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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

Michael's book title spells OMG and it is released today! Here's what he wants you to know about his victory over rejection:

     Joy Peskin and I were classic friends-of-friends: we had known each other since Vassar, through my ex-girlfriend/her best friend Linsay, but had never hung out one-on-one.  We were two close planets that orbited around the same star, whose paths would occasionally sync up (hey – I can see Mars in the horizon!) but never really intersect.  She was sharp and smart and sarcastic, and could blend high-brow (Phi Beta Kappa) and low-brow (talk show fan) in a way that I always admired. She was also fun and pretty and self-effacing, and dated guys who were metro in a way I always wanted to be but never quite could figure out how. 

            “You should write me a gay young adult novel. That genre is really growing,”  Joy said to me off-handedly, at one of Linsay’s functions, around ten years ago.

            I didn’t know enough about Joy’s professional life to be impressed about her accomplishments. All I really knew was that she was an editor, she worked at Viking (then), and that she’d set me up on a totally unsuccessful blind date with a fellow editor who at the time was not a fancy published YA author but just the guy who made our mutual friend Linsay a CD of the musical Buffy episode while she was in the hospital (I still can’t quite imagine a better reason for going on a date with someone.)

            I was not a writer. I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I was a theater director. I had trained as a theater director my whole life.  I’d never shown any promise as a writer (Stacey Miness beat me out for editor-in-chief of the high school paper my senior year, even though her AP Chem class meant she’d only be able to take Journalism class every other day). 

            I thought about it for a while. Then I started writing. The year was 2005. 

            I started writing blindly, awkwardly and clumsily, a new-born infant who would’ve undoubtedly perished by itself in the wild. I didn’t have an outline. I didn’t do any research. I’d just drag my laptop to a Starbucks (this was when NYC Starbucks were still designed as places to hang out all day), pop it open and punch away furiously until I was spent. My writing was terrible.

            I’d email every fifty pages or so to Joy. She’d always read them quickly (much more quickly than I read scripts sent to me, or than theaters read scripts that I send to them), and respond with a few, brilliant notes.  I’d re-write those pages and send them back to Joy. 

            We worked this way for two years, at the end of which, we had a book. Over the course of those years, two dear mentor/friends (both writers) passed away, I dated and was dumped by the guy I though I might spend the rest of my life with, and I moved into a 8’x6’ room in Hell’s Kitchen large enough for either a bed or desk (I chose the latter). Given how my life was going, I wasn’t surprised when Viking rejected the book after sitting on the manuscript for almost a year.  Joy set me up with an agent (the gentlemanly Josh Adams, whom I am proud to say still represents me), who sent the manuscript to lots of other publishing houses. They all responded with courteous rejection notes.  Some were more courteous than others.  Aforementioned blind-date then-editor/now-fancy-author wrote an especially kind rejection letter, which I appreciated given how terrible our date was.

            Fast-forward five years.

            I started on another book, this one an experiment in collaboration, as I was co-writing with two friends (who have even less writing experience that I do). I was supporting myself as a theater director, making plays that I love and am proud of.  I was dating a wonderful man, who would soon become my husband. The month was April.  The year was 2012.

            My then-boyfriend/now-husband and I were in Mexico, taking an unplanned trip for one of the saddest reasons to do such a thing: his father has just passed away.  We attended the service, and I found a sliver joy in being able to be there for Rafael the way he has been there for me so many times. The next day I got a call from my agent.

            For reasons never quite articulated to me, Josh Adams from Adams Literary hadn’t dropped me in five years though the closest I’d come to producing another product was outlining a seven-book fantasy YA series of which I never wrote one word. 

            My agent Josh speaks slowly and deliberately. He tells me that Joy has moved to Macmillan (I’m pretty sure I didn’t know this – maybe Linsay mentioned it to me in passing?). He says that Joy had requested our five-year old version of The Suburbs Suck (then title). He says that Joy has finished re-reading that manuscript and would like me to meet with her.  Would I be interested?

            Would I be interested.

            I have my agent email me the manuscript (even if I weren’t in Mexico, I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t locate a copy of it at this point, five years and three laptops later). I print it up on Rafael’s mom’s printer.  I read it in the office in her house, on the outskirts of Mexico City, close to the University.

            It’s somewhere between “not great” and “pretty bad”.  The dialogue is formal and forced.  The B plot is populated by characters striving for their second dimension. And the sentences are constructed more shoddily than most modern buildings in China. 

            And yet…through the clumsy descriptions and awkward maneuverings, I can see what the book wants to be.  I feel like I’m in one of those movies where we can enter the character’s imagination, and in his/her POV we can see how s/he’d fix the family store up with a million dollars, or what they’d build on the empty lot if someone just believed in them.  If you build it, they will come. Go, Grease Lightning, go go go go go go go go go.

            I return to the States. I visit Joy in her new office in the Flatiron building. I am talking about everything I like in the book as it stands (the protagonist, the love interest, the best friend).  I talk about everything I’d want to change – the family characters, the reveal of the brother’s girlfriend, the beginning, the middle, the end.  Joy, as always, listens with great attention and responds with insights that are mind-blowing.  We come up with a game-plan of what to change in the book. I’d say that about 15% of the text in the book that will be published under the titled One Man Guy came from that original manuscript. 

            But here’s where it gets interesting. Joy gives me two offers. One: she can try to sell the book as it is, before I make any changes.   We’ve already worked on it for two years, and she hates asking me to do more on spec.  But on the other hand, Joy tells me she’s not sure this will work.  Two: I can re-write the first fifty pages, and she can use those to sell the whole book.  Joy is obviously more interested in option #2.  She wants to see if I’ve actually developed the chops, over the last few years of co-writing a play and starting a new book to execute the changes we’re talking about.

            For me, the idea of working on this thing more, on spec, is incredibly daunting.  And the poker player in me wants to take the risk on Option #1. That same poker player tells me that Joy is bluffing – that in her fancy new position in her fancy new office, she can muscle my terrible draft through.

            The decision, ultimately, had nothing to do with any of these factors. It had to do with this: I didn’t want anyone reading the bad manuscript. My name was on it. Artists are their own brand. And I could do better. 

            I ended up re-writing the first sixty pages, ten more than had been asked, because that’s where the natural break happens. These sixty pages comprise what I think of as the first act of One Man Guy (the book, like many movies and early 20th century plays, uses a three-act structure). I hadn’t solved, at that point, many of the challenges of the rest of the book, but I felt proud of those pages in a way I never had about the book in its earlier incarnations. I submit the pages.

            The mysterious weekly meeting where editors pitch books and writers’ dreams are made or shattered was postponed. Then the next one was cancelled, and some holiday got in the way of the third.  A month later, I received one of the best calls I’ve ever gotten from Joy. I was in a restaurant on 9th Avenue, having bid goodbye to a friend’s friends visiting from London. These friends were fancy, Tony-Award-winner types, and I remember how much I wished I had received the call before they’d left for their flights, so I would have something to brag about. One day, I hope to transcend such insecurities and pettiness.  

            Joy and I continued working much as we had before. We’d talk, I’d write, I’d send, she’d read, she’d comment, I’d rewrite. Joy had always been great in her job, but she was even better now.  She knew how and when to ask questions, when to push and challenge, when to let me find my way.  It’s inconceivable to imagine that the book would exist in any form without her. When I work with playwrights in the theater now, I’m better at it because of what I learned from working with Joy.

            I’m sure Joy knew hundreds of writers who were better writers than me. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why she asked me to write something for her all those years ago, and why she chose to revisit One Man Guy all those years later. But through it all, she believed in this book, and she believed in me. 

            When I think of the people we want to work with (something that as a theater director I do often), I think of their talent, their strengths, their experience, how fun they are. But now, I think about how much they believe in me, and I in them.  Because of Joy. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Time To Let Go (For Real This Time)

Some sort of change is sweeping me along, people. This week I fired two of my paying clients because I'd pretty much had it. You must understand that in the decades I have been a freelance writer in a certain couple of industries, I have never once fired anyone. Ever. So: a) you know it was bad, and b) you know I had tried for awhile to help them, which is what I usually do with the less successful teams. This is to say that I have put up with all sorts of indignities; I have stuffed and swallowed my comments at lame critcism, dysfunctional systems, and mean people as necessary over the years. I have written whatever was requested of me no matter the impossibility of the deadline, the incomprehensibility of the request, or the insanity of the circumstances. (Once I wrote a website about leukemia for an Italian-only-speaking client in what was requested as "British English," so it could be translated into French. What the what?!) But something has happened to me of late. Something good, I hope. I realize I don't have to take any old thing that is handed to me. I don't have to fix everything that is wrong. And I get a choice in the matter too. Just because I can write ANYTHING pretty well doesn't mean I have to say yes to EVERYONE.

There's a certain fellow, whom I like to call Mini Freud, who is the current guide of my psyche, who likens these crazy agency work teams (you know the set up: account people, traffic people, editors, and art directors) to my family of origin. The crazier they behave, the more at home I feel, says Mini Freud. And probably he is correct. But I am busting out. You know why? I don't need money THAT desperately.  I've been at this for nearly 20 years, so I can actually sit back a little and choose which projects to take and which to let pass by my front stoop. (This time of year, I do generally use my front porch as my office.) That's right, my friends, at this late date, W,R is finally giving up the panic about ever really making a living as a writer (technical/promotional writing almost counts as writing, doesn't it?) because I've been making a living for some time now, and I might as well catch up to this fact, and chill out a little. Our little W,R is growing up at last.

But there is something else too. There is something big I have put off until the last minute, as my deadline is June. I have put off the final write up for the publisher of all the proof changes, final tinkerings, and last minute catches to my novel that will finalize the published version you will see on November 11, 2014. What it means, mice, is that this is truly it. End of the line. It as in IT, no more time on the meter. I will no longer have this novel all to myself any more. I will no longer have the opportunity to change any word, any punctuation, any character name, any anything I see fit to change in that leisurely "no-one's-going-to-buy-this-book" way. I will not be able to make it better after this, cannot think of some cool thing to try out, cannot let it rest in its little word document file while we take a break. I must let it go, and I must do so now.

Though I have longed for this moment of sending it off into the world for many years, as you have witnessed through this blog, it feels like I am ripping out the inner lining of my lungs. (Sorry to be so dramatic; I am tempted to ignore the feeling and wheeze out a statement about everything being fine, but I tend to get in trouble when I allow myself to be the Queen of Denial, as they say.)  So, I have cleared away nearly entire the day (except for a brochure on multiple sclerosis that needs to be rewritten) for this task, and maybe for a few melodramatic tears. 

Luckily, too, I think I have finally nailed the right approach for the nonfiction book I have been writing (fist-fight, more like) for the past couple of years, so I better get on with the new book (draft #4) and start this whole bruising book-readying cycle all over again. Why do we do it? I ask you and you ask me. There is no answer to that question other than, I suppose, because we can't not.

Happy Friday, ya'll. And Happy Memorial Day Weekend, Rosemary Ahern.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lady Wants Her New Yorker Rejection on Time!

Cynthia Ozick told the New Yorker where to get off in 1962. Years later she became a regular contributor the magazine. Coincidence? Who's to say?
                                                                                   January 5, 1962
For a number of years now I have been sending you poems, and until very recently I have always found you entirely reliable. Exactly seven days after each new poem has been dropped into the mail, it has come punctually home, accompanied by that little rejection slip of yours marked with the number 1 in the left-hand bottom corner. (You know the one.) You have, as I say, been altogether faithful and dependable. For example, it is never six days, it is certainly never eight or nine days. It is always seven days to the minute, and your conscientious devotion to precision all these years has been matched, to my knowledge, only by the butcher's deliver-boy, whose appearance is also predicated on a seven-day cycle.
This time, however, you have failed me. A poem of mine, entitled "An Urgent Exhortation to His Admirers and Dignifiers: Being the Transcript of an Address Before the Mark Twain Association by Samuel Clemens, Shade," reached you on December 18, 1961, and, though eighteen days have already passed, a daily inspection of my letterbox yields nothing. I have enough confidence in your hitherto clean record of never considering anything I have submitted not to be tempted into the unworthy suspicion that the delay is actually caused by your liking this poem. What has been shattered, I must admit, is my sense of serenity, of certitude, nay, of security — not to mention my sense of rhythm. Does this mean you can no longer be relied on to conform to the seven-day schedule you have consistently adhered to in the past? In short, is the Age of Doubt truly upon us? O tempora!
Or (but I venture this with a cheery hopefulness I do not dare to feel) is it only that you have finally gone and lost my manuscript? I realize I am probably being too sanguine in putting forth this rosy possibility, but I guess I am just basically an optimistic sort. Please reassure me that this, rather than some flaw in your clockworks (even to contemplate which disillusions me hideously), is the real nature of the difficulty.
I expect your answer in seven days.

*Courtesy: The New Yorker and the World It Made by Ben Yagoda (Scribner, 2000)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rare Specimen: A New Yorker Acceptance

I love Ann Beattie stories. I taught them once in Freshman English in the 1990s. Here is an acceptance she got after 13 straight rejections over the course of 21 months*:
                                                                                     November 1973       
Dear Ann Beattie:
Oh, joy...
Yes, we are taking A PLATONIC RELATIONSHIP, and I think this is just about the best news of the year. Maybe it isn't the best news for you, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure (well, almost nothing) than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you have. It's a fine story, I think — original, strong, and true.
Roger Angell
The New Yorker
*Courtesy: The New Yorker and the World It Made by Ben Yagoda (Scribner, 2000)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ann Beattie: New Yorker Rejections

According to Ben Yagoda's book, The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, 2000), editor Robert Angell wrote several encouraging rejections to help develop Anne Beattie. Such as:

"These little slices and moments are often surprisingly effective, but the story itself seems to get away from you as it goes along. It seems possible that there is more form than substance here, but perhaps that is unfair. What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self-assurance. I hope you will let us see more of your work, and that you will address your future submissions directly to me." 
Though he did occasionally get frustrated with her, but only mildly so:
"I wish you would try a very quiet and modest story — one that relies on no devices and is content merely to bring us to its discoveries. But whatever you do write, please continue to send it to us." 

Monday, May 19, 2014

New Yorker Rejection: So Sad, Not That We Don't Like Sad, Just...Well, No

Here's one from the New Yorker archives of confusing rejections*:
Dear Mr. Irwin Shaw:

We have a feeling in general that a story so ambitious, so sad, of such generally dismal setting, hardly has a place in a more or less cheerful or humorous magazine. We think, however, that you write with considerable distinction and we want you to do more at once and send them all to us.

I did not mean to indicate above that we do not publish stories of tragedy, but that we are perhaps more demanding and critical in such cases than we are in our lighter moments. After all, I suppose that it is perfectly justifiable, and that the grimmer aspects of life require more delicate handling than the more comic.

John Mosher
The New Yorker, 1935

*Courtesy: The New Yorker and the World It Made by Ben Yagoda (Scribner, 2000)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

I Stand on The Titles That Came Before Me

Yesterday I was featured in the local newspaper's weekend art's section with a head-to-toe photograph and a Q&A interview by way of a little early book promotion. It was my idea to stand on the pile of books, which I thought would be interesting. In the photo, I am also holding the advanced reading copy of my novel. Of course. The whole thing was kind of fun. But here's the thing: we are ill-equipped in so many ways, we writers. I mean, they keep you alone in a dark room with the dim glow of the computer screen for, say, 15 years,* where you become isolated, surly, and happy being alone. Then for a few minutes they throw you into the glaring light to sing and dance, and seem like the interesting person whose book everyone will want to read, and it's weird. I feel vaguely unpresentable, like I need a shave (back and legs, of course). Also, I feel apologetic about it, like: "Look what I'll do to sell my book....that's right, anything!" And yet they tell you this is what you must do: tweet, pose, post, stump, read, smile, sound interesting, balance on one foot, stand on your head. Don't get me wrong: I am not complaining. I am perfectly, happily happy about the entire situation. I'm just....I don't know...a little uncomfy, I guess. It's like my friends 7-year-old kid who always says: "Look at me! Look at me! Don't look at me!" Right?? I keep looking at my watch, thinking, "Okay, so when do I get to go back to my dungeon office? I have another book I could be writing." And I'm also thinking at the exact same time, "Oh, no. This will be over in the blink of an eye, and then I will have to go back to that office dungeon! I have that other book to write." It's very confusing, is what I'm trying to say. Today, after the article ran, I got a text from someone who is sort of stalking/flirting/playing me, but it might also have been completely innocent in that "guess-who-I-am-I-met-you-once-at-a-party-and-I-want-to-read-everything-you've-ever-written-but-am-not-going-to-tell-you-who-I-am-cause-it's-more-fun-for-me-to-have-you-keep-guessing" way. And, um, the whole thing is super weird.

*My writer friend, Sal, says that I have to stop harping on the length of time that it took to write this beyotch of a novel. She says no one cares, and so I'd better start shutting up about it. I believe she is probably right.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Guess Who's Parodying Rejections Now?

Well, this sure is something, a few years old (and R.I.P., Mr. Rakoff), but's kind of a pot-calling-the-kettle situation.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Second Blurb Has Occurred

And then there were two: "A vivid, thoughtful novel [that] leaps, skips and soars along the boundary between faith and superstition, turning every expectation on its head."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fresh Juniper Rejection

I got this today, which means, oops, I forgot to withdraw my novel manuscript from this competition.  Guess it's a good thing it apparently didn't even come close to winning. Also, it's about as bare bones as you can get, no?

Thank you for entering our Juniper Prize competition. I am sorry that your entry was not chosen. I hope you will enter again in August 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Um..Yeah, I Would Call Your Rejection Officious

You would be correct in thinking that Jerry is J.D. Salinger and that this is a rejection from the New Yorker.  Click the image to read it.  It's really something. My favorite line from Mr. G.S. Lobrano: "Another point: we can't help feeling that this story is too ingenious and ingrown."  Seriously, shut the front door.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Death of the Literary Novel

Then there's this guy spouting off about the death of the literary novel (no, seriously, for realz this time) in a rather thick-ish essay in the Guardian. Will Self is his name, strange extended metaphors seems to be his game. Self is trending on Twitter, and I ought to know, because I've been tweeting my ash off...ex-friggin-hausting, if you know what I mean. Anyway, read the comments section for all the extra juicy controversy. (You know, eye rolling and stuff like, "I read Self's novel; no wonder he thinks it's dead." See what you think for yourself.) As for me, I'm just glad I squeaked my literary "dead weight" in under the wire before the death knell tolled. Last of the literary novels?  Who knows? I been saying so for years. And look at me: I'm a filthy liar. Have a good weekend, ya'll.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Advanced Praise Already?

My first book-cover comment is in!  It's not from this special-guest blurber, but from someone extremely astute, who "got" the novel perfectly, and is very, very kind to me. Name of blurber is to be announced pretty soony, baboony. Almost time to come out of the anony-mouse hole. Here it is:
"A wondrous and exhilarating novel. This family is unforgettable in all its  catastrophic dysfunction but also in the capacity of some of its most broken members to fight their way toward salvation. [Name of Novel] is an unflinching, fantastical and unexpectedly healing act of the imagination. You won't have read anything quite like it, and you're not likely soon to forget it either."