Saturday, July 11, 2020

Somewhere Over The Transom

Gosh, this is the fun part, huh? I've written another novel and have to find someone on the Inside who can jam it into a publisher's heart. In the old days, apparently, it was easier to find an advocate for your work. I wouldn't say just anyone could land an agent, but your odds were at least better than being killed by a meteorite.

Hell, in the old old days, you could just type up your entire book and sail it over the transom at a major publishing house. The transom is the magic portal above the door and if you dropped it from there it got some nice momentum. Then it was just a matter of some overworked editor (gruff, haggard, yet somehow endearing) noticing your manuscript splayed out on the floor and seeing the genius fumes wafting up out of it, and pretty soon you're summoned to the office (in a rainstorm, with a taxi not only ignoring you but splattering you with mud while peeling away from the curb) and then there's a whole scene and you unbundle your hair bun and take off your glasses and the music swells and you're a published author.

Now there are only five publishing houses and they've sealed up their transoms but good. You need someone on the Inside. You need an agent. And you need your query letter to sparkle just a little more than the other nine hundred letters she gets that week.

Well, I've done this before, and I'm serene about rejection, so it isn't as hard as it could be. I did land an agent once. I can't remember how many I tried before she took me on. Thirty, maybe.

Holy shit. I just actually went back and counted them up. Eighty-four. Anyway. Here goes. I'm ready!

Sort of. I forgot one thing. You work up your list of possible agents, and then whack it down to a short list, and then hatchet that down to a top five, and write up your best letters and shoot them off into the void. Right? Not so good if you get rejected and start to realize how you could have made your letter better--but now you've already lost your favorites.

So you work that much harder and research the living crap out of the agent list and try again. By the time you've ironed all the kinks out of your letter, you've lined through a fair number of gold-star targets. The quality of your query is going up while the quality of the agents goes down. The rejections begin to filter in. The no-response-at-alls hover coyly in a vapor just outside your laptop. You wonder: should you take a chance at the big-ass guy at the big-ass agency because he seems like the best fit, even though he's a wildly successful agent of forty years' standing who holds reunions at the Pulitzer Prize ceremonies? Or do you query his equally good fit at the agency who just got bumped up from the mailroom? You've only got one shot at this agency.

Do you confine yourself to agents based in New York City, or does it matter anymore? It used to.

The vapor of non-responses develops heft and pressure and hovers harder outside your laptop, smirking.

Months in, dilemmas like Top Guy vs. Mailroom Guy begin to seem quaint. I still have my unearned self-confidence. I know I've got a great book here. I can continue to believe with all my heart that I've got what it takes, because nobody has actually asked for a manuscript yet and told me it's crap. So there's that.

But I'm not far away from querying the agent who's set up a pop-up office in the parking lot of a food cart pod. As long as it's in New York.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Thirty Days Per Gallon

I made the observation on the Old Person's Social Media Platform that I hadn't bought any gasoline since February. Might even have been early February, and I still had half a tank.

"All electric?" my friend Jeremy wanted to know.

No. All parked.

"You need to take it out on the freeway once a week for twenty minutes," he opined. My own opinion was that I the hell did not.

He elaborated. Something having to do with condensation. A crankcase. Rust. Dead car. I needed to run my car.

I'm sure he's right. But when it comes to cars, and pets, and life mates, I need something that doesn't ask much of me. Because that's what it's going to get. I certainly do not want to have to go throw a ball for my car. I don't even have a crate to put it in. Besides, moving it would disturb the new plants just getting their roots down in the sludge next to my parked tires.

In forty years, we've had two more or less self-maintaining cats and one dog that climbed our fence paw-over-paw and headed out to the hinterlands for better cuisine, returning happily every evening with a mouthful of biscuit and sausage. It was a great arrangement. Sometimes we'd get a phone call to come pick her up at the tavern where she was hanging out, if she had overstayed her welcome, but mostly she just did her usual route, pooped in someone else's yard, and knocked on the front door once we were home from work.

I don't know what a crankcase is, but it doesn't sound like something I want to be appeasing. You start in with that kind of indulgence, pretty soon your car is going to be whining for oil and a bath. I don't think I've washed my car since Obama left office. There's a distinct topography of bird poop mostly on the right side under the telephone wire. I'm not sure I want to disturb it even if I could at this point. It would be like vandalizing stalagmites.

Mainly, I'm lazy, which is how some people refer to my efficiency of leisure, but also when it comes to cars I have the opposite of pride of ownership. I'm ashamed. I certainly understand why it is cool to have your own capsule you can drive anywhere anytime all by yourself, but the sheer volume of infrastructure we have built up for this remarkable convenience is just embarrassing to the species. Pavement absolutely everywhere. Pavement just for parking. Bonus pavement to fill in ditches where wildlife might otherwise show up. Ships and pipelines and wells and tankers and refineries and drive-ins where you can idle while awaiting fried cow on a bun. Big box stores in former wetlands, moated with asphalt acreage. It's ugly and dirty and convenient as all get-out.

And of course there's that little detail of the carbon pollution that is quickly making our home planet uninhabitable. You'd think that would be of concern, but it isn't. We don't care if we're going straight to perdition if we can do it in leather seats with a good sound system.

So I don't want to be seen spoiling my car. I don't want to have to exercise it, and there's really no way to pick up its poop.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Beta Reader

When you've written a book, you're supposed to have beta readers take a look. Beta readers are supposed to let you know what does and doesn't work in your novel; where you've lost their attention; and how they think it should have ended. If you're lucky, a lot of them won't even get back to you at all.

But what I need beta readers for is other stuff. Stuff like noticing that my hero is born in 1965 and yet is now only thirty years old, and this isn't a magical realism story. Or that Selma was the secretary at the sheriff's office on page one and worked for the post office on page forty. Or that a guy named Dave shows up in the middle and no one knows who he is, because he was Steve thirty pages ago.

I have trouble with names. I spend a lot of time trying to work out my characters and outline my plot before I ever start to write. After a while I give my characters placeholder names so I don't have to keep typing out "rich girl" and "village idiot." When I do start writing for real, I change their names, sometimes more than once, and I don't get tidy about sweeping up the old ones. Also, sometimes I forget which one is which.

It got easier when I discovered the "replace" function but that was troublesome too. One novel I wrote had an "Alan" character, and at some point I realized I occasionally spelled it "Allen," so I did a search-and-replace for Alan to Allen and got 50 replacements right off the bat. Felt pretty smug about that until I reread my manuscript and discovered words like "ballence" and "nonchallence" sprinkled all the way through.

One of my first actual beta readers noticed pretty quickly that half of my names started with H. That's fine in real life, but it's unnecessarily confusing for readers. I wasn't aware I'd done it. My reader started circling "H" names and writing "another H" in the margin, until, in my very last chapter, I introduced a Hannah and she just underlined it and wrote Really? in the margin.

The book I'm writing now is particularly confusing. I am following a half-dozen characters, and I'm filling in their histories in flashbacks. So it goes back and forth from the present to their adolescence and points between--in literary circles, we refer to that as "willy-nilly"--and now I can't swear that some of them haven't given birth to their own grandmothers.

It kind of makes me wonder how God did it. Just slammed everything down bip bam boom and came in ahead of deadline and knocked off for a day. That's some serious chops. Of course he was a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy. No flashbacks there. You just create a setting and plop in your characters, and if Time is operating correctly, it should be pretty coherent from then on.

Heck. Anyone could write that.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

One Bird Too Far


baby
So many things going on during nesting season if you're paying attention. The trill of victory, the agony of de tiny little feet! Everywhere one soap opera after another is playing out. Studley and Marge plumb disappeared shortly after the scrub jay incident and didn't show up for worms even though we extended our beer-thirty hours JUST for them, and we had no idea where they went or even if they still...were. The resident crows are just past the stage where their baby has plummeted from the treetops and been grounded for a few days, and we knew that because every so often we heard a great cawcophany from the neighbor's yard followed by two little kids screaming their heads off and dashing back into the house. It was very satisfying. Now the crow baby is aloft for good and pecking around the garden beds with its blue eyes and gape-remnant lips and it will soon be the best-looking one of the bunch, because the adults are all about to go gappy and drop their feathers.

Then Studley came back with three of his little guys in tow! They're not any littler than he is, of course, but they're beebling away in the trees waiting for Daddy to show up with snacks, and we couldn't be relieveder. They too can be recognized by their shiny new suits and I do believe they outweigh their father too, because as usual he has worked himself skinny. His molt will start any day now. Last year by this time he had a ragged cheek bib and a bald spot on his head. This year his head feathers look okay but he's had this one feather sticking up on his back for weeks. I tried to smooth it down once but Studley has stopped just short of allowing me to touch him in a personal fingery way. And I know this because it's everything I can do to keep from chucking the little dude under the chin.

wayward feather
And because it is not enough to have a private tit to show off to your friends, my niece was inspired to try to entice a pair of juncos that were nesting in her yard, and succeeded in getting them and their babies to take food from her hand, and start a new brood, and get those babies to do the same, and, what the hey, the local song sparrows seemed to show an interest too, and what with one thing and another, she is basically encrusted with birds every time she walks outside. Dave shakes his head. Brewster girls, he says, without elaborating.

It's not a competition, but I will point out she doesn't have a chickadee yet.

And so I'm happy that I've made my garden a destination resort for the feathered set, and contemplate what more I can provide, because birds are awesome in every way, but I would like to mention that I the hell did not mean I wanted freaking pigeons nesting under my solar panels with their stupid breathy cooing like they're fat little Olivia Newton-Johns in a world of opera stars and all walking around like they do with their tiny stupid heads poinking along behind them like they're trying to catch up to their own plumpety bodies. But there they are flapping down to the rental house's gutter and coming back up to our roof with big old sticks because not only do we have freaking pigeons committing lavish poopination under our solar panels but sure enough we didn't get around to clearing out the gutters last season and thanks for reminding us.

I know I'm supposed to be more even-handed about this as a bird lover but I really don't care for pigeons much at all or the whoop-whoop-whoop Three Stooges routine they do or their unmatched outfits, the best of which look like a motor oil slick in a puddle, walking around all dumb and eating white bread preferentially, and I know they have plenty of admirers and can do some amazing things such as find their way home even from a very great distance, which they can go ahead and do any time now as far as I'm concerned and I hope it's way the hell across the ocean.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Better Than Insomnia

I'm not sure what to make of this. A blog post, maybe. But not a normal one.

See, for someone who's been accused of being creative all her life, I have the dumbest dreams ever. If there's a possibility of something interesting happening, like flying, or having sex with handsome strangers, I don't do it. In my dream I say "No thanks, you go ahead and fly, I'll just hop up and down a little." I say, "No thanks, sex sounds nice, but I need to get my laundry off the line before it rains." Invariably I stop short of something really satisfying, and instead do whatever I would ordinarily do in my ordinary but satisfying life.

And that's if I'm not trying to figure out how many Little Things go in a Big Thing. Or if I'm not missing my flight. Or if I'm not running around trying to find a clean, private toilet.

Sweet dreams aren't made of these.

So listen to this:

I dreamt there was a big mob in the street. Everyone was yelling. They'd heard there was going to be a hanging, and they were out for blood. The person who was going to be hanged was running for office, someone like Elizabeth Warren, although in my dream she looked like Maggie Smith. Donald Trump had told the crowd she was going to be hanged from the inside of a glass elevator shaft, and the mob was gathering around the building's parking lot to watch. Donald Trump was working the crowd. "Or maybe we won't hang her after all. Maybe..." He shrugged, put his palms up, milked the moment. The crowd roared. "Maybe we'll just let her drop a couple feet. A couple feet!" He's holding his tiny hands apart. "And then maybe we'll ask her a few questions. A few questions! I don't know! What do you think?" He shrugged again. The crowd screamed Hang her! Hang her!

I'm growing more and more horrified as I realize this thing is actually going to happen. I keep thinking there has to be a way to stop it, that things couldn't have gotten this far, that they can't really get away with this. I know the building. It's an apartment tower on my mail route, and I know which floor has the access to the elevator shaft. I punch a code to enter and race up six flights of stairs and fly down the hallway. When I open the door that leads to the elevator shaft, there's a pretty good crowd there too. Donald Trump is there. He is smirking and teasing and bobbing his head. People are laughing with him, but I don't get the sense that this crowd is all on his side--that maybe they are just cowed, afraid to intervene. I had in mind that I would yell out "No! We're not going to let you do this!" and all the good people would start hollering and stomping and get the gumption to rush the guards. They just need someone to break the spell. I'm waiting for the right moment.

Just then three men start leading Elizabeth Warren Maggie Smith toward the gibbet and she looks tense but dignified, like Marie Antoinette on the way to the Guillotine, and I about lose my mind. Instead of yelling, I lunge straight at Donald Trump and jump him and put my hands around his big squishy neck and throttle him for all I'm worth. He crumples to the floor and I'm kicking and strangling and stomping and he is soft and doughy like a bag of goo and can't defend himself at all, and every punch and kick lands, and I'm thinking, Well, this is it, I'm about to get shot or hauled off to prison or both, but it doesn't happen. Trump lies on the floor curled up like a fat, damaged larva and everyone stands and cheers, even the guards. And there are more and more of us cheering and we look down and the crowd in the parking lot is thinning fast, skulking away.

I really did dream that, all of that. And when I woke up, I really did think "I'd better not put this in a blog post, or I could get arrested." Because that's the kind of world we're living in today.

Or maybe it's the dream world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Firstly, You Must Find Another Shrubbery


You act weird enough, people just leave you be.

I've already told you about the time Dave took me to the back porch to teach me how to blow a raspberry. (It was a sanitary issue. I was spraying a lot.) He was patient. I must've spent a good fifteen minutes spraying away before I got my first good fart sound out and then it was just a matter of refining the tone.

By then I was leaning over the railing so the spit wouldn't hit the porch so much, and Dave was helpfully lip-farting to demonstrate proper embouchure, and every time we looked up we could see Venetian blind slats closing, and curtains dropping.

Still, people didn't leave us alone for long. We're friendly, and we have beer and a pickup truck. But today I might have finally done it.

I was outside attending Mr. Studley Windowson with a nice tub of mealworms, and he took one and immediately started scolding, and loud. That's something, not only having a perfect bird on your finger but having him go off like that, and I looked up, and there was a scrub jay close by on a post. Mr. Windowson hates scrub jays and the boy can put out some decibels when he wants to. I admire jays, but I'm getting to where I'd prefer they go somewhere else, ever since the Nuthatch Fiasco of 2016.

So Studley flies off to a wire to scold some more, and Marge joins him, and they're both going off, and I think--recalling Julie Zickefoose and the time she won over a previously hostile family of barn swallows by getting on a ladder and scooping up an enormous black rat snake that was working its way toward their nest--I think, Watch this, Marge, because Marge still hasn't come to my hand, and I go over to the post the jay is perched on and thump it but good.

Studley visits friends too.
And the jay does not even pay me the honor of glancing down. Eventually it gets bored and goes to another post, and I follow it and thump it right up to Kingdom Come. And then I get out my hose and put it on Jet and try to knock it off, but it flies lazily upward, and by this time I'm spraying the hose straight up in the air and every which way. Any neighbor peeking out the window is now watching me spray myself, basically, and nothing else in particular, and running around in circles. And eventually the mildly annoyed jay flies off. Meanwhile, Marge and Studley are still going nuts.

Then I see the jay is poking around the neighbor's arborvitae. Marge even takes a dive at the jay, and then the arborvitae explodes with birds, all of them screaming their tiny chickadee heads off, and I see the jay is actually chasing a flying bird, and I think No, no, not Studley, and I haul ass over there--I am now in my neighbor's yard--and I see the jay actually bearing down on two flying chickadees, not two feet behind them, and I don't know if they're Studley and Marge or the junior Windowsons, and I'm chasing the jay and flapping my arms and yelling NO NO NO at the top of my lungs, and they're making tight circles so I am too and--well, basically, from the standpoint of anyone looking out his window, nobody does any of this stuff unless they're on hallucinogens.

Finally the jay decides to bother someone else and goes away. I think the two birds the jay was almost catching were Studley and Marge drawing attention away from their babies in the arborvitae, but god almighty, how long do they have to keep this up? Their kids are flying, but apparently not well enough, and the sight of a jay almost catching them in flight fills me with dread. They've already made a nest out of pretty much nothing and found food for their brood for weeks and weeks and worked themselves skinny, but the danger never ceases. When do they get to stop worrying?

I've heard it's the same with humans though.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Coming Clean

Well, here we are.

For most of us, our normal daily routines have been disrupted. We have had time to sit back and consider which aspects of our former lives were to the good and which might be discarded. It's a time for contemplation. Self-examination. Reassessment.

Questions seem to come from somewhere deep inside us, day after day. We need to get to the bottom of things. We need to take stock. And so, I know I'm not alone in asking:

Exactly how much toilet paper do we go through every day?

Don't tell me you haven't thought about it too. It's an exisclenchal question, and you're just sitting there. How much do you use?

[crickets]

"You go first," I hear you saying eventually, and regretting it soon after. All righty:

Four squares for the first pass (we shall call it the no-look pass), four squares for the follow-up pass (checking progress this time), a final four for the just-in-case. Three more squares for frontsies and I'm good to go again.

That's on average. There are exceptions for oopses related to texture and volume, and (more rarely) sometimes I can get by with less if the missile is intact and spit clean. There's a helpful medical chart for poop quality called the Bristol Stool Scale. Humans are wired to count everything in a one to ten scale but unlike the makers of blenders, who apparently can distinguish between grate and purée, poop scientists have managed to scrape up only seven types from One (separate small lumps) to Seven (liquid consistency with no solid pieces). I would imagine where one lands on the Bristol Stool Scale would have quite an effect on TP consumption. If you are a Type One, you might be able to get by with no toilet paper, allowing you extra time to rub your antlers on a tree. If you're a Type Seven youo're going to have to trudge to the shower anyway.

I consistently range from a Four (smooth soft sausage or snake) to a Six (mushy consistency with soft edges), generally during the course of a single morning.

That's where I go wrong, consumption-wise. I'm hardly ever Boom-Boom and Check, Please. I get a real good start right off the bat and then have to revisit the situation two or three more times, eventually accessing contents that might not have had time to set up properly. Add it all up and that's quite a lot of toilet paper, but all of it seems necessary.

That's the thing. Ask anyone how much toilet paper they use, and they'll invariably reply (often huffily) "As much as I need to." But we know this is highly subjective. There's genuine need, and then there's personal delicacy. My friend Sarah divulged that her brother ("Plunger-Boy") thunders through a half a roll every time he drops a dookie. That's the kind of thing that will get you notoriety in a family. Clearly the boy does not want to get within two inches of his own nether flesh. He's like the person who sees a spider on the wall and smooshes it with an entire roll of paper towels and runs out to the garbage can with the whole wad, emitting high-frequency squeaks all the way, and then sleeps with a baseball bat next to his bed. Me, I have been known to spot a spider sharing my pillow and just flicking it away.

But I do go through toilet paper.