The Catalyst (precedes the Big Black Moment)
It was the worst day on my life – at least so far.
Trouble had been brewing for some time. I had read the account of a top literary agent signing a writer and selling her novel within twenty-five days of her query letter. There must be something terribly, terribly wrong with my writing I decide. I order the book, desperately, dry-mouthed afraid to lay eyes on this exemplar novel.
I am eager and terrified to set my eyes upon this golden child which will drown mine in shadow. I really am terribly frightened as I open the cover. This pristine writing is about to expose mine as irredeemable (although I’m also looking forward to at least going out on a good read.)
But wait. This isn’t puzzling. It’s soul-destroying. It could be said this book hits the ground running. But the ground is a desert bordello punctuated by rocks. What happens when you hit the ground running? You fall over.
The abruptness of intimacy feels like an assault. Come on! the best part of sex is the foreplay. It’s like Christmas Eve: magical because there’s so much to look forward to. Take the Christmas Eve out of Christmas, and all you’re left with is Boxing Day. Take the foreplay out of sex, and all you’ve got is… puffing, panting and something that’ll be over too soon.
I struggle on as best I can. (“…he said, accusatorily.” Oh, you’re bloody kidding, methinks. Why wasn’t that howling mongrel shot to death?) It takes me forever to read it. Finally, I get to the end. You know, I can’t even remember now how it ended? Three times I have picked it back up to read the final pages again, and still I can’t remember. That’s how memorable the blessed thing was, she added, unnecessarily. It didn’t make sense, and the plot read like an afterthought.
Forget subjective. There is no excuse for this book to have made it into print, and the thing is – all those thou shalt nots from the agent slash publisher? – this book is a veritable bible of thou shalt nots, but the major publishers got into a bidding war over it just because a literary agent said she liked it – a book so bad it could have gone down on the Da Vinci Code.
This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all.
The bough is creaking. The bough is creaking in a howlingly bad night where I don’t sleep.
My novel is chocolate, but it’s up against cocaine.
Staring at the ceiling, quietly angry, in a writerly sort of way: the author didn’t have the guts to fully explore the sensual scenes. Something I’ve learned about confidence: it comes from discipline. It comes from craft. It comes from fifty or seventy revisions of sensual scenes, because that’s how many it takes to get them right. Let me tell you this: sex scenes are incredibly difficult to render at length, in detail, and to do it well. Frankly, it takes balls to attempt it.
Try it some time – 3,500 words of steadily escalating sensuality, which a single bum note from your pen will deflate quicker than a cold spoon in a hospital bed. All those details you’ve got to work in. What he’s doing, what she’s doing, what she’s doing to him is doing to him, what he’s doing to her is doing to her, and what she’s doing to him and what it’s doing to him is doing to her, and what he’s doing to her and what it’s doing to her is doing to him… and you can’t spoil the love in motion with the logistics, but the logistics have to be worked in; you have to spell out the detail of what’s happening without breaking the mood, because you know, Moonlight Sonata may not have elbows and toenails in the sheet music but they’re sure as hell playing in the orchestra; and this really isn’t an occasion for show don’t tell, because the body only manifests arousal in a set number of ways, so if you were to stick with that rule, every sex scene ever written would read: he got hard, she got soft, her breasts peaked, he drooled, they put their bits together like a meccano set and jiggled them around a bit – oh won’t someone get me a cigarette – and then the hard bits got soft and the soft bits got hard and he went to sleep while she stared at the ceiling – sorry, let me try that again – her body, her soul, the very essence of her being was alive to his every touch… at least it would be if the bastard wasn’t snoring his head off MY POINT IS THIS: try it some time. Try writing an escalating love scene of 3,500 words, without bumming a note, without faltering a step – and then try doing the same thing four times within the space of one novel, and see how you get on. You’ll soon enough learn to define prowess.
No, this isn’t right, this isn’t right at all. Then it gets worse. Days don’t come any worse than this.
It starts with the final rejection of my last potboiler. Oh me oh my it’s bad enough, it gets worse.
I knew it when I woke up this morning: when I checked my email I would find a response to my erotica story – the last hope of drawing attention to my little novel. Sure enough, on the eve of my forty-third birthday, there it is.
This should be interesting, I think as I open it. My very fine story has been rejected. The rejection says:
For Spice Briefs, we’re seeking highly erotic short stories of 5,000-15,000 words in a wide variety of subgenres. The novella we’re looking for should have an interesting and engaging premise, a well-constructed plot and believable characters. Quality editorial is paramount. Although your story contains some of these elements, it lacks others.
At first, I panic, as I always do, at the statement although your story contains some of these elements, it lacks others. But a few moments' thought corrects me: the hell it does. That’s simply untrue. I realise I’m looking at a pro-forma rejection. And I think, by what right do you do that? Use a form letter saying that every story you reject must be in some way lacking?
They only publish twenty-four of these stories a year, while they must receive at least twenty-four hundred. By what right do they suggest that there is something wrong with the two thousand three hundred and seventy-six they don’t have room for? That simply can’t be true. No. That’s not right. It’s not right, it’s not reasonable, and it’s not polite. No. I’ve had enough of these people. I will deal with them no more. (Although, retrospectively, I will wonder if they took exception to my writing half of the U.S. Navy into an orgy – maybe they saw it as a security risk for their armed forces to be seen that way – sans pants... and somewhat preoccupied. Although… the captain was wearing pants, his dress uniform in fact. It was just that his… was… well let’s just say his flag was at half mast, and… well… maybe his salute wasn’t traditional but it certainly was memorable. In the navy… da da da da da da da dahh… in the navy… You know, I only recently worked out what that song means. Maybe I really am not best qualified to write erotica, after all.)
But still it gets worse.
I am winded when Esquire magazine rejects Lucky Dollar (although later I will ponder the wisdom of sending a story featuring castration to a men’s magazine.)
And still – it gets worse.
Another envelope addressed by my own hands arrives. Once I was curious to see what words had been chosen, what tone adopted, once, before years of unending rejection, when I could find some amusement in these, because they can be amusing at first when they seem a mere hurdle to be jumped, before the years turn that hurdle into the Berlin Wall and you suddenly realise you’ve been running at it for years, willingly smashing your head into the bricks and barbed wire so many times it doesn’t even register in your bashed up brain as being a bad thing to do anymore. But now, you see the wall for what it is: not something to be jumped, but something that will bash a hopeful mind to death.
My last iron in the fire just went up in smoke. I read it as best I can. I read it a few times. Sometimes rejection is easier when you know the work has enjoyed a sympathetic reading, sometimes it’s so much harder for the very same reason.
I’m stunned, my mind’s flopping about like a fish out of water, it’s not that I can’t believe this has happened but more that I’m running out of bank accounts numbered hope. My mind’s darting all over the place. Dazed I am when I set foot on a hill I must have walked up several hundred times by now. It’s a hill many people, if not most, would struggle just to walk up. I see the hill and I start to run – me, who cannot run – for some reason suddenly I am running.
I cannot run, I should not run. I have next to no ligament remaining in my lumbar spine. One should not be able to feel one’s bones; if you can, you’re in trouble. I, all too often, do feel my bones. Any sort of impact can feel like bone crashing into bone and it’s a pain like no other, it travels up the spinal cord and explodes into the brain in a blaze of white lightning, and even though that’s what I’m inviting, for some reason, I’m running, running uphill – up this hill – no less. The pain doesn’t come for me yet so I keep running – I’m running, me who can’t run, I’m running – I don’t understand why or how but it feels good to run it feels so good it feels great to have run uphill, for whatever little bit of time life gifted me, I have been allowed to run uphill, I have been allowed to run uphill for a few moments of my life and sobbing, running I still am, and then, because God dislikes the torture of innocent metaphors, a European Wasp hits me smack! right between the eyes, sticks to the sweat of my brow, flailing and buzzing furiously like I’m to blame for something the stupid little shit has brought on itself until I scream and throw my sunglasses to the ground, casting it off along with them.
Murphy is alive and well and feeling vindictive today for sure.
But it’s not over yet. Still it gets worse.
I have submitted chapters from the first book I ever really wanted to write – my own true novel – to a ‘top’ literary agent who was over me like a bad infectious rash when she wanted to read it first – to the exclusion of other agents. First there is the I tell you what, why don’t you send me three chapters? then there is the…… drumroll……of…… her……. making…….. You’d better send me the WHOLE DAMNED THING! I LOVE IT! LOVE IT! Of course I couldn’t know it then but later I would equate her enthusiasm with the spirited music from the movie Jaws – something that happens just before someone gets eaten.
Now she wants to talk to me. And because there is no world outside America with different time zones, this involves midnight or obscenely early telephone calls, but still I do it, listen to how much she loves my novel she loves it she’s so thankful to be given the chance to see it she loves it she’s so happy she loves the characters oh yes she does and she knows movie producers for whom this would be IDEAL and I’m listening to all this with my eyes rolling back in my head not through derision but pain and sickness and the hollow spot in myself where my real life should be, thinking, for the love of Christ and humanity read the fucking book first, please please please reading the whole fucking book first and I say it to her, more than once, but let’s see how you feel about it once you’ve read the whole book but she keeps it up, keeps it up and keeps it up and keeps it up for a half an hour at my expense – this she does to secure the first look at it to the exclusion of other agents – no matter how often I ask her to read the whole thing first she keeps it up, she loves the book, oh yes, she loves the characters, she loves everything about it, and she knows movie producers for whom it would be ideal and I can’t stand it, I can’t stand this, it feels like filthy whispering in my ear, it feels like she’s sticking her tongue in my ear or worse, it feels like I’m being violated, my skin is crawling and I keep saying, but you need to read the whole book first, but she won’t stop it, but oh no, AH, she can’t spend her weekend reading it, she says, unless I give her an exclusive, and I do, and on Sunday morning she gets back to me to say she has “run into some trouble” with my book, this agent, formerly a publishing executive with twenty years experience who “knows what it takes to make a book work”; the minute one of my characters shows some character she’s put off, and I say, Is it because she isn’t American? and tiredly, not wanting to, I say, She can be made American, soon enough, but the agent says, no what concerns her is the whole thing needs a rewrite, by all means, whack the cheating husband, but these women hating men is off-putting (even though they have been raped and abused by them, sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit, their ‘man-hating’ is off-putting); and I go to the trouble of explaining more about the characters and she says she’ll be in touch.
That would be the last I heard of M---y R----f. It will occur to me later that maybe the reason she insisted on telephone calls may well have been to avoid a written record of her extravagance.
I spent the next six weeks waiting to draw breath, every waking moment was like when you’ve been underwater too long and you really have to fight the impulse to open your mouth to take a breath, even though you know you’ll drown if you do, the instinct is so strong that it gets tempting just to do it anyway. My lungs are screaming at me and I’m desperately waiting to suck in the air, waiting for my life to begin. This is the way I spend every waking moment for six weeks and it’s unbearable, before finally, I understand she isn’t going to even do me the courtesy of a rejection.
I suppose this statement from her website should have given me a heads-up: Editors see so many novels today that they can afford to pass on a manuscript that requires work, knowing that the next day’s mail will likely bring another, possibly in near perfect shape.
Well if big publishing is receiving perfect books, it certainly ain’t publishing them. I think it’s safe to assume that what she means by near perfect is Big Mac.
But wait, there’s more. I’m close to the edge when I encounter the least literate literary agent so far. He is so barely literate, in fact, that he is an exemplar of low standards to which his barely literate colleagues can only hope one day to stoop. He makes The Da Vinci Turd look like it was written by Salman Rushdie (the writer, not the dog.)
So you want to write for me, he says.
And God help him, he is pleading the importance of education (other people’s): he is available, it seems, to present sessions to – even small writing groups – on how to get represented and published. And… AND… by jilliwhillicker – he’s available for contest judging! – he’s fast and he provides feedback on ALL entries. The sidebar features an ad for marketing your novel. Online class available!!! Register early or lose a space.
Ahem. How do you lose a space, you stupid little brick?
Yew gawna teech a wirrrrkshop? Yew reckon yews nose sumphin abut righting, diddle you?
I fear the step between this and his first book on how to get an agent will be short.
He makes reference to ‘his’ writers. He brands them, in fact, as Grey---- writers. He is interested in writers who know which line they wish to writer (sic) for.
Now here’s a gem: WOMEN'S FICTION - I'm pretty picky about this one. In my opinion, this genre is not simply a story without romance. It is a story that shows the female journey. The goal and intent is to provide the reader with a way to relate to a character and to understand their own life. I should also add that this genre does not have to be depressing.
Immediately I read this, I have a daydream: a taxi pulls up outside my door. I let myself into the backseat. It takes me to the airport. Without baggage, I board a flight to
. At some unspecified destination, I approach Germaine Greer. I do not introduce myself. She does not ask my name, merely inclines her head and raises her eyebrows slightly as I proffer this sodden gem, perhaps on a clipboard. I know she does not reach the end before she begins to nod. Without a word, she and I stride to the waiting plane, our steps in sync. Then we quietly, calmly, without fuss or deliberation, fly to this literary agent’s country and take the little fuck out. London
We shake hands like Mossad agents, knowing that the world has been made a better place. We may go to hell for it; this is not a question we consider, it had to be done. Then she goes back to writing books about art. And I… oh for the love of God, Doctor Greer, come back you capricious witch, I’ve no money for the bus!
Reading on, I see the subject had a BA in English/Literature, an MA in Literacy (frightening) and an MA in Creative Writing (didn’t save him, did it?)
And still there’s more, it gets worse until finally, at a dinner party, I get the steak knives.
I am explaining to the other dinner party guests that you can’t approach a publisher without an agent. This room full of accomplished people – one an oncologist and sailor, another a musician who not only plays flamenco guitar but makes the damned guitars himself – as well as playing and teaching drums and making them – a sculptor, a chemist; a pianist, school teacher and choralist (not three different people – she was all three) – in this room full of people I try to explain that writers cannot approach big publishers without first having a literary agent.
The room falls silent. The question is asked, But why?
And it’s the damnedest thing, given how long I’ve been around the traps, but I have no answer. Honest to God, all these years of having it rammed down my throat, but for all the times I've heard it, I have no answer.
Because they don’t want to know you, I mutter. It is the best I can do.
Twelve dinner guests. Twelve accomplished, talented dinner guests. All of them silent. All of them thoughtful. All of them puzzled.
Finally someone says, But that doesn’t make sense. Publishers need writers to stay in business. They’re dependant upon you to make money.
And the strangest thing happens. Suddenly what I feel is not anger but shame.
In this room full of talented people, these good country people with morals and values and decency, suddenly I am so very ashamed at the company I’ve been keeping, the people I have been associating with, ashamed that somewhere along the line I started throwing myself at the feet of people the ilk of which I would normally cross the street, if not move suburbs or countries to avoid, less than admirable people who think it’s just fine to slap down a fellow human being who has given years of their life to writing a novel at the damned kitchen table for no other reason than to bring pleasure to other people – just because the use of a copyright symbol on a work it took years to create offends them, people who inhabit a world where it’s okay to deny readers an enjoyable book because a writer addressing them by their first name puts their nose out of joint, people who respond to writers who thank them for them time with abuse: do not thank me for rejecting you! Suddenly I am so ashamed to be applying to these people for a life, these people who think it’s okay to tell you to go fuck yourself if you dare to query more than one of them at a time because you can’t stand sacrificing another nine months from your life waiting for a rejection that never comes; ashamed to be dealing with people who think it’s okay to sneer at you for sending them something they can’t sell when what they’re selling is shit.
In the company of these talented people I suddenly feel so filthy to have cremated years of my life chasing the approval of people with no discernible talent, unless writing books instructing writers how to make their books like other books or books on how best to suck up to literary agents could possibly be considered a talent.
It’s the well-worn moment of blinding clarity, but that’s what I’m having all right. I feel so unclean, so bad about myself, so I leave the party, go home and have a shower to try to make myself feel better, but it doesn’t, I can’t stop thinking about how rotten and ashamed of myself I’m feeling, ashamed to be dealing at all with these people, publishers who tell me I have to a literary agent to approach them properly and agents who tell me I can only approach them once I have the interest of a publisher, and then, then, they’ll do me the favour of shaping my work and negotiating a deal, and fifteen percent they’ll charge me for the privilege of pretending to have had any meaningful contribution, suddenly I’m just so ashamed to be throwing myself at people who think they’re above the courtesy of replying to you, and when they do it is to sniff that your book, those months or years out of your life is nothing they wish to work with – these people who can’t even manage to write a basic business letter themselves, and it’s the damnedest thing, but they discover writers, these people you have to do everything for except read the damned manuscript for them, and the only reason you don’t have to do that is because they’ve got some seventeen year old intern doing that for free and that probably accounts for the illiterate rejection slips and the standard of work which is accepted, and I’m so ashamed for seeking endorsement from the very same people who are responsible for foisting so much crap upon a world that only asks to be given a halfway decent book to read, and most of all I’m so ashamed at the years I’ve spent giving hand jobs to people too lazy to masturbate for themselves. Well they’re going to have to learn because suddenly I’ve come to my senses and I’m wondering when I turned that corner into dealing with these people not worth knowing, because surely somewhere along the way I missed a fucking road sign.
Yeah, I’ll take fries with that. You’d better believe I’ll take fucking fries with that.
Time to put away childish things.
I’m a writer.
I’m going to write myself a literary agent.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the beginning of the end.