And now, finally, here’s Part 5, which concludes this saga. What started off as an idle response to an innocent question–“Hey, where’d that new story come from?”–has grown all out of proportion…but hopefully not to its detriment.
So, thanks for sticking with me through this (those of you who have); regular P.E.M posting should resume within a few days.
Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 – Wherein the author does everything possible to sell out, and discovers it’s not as easy as people think.
It’s amazing what one little line can do to change how a query letter for a novel is received.
Before winning the On Writing contest, my queries had contained all the usual drek: stories written, collegiate contests won, the one-act play I wrote that was performed by a theatre company…and all of them garnered one of the following responses: a form letter (not really even a letter, just part of a page, photocopied and envelope-stuffed by some intern) saying “Thanks, but no thanks”; the same form letter, but with a brief personal note added that they like what I’d sent, but it just didn’t fit with them; or the aforementioned scam. Responses usually took 2-3 months, and after a while you tend to get numb to them, expecting very little, hoping for little more.
And then, after the contest, I was able to add some variation on the following line: “And my short story ‘The Maid’ was recently chosen by Stephen King as one of the winners of the On Writing contest.”
Oh, and how things changed.
I sent out 3 queries the day after I found out that I’d won the contest. If I remember correctly, I found out about winning the contest on a Thursday, and sent out those queries the next day, on a Friday.
The following Tuesday, I got a phone call—at work, at ye olde chain coffee shop, meaning they’d done more than their fair share of research in a short amount of time—from one of the three agents I’d queried in New York. They asked me for the full manuscript of my novel, and exclusive rights to consider the novel for a week.
The other two agencies followed up within a day or two, via email, asking for the same: full novel manuscript, and a period of exclusivity. I had the odd dilemma of trying to explain to the agents I had been pursuing so diligently for so many years, “Sorry, there’s a line, it starts over there, I’ll get to you in the order you arrived.”
Imagine being at a High School dance, and you’re sitting or standing on the sidelines…you’ve asked a few girls to dance, and counted yourself lucky that when you were rejected, at least they didn’t laugh in your face. And then, a group of the hottest girls you’ve ever seen walk into the gym, and they come right up to you, and start arguing amongst themselves about which one is going to fuck you first. That’s what it was like.
And here we come to the great sticking point in my writing career: my novel.
It’s called 40, and for all of its faults and failures, I still love it, in the way I imagine that Dahmer’s parents still feel some sort of parental concern for their killing and cannibalizing son.
The basic notion for it came to me all at once, on April 20th, 1996—Earth Day, which was being celebrated particularly hard on a university campus as liberal/socialistic as the one I was on…and also 4/20, a date of particular note for stoners (which I most definitely was) (and this was several years before Columbine, so there was no morbid attachment to the date yet). I remember taking a heavy dose of mushrooms that morning, then joining the festivities on the campus quad, enjoying the vibes like only a stoner surrounded by hundreds of other stoners can.
It all came to me in a bit of a chaotic rush: not quite a full Idea Bomb, but close to it. Legend holds that prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was sentenced—amongst other punishments—to 39 lashes with a whip. 40 lashes was assigned as a death sentence, the assumption being that no one could survive that many lashes with a whip…so 39 lashes was the equivalent of saying, “Whip him until he’s 99.9% dead, then we’ll figure out something else to do to him.”
And so I wanted to tell the story of someone who was pushed to the absolute edge—39 lashes worth, with the 40th hovering constantly over him—and the rest proceeded from there.
It took me a little over six months to complete, and as I believe I’ve already mentioned, this was the exception that proved the rule: as good as it felt to write it, the end result was an absolute disaster. You could say I survived the experience—after all, I did actually finish it, which 99 out of 100 writers never do—but the end result was as awkward and amateurish an effort as has ever been committed to the page.
There are some brilliant moments, but by and large, it’s clearly not something that any self-respecting publisher would want to put between two embossed covers. Still, it was what I had, and I was running with it, regardless. Most writers never publish their first-written novel, and many more get an agent based on a novel, fail to place it, and later manage to get their second or third one published via that same agent. I was just hoping for a bite, a relationship: someone in my corner who wanted to help me get where I wanted to go, whether it was with this first novel or something better that was yet to come.
But it was no surprise when the first agency, after reading the whole manuscript, decided to pass. And then the second, and third did. And another 3 queries went out, with similar drooling responses…and passes. And on it went, for a couple of months. Take that same situation, those incredibly hot girls arguing over who’s going to fuck you first, and then one of them wins out, and gets you alone in your room, and the pants come off…and she takes one look and starts to laugh. And then the next girl comes in, all hot and bothered…and she laughs too. Over and over again.
It gets so you start to feel a bit desperate. To be so close, and keep failing. And a lot is possible for someone when desperation kicks in, things that you’d never even consider otherwise.
A few months into this rejection process, I was at work one night, and talking about winning the contest with one of my co-workers, and someone who was standing in line overheard the conversation, and interrupted us.
“My name’s so-and-so, and I work for [insert big-time LA-based agency here]. Here’s my card; give me a call tomorrow and we’ll set something up.”
I don’t normally buy the cliché of sitting in a soda shop on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting for a producer to walk by and “discover” you…but it’s a cliché because, on occasion, it actually happens.
I feel like I’m getting a bit bogged down in the narrative here, so let’s cut to the chase: I had a meeting with them a week later, and then another meeting, and then another. I brought them my novel, and just about every story I’d written to that point that I thought might be “marketable”. They asked me to write a treatment for the novel, and then a treatment for “The Maid”, and then treatments for a few of my other stories.
I do now, incidentally, curl fetal whenever I hear someone discussing a treatment for a script…sometimes I vomit, sometimes I don’t. It’s unpleasant either way.
And so I wrote those treatments, those 2-3 page abominations. I knew I was close, I was an active account, they were billing hours to my meetings…I was just desperately trying to move past the Meetings stage and into a Lunch Meeting (meaning a hefty expense report would be filled out and submitted, and there had better be a paying client to justify it), or even, god help me, a Meeting with Friends I’d Like You To Meet…which is where all the actual work gets done in LA, and where the checkbooks burn very, very close to the surface.
And if you’ll excuse the vulgarity…I got down on my knees, with absolutely no hesitation or shame (at least then), and sucked their root. Sucked it hard.
I took my novel (which, remember, was Not Very Good), and “The Maid”, and half a dozen of my other stories, and just flat out prostituted them. Twisted their souls, throwing out everything that had been important about them to me, mangling them as I tried to fit them into some semblance of a 90-minute three-act structure. And while I did a pretty good job with those particular goals, well…if you put lipstick on a pig, but also cut that pig’s throat and gut them, stringing their innards all about like rotting decorations, pig or no pig, no one’s lining up for a kiss. It’s just a dead pig.
And after a few months of back and forth, the agency stopped returning my calls. And emails. I didn’t take the final crazy step of dropping by their offices without an appointment, but I imagine Security would have thrown me out if I had.
It didn’t take very long for me to take the hint…I grew up here, after all, and while I’d gotten plenty wrapped up in what I thought was happening, and how close I was to finally breaking through to the inner system…I know when someone’s holding their breath, sitting still, hoping I’ll give up and go away.
I won’t lie: I’m not entirely sure how to describe how I felt when that realization sunk in. Because I don’t really remember. It’s a bit of a black hole…I remember everything else that was going on at the time—getting ready for a wedding, injuring my knee…I remember just about everything else with detailed recall. But about my Writing, my one true passion…I remember the last meeting I had with the agency, and the next thing I remember is about two years later, and realizing that I hadn’t written anything new in a very long time.
It’s no joke that, for any kind of tragedy, the longest stage of the grieving process is denial. Sometimes there are outside factors that can help prompt you out of that stage and into the next…shit like an open coffin funeral, for instance…but sometimes there aren’t. I’ve always been private with my Writing (at least until now), only sharing it with people—or even the fact that I was working on something in the first place—when it was finished. So those closest to me were already trained to not ask me about what I was or wasn’t working on…no matter how long the silence continued.
And it’s not like I had folks on the outside banging at my door, wondering where the next great Hunt story was…form rejection letters don’t generally lead to a wide fan base, not without a few critical intermediate steps along the way.
Truth be told, I’m not sure, even today, almost nine years later, that I’ve completely moved out of the denial stage; I suppose this absurdly-long accidental confession might be part of the process. And the pretentiously-eloquent microfiction is, more than anything, a cranky rejection of all the work I used to do…and most importantly, the perversions I foisted upon it all in the name of potential success. The story “edge”, which I published an excerpt of here about two weeks ago…that’s the first complete written work of consequence that I’ve finished since 2001. I’ve had a few half-assed false starts in the years since, but until two weeks ago it was nothing more than some self-indulgent lines hinting at something that I knew would never actually come to life.
But “edge” is done, as is “Two Deserts Returned”… and “Love Story” is in progress, and hopefully finished in the next few days (I’ve been a bit pre-occupied finishing this saga). And this work somehow feels different…like it’s been freed from some sort of external set of conditions that it’s supposed to adhere to. All of my previous work was measured against this mysterious standard, and I had to waste so much energy defending it, hoping by sheer force of will to prove that it was good, despite how badly it failed to measure up.
I’m writing again…something, somewhere, has forgiven me, and freed me from whatever prison I was rightfully sent to after treating the work I’d done with such disdain…I’m not sure anything else about it matters.
I’ve thought a lot over the last few weeks about why it appears that I’ve actually started writing again. I’d like to know, if for no other reason than to have some sort of road map in case I ever hit another drought like the one I’ve been living through.
I know why I stopped writing, that’s pretty obvious, in retrospect.
I’m not sure I’ve adequately explained just how grievous my sins were, and how much I brutalized my work back then. I took the things in my life that were most precious to me, the stories I’d written, the work I’d done that I knew God had put me on this earth to do, and mangled them, dismembered them, like a killer trying to fit a body into a trunk. All in the hope that someone would pass me a piece of paper and say, “Here, sign this…your check will arrive in the mail in a few weeks.”
And I’ve been grieving that loss, that self-inflicted mutilation, ever since.
But as to why I’ve finally started writing again…that, I don’t know. There are plenty of “reasons”, but none of them add up very well, the total falling well short of the sum of its parts.
There is one phrase, though, that’s kept returning to me recently, and if there’s any secret here, any lesson to be learned…well, let me tell you one last story.
I wasn’t raised religious, but came to the Christian church of my own accord in Junior High. I consider my current religion to be a variation on Recovering Born-Again, because back in those days, I was seriously hard-core. My church and my fellowship with those around me were my life. I entertained very serious thoughts of entering the ministry.
And there came a point where that wasn’t viable anymore. A point where my perspective on the entire business underwent a subtle but fundamental shift.
I was about a year removed from college, having dropped out to finish writing my novel. I was laying back on my bed, smoking a cigarette, and was hit by an Idea Bomb. It’s only happened to me twice in my life…the first time was when I got the idea for my novel, but that was muddied by all of the psychedelics I was on at the time. This time, I was completely sober, and if you’ve never experienced it yourself, then there’s no real way I’m going to be able to describe it to you.
I was thinking through some of the stories I’d written, and some of the ideas I was still working on, waiting for them to gestate enough that they’d be ready to commit to the page. And all at once—might have taken a few seconds, might have been several minutes, there was no sense of time passing at all—I saw a common thread. I saw a Story, something that tied it all together, a fundamental truth underlying all the work I had done and was about to do.
Steve King has described the experience of having an Idea Bomb hit you as something like having a tactical nuke go off inside your head. What happens is that—usually completely unprovoked—all of these disparate ideas that you’ve been carrying together in your head suddenly form up and lock into place in a way that you’d never even come close to considering before. The difference between Before and After is like the difference between a long string of proteins and Life, Created and evolving towards the Godhead.
So I’m lying there, and this Idea Bomb hits me, and it’s a physical experience. My entire body is tingling, like I’m recovering from the single greatest orgasm any human being has ever experienced. I actually had to check myself to make sure I wasn’t levitating inches above the bed…and I’m not speaking metaphorically. At that point, had you brought the crippled to me, I could have motherfucking healed them. Levitating was a parlor trick, barely enough to hold my curiosity for a minute or two.
And afterwards, when trying to describe it, a phrase came to me, the same one that’s pinging around inside my head right now when I try to figure out why I have been silent for so long, and now have started to write again: God-breathed.
The bulk of the New Testament is comprised of letters, mostly from Paul to various communities (thus Romans, Colossians, etc.), but occasionally to specific people, to help them in their ministry. And in the second letter that he wrote to Timothy (thus, 2 Timothy), he says:
“All Scripture is God-breathed…”
There’s entire dissertations as to exactly what that phrase means…and by all means, discussion and debate is wonderful fun. But it can never replace personal experience. And one of the things in life that I know to be true, beyond any amount of discussion or debate is this: when he says that all Scripture is God-breathed, what he means is, “That dude, when he sat down to write…he got hit by an Idea Bomb.”
The experience pushed me down a train of thought that led to my departure from the church, but closer to God. If the people who wrote the scriptures—real, normal people—had been touched by God…why would God stop doing that? Was there a finite window during which he was rushing to get his message down on paper, after which he put his feet up, opened a beer, and took the next two thousands years off? I doubt it. Any realistic definition of God places him outside of any time-limited definition anyway…there’s just no conceivable way that one aspect of his impact on human lives would be limited to a narrow window of linear history.
I think that all through history, people have written God-breathed work. And by that, I mean that people have somehow, for a brief moment in time, managed to hew closer to the truth than any of us can purely on our own. The details of that truth are colored by the vessel doing the work…so, Ayn Rand, her work is God-breathed, no matter how secular-humanist her subject matter. Same with U2, Steinbeck, Stephen King, Tolkien, and Glen Greenwald, and Brecht, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Bee-Gees…no matter the specifics of the work, the Truth of it burns through with white-hot intensity.
In that moment, when that Idea Bomb hit me…God breathed upon me. And I was unable to read the Bible—or take part in any organized religious activities, which all have their foundation in something from the Bible—in the same way again. After all, if God had breathed upon the Bible’s authors, well, he’d breathed upon me too. Which meant that my pursuit of insights into the nature of God, the universe and everything were just as valid, and just as likely to result in Truth as anything I could read in the New International Version.
That specific Idea Bomb, it did end up undergoing some revisions…the yet-to-be-written stories that were tied up in it were eventually written, and differed from their internal concepts once they were finally down on the page, as often happens, so the idea evolved, and adapted…but it ultimately, years later, resulted in the only formally published work I’ve got out there: The Messy Divorce of Faith and Belief.
(If you click the tab at the top of this blog with that name, you’ll find a link to purchase it. I encourage you to do so…it’s good, and I have bills to pay.)
And when I try to think through possible reasons why I’ve started writing again, it’s that phrase, God-breathed, that keeps popping up.
A breath doesn’t have to hit you all at once…it can flow in quietly, cooling and gentle.
I don’t know why I’m writing again now…but I do know that I can feel the breath of God upon me again. Megalomania is a good thing, in small doses (and as long as you’re not a high ranking member of either the clergy or the military). God—whatever your definition, whether he has a long white beard, or like the Tao is everything you don’t say and nothing you do—has a personal, vested interest in everything. And that includes each of us. It includes me.
For whatever reason, I was blind, but now I see. Lost and am found.
I can write again.
It might have something to do with Grace…but that’s a story for another time.