Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Next Novel: Cursor Battle, Momentary Stall and the Accustory Blank Page

After a decade of focused intent the deed is done - the novel completed and set aside; it undergoes another journey of dissemination (one in which the painstaking parental pen has no part) flung out to the virtual skies, buffeted by the vagaries of public opinion; at times, doubtlessly, utterly indiscernible in the dark pall of sullen cloudbanks, but perhaps, if I am lucky, to light incandescent in an intermittent stream of appreciated receptivity.

But now another thought-stream rises to the surface, a turbulent suggestion of fictional possibility...and the germ of the next novel is born - a rather small and indistinguishable thing as of yet, but imbued with the most glorious of potential. My literary focus shifts across the oceans, and backward fifty years in time to the mid-eighteenth century: the nutmeg hangs heavy and ripe beneath glossy leaves, cloves scent the winds, and the Europeans do bloody battle in their wallowing carracks seeking to dominate access and supply of a few dried seeds that grow nowhere else in the world.  A remote time and place that shifts and blurs in my peripheral vision, replete with an energetic frisson as if the past has been whispered in my ear, made manifest in a pictorial stream of sensory impressions - for I do not write the past as much as I perceive it from the vantage point of utter immersion. I taste it on my tongue, inhale it through my pores, feel it with a visceral intensity - and then attempt the oft-arduous task of depicting it in words - to cast it in black and white upon the blank page in the fervent hope that such sensory ferocity can indeed be so translated.

Several such scenes have come to rather satisfactory fruition. In a torrid of writing, in a frenzy of flying fingers and racing mind, the characters begin to take shape. It is, however, an outline of them, an alluring shadow, hinting at the elaborated dimensionality of flesh in chapters to come; an authorial promise made most solemnly, a pledge to the attentive reader: "Bear with me - there is something marvelous yet to come!" I have not seen yet how these disparate threads resolve, but the unraveling of it is a gradual and intermittent affair - coming in tentative half-thoughts, gossamer threads that glide through the recesses of my mind in the dim hours of half-sleep, or in a rush and noise of great enthusiasm, and I will fly to the computer - hunched and tense, laboring over word selection....feeling the performance pressure, as if the characters themselves examine my efforts from the shadows with crossed arms and critical gaze...

Then abruptly: a stall, a standstill, a grinding and unwelcome halt. The cursor blinks; the steady repetitive monotonousness of that perpetual wink - as if a literary eye opens and closes in sly commiseration. Well? the cursor seems to ask: Well? What now? What grand procession have you planned? For some it is the blankness of the oncoming page that terrifies....what does one fill it with? I find that I do battle with the cursor, the rhythmic flicker waits like some preternaturally forbearing beast, enduring in imperturbable silence, craving a succession of words. I will emerge triumphant, even if ten long years are required to do so. The beast (of which an infinite variety populate my literary world - indubitably preferred to the placidity of beauties) will be fed...and hopefully, at the end of such endeavor, conclude that the procession was worth the effort after all.

For the cursor pulses to a cadence echoed within our imaginative selves...poised on the brink, hesitating, searching, pondering, waiting, then in a burst of intensity, a spill of words, a gushing torrent that paint a scene...then a momentary stall, and the cursor again waits in silence...long-suffering, unwearied. It is appeased by a paltry offering, by a hasty phrase, incomplete and lacking in substance; for the cursor knows that while it hungers for words, you must be satisfied with the coherent quality of the whole - and those passages that linger unsettled in the authorial mind will be revisited, and unceremoniously booted or spruced up with all necessary spit and polish like a recalcitrant child before a grandparent's visit. For the writer will not settle. It is part of the authorial contract with all prospective readers - a commitment to the highest levels of literary ability. Perhaps then, the cursor is less an unfriendly accusatory than it is a patient ally - waiting, in magical symbiosis with our own literary sparks, to bring to leaping fire the marvelous narrative that dwells within.

Perhaps the conventional literary angst that revolves around the blank page is of a similar nature - and that the page also can be visualized in a more affable light: waiting with all eager expectation for the spill of ink that is to come...for inherently the cursor, or the page, find an existential angst in the blankness, emptiness, nothingness of un-inscribed space - and yearn to be written upon, to find the languid ease of an onward narrative flow, to facilitate a literary work, to ultimately be something more useful, more substantial, than an absence thereof. What is it that intimidates us about the blank page, the steadily blinking cursor? Is it the empty sterility of a broad white expanse? Perhaps it is the hovering expectation of meaningful fulfillment? The relentless quest for a literary achievement that silences our inner critic? That of all the sundry things written before, this phrase, this passage, this scene, this novel, has something worthwhile about it - a literary contribution worthy of the years of painstaking labor required to bring it to fruition. A pressure, however unconsciously felt, that gives pause to the pen.

As long as we have air to breath, and food (wine, and coffee!) to sustain us - we will be yet again and again drawn to the computer, wrenched out of quotidian tasks, the keyboards pulling with the unremitting gravity of a black hole (for do we not disappear to daily life when deeply engaged?)  For inevitably (given our own obdurate perseverance in the literary task) the tome will, one day, be done. And the blank page will thirst no more, and the cursor will finally be replete. And we? We will be the happiest of mortals.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Linguistic-Numerical Divide and the Quest for Literary Validation

Having traveled the dark and dismal road of agent-submissions, increasingly burdened by a plenitude of form-rejections that steadily compile, accumulate and weigh heavy (my Golem counts them with ill-concealed glee), I have stumbled upon an unexpected truth. A truth that, like a child seeing the vast expanse of sea for the first time, widens horizons in a sudden realization of infinite possibility. It is indubitably a  subjective truth, but it is in the hope that it might prove pertinent to others that I expound upon it here...

Discerning literary agents, publishing representatives of the stiff and uncompromising ilk (as such they seem to us poor writers) are, in reality, quite a distinct species. A necessary one. They fulfill a critical function, as do we. Storytellers elaborate upon a theme, weave a fanciful discourse, cast a literary spell - words are our stock in trade, our currency, our estimation of self-worth: casting a critical eye over our previous sentence we ask ourselves how well that sounds on the tongue, how effectively we have communicated that particular emotional nuance. We do not need our Golem to whisper snide disapprovals in our ear - we are, indeed, our own harshest critics. It is words that validate us or cut us down to size - that scene you wrote at two in the morning in a frenzied burst of inspiration that is retained through draft after draft because there is something improbably perfect in it! And of course the profusion of passages that are worked and reworked until mind and pen are utterly weary of them.  But it all comes down to words. Just as cytosine and guanine make up essential nucleotides in the construction of the double-helixed DNA, so do conjoined words comprise the essential life-giving element of a writer.

Agents and Publishing houses, however, operate from a distinct premise - as with writers they are instinctively geared towards the survival of self. The evaluation of fitness, however, is an economical one. They must sell to survive; while we work in the aggregation of letters, in the sequence of words - so must they examine with all due intensity the numbers. For publishing houses, and subsequently agents who must woo them, are rightly concerned with the dimensions of things: the number of words and pages, the cost of printing, the depth, width and weight of shipping containers to transport said works, the trends of sale - all of which comes down to an association of numbers rather than letters.  That is not to say they do not appreciate the fine hue of this letter or that, or the artistry inherent in this particular collection of words, but they are prohibited from prioritizing such a subjective leaning, lest the Board, peering disapprovingly over graphs of revenue projections, should darkly mutter: "Yes, that is all very well, but the sales trends for this such a novel do not bear out your optimism!" or: "too long....too literary...the demographic too marginalized!" The numbers simply must concur for the Board to acquiesce. For they too must survive. And for an author untried, unproven, and uncertain - it is the numbers that provide the necessary bolstering, that tempt the Publishing House to take the requisite gamble - number of blog hits or twitter followers (assuming the length is suitably confined and the genre a well-selling one). For they do not like to hold their breath and hope as writers tend to do, this particular species prefers a degree of certainty, the solidity of evidential precedence, before they take the plunge.

Numbers that reassure them do but bewilder me. It is not that I do not understand their imperative, I simply to do not elevate it to the same degree. For intrinsically we are not mathematicians - we are writers and words are both the air we breath and the sustenance that nourishes our literary mind. And whilst one does not begrudge publishing agencies their economic imperative (for they must also veer clear of monetary deficiencies and economic red-ink) is there any wonder that there is such a frisson of unrest between the two? A disconnect felt more acutely, perhaps, on the writing side of it - seeking as we are entrance to the hallowed halls of traditional publishing. Or are we?  And this is where the unexpected Truth emerges from the dusty hinterlands like the fiercely guarded  treasure of a grouchy leprechaun. We covet traditional publishing approval because it serves as a widely recognized and esteemed form of literary-validation. We made it - in a stringently competitive arena - one of the select chosen few - and I do not, indeed, belittle such an achievement! I have naught but happy pride for those of my literary colleagues who have pursued such a course and been successful. I cannot claim such happiness for myself - but have found a different kind of joy - one which is perhaps more long-lasting and less dependent upon the vagaries of Publishing Trends or Editorial Idiosyncrasies because it is rooted in the essence of the writing self. It is, in short, the realization that a specific agent-publisher-acceptance is not the validation I seek.

In the dark, in the deep quiet pools where ofttimes truth malingers, I have always known it to be true - but only lately has it been recognized by my conscious self: the only validation that matters is that which we provide ourselves. And the growing awareness that there is a fundamental divide between writers and the agencies that seek to represent a select few of them; one who devour words with an insatiable appetite, and the other whose heartblood carries numbers which inevitably and indubitably, it seems, (from agent perspective) trumps words.  Is it any wonder then that entire books are written on the intricate art of  query letter composition alone? That formulations of synopsis are elaborately treated in this Indispensable Self-Help book for authors or that? For are these not the accepted mechanisms for crossing that linguistic-numerical divide?   Writers and Agents are each curiously dependent upon the other - but working within a divergent dynamic, framed by a distinct objective. For some lucky few common ground is found, but for the vast majority of us, we are stranded: with the wordsmiths peering out across the expanse of horizon at the number-sleuths who occupy the island "second star to the right and straight on till morning."

But then being so fortunate as to employ self-publishing options if the need arises (as indeed it does for most of us)  -granted with all additional fiscal and marketing management - we have the ability, utterly on our own, to give our novels flight! To send them out into the literary ether, proudly adorned with ISBN code and self-defined cover art. For where does the pleasure lie for a writer? In the agonized interlude as one awaits the interminably delayed response (if made at all) from an agent? Or, having secured one, the fearful apprehensions regarding sales performance - will they, with a delicate yawn, decide this genre, this style, this author, is not quite their thing when the graph lines dip a little lower than expected? Is THIS where the ecstasy is to be found for the inveterate teller-of-tales? Or perhaps it is the marginalized royalties where the fun abounds? Not that the pragmatic writer expects such economic bounty (we worship at the altar of words rather than numbers after all, do we not?) but there is something to be said, perhaps, after a decade of laboring to enjoy a slightly higher return on however slight an income stream - if only because it enables greater freedom to write rather than give unsquandered time to the cog and wheel, the bureaucracy that plumps the purse but does little to fulfill our passionate yearnings - or to satisfy our essential need for words strung together in an intrinsically unique way. 

Quite simply when one discovers the validation lies here - in the process of writing - in that delicate harmony of mind and pen - in the fluid expression of what lies deep within; in that crafting of the quintessential phrase which survives revision after revision because it retains some semblance of the literary divine about it; a sweet spot which evokes a heart-glow like no other. That is where our validation lies - and if we must needs seek our own methods of sharing those literary gems then so be it. For perhaps we need not be quite so hard on ourselves when we understand that agent-procural oft requires nothing less than a concurrent and unsurpassed fluency in both languages (words and numbers), and one perhaps, given certain popular trends, not even to be devoutly wished for. For if we can write, if we can formulate a phrase that gives us delight - if we can string them together in the weave of narrative - in the creation of a fictional world that pulses with life - is that not ALL? Does that not comprise the pleasure epicenter? So it was my stumbled-upon truth. One that doubtless does not hold for all - but perhaps for some. I have  (like Dr Suess' Sneetches) words inscribed across my belly, but unlike his covetous creations, I have no desire for species conversion - for the acquisition of numbers - because there is no joy for me there. My particular double helix coils and winds, scripting the genetic makeup, with all attendant mutations and base omissions, and surpluses, the complex convoluted curl that is me - all of which finds its base in A through Z.