Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There's good news and bad news

The process begins with you making copies of the thirty-odd published short stories, which you send to your publisher.  So far, you've agreed on two things:  He will publish a collection of your stories.  The collection will be of twelve stories.  

Your meeting at Jerry's Delicatessen in Woodland Hills is for the purpose of selecting the twelve and then, time permitting, deciding on the order.  When you appear at the deli, you have your list of twelve preferences, arrived at with an enjoyable process of many cups of coffee and perhaps one list of choices for each cup.  

You have lived long enough, spent enough time in the publishing trade, and dealt with enough authors yourself to anticipate a wide diversity between your choices and the publisher's.  You're thinking a match of four out of the thirty-two or -three you'd provided.

You are surprised, heartened, to discover an overlap of eight, which is to say there were only four  differences of opinion.  To extend the cordiality, you are in complete agreement about which story is to be the first.  

In a matter of moments, as the waiter is taking your sandwich orders, you find further accord about ending strategy.  You both like the idea of ending with what in many ways has become your favorite story, using as the penultimate the story for which the entire collection takes its name.

You've scarcely had two sips of your Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic Creme Soda and yet the finished project is one-quarter set already.  Now comes the haggling.  There is one story the publisher wants (it is on your list as well), but he claims not to see the purpose of the title, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."

Now, you take a deeper swig of the Dr. Brown's.  "Irony,"  you say.  "Think about the themes running through the story, the lover drawing the opening notes of a memorable and beautiful chamber music composition on the exposed belly of the protagonist.  Think about the ending scene, with the protagonist's ex, singing country Western into the night.  Think--"
The publisher furrows an editorial brow.  "How many of your readers understand German?"

You are set to reply that you don't understand the German language, much less German persons, but your brisket sandwich has arrived.  You munch thoughtfully.  "How about," you say, "we go with the translation of the title into English, 'A Little Night Music?'  Get it?"

The editorial brow furls as the publisher wonders how many readers will get it.  You take another bite of brisket, wash it into oblivion with a sip of Dr. Brown's and enter that alternate universe of understanding that is enhanced by your years as an editor yourself, as a writer, and as a teacher of literature and writing.

This alternate world is in fact the world of story, the world you've described yourself, numerous times, sober, tipsy, and sloshed.  "Story happens when two or more individuals enter an arena, each believing he or she is right."  Your certainty about this is above moral certainty; it is a clarity you worked for years to achieve.  

If all the crumpled sheets of typing paper you'd filled then rejected yourself were piled about you, you'd be buried.  And then came the computer, which meant hitting the delete button instead of snatching a page from your Olivetti and, in later years, your Selectric.

If you were a sculptor, you'd be buried in gravel.  But no matter; there is a vast, shimmering landscape out there called Reality, which each of us, you, your publisher, and the millions who have no truck with books or stories, will see as his or her own vision of Reality, "getting" or not "getting" the intentions of any given other.

Thus armed with brisket sandwich, deli mustard, a creditable rye bread, and ice cold Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic Creme Soda, you changed "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" to "I've Got Those King City Blues."  And wouldn't you guess, one reviewer, who liked the story, perhaps even to the point of favoring it above the others, didn't see why you couldn't;t have called it "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik."

But wait; there is more.

You, your publisher, and your literary agent agree in principal that a story collection should start with a strong, thematic, slightly off-the-wall story.  You and your publisher had such a story in mind, but not only did your agent not "get" it, she tried it out on other clients of hers who were completely baffled.  Your agent waged a strenuous campaign to have the story you and your publisher wished to begin with placed second to "I've Got Those King City Blues."

There is more.  Good news and bad news.  The good news is a significant number of reviews, the least enthusiastic of them ranking the collection four out of five stars.  An amazing number of reviewers loved the nuances, humor, and pathos in various stories, frank in their admission of not "getting" other of the stories.  But each reviewer "got" different stories and didn't "get" others.

We were correct in our assessment of the last two stories, which seemed to strike differing chords among the reviewers.  

Ah, well.  Your deli epiphany of differing visions of the same thing was not a fresh epiphany.  You've had it before.  You've had it at other times, for other things.  All you can do is what you've been trying to do since you began:  Wrench the passing vision from the skies, and try to set it in orbit where you can watch it.

Your literary agent has another vision.  "There's good news,"  she will say, "and there's bad news.  The good news is that you're being published.  The bad news is that you're being published."

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