Saturday, February 15, 2014

Give Us This Day Our Daily Agenda--Then Add a Surprise

At the present moment, you have only one more chore connected with your forthcoming collection of stories.  Sometime during the week ahead, you'll receive a batch of ARCs, advanced reading copies, some of which you send out in hopes of getting blurbs, others go to potential review sources.

One copy will become the equivalent of what used to be proofs, read by you to make sure the equivalent of i's being dotted, t's being crossed, periods rather than commas as signifiers that the sentence is over and does not have ambitions of morphing into something longer, more pendulous. To be sure, the publisher has a proofer assigned as well.  From your own experiences with any number of publishing ventures where you drew a paycheck, you understand how the potential still exists for some word or phrase to emerge meaning something different than your intent in writing it.

Indeed, at one point your editor wrote you a note about the ending of a story in which a character returns to the kitchen to prepare dinner after having set fire to a barn.  There are some tips of the hat to writers you admire, a notable one to Graham Greene with the title for one story, "The Man Within."  You are by all accounts an admirer of Faulkner, who has had a few barns burned during his writing career.  Yet you could think of no story of your in which you had a barn, much less a story in which you had some character or force of nature cause that barn to combust.

What to do?

You did the only thing you could think of under the circumstances; you reread the story in question, alert for typos or the materialization of a barn.  The best you could come up with was a character finding a long stub of candle, breaking it in half, then using his pocket knife to expose enough wick to burn, whereupon he lights both candle stubs before returning to the kitchen to prepare his dinner.  Don't ask about the transmogrification of candles into a barn.  You don't want to know.  You have seen enough such things appear in books of all sorts, within publishers of all sorts.

You hope to be a part of a concentrated effort to insure your stories will come forth into the world without a single typo or glitch that is the result of numerous eyes having passed over it without having caught it.  You expect some buyer will approach you after publication date either in person or via email with a comment to the effect that she or he found the following typo on page one or two.

Your goal is to take a sincere, informed shot at perfection of performance, a thing you can do.  In fact, such an attempt can be applied to the same project, each time you enter it.  You are more interested in working for perfection, which is then an abstraction, rather than achieving perfection, which is not going to make the stories any better or worse than they already are.

In a number of cultures, the performers of important rituals take exquisite pains to do what is required of them with sincerity and focus, thus, however primitive or improvised the ritual, the spiritual forces for whose attention the ritual is performed will be satisfied then provide the results for which the ritual is done.  There is a touching sincerity about such attitudes, speaking to you, a relative unbeliever in such things, of the great value of doing all things with sincerity of intent.  One culture you have some awareness of calls this approach karma yoga, which is translated to work or action as worship.

After you--still, after all these years, a dreadful speller--proof your stories one more time, then send the work back to the publisher, your production work will be finished.  You will have speeches, book signings, guest blogs to write, and other publicity-related things, which you will need to braid into your other responsibilities.

You already know the next book you wish to write, have a reasonably strong proposal, outline completed on it, and a literary agent who is eager to submit it when you have a few more chapters done.  You even know who you hope will write the introduction, and have discussed the matter with the individual, who seems excited by the prospect.

You also know of an essay you have agreed to write, and long to get started with it, aware of two novels you are eager to get back to.  You know enough about process and yourself to know how such an orderly appearance is fraught with misadventure.  This is the misadventure of a dreadful speller, a person who is not intrinsically neat, who needs to remind and pursue himself to pick up things now as opposed to some time in the evanescent future.  You need to get the unabridged dictionary off the floor and back to its shelf before you retire for the night.  You need to tend to the two corrugated paper shipping crates in which the new espresso maker was delivered.

The truth of such things may border on abstractions of its own, while yet another truth, one of process, obtains.  On this night, on this very night, you were presented with a road to follow, a road that has been blocked for nearly twenty years.  The story has to do with a group of pre-historic hunters, probably Cro-Magnons (because in the past twenty years, you've edited an authoritative book on such persons and have absorbed some sense of their self-hood), who have just returned from a hunting venture in which they have apparently been successful in bagging a large woolly mammoth.  

The word "apparently" is key to the onset of the story, also to the revelation you have experienced about where the story goes from there.  For the longest time, when you think of this story, waiting with you through all these recent events in your life, you'd begun to think of it this way:  If Elmore Leonard were to have written stories about pre-historic characters, his pre-historic characters would have been like these.  And yes, you even have names for many of them.  The protagonist, for instance, is called Lefty.

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