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D. Kenneth Ross

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Perilous Query
By D. Kenneth Ross
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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An angry older writer resorts to deception to try and get published. His guilt takes the enjoyment out of his temporary success.

 

He rolled over in bed not feeling like getting up. So, what else was new? He’d felt nothing other than this energy-void for an eternity. This can’t be how its supposed to play itself out; what’s the point? His thought now a monotonous refrain.  

 

There was the unspoken belief this was his personal purgatory for a squandered life, at least since four years ago when he’d turned sixty-five. He’d taken a critical look at himself and concluded he was a failure. All those years doing something he did adequately but hated. Almost unbelievable.

After three open heart surgeries over a period of twenty- three years he was certain the Grim Reaper waited patiently, scythe in hand, to escort him to his final earthly address; yet another blank life on the scrapheap of eternity. Lord, please don’t recycle me, not for this, not for anything even remotely close to this.

Thus, the morning ritual began. He raised up on his side of the bed and let his legs hit the floor and then sat there looking out the window at the neighbor’s back yard.

The neighborhood was strictly blue collar. Most of the people had factory jobs or worked in machine shops or drove trucks. Honest work... at least in their regular jobs. There were surely some that dealt drugs or dreamt they were going to be big time operators, or day traders, anything they hoped would put them on ‘Easy Street.’ Hell, he had his own hopes.

The couple next door were busting each other’s chops already. Their kids, having crept outside in their pajamas, covered their ears to drown out the ugly verbal exchanges emanating between their parents.

The argument causing the ruckus was about the lawn not being mowed and a hedge that needed trimming. As typical an issue as any to fight over, he supposed, cynically.

Down the street somebody was revving up the engine of their dragster; there was a sort of blue haze wafting over that end of the block accompanying the thunderous roar of the engine with glass packed pipes... or whatever the hell they use nowadays.

He put his hands, tentatively at first, on the table at his side of the bed under the window, then hoisted himself cautiously upward. He felt the usual stab of pain in the small of his back, numbed a bit from the pill he took which doubled as a pain killer and anti-depressant. This was the chemical reason for his ongoing fatigue. In order to suppress the pain, the medication dulled his senses. The tiredness was a trade-off. Mask the pain or go without and endure being nearly useless and even more despondent and ill-tempered from the pain.

Deep within himself there were other sources for his exhaustion he refused to acknowledge.

"Christ," he thought, "I haven’t even reached the damned bathroom and I’m already thinking like a bitter, used-up old bastard, looking for someone to blame for my own doing." He shook his head and made a snorted ‘hmph’ sound.

He snatched a change of undershorts from the dresser and walked slowly to the bathroom, passed the stairs leading down to the rest of their duplex unit.

His wife was already up and in the kitchen cooking. Like most older people, she slept less than she had when she was younger, it wasn’t that she couldn’t use the sleep, it was her habit to have some time by herself without having to worry about him and his lack of energy to do the things he ought to be doing for himself.

He’d more than likely sleep less too, if he wasn’t so damned tired. Although, then he’d have the pain and the depression he’d need to deal with, which would mean he’d still be tired from not sleeping.

He brushed his teeth, shaved and stripped for his shower, making sure the water was good and hot... almost too hot, so he could direct the high pulsing spray first on the back of his neck and then on his back. He spent almost ten minutes allowing the hot water to penetrate into his aching back and neck. It helped for awhile at least.

Next he switched to the regular shower setting, soaped himself down, turned the water off and toweled himself dry.

Today he’d dress in his grubbies because he didn’t have to work at the apartment complex where he was a desk-clerk part time; he usually wore slacks and a dress shirt there. He put on a tee shirt immediately after showering because he tended to sweat a good deal from his hot showers.

Later he’d put on his golf shirt; he had a ton of them even though he didn’t play anymore. Too much pain in his back to play halfway decently anyway. Next he struggled into a pair of faded jeans a little small for his overlapping gut.

As he combed his thinning, salt and pepper hair, he couldn’t avoid seeing the bags under his eyes and facetiously wondered where the person he used to be had gone.

Everything about his life today seemed to go by like the figures in a jerky Charley Chaplain movie.

The vision of the young couple who loved hotly and fought passionately, the kids born into their lives, grown now, friends who were scattered around the country and contacted only occasionally now, all of it frittered away, like camera-shot moments. The vaguely recollected remnants of scents and feelings of life as it had been. The whole milieu stared, taunting, mocking at him from the mirror.

He sprayed a little cologne on his neck and hands, slapped his face harder than necessary to spread it around, turned his back on what he couldn’t change and without much enthusiasm, walked into his office.

This room was where he now did most of his living, four days a week.

There was his computer desk, also his regular teacher’s desk, which needed refinishing, and his book shelves along with a tall, gray filing cabinet jammed full with manuscripts. There were rewrites in various stages of completion of his two novels, some unfinished ideas which went nowhere, a stack of short stories he’d sent in to contests without results, some essays and his start on a memoir which was beckoning him to, at least, finish it before it too was forgotten.

He read, he wrote and he studied here. And he hoped, too. Not so anyone could hear, he couldn’t let anyone know how strongly he hoped. Hoping out loud was a sure way to guarantee failure in his opinion, so it was a rule he didn’t break.

He was editing his second novel and was about halfway through the manuscript on his fourth rewrite. He’d already trimmed some forty pages of unnecessary content. Most of what was left would be analyzing the grammar, the use of commas and semi-colons or condensing phrases strung weakly together. He’d smooth out awkward sentences to give the work a better feel and change words to make clear what might be misunderstood.

He tried to flush out those beautiful phrases that he thought necessary, but, as writing coaches taught, an editor would remove. Like most writers, this was hard to do because he liked what he wrote, particularly when he finally stopped reworking it.

He knew he was getting to the point of admitting this book was done, it would have to stand on its own soon.

He’d had this same experience with the first book.

*****

His first book had been accepted for publication by a print- on-demand publisher. It didn’t cost him a thing to get it printed and ready for the market, but that was as far as his publisher went.

They made their money by accepting manuscripts from anyone capable of finishing novel-length stories which exhibited a decent readable quality, even though the majority wouldn’t be saleable on the open market.

Most of these authors, himself included, were novices to the literary business world. They sent the publisher their lists of friends and relatives which were the only real marketed-targets of the publisher. As a rule, anywhere from twenty to one-hundred books per author were sold this way. The balance of the publisher’s sales were books of the author’s work purchased by themselves at discount rates, in minimum lots of fifty books.

The lure was to enable the writer to see his work in finished, cover and all, book form. They trusted in the naivetè of the writer and his eagerness to see his work finished to distract him from the fact the book needed to be promoted.

The burden of getting the book reviewed, then sold to wholesalers and bookstores, was the author’s.

The publisher carried no inventory and only accepted payment up front and in full. They were able to turn over thousands of authors in their print-on-demand system, making a tidy profit. In reality they were strictly book printers with a scheme to make money off of unsuspecting novices.

No matter that some of these authors had considerable time and energy invested in their work, and possibly even a chance at publication with a legitimate publisher. It was strictly masses of asses for these bottom feeders.

Even though his own career had been selling, he was completely unprepared for this kind of promotion. So, to this point, the only people who’d read his book were family, friends and a few people who’d stumbled across his website and ordered it.

Even if he found an agent, they wouldn’t touch his first book. Agents didn’t attempt to market books, their job was to find a publisher who would; it was too big of a risk, even if they loved the book to do anything else.

*****

So, with his second book, he would force himself to take the time to find an agent. It was the most difficult part of a new writer’s job, trying to find someone who is impressed enough with his work to recommend it to publishers who specialized in his particular genre.

He tried not to think too much about the fact that he probably started too late in life to make it worthwhile for an agent and a publisher to invest the time it takes to make the author a success. He didn’t have the luxury of allowing his writing to mature with time, though by now, he already had more than twelve years invested, nor did he have name recognition with a large enough segment of readers to jump start his career.

He had to content himself with constant writing, editing and preparing queries to mail to agents and publishers who might see some merit in his work.

*****

Oddly, living in this self-chosen exile gave him a kind of structure in spite of himself. When he sat down for the first time on any day, his focus seemed to click on like a light bulb. He lost himself in the chore he’d chosen that day; editing, revising, rewriting, reading; all of it absorbed him.

Somehow sentences became paragraphs, paragraphs became pages, and stories finally unfolded themselves. It was a magical process. His exhaustion faded into the background as he put words to thought.

*****

As he worked his four complete at-home days and his three on-the-job days, his mind constantly ran through the possibilities available to him to find a legitimate agent or publisher. He considered everything from simply quitting his writing, which to him wasn’t an option, all the way to changing his name and giving himself a pseudonym and an imaginary bio as a younger person from a foreign country.

One line of thinking persisted as he pondered his dilemma: In his younger days as a professional salesman, he’d been noted for two distinct traits.

First, it was virtually impossible for him to bend the truth to make a sale. If he knew his customer had a specific need and he was sure his product didn’t fulfill that need, he simply couldn’t close the deal.

Yet, counter to this, he knew if he could get his customers to think in terms of the other benefits outweighing their one negative, he had a legitimate shot at making the deal.

Knowing this, he asked himself, was there some way he could make an agent or a publisher look at his work in a completely different light, enough to actually read his manuscript in its entirety?

After many failed attempts of submitting different stylish or even ridiculously cute queries, he woke up one day and discovered his back hurt less than his desire to get into his office.

He hurried through his shower, threw on a golf shirt and a dirty pair of jeans, and strode as briskly as a forty year old with a new Porsche Carrera and a black book full of girl’s telephone numbers, straight to the office. He began his query:

Dear (agent name or publisher name),I have just recently acquired my dead brother’s estate. Among his effects were several completed manuscripts and short stories. He was evidently quite a dedicated writer. None of my family was aware of this hobby.

In addition, there is a recently finished memoir of his life as a highly successful salesman. In it he describes his personal and sales history along side of the world’s history, with its many wars and technical advancements during his life, which gives him unique perspectives to layer the one against the other.

It is poignant, engaging and in some respects highly thought provoking with a certain controversial edge. I am obviously not qualified to judge its literary worth or marketability. However, I am including a few chapters which begin the memoir for your inspection.

 

Respectfully,

He put the package together with the query letter and beginning chapters for the agents and publishers he felt might possibly have an interest. He mailed them out and waited.

While he waited he worked rapidly to complete the memoir. He’d never worked as fervently as he now did. It was as though everything he’d done to this point was melding itself together and pouring out onto the page in its finished form as he typed.

About five weeks after he’d sent his queries, the first two replies came in. Surprisingly, both indicated an interest in seeing the completed work.

Because he wasn’t actually finished with the memoir he penned a note to each, which read, ‘I am enclosing everything I can find at this point. I seem to be missing the last three chapters. I’m sure they are misfiled because I have personally read them over a number of times.’

Now he sweated, those last three chapters would be key to the memoir’s marketability.

He managed the first of the final three chapters and a start on the second and then... absolutely nothing. He was jerked unceremoniously into his first and, no doubt, most painful case of writer’s block he could have imagined.

The harder he worked to put something together to finish the memoir the more the doubts crept into his creative thinking.

His fatigue, which had been forgotten, returned. It was like a nightmare that left him immobile. He was trapped back into his old life, but this time with his hopes shattered. There would be no reprieve from here.

Whatever had motivated him to write all these years was gone, completely absent without a prayer of returning. He sat some days as long as eight hours staring at the computer screen displaying his memoir. Even trying to read what he’d already written, devastated him. It was as though the words had been lifted out of a thousand different stories and pasted on the screen as some kind of undecipherable puzzle.

Both of the original agents to whom he’d sent queries had sent him letters requesting those final three chapters. He couldn’t send what he had finished without making it clear he had misled them and was writing as he went along. He virtually trapped himself in his own conspiracy.

That was bad enough, but now other agents and even some publishers were writing to see more of his work, predominantly on the memoir, but also some had indicated an interest in his novels.

What should have been a celebration of his efforts was rapidly becoming the most miserable period of his life. His mind was threatening to shut itself down completely. He was in a near catatonic state, spending hours staring outside his window, envying the people in his neighborhood with their average normal, everyday lives, fighting and struggling, unaware of the insidious pitfalls life could throw their way any time.

He wished he could walk down to the end of the street, where the young guy was revving-up his dragster emitting the blue-haze clouding over the houses, and talk to him about how he was able to create the sound of so much raw power, yet not realize what he did was okay, but couldn’t he consider doing it in a place where his neighbors didn’t have to pay the price of his genius?

Or maybe, go next-door to the neighbors who fought so much and so loudly and ask them why they didn’t just forget about the lawn and the hedge this week and take the kids to a movie or to Six Flags or some other fun place.

But, what he truly wished was that he hadn’t broken the rule of trust, submitting his work honestly to be judged on its true merits. That was his shame, and inside he was positive, the reason his writing had turned so viciously on him and refused to expose itself to him now.

At last, in sheer exhaustion, he decided the farce needed to be acquitted in a truthful and honest fashion.

Whether he never wrote another word, the people he had attempted to mislead deserved at the very least, an apology for his having wasted their time.

Dear (agent or publisher),

I find myself in the unpleasant position of having to confess to a deceitful undertaking which concerns representing myself as having a recently deceased brother, whom, having led a successful life as a salesman, also wrote as a hobby.

I must confess the departed brother does not exist. I myself am the writer and the perpetrator of the fraudulent ruse.

I can only hope, having witnessed almost every type of literary counterfeit imaginable, you can find it within you to forgive my deception.

Respectfully,

He sent the letter testifying to his self-degradation to each of the agents and publishers who had received the deceptive original presentation.

After an amount of time he returned to his former habits of writing, editing and correcting and found his skills returned, even a little better than before. Not greatly, only enough for him to realize it was possible he was finding his own distinctive voice.

Certain issues, which had been difficult to adequately describe, became easier to put into words. He found himself able to challenge his own ideas, to mold them into fully provocative stories about anything he wished to convey.

Some of it was folly, which tickled him for its opportunity to learn. Some was actually not too bad, even if it found no readers.

Largely, it was his own distinctive work. He loved all of it. He had to, otherwise how could he invest so greatly simply to attempt to please someone he would likely never know, other than as a vague portrait of a single inquisitive figure clasping a book and fervently marveling over its contents.

He gave in to the fact that what he did might never give him fame or fortune and that pained him some, but he loved the excitement of trying to make it all happen.

Every piece of work was a step further from frustration, a step beyond the last, a step toward rounding out his gift to himself.

There was one other thing he came to realize, staring into the mirror, sitting down at his desk, or pondering over how to get his work sold, his hope had been restored, and that was something he would never underestimate again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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