Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Pay and My Aunt's Pay: The Forms of Story

You had to admit it, you cut a more-than-acceptable figure in your favorite tweed suit, taking a last review of yourself in the mirror before partaking of the room service breakfast awaiting you.  There was a slight sense of a breeze, but this was Autumn in New York, and what was a little breeze?

You were scheduled to chair a panel on editorial decisions as a key to the publisher's identity.  The venue was the then well-attended yearly convention, Face-to-Face.  Later in the afternoon, after the panel, you were to interview for an editorial job which you had high hopes of being offered.  You were coming off a fairly good balance sheet and you'd already been the West Coast Director for another New York publishing house.

All right, hotel croissants are rarely beyond mediocre, but you were hungry and eager, even with the breeze you still felt, each time you stood.

In some ways, in many ways, the breeze was a metaphor for your professional life at the time.  The fabric of the trousers of your favorite suit, known to you to be thinning, had chosen this brisk, windy morning in mid-Manhattan to part company, reminding you of the choice to be made.  You could stay with the suit trousers, hopeful of keeping your poise, or play high-stakes poker.  Bloomingdale's was a scant few blocks away--a risk to be taken.

With less than ten minutes to spare, you were back in the hotel ball room, ascending the speaker's platform with no wind at your back because in fact, you were well covered now by a pair of narrow-wale corduroys, which pointedly did not match rather complemented your suit jacket.  Weren't you, after all, California incarnate?

The panel discussion went well enough that you were then and there invited back next year for another visit by some of the Face-to-Face organizers.  The job interview was another matter.  From the very start, you and the publisher did not hit it off, him going so far as to observe that you didn't have to wear corduroys to prove you were a Californian.

The next day, you took a shuttle to Boston, where you engaged in a first; you took tea with an elegant publisher, Sylvia Burack, publisher and editor of The Writer Magazine.  You'd had tea hundreds of times, but you'd never taken tea at the Copley-Plaza, wherein, somehow, you felt yourself in some elegant time warp, miles from New York, eons from Santa Barbara.

"I'm wondering," Mrs. Burack said, "if we could get something from you that might draw some letters of outrage.  Something to reflect the difference between what you see as an editor and what our readers wish to believe."

"P.O.N.R."  You said.  "P.O.N.R and the first three pages."


"I shall have to see it soon,"  she said.  "Meanwhile, here is Allister Cook, come to join us.  You don't mind, I hope."

There was a moment on your flight home to LAX, with connecting flight to SBA, where you sipped at some San Pellagrino water, munched some airline peanuts, and did some mental math on what you'd accomplished, how the trip had more or less been paid for--except for the corduroy trousers--and how you'd get along without your favorite suit.  A stewardess interrupted your train of thought by asking, was there anything else she could get you?

"Thanks," you said.  "I seem to have everything in hand right now."

You watched her retreat.  The plane on which you were a passenger was following the sun, heading due west, an ideal scene break, an even more ideal ending to a story.

To be sure, there were things in motion before your eastward venture, things left on hold.  There were cosmic, financial, and professional accounts to be reckoned, in particular a rather notional, self-involved publisher who was already suspicious of your interests in and connections to the more literary sides of publishing, threatening to bring such matters to a head.

P.O.N.R.  Point of no return.  Point within a story where the life of at least one character will be changed.

Three to five pages.  The number of pages an editor will read in anticipation of something happening.

What you said to the stewardess.  A negotiated settlement.  With?  Why, Reality, of course.

Those were elements more or less falling into place for you.

You began thinking about then writing short stories in ways you'd not thought of before, except that when you think of it, you'd been wanting to write all along.  In order to do so, you had to learn some craft issues relating to format.  You had to learn to start with your people in direct motion, on the very cusp of it, or having only moments ago said or done something emphatic, at which point, if you're lucky, the reader may begin to care.

Sometime later this year, a collection of some of those stories will be brought to life, step two in their own journey, removed from some publications no longer being published, strolling hand in hand to keep one another on the path.

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