Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dispatch From Jackson Hole (Part 2)

It’s Day Two of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino is preaching the gospel of How to Get an Agent.  As Sambuchino is quick to tell us, he literally wrote the book on literary agents so he knows his shit.

“What can an agent do for you?”  He ticks off his points on his fingers, delivering his sermon with machine-gun-fire intensity.  “Number One, they build intense relationships with editors in New York City.

“Two, they negotiate contracts for you.  I work for a publishing house and, trust me, contracts are not written for your benefit.  Agents are like your attack dog, fighting for you at every single possible point.

“And Number Three, agents make sure you get paid.”

Ah, money.  If any of the 100-plus writers attending the conference claim they’re “not in it for the money,” they’re only fooling themselves.  Of course we want the lucrative publishing contracts, the auctions with Knopf and Viking vying to outbid each other, the foreign rights and movie sales.  We want the six-figure advance.

And Sambuchino is here to tell us how to make it easier to grab a slice of that pie in the sky.  Like I said, he knows what he’s talking about.  The man published more than 600 articles in the past 10 years, wrote ten plays, edited books, and just sold the film rights to his humor book How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.

Did you catch that?  Hollywood is making a movie based on his book about surviving vicious garden gnomes.  Surely, Sambuchino is doing something right.

“Don’t waste an agent’s time,” he says.  “If you’re going to pitch your novel to an agent, remember this: shorter is better.  Three to seven sentences, max.  And conflict—the most important element of any pitch is conflict.  A good pitch will tell us right off the bat what’s at stake for the main character.”

*     *     *     *

George Singleton (Work Shirts for Madmen, The Half-Mammals of Dixie) tells us how he goes about writing a successful short story.  “I put two characters in an uncomfortable situation.  The best stories start in the middle of conflict—in medias res, the turning point of the characters’ lives.  I like to throw my people into the deep end of the pool and yell, ‘Start swimming, baby!’”  As an example, Singleton recites the opening line of his story “Crawl Space”

My first house was built by newlyweds on the verge of divorce.

I think: Now that’s a sentence that makes you want to read the next line and the next and the next.

Singleton goes on: “Listen, there are two kinds of writers in this world: one who sits in the woods with a sniper rifle and carefully scopes in all his targets and waits there for a long time patiently watching for the kill.  And then there’s me.  I shoot wildly in the air with buckshot, hoping I hit something.”

In an earlier talk at the conference, Singleton split our sides with a rambling, buckshot-style autobiography that was one part stand-up comedy routine and one part sage writing advice.

“I’m here to tell you I made mistakes early on, really stupid stuff,” he told the students gathered in the auditorium.  “But my point is, if I can get published, anybody can.  In fact, everybody’s getting published these days.  Those two mules pulling the stagecoach around the Town Square out there just signed a book deal with a publisher.”

Singleton goes back to the start of his life (“I was born in 1958…”) and moves forward through time in rapid, ribald fashion.  “When I was just a kid, seven or eight years old, we went to visit my grandmother.  She said she had a present for me.  ‘Wait right here,’ she said, and she went off to another room.  When she came back, she handed me a chocolate Easter bunny.  I should mention that we were visiting her in August.  So, here she’d been keeping this bunny for me all this time—that thing was stale by this point, turning all white and crumbly around the edges.  What’s more, someone had bitten off the head.  I thought, What the hell?!

He immediately launches into another story, this one about the time his father, a Merchant Marine, fell into a ship's cargo hold and broke 57 bones in his body.  When he got out of the hospital, he walked around with crutches, which he used to thwack young George on the back of his legs to get him to do his bidding.  If you've read Singleton's short-story collection Why Dogs Chase Cars, you'll immediately recognize the parental thwacking.

Singleton started writing when he was 20 years old.  “I wrote and wrote and wrote.  It was like a disease.  I’d get up early and type stories and hand them in to my college professors.  They all told me, ‘George, you need to write in first person, not third.’  But I said no, I wouldn’t do that because then everybody would think I was writing a memoir and not fiction.  Two different professors—Richard Bausch and Fred Chappell—told me the same thing.  But I still said ‘No’ because I was hard-headed.  I was a young punk.  These guys were all 95 years old (even though they were really only about 30) and they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Even though he eventually gave in, took their advice, and started writing award-winning short stories from the first-person point of view, Singleton still comes across as grouchy and, yes, hard-headed.  He’s anti-establishment (“English departments are, to me, nothing but little dogs fighting over little bones”) and self-deprecating (“Don’t buy my novels, most of them aren’t worth reading—stick to the short stories”).  But he’s also gracious, generous and, despite the faux prickly exterior, a genuinely nice person.  In fact, he’s the kind of guy who’d go out of his way to feed cubes of sugar to those mules parked by the elk-antler arches on the Town Square.  During the Q&A session after his talk, he always asked each questioner’s first name and made a point of addressing them personally.

George Singleton is about the farthest away from a swollen-ego author you can get.  And for three happy days he’s here with us, dispensing advice like a literary Pez:

“You must be stupid to succeed in your writing…You’ll get plenty of rejection letters, if you’re sending out your work to real publishers and real agents.  Anyone can get published online these days.  Anyone with a bank account can publish his own Great American Novel Complete With Typographical Errors Because No Editor Was Involved.  But to get published for real takes time, patience, commitment, stubbornness, and the brains of a hammer.”*

*     *     *     *

We stand in a semi-circle at a picnic site a short distance up the Cache Creek drainage.  We sip from plastic cups of chardonnay and eat cubes of cheese as we listen to cowboy poet Jaymie Feary recite part of a classic poem, “Anthem” by Buck Ramsey.

And as I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I'll be this poem, I'll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we'll be good, and we'll be free.

Behind us, we hear a snort of horses.  We turn to see a chuckwagon-dinner caravan go by, the covered wagons packed with tourists as they head up the trail to the cookout.

The writers—the ones not from Jackson—whip out their cameras and smart-phones and snap photos.

Then local writer Susan Marsh reads from an essay included in her anthology Stories of the Wild:

The first forest ranger in this country, Rudolph "Rosie" Rosencrans, arrived in Jackson Hole in 1904.  He surveyed and drafted the first maps of the Buffalo Valley, part of the original Yellowstone Forest Reserve….Rosie left a record of his daily work, glimpses of a ranger's life a century ago.  His diaries are on display in the historic Blackrock Ranger Station at Moran.  I spent a day last winter looking through them, entranced by the stack of lined yellow pages that once passed through Rosie's hands. On his frequent trips from Blackrock to Antelope Springs, Rosie must have used the long-abandoned trail in Spread Creek, a shortcut through the foothills.  In his diaries I searched for mention of the trail.

Rosie wrote with a fine-nibbed fountain pen in elegant formal script.  He wrote of boundary marking, fence-building, trail-clearing, and backcountry patrols.  He recorded each day without embellishment or emotion, regardless of what happened.

"July 9, 1907.  Started in the afternoon for my district [from the Supervisor's Office near Jackson].  Crossing Grovont found mail driver drowned, thus helped to hunt for him and also to save one of his horses.  Being wet, stopped with Ranger Lee for the night."

"April 14, 1908.  Started for the upper Yellowstone country, made camp at 3 p.m. on Two Ocean Pass.  Started again at 6 p.m. and arrived at Shoshone Cabin on Throughfare at 11 pm."  Thirty miles that day, on skis.

The wild frontier of Rosie's day has now been rendered safe.  Technology has left little chance of such a drowning; mail arrives by electron.  The rivers are contained by dams and dikes.  We have tamed those parts of the world we use, and have left the wilderness to reclaim abandoned trails.

The words cast a spell as certain as soft birdsong.  It’s a warm, breezeless evening and we’re reluctant to leave this small slice of wilderness just east of Jackson.  We linger, drink our wine and, yes, network with agents, editors and fellow writers.  In the spaces between birdsong, conversations are punctuated with “If you have a minute, let me tell you about the novel I’m working on…”

*     *     *     *

It’s the last day of the conference—a Sunday morning when most of us should be in church praying for mercy and guidance in our writing careers.  Instead, we’re all hot-wired with nerves as we sit in the auditorium and wait our turn on stage for the Student Readings, the showcase finale of the conference.

In five-minute rotations, we stand at the microphone and read from our work.  In order to be fair to everyone, a conference volunteer keeps track of time on a stopwatch.  When the alarm goes off, we stop where we are—even if it’s mid-sentence—and give way to the next trembly-voiced reader.  It’s like speed dating with words.

A woman reads from her novel-in-progress, a mystery set in Montreal featuring a fledgling reporter who must identify the body of someone she knows.

Another reads from an essay about “a family vacation gone horribly wrong” when her toddler fell from a second-story window.  Our hearts are in our throats by the time the five-minute alarm goes off.

A Jackson resident gets up and reads from his self-published book, a novel with the tantalizing title The Screaming of Horses (“Now available on Kindle and Nook,” he plugs before he sits down).

For my five minutes, I’ve picked a piece of flash fiction about a guy who has an odd encounter in a Wal-Mart parking lot with “a man with a useless arm.”  I think it’s a pretty funny story, but I can tell the audience thinks it’s more “weird” funny than “ha-ha” funny.  I’d hoped I might at least get a chuckle out of George Singleton, but—just my luck—two readers before me, he gets up to go to the bathroom and never comes back.  This is probably best for all concerned.

*     *     *     *

And then it’s over.

After the last book has been signed, the last handshake-and-hug dispensed to fellow students, and the last hopeful wink to an agent sent across the room, I head north out of Jackson.  The highway runs past the Dairy Queen, a laundromat, and a wildlife art gallery with a bronze herd of deer running down a slope.  Then it rises sharply and there are the Tetons on my left, the peaks I grew up with, my comfort-food of mountain ranges.

A park ranger’s pickup is ahead on the side of the road, lights flashing.  As I approach, I see the ranger standing at the back of the truck.  He’s in his late 20s, sunglasses, tan uniform, florescent-yellow safety vest.  He stares at the ground as if calculating a math equation.  He scratches the stubble of his jawline and shakes his head.

An elk, neck wrenched at a geometric angle, is crumpled on the shoulder of the road.  A hoist with a large hook juts from the back of the park ranger’s truck.  The ranger looks back and forth from the roadkill to the hook.

There’s a story here, I think.  I accelerate, hurrying home to my keyboard.

*The same advice can be found in Singleton’s latest book Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds

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