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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Weary of queries, then: "Hey you: Send pages." Who, me, Mr. Godot?

By Hugh Gilmore
Me? Send pages? To you, Mr. Godot?

 June 3 issue, 2009. A month has passed since I last reported on my quest "to write a novel in a year," a month that had been crushingly discouraging up to this week. I'll share my small triumph with you in a moment, after I tell you what it's been like.
            The original quest, you may recall, was to follow the guidelines set out by Walter Mosley in his helpful little writers' guide This Year You Will Write Your Novel. Write every day for at least an hour and a half. No holidays. Then rewrite. Read it to yourself out loud and take notes. Tape record it and listen to it. Take notes. Rewrite. Within a year, you'll have a short novel.
            So, beginning January 1, 2008, I wrote every day for a few hours and in three months had a 90,000-word typescript. Then I re-plotted and revised and rewrote and re-tortured myself for the rest of the year until I finished. In February of this year, I gave copies of the book to four smart people and they poked their fingers in the soft spots. Through the rest of February and March I rewrote until I was "done."
            Fifteen months of hard work and I finally had a novel in hand.  But as they say in Victorian novels: "Little did I know the trials that lay ahead."
            With only rare exceptions, the way to get a book published is to convince an editor to read your book, get excited about it, and tell his publishing house to buy it. Sounds simple enough, except that editors will not read unsolicited manuscripts. And you can't call them — they won't take your call. You can't send flowers and a note, or a box of candy or their favorite chocolate cake with a Word file inside. They don't want to hear from you.
            And why is that? you may ask. Well, good question, here's the simple answer: There Are Too Many Gosh-darned People Out There Writing Novels. As wonderful as I thought my achievement was, spending fifteen months writing over 100,000 words, 300 pages, I was deluded if I thought what I'd done was rare. The hills are alive with novels and novelists. They've sprouted up everywhere like toadstools after a spring shower. To the publishing world, we are the cast from Night of the Living Dead, staggering forward, manuscripts in hand, chanting "Read. Read. Read" in our mind-numbing voices.
            Only...get this...the publishers know that somewhere out there in the great flood of words, there is a gem of a story, terrifically told by a gifted writer. From this person's talents, say a Stephanie Meyer, or an H.K. Rowling, the industry can make enough money to stay alive. And  subsidize all the other writers, whether literary or mainstream, that make up the rest of the industry.
            To find these writers, the publishing houses turn to talent scouts, aka literary agents. Agents find the good writers and sell their manuscripts for them, charging a percentage of whatever income follows.
            An unconnected writer (i.e. someone who does not know someone, or is not a M.F.A. candidate in a university-based writing program) must seek an agent. With a little resourcefulness, finding agents' names and business addresses is not hard to do, especially given the Internet.
            But agents have the same problem the rest of the industry has: a heck of a lot of people want to be writers — probably as many as who want to be rock stars. No one can screen every book that is for sale out there in the cosmos.
            So, a protocol has emerged. Unknowns can only get the attention of an agent through the equivalent of "speed dating," or an "elevator pitch." They must write a "query letter." Some agencies accept only e-mail inquiries, some only snail mail, some both. Some none, as they post: "We do not accept unsolicited queries."
            The query letter is one page, but they do let you single-space it. It usually is formatted thusly:
            1. Greeting: Hi, I chose you because you agented the book "X Meets Y," and you are the best person in the world for my book, "Y Meets X," a clever spin on the original. Edgy-like, you know.
            2. Synopsis: "When X, the loneliest letter in the Alpha-Bits box, first tumbled out of the safety of the only home he'd ever known, down into a cold ceramic bowl, and felt the chilly milk pouring over his neck, he never expected to meet Y, the Vanna White-like letter-turner of his dreams (and heir to the Post cereal fortune). But how will they get out of the bowl together while a giant spoon keeps descending and randomly tearing their world apart? Perhaps by telepathically making the phone ring in another room X can buy time for himself and his beloved Y to escape. Will it work?"

            3. Bio. What makes me qualified to write about soggy cereal with a professional's eye?
            4.  Marketing Plan: Describe what I'll say if I go on Oprah or am forced to get deep and thoughtful with Maury Povich.
            Just kidding, folks, but after you do a number of these query letters you start to go a little batty.           
            From April 6 of this year, up to and including this morning, my first piece of business every day has been to send off at least one query letter to an agent. Occasionally I'll get an e-mail response that my letter has been received "and will be carefully considered within 6 to 8 weeks."
On three occasions I received e-mails saying, "Just doesn't seem right for our list," or "We are not buying fiction at this time."
            Most agencies, however, take a "Waiting for Godot" approach: If they like you, they'll get in touch...soon...maybe. If they don't, you'll never hear a word from them. Not even "no."
            I have never felt so discouraged in my life — throwing stones in the canyon and not even getting to hear them hit bottom. I seriously wanted to just stick the manuscript in the drawer, give up, and enjoy the rest of my life without this daily angst. But I felt a commitment to the four people who took the time to read my book. And a commitment to the readers of this column. I kept plugging.
            And then, this week, something wonderful happened: for the first time, an e-mail response came back, within hours, saying: "Thanks for the query. Please email the first fifty pages as a Word attachment; include the query, bio, and synopsis at the start of the document."
            This is called  "being asked for pages." I sent them, of course, quietly thrilled to at least be acknowledged. Many a novel dies right there. Most, in fact. But, if this agent likes what he reads, he'll ask for the whole book. And if he likes the book, he'll try to sell it. And if an editor likes his pitch and they do a deal...well, the world will be my oyster —maybe sometime late in 2010.
Probably nothing will come of it and I'll have to keep plugging along. But at least I got a small response and that's enough to let me know there is, indeed, a world out there I might escape to if "Y" and I can only get over the rim of the bowl.


Shadowing Walter Mosley, Part Two. You wrote it ... ha ha, now try getting in published!

By Hugh Gilmore

            April 29, 2009. The most recent installment of this "writing a Novel" series ended thusly:

            "In the movies, the aspiring author sends his book off to the publishing company in the morning and waits for the afternoon mail. "Dear Mr. Doubleday," right?
            My real education as a writer of novels was just beginning. Any dolt can write a book. Getting it published is a whole other story."

            Well, Mr. Doubleday is no longer answering his mail. Nor are Mr. Scribner, Mr. Houghton, or Mr. Harcourt. Most of the publishing companies are owned by huge foreign conglomerates that also make sponges and ball bearings while broadcasting Hollywood gossip television programming.
            They still publish books, but they do not have time to read all the books that would be submitted to them if they allowed people to submit books to them. Manuscripts sent directly to publishing houses are either trashed immediately or dumped in an abandoned room in a heap that is called "the slush pile" by the industry. Imagine, all those voices crying to be heard beneath the plain brown wrappers, so carefully tied with string and neatly addressed. 
            What the editors and publishers do instead is let another sub-industry wade through the wall of manuscripts that surges in with each change of tides. I'm speaking of literary agents. These people are the primary gatekeepers who influence what manuscripts get seen and considered for purchase by the publishing world. (There are others who can get an editor to look at your writing: another editor, a respected writer who knows your work, your writing teacher at a major writing program, your uncle Louie in accounting, maybe even the lady who comes in at night and empties the office waste baskets, but today's discussion centers on agents.)
            An agent is, in theory, a person with good taste in literature who also has an eye for the publishing market. Very importantly, the agent has inroads with a number of editors and publishers. You could Google the names of publishing house editors yourself and come up with a list longer than the Monongahela River, but they won't talk to you if you call them. But an agent with a hot manuscript in her or his hand can tap the speed dial and get through to just the perfect editor for your book, someone who loves your kind of book, or at least thinks it's the type of book that might sell well in today's market.
            If so, your agent sells your book to that publishing house. The sales price is negotiated. Skillful, prestigious agents know how to get the best prices for their clients' work. The percent you'll get is negotiated (but is fairly standard for new authors). If the book gets translated and published in another country, if the book is made into a movie, a television show, or a cereal box mini-novel, your agent negotiates those deals for you too.
            In theory — or folklore, at least — your agent supports your work, believes in you, sometimes offers suggestions to improve your manuscript, lifts you up when you fall, gives you hope to carry on, and takes a mere 15 percent of what you make. That's a bargain. One of the last good deals on earth.
            Okay, you say, that sounds good. I'll take one. Do they come in mauve? Could I have a good-looking one also? a kind of always-dress-in-black, New York-chic person who occasionally gets noted in the New York Times bold face celebrity news? 
            Then I found out that there are no agent stores at the mall. You can't just go in and contract for one, as you do for a cell phone. No, if the agent has never heard of you and no one has recommended you, you must apply to that agent and beg like a slumdog to be noticed.
            And the begging must be done in a quite restricted, highly regulated form known as a "query letter." Oh what holy horror those words raise in my heart. Read any of the many books or websites devoted to finding an agent and you'll find advice and directions, often contradictory, for how to write a query letter to an agent.
            After a year or two or three of writing, rewriting, revising, thinking, despairing, hoping, and rewriting some more, you finish a novel. Now you must write a letter to an agent seeking representation. The letter should be one page long (though you may single space). You must say: (1) What is it about that's agent's career, interests, and track-record that made you write to her/him; (2) Offer a three-sentence synopsis of your 300-page novel; (3) Reveal your marketing plan; (4) Describe your career, especially any writing awards you've won.
            I felt I'd swallowed a fat stone that would take a long time to digest when I learned those criteria. And I really started sweating when I learned that agents reject 90 percent of the queries sent them. Then, of the 10 percent they ask for samples from, they reject 95 percent of them. Is that what this comes down to, I wondered? after thousands of hours of writing and dreaming, my fate depends on how well I write a one-page letter? A sales pitch?
            "Reality is always therapeutic," my friend, Tom Rosica, used to say. If this is the way they do things up there in New York, who am I to naysay? I spent three intense weeks writing that simple letter.
            And this week I took a deep breath and sent that query to six different agents. And guess what? By Friday, I'd already heard back from one of the biggest, busiest agents in New York,  Daniel Lazar!

            Unfortunately the answer was: "We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list, but thank you for thinking of Dan, and best of luck in your search for representation."

            But I was heartened to know that the canyon echoes when you shout into it. I'll send one a day for a year.
            More to follow...

Shadowing Walter Mosley

This Year You Write Your Novel

By Hugh Gilmore

            April 22, 2009. You may recall that in January of 2008 I invited the public to join me in the daily rigors of writing a novel. Though I had wanted to write a novel for a while, my all-or-nothing attitude had blocked me. If I couldn't create something as deeply artistic as Dostoevsky or Flaubert, or good old "F. Scott," I couldn't bear writing something superficial. Or merely "entertaining."
            I got over that when I read Walter Mosley's entertaining and useful little book, This Year You Write Your Novel (112 pages, 2007). I had read numerous writing guides before, but Mosley's book has the special virtues of being simple and patient. He understands all the things that can get in the way of writing a book and offers a sympathetic, and knowing nod. But then he rattles the cage.
            You either want to write or you don't. Everybody has obstacles, problems, crying kids, leaves to rake, other work to do. Yes, that's too bad. Write every day for at least an hour. Same time of day, if possible. First thing you do on arising, he suggests. If you can't think of anything to write, you must at least sit in your writing chair for an hour. Get in the habit. If you write a page or two a day, it adds up soon.
            So, I did. I decided to write a mystery novel. I worked on the book first thing every day, putting in between two and six hours a day, rain or shine. By the end of March last year I had written the entire story, more than 90,000 words. A mere three months to finish a novel!
            But it wasn't very well written. I decided the problem lay in my having chosen First Person point of view to tell the story. Didn't feel right. Plus, First Person limits your ability to say what's on someone else's mind, unless you know a variety of narrative tricks. In April I began rewriting the book using Third Person point of view. I finished that version in mid August.
            "Finished" is a relative term here. The novel continued to need plot doctoring, dialogue sharpening, and character developing. And cuts. Oh boy does that hurt. You can't help but fall in love with clever lines or daring scenes you've written, even if they don't belong in your book and would do better in a book about life on Mars. Out they went. Perhaps some day when I'm dead, but famous, an aspiring Ph.D. student will "discover" the original versions in my saved files. Then the world will admire my wit for creating those clever lines and my good taste in omitting them. The best of both worlds. Too bad I won't be here, but anticipation is its own reward sometimes.
            From August 2008 till late January 2009 I rewrote and revised every day. That process is tedious most of the time and seldom feels like the creative funkiness people envision when you tell them you're writing a novel.
            By the beginning of February, I had taken the story as far as I could. I needed other people's perspectives. For the first time, I let someone read it. My wife, Janet, was the first reader, as she is a good editor and is insightful. She read the book in four sittings and offered suggestions. I rewrote again.
            Janet said she enjoyed the book, but her opinion didn't count since she likes me. I wrote to four other people I knew and asked if they'd read it and comment. They agreed. Three of them are Hillers — Bethany Maloof, Peg Smith, and Tim Moxey — and I met with them on successive nights at the warm and cozy Hill Tavern. I met with Mt. Airyite Shawn Hart at his kitchen table.
            I'm not sure what I had in mind before I met with them, but I supposed I'd take their suggestions about comma placements, or errant spelling, and make some quick changes. They had much more substantial comments than that, however, and I had to work long days for another six weeks to incorporate their ideas. I pared 312 pages, 118,000 words down to 275 pages, 90,000 words. Thirty-seven brilliant pages sacrificed to the god of deletions, but now a polished and gleaming story! So I hope.
            At the end of March, I was finally done. But done what? I now had a box sitting on my desk that contained about 280 pieces of paper. Where do I sign up for fame and fortune? What kind of jacket photo should I use? Maybe I'll go for the Walter Mosley, man-of-mystery look: dark overcoat and snap-brim hat, peering from the harsh shadows.
            In the movies, the aspiring author sends his book off to the publishing company in the morning and waits for the afternoon mail. "Dear Mr. Doubleday," right?
            My real education as a writer of novels was just beginning. Any dolt can write a book. Getting it published is a whole other story.
            To be continued ...

A complete idiot and four readers go into a bar . . .

By Hugh Gilmore

Boy, do I have a story to tell you ...

           March 11, 2009. By the strictest standards, a "real" novelist is a published novelist. 
            Having written a novel, but not sure what to do next, I bought The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published. I know that sounds like a laugh line, but it's true. I've read the whole darned thing. I'll tell you about the advanced parts in another column sometime.
            Presently I am at the pupa stage, having a 312-page, two-inch-thick wad of good intentions and hard work in hand. After 14 months of effort, every page has been rewritten and revised many times. Every sentence has been considered and reconsidered till I reached that magical aesthetic state called "going bats."  When you go bats you start wondering if every single word should be replaced by a different, better, word. I was like a kid sitting on the beach, taking a grain of sand, putting it in my bucket, dumping it, putting another piece of sand where the first one was, and so on. So many wonderful words in the English language. La la la!
            I'd gone as far as I could on my own. I thought I'd written a good story that was fast-paced and amusing. It also had occasionally good insights and some fresh language, even the occasional apt metaphor. But, la la la, who was I to know?
            I decided that before I shot my arrow in the air I should get a GPS. I asked four people whose opinions I respected to read the book and tell me where it sounded confused, inconsistent, improbable, boring, repetitious, repugnant, or just plain slow. If they found it wonderful, that was okay with me too, but I was more anxious to know where I could improve it. They all agreed and by e-mail we made appointments to meet and talk. I had never sat down and had a conversation with three of them before. A brief report on those talks follows.
I listen attentively as the feedback begins
            On Sunday, I met Margaret (Peg) Smith at the Hill Tavern at 3 p.m. Peg is over 40 and manages Garden Gate Antiques. She's led an interesting life, including an extended residence in Bermuda and has worked in the food service business with her husband, Edward, a chef. Until recently I'd known her only through e-mails we've exchanged for two years, originally in response to my Local column. Many of my best reading suggestions have come from her. She read the book in five days and e-mailed me:
            "Wow! What a ride.  Did not want it to end.  But it has, so best we get together to talk about it since it's not over for you. Let me know what works. Peg

            We talked till nearly seven.
             On Monday I was supposed to meet Bethany Maloof at Hill Tavern at 3 p.m. Bethany is a 32-year old hair stylist who works at Salon 90 on Bethlehem Pike. Because of the snowstorm, our meeting was delayed until 7:30. Bethany is a University of Maryland graduate in Business. Her specialty was advertising, but she grew tired of the business world and decided to make her living doing something she enjoyed. She's articulate, confident, and insightful about serious fiction. Salon 90 seems more like a literary salon when we talk about books and other heads lift out from under dryers and join the conversation. She finished the book in seven days and wrote that she really enjoyed my book and looked forward to discussing it with me.
            On Tuesday night at 8:15, I met with Tim Moxey, again at the Hill Tavern. Tim lives in Chestnut Hill and teaches English at Lower Moreland High School, where he also coaches several sports. We had met casually when he was a customer in my used book shop, but had never sat down and talked before. About eight days after I left the book inside his storm door, he wrote:
            Thanks to a snow day, I just finished your book. I really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the chance to comment on it. I need some time to type up my notes for you.

            By now I felt the management at Hill Tavern was probably sick of seeing me sitting at a table for hours with a MS and a different person each day, a kind of Ancient Mariner haranguing a different innocent victim every day. But, of course, the staff was gracious, as always, and I recommend that cozy place to any and all seekers of wisdom, truth and good draft beer.
            Tim is a youthful, athletic 42. To my surprise, he told me he holds a Master's in Creative Writing and that his thesis was a novel. Since he's been through the process himself, he understood the technicalities of point of view, pacing, character development and plot structuring and very kindly shared them with me.           
            On Thursday I accepted my friend Shawn Hart's invitation to discuss the book at his house, over the kitchen table. Shawn looks younger than the fifty-plus years he claims and has led an interesting life. Among other things he was a merchant marine, an editor, and the Tour Manager for the jazz group, Weather Report. He works now as a free-lance writer and is putting together a memoir/personal essay book of his experiences in recent years. Our discussion was long and occasionally heated since most of our focus concerned character analysis.
            Before the meetings I figured that any flaws all four of the readers noticed were indeed things I needed to fix. The rest of it I'd have to sort out on my own.
            So what did they have to say? I wish I had space to tell you each reader's thoughts in detail. Everyone agreed that once the book got going, it became a page-turner. The characters were interesting, and each reader had a different favorite. The two men intensely disliked the protagonist, as he first appeared in the book, but liked him by the end. I was given very concrete suggestions about what to omit.
     Everyone thought the opening pages — which are absolutely crucial to sales if the author is an unknown — needed to be more dynamic. I need to work harder on combining exposition with action so the pace doesn't slow unless I intend it to. The sum effect of the process is that I need to revise the book, but now have a better idea why and how.
To get myself started, I went to Barnes & Noble on Thursday and read the opening pages of dozens of mysteries, thrillers, and mainstream novels, hoping to absorb the principles they had in common. Then it was back to work on Friday.
It takes an artist but a few seconds to have his or her painting seen, a musician the length of a song. The novelist must ask his audience for close to a full day's attention, with no guarantee it will be worth their time. This is my public thanks to my readers.




The delivery boy pursues the Sweet Smell of Success

By Hugh Gilmore

           February 25 issue, 2009. Last Thursday I carefully printed all sixteen chapters of the novel I've just finished — working title: Lovesick in Ann Arbor: A "Bookshop Guy" Mystery. After fourteen months of a supposed twelve-month quest. A nice clean copy. Collated. Proofed a few dozen times.
             My heart was light, but my gut was flipping as I wondered, What happens next? The theme music of my life didn't suddenly swell up. The paparazzi hadn't assembled on the lawn. Not a single flashbulb blinded me. Last November's leaves still waited un-raked in the carport.
            In fact, I was home alone, in my subterranean cell. My joy and pride would have to remain private for a while. And that was okay, because you really only get one chance to celebrate an achievement. And when you do, timing is everything. Besides, how done is "done" with a novel?
            As the chapters printed out — this one 28 pages, that one 16, this one 10 ("The ideal length" my wife had said when she edited my MS), and that one 22 — I sent e-mails to four people I'd secretly hoped would agree to be first readers. None of them expected my request. I hadn't had the nerve to ask them until I'd reached this point.
            In fact, I'm amazed I sent those e-mails. All my life I've been either too pigheaded, or felt too unworthy (there's a fine line there), to ask for opinions. When it comes to writing, however, after two years, and over 80 columns, with the Local, I've learned that "The Reader Rules." If someone stumbles on a sentence I've written, or chokes on a paragraph, it's because that sentence was clumsy, and that paragraph wasn't digestible.
            To my surprise, all four persons I e-mailed said yes — three of them within an hour of my asking. The world is so fast nowadays.
            You may wonder whom I trusted to read my book. I can't give names, but I will say that I gave a lot of thought to the process. I'm not part of a writing group, so I had to look outside my regular sphere of acquaintances. I asked two women and two men. One woman is a person I have met only once, in passing. She wrote me regarding a column two years ago and since then we've corresponded about books, reading, and life after the death of the planet. The other woman is in her 20s and works as a hair stylist (not mine). Our book talks are nearly always accomplished over the sound of a hair dryer. One of the men is a young teacher whom I first met as a browser in the used book shop I used to run on Chestnut Hill Avenue. He writes also. The other man is a friend who is a writer.
            All four love good books and are fearless about tackling serious fiction. And each of them seems — forgive the word — severe — in the sense that he or she seems to have little tolerance for the third rate. Risky business, indeed, trusting my ego to them, but I believe I'll be better off in the long run.
            When my printer yielded the last page, I stacked the chapters. A fine, hefty product, 312 pages and 118,000 words long, and about two inches thick. Finally, an excuse to leave the basement. I dropped the book at Staples and asked for four copies.
            At 2 o'clock Friday I went back. I was planning to deliver the book to my readers and had to be somewhere by 3:00. Oh no! They weren't collated. Four copies of Chapter One were stacked on four copies of Chapter Two, and so on. I considered asking them to correct the mistake, but with seven people in line behind me, didn't have time to wait. Instead, I rushed over to the sorting table and spent the next 20 minutes making up the four complete copies.
            Then, the books cradled in my arms, I ran out to where I'd parked on Germantown Avenue. A big SUV was coming. I waited beside my car before opening the door. As the driver approached, I began writing the headline, "First-time novelist killed en route to delivering MS."
            Hah! I knew something like this would happen. Well, it would be a worthy, ironic headline. The stuff, let's say, of great fiction.
            Then, vroom, the car drove past.
            Perhaps I'll make the news some other day. Right now, I'm off to be the delivery boy.
 Brought to you hot, or your money back. 
            I drove onto my friend's narrow street. A car was coming up toward me, so I backed out and gave him room. He rolled down his window. I thought, Listen mister, I don't have time for a petty traffic argument right now. Oh, it's you! I rolled down my window and handed him the box.
            He said, big smile, "You did it, man! I can't believe it. This is great." That felt good, but, yeah, yeah, yeah, I had to get going.
            Over to the east side of Chestnut Hill, parked nose-in, facing traffic, I ran up the steps, opened the storm door and left the second box. Still warm, and smelling nice — that fresh wood pulp aroma, with special inkjet topping. Um-umm!
            Five minutes of three. Parked, walked down street. Entered hair salon at a great moment. No other customers just then. Three very pretty, stylish young women. One stepped forward with her arm extended to receive The Book. Great.
            Is this what it will be like, I thought, backstage at the Oprah show? At Barnes & Noble in Manhattan when I do my public reading and signing? Will Donald Trump buy a copy? Or better yet, Wally Shawn? 
            Before I could fantasize further, the salon door opened, other customers came in, and the place was soon busy again. But what a pleasant fuss happened during the 54 seconds I had the crowd to myself. Almost worth the 14 months of monastic life spent creating it.
            I know, you can count, that's only three of the four. My fourth reader wanted the weekend to finish the three other books she's reading and said that if I brought my MS on Monday she'd give it her undivided attention. I'm looking forward to meeting her in person after two years of e-mails.
            They've all promised to try to finish reading the book within a week to ten days. In the meantime, despite the blithe tone of my story today, I'm as nervous as a guy who's just entered his prize pumpkin at the County Fair. I mean, I think it's a pretty good-looking pumpkin, but it's all in the hands of the judges now, isn't it?


On the shores of the Memory Banks

By Hugh Gilmore

             January 28 issue, 2008. The world of the Internet is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
            I was minding my own business yesterday, editing and fact-checking the novel I've recently "finished," when I noticed I may have committed two anachronisms.
             The one first appeared in reference to a country flea market filled with very odd people. The narrator says, "This is where Twin Peaks meets Deliverance." A funny line, if you ask me, almost Jim-Harrisian in its mordant incisiveness. However, the story is set in 1985 and Twin Peaks did not come on television until 1990. (Deliverance was 1972). I substituted The Twilight Zone for Twin Peaks. It's okay, but I'm still searching.
            The second (possible) anachronism is this: the lead detective has just given a piece of information to an evasive suspect and said, "There, does that get your memory bank stirring?"
            I wondered. "Memory bank" is a computer term. Few people in 1985 owned a personal computer and computer-use terms were not part of everyday lingo.
            I hoped to get a quick answer by Googling "History of the term 'memory bank.'" The results upended my day. Google should warn its users, "Caution! Searching here may lead you to memories you're not ready for." 
            I can only compare that idea to the seven boxes of my mother's memorabilia I'm storing for our family. More than three years have passed since our mother died, and no one is ready yet to open a storage carton and find, for example, the huge, sentimental Valentines my father sent her every year. We all need more time beforehand to brace ourselves for that.
            Yesterday, however, I accidentally came face-to-face — in an instant! — with memories that disturbed the placid day I'd set out to have. Two of the first four Google results for "Memory Bank" that came up were linked to web pages maintained by an old friend. I haven't talked to him in years. We'd been friends back in Ann Arbor, the site of the novel I was fact-checking, during an exhilarating, but troubled, time of my life.
             I couldn't resist. Reading the blog and following the links, I stopped working, caught almost in a trance, pleased to see — at least from what the blog reveals — that he's doing well. I spent the rest of the morning at those sites.
            He and I had been newly-bachelored buddies when we taught together in the Anthropology Department at the University of Michigan. He grew up in Manchester, England. I'm a Philadelphia native. We both had one-year "Visiting" appointments that were renewed a few times. We palled around for two years before his time ran out.
            The day I knew we would be friends was a Sunday when he invited me to come over and watch football and have a beer. While we were talking, he said in his Mancunian way, only half-joking, "Well, what's it all about, then? What would you say was a happy life?"
            I decided to test him by saying something I actually meant. I said, in effect, that my end-of-life fantasy would be to go up on a mountain as an old man and sit, looking out over a beautiful valley while I listened to my son, my only child (then), sitting nearby playing a violin. Corny maybe, but true. And naive, as we shall see.
            He responded at once, and with great enthusiasm, "That's what it's all about, isn't it? Cheating death?" 
            Well, I'd never thought of my personal vision that way, and maybe I wouldn't put it that way, but I felt great pleasure from hearing another man talk out loud about something personal for a change. Two years of animated conversation, laughter, and mutual sympathy followed. Both of us were going through divorces, re-dating, enduring university politics, missing our children, and trying to earn a living in a truly weird occupation.
            The last time I saw him, I visited him during his one-year stint at McGill University. He'd just published a book, The political economy of West-African agriculture. (SIC on the lower-case) He inscribed it; "For Hugh/who also knows/why we must try/to cheat death/K/May 1982/Montreal."

            I know the words exactly because, after seeing him on a YouTube clip, I stopped browsing the Internet and took his book down and reread his inscription. After that, my Saturday was ruined by wonder and memory. Instead of having a satisfied work conscience I had a muddled will. Should I e-mail? telephone? say what? ruin the tranquility of his day too?
            Don't forget, before you give me easy advice, that whenever I talk to a long-lost friend, I must lead him or her through the news that I've lost my first-born son, whom they knew, the boy who'd play the violin for me when I was the old man on the mountain. That is painful news to tell and painful for a friend to hear.

            I said that it had been a strangely coincidental day and it got stranger. Still dizzy from such keywords as "Twin Peaks," "The Twilight Zone," "anachronism," "memory bank," and "cheat death," I was off to the opera, something new I'm trying to learn about this year. And what was the opera yesterday?
            Orfeo et Euridice. Of course.  I spent the afternoon watching and listening to the classic tale of how Orpheus cheated death with his songs. The experience was transporting.
            Going to an opera by myself makes me feel like I am standing alone on the banks of the Mississippi. The grand flow, T.S. Eliot's "brown god," mesmerizes and lifts me away. My attention comes and goes. Once in a while something magical and strange floats by and I watch raptly. Then the great, sublime flow resumes, the great in-between, and my mind wanders, all the time feeling as I do in the woods or in a marsh or on the shore of an ocean — that I'm in the presence of something vast and grander than myself that I can draw strength from.
            In short, perspective on scenes from my life, and when, and how, and why they happened as they did.
            I know. You want to know if I've hit that e-mail "Send" button yet. Soon. That "cheating death" stuff makes me nervous. It takes a while to get used to our former selves when we run into them. That's one of the unmentioned dangers of the Internet. Your past, like the Jabberwock, waits to bite you.



The Sun Also Rises, but in Ann Arbor, 1985, when?

By Hugh Gilmore


 January 21, 2008. When I said last week that I had finished my novel, I meant to say I "finished" it. That is, I had written the final scene: Some gunshots. Then one last shot. I know who fired the gun and at whom it was fired (a surprise choice) and why the gun was fired. I know the consequences for the four men and two women in the room at the time. I know what the person who fired the shot said just before pulling the trigger, and where the shot person's body fell — a rather iconic slump, if I do say so myself. That's what I meant when I said I finished my novel. 
            But lots of other problems still remain. For example: My story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, both in the town and on the campus of the University of Michigan. It takes place in 1985.
            I'd like it to be set in 2008, but I'm not able to go live in Ann Arbor for a while to get a renewed feel for the place. I lived there, as a faculty member, from 1979 to 1982. For most of that time I was single and I roved the night scene in a way that husbands and daddies do not, or should not. 1985 was as far forward as I dared project the story.
            The story takes place during three days in May, dates still not determined. I want the action to occur during the break between the end of the regular spring semester and the first of the summer sessions. The town needs to be quieter and not quite as bustling as it is during the regular school year. I'm guessing, say, May 20-23?  I need to research this.
  Here's why: Part 2 of the story opens with this sentence:
"When Klaus awoke the next morning, his body felt renewed and eager to take action. Though it was only _?_ bright sunlight lined the edges of his dark green curtains."
That question mark is there because I need this Klaus guy to get up, try to have breakfast, but suffer an enormous conscience attack, rationalize his behavior from last night, and then drive 25 miles to a flea market where he is to meet two shysters at 8 o'clock. What time should he wake up—if I still want the luxury of writing "bright sunlight lined the edges of his dark green curtains"?
With the luxury of Google at my fingertips, I typed in the search space: "Time of sunrise/sunset Ann Arbor Michigan 1985." And what I received from timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy was Sunrise/Sunset/Astral Noon times for any day of the year between 2029 and 1989. 1989 is not 1985, but close enough in sidereal time, so I picked May 22 and noted that the sun rose at 6:07 AM and set at 8:56 PM.
So, don't you think we can allow bright sunlight to gather at the edges of the curtains and then awaken Klaus at about 6:45 AM and still get him to Saline, Michigan by 8 AM? After my research, I plugged that time into the blank I'd left. A small detail, to be sure, but in this case, one that also affects a scene from the night before.
The hero/protagonist of the book is named Brian Berrew (a play on the name Brian Boru, a celebrated Irish King from a millennium ago). Brian went to a movie that started at 9 PM. On his way there, just as darkness was descending, on a heavily tree-lined street, he noticed and interrupted a burglary in process. In this scene, it is important that it be too dark to see details, but light enough to see silhouettes. Luckily, the world clock data fit, so an 8:45 burglary interruption works just fine. 
If you have the sense that I enjoy this aspect of writing a novel, I do.  One of most enjoyable tasks I had was to assign cars to people. Klaus drives a black Mercedes whose diesel engine's loudness provides a clue. Brian Berrew drives a 1978 Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia. He is single (divorced), has very little money, but enjoys the "poor man's sports car." The bad guys, Claudell and Patrick, tool around in Patrick's big 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix. With just about everyone in Ann Arbor being eco-conscious, this gas guzzler is a brazen announcement that these two guys are not interested in the Rotary Club's "Man of the Year" award. There are others: the poor, plodding detective drives a city-assigned Ford Tempo; Carmella the Luscious, whose looks would make her a Gina Lollobrigida rival, drives a sensible Dodge Colt.
All these cars had to be researched to make sure that the manufacturer still made those specific models in a certain year, or that, for example, the car's trunk was big enough to carry a certain quantity of loot after a burglary.
During the writing of the book I also entertained myself by collecting images of Ann Arbor landmarks, characters you'd be likely to see on the street ("Shaky Jake" was a fixture for years, as was the haranguing "Dr. Diag," and the shrieking "Crazy Mary.") Also, the names and characters of local bars, diners, bookstores, super markets and local gas station franchises. I bought several maps of Ann Arbor, and frequently consulted Google Earth. If someone runs down a street, climbs over a fence, runs across a field, and hops in a car parked on a side street, I'm fairly confident a reader could use my book as a guide.
But not always. Certainly not when it gets in the way of my story. For example, while there are several flea markets in the vicinity of Ann Arbor, I moved the market I know best (in Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania) out there to Saline, Michigan and called it "Perky's." I'm doing the work, so I can set the pieces on Mr. Potato Head any way I want.
Mostly I do the research because it's fun. It also can lead to new story lines, or sharpen the ones I'm working. Last, but certainly not least, I work on this part because I dread the thought of some critic reading the book and saying, "Mill Creek doesn't run East-West; it runs North-South." That's it. No comment on plot, character, theme, story, dialogue or worthiness. Just an obsession with the literal truth of the novel.

Done at last: Escaping the tyranny with sherry and Raisinets

By Hugh Gilmore

            January 14, 2008. Last Wednesday I finished the novel I've been working on for the past year and felt like I had opened a door and stepped through into space. I'd started at 8 a.m., worked hard, and in a strong, final burst finished my book at three o'clock. Post-partum depression immediately set in. Awful. I'd just staggered out of the world of creativity, which I controlled completely, and into the passive world of being judged.  
            I didn't know what to do. Without really intending to, I went upstairs and put on a scarf and ski cap and went out walking in the sleet for an hour until I was thoroughly chilled and chapped and soaked. And grumpy.
            I lay on the sofa for an hour, using every mental trick in my repertoire to calm down and not get wimpy.
            At 6:30, I decided to go to the Met Opera simulcast by myself. Renee Fleming was singing the title role in Thais.
            Great. I brought along a little airline drink sample bottle I'd filled with Amontillado sherry. I bought a box of Raisinets. And I sat in the back row and let myself cry twice. The second was in sympathy for my first girlfriend, who died about twenty years ago---her name was Carolyn...she played the violin and introduced me to the "Meditation from Thais" when I was 17.
            It's fun to sit alone in the balcony and have tears flow down your cheeks while you're eating Raisinets and drinking from a sneaked-in sherry bottle after finishing your novel while listening to Renee Fleming sing a beautiful aria — in French yet!
            The empty parking lot at 11 p.m. when I came out only added to the wonderful sadness of it all and stirred me once again to keep my life free from crap so I can be open to these edifying experiences that tell me life is indeed worth living.
            So, that helped a lot. Then it was back to work the following morning. When I say I "finished" the novel I only meant that I had written all the way up to the final words of the final scene. I had to rewrite that last section. I also decided to add a "coda," a summary of what happened to all the characters after that final scene. You know, "John and Mary decided to be stunt pilots after that day, and they'd hire themselves out to buzz county fairs." Things like that. The coda was fun to write, because, for example, you can have anything you want done with the villain's ashes after he has been cremated. That only took three days and 3,300 words and didn't need much tweaking.
            Everything that preceded that section, however, had taken a lot of time and mental effort. I mentioned when I began this project that I was inspired by Walter Mosley's very helpful book, This Year You Write You Novel (2007). I followed most of the simple guidelines he advocates, especially the injunction that you have to write every day for an hour and a half at least. I have to be honest though and say there were a few times when I played hooky.
             It felt really good to wrench myself from that relentless routine. I know I'm lucky in being able to get up and write first thing in the morning, but my commitment to it had become a form of tyranny: Get up, dress sloppy, wash sleepies out of eyes, brush hair, go down, stop at thermostat, turn up heat, open living room blinds, make coffee and toast, take them downstairs, resume writing.
            I'd start by rereading what I wrote the day before, in order to remember the plot line, and the tone and rhythm of what I wanted to do. Then, I'd read the story outline I had written to see what today's scene had to accomplish. I'd usually write for three to four hours. Then I'd be emotionally spent. Actually, it was more like mentally spent. It's like high-speed driving on a narrow road, where the effort of concentrating tired me after a while.
            I had begun on January 1, 2008, and dashed through the entire book by the end of last March, over 100,000 words. I've been rewriting since. A major problem I ran into involved Point of View. I wrote the book originally in first person, switched to third person, switched back to first, and finally settled again (in August) on third — primarily because third person allows the writer more access to what the characters know. It was a lot of work, but I must say I got to know my characters quite well by then.
            In creating characters I found I liked some of them, even if they were criminals, more than others. They developed habits of speech or exposed vulnerabilities that made me feel a great sympathy for them. Some of the female characters I even found quite attractive personally. I know that sounds weird, but try it sometime and you'll see. Just don't talk to them out loud on the R8.
            What happens now? Gathering the various sections together. Doing an edit. A few sections need punching up. Then I'll print it out and make a few copies. The most important thing is to write a dynamic cover letter meant to help me find an agent who will sell my book to a publisher. By the end of this month, I expect to have started sending those query letters.
             Once that process is under control, I'll start another book. Getting this one done has been a grind. But now, one year later, I have accomplished something I wouldn't have if I hadn't happened on Walter Mosley's book. So, I'm passing on my experience to you. Maybe you'll try to write yours this year.