Message in a bottle to literary agents


new ms

Swamp Rabbit broke the seal on the bottle of Wild Turkey I’d just given him. This was his reward, in advance, for his advice today. It’s a tradition here at my shack in Tinicum.

I told the rabbit I’ve been around the world and I’ve been nowhere, searching for an agent to represent my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal. “Around the world” in that I’ve accessed a ton of information about literary agents that wouldn’t have been available before the Internet. “Nowhere” in that I’ve accessed nothing really useful. Agent X is looking for young adult, self-help and psycho-killer memoirs. She lives in a yurt. Agent Y plays Gaelic football and has read Gary Shteyngart but is looking to sign the next Gillian Flynn.

It’s irrelevant, all of it. None of the agents I’ve queried — or, more realistically, the interns they hire to read unsolicited queries — have expressed interest in my novel, which is about the enmity between two brothers in casino-era Atlantic City. I’m 0 for 24.

The rabbit spat into the swamp and said, “What’s your point, Odd Man? What you’re doing is like sendin’ a message in a bottle. It’s like playin’ poker and tryin’ to fill an inside straight. You got more chance winnin’ the lottery than hookin’ up with an agent.”

The rodent was right. Information isn’t access, and too much information is just noise. A simple example: Some agents swear a snappy synopsis is the key to attracting an agent who will read your work. Others say exactly the opposite. Here’s Betsy Lerner, an influential agent/author/blogger:

I think [synopses] are as boring to read as listening to a person’s dream. And they don’t give an agent or editor a clue as to what the writing will be like. In other words, more can go wrong with a synopsis than go right.

I wonder what Lerner meant by synopsis. Maybe she meant outline.

The rabbit cussed me and jumped into the swamp. Then he hopped back onto the porch and said, “Stop bellyachin’. If you wasn’t so freakin’ odd, you’d have a referral, like them writers who get published. Somebody to separate your slush from the other slush. Ain’t nobody’s fault but your own.”

I must have looked like I might take away his bottle. “Sorry, Odd Man, just tellin’ you the truth.”

I threw a beer can at him. “Stupid rodent,” I said. “If I wanted the truth, I wouldn’t have asked for your advice.”

Footnote: I’ve mentioned Betsy Lerner before, she’s a good writer and probably a good agent. But I’ll stick with sending queries that include a synopsis.

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Robin Williams, media vultures and the art of fiction


Swamp Rabbit was watching the news on my laptop and feeling blue. Comedian/actor Robin Williams had killed himself, and the media vultures were picking over the details of his life and death.

I tried to distract the rabbit by talking about fiction. Some good fiction compels you to read faster, I told him — to hurry up and find out how the writer will resolve conflicts in his/her story. But there’s another type of fiction that doesn’t rely on story. The art is in the imagery and insights about human nature that you definitely won’t find in the news. Passages like this, from Denis Johnson’s short story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” might compel you to read more slowly:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car.

The sun sank behind my shack. I said, “Notice what Johnson does here. He compresses the story’s theme into one sentence that more or less describes the arc of the narrator’s life. A stream of vague regrets collides with a vivid reminder of death’s finality. Why this juxtaposition, rabbit? Doesn’t it make you want to wake up to the here and now, like the narrator does?”

The rabbit took a swig of Wild Turkey then ruminated on a carrot. Finally, he said, “It makes me want to go out back and hang myself.”

He spit into the swamp and added, “I’d think twice about gittin’ into a car with that Johnson fella, especially if he was drivin’.”

I said, “You’re confusing the writer with the first-person narrator, but that’s OK. It’s a common mistake among the unschooled to assume the narrator’s thoughts and feelings are the writer’s.”

‘Phooey! How can you write the truth about somebody’s feelings if you ain’t seein’ through his eyes? And what’s that narrator got to do with Robin Williams? He weren’t no failure.”

“Failure’s got nothing to do with it. It’s fiction, you dumb rodent. There are no easy answers. The narrator is a construct, a vehicle that conveys the story’s multiple meanings.”

The rabbit took another drink and said, “Don’t gimme that Roland Barthes bullshit. The writer is the narrator. Maybe not all the time, but most of the time.”

I read Johnson’s entire story to the rabbit and told him my favorite part is where the narrator gets a phone call from his ex-wife Ginny, who is dying and wants to forgive him for being a bad husband. Her voice is weak and distant. He tells her he’s sorry for his various lies and infidelities. He has a panicky moment when he wonders if he had misheard her and is actually speaking to his other ex-wife, Jenny. But then he realizes it doesn’t matter, because “both sets of crimes had been the same.”

“He’s learning to accept who he is,” I explained. “A terrific alternative to suicide, if you can manage it.”

“Very funny,” the rabbit said. “I still wouldn’t git in the car with that Johnson fella drivin’.”

Squinting at me, he added, “Or with a driver who likes that de-pressing shit he writes.”

Footnote: The New Yorker is allowing non-subscribers to view its content this summer. Part of an online marketing campaign, I guess… Johnson also wrote the great and influential short story collection Jesus’ Son.

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We tortured. It was wrong… That’s all, folks!


Swamp Rabbit was looking over my shoulder at my laptop, chewing Lucky Charms and getting crumbs all over the keyboard. “How come you don’t do that blog no more?” he said. “I used to like readin’ all them lies you wrote about me.”

I explained to my rabbit friend, and not for the first time, that I’d vowed a few months ago to drop everything and finish writing the second draft of my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal. I did finish it but I’ve been reluctant to resume blogging, because I’m afraid it will rekindle unhealthy habits, such as following the news. Already I’ve read a story about President Obama’s torture speech, the one with these immortal lines:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.

But there’s no point in being “sanctimonious” — that’s the word Obama used — regarding Dick Cheney, his sock puppet George W. Bush and the other good folks who made torture part of U.S. foreign policy. We’re not going to charge these folks with war crimes, they had really tough jobs…

I told the rabbit I wanted to ask Obama what it was we’d done right in reaction to 9/11. The Iraq war fiasco? The hopeless effort to create a pro-American Afghanistan, which has cost the U.S. more than the post-World War II Marshall Plan? But folks like us don’t get to ask such questions, and the mainstream media folks are too cowardly to ask them for us. Am I right or wrong, folks?

“Don’t rave at me,” the rabbit said. “I ain’t Obama.”

“I’m just demonstrating how upset I get when I read the news,” I told him. “Most folks will know what I mean.”

“So keep the blog, but don’t pay no mind to the news,” the rabbit suggested. “You live in this here shack in Tinicum. Write about how hard it is keep the roof from leakin’ and to keep from getting caught when you lift food from the Super Fridge down the road. Take that French guy’s advice and tend your own garden.”

“This is a swamp, you dumb rodent, not a garden.”

“And write about that book you wrote. Ain’t nobody gonna know about it unless you tell ‘em.”

As he spoke, I watched Obama on the Internet, threatening to bomb Iraq, where American military involvement ended in 2011, haha. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, but sometimes it’s as predictable as rejection slips. Know what I’m saying, folks?

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Tone-deaf Obama sings Walmart’s praises


walmart

Swamp Rabbit and I had just watched a PBS show about “nightmare bacteria” — insidious, human-killing organisms resistant to all antibiotics. Pretty scary. Then we saw a news item about Barack Obama appearing at a Walmart to praise the company for using green energy. Really scary.

It occurred to me that Obama is the nightmare Democrat, an insidious organism resistant to all strategies and tactics for progressive change. During his time in office he has methodically hacked away, along with most Democratic legislators, at what remains of the Democratic Party’s credibility. There is no campaign promise he hasn’t broken, no Republican legislator he hasn’t caved in to, almost no Democratic constituency he hasn’t betrayed. He has disappointed on climate change, jobs creation, income inequality, regulation of big banks. He has eagerly pursued the so-called Grand Bargain, devised by right-wingers to shred the social safety net and put the final nail in the coffin of FDR’s New Deal. He is the anti-FDR.

I tried to express my feelings to the rabbit, but he wasn’t having any of it. “You way over the top, Odd Man. This here Barry fellow was a fake Democrat from the git-go, a neoliberal, a tool of the Wall Street posse, a brother to George W. Bush when it comes to violatin’ our First and Fourth Amendment rights. You sayin’ you was surprised when he went out of his way to make nice with Walmart?”

“But it’s not fair, you dumb rodent,” I shouted. “Obama walks like a progressive, he talks like a progressive. Man, does he ever talk! But the loftier his talk, the more perverse his actions. I mean, why would a Democrat single out Walmart for energy efficiency, even if it didn’t actually lag behind other some large companies on renewables? Walmart is the enemy of workers’ rights, the antithesis of everything the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.”

The rabbit started chuckling when I said “not fair.” When he came up for air, he offered me a hit of Wild Turkey and invited me to take a swim in the swamp with him. I told him no thanks, I didn’t want to get infected by nightmare bacteria.

“Then you should git back to writin’ that book of yours and stop readin’ about politics,” the rabbit said.”That way you don’t git infected by no more nightmare Democrats.”

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Preaching to the choir about the GOP


I read to Swamp Rabbit part of Charles Pierce’s reaction to the Republicans’ successful effort last Wednesday to block a Senate vote on whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10:

Can we just drop the pretense now and admit that one of our two major political parties is perfectly fine with pauperizing the American middle-class in order to “redistribute” wealth upwards? Can we please lay the myth of the Republican moderate to rest, at least on this issue?

“Depends who Pierce means by ‘we,'” Swamp Rabbit said.

Exactly. If he means those of us who are aware the country has become a plutocracy, then he’s preaching to the choir. Educated paupers have known for a long time that “pauperizing” of the middle class is a tactic being used by the rich to make themselves even richer, and that there are no Republican “moderates” on this issue.

However, if Pierce is referring to poor and nearly poor voters who helped elect the very pigs who blocked the minimum wage vote, then the answer to both of his questions is “not yet” — not by a long shot. It would take a lot more money and messaging to get through to those who, even in these hard times, can’t see that Republican office holders invariably advance the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else.

The definition of insanity — and of denial — involves doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And so it is that many uninformed working people continue to vote for the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and others who are destroying the social safety net and further enriching the 1 percent.

“‘Uninformed’ don’t quite say it,” Swamp Rabbit said, right before he hopped out of the shack and into the swamp. “You mean stupid.”

And liberal commentators such as Pierce continue to state the obvious about Republican office holders rather than propose strategies for convincing working people to stop voting against their own interests.

Clarifications: The Democratic Party as it currently exists is only marginally more pro-worker than the GOP. A $10 minimum wage is better than no increase, but it’s still a disgrace. Also, the term “middle-class,” as used by Pierce and many others, is applicable to fewer Americans every year. “Formerly middle-class” is a more accurate tag for those whose incomes can’t keep up with the cost of living.

Footnote: For what it’s worth, here’s where to register your support for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s call for a $10.10 minimum wage: http://www.dccc.org/page/s/minimum-wage-2013?source=LR_em_PET_2014.05.06_b1_an_min-wage

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There’s corrupt, then there’s Christie


Swamp Rabbit was hopping mad about the persistently chilly weather. “Can’t even take my Easter swim, that pond scum out there is colder than ice cream!” He’d been hunkering down in the shack all day, nursing a bottle of Wild Turkey he found under the woodpile. For laughs I showed him an article by Ryan Lizza that tells all you want to know and more about New Jersey’s corrupt Gov. Chris Christie.

Yes, I know — calling an NJ politician corrupt is like calling an NFL player large and fast. You’re probably wondering what the news value of such a story is. But Christie is conspicuously corrupt, a hog monster of hubris, and Lizza does a good job of tracing the slimy trail he left while bullying his way to the governorship.

The rabbit turned the pages of the New Yorker and said, “No thanks, this article is even longer than that dumb-ass book you been writing. Where’s my copy of OK! magazine?”

I read some of the highlights to him, just to amuse myself: Christie works for years as a Republican lobbyist; ingratiates himself with George W. Bush’s people; is named U.S. Attorney for New Jersey; uses his office to ingratiate himself with Democratic power brokers; runs as an “anti-corruption” candidate and is elected governor; cancels construction of a hugely important NJ-Manhattan rail tunnel in order to honor an irresponsible campaign promise; installs cronies at the Port Authority of NY and NJ; tries to strong-arm certain Democratic mayors into endorsing his bid for re-election; is re-elected and gets caught up in the bridge scandal that might end his career.

Lizza uses good quotations from politicians who know Christie, including this one from former NJ Gov. James Florio, explaining how Christie’s talent for driving wedges between different blocs of working-class voters in order to win elections:

In the past, when we had difficult times, people would look for scapegoats — Jews, Catholics, Irish — and Christie provided public workers, teachers, and the civil-service system.

“Tell me, rabbit,” I said, “how does an anti-populist become so popular? How does an obvious scumbag get elected governor twice?”

“Them’s big questions,” the rabbit replied. “Why don’t you save ‘em for your book, Odd Man? At least when you’re writin’ I don’t have to listen to you runnin’ your mouth.”

Footnote: The most recent bomb dropped on Christie was the report that he awarded lucrative pension management contracts to hedge funds that contributed to his campaign. Screw workers by cutting their pensions, then screw them again by turning over pension management to big-time gamblers — that’s Christie.

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Adelson is like a stream of bat’s piss


The Republican governors’ suck-up to Sheldon Adelson was like a certain Monty Python skit.


What would Alexis de Tocqueville think of democracy in America in 2014? How would Thomas Jefferson describe it? I doubt that either man would know what to make of the fact that one mind-numbingly greedy gnome might have the power to anoint the next Republican nominee for president.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, you weren’t watching the news last weekend when a small group of Republican governors, and ex-governor Jeb Bush, went a-courtin’ multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson at a Republican Jewish Coalition event. It was an extraordinary display of groveling. Even my friend Swamp Rabbit, who can drink a bottle of Wild Turkey and not even belch, was retching as he read a Politico story that explained why the potential presidential candidates were jousting to win the casino magnate’s shriveled little heart:

…The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two — explains both the eagerness of busy governors to make pilgrimages to Las Vegas, and the obsession with divining Adelson’s 2016 leanings.

All manner of national media flocked to Adelson’s Venetian casino and resort hotel, which hosted the RJC meeting. But reporters were kept away from Adelson by coalition staff, as well as casino and personal security, and his team turned down interview requests, including for an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

As Adelson whizzed around his Venetian kingdom on a motorized scooter during the retreat, he was often trailed by GOP operatives, politicians and fellow donors eager to assess his state of mind, advise him on what he should do or just lavish him with praise and gratitude…

The governors seemed to be vying for the Most Obsequious Reactionary award as they took turns making speeches. John Kasich repeatedly referred to Adelson as Sheldon, as if the two men grew up in the same ‘hood, back in the day. Scott Walker, showing he could be as big a whore for Adelson as he is for the Koch brothers, told the RJC crowd that he lights a menorah during Hannukah and named one of his sons Matthew because the name means ‘gift from God’ in Hebrew. Chris Christie made the faux pas of the weekend by telling Adelson and his fellow Zionists about a scary helicopter ride he took over Israel’s “occupied territories.”

Christie’s remark reminded me of a classic Monty Python skit: Oscar Wilde, at a dinner party with the Prince of Wales, runs out of aphorisms. He says, “Your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss” and then has to come up with an explanatory line to get back in the royal’s good graces. Too bad for Christie that no one was there in Vegas to provide a witty follow-up that might have kept him in the race for Adelson’s money.

“The fat man is on a serious losin’ streak,” the rabbit said of Christie, stating the obvious. “He’s a lot better at bullyin’ than he is at suckin’ up.”

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