Novelist's Logbook -- er Logjam?
by Zero The Wunderweight (channeled by the author of the Zero novels)
February, 1977 Two years full time behind the typewriter, two novels
completed and nothing but a drawerful of rejection slips. What am
I doing wrong? I join a Sonoma County writers' workshop at Santa Rosa Junior
College. The first meeting convinces me I have a captive audience
of thirty. Hungry for feedback, I hurry home to begin ZERO WEATHER,
a future fantasy about psychic terrorists and the upcoming 1980's Ice Age.
The initial idea grew out of an evening playing the add-a-sentence game
with friends: 'The President of The United States stood in the Oval
Office transformed into a giraffe.' Not bad for a first sentence!
March, 1977 Everything's going great! One hundred pages finished and the rest outlined. The garden is overrun with weeds, my roof leaks, but so what? Magically, whatever I read or hear feeds the book.
April, 1977 I have a one-hundred-thousand-word first draft, a sore rear end and no friends. The college permits me to xerox four free copies. They are read by my classmates and returned with written comments. They like it!
May, 1977 I just finished six weeks on a second draft incorporating readers' suggestions and send a copy to a Harper & Row editor I know in New York. It comes rebounding back to my mailbox as if attached to it by a bungey band.
June, 1977 I have a 450-page third draft incorporating all my recent insights into the arcane art of storytelling which I aim at Doubleday's man in the Bay Area. Imagine my heart palpitations when I receive the following reply: 'I've read the first hundred pages and love it. Don't sell it to anyone else until I get back to you.' His letter excites me so much that I've begun a sequel with the working title NOTHING IN PARTICULAR. Today his second letter came: 'Well, there are problems in the second half but they're not insurmountable.' He continues for three more pages outlining suggested changes. I tool up for draft number four but, to keep him hot, send him the first draft of NOTHING IN PARTICULAR which comes back with a long critique, perhap summed up by his comment on the title: 'Change it. It's too apt.'
July, 1977 ZERO WEATHER number four has been in my editor's hands for two weeks and today I receive another lengthy response: 'Good, you've improved some of the rambling episodes but still...' A long list of new suggestions follow and they are good ones. This is my man! Behind every great writer must stand en editor of his stature!
August, 1977 In rewrite number five, my laid-back hero finds a job and I trim out a main character in my cast of fifty. I hand-deliver it to my counselor because I want to see his face. It's everything I have imagined, compassionate, creased by his concern for his authors. I drive back to my cabin with his invitation to a future editorial lunch tinkling in my ears. I send another copy to a New York agent and follow it up with an office visit during an East Coast family trip. Yes, he will try to sell it for me! And I hear from my Doubleday editor. He will take ZERO WEATHER to New York himself! I have done all I can, he tells me. The rest is up to the publisher.
September, 1977 Damn if he isn't turned down! Somebody ensconced in Doubleday's upper echelons hates my hero. Maybe I will add an old school tie child molester with whom Madison Avenue publishers can identify... No. I'll wait on my agent.
October, 1977 Bantam likes it, but -'no.' Avon nibbles hard but my agent can't set the hook and they drift off with a few compliments to the author. St. Martin's Press thinks it's too flakey for consideration. This is getting serious. The hell with New York mega-conglomerates! I'll find a local California publisher and allow The Biggies to drown in their own bile.
February, 1978 Five more East Coast rejections and my agent returns his copy with a snippy quote from Random House: 'Maybe best as it stands in a small local edition.'
Rose and Lela down the road are starting their own company to launch Rose's book about raising pigs entitled WEE-WEE-WEE ALL THE WAY HOME. Lela's hair springs out in all directions and her sapphire eyes see -- zim-zam! -- right through me. Sort of a California Katharine Hepburn. Rose is elegant, even in blue jeans. Her dark, limpid eyes dart about missing nothing and her tapered fingernails are always painted a wonderful color. She just finished reading ZERO WEATHER and loves it. Not only would they be glad to publish it, but are honored to do so! "It's super!" she raves. "We'll sell a million copies!" Ah, such bag balm to the author's wounded udder!
May, 1978 Shall we do a pre-publication edition of three hundred just as it stands or an editorially trimmed 2500 first printing? I'll go for the three hundred as is and will oversee the whole job myself. Sweet Velveeta, our local diamond-fingered typist and a sultry Latin beauty, is on vacation but her roommate starts hammering away at a sixth draft, one-and-a-half spaced, that will reduce to book size on a Xerox. I draw pictures on every chapter head and design a front cover with all the main characters in a hot tub.
July, 1978 Suddenly there's a money bind. After paying the typist, Lela has only two hundred dollars left for the project. The local copymat will allow me 49 copies for that price if I do everything myself. Their monster 9300 copier-collator has the chew-ups so I have to hand-feed each page and check the collating by eye. One week later I have 49 spiral-bound books and a nervous tic in one eyelid.
Winter, 1978 Reader feedback is encouraging. People mention it to me in town and the copies remain in circulation. In fact, only five come back. Good!
Spring, 1979 What's going on? Nothing's moving on ZERO WEATHER. I keep myself occupied writing a series of novellas for young adults.
Summer, 1979 Absolute doldrums.
August 1979 I sit down with Lela for a sentence-by-sentence edit. Over the next three months, we do the whole book. I accept about eighty percent of her suggestions, mainly involving sentence structure and general flow.
"Would a dummy understand this?" she often asks.
More often than not, I have to agree that no, a dummy would have nodded off just at that point. A cram course in crispness is what I need and what I get.
November, 1979 I give ZERO WEATHER its seventh retype and drop close to fifty pages. Scenes I once considered essential drift to the studio floor. Anything, anything to get the blessed thing out of the birth canal. Even radical surgery!
December, 1979 "Congratulations!" Lela says on the day we finish proofing the new draft. "See, it didn't hurt a bit!" She hugs me. "Now Rose will read it and then off to Velveeta for camera-ready copy."
But Rose is unavailable. She is caught up in an emotional badminton game with two lovers -- both named Harry -- and is incommunicado on the beaches of Kauai. When she does return, tan and relaxed, I hand over my one copy of the final draft.
"I'm reading excerpts at Garbo's bar at our local writers' Open Mike evenings," I tell her. "Don't keep it long."
"I'm a quick read," Rose assures me. "Don't worry."
January, 1980 I have to ask for the manuscript back. I'm scheduled for a full-length reading and my listeners are clamoring for more ZERO WEATHER. Bright and early one morning, Rose comes into my cabin ó I am still in bed. She drops the manuscript on the table and races out.
"It's great -- wonderful -- terrific!" she shouts from the driveway.
I decide the time has come to shell out another thirty dollars on a copy for Velveeta. I deliver it to her and confer on format, type face and size.
"Good," she says. "I'll get to it right away."
Two days later I phone Velveeta to discover that her expensive IBM was stolen the previous night during supper. Just like that! Oh Lord! I pray for guidance and The Great Storyteller In The Sky hears me. The IBM reappears at the foot of her driveway but its delicate innards have sustained seven hundred dollars' worth of damage. Plans are made for a benefit to raise the sum. Mainland Harry, a metal-worker, welds a burglar-proof cage to secure the IBM to the desk in Velveeta's studio, a refurbished toolshed whose door is unlockable.
I will take up a more rewarding art form, I decide. Perhaps I'll paint watermelon slices on masonite and antique them in my oven.
Once day later, Lela phones to explain that Rose has not read our final draft after all. She was sidetracked when Kauai Harry arrived unexpectedly while she was entertaining Mainland Harry's parents. He hangs around for the rest of the winter. I go over a a number of times to the ranch ranch where Rose and Lela live to find Rose in bed with Kauai Harry while Mainland Harry sits slumped on the Main House porch with a sour expression. I try to find something cheery to say. He might be growing horns, but I'm walking around duck-fashion with a half-born novel hanging out of me.
February, 1980 I convince an artist friend to work on a color cover which turns out just right. Also, I plunge into writing another novel with total determination. The hell with all editors and romantic triangles!
April, 1980 Rose phoned to say that Kauai Harry has returned to paradise and she is editing the manuscript. Could I come over? We have a number of sessions and make some small but vital improvements. When we finish, the manuscript has been so marked up that I spend a few days shriveling my nose hairs with correction fluid flumes to neaten it. At last! Ready for Velveeta! I drive over only to find she is on the verge of the fifth of a series of foot operations. At least it isn't her hands, I tell her. Okay. Another few days won't kill me.
One week later, Velveeta returns from the hospital with her foot in a cast. She attends a now-legendary publishing party at Basso's eatery in Freestone arranged by Lela who has swept away by Basso's lasagna and has invited everyone to a feed. Finding the room a trifle warm, Lela strips to the waist, throwing her jersey casually over her shoulders and blithely ignoring the pop-eyed stares of two fishermen at the bar.
"We're all family in here, aren't we?" she inquires. "More champagne for everyone!"
Rose and Mainland Harry leave in a huff without saying anything. Two male friends help decant Lela into her buggy before taking Velveeta home where for some reason Velveeta can't remember they all end up in bed together. The spectacle they present Velveeta's steady when he appears sends him away out of sorts and, later, in an ensuing discussion of the event, Velveeta's roundhouse swing connects not with her sweetie's chin but with the doorjam. Now her hand is in a cast. Well, maybe she can type one-handed.
May, 1980 Lela, Rose and I get a look at the typed first chapter. We all agree it doesn't track. Rose wants a slick-slick edition that wil scintillate on supermarket shelves. We need a typesetter. A series of phone calls to the city turns up Clarinda who drives to the editorial ranch, gingerly skirting cowpies, and show us type styles and a sample page.
June, 1980 Clarinda delivers the galleys. Wow! They look terrific! I sit down that evening for a quick run-through. The typos average three a page. Awkward sentences semaphore and I find myself making a few ó just a few ó author's corrections. Around midnight, panic strikes. Too many 'then's!' They have to go, even if I pay for the changes myself!
Three days later I read the book aloud to a writer friend, commas, hyphens, the works. It takes twenty hours but it's worth it for the mistakes we find.
July, 1980 Back to the typesetter's, then back to us. More problems, including a lengthy argument with Clarinda about how to divide words at the end of lines. Clarinda quotes Webster's to me, I quote Strunk, page 31, to her. By paste-up time, the bill is way over three thousand dollars and ZERO WEATHER's budget has been blown.
"Never mind," Rose say, patting my arm. "I've got almost a ton of porkers ready for market that'll put us over the top."
"I think I'm moving to the city," I reply. "I can't bootstrap a literary career from the backwoods. What with OPEC's driving up gas prices, I can't even afford to drive to my writers' workshop anymore. Also, my woman friend's tired of living with a creature that goes 'clack-clack-clack, bzzzz-ding!' all day long. She wants to be single and enter roller-skating marathons."
September 15, 1980 My share-rental at the top of the hill in Daly City, made famous by Matthews' TV ads, is a lucky find. It's a peaceful pocket inside a snarl of freeways and arterials. My housemate has dropped out of a local yoga commune. He collects old editions of H. Rider Haggard and cats. We're compatible. One week ago I boxed up the book, cover and all, and shipped it Blue Label Express to Menasha, Wisconsin. It will run on a huge Web press that prints, binds and packs without the intervention of human hands. A month from now ZERO WEATHER will emerge shrink-wrapped in units of four, forty to a box, to stun the literary world.
December 15, 1980 Somewhere in the Christmas-stuffed U.S. postal system there are two advance copies of my book, mailed a week ago. I consider hunting down my postman on the streets but instead I drive north to check on my cabin and see friends. Lela phones me at my old studio from her new typesetter's in Santa Rosa. "We got six copies in the mail today!" she shouts. "It looks wonderful!"
We arrange to meet at Steve and Rene's who have invited me to supper. The first real winter storm is tearing through the treetops and dumping rain by the bucketload. My old hermitage looks forlorn and dusty. The roof leaks. Memories of my five years there and of the woman who shared them with me tangle in my thoughts like cobwebs.
At Steve and Rene's, the phone rings. It's Lela.
"We're running late," she says. "Can you meet us at Basso's Eatery?"
I slosh through the downpour to my truck. Water is seeping in my windows and the city shoes I'm wearing leak. Funny how quickly I've forgotten how to drive these country roads. Once I knew every pothole and curve by heart. At Basso's I park by the gas pump and run for cover.
Lela is standing by the counter beside her two older children. Her husband Moses is playing the pinball machine.
"Look, look!" she shouts and pulls out a copy of ZERO WEATHER, shiny and crisp.
I try to concentrate on the book in my hands but she's hugging and kissing me, her arms around my neck.
"Everybody loves it," she says. "The cover didn't turn out as we thought it would but we've decided we like it."
"It's beautiful," I murmur, riffling the pages. I heft it. "My God, it's our baby!"
"Champagne!" Lela orders. She presses the book into the startled grip of the grizzled dairyman seated beside her. "It's our new book," she tells him. "Doesn't it look great?"
He smiles and nods, pleased to be included.
Moses, grey hair and beard framing his smile in a fuzzy aureole, comes over to hug me. He accepts a glass of bubbly and we toast the event. "We've got to go, Lela," he says. "We're hours late to pick up Mandy."
"Let's talk soon," I say to Lela. "We've got to plan the distribution."
"And a book party," she adds, pouring more champagne in my glass. Lightheaded from the momentousness of it all, I drive back to the city. I realize it's only the beginning of a new adventure. Within two weeks there will be cartons and cartons of ZERO WEATHERs to be sold, review copies to be mailed and distributors to be convinced.
"I'm ready," I mutter. After all, there are now six more novels in my filing cabinet.
NOTE Within the month -- in fact almost to the day that the books are delivered -- Rose and Lela split their publishing venture in two halves because of irreconcilable differences. What teensy distribution my book receives is because of my roaming the Bay Area dropping copies on consignment into bookstores. A year later, Rose encounters some serious problems with some underground-vegetable-matter-growing agency, and Lela decides to think seriously about a Master's Degree in Counseling. Thus I am permanently elevated, reluctantly, to new and challenging roles as sole proprietor, promoter, distributor and accounting department for my novel. As the years progress, I modulate to non-fiction via a family memoir about my Spanish mother ("A Death In Zamora", University of New Mexico Press). My heart is still in my book-length fiction, but I may have to wait as long as my father did (at age 74, the censorship on his books was lifted in Spain when Franco died) to have the file drawers emptied. Is this called a living? No, but what a life!
NOTE ZERO WEATHER continues to be available from Zero's agent,
Ramón (Ray) Sender Barayon