Monday, August 23, 2021

Sit venia cacoethes scribendi meo

I propose to take for granted, as soon as I can, that you will be ready to publish, on receipt of them, the opening chapters of a novel. I have got at work upon one sooner than I expected, & particularly desire it to come out without delay.

--Henry James, letter to Galaxy magazine, 1 December 1875 

I'm working on a submission of a novel to an independent publisher. I've been assembling this submission for about a week now, I think. Cover letter, pitch, first chapter, synopsis...wait, synopsis? I have never written a synopsis for a novel. Novelists, almost to an individual, despise synopses. How does one boil down one's complex and subtle 90,000-word edifice into two pages, single-spaced? Imagine my relief when I trolled through my email inbox, looking for something helpful (I have long been in the habit of sending notes to myself about works in progress via email, to keep the notes in one place, more or less; this practice has not broken me of the contradictory habit of writing notes to myself about works in progress on bookmarks, on endpapers of books being read, in a variety of notebooks, on index cards, etc, notes that are invariably misplaced and only discovered well after the writing of the novel in question). There it was, an email from me with the helpful subject line, "Synopsis of the novel you're presently submitting for publication." Or words to that effect. I breathlessly printed the email out and began to read through it, only to discover that not only was it quite a hash of disconnected plot points, it only covers the first half of the novel. Alas.

Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.

--Sylvia Plath

No problem, though. I just need to re-read the second half of the novel and prune the thing down until I have a single page that captures the essence of that second half, right? Easy-peasy. 

I have sat and looked hard at my unfinished synopsis, made notes to myself in the margins ("X's story; Y's story; Z's story"), paged through the manuscript, but I have not added a word to that unfinished work. Maybe, I thought, I would not be submitting this novel to this particular publisher. Most agents and publishers don't actually ask for synopses; they just want the pitch and maybe the first five or fifty pages. 

However, I have over the last couple of years written a lot of short stories, which has been a good classroom for condensing large and complex ideas down into small spaces. Over lunch today, I described the job of writing a synopsis to Mighty Reader, and how it can't be just an enumeration of the plot, chapter-by-chapter. It must be, I said, a moving and interesting piece of writing in and of itself, it must be the novel in miniature, not a dry diagram of it.

"So it's essentially writing a very short story," Mighty Reader noted, not seeing that she had summed up the problem neatly in eight words. I am writing this post so that I will not at some future date mistakenly take credit for this idea, that a synopsis of a novel should be a short story, featuring all of the movement and life of a short story. It's a good idea, a clear and useful way of talking about synopses, an idea that I--the novelist of the house--wish I'd had myself.

Anyway, there it is: a short story. I can work with that. I can write a short story version of this novel. If perchance some other novelist stumbles across this post at some point, hopefully this idea will be useful to her. Don't worry about writing a summary: write it as a short story. Which is what I'll be doing instead of blogging for the next little while. And if the indie publisher for whom I'm doing this work decides to pass on my novel, I will at least have had the experience of writing a synopsis, and writing more of these for future novels won't seem like such an impossible task. Or so I say now. I haven't actually finished writing this one.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

dead for a ducat

When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear.

(Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, "A Shooting Accident on the Farm")

I told myself that our troubles with rats in the yard were over, but I didn't believe it. In truth I was sure that it was a lull in the battle, and that soon enough King Ratticus would send more of his troops onto the field. Alas that I was correct. A few days ago, Mighty Reader sat reading in the garden during the early afternoon and witnessed a young rat who strolled down one of our garden paths and then crossed the lawn to nose about beneath the Adirondack chairs. A disappointment, an irritant, but as I say not a surprise.

Two spring traps were brought up from the box in the basement, baited with Adams organic peanut butter, and set in the yard at dusk. The morning revealed that the traps had been ignored during the night. I disarmed the traps and wondered if the young rat taking a stroll had merely been passing through on his way to school, and perhaps we'd see him no more. Keeping a sharp eye out for rodents discovered nothing, so I did not reset the traps, but the next morning I did not fail to see that the peanut butter had been eaten off the traps by nocturnal visitors. Huh, I said. Indicative, certainly.

What if my house be troubled with a rat and I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats to have it baned?

(William Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice" Act 4, Scene I)

That evening, as the sun was setting, I baited and armed the traps, leaving one beneath the boxwood, in the same place where a curious night creature had come to eat the earlier bait. The other trap went into the big garden bed, against the wall of our neighbors' shed, where  my luck has been good and the rats' luck has been bad.

The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.

(Herman Melville, "The House-top")

I've trained myself, more or less, to get up early whenever I've set traps the evening before. I don't like to leave the traps armed once the birds and squirrels are awake, because it's not their deaths we seek. I got up early this morning anyway, since it's one of my running days, so I was out in the garden at about 6:35 to see about the traps. The young rat under the boxwood had died immediately, I think, his neck properly snapped. The trap along the wall of the neighbors' shed had also caught a young rat, a bonus rodent if you will. We looked into each other's eyes, the rat and I both immobile. The trap hadn't broken the rat's neck (see my earlier man-versus-rodent posts for my complaints about the design of these spring traps), but as it had clearly snapped his spine and as the rat wasn't moving, I assumed he was safely tucked away in rat heaven. I went for my run, prepared to bury the two new corpses along the back fence when I returned.

The rat is the concisest tenant.
He pays no rent,
Repudiates the obligation,
On schemes intent.

Balking our wit
To sound or circumvent,
Hate cannot harm
A foe so reticent.

(Emily Dickinson, "The Rat")

As you have doubtless already guessed, the young rat trapped by the shed was still alive. He let me know this when I came to inspect him and his sibling after I returned from my run. I had the shovel in my hand, intending to use it to carry the rat from where he lay in the trap to where he'd lay for eternity, and as I stood over him, an ape gripping a steel-bladed weapon, the rat began to struggle and cry out, his eyes immense and black and wet with terror. I was still dressed in my running togs, had in fact not yet gone inside the house at all, and so my ears were stopped with earphones and I did not hear the rat's frightened squeaks when he saw me approach, though I saw his tiny jaws open and close. My head was filling with music, Mozart's sonata for violin and piano in E-flat major, K 302, the second movement, marked rondeau, andante grazioso. Beautiful music. It was difficult to get a clean stroke at the rat's neck, as his struggles had pulled him into a sitting position, with the wooden body of the trap between us, and his back against the wall of the shed. I may not be cut out for this sort of work. Mighty Reader and I buried the rats along the back fence with the others. By my count, this makes seven rats back there. That seems like a lot. Like seven rats too many.

It's easy to bid one rack one's brain —
I'm sure my poor head aches again
I've scratched it so, and all in vain.
Oh for a trap, a trap, a trap!

(Robert Browning, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin")

Monday, August 9, 2021

else idle hands

I have been reminding myself lately that I'm supposed to be a novelist. In fact, this spring I wrote the first draft of a novella-in-stories, and it seems like a pretty good book at this stage, possibly I was even doing something or somethings new for me in the writing, which is always interesting and rewarding. I don't really have the critical distance to make that declaration, but it feels like it might be likely, if I can equivocate to that extent. This feeling of provisional success reminded me that I have written other novels in the last few years, and I might want to see some of them in print, which has led me today to start thinking about submitting manuscripts to independent publishers and querying literary agents. 

I actually did send out a query letter to an acquisitions editor at a small press. The novel in question is my Bildungsroman-in-stories Antosha, otherwise known around the house as "the Chekhov book." It's been six or ten or fifteen months since I looked at the pitch letter I'd put together for this novel, so I spent some time considering that before sending my email off to the editor. "Is it edgy enough?" I wondered. "Is it too wordy? How much do I hate that summary paragraph? Yes, I hate it a whole lot." That sort of considering. I have, I confess, no real idea what "edgy" means in pretty much any context, but I swapped some adjectives around, deleted others, added one or two, changed the focus of the second paragraph, and generally--so I tell myself--improved the pitch letter. 

Most publishers, at least most small/indie publishers, are not accepting either queries or submissions right now, due to the financial collapse wrought by COVID. Who can blame them? Those publishers who are still looking at work are by and large overwhelmed, because lots of people have written novels and think they're good enough novels to be published. Most of these writers are incorrect, but real people have to sort through all the emails in real time anyway, looking for my submission letter, usually (alas!) looking past my submission letter. A crying shame, I assure you.

My next trick, as someone who is supposed to be a novelist, will be to return to my immense and unwieldy alternate-historical allegorical Nowhere But North, known around here as "the Antarctica book,"and see what can be done with that. I've done a good bit of work on it already, but I think that writing the recent novella has given me new insight on characterization and thematic development, so revisions could hypothetically become quite extensive. We'll see. One must have work to do, else idle hands etc.