Saturday, June 28, 2014

"So, what's the book about?"

The drive towards publication continues apace.  After hundreds of hours spent pimping Axis of Eternity to anyone who’ll listen, and to plenty of people who won’t, it has become apparent that I am a better writer than marketer.

For the uninitiated:  the process of bringing a novel to market is a laborious multi-step endeavor.  Very few publishers, and virtually NONE of the big boys, are willing to consider direct submissions from writers, and certainly not from non-established writers; it is expected that one will work through a literary agent.  Agents serve as de facto gatekeepers, screening out the dreck and serving as advocates for work that they think is both enjoyable and marketable.

This system has its merits.  There is an enormous amount of really bad writing out thereanyone who’s edited for a newspaper, or reviewed public mail, or even read an internet message board, will have an idea of how muchand somebody’s got to sort through the sewage for diamonds.  The downside, of course, is that time is limited and the sifting is imperfect.  The industry standard expectation is that authors will “pitch” their work in a query letter of 250-350 words.  Occasionally an agent will be generous enough to allow authors to include a short writing samplethe first ten pages or soor a one-page plot synopsis.  But this, needless to say, is not a perfect way of evaluating a book.

Is it a sensible system?  Somewhat.  Young readers, after all, will often make decisions about what to read based on the paragraph on the book jacket, or even based on the cover art.  Agents sell to publishers who are almost exclusively interested in salable pitches; this is why every other novel on the market is a carbon copy of what sold last year (strong female protagonist!  Dystopian nightmare in which oppressive government provokes its population in unintelligent ways for evil reasons!  Unrealistically attractive boys fight for strong female protagonist's approval!)  So:  yes, agents have to make their decisions based on what they believe will sell.  But needless to say, there’s a LOT of work which would probably sell but which isn’t suited to a 300-word summary.  J.K. Rowling, for instance, was famously rejected by virtually every publisher and agent in England, and made it through the door only because an agent’s eight-year-old daughter saw her work on daddy’s table and liked the pictures.  John Kennedy Toole killed himself, partially due to his inability to get anyone to read A Confederacy of Dunces, and we only ended up with the book because his mother subsequently (and thankfully) transformed herself into a relentless harridan who wouldn't take no for an answer.

About 1 in 200 finished novels make it into print, which still leaves something like 17,000 new novels per year.  The question that we might want to ask, though, is whether we're selecting the best 1 in 200, or merely the most interesting-sounding 1 in 200.  Nobody in the industry doubts that there's great work slipping through the cracks; the question is, how much?

I’m beginning to get the impression that my work fits into the "good book, but bad pitch" category.  Axis of Eternity, or a preliminary draft thereof, has been seen in its entirety by about ten sets of eyes.  Every one of the people was selected because they’re well-read, intelligent, and willing to offer frank opinions.  Every review has offered criticism, yet every reviewer’s overall impression has been somewhere between favorable and extremely favorable, and every one has checked off the “16-year-old me would pay money to read this” box.  It’s a good book that has gotten progressively better as it’s evolved; it’s capable of winning converts and garnering excellent word-of-mouth.  But it’s also fairly complicated both in terms of plot and theme; it respects the intelligence of young readers and refuses to patronize them.  It’s not easily summarized, and this means its not well-suited to being pitched.  I’ve queried close to fifty agents to date; nineteen have rejected the preliminary query outright and a number of others have effectively turned it down through non-response.  Zero have asked to read the whole thing.  The most promising responses have been direct solicitations from publishers received following a Twitter pitch event; at present the full manuscript is being considered by two small but high-quality publishing houses.

Long story short:  when the subject of my novel comes up, people ask me, what’s it about?, and I have yet to be able to answer that question in a concise and interesting manner.    Which is bad news.  So let me offer to answer that question as thoroughly as I can.

In the loosest sense, the book is about the adventures of a 16-year-old boy lost in an afterlife he doesn’t understand.  Virtually every theory or myth about life after death operates on the assumption that new arrivals will have the entire design revealed to them as soon as they show up at the pearly gates, or the river Styx, or wherever.  I’ve seen little evidence that such a system prevails on this side of the grave, and I wanted to explore the idea that it might not prevail on the other side, either.  What happens in an afterlife in which the rules aren’t revealed?  What happens when every culture in human history is thrown into one single melting pot, with no higher power in charge?

More broadly, the book is about the question of why a benevolent God permits evil to exist on Earth.  Religions have offered many complicatedand, I feel, highly unsatisfactoryanswers to this question.  My novel offers a take on the question that’s won’t comfort readers, but which will make them think.

The book is about the conflict between individual liberty and obligation to one’s community.  It’s certainly a conflict that has a lot of direct relevance to modern American readers.  My own life has been marked by a sharp divide by my own political ideologygenerally libertarianand my professional and self-imposed ethical obligations, which are highly communitarian in nature.  The typical take on libertarianism and communitarianism, as voiced by public advocates of each, is that they are polar political opposites.  I don’t believe that this is necessarily true, and Axis of Eternity explores both the ways in which these world views conflict and some of the surprising ways in which they coincide.  More fundamentally, though, the book explores the way in which people are driven to make bad decisionseven what some might call evil decisionsby each of these ideologies.  The thing I like best about Axis it is that it doesn’t take the typical YA approach of dividing the world along Manichean lines of pure good and absolute evil.  You will find no Lord Voldemort or President Snow herein.  Every character, protagonist or antagonist, has a specific way of viewing the world; every character acts benevolently according to his or her own personal code; every character believes himself or herself to be both the main character and the hero.  Every conflict, major and minor, is driven by the collision of defensible world views advocated by thinking individuals who are doing the best they can, and readers will disagree, often and vehemently, about who’s right and who’s wrong.

The book is about autonomy, and about the various ways in which we may be less independent and less in control of our own behaviors than we’d like to think.  The book is also about the question of whether the autonomy of living organisms matters morally in terms of the way we treat them.  People tend to have a very dismissive attitude towards those they don’t consider to be fully “conscious” or sovereign, such as nonhuman animals or even some specific types of human beings.   Axis takes a perspective that may cause readers to reexamine their own views and behavior, and consider when and under what conditions we may use those who are “less” than ourselves as a means towards our own gratification.

And the book is about memory.  It’s about the extent to which memory defines usthe question of whether we’re mostly the product of our experiences, or whether there’s some part of our personality that makes us ourselves independently from what we’ve done and where we’ve been.  It’s about the question of whether Santayana was right when he claimed that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, or whether the opposite is truewhether our attachment to our memories locks us into the same behavioral patterns that made us miserable before.

Axis of Eternity is about 82,000 words, or about 270 pages.  Which makes it about a lot of different things.  I look forward to all of you deciding for yourselves what it’s about.

TL;DR:  Dead teenagers fight alien angels and space monsters.  Also there is a cute boy with tousled hair and six-pack abs.  Buy now!

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