Friday, June 23, 2006

Them Ol' Rejection Blues

Another dull and dreary mornin'
e-mail inbox still empty... (Repeat)
No replies, Lord, no replies
Rejection Blues is killin' me.

This writin' business makes you crazy
bloody Muse won't leave me be (Repeat)
lookin' Agents up online
blind from readin' my pc.

Now there is this one thing
almost makes me take to drink
my writing friends' acceptance posts
cause me to wring my hands and think
Oh baby...I won't ever be the same
you broke my heart when you called Agent So-and-So's name.

So many ways to say 'no thank you'
They didn't 'fall in love' with me (Repeat)
and then an 'out-of-office' note
wait till Monday, then we'll see.

I send out query after query
some don't bother to reply (Repeat)
and when they do it's a rejection
so I fold my arms and cry.

I have these ol' Rejection Blues
feel like a squeezed-out lemon rind (Repeat)
e-mail has another message
think I'm 'bout to lose my mind.

(12-bar quick-change blues, with profuse apologies to Robert Johnson.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sleight of Verb


Specifically The Amateur Magician's Handbook, by Henry Hay, Harper & Row, 4th Ed., 1982 ( now, sadly, out of print).

It sat, trembling expectantly, on the bookstore shelf, its red-and-black dust jacket crying "Pick me, pick me!"

So I did. My library now contains many volumes on the ancient and noble Art of Fooling People Badly with the Cunning Use of Tricks (i.e. magic, sleight of hand, legerdemain...), but Hay's marvellous 400 page tome is still my favorite, and in many ways, the best. Of course memory embellishes and romanticizes first loves, on which more later.

His first chapter is called The Magic State of Mind, a perfectly felicitous phrase, and it contains some of the best advice concerning the performance of magic I have ever read. It also, strangely enough, contains some of the best advice on writing I have ever read, though I didn't know it at the time, and neither, probably, did Hay.

What he says is this:

"And how do we go about tempting our audience?"

-Already we know he's on to something, don't we...

"The central secret of conjuring (and of art and literature and politics and economics) is a manipulation of interest. (Not just of attention, as we shall see in a moment).
"What, in turn, is interest? Interest is a sense of being involved in some process, actual or potential."

-Italics here, and in all these quotes, are his. Well, he sure had my full and undivided. Now that I look back on it, Hay should perhaps have considered moonlighting as a political campaign manager, or Fed Chairman. He obviously understands the basics.

-Potential process? Well, will the protagonist find the sword/ring/amulet? Whodunnit? First, readers have to care about what happens to your characters, which is another way of saying 'plot'. Twice during the writing of my first novel (as yet unpublished, as I think I told you before) I tried to kill off, in true Shogun style, my main female character. Two of my beta readers, both female, threatened me instantly with grievous bodily harm. Apart from the blinding flash of revelatory insight, and perspective, into life in general provided by this near-death experience, I realized I had created at least one character with whom those readers had bonded emotionally, and it felt...pretty darn good. I had Fooled them into suspending disbelief in the actual unreality of the character. That's a magical effect.

Hay goes on to say:

"Processes too big, too small, too fast, too confused, or too slow for you to take in can't give any sense of involvement; they aren't interesting. That much is obvious."

-He obviously must have worked as a Literary Agent. What better description of the average slush pile could one want? In one incredibly concise statement he has addressed scope, pace, clarity, and detail. And it's obvious that the above statement isn't obvious to every writer, otherwise the slush pile would be smaller, or the request-for-partials stack bigger.

He next addresses something that isn't quite so obvious:

"Interest is not the same as attention. Attention is a simple response to a stimulus - either to a loud bang or (much more powerful) to a feeling of interest.
"Interest is selective, an expediture of energy by the interested party. You, the performer, can never command it, only invite it."

-In other words, you can lead a horse to water, but if you want him to drink you have to rub his gums with salt. Any poor sod who has been forcibly fed Shakespeare or Jane Austen by-the-numbers and by a check-collecting excuse for a teacher knows that enforced attention is the mother of after-school detention. It's like racing an engine without putting it into gear. For magic this means, among other things, that an effect must have a logical unity or theme, which is why you don't often see mentalists producing or vanishing cards; one effect undermines the other...

If you gain the spectator's (reader's) attention, how do you lose it? Again Hay comes to our aid:

"...this means a trick must hang together; that it must not be scrambled by irrelevant objects, motions, or even surprises."

-Repeat after me: if it doesn't advance the story, cut it out.

"Memory is an internally edited record of interest (not of attention, much less of 'events')."

If we have led the suckers - excuse me, the audience - through a realistic enough process, and then by devious and sneakful means and misdirection produce the effect, impossibilities erupt, followed by the inevitable "How did you do that??" To which I usually answer, "Very well, thank you." Perceiving, they think, a certain process, people tend to follow it through to their own logical conclusion. Successful misdirection helps them to wrongly perceive the process because the mind cannot help but make associations based on past experience. Perception becomes reality, which Hay also tackles.

"Perception, too, originates with the perceiver, not with the object."

Although what the perceiver sees is guided, manipulated, and controlled to a degree by the performer (writer). Wonderfully diabolical, isn't it? The performer controls what the audience shall pay attention to, and what it shall not pay attention to, and the way in which each individual can, or cannot, record a personal memory CD.

"In other words, the magic show takes place ultimately in the spectator's head."

-When I read a really good book, I don't see the words on the page; I see Frodo and Gollum through waves of heat, scrabbling in the dust on the edge of Orodruin's pit. I see Paul Atreides, frozen in fear, droplets of sweat trickling down his face while the hunter-seeker hovers above his bed. Don't you?


"You let the audience perform their own magic, with coaching from you."

The story is everything. It's very difficult for me to sound clever and the story to be great at the same time.

What I learned about writing from Henry Hay, who had no idea he was teaching it to me:

-A writer may command attention, but must invite interest.
-Reader's interest may be manipulated to follow a process.
-The process (plot, story) must all hang together.
-The reader's perception may be controlled and restricted to a degree.
-A writer must gain the reader's attention, invite his interest, direct his perceptions, and win his involvement.

One last word from my old friend:

"Suppose you vanish four or five small oranges, and then catch them from empty air - a modest little trick that you can do before you are half-way through the section on hand magic. If you are any showman at all, ten to one that people will quite honestly remember that you caught half a bushel of grapefruit, and piled them up on the stage."

The literary equivalent of that memory is what writers salivate after.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Tribal Warfare.


When I decided to begin writing, besides the obligatory books on the Art and Craft of writing,I read everything I could about the business end; publishing. The deeper I delved, the more I felt like a missionary about to embark upon the conversion of a different culture. Or like a teenager attempting his first seduction, take your pick.

This is because I discovered that those in the publishing industry belong to a different Tribe, or Species, than Writers. That men and women belong to differing species has been well documented by the noted social anthropologist Dr. John Gray: but I found the same to be true of writers and those of the editing/publishing/agenting ethnicity, hereinafter referred to as The Pub People (after Keyes).

Pub People are readily discernible from Writers by the following general characteristics:

Pubbers are Schedule-driven, helpless without a day-planner: Writers may schedule writing. Or not.

Pubbers have recognizable corporate/professional habilements: Writers ask "Dress up? For what?"

Pubbers are political animals and networkers: A Writer is a loner, and works best alone.

A Pubber belongs to several cliques based on aesthetic and political preferences: Writers may belong to a critique group...

Pubbers never take naps: Writers nap frequently, even mid-typing.

Pubbers generally have a regular salary, and health benefits: Writers on salary? With health benefits? ROFL.

Pubbers can lose their job: Writers are self-employed (or unemployed, which amounts to the same thing).

Further, Pub People have their own secret rituals and language (blurbs, slush piles, not-for-me-isms), engage in small mutual support groups (lunch meetings, production meetings, agent meetings) and even have their own Holy Days (semi-annual sales conferences).

An insular, commercial people, Pubbers will seldom even consider reading the out-pouring of a Writer's soul unless the writer has a platform, (which means will the bloody thing sell) or the writer is a brand name (which means the bloody thing will sell), or they believe the book has legs (which means I hope the bloody thing sells). They obsess over books earning out, or selling through, or slipping.

They have difficulty reading anything not in a particular format, and will ask writers (beg them, really) to submit the out-pourings of their souls in this form and this form only, or they will refuse to read it. They will however, place minor variations on this format in each and every place that publishes their submission requirements; this is nothing less than the hoary Canary Trap, that old stand-by of the CIA, NSA, Mossad, and MI5. In this manner they can determine where most of the writers submitting to them do their research, so they know where to publish their submission requirements next time.

Writers, of course, have our own idiosyncracies and foibles. These characteristics include the (quite reasonable, to our mind) assumption that Pubbers, who read for a living, ought to be able to read in more than just one or two fonts. We (quite rightly) look upon the requests of the Pubbers to 'be professional' in our submissions as a thinly-disguised plea to give them something they are able to read.

Writers also regard the forecasting ability of The Pub People with regards to sales as suspect. How else can anyone explain the reason Nicholas Sparks, J.K. Rowling, Canfield & Hanson, and Stephen King, et al., took so long to be recognized as the commercial goldmines that they are? We suspect also that Pub People are at least as paranoid as Writers, perhaps more so, and are creative minds trapped in business suits, who portray their subjective, irrational, emotional decisions as rooted in sound financial ground. We believe this because there are no soundly established empirical criteria for the outlay of large monetary sums based solely on the perusal of several MSS sheets.

So as a first-time novelist, my job is to attempt to cross the cultural divide - I must learn to speak, and write, Pub. This is the Golden Rule of getting published; They that Haveth the Gold Maketh The Rules. To make things even more frustrating, Pubbers and Writers profess to speak the same language, but many times fail utterly to communicate. Maybe it's a dialect thing. It doesn't help, either, that Pub People have redefined words that were perfectly well understood before (crash, house, spine, skip, jacket, etc.), or that their sensibilities, preferences, and tastes are so different from people who do not happen to live in Valhalla (New York City).

Worse, the Pubbers and Writers desparately need each other; they recall the classic negotiating concept of the handshake where neither party can afford to let go, or both will go bankrupt, starve, or worst of all, never be regarded by one's peers as Having Arrived.

What we need is a formally agreed -upon Pubber/Writer Dictionary.

Unfortunately what will probably happen is that to be published, a Writer will have to beg, plead, or otherwise cajole, a Pubber into printing it (a process known as querying, designed to humble Writers so that they Know Their Place). The Pubber will immediately suspect it has no platform, spindly legs, and believe the bloody thing won't sell. After all, where's the market for it?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Virgin Blog


I finally gave in and started a Blog.

Here is where I'm supposed to craft a little bio for any misguided soul that may wander in, lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the Net...

Alas, I'm much too shy and retiring.

All you'll get is this: I live in the tropical paradise known as the Bahamas, and I sell Drugs for a living, for which profession the Government granted me a licence. I write, but am as yet unpublished, though I am a member of the Greatest Writing Site On The Planet. (The site is still under reconstruction as I write. You can find out why here.) I play the guitar, but am as yet not Eric Clapton, though I have three guitars: Gertrude, Suzy, and Sally.

The rest is classified information, given out on a need-to-know basis. This need is not necessarily yours.

Since I intend to Blog mostly about my writing (though I may inflict you with an Opinion now and then) I'll also say that I write sci-fi/fantasy, and am hot on the trail of a good literary agent whom I can seduce into representing me. Not this one. Good agent, but she doesn't rep sci-fi/fantasy, probably due to some unfortunate congenital mishap, poor thing.

I write speculative fiction, because, as Bradbury says, such books are About Something; they contain Ideas, and are surprisingly relevant. They are not an escape from reality, but are instead a kind of secret door into it, and a fascinating way of describing it. Fantasy writers have always understood Plato's Cave intuitively - our writing is merely an expression of an Idea, a hand-shadow puppet show for our readers, or in the case of science fiction, an inventive and imaginative Idea about how to solve a problem. There are submarines now, Jules, and you saw them first.

Enough philosophical claptrap. I really write because it is so much bloody fun. I write because I will explode if I don't. Indeed I held it in for most of my life, and my formal training is in the physical sciences (with a little Theology thrown in), but in my youth, lo, those many centuries ago, I found Conan languishing on a bookstore shelf. I carried him home and devoured him. Then I found Bradbury, o joy and wonder, and Poe, and Lovecraft, and Maugham, and Tolkien.

And I became a fantasy cannibal. I swallowed books, I inhaled them whole into my maw, and digested them over years. I have read The Lord of the Rings at least once a year since first finding it, and could probably recite whole sections.

Of course this is an addiction, and I freely admit it. But the simply glorious thing is that now I have the chance to write something...addicting... and pass the torch, or infect someone else with the love of reading. If I could write a story all green and growing like Bradbury, with the insight of Maugham, the scope of Tolkien, and the sheer blinding narrative pace of Howard, then I might call myself a Writer.

And if I write well enough, I can drown you in my Dream, take you down and hold you under until you inhale and imbibe it, so that when you come up for air the real world for a moment is the dream, and the world you left the reality -

Well, I can dream, can't I?