The Slowness of Being on Submission

I'm writing this entry mostly for myself, but also for other aspiring literary fiction writers looking for blog entries about what it's like going on submission as a literary fiction writer.

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Revisions Are Done!

I've been working tirelessly with my agent on my revisions for The Ninjas of My Greater Self for a solid three months now and we are finally done with the substantive edits, which feels fucking incredible.  I'm just waiting for a few blurbs from some literary superstars and then my agent will officially begin sending out cover letters to editors.  I'm exhilarated about this.  I'm also mildly terrified.  I mean, these next three to four months will shape my literary debut in the New York publishing world and also have a major impact on my literary career.  I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it's actually true.  I've been waiting my whole life for this moment.  My fingers are crossed.

Aragi Agency Asks for Full Manuscript of Amnesia

At this point, it's just a request for a full manuscript.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Still, it's hard not being a tiny bit giddy when Frances Coady, one of the two stellar agents at Nicole Aragi's top-shelf agency, asks for an exclusive of your debut novel (which I couldn't give her exclusively since I already have three other agents reading full manuscripts).  I know that Frances Coady is a widely respected, admired, even feared former publisher at Picador and Vintage.  I know she is a hands-on editor who works with authors line by line if necessary to strengthen not dilute a book's force.  I know she values and understands the importance of the graphic elements of a novel (e.g., the cover design, the format, possibly even the font).  I know that in the publishing world she is an absolute giant, both equal to but also complementary with, Nicole Aragi.  I know all of these things and honestly, it makes my head spin.  But I don't know the most important thing, namely, whether she'll like my novel.  That's the only thing that matters.  The only thing I care about right now.  I'll do my best not to freak out, but that's pretty much impossible . . .

Three Agents Read Full Manuscript of Amnesia of Junebugs

Well, if there's one thing I'm completely sure of right now, it's my ability to write a decent query letter.  I now have three (plus) agents reading full manuscripts of my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, which is pretty damn exciting.  I'm not surprised that AMNESIA is getting lots of interest from agents considering it's a transnational, multicultural, multiracial, urban, character-based, literary novel.  Right now, multicultural novels (and multicultural narratives in general) are in with America's changing demographic.  Linked short stories are in again too and AMNESIA straddles the space between a novel and a collection of linked stories (that come together at the end).  I'm cautiously optimistic (as I always am) because I think this novel is finally ready for prime time, but only time will tell.  Stay tuned!

Next Summer, I Will Do Nothing Except Watch Romance Anime and Munch on Senbē Crackers

This post is written from a place of privilege to a certain degree.  While my lecturer position isn't as good as a tenure track job, my workload, bennies, and pay at UC Irvine, are a hundred times better than that of my friends adjuncting their hearts out, hoping and praying (just as I am) that one day they'll get the ideal academic gig.  So, I write this post with a tiny amount of guilt, understanding that things could be so much worse.  That said, I was lucky enough to have my first paid summer off as an academic and It's honestly shocking how busy I was in like a good way.  Yes, I wrote the fuck out of this summer, completely restructuring and rewriting my first and second novels multiple times.  Yes, I sent out query letters for AMNESIA to a few agents that I thought might be good matches.  Yes, I sent out several different manuscripts to several stellar indie presses, including my experimental memoir.  Yes, I read more than a few novels and several graphic novels too.  Yes, LB and I traveled to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn, which was honestly, one of the most amazing vacations I've ever had (I'm completely broke right now and I don't give a shit because it was completely worth it!).  Yes, I got to see both our families, which was amazing (not to mention insanely draining).  And yes, I played the shit out of my PS4 because I finally could after teaching for 9 months straight.  For the record, I was especially captivated by The Last of Us, Final Fantasy X, Infamous Second Son, and The Walking Dead.  In so many ways, I had one of the best summers of my life and I don't say that lightly.

But that said, this summer was also completely exhausting.  Time flew by in a way I haven't seen since high school and often I felt like I was barely in control of my life.  I wouldn't have done it differently and I have only gratitude for this summer, but next summer, I think I'm gonna make as little plans as possible.  At the very least, I plan on living like a minimalist.  I hope to do nothing except eat nori senbē crackers, drink ocha, and watch romance anime.  Maybe I'll cry a little, nibble on chocolate, and then go back to revising NINJAS.  That sounds like a perfect summer (for at least one week).  Of course, part of being an emerging novelist and professor means conceding much of your power to other people who control your destiny (e.g., the department chair, the dean of your school, the program coordinator, the literary agent, the acquisitions editor, the fiction reader), and that's probably the hardest part of this gig:  working your ass off for something that ultimately isn't in your hands after a certain stage.  So, thank you universe for this exhilarating summer.  But next summer, please be much more chill in the GenX sense of the word.

Mean What You Say

My big wish for this upcoming month is that literary agents who state they want literary fiction in their agent profiles actually want literary fiction and not commercial fiction with a few literary flourishes.  I say this because having looked at some of the good rejections I've received the past couple of years, I've noticed most of these rejections were by literary agents who said they wanted literary fiction on their website but still rejected my manuscripts for being, well, literary and stuff.  It's complete speculation on my part, but here are some possible reasons for that:

1.  The agent prides her/himself on representing literary fiction but most of her/his client list is actually (or has become) commercial fiction, so including the category of "literary fiction" in their list of desired genres is more about how they see themselves as an agent and less about the kinds of manuscripts they actually sell to editors these days

2.  The literary agent has a divergent definition of literary fiction (that more and more resembles uptown fiction or top-tier commercial fiction), which is why s/he gets snarly when you declare foolishly that "literary fiction doesn't sell"

3.  The agent doesn't want to feel like a complete and absolute sellout because who does?

4.  S/he is keeping her/his options open, but literary fiction has become more aspirational than vocational.

5.  The term literary, as all other genres, just doesn't have stable genre conventions and doesn't mean shit anymore, so it's almost impossible to define and just as impossible to exclude other overlapping genre conventions

6.  All literature, in one amorphous sense, is literary (right?)

7.  If an agent could know ahead of time that a manuscript would sell for one million dollars, they'd probably accept it regardless of its genre, so literary fiction isn't out of the question technically

8.  The agent used to look for and sell literary fiction actively, but as the market has contracted and as Amazon has taken over the world, s/he has become much more conservative in the kinds of authors s/he represents, and commercial fiction has always had a better payout.  So, finding the next Pulitzer prize winner has become much less important than paying the mortgage

9.  The agent, once a brave and fearless bellwether in the publishing industry (whose "experimental" authors once violated rules of form, structure, and content gleefully) has dug his/her heels in and now rejects more and more literary fiction and accepts more cookbooks and dystopian YA knock-offs because there's already a pre-manufactured audience.  Yes, s/he has literary authors, but s/he's had them for thirty years and they're remnants of the golden age of literary fiction

10.  Why the hell not?

Going All Out

After a concentrated two weeks where LB and I saw both our families back to back, I'm finally getting back in the groove with my writing, revising, and submissions.  And today I've realized that I'm going all out.

Recently, a bunch of my friends have been getting agents, then two-book contracts, thereby fundamentally changing their literary careers in the span of literally one year.  A boy can only dream . . . Of course, because I'm human, I've been waiting by the phone too for the same phone call, waiting for the same miracle to magically transform my writing career into a solid object, but so far, I've been mostly stood up by publishing industry (literary journals have been much kinder to me).  Agents are happy to tell me how talented I am, but their rejections are always about the fit.  Truthfully, it's hard not to feel bad about yourself, especially when you stroll through the local bookstore and you see straight up shit on the coop.  But I'm an eternal optimist, obviously delusional, and also very stubborn, so I'm not giving up.  Not when I'm so close.

This leads me to the whole point I was making before I digressed earlier.  Now that I'm back in action, I'm going all out, man.  I'm submitting queries for NINJAS to a bunch of new agents soon (I'm still waiting to hear from three agents who are reading full manuscripts, but the longer time passes, the less hopeful I get).  If Kaya rejects AMNESIA (they're taking their sweetass time, by the way), I'll send a query for it to fifty agents the next week.  I just sent out several novella manuscripts to Plougshares and the Massachusetts Review.  I'm also sending one of my best (and fave) short stories to several literary journals.  Lastly, I'm sending my memoir to a few indie presses that I think would be a good fit aesthetically, conceptually, and structurally.  Instead of staggering my submissions as I was forced to do during the school year, I'm now going full force.  And that's not even including a screenplay I'll start revising/continuing this weekend about two bike messengers in DTLA.

And it don't stop . . .

 

 

So Three Literary Agents Walked into a Bar . . .

Yesterday, I got a request for a full manuscript from a junior and senior agent at Writers House, putting me in a unique and odd place:  for the first time in my life, three (four?) different literary agents are reading full manuscripts of NINJAS at the same time.  Usually, this happens in a staggered fashion:  one agent this week, two agents next week, one agent the next month, etc., etc.  Anyway, this recent synchronicity doesn't really mean anything except that I write a good query letter (and maybe that I have a dope second novel that's ripe for the market).  Other than that, who really knows? 

Still, it feels fucking good whenever I know an agent is seriously considering my work. What's not to love about that?

The Double Meaning of Tweets

Really, you can interpret this tweet as both a description of the blustery weather outside + an unconscious desire for publication.  But maybe I'm just overintellectualizing again . . .


Moving Forward, Always Forward

Today I decided I'm not waiting any longer for destiny to call.  I've waited long enough, been a patient + understanding writer, taken my disappointments with enough grace, licked my wounds + played the patience game as best as I know how.  I think most people would have folded  by now, found a different vocation, taken out life insurance.  To be honest, I don't begrudge them at all, I understand where they're coming from + why they stop setting themselves up for heartbreak.  But writing is the one thing I'm awesome at + I won't give up.  I just don't know how.  This is why I can't wait any longer for journals + literary agents to get back to me, I've already given them enough of my time.  I've paid my dues.  Now, I'm moving on.  Something in the future will work out.  As for the past, I'm not convinced that's where my future is anyway (excuse the temporal paradox).

After waiting for a small eternity, deluding myself into thinking that patience was akin to loyalty, I've decided I'm gonna send out a flurry of new query letters + fiction manuscripts this week.  I think the best response is to keep moving forward + not look back, because we all know what happened to Eurydice.  I'm looking at Gary Shteyngart's + Patricia Engel's agents, I'm looking at the Virginia Quarterly Review again, at The Paris Review, the Missouri Review + the New Yorker again, I'm considering every option now.  I think I've waited like a champ, stuck to the positive (irrational), hoped for the best.  But not anymore.  It's time for my next move, wherever that takes me.  Ultimately, I want what every aspiring literary fiction writer wants: artistic materiality.  Or said another way, I wanna see my writing in print.  Besides that, I guess I want readers, passionate readers, I want snarly critics trying to outstylize my own novels with blistering manqué book reviews, I want online interviews, a flirty movie option that never comes to be, I want a date on Fresh Air, a little name recognition in an indie bookstore + some annoying fan letters written by readers obsessed with my characters.  A book tour would be nice too, maybe a free lunch now + then, a master class with a few undergrads.  But for now, I'm cool with just seeing my writing in print.  That's the only thing I actually need.  That's my future.  That's the uncanny dream.  So now I'll dream it as hard as I can + not look back in anger.

Chicago Purgatory with Markups

Dude, I feel like I spend more time waiting than writing right now.  Usually, that's not the case at all.  But since all of my writing for the time being is for my dissertation, I have a one-sided relationship with my (artistic) reality where I'm submitting short stories/self-contained chapters to journals, small presses + agents but I'm not writing anything new because of my PhD.  It's kinda odd really.  Because I'm not working on my third novel, or even revising my first two novels, I feel like I'm just waiting around for shit to happen.  Like:

1.  American Short Fiction, who has held on to one of my stories for almost two years.  Now I'm not hating, but think about that.  While the gracious editor there accepted a revision, I still have no idea if my story is going to be accepted.  The truth is, I really should consider sending it to another journal.  The only problem is, I feel like that piece is supposed to be published in ASF.  Call it delusion

2.  Mcsweeney's Press, Coffee House Press, Chiasmus Press, Dalkey Archive Press, Nouvella, the Seattle Review, Milkweed Editions, Les Figues, FC2 + an agent from Sterling, Lord Literistic, all of which I sent novels/Novellas to in the past year

3.   A bunch of literary journals like the Asian American Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, The New Yorker, Granta, Paris Review, Crab Orchard Review, the Atlantic, Wisconsin Review, Tin House, Indiana Review, the Believer, N+1, New England Review, Guernica, Kartika Review, Barrelhouse, Portland Review + A Public Space

4.  The University of Chicago for an assistant/associate professor of creative writing (fiction)

5.  Depaul University for a full-time creative writing + world literature professor, for which I'm pretty qualified since my dissertation is both a completed novel + also a shorter critical dissertation on the cultural compartmentalization of Asian American cultural identity + the mediation of Asian American masculinity in orientalist contemporary literature

6.  An agent, any agent, who read my short story in the Antioch Review + decides s/he wants a piece

See, this is why I need to finish my dissertation in like the next month (that's my goal anyway).  When I'm working on my fiction, I don't care all that much when it takes the industry forever to reject my ass/play with my emotions/mindfuck the shit out of me/lead me on/ignore me/procrastinate.  I just keep plugging away at whatever I'm working on, knowing that eventually everything will sort itself out.  In the meantime, I'm making pie out of mud, so what the fuck do I really care?  But right now, all I do when I'm not reading in preparation for my final dissertation chapter, is imagine which dream is gonna come true.  And that shit's just agonizing.

At Least I Know My Writing is Hot

And the battle continues, my friends:

Dear Jackson Bliss,

Pleased to have your project, " . . .", what a provocative title.  Clearly, your writing is HOT, which is why Tom Boyle recommended you, I’m sure.  And yet, I’ve found that I’m just not connecting w the material in the way I’d hoped, and am having some trouble w the narrative voice. It somehow reads more like a memoir than a novel, and can feel predictable. Of course, I could be totally wrong about this, and a big house may be excited to sign on. Otherwise I see this as a better fit for a smaller house, in which case you don’t necessarily need an agent. This is entirely an objective opinion, as you know, and I’ll wish you the very best with another agency!

Shall be cheering you on, and thank you again for the look, and for Tom’s kind referral.

Sandy Dijkstra

After the bad news, I did the one thing that always makes sense after a big rejection, I submitted my novel to Graywolf Press.  Ding, ding:  Round 9.

Sent My Second Novel to Sandra Dijkstra

If you'll remember, Tom ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year and a half ago at some literary event + asked him if he could recommend any up-and-coming fiction writers to her. TC Boyle was kind enough to recommend me (which was relatively easy for him to do because I'd just taken a workshop with him the previous semester so my work was pretty fresh in his mind), after which, she told him to tell me I should send her my novel. So, I stopped by Tom's office where he promptly hand-wrote a referral letter for me on SC stationery, sealed the envelope + then plopped the letter in outgoing campus mail. I was so flattered + excited. But then a week later, I sent Sandra Dijkstra a query letter with my first novel + I never received a reply. To be honest, I was really pissed off.

But because I'm a stubborn motherfucker + also because glitches in the matrix happen all the time, I decided to write Sandra Dijkstra a year letter with a new query letter for my second novel, just to see what would happen. And miraculously: It turns out that they never got my first query letter. This shit happens all the time, man. If anything, I was relieved to hear they hadn't received my first query letter because I was superfrustrated at not getting a response. Anyway, long story short, they apologized for not getting my first email but told me they'd love to read my second novel, so I've been doing a master revision for the past two weeks + I just sent them the entire novel a few minutes ago. Would it be fucking amazing if they picked me up? Hell yes. Do I think this is really gonna happen? No idea. See, one of my biggest problems is that I always think everything could change in a flash + I keep pushing for that moment to happen. But I make no assumptions, I just cross my fingers during these liminal moments + keep on writing. Maybe it'll work out. Maybe not, but either way, it's a chance I didn't have before.

Chang-rae Lee Writes Back

Out of the blue I decided to write Chang-rae Lee + ask him for advice on literary agents. I was just curious to know if he knew any agents that were especially interested in Asian American cultural narratives. Anyway, shortly after I wrote him, he was gracious enough to write back. Here's his response:

Jackson,

Greetings. I don't really know many agents who have a special affinity for As-Am writing (mine would certainly say she doesn't, but rather just "good" writing, though of course there are many definitions of that!), but perhaps I could suggest T****** P***, who has her own agency and is highly respected.

In any case, good luck with the book, and the books. . .

best,
CRL

Talking about Mountain Lions at TC Boyle's House

LB + I were in Santa Barbara last weekend.  I mentioned this to Tom earlier in the week + he told me to stop on by his house.  I believe the exact words he used were "pop by for a bit."  LB was fidgeting during the whole car ride, at the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate lunch with the unfriendly waitress, driving up the hill to Tom's place.  We parked on the street, kicked open a stuck gate door + saw this:

Then we walked down the pathway where Tom eventually greeted us at a side entrance. He gave us the grand tour of his amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house (which was the partial inspiration of The Women, a fact he pointed to us as we were talking around, taking in the pouring sunlight inside his house). I knelt on the floor and looked through Tom's glass bookshelves, filled in neat, long rows of his books translated into 12 different languages. Man, I thought, this dude is the straight dope. He's the real thing.

After introducing us to his 17-year old cat, who seemed shocked that I'd interrupt her during her catnap to pet her, we met Tom's wife (Karen) + then walked into the backyard and to an adjacent yard where Tom's daughter lives (I guess). Then we drank red wine with Tom, Karen, one of Tom's gregarious millionaire neighbors whose teeth were eerily perfect + his Siberian wife, Tom + Karen's daughter's boyfriend, Spence, + this dude who looked vaguely familiar, who was housesitting for Tom's daughter + I believe was also in the process of making Anne-Marie's book trailer for Two Dollar Radio Press. But I dunno, maybe I totally fucked up that whole who's who. LB + I politely passed on the stinky French cheese (because we're both vegan), but did nibble on potato chips. And man, some of the things we talked about were absolutely strange. A few highlights:

1. Speaking in French with The Man with Perfect Teeth (ah, combien tu me manques, la langue française!)

2. Getting in a long, heated, but largely one-sided argument with Tom's wife about what a total fascist Steve Jobs was + how much better Bill Gates was. The truth is, I love me some Apple products, but I abhor Apple labor practices in China in much the same way I abhor the manufacturing of virtually all tech stuff in Asia. I also love/admire the hundreds of millions of dollars that Bill Gates has donated to charities, as well as his immunization project since his retirement from Microsoft. But, as I pointed out, Bill Gates was as much of a fascist when he was Microsoft's CEO as Steve Jobs was with Apple (both of them stealing shit from the little guy), so it's a wash. This is where I thought we were gonna come to a compromise, but then Karen started ranting about the way Steve Jobs disowned his own daughter. This is when Tom came to my rescue + said that the topic we were talking passionately about was one of his wife's little obsessions.
--It's not an obsession, she snapped.
I laughed, sipped my wine, and realized I kinda liked Karen's spunk. She's got chutzpah, man

3. Getting in a prolonged conversation with Tom + the neighbor with the perfect teeth about--of all things--brown bears, moose and mountain lions. Tom said he's seen several mountain lions during his strolls around his neighborhood + had almost run into several bears too. I was thinking: Man, I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation

4. Talking with Spence about living in Argentina for a year + learning the art of voseo + rioplaténse Spanish

5. Hearing Tom call my wife LB (which is my nickname for her that I claim is her actual name whenever I introduce her to people. Actually, it stands for "little bug," but Tom said he liked LB, in part, because it's like "TC")

6. Getting in a nice, long conversation with Tom about The Ninjas of My Greater Self, which he's probably going to read this summer since he's my thesis director. I told him that after not hearing from Sandra Dijkstra for a year, I'd sent her office a new query letter for NINJAS + got a gracious response soon after explaining that they never got my first query letter (which I totally believe) but that they'd love to read NINJAS. Tom seemed pleased about this. You have to remember: He ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year ago, who'd asked him if he had any writers to recommend + he told her about me + she'd shown interest in reading my work, so Tom had written a personal letter on my behalf right in front of me in his office. Then, I'd sent the agency a query letter for BLANK + nothing. Now, we know why. Obviously, this new development is much promising for me. FYI, I'm revising NINJAS for like the 100th time + I'm planning on sending Sandra Dijkstra my novel sometime in the next week. I also learned through talking to Tom with my stained, red lips + tannin in my teeth, that Sandra Dijkstra represents another one of Tom's former students, Chris Abani, author of Graceland, among other novels, so maybe, just maybe there's even a little precedent on my side. Either way, it's still an opportunity I didn't have before I was one of his students, so I'm extremely honored to have this chance.

7. Right before LB + I left, I told Tom about my vision: I want to become a spokesperson for a cultural revolution that embraces technological innovation (like my fucking dope new ipad I use to read the Huffington Post + Le Monde) but also consciously embraces old skool media, like record players + most importantly for me, hardcover books! He liked it. T

8. I confessed to Tom that I'm a writer because it's the only thing I'm actually great at. Sure, I can play piano + write electronic music pretty well. I'm proficient with foreign languages. I love understanding people + relationships, I'm intuitive + a passionate lover. I'm also a pretty good cook + my sense of style is respectable. But, writing is the thing I'm really fucking good at, the one thing where I feel I can make an important + unique contribution to this world. I may not be able to figure out a viable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, but I can write the fuck out of a novel.

9. Tom told me I'm like him because my writing has a lot of energy + I love giving readings, I love the performative, interactive element of being an author as much as I love the writing itself, which is important. That's when I realized that I'm just a little bit like Tom (or an early version of him), which is probably one of the reasons I applied to SC in the first place, to work with such a literary legend.

Disappointing Form(ish) Rejection from Georges Borchardt

Dear Jackson,

Thank you for sending in the complete " . . . ". Several of us here have now read your manuscript and I'm afraid we are just not quite passionate enough about this project. This is, of course, completely subjective and I'm sure you'll find the right home for this soon.

Best of luck,

Georges

I don't know what makes me sadder, the fact that Georges rejected my novel or that he sent me a fucking form rejection. Fuck, man. This hurts inside. I'm not gonna lie. But, after I get my shit together--and I will, make no mistake about that--I'm gonna pick myself back up + send my novel to some more agents. My novel has a place in this world + I need to figure out where that is. For now, I'm gonna listen to Arcade Fire, get my snack on + send out some submissions to journals.

I don't give up. I just don't. I can't.

Well, Here Goes Nothing

So I finally did it, I sent my complete, fully revised manuscript + sophomore novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self, to agent extraordinaire, Georges Borchardt, agent of Elie Wiesel, Ian McEwan, Robert Coover, TC Boyle, who is also in charge of the estates of Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley + John Gardner, this is the man who first introduced America to Lacan, Barthes, Bourdieu, Fanon, Duras, Foucault, Ionesco + Sartre. Yes, this dude is a big fucking deal, representing over 8 Pulitzer Prize winners + 2 Noble Prize winners, in fact, he may be the biggest fucking deal I've submitted to in my entire life. And while sending him my novel (which he asked for in its entirety last year after I'd sent him the first 145 pages + an outline) honestly scares the shit out of me because it puts me on the chopping block, at the same time, I kinda want to get this over with, one way or another. Does that sound bleak? I guess it does. But Ninjas is the best thing I've ever written yet. It's a fucking awesome novel, it really is.

And at this point, while nothing would make me happier in the whole fucking world than for Georges to pick me up as a client, if he doesn't, I guess at this point, I want to know that, accept that + go on with my life + stop pining for something that's not gonna happen. It's just the realist in me. Of course I'd be bummed if he didn't give me a shot, but I'd find a way to soldier on. Hopefully, though, he loves this novel enough to say yes. God knows how that would totally transform my writing career . . . I hope he sees what I see. It could be the beginning of something massive if he did.