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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. 

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