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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Writing "AmericanaRama, Part 17: In the great stare-out, the Literary Agent blinks & Hugh's back in the game

By Hugh Gilmore

            In trying to get my novel, "AmericanaRama," sold, I'm turning into one of those salesmen who gets his foot in the door and won't shut up. How about this? How about that? The process may not be pretty, but I've just bought myself another three weeks of hope.
            To refresh your memory: I'd been sending around a query letter, synopsis, and brief self-biography to various (36 at last count) literary agents, trying to find one who wanted to represent my book (i.e. sell it to an editor or publisher).
            After 34 robo-rejections, #35 — "Mr. Goodtaste," I call him — wrote back, saying, "Sounds strangely fascinating, send me the complete manuscript around June 1."
            I did. For one wonderful week I hung suspended in air, inflated by hope. And then his reply came:
            "Thanks so much for sending AmericanaRama.  I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way.  I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear.  Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm.  Also, the "panties" theme, while unusual, in the end kept me more at bay than involved.
             "Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing so hopefully you will contact me in the future.
            "Sincerely, 'Mr. Goodtaste.'"

            I loved his compliments, but his final verdict left me stunned, down-in-the-dumps, listless, and devoid of confidence. And puzzled about how one writes something that makes a reader "jump out of his chair with super enthusiasm."
            The choice was clear, however: try another approach or give up on two-and-a-half-years' work. I had before me a real, live agent who answered his e-mail. One agent like that in hand was worth a hundred agents in the New York bush. I wrote him again last Tuesday.
            I thanked him for the compliments and the critique. I told him I had rewritten the entire book, incorporating his advice. And not just one rewrite, but had done three (!) rewrites, for which I gave one-sentence descriptions. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
            Gulp. Three hours later, an e-mail arrived from Mr. Goodtaste. What follows, since it is a masterpiece of brevity, is his complete response to my offer to submit a revised version:
"Hugh: 3 might work but I am going to be on vacation...maybe you can send me the version in mid July. Best, Goodtaste."

            "3 might work."
            Can you imagine how that little gem could energize a hungry writer? And send him scurrying for his word processor? I've been banging away since then. Hope floats me once again.
            Some of you may be disappointed in me for what follows, but it's more instructive to tell the truth. I am busily making superficial changes throughout my book. You'll need examples to understand.
            First, my bad guy's name was Klaus Richter. He was a German immigrant, a grad student in physics, who failed to finish his Ph.D. and has stayed on to work in a bookstore in a city not unlike Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is virtually a sociopath. Intelligent about everything but people. Huge, frightening, self- pitying, but never giving sympathy to others. His is one of five points-of-view in this book, but he's the catalyst. He begins and ends the book.
            Klaus Richter is now Bruno Khoury, a Lebanese Christian, given a French-y name by his parents during the time Lebanon was heavily influenced by French culture. When his family died during the Civil Wars in Beirut, his uncle, Salim, brought him to America, where a large Lebanese population lives in the Detroit area.
            I transformed Klaus to Bruno for several reasons. First and foremost, very few, and I mean very few, people who read literate fiction nowadays read fiction concerning the affairs of Americans. The shelves of the literate fiction readers I know are filled with novels that concern the lives of Europeans, Asians or Middle Easterners. It's the literary equivalent of driving an imported car or eating imported cheese and drinking imported wine — a hallmark of exalted taste.
            Yes, Klaus was European, but Germans are still not perceived sympathetically and I wanted his new incarnation as Bruno to be felt as a warmer character. Oh, did I say that the agent, Mr. Goodtaste, is himself a German immigrant and possibly sick of negative German stereotypes? My bad.
            Next — and this is where I really wimped out: the "panties theme." I avoided mentioning this last week, because it's a family newspaper. As a plot device, a pair of ladies drawers are stolen during a burglary by a guy with that proclivity. They are given away to Klaus, who is so untutored in the world of love, romance, and knickers that he practically swoons over them. When he discards them, they become found and get embedded in the center of a murder investigation. Even though they have nothing to do with anything. They've got DNA on them and that's too good a clue for the lead detective to pass up.
            Nonetheless, the level of detail at which I'd described the peregrinations of these unmentionables made me uncomfortable in recommending the book to persons of taste. And they certainly kept the agent "more at bay than involved." I guess there's "noir" and there's "gross noir," or something.
            Off with the pants and on with a flower-shaped hair barrette, taken from the crime scene by Bruno (a witness, not the perp). When the barrette turns out to be tainted by traces of the victim's blood, we've got an ironic plot twist, a Hitchcock-ian pursuit of an innocent man from a new angle.
            There are more changes, but those are crucial. How do I justify them, you might ask? After all, what about my 'artistic integrity'? My answer is that the heart of my book is contained in the insights and observations I have to offer about humans and their hopes, dreams, and fates.
            What uniforms they wear matters very little to me.

Hugh Gilmore is reachable at  Gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com


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