Monday, May 14, 2007

Bad News is Good News

That is to say, I received my first rejection from an agent last week, and that's good news because an odd novel with an inflammatory theme may have to to sit in the dog pound awhile before someone looks into its bloodshot eyes and takes it home. It's a numbers game.

The letter was short but very positive, saying that the reader -- who I like to think was among the best and brightest of the summer interns -- was "insufficiently enthusiastic," which implies a considerable degree of enthusiasm....

Of course, it doesn't. I know a form letter when I see one. What I would love to know is whether or not the reader actually did read the sample chapters or only the first paragraph or two on page one. I recall that back in the day when I judged journalism contests, I would read the first three paragraphs of a story and if I did not like those first three, that was it.

There was irony in this, boys and girls, because as a feature writer I took the New Yorker approach, that arrogant presupposition that one's style is so mesmerizing that the reader, given absolutely no clue where the story is going, will read on past the jump as a daredevil goes over a waterfall in an inner tube.

But that's what I did, and I am guessing that's what the summer interns are doing at the offices of the high-powered literary agents to whom I insist on sending my "package" -- cover letter/chapters/summary.

I have no connections that would get me past these interns. So I imagine: How far do they read? What do they think?

Perhaps, I should give them some help.

Sentence One:

If I had felt better, I might have bent my thumb and given the car the finger as it went by.

You don't have to be George Tenet to know that sentence is a slam dunk. I read that sentence and I think: Hitcher Serial Crazy Killer Body Count. Now, that's not what the novel is about, but, as an Original Reader, I don't know that yet. I am certainly going to keep going to find out when the first head is separated from the first torso.

Which never happens. And if too many readers complain when they are done -- "Hey! Where's my severed head?" -- I can add an alternate ending. We will do it digitally, whatever that means.

Sentence Two:

I did not give it the finger. It hadn’t been that good a week for spontaneous gestures.

Oh, boy,my reader says. Maybe there won't be a severed head -- though we will never give up hope! -- but look at the inner tension and complexity. Apollonian or Dionysian? Dostoevsky or Kerouac or J.P. Donleavy? Will this novel bust loose or sink back into itself. I've got to know! This is serious head cheese. pretty ripe stuff.

And the roads in the middle of Indiana are flat and straight. It would be easy for a driver to catch that rudeness in his rear view mirror, do a neat U-turn in the gravel on the shoulder, come screeching back, bust your suitcase where it stands and run you into the nearest barbed wire fence.

At this point, tears begin to stain the page. Lead on, my young Virgil, through this hell of wonders, my reader begs. For surely this novel is clearly a magnificent travelogue, somewhere between sociology and anthropology. Only three sentences in, and look how it opens out into a vista, an expanse, a landscape of menace. Remember that scene in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" where the crop duster comes out of nowhere and tries to murder Cary Grant? You try not to think of that scene, but you can't stop. And Steven Spielberg's "Duel," with the vastly underrated Dennis Weaver. This book has layers, references, inferences, codes, clues and fun for the entire family, assuming those severed heads never show up.

Not to mention the pain the pain the pain the barbed wire the tension the looming barbed wire. Run, Fuzzy, run!!!

I begin to see the problem I am going to face. "Is this a novel or is it crack cocaine?" my reader thinks. "This Robertson fellow -- and I am so glad he sent an 8-by-10 glossy -- is an Eater of Souls!"

Not to get all literary, but reading the first three paragraphs of my manuscript is like Beowulf hearing about Grendel for the first time. Here's where we separate the heroes from the summer interns.

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