The ultrasound of our first child was somewhat disappointing. On the fuzzy square of film, the girl was the size and shape of an apostrophe. The technician had to point her out amid all the other blotches. We had to take his word for it.
On Monday, the galley proof of my new book (The Missionaries, available on Amazon in August, e-book and soft-cover) arrived. A galley proof is an early hard-copy version of a novel. It is something like an ultrasound: after months of anticipation, you get some idea what the final product is going to look like.
Do not tell my kid, now 23 years old, but a galley is actually more exciting than an ultrasound, because it is a lot closer to the final form. Galleys used to be just a stack of paper, stapled together. The text was nicely type-set, but it was not really a book. Nowadays, with modern print-on-demand technology, the galley looks exactly like the publication version, except for the word “Proof” in big black letters on the last page.
That, and all the mistakes. I have been proof-reading the galley, making notes on PostIts, for the last few days. The only serious typos I have found are a missing word – the dropped word is “murder”, disturbingly enough – and a misplaced comma. I am going to tweak the margins too, and I am thinking about reducing the “leading”, the vertical space between lines. Plus, I’m not happy with the font…
Nonetheless, I am very excited by the process. Again, don’t tell my family, but I am more excited about the book than I was about the baby. Any tomcat in an alley can father children, it takes five minutes. Writing the book was hard.
I decided not to even try a traditional publisher. Getting any book accepted by a publisher is always a low-percentage shot, and this one would have been worse than most. The book is not in a “genre”. It is not a mystery, it is not a romance. It is certainly not sci-fi. When I try to explain it to people I often ask, “Have you read Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky?”, which is a similar sort of book: two travelers in a Third-World country weather dangers and personal crises. The problem is, no one but me has read The Sheltering Sky.
I suppose that the reader at any serious publishing house will be familiar with Bowles’s book. It is now officially considered a “great” book, at least in part because it spent 10 weeks on the best-seller list of the New York Times (whose critic called it, approvingly, a “modernist icicle”).
My book, though, will not be on the best-seller list. Even if I were as good as Bowles (I am not), that kind of serious literature does not sell any more. Any editor who knew his job would not accept the manuscript until I had reworked it. The story could be made into a romantic drama; almost everyone in the book is, if not in love with, at least sexually fixated upon, someone else. Even more easily, it could be a police-procedural. It almost is one now; the structure of the plot is that in the wake of a fatal automobile collision, a detective becomes convinced that one of the survivors staged the collision to cover the murder of a rival.
But it is not a police-procedural, and it certainly is not a romance. It is meant as serious literature, a meditation on sex and religion. I originally wanted to title it “The Missionary Position”, but decided people would take it for a satire.
I did have a conversation with someone from a small publishing house, an old family friend. She laid out the three-stage process by which I could get a book published. First, identify an agent and tailor the manuscript to resemble a book that the agent has successfully placed with a publisher, thereby convincing the agent to accept you as a client. Once you have done that, work with that agent to identify a publisher and tailor the manuscript to resemble a book that the publisher has successfully placed with book-stores, and get them to agree to publish it. Finally, work with the publisher’s staff to make the make to resemble books that the book-stores have managed to “move” recently.
I have no confidence in my ability to do any of those things, and I am absolutely sure I don’t want to. The only thing worse than publishing a warped and mutilated version of my book would be far more likely: warping and mutilating the manuscript and still not getting it published.
I had felt somewhat defensive about my decision to self-publish. On a factual level there was really no argument against self-publishing but deliberately avoiding the scrutiny of the levels of “gate-keepers” -- agents and editors and publishers -- felt to me like chickening out.
Now that I have the galley in hand, I feel better. Certainly no one around me has asked about how it got published. They seem as charmed as I am by the fact of the book, by its physical existence. People take the book and turn it over in their hands, like a raccoon with a sugar cube. They rifle through the pages, as if checking if any were left blank. No one has tried actually reading even a paragraph yet; I do not know what that means.
Next, of course, is the hard part. I am a good writer. Maybe not Paul Bowles-good, but good, and, unlike many writers, I enjoy writing. The writing is done, though, and now I have to do things I am not good at and don’t enjoy. I have to market the book, and that means I have to shmooze and self-promote and generally expose myself to the scorn of strangers. For that reason, I sometimes wish I had a publishing house behind me, until I remember all my fellow writers who complain that years ago, the publishers shifted the burden of marketing on to the authors. So either way, I am doomed.
The silver-lining here is that to dodge my marketing responsibilities, I have been writing a sequel to The Missionaries. Centering on the life of a locomotive engineer whose marriage is disintegrating, it was originally titled “The Hump Yard”, but again, that sounded too light-hearted (a hump yard is the staging center for a railroad), and I have settled on All The Pretty Young Things. In some ways, it is a better book than The Missionaries. It has a narrower focus, one person, who narrates the story; but a broader scope, decades of his life instead of a few days.
Look for it on Amazon in August of 2015.
Author Michael Lorton lives in San Francisco, California. He considers himself a computer programmer, in “…the way that Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman.” He has traveled the globe and his first novel, The Missionaries will be out in August.
Old and Used Books image courtesy of Shutterstock