Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Clear Desk, Clear Mind

While excavating my desk at home I discovered the twenty-nine page essay I wrote after my brother Pat died of liver failure last January. I have since expanded upon the essay and turned it into an autobiographical novel about the cycle of mental illness within an individual as well as within the generations of one family. I decided to create the story as a work of autobiographical fiction and not a memoir because another key theme is that heroes and villians exist only in fiction, which I thought would be more interesting to explore using fiction. So it's like you never really know what's true, what's made up, who's the good guy, who's the bad guy. Moral ambiguity, baby!

It took me not quite three months to finish the novel, all 75,274 words. I felt pretty satisfied with it. Then my boss at the library agreed to allow me to work 24 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week. I figured those extra 16 hours a week would help me wrap up the book and present it to a literary agent. I had no idea that for the next five months I would be accosted by such anxiety.

I finished writing a query letter, something someone even as ignorant as I knows is a requirement of the publishing industry. So I emailed it to some friends for input. One friend who has actually published a book, is the editor of an academic journal, and has a PhD in English commented that the next step was to write a book proposal.

A what schmerposal?

Holy shit, not only had I no idea what such a thing was, when I found out I had to summarize my 75,274 word story into about three pages I almost cried. I shut down much of my work on the novel for several months. Started this blog as a way to keep my writing muscle in shape as I procrastinated writing the book proposal for days, then weeks, then months.

WTF? Can't the literary agent just read the damn manuscript to see if s/he wants to sell my book for me? Isn't it the agent's job to market my book? Why do I have to brag and bullshit and write all snazzy just to get some literary agent's attention so they can turn around and brag and bullshit and write all snazzy just to get some publisher's attention?

I consulted friends, blogs, literary agent websites FAQ's. I checked out the literary bible, The Writer's Market, hoping I'd get some tips. Oh, I got some tips. Contradictory tips from each source I checked it seemed.

But today when I saw the essay I wrote back in January, I realized it's kind of a summary of the novel. Sure, it's twenty-nine pages, but that seems less overwhelming to whittle down to three pages than to try to pack the whole damn manuscript into three pages.

Here's the first couple of lines, and damn, I think I'll just use them in my book proposal:

"I like to brag that I'm the only one of Mom's five children who was born after she received electroshock therapy. I don't know if it had any effect on me, but it's something unique I like to cling to in a family of unusually smart, funny, creative, and compassionate people who have done all the interesting things long before my turn comes around."

Instincts. "Sound like yourself." Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said.