Literary Agents, publishing, Satire

The Future Is Here

Lisa

You receive too many unsolicited manuscripts and cannot review them all? You still do not want to miss the next bestseller? Then LiSA is the right solution for you.

LiSA, if you’re wondering, is German and stands for Literatur Screening & Analytik. For publishers, LiSA is a boon – in 30 seconds flat it will tell them if the manuscript they’ve just received has any chance of success. “Based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), our software establishes a connection between the insights gained from existing works and their sales and bestseller ranking. This relationship is applied to new manuscripts and a probability of success is determined.”

And authors can sign up now for a beta version, soon to be released, which will let them know if they’ve written a dud or a blockbuster. Wunderbar!

Details can be found at the Qualifiction website: https://www.qualifiction.info/ (It’s in German, but Google will obligingly translate).

It won’t be long, of course, before LiSA is analysing texts not from authors but from another AI programme. In fact the only reason she isn’t already doing that is because the release of the programme in question, OpenAI, has been delayed due its being too good: Fake text generator too dangerous to be released.

But take heart, writers! There are still a few literary agents who are humans just like us, and are even so kind as to reveal some great tips on how to get your manuscript accepted. One such is my good friend Sydney Lushpile, who a few years back gave me some precious insights into how it’s done the old-fashioned way. Before LiSA.

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About Writers, writing technique

Oh Spark Divine (more or less)

Always, in the process of writing, I am convinced that I am grasping toward greatness. It seems like the most important thing in the world. Even when I’m laboring through an uncooperative first draft and obviously mired in muck that will all have to be cleared away in the second, I feel like what I’m doing is vital and rich and worthwhile.

The final product is never quite what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own books, but they are all drastically flawed. They inevitably grow up in ways I didn’t really plan or expect. I’m enough of a control freak that this always bothers me a little, but I also know it’s unavoidable. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means your work has life and energy. So you say goodbye to your little book, wish it well, and start your next book, full of the fresh misguided conviction that this time you’ll see it through all the way and it will be perfect and magnificent.

That’s how it is for me, anyway. And probably it’s for the best. Without a deluded sense of self-importance, how would I find the energy to lift pen to paper?

Probably to the reader, a book like Spark seems like a frolic, a trifle. For good reason. It is a frolic. It is, in its own way, trifling. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first professional review (all right, it was from Publisher’s Weekly, but it was only a contest, and the book was never published) called my book “sprightly”—it had a “sprightly tone.” At first, I wondered if that wasn’t just a bit belittling. Sprightly isn’t, perhaps, the most dignified adjective to apply to work of literature. But eventually I appreciated it. I even came to embrace it or at least the playful energy it implies. Even in a serious story, prose can frolic a bit. Nabokov could be sprightly. So could Melville, not to mention some of my other personal favorites like Delany and Tiptree. It implies, I think, both facility and agility.

Or maybe I’m just trying to put the best face on it.

Consider Spark. It’s certainly got a light feel to it, but structurally, the novel’s tone is inverted. Even subverted. The apparently serious story with the apocalyptic overtones (the pocket universe, the skulks, the Duchess) is absurd, almost parodic.  And it’s ultimately trivial. It doesn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, the apparent trivia of day-to-day life—boyfriends and basketball and friendship and loyalty— that is what the story is really about. That, obviously, is what really matters. That is what lasts.

Said another way? (big theme here, watch out):  The great machinery of the universe is inscrutable and inexorable. When we get too close to it, we are often threshed. We, threshed, rise up, dust ourselves off, and start reconnecting the fragmented bits of our reality. ‘Cuz that’s life.

Does this hifalutin bit of analysis mean I think Spark is a Great Book, worthy of term papers and Spark(ahem)Notes? Naw. Of course not. When the great cataclysm approaches, and the Powers That Be prepare the rocket-propelled time capsule, filling it with those Works of the Once Great Human Race that will justify our existence to the unknown civilization that finds the floating space library, Spark will not be onboard.

But this sad truth does nothing to quell or belie the impulse behind the writing. I don’t set out to write immortal books. I mean, who does that? I may hope for greatness, but mostly I think of a story, and if it intrigues me enough, I start writing.

But that process is, all by itself, magical and amazing. It’s amazing that we want to do it. It’s magical that we can. We are homo scribens, the race that writes, the storytelling species. Locking into that impulssvechae means messing around with greatness, with divinity. My goofy novel came from the same place as Lolita, as The Poisonwood Bible, as Moby Dick. In those quiet, passionate moments, when we’re dancing on the third rail of creativity, we catch a lightning glimpse of an immortal face, we hear the nonsensical muttering of the muses.

How can we come away from that experience untouched by greatness?

Those muses, those angels, do have a message you know, a very simple one:  We are here. We are real. And all of our twisting, writhing, passion-filled, agonized creations are nothing but a reflected bit of that seemingly infinite light. A candle flame’s worth. Without even meaning to, without even understanding, we are passing on that message.

They are here. They really are.

 

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Stories

Like the Fond, Uncounted Rain, We Fall All the Day.

The doorbell rings.

It’s only the thought that it might be my monthly delivery from Quel Fromage! that gets me out of my chair at all–but of course it isn’t. The green jumpsuit, the white plastic boots, even the multitude of thin wire bands he wears around his neck and wrists, might be a uniform, but it clearly isn’t U.P.S.

He begins without a greeting. “Got the year, Jackie?”

“Year?”

“Sure yeah. Sorry n’all, but the gizmo glitches when it jumps sometimes. Date and time all fuzzled.”

He doesn’t look insane. As a guess, I’d make him in his early twenties, college student type, only with a green jumpsuit. His head is shaved in a wide band up to the crown. Above that, a thick mop sits like a luxurious blond yarmulke.

“The date?” It takes me a minute. “The eighteenth,” I say. “June 18th.”

He goggles at me. “Eighteen? Like twenny-two eighteen?”

Now it’s my turn to goggle. “No. What? Do you mean the year?” His words—Got the year, Jackie?—come back to me. I take a breath. “It’s 2016. What year did you expect it to be?”

He throws his head back in exasperation. “Kring! I knew this wasn’t the when I punched!” He waves the gizmo at me. “Twenny-two sixteen! Meltdown is playing the Iron Lung, last gig ever!” A look of disgust crumples his features. “Instead, I wind up in the stone-age zone.” He gives me a rueful look. “No ‘fense, Jackie.”

“None taken.”

He makes with a deep, soulful sigh. “Well, glitchy tech is glitchy tech. Whatcha gonna do?” He holds up the device so I can see. “UbiQuix 20. Cozy Jon said I shoulda grabbed the Simpiternity, but they’re so old story.”

I play along. “Does this mean you’re stranded here? Can you get back to your own…”

“Oh yeah, no sure. Not even. I’ll just punch the recall circuit.” He toggles some doodad on the gizmo’s control pad. “But it’s going to take some time. The busload’s pretty fragged, I’ll betcha. Just gotta waste some minutes.”

We stand there at the doorway, me in, he out, and an unexpected wave of compassion wells up. Whatever delusion I’m living through, it doesn’t seem to have left me entirely without the social graces. “You can come inside if you want. You don’t have to wait on the porch.”

He gives me a smile. “That’s fond, cousin! I’m onboard.”

Inside, he takes a seat in one of the comfier chairs, glancing around the room, utterly not discomfited.

“Are you sure this is where you’re supposed to be?” I ask. “I mean, there’s no…clubs around here.”

He shakes his head, rechecking some readout. “No. Location is just so. Time is the mess.”

I nod. Sometime—two hundred years from now—my house will be a place called the Iron Lung, where Meltdown will play their last gig ever. Time really is the mess. My guest surveys the reach of my living room. “Nice element,” he says.

“Thanks.”

“Small,” he says, nodding. “You in a proke group?”

“Pardon?”

“No scandal either way, Jackie. Just thought, you being old and all, you probably done the whole routine, squeezing out the school.”

“School?” I am not keeping up.

“Little fish?” he offers. “Forwarding the genome?”

“Ah. Yes. Sure. We have three kids, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Only three? Wowza. Didn’t know you twennies were so scant with the offspring. My proke was up to three hundred and sixty-two, last count.”

I gulp. “That’s a lot of…fish.”

“Not all fish,” he explains. “The prime proke group was twenny-nine, plus some lookers. A good group grows in all the ways.”

I take an intuitive leap. “Group marriage?”

“Natch. Course, I’m plenty ripe for my own group now, but I’m not tending to dash. I was in a boot-knock in Amsterdam last summer, great bunch of bed-folk. I was fond. But I’m too young to stumble into the first proke group that comes along.”

“Very sensible.”

“You nailed that one, coz. So, what’s your gig?”

“Gig? As in job?”

“Sure yeah. How do you means and ends?”

I clear my throat. It always sounds so odd to say it out loud. “I’m a writer.”

His eyes widen. “No drossing? Like stories and such? That’s crisp, cousin! I’m rabid for stories. What’s your mode? PsychoRomps? HoodooPeeps? DreamSpex?”

“Uh, yeah. You know, I’m not really sure what you’d call it—”

“Hey, what’s your name? I’ve swiped some of the ancients. Maybe I’ve downed some of your content.”

I tell him. His face remains blank. “Sorry, Jacko. No register. I guess you’re not big in the Twenny-Three.”

“I can’t say I’m too surprised.”

“But I’m smit to down your stuff. Got anything ready to up?”

I frown. “You want to read one of my books? Now?”

Some word or another seems to perplex him. He taps a spot on his left temple, just below the shaved hairline. Something clicks, then whirs. “Standard acc-port,” he says, “Fryline? BitBlur? Even a Transwire, if that’s your techlevel.”

I shake my head, helpless.

“Well how much content do you got, Jackie? I’m gonna wink soon, but I could down a few.”

“Uh, three. Three novels. So far.”

“Three?” He is as aghast at my lack of literary output as he was at my poor showing in the progeny department. “Fring, coz! You gotta get with! My fav, Inkling Fedora? She pops two hundred a year, easy.”

“Two hundred? Novels?”

“Sure, yeah, sure. Gotta keep the current on. Her last psychoromp series knocked up thirty-seven volumes. And Revard Melch? He ups like a book a day. ‘Course it’s all SkinJims, so no great exercise sopping that stuff. You can down two or three between between station stops, if that’s your sort of fare. Hey! You all right, Jack?”

In fact, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Not serious, I’m sure, but standing up abruptly would definitely be a poor choice at the moment. His gizmo gives a tuneful little toodle, and he checks some readout. “Hey, not long now! I’m queued.” He smiles. “You’ve been a kinsman, coz. A real lungful of fresh. I’ll mention you to the future.”

He continues to sit there, looking pleasantly bland. Nothing seems to be happening, as far as I can tell.

“Hey!” I say, experiencing what seems to be a sudden lucid moment. “Do you people do this a lot? I mean, visit the past?”

He nods. “Sure, yeah, yeah. No major.”

“But—what about continuity and all that? I mean, aren’t you afraid of messing up your own timeline?”

He finds this pretty funny. “No, no, Jacks. Not much chance. I mean, certain precautions, sure, yeah, but time is pretty elastic. Bouncy, even. It all snaps back pretty proper. Like, you won’t even remember this.”

“No? I find that hard to believe.”

“Well, maybe a few snips and bits, but nothing certain. Trust me. This is a one-way tumble. It’s all strictly—”

And all at once, he isn’t there anymore. No flash, no shimmer, no bang, no whimper. Just me, staring at an empty chair.

Which is an odd thing to find yourself doing at 11:15 in the morning.

I get up. I check the front door. Maybe I’m getting old, but I would’ve sworn I heard the doorbell. Sure. That’s right. I was at my desk and the doorbell rang…

But there’s no one there. Some ding-dong ditch kid. Or I’m hearing things.

Or maybe just hungry. I am expecting my delivery from Quel Fromage! today. I’m hoping for a nice dill Havarti. And maybe a wedge of Stilton Blue.

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book sales, reading, writing technique

’Tis the Season!

(For the big annual library book sales.) Treasures, absolute treasures, for cheap.

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My house looks like this, only not so neat.

Here in Connecticut we have huge discard sales, town by town, over the course of the summer. I look forward to them all year. The biggies near me are Newtown over the Fourth of July, and Redding, over Labor Day weekend, with smaller ones scattered in between.

First day, you pay double the marked price (usually one-two-three dollars.) Second day, you pay full price. Third day, half price. Fourth day, all you can pack into a carton for five dollars.

You walk into (generally) a school gymnasium and find tables set up by category. General fiction, biography, history, science, mystery, cooking. Fiction is broken up: current (the last decade or two) vintage (popular titles from farther back) and Literature, work that has been deemed for the ages. That’s where I head first.

In literature you’ll find the odd stuff, things you may never see again. In the past I’ve snagged lectures by a president of Harvard on ethics and philosophy, full of ideas for Sly to obsess over. And, a marvelous series, chatty passing-scene, part story/part social commentary, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Not the judge.) That’s where I glommed onto Charles Reade, he of the mush plots and to-die-for description. The tattered volumes are a treasure trove of beautifully put comments on the human condition, such as used to be considered a worthy side-line to the plot, learned, often comically high-minded treatments that stuff perfectly into a mouth that I am always looking to furnish with know-it-all material. My guy is a scholarly sort, curious about every corner of life, beguiled, and infuriated, by the strange ways of the humankind.

I find goodies on many a table, but my heart belongs to classics. That’s where the sale organizers put anything of a certain age that they don’t know what else to do with. The sad thing is, over the four decades that I’ve been hitting these events, the selection of classics has shrunk and shrunk. The donated old-holdings have diminished in depth and variety. As the old-time book lovers decease and their musty shelves are donated by unappreciative heirs, the percentage of treacle best-sellers has grown and grown. Get the oddments now, before the glorious caches of vetted greats and screwball-sublime are no more. That tap won’t gush forever, a shame and a pity. I rummage through the oldie-moldies salivating, I swear to God. Any book with an unreadable spine, the odds are good it’s something tremendous.

Forget the writing manuals, those dreadful how-to’s, how to construct a story that will meet the expectations of the popular-fiction readers of today, demanding, according to those write-like-a-pro quick-tips, action-reaction. My library finds are the only school of writing I’ve ever had, and I am confident that the myriad and idiosyncratic voices from years untold have taught me well. I swear by characterization, and description, much despised these days, if you go by the on-line advice.

All this, of course, is not marketing. But a superb product (ideally) precedes a sales pitch. A dose of what has been done a century back opens your eyes to non-current approaches. You could do worse than to shoehorn some of that reflective-style into your thriller, or sci-fi, or whatever. No one of us on here needs to hear this, but to the less sophisticated, I say, take your blinders off. Read widely, outside your genre/comfort zone. The rich pickings at the library sales are the best (and least) money you’ll ever spend, and as fine an education than that from the esteemed Iowa Workshop. Get beyond another (usually tiresome) iteration of the sword-in-the-stone theme. How many civilizations needing to be saved from dark-lord baddies can we take, honestly, before we puke? No, the addition of a third-gender elf does not make it a must-read.

Vampires? I wear a necklace of garlic to the sales to protect me from vampire fiction. On Book Country a few years ago, the vampire-aficionados were wetting their pants over a new twist: a vampire enjoying the immoveable feast of a nursing home. More than a few thought this a stunningly new idea in a genre that’s been pretty well explored. I don’t have a high opinion of the quality of thought on many of the writer sites. That’s why I love this one.

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