HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

Standard
Misery.

NOT FUN.

For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment.  I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.  

He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.)  Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:

From him:

Dear Nina Mishkin:

I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.

 If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.

 If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.

 If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.

 Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out  form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.

 Looking forward to reading more of your work.

 Best wishes.

I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me.  [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch:  same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.]  Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared.  So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:

Dear _______:

Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.

 Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law.  It may be that I haven’t grown up yet.  As a result, I have only dabbled.  Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time.  It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?

 I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired.  (Several “voices,” actually.)  And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!

 So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence.  As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years.  I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.

I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.

…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:

Dear Ms. Mishkin,

I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”.  It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.

Best,

To which I replied:

Dear Mr. ______,

I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.

Many thanks. And be well.

Best,

 What happened next?

1.  I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).

2.  I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons.  The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”

3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got.  For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point.  Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done!  But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics.  And also changing the names!  In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it.  Which I have done.

4.  Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.  

 ******************

The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21.  I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening.  On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it!  I always was a dreamer.  Stay tuned….

I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post.  I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript.  I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.

I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it.  I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway.  If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is:  a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.

If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.]  Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me.  Cats, anyone?

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14 thoughts on “HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

    • I’m glad you have the patience, Nancy. That’s more than I can say for myself. I see a long haul still ahead for the book to get finished (if it does). But thank you for your sunny optimism about an ending. A happy one, I hope.

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  1. Interesting experience, Nina. Though your summer’s occupation doesn’t sound a great pleasure, it still seems better than my own. My guess on the subject of your book is that it’s only really worthwhile if it’ll also appeal to people who’ve never experienced an eating binge in their life. It also seems to me that it would be more successful if you were to weave a plot into the writing, somehow. In any case, best wishes.

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    • I’m so glad to hear from you, Shimon. Yes, yours has been an indescribably awful summer, and your silences have been worrying. I do hope you will soon be posting again. As for my manuscript, I assume its appeal to non-binge-eaters, if any, will be in how it’s written, its occasional deadpan humor, and its view of a disappeared world where societal and familial expectations for young girls (and women) will likely enrage today’s feminists. Your desire for plot, though, suggests that you are one who favors fiction. What life has a “plot?” That’s not to say my memoir is not a narrative, of sorts. But perhaps a picaresque one. (Jousting at windmills?) Actually four little bits of it have appeared in this blog (one slightly disguised). You liked two of them and commented on one. So who knows? Anyway, thanks so much for the good wishes. And mine for you….

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      • Thank you for your sweet reply, Nina. Yes, as soon as you mentioned the subject of your book, I was able to recognize which blog posts came from the material. Humor is inspiring in writing, and that would certainly bring many readers who might not have encountered eating problems. I have read and written much more non fiction than fiction, but I do enjoy fiction very much. As for plot, I believe that there are a great many plots in life. It seems to me that they mere require identification and accent in the telling of a story. And that a plot can give a lot of strength to a narrative. My silence on the blog is the result of unhappiness. And I am still trying to recover from the noise and the brutality of war. It is also harder for me to write in English now, after having read foreign criticism (and lies) concerning this last war.

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      • Perhaps thinking of all your anglophone friends eager to hear from you will help overcome your difficulty in writing in English again? In any event, I’m sure they all join me in wishing you recovery and a return to a calmer and quieter state of mind.

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  2. Jools

    Welcome back, Nina – you were missed 🙂 Whatever else, you will learn from the agent’s feedback and it may inspire you to look differently on your writing. To someone who knows what it’s like to have a challenging relationship with food, what you were working on sounds fascinating.

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    • Thanks for the warm welcome, Julie. (And the big smile!) You’re right, of course, about the value of the agent’s feedback, whatever it turns out to be. And your interest in the subject of the book is heartening. I suspect what you say may be true of more women (and perhaps a few men as well) than one might guess from appearances! I’m also enormously impressed by your persistence (four years!) with “Singled Out,” the progress of which I have been following on your own blog with considerable attention. I for one would certainly read it if it ever finds a publisher!

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  3. Nina, I hope you realize how rare it is for an agent to make the first contact with a writer, and that you derive encouragement from that fact — whether or not anything further happens with him. Remember, too, that self-publishing is always an option.

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    • I do realize the rarity, which is why I devoted the better part of the summer to resurrecting the buried manuscript he invited me to send. And yes, I am also aware of self publishing; it’s just that I haven’t explored any other options yet — and can’t, until I have a finished book! Thanks for the encouraging comment, though — especially valuable from someone like you, who’s been there already. 🙂

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  4. Congratulations on having an agent contact you!!! I finished a novel (I’m now rewriting it) in the mid 90’s and couldn’t get an agent to read a single chapter of it. Well, actually, one agent said he would, but I think he was new or something. After six months he sent back a tiny piece of paper that had mimeograph blue/purple faded letters that said something to the effect of, no thanks. With all the stories of best sellers being rejected a hundred times, I think it’s time to break out the champagne! Whether or not this agent wants this particular book, you now have proof that you’re a fantastic writer who belongs in the big leagues. Congratulations! 🙂

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    • Oh, Dr. M., I’m sorry you’ve been having a hard time finding an agent. (And yes, I do know it’s extraordinary to be contacted by one, especially when not looking for an agent yet.) But as I commented on your own blog, http://www.storiform.com, don’t give up hope. There’s are readers for everyone who can write — as you clearly can — and I’m sure you’re going to find yours — with or without an agent.

      P.S. When are you popping the cork on the champagne? I’ll be there! 😀

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      • I haven’t tried to land an agent in over ten years. I figured it was impossible. I’m hoping to make it as an independent writer of some sort. I recently quit my medical practice because of the overwhelming stress (not because I hoped to become a writer) and now I’m having the time of my life writing. I can write non-fiction well enough. I’m never giving up on popular fiction because it’s so much fun to write. But I don’t have the talent to attempt literary fiction. Or the background.

        Thanks for the encouragement!

        I’m totally stoked about your success!!! 🙂

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