Monday, February 20, 2012

There's No Good Way to Say This . . .

So I'm thinking about writing a book, which would share the title of this post, about the art of the query letter. The book would rise from my absolute inability to craft such a letter. Can it really be as hard as I'm making it? Shouldn't I just be able to reproduce my novel in one or two beautifully crafted sentences? Am I over thinking this whole mess?

I don't know. And I don't know if I want to be good at writing a query letter.

The book would be based also on watching my spouse go through the process of writing a query letter. I watched her spend a painstaking eight months crafting a beautiful literary page-turning novel about 1950s burlesque in New Orleans. Each day, she would read me her thousand words, and each night I would go to sleep wondering what might happen next. As she wrote the last few pages of the novel, I felt that familiar feeling -- as though I were saying goodbye to a good friend, knowing that it would be some time before I might see her again -- that I feel at the end of a great book.

I say familiar, but I mean the closing pages of Moby Dick, Nobody's Fool, The Things They Carried, The Sound and the Fury, maybe twenty or thirty other books whose voice I know I'll miss, even as I'm enjoying each ending. Like I say, I watched her research, live, and write this book for eight months, then I watched her research, design, and craft a query letter for the next two months. I've seen and listened to twenty or more drafts of her cover letter, and I think she's nailed it now. From her hook, to her synopsis, to her closing salutation, she's written a compelling, exciting argument about why someone should publish her book. I think she'll earn an agent very soon, certainly, I think, a book deal.

My spouse is way smarter than me, I think we've all come to terms with that.

In the meantime, I've been trying to write my own query. Here's what I have for a hook so far: "Stuff happens in a steel mill and somebody probably dies." It's awful. It's an awful thing to write. I believe in the book. I believe in the writing. But how in the hell do I write about the book? No, I think anybody who followed the epic whining of "The History of My First Failed Novel . . ." should know I have no problem writing about the book. More to the point, how do I write concisely about it?

Three more famous stories:

When Rimaud's mother asked him what a poem was about, he replied, "I have said what I have wanted to say, literally and in every other way."

Flannery O'Connor said of her short stories, "If I could have written them any shorter, I would have."

Jeanette Winterson, apparently likes to say, "It's about what it's about."

I'm paraphrasing off the top of my head, not quoting: I just want to be clear.

Anyway, I'm including those quotes for two reasons. First off, because I love them; they speak so deeply to the creative process and many of the things that I believe about art, that I celebrate them in papers and at cocktail parties and around campfires, often to very serious head nodding. Secondly, because I love them and use them as a constant excuse to not push myself harder to do the necessary writerly things that might not be as pleasurable as writing literature.

Ouch. It hurts to admit that.

But it's true. I don't wanna write a query letter. I don't wanna read the submission guidelines. I don't wanna buy a manila envelope to mail a manuscript to 10000ish zip code where, I'm almost certain, my manuscripts are insulating some of the tallest buildings in the city.

The only things I ever want to do, as far as writing is concerned, are read and write. But that's never enough. I think this might be a true story for a bunch of us out there in the world. For instance, by a show of hands, how many folks out there, like me, somehow expect an agent to happen across a manuscript and give you a call? (I'm typing with just the one hand right now, by the way.) Or it might be something else -- shouldn't a particular press be seeking out your very own work this minute, because you'd be a perfect fit for them?

Meanwhile, in my writing classes, one practice I insist my students engage is honesty -- not with the world, though I find that important to, but with themselves. Find the places you're being lazy, I tell them, and acknowledge that laziness. Often those lazinesses are easy to see. Some writers use a half dozen semicolons to build a monster sentence that goes nowhere, because they don't know how to advance their plot, their argument, their assertion. Others attempt to fit all 64 common prepositions into a single paragraph, because they've written something off topic and can't figure out how to get back to their text.

You can't lie to yourself and be a good writer.

No, scratch that again, one can be completely misguided in how one reads the world -- that might be how one creates such a compelling narrator.

But you can't lie to yourself about your writing and be a good writer. I'm working on a chapter right now in my epic oil narrative history clusterfuck, and in this chapter, I know, I absolutely know that the perspective is off. I've chosen, in fact, the completely wrong character to narrate this chapter. I've known that intuitively for a long time, but just last week, I admitted it. I said it out loud: "This chapter belongs to a different character." So after months of working and reworking a particular 5,000 words, I have to let it all go, redream it, see it from another angle.

That I'd been employing the wrong narrator all this time was hard to accept, though I knew it to be the truth. But, if I had recognized it earlier, I could have saved myself many headaches, countless frustrating hours, a full ream of paper . . . I might have completed the book manuscript by now, had I been honest with myself sooner.

So, okay, here I go: while what I want to be doing this afternoon is researching oil and writing awesome epic asskicking adventures about the early days of the industry, I'm going to sit down with Scrap and try to write two or three good sentences about it.

Such work is not glorious, not artful, but, if I must be truthful, necessary work.

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