~ The Antagonist ~
Big Publishing doesn’t like to think for itself. That’s why God invented literary agents. You could say literary agents are tools of the trade.
I don't know what I expected. It wasn't what I found. (You have to submit to literary agents? You mean, I don't just choose one?) It's them versus us, them being writers and us being the agent/publisher – that single beast of two heads, one mind and half a heart.
The Prosecution would have you believe it is writer's paranoia which casts publishing as a citadel. Don't you believe it. Death is preferable to allowing a breach in the perimeter. Thou shalt nots: submissions with typos will result in swift death – only if there aren’t too many, in which case, slow death – the misspelling of an agent’s name will unleash the righteous and wrathful god of rejection, addressing an agent by their first name will provoke gang warfare, and any number of lesser offences will bring a bevy of heavies to your door, intent on kicking a troublesome writer’s head in.
Shalt wilts: submit in a manuscript box (I can state with confidence that this creature, if ever it did exist, is now extinct); have ten friends or family members read your novel before submitting it (I don’t have that many friends, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have after asking them to critique my work. As to family members – sorry, I’m not prepared to ask my mum/dad/brother to read my highly erotic romance novel); if thou art professional, thou will use a hook/if thou art professional, thou will never use a hook; sell us on your idea/any writer who tries to sell us on their idea lacks confidence in their work and will automatically be rejected; few publishing credits? – that’s okay – just tell us how many books you’ve written and that tells us how long you’ve been writing/for the love of God, don’t tell us about unpublished works gathering dust on the shelves/do not offend us by mentioning your self-published books, this will do more harm than good; etc.
Any trespass of The Rules will result in the loss of your first born child, who will be taken from you and used as child labour in Hell’s printing press – if you’re lucky – but if your transgressions are too many, you will be obliged to hand over your ovaries as well.
A sermon from the fount: The professions of journalist and novelist are not interchangeable, as many writers think they are. They are two seperate (sic) and distinct professions. We are only interested in representing authors who write in one genre/category – history dictates that you cannot successfully write fiction and non-fiction both.
Oh boy. His rejection letter to Leonardo Da Vinci must have been a fuckin' beaut. And it seems Bill Bryson’s been making a rich fool of himself for years.
All of this is demanded of writers, but what of the people doing the demanding?
Quasi-literate, verbose, okay – let’s call a spade a fucking shovel – half of them couldn’t stitch a basic business letter together if their bloody lives depended on it. And the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: they all use a form rejection letter, why can’t they even get that much right? I mean it’s one page and they only have to write it once.
Many thanks for your recent query regarding your book project what you sent to us recently.
These are the people who decide what you and I get to read.
Lit Agents ‘R Us,
Thanks a bunch for sending me your novel, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass.
First of all, there’s a weird formality to your language. It’s like something out of Pride & Prejudice, and the problem here is that I don’t see your book appealing to the Chick Lit market.
Which leads me to ask, did you research your genre at all before submitting? I mean, do you actually know where your book fits in on the shelf? Because I don’t.
I couldn’t help but notice how your heroines have a habit of just up and dying the minute something upsets them. First the protagonist’s mother croaks for no other reason that her husband and sister-in-law are bad-assing her. (I mean, was a good old-fashioned divorce really out of the question?) Then his wife dies of not-very-much-at-all (and her dog along with her, for God’s sake). I mean, they don’t have Prozac where you come from?
I just don’t see the Sex and the City set identifying with women who up and die over something they’d cure with a couple of margaritas. Know what I’m saying?
As to the wife’s dog, it would be better if it were a breed the reader could identify with – say, something more along the lines of a border collie – a dog that actually does something, you know? Not just sits there yap yap yapping all the goddamned long day. Dog like that – it’s gonna get up the reader’s nose, you know? Nobody’s gonna sympathise when a mutt like that yips its last yap, know what I’m saying?
I’d have a tough time selling a book of this length by an inexperienced writer. Frankly, Chuck, your book is a bit, well, wordy. It’s almost as wordy as that character, what was his name? Micawber. What was that guy about, anyway? A word to the wise: you’d be better off cutting him altogether, along with several other characters, including your protagonist’s first wife. I mean, what purpose does she really serve, anyway?
Also, I don’t understand why you had to kill off Steerforth. I mean, he and Uriah Heep were the only go-getters in the whole darned book and one of them ends up dead and the other in jail? What for, man?
I think you’d be better off if you also did away with the whole Pegotty family (what sort of name’s that, anyway? – makes them sound like a rickety set of stairs) – particularly that guy Ham (he sounds like a rickety set of stairs and Thanksgiving dinner!)
And your hero could be a little more, well, manly. I mean, he slaps Uriah’s face with an open palm? What is this, a bitch fight, man? I mean,
girls would do better than that, sans margaritas. Know what I’m saying? Maybe you could make him a bit more like Harrison Ford, something like that. Or maybe Brad Pitt... yeah… definitely Brad Pitt. Least that ways, Manhattan could throw a punch. Know what I’m saying? Yeah. The Chick Lit demographic would go for that big time, Chuck. nancy
But they’re never going to go for your hero’s aunt. I mean, she’s not the most likeable old dame, is she? Couldn’t you make her a little bit more like, say, Julie Andrews in Sound Of Music?
While you’re at it, you need to do something with his second wife. I mean, she’s just so wholesome that she’s one-dimensional. Couldn’t you develop her character a little more? (Maybe she could have a boyfriend while he’s still married to his first wife?) Readers want to see the human side of your characters, Chuck. As she stands, there’s not a lot for them to warm to. Know what I’m saying?
(Hey – apropos your hero, I just had an even better thought – why not make him a bit more like Elvis? I mean, name me the woman who didn’t like Elvis.)
This house on the beach that’s really a boat – is it hull down or up? Because if it’s hull down, I can’t work out what the hell’s keeping it from falling over. Come to think of it: same thing for hull up.
I’m sorry to have to disappoint you but it would have been better if you’d done a little research before submitting. I recommend you do it now, before you start on the re-write. Coming up to Christmas the stores are full of the books you need to read. Around this time of year any good book store will have books by Lynda La Plante, Ben Elton, Patricia Cornwall, Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum and Nora Roberts. You could learn a lot from them, particularly in terms of pacing and dialogue. And plot. Definitely plot.
I have to say that from the first chapter of your book I knew that there wasn’t going to be enough conflict to sustain the plot, and certainly not the length. You need to cut it at least by half – that would make it a lot easier to sell.
And, Chuck, you seem to have forgotten the writer’s golden rule: show – don’t tell.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but David Copperfield isn’t up to publication standard. Another agent may well feel differently. Good luck finding them.
A. Moe (BA)
Canned love – just add cum. Say hello to the modern romance novel.
Guilty as charged. It’s true I didn’t research the genre by reading its offspring. But I tried, honest to God, I swear to you I tried. I went to a newsagent, bought a romance novel that I couldn’t read because it was just too awful. Then I tried skimming it. I couldn’t do that either. That’s how bloody awful it was.
So I wrote something better. Simple. Or so I thought.
Or so I thought.
Truth is, big publishing likes Big Macs.
Send it a well-made hamburger instead, say, something on a halfway decent gutsy bun, a patty made with caramelised onion, a little Dijon mustard, corn relish and horseradish, topped with some well ripened vine tomato and freshly crisp lettuce, a little smoky short cut bacon, perhaps a slice of sweet, grilled pineapple, and just maybe a little dollop of chargrilled tomato salsa – send big publishing that instead of a Big Mac, big publishing will take one bite, say it tastes funny and spit it back at you.
Homogenised humanity – the modern commercial novel, key change instead of song, where the human beast isn’t a complicated beast, or even a beast at all, but something that farts perfume, where the ‘gamut’ of emotions equals three, all of them black and white, all of them action/reaction. It’s okay for your character to have soul, as long it’s deep fried. It’s okay for them to have emotion, as long as they cry tears of special sauce.
In case you’re interested, the formula goes something like this: hope / despair / big black moment / seems all is lost / all is not lost / world saved / opponent defeated and shamed + bolted on token love interest / somebody sticking their tongue down somebody else’s throat = published.)
Just once I’d like to write the honest, let’s not bullshit each other, let’s not kid ourselves romance synopsis: argument / argument / argument / kiss / argument / near miss / argument / sex / argument / sex sex and more sex / she loves him, doesn’t think he loves her / sex / misunderstanding / sex / parting (not legs) / sex (yes legs) / resolution / sex / declaration of love / oral sex / marriage. That's it – two tickles, six pants, a grunt and a squeal later, you've got a romance novel.
You want to know what makes a hero heroic? The size of his endowment. Yep – both ways.
The characters might toot perfume but the books still stink.
God help you if you present the agent slash publisher with a deviation from the template. Their horrified response will make you think they’re washing their eyes out with soap at the other end. There’s a sort of oh no no no no no (which in a just world should always precede an orgasm) that comes through in the rejection slips that’ll make you think they’re looking over their shoulders in case someone caught them reading something different.
Now, it’s okay to have a woman packing a machine gun… as long as she goes home to put her lipstick on. It’s okay for your character to be a career woman as long as the career is ultimately revealed to be a void filler until, dewy eyed, she realises what she really needs is love (represented by a jolly good rogering). If however, her epiphany doesn’t involve the sudden realisation that what she really wants is to give a man a blow job, then they’ll say she’s a man-hater, that readers won't be able to empathise with her.
I'm getting ahead of myself again. Truth is, I didn't know any of that back then, way back then, before my writer's heart lost its innocence.
Trial Of The Romance Novelist
The persons of the play
The Romance Novelist
Woman’s Magazine Editor
Justice Anthony Dunleaven:
A Jury Of Her Peers
The Public Gallery
SCENE: A Courtroom. Through a high, narrow window, a solitary ray of winter sun falls on a young woman standing in the dock, her gaze transfixed by the dance of dust motes in the light. She is visibly aquiver.
Valentine Dumquerque: (buttoning jacket as he rises) If it pleases the court, your honour, the prosecution calls Elspeth Bottithorn to the stand.
Justice Dunleaven: Proceed.
A middle-aged woman of formidable grooming approaches the witness stand, each resounding stiletto-heeled step a dagger to the heart of the defendant, who flinches with every footfall.
Her back impossibly straight and lips compressed into a glossed pink line, Elspeth Bottithorn takes the stand.
Valentine Dumquerque: Miss Bottithorn, let me begin by saying that I know this is difficult for you. (Witness raises her head stoically and looks into the distance.) Please tell the court how you came to be acquainted with the defendant.
Elspeth Bottithorn: Certainly not through choice.
Valentine Dumquerque: (too quietly) I see. Against your will, then?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (her deep voice not her own) You have misconstrued me.
Holding her in his steadfast gaze all the while, VD closes the space between them with a few lengthy strides.
Valentine Dumquerque: Perhaps you would care to enlighten me?
Elspeth Bottithorn: And perhaps you would care to ask the question you really want to ask.
Justice Dunleaven: I wish someone would ask or answer a friggin’ question.
Unable to bear the weight of his censure, Elspeth Bottithorn lowers her eyes demurely, peeking at VD from beneath impossibly long lashes.
Valentine Dumquerque: (adjusting cravat) Let’s try again, shall we? Please tell the court how you came to be acquainted with Carmen Priest.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (inaudibly) I am a magazine editor…
Valentine Dumquerque: Miss Bottithorn, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to speak up.
Elspeth’s lips tremble. And her chin quivers too.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (softly, apologetically) I’m so very sorry. It’s just that I find it difficult to be so… brash.
Valentine Dumquerque: I do understand, Miss Bottithorn. A lady like you has no place in a public court … Being here is akin to… rough trade, is it not?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (eyes flashing) I don’t know what you’re implying.
Valentine Dumquerque: Perhaps it is you who infers.
Justice Dunleaven: Are you two pissed, or what?
Valentine Dumquerque: (his gaze lingering) Pray, continue.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (bravely) I am editor of Ladies Day – actually, the most successful editor the magazine has known. In my time, circulation and net profits per capita have risen –
Valentine Dumquerque: Dear, brave, Miss Bottithorn! Trying to distract yourself from the terrible testimony you must give! How lovely you are when in earnest! But my dear, I would do you a disservice if I were to allow you to continue with that distraction.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (demure once more) I became acquainted with Ms. Priest, or rather her work, when I commissioned a piece of romance fiction from her.
Valentine Dumquerque: Pray, continue.
Elspeth Bottithorn: In good faith, I commissioned from Ms. Priest a work of romance. But what she submitted was… almost too terrible for words!
Valentine Dumquerque: In what way?
Elspeth lowers her face.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (quietly) To begin with, there was the matter of the hero.
Valentine Dumquerque: Yes?
Elspeth Bottithorn: I am ashamed to say it.
Valentine Dumquerque: Something so natural need not be the source of shame.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (her mouth works silently, her lips forming the words she cannot speak. At length, the terrible words come out in a rush) He worked for a living!
As one, the jury and gallery GASP.
Justice Dunleaven: Jeez. What’s wrong with youse mob?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (trembling, fighting back tears) The hero in Ms. Priest’s romance novel was a… was a… carpenter!
A cry from the public gallery: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!
Valentine Dumquerque: (directing his cold gaze to the wretched young woman in the dock) I see. A mere tradesperson. Any hidden riches? An inheritance perhaps?
Elspeth Bottithorn shakes her head briefly, too overcome to speak.
Valentine Dumquerque: Let the record show that the witness has indicated in the negative.
The witness’s chest is rising and falling rapidly, the effort of breathing a testament to the maelstrom of her swirling emotions.
Elspeth Bottithorn: The hero was… coarse.
Valentine Dumquerque: (Suddenly all ears). Coarse, you say? Like rough trade, perhaps? Or…
Elspeth Bottithorn: He compared the heroine to a bottle of wine.
Valentine Dumquerque: What was wrong with that?
Elspeth Bottithorn: The wine was an Australian red (a great hesitation) A rough, Australian, red!
Several jurors: tch tch.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (wretchedly, wringing her hands) She called him Bruce! Bruce Jones!
From the gallery in rapid succession, cries of disbelief. Some jurors are writhing on the floor.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (haunted, her voice thick with emotion) Then there was the heroine.
Valentine Dumquerque: Yes?
Elspeth Bottithorn: She made the first move.
Valentine Dumquerque: She took the initiative?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (her face glass) If you could call it that. (quickly) There’s worse. She was… un–Chaste!
Elspeth mewls at the memory, her fist finds her mouth in a childlike gesture of abject despair. Several members of the jury are openly weeping. Others are convulsing. Others still are stepping over them on their way to the bar.
Elspeth Bottithorn: And their relationship was… unacceptable.
Valentine Dumquerque: How so?
Elspeth Bottithorn: He treated her gently! (She turns her tear streaked face to the jury) They met on… they met on… (indignation rising) They met on page twelve and liked – liked each other – instantly!
Justice Dunleaven: (gavelling) Mister Walker will refrain from commentary.
Valentine Dumquerque: The heroine was flawed?
Elspeth Bottithorn: Indubitably.
Valentine Dumquerque: Would you care to elucidate, madam, or is it your will that I am forced to ask?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (her deep voice not her own) I will elucidate freely.
Valentine Dumquerque: (too intently) I see.
Elspeth Bottithorn: Her character was objectionable.
Valentine Dumquerque: In what way?
Elspeth Bottithorn: (guttural, like a huey) Frankly, she may as well have dressed in a tent.
Valentine Dumquerque: Miss, Bottithorn, how would you describe the tone of the submitted piece?
Elspeth Bottithorn: Her chest heaves on a swelling tide of emotion. Suddenly she stabs a finger toward the accused standing in the dock. There’s a fine line between vulgar and tasteful – and SHE crossed it!
Cries from the public gallery: Here here!
Elspeth Bottithorn: The heroine engaged in… encounters with an… inappropriate number of parties.
Valentine Dumquerque: Threesomes?
Elspeth Bottithorn: Onesomes. There's worse.
Valentine Dumquerque: Like rough trade?
Elspeth Bottithorn: Handcuffs.
Valentine Dumquerque: She refused them?
Elspeth Bottithorn: She used them.
Valentine Dumquerque: Do say?
Elspeth Bottithorn: When she wasn’t ripping condom packets open… with her… with her… WITH HER TEETH!
Valentine Dumquerque: Miss Bottithorn, you have shown remarkable courage today. There is one last question I must ask you.
Her worst fears are realised. She shakes her head from side to side.
Elspeth Bottithorn: Please, I beg of you – spare me?
Valentine Dumquerque: (relentlessly) The heroine used a certain word.
Elspeth Bottithorn: You mean yee-hah?
Valentine Dumquerque: Not that one. I think you know the one I mean.
Elspeth is wild-eyed, knowing what must come and yet hoping against hope to avoid it.
Elspeth Bottithorn: (her deep voice someone else’s) It was coarse and hateful! Don’t make me say it.
Elspeth rocks backward and forward in the stand, her arms crossed against her breast in a pitiful gesture of self-comfort.
Valentine Dumquerque: (breathlessly) It’s for your own good.
VD: It began with the letter F.
EB: Oh, I!
VD: YES! YES!
Justice Dunleaven: Oy, boofhead! Get your pants back on.
Elspeth knows that she will have no choice but to utter the dreadful word, and knowing that its mere utterance will forever cost her innocence, her loss is reflected in the profound bow of her head.
Elspeth Bottithorn: Feminist! She used the word, feminist!
A sea of outraged voices swells to a crescendo, raised against the young woman in the dock. Overwrought, Elspeth collapses in the witness stand– –
Valentine Dumquerque: In like Flynn!
– and someone sneezes. Above the furore, AN IMPASSIONED VOICE from the public gallery: HANGING’S TOO GOOD FOR THE LIKES OF YOU!
The court is scandalised. The calls for justice! from the public gallery are swiftly answered.
Justice Dunleaven: I sentence you, Carmen Priest, to be taken from this court and published under your own name –
Carmen Priest: No! No! Mercy – I beg you! Kill me rather!
Justice Dunleaven: Bailiff, take her away.
Carmen Priest: Sob.
(Someone sneezes again)