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Searching for the Secret

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Kaye Gibbons wrote an essay for the Winter 2005 issue of the The Oxford American about how amazed she is at the number of people who are writing. Or claiming to write. I feel the same way because it seems every person I meet is working on a novel, story collection, or screenplay. I always assumed that was because I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, a town both blessed and lousy with writers (myself included) like Hollywood where ever waiter has a headshot stuck in their apron. But since I left Oxford, I continue to encounter would-be writers. Every cab driver in DC is working on a political thriller and the guy who sells hot dogs at Camden Yards in Baltimore is writing a script he?Ä´s convinced is perfect for HBO’s The Wire.

Gibbons made many valid points in her article, but there’s a part that seems somewhat mean-spirited, somewhat dismissive. I am sure Gibbons is a wonderful woman and I know she is a tremendous literary talent. But when an attendant at a book festival had the audacity to ask a question about how many metaphors should be in a literary novel, a line of questioning began that Gibbons describes as a “plague.” The question itself was basic, maybe a little misguided, but Gibbons lamented that “these folks already seem to have a great deal of information about the processes of other writers, dead and alive, but I sense their hope that I might be the one with the key who unlocks the mysteries of how to get a book published.” That’s precisely what they want. They ache, yearn, hunger, jones, crave, thirst, desire and wish for the secret.

The secret handshake. The password. The broken code. The “Louie sent me” statement breathlessly said to a pair of eyeballs peering out the peephole in the iron door of this literary speakeasy. Gibbons wrote, “what they don’t want are the hard truths.”

I’m sure some of the wannabes in the audience at the book festival do only want to hear a shortcut. They’re the ones who approach famous authors and say “I’ve got a great idea for a story and if you write it, I’ll split the money with you!” But most of them, I wager, are dedicated, determined, and driven writers who just want some help, who just want to figure this thing out.

Everyone bemoans the current state of publishing today. Every writer I have ever spoken to complains about the major publishing conglomerates and their obsession with financial returns. Every frustrated aspiring author I have met grumbles at the inability to break into print. Even booksellers complain about the lack of good material and the subsequent flat or even declining sales. If the handful of writers named Grisham, King, Rowling, Clancy, and Brown are removed from the discussion, the only people who are overwhelmingly positive about the state of modern publishing are those twelve souls who just walked out of the jury box of the Michael Jackson trial. So it comes as no surprise to say that much of what gets published is either bad or so uninspired and bland that is cotton candy, leaving you to wonder what in the hell that thing was.

And as a dedicated writer, you reach a point where you’re close. You’re getting positive feedback from sophisticated, demanding and truthful readers. Honest people who don’t share your last name. You’re following all the rules and guidelines you learned in the writing workshop and The Writers Market and Publishers Weekly and Writers Digest and the Glimmertrain “Writers Ask” column and the entire writing/publishing section at the bookstore and every other source of information you can absorb.

And yet, the rejection letters continue to fill up the mailbox.

Then, at your next visit to the store, you see a book stacked to the ceiling like the opus I read recently. Published by a major house, this book has blurbs by some major names in the mystery world and the author carries a MFA from a prestigous school. We meet the hero of this novel, a grizzled homicide cop who lost his marriage due to the pressures of the job, then began drinking too much, had some serious run-ins with Internal Affairs, and now struggles to solve homicide cases while waking up, confused and hung over, in his clothes and realizing that he missed his son’s ball game. Sound familiar? The cast of characters also features a publicity-junkie district attorney, known for his sharp suits, who is obsessed with headlines and plans a future political career. The book is rounded out by a street-smart, wise-cracking African-American detective, and a weird, slightly spooky medical examiner. I encounter so many books like this that I have a hard time keeping them straight, but I think there might also have been a hooker with a heart of gold and a wise older cop who has seen it all and serves as the mentor. So all in all, this was $23.95 spent for a re-run of just about every other cop book I’ve ever read or movie I’ve seen.

Yet this was worthy of a stack of books at the store and my work is worth a form rejection. If I’m lucky to even receive that much, more and more often the answer is complete silence. I, along with all the hundreds of thousands of my fellow aspirants, just have to believe that there is some secret. It’s not that I feel like my work is that stupendous and that I’m being blackballed by the industry. I realize my work has a long way to go, but when aspiring authors see so much garbage being published, they think, like me, “well, if they’re going to print crap, why not my crap? Why not my friend’s crap?” What makes one pile less smelly and less steamy than another?

Playing a video game, you keep dying at this same point and you sit in the dark, in front of the TV with aching thumbs and a sweaty back glued to your T-shirt and you play that same mission over and over and over. It’s four a.m. and you have to be in the office in a couple of hours but goddamnit you’re going to finish this mission. Suddenly, by mistake, by sheer dumb luck, you find a corner where the Evil Terrorist Troops can’t reach you, yet you have a clear angle to take them out with your sniper rifle. After hours, maybe days, of bleeding out at this same spot in the mission, you solve it. You frantically pick off all the Evil Terrorists, trying to remain calm and not screw up, not convinced you’ll be able to find this sweet-spot again, and then finally, you clear the way and your regiment of Good Guy Soldiers swarms in and overruns the Evil Terrorist camp. It’s that simple. A corner you never found before makes the impossible not only possible but easy. You just didn’t know how to do it.

That corner is what those conference goers who bedevil Ms. Gibbons are after. The secret. I often daydream of sitting around The Algonquin, sipping bourbon with some ancient literary lion that leans in close, sloshes his martini on my hand, and says “you’re not going about it the right way, old boy. There are so many thousands of submissions swamping every editor and agent, they don’t even open the stuff. Unless you have the trick that only the insiders know.” He leans even closer and whispers “mail your submission in a purple envelope scented with decades-old Charlie perfume from your grandmother’s dressing table. That’s the secret, young man! You do that, they’ll know you’ve got the goods and they’ll read your work. Then you’re off!” Or possibly, I should follow the plans F. Scott Fitzgerald outlined in a 1933 letter when he wrote to Maxwell Perkins “I will appear in person carrying the manuscript and wearing a spiked helmet.”

The cynical, arrogant answer would be for someone to say “hey buddy, maybe your work is being rejected because you suck. Instead of whining about how big someone else’s stack of books is, put that energy into writing better. The only secret is writing good work.” But it’s not that simple.

Maybe my work isn’t good enough, but I guarantee you that you know someone whose work you think is good enough, but yet they still toil in anonymity. Keep in mind that even some of the most successful writers in the world are also frustrated at the current state of publishing. Stephen King chopped through the publishing door with an axe, poked his face through, and hissed his version of “heeeere’s Johnny!” when he wrote that “dull or dopey: These days that’s pretty much your choice at the bookstore. It’s a jungle out there, baby, and in a world where the corporate bottom line is god (or maybe the word I’m searching for is mammon), the strong survive but the worthy often do not.”

So my laments aren’t just the cries of an unknown writer but also a publishing giant who has scared millions of books off the shelves and into the clutches of frightened readers everywhere. King, who has a stature in the industry to match his name, was kind enough to make something happen for Ron McLarty. In fact he made a couple of million things happen for McLarty. But before that benevolence, McLarty was looking for the secret, just like all the other aspiring authors. One day, his book isn’t worth publication and then the next day it’s worth a couple of million dollars and you want aspiring authors to believe that just writing good work is all that matters? That there isn’t some trick, some secret?

That’s what the people in the conference audience want. They? Hell, that’s what I’m after. We hope, pray, plead, and yes, pay the entry fees to literary conferences all over this country that fund writing programs and cover honorariums for guest speakers like Ms. Gibbons so we can get a chance to ask that question. And hope someone will answer us.