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.” I would quote more, but you would hate me for it. The Times review includes a nasty but insightful summing up of Brautigan’s work from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a non-literate age.”

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Death and the cartoonist

R. Crumb on death, as quoted in the New York Times, Saturday April 24, 2012 –
“Death? Afraid of death?” he said. “When you get older, you dry up. You die. That’s it.” He added: “I’ve lived my life. I’ve lived it out. I’ve left my mark. I’ve had great sex. I got a great record collection.”

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Is anybody there?

Most of my experiences with literary magazines have not been positive. I understand that editors are swamped. I just wish they would come clean about their limitations.

What story?

You’ve all heard an editor swear passionately that he or she or a trusted assistant reads every submission that comes across their desk, that, by God, they prefer unsolicited manuscripts over the slick stuff their MFA teacher buddies slip them. The first time I heard this was from the editor of The Gettysburg Review. It was at the tail-end of a writer’s conference sponsored by the magazine, and he gave us all a pitch about how he really wanted to see our stuff.

So I sent a story, pointing out in the cover letter that I had heard him speak while I was attending his writer’s conference, and how I knew he wanted to see stuff from new writers. Then I waited – three, four months and nothing. So I sent a letter asking what was up with my story. Again, no response. I’m not saying I think they ignored both the submission and the follow-up letter. It may very well have been that when the poor, harried editor or one of his harried assistants saw my letter and realized there was no way to locate the story to which I was referring, they were simply too embarrassed to write back.

More recently, the staff at Crazy Horse subjected me to an irritating trial by incompetence. At the end of an anonymous note rejecting a story because “it wasn’t quite right” for them, the writer asked if I had any other stories I could send. I immediately fired off another story and my cover referenced their request to see more of my work. No response, nothing. I never even got a form rejection on this story. Follow-up communications were also totally ignored. I’m sure the person who wrote that brief message had good intentions, and I’m sure the impulse was forgotten within minutes after it was acted on.

A fiery end to your deathless prose

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South Africa remembers the struggle against Apartheid


Live, painted and mirrored figures at entrance to Apartheid Museum

Those who are passionate about politics will find South Africa’s museums as exciting as its game reserves. There are two that I visit every time I’m in the country – the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, big, architecturally daring, emotionally overwhelming; and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, small, intimate, focusing on just one neighborhood obliterated in the 60s and 70s by the Apartheid laws.

The Apartheid Museum can be exhausting, the scope of the story spanning centuries and virtually the entire world. District Six Museum is comfortable, homey if melancholy. You would want to live in District Six if you were somehow transported to South Africa in the 40s or 50s, whatever your race or religion. Christian, Muslim, Jew, it didn’t matter.

My Pigeons Come Home

Writers Room - District Six Museum. Writers mourn the loss of a community to racism.

To the architects of Apartheid, that nasty, Rube Goldbergesque and uniquely South African system of racial separation, District Six was an abomination. The races were living together, even having sex, and you could listen to jazz and smoke marijuana! The place had to go. In 1968 it was declared a white area and the bulldozing of houses and forced removals began.

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Unsolicited submissions

I haven’t submitted a story to a literary magazine for at least a year. Yet I enter contests sponsored by those same magazines all the time. The reason is simple – I believe the odds are much higher that someone will actually read my story, when it’s accompanied by a check. I’m sure that the editors and staff at these magazines want to read every submission that comes to them, but they are swamped.


I'm sure we have your story in here somewhere

In my mind’s eye, I can track the progress of my story as it drops into Somebody’s inbox along with 25 or 50 others, and Somebody doesn’t recognize my name, and my story ends up in a virtual or literal heap of fellow orphans until Somebody accidently hits the delete button or the pile of ancient unopened envelopes is finally declared a fire hazard and carted off to the city dump.

I’m not saying that an unsolicited story is never considered by a literary journal. One of my rare successes came at the hands of a guest editor, Edie Meidav, at Fifth Wednesday. She read my unsolicited story, liked it, took the time to suggest some very smart edits, and published it. In my experience, however, something like this happens only every decade or so.

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It’s good to be the winner

There seem to be a lot of fiction contests lately. I’m getting my new novel in shape to enter the James Jones Contest, and I have a well-travelled and oft-revised short story going out to Passages North and Pinch. Passages North also has a short-short story contest, and I’ve got exactly one of those critters under my belt. Might as well send it in.

I don’t have the stomach to write to any more agents, but hope springs eternal, and right now it’s perched on that slender reed – the literary contest. Since it seems that most agents want to go out and find writers and don’t want writers approaching them, I’m focusing on getting the attention of these shy and elusive creatures by winning a literary prize.

Sure, these contests are a long-shot too, but at least you can be fairly certain your stuff will get read. After all they are charging $15 or $20. Unless they are total crooks, the contest organizers have to take a look. Another advantage of entering a contest over hunting agents is that the people running the contest can judge a piece of writing by its merits, not its money-making potential. I’m sure some of the literary types who run the contests have goofy standards, but at least they have standards a writer can accept as such. An agent above all else has to make a living, and we all know that crap sells.

If you are writing something that varies at all from the usual formula, if your hero or heroine dies at the end, for example, or you are a bit too fond of black humor, you’re better off with contest judges. If you manage to win a contest, maybe an agent will come looking for you, and that seems like it would be a much better way to start the relationship.

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Mitch Hedberg – too bad he’s gone

I came across a one-liner by Mitch Hedberg yesterday.

“Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something.”

Kind of Zen-like but funnier.

More Mitch Hedberg

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Abandon All Hope – Agents Advice to the Struggling Writer

I just read an interview with four literary agents that provided a useful if painful reality check.  It was published in Poets and Writers a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure the  points the agents made are still valid.  They lamented the poor state of the industry, how much harder it is to get good books published, how the advances are getting smaller and smaller, trends that have only worsened lately.

They were also very frank about the chances of an unpublished writer having any luck in getting their attention via a query.  These four, at least, found new writers by 1. referral and 2. solicitation.  Their biggest source of referrals was teachers from MFA programs.  So if you are thinking about spending time and money on one of those, you  ought to try and find out how effective your chosen program is in boosting your career.  Seems like that ought to be one of the areas on which MFA programs are rated, some sort of Getting-Your-Students-Published scale.

If you are famous or infamous or have won a literary prize or published in a high-status magazine, you can also snag an agent.  In any of these cases, they will go after you.  The four didn’t quite come out and say that they ignore queries from unknowns, but they also never gave an example of a writer they discovered that way.  It was all referrals, or clients they had chased down themselves.

They did have advice for  all of us writers out in the hinterlands, who aren’t famous, who haven’t had a story in the New Yorker and who don’t know anyone to intercede for us with an agent – don’t concern yourself with getting published, because it probably isn’t going to happen.  We should concentrate on writing better, writing for the sake of the writing.

Condescending but realistic advice.  Still, I think most of us need at least the illusion of having a shot at getting published.

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Pitching – the Aftermath

It’s done.  I went to New York and pitched my book.  It was a great experience, and I even found an editor who asked me to send her the first 50 pages.  It was also at times a sobering and depressing experience. Four editors listened to me for a couple of minutes, asked a few questions and then decided if they actually wanted to see the book.  Two of them hadn’t a clue what I was trying to do.  It wasn’t really their fault.  When I registered for the conference, I had to choose a category of fiction that best described the book.  There was no “Black Humor” option or “Literary Novel with Exotic Locale, Violence and Some Sex”, so I checked “Thriller/Mystery”.    I figured the fact that I had written a literary novel with elements of an international thriller would be seen as added value by the editors. Not true.

In genre fiction there are rules, a lot of rules.  The protagonist can’t die, for instance, even if you make it funny, especially if you make it funny.  If you have been successfully published, it’s a whole different matter, but first time writers need to follow the rules.

I was advised by editor number one that my subject, the US Invasion of Iraq, was outdated, in that awkward limbo of not long enough ago to be done as historical fiction but not current enough that readers would find it interesting.  He only handled crime fiction and thrillers.  In fact he didn’t like working with literary type writers because they take too long to turn out a book.  “They don’t treat it like a business,” in his words.

A second editor simply said, “We don’t do that,” when I mentioned black humor.  She wanted  cosy.  If I could write an Iraqi version of Three Cups of Tea, she said she would be interested.  That was wrong on so many levels. I was speechless.   Apparently bogus but heart-warming stories with cute Muslim kids are hot right now. Editor number three really got me down.  He worked with a wide range of writers and was not chained to genre fiction only.  He seemed to understand what I was trying to do and asked a lot of questions.  He even asked if was working on anything else.  Problem is, at the end, he didn’t ask to see the book.  Rejection by someone you respect is doubly painful.

By the last day of the conference and my last interview, I was feeling sorry for myself.  I re-wrote my pitch, eliminating most of the plot detail and saying up front that it wasn’t a feel-good book.  I figured at least this would get it over  with quickly and I wouldn’t be subjected to wrong-headed advice.  I knew my luck was changing when I said “black humor”, and she smiled.  This editor was not interested in feel-good and cosy.  And when the workshop leader passed among us hopefuls at the end of the interviews, I was one of the chosen.  She wanted to see 50 pages.

Of course, I realize that she might not like the book at all, and even if she does, she might not be able to get her company to publish it.  And as I said above, rejection by someone you respect hurts worse.  But for now I’m enjoying what is probably an illusion.

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The Elevator Pitch

I’m attending the New York Pitch conference this month, which will give me a chance to talk up my book to editors who are supposedly looking for new material.  I guess this will be kind of like a job interview, though, hopefully, with less desperation.

At this point I don’t have a pitch.  My assignment this weekend is to write one.  It’s only supposed to last a minute, about as long as a ride on an elevator, hence the name.  I suppose elevators are good places to corner editors, at least in Manhattan.

The conference organizers suggested collecting book jacket copy from books similar to ours for examples of good pitches. I picked Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler, Conrad’s Victory and, last but not least, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry.  I figure I might as well model my pitch on book jackets of the gods.

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