A Kind of Jesus Figure

Here’s another passage I had to cut from The Grievers when I changed Charley’s job from being a teacher to being a human dollar sign. Of course, I probably would have cut this passage regardless. I think it’s a little to “meta,” since Charley and his students are discussing his life as if it’s a text they’ve read for class.

A Kind of Jesus Figure

Karen was right. I did need to talk to someone about Billy Chin and Frank Dearborn and everything else that was going on in my life. What she failed to realize, however, was that over the course of the semester, I’d drifted further and further away from the syllabus I’d devised and was spending more and more time talking about my own problems. Billy, Frank, Rick Beecham, Neil Pogue, Greg Packer, Sean Sullivan, Dwayne Coleman. Even Anthony Gambacorta. My students were all more or less familiar with the whole motley crew, and more than a few were working under the assumption that my friends were all characters in a book they’d have to read at some point before the final exam. Among them was a girl named Dana who sat in the front row of my Early American Literature class and always wore military fatigues under a pink and yellow tutu. She played bass for a campus punk outfit called Mommy’s Busy and had, back in September, intimidated all of her classmates into shelling out ten dollars a pop for silkscreen tee shirts emblazoned with the group’s logo. Now a day didn’t go by when at least one of my students didn’t show up for class in a black shirt with a white line-drawing of the mother from Bill Keane’s Family Circus cartoons shooting up in a bathroom stall, eyes crossed, legs splayed, head lolling to one side.

In addition to her military fatigues and fairy skirt, Dana wore sneakers that never matched each other and thick tortoise-shell glasses that made her look like a cross between a cat and a batty old librarian. My guess was that she was no more than nineteen years old, but the smoldering glares she shot at me whenever I interrupted her incessant doodling with petty questions about the texts we were supposedly reading had the world-weary glint of someone who had either spent too many nights sleeping in bus stations or watched enough movies to imagine she had. Though I had no doubt that she’d turn into the kind of corporate stooge she professed to hate within weeks of graduating from college, I tried to tailor every assignment, lecture and class discussion to her cynical tastes. It wasn’t that I was interested in her in a Greg Packer way, but my guess was that if I could win the girl over, the rest of the class would fall into line. She was that cool. Or at least everyone thought she was.

Dana never read, as far as I could tell, and the pages of her notebook were all adorned with intricate and perfectly balanced geometric patterns. Following her advice, three frat boys had gotten their nipples pierced, a sorority girl invested in a septum ring, and an older woman was trying to decide between tattooing her breasts or her buttocks with a pair of barcodes. Sure, some of my more conservative students resented the obvious sway the girl held over my attentions and those of her all-too-eagerly corrupted classmates, but the unspoken agreement between us seemed to be that they’d keep their objections to themselves as long as I kept their grades in the upper B range. So as long as Dana didn’t mind, everyone was perfectly content to drift away from the standard syllabus from time to time to spiral off into the dim, dusty reaches of my personal life. And as long as she and her followers were willing to mistake my own ramblings for a synopsis of the material they should have read the night before, we could all pretend to some degree that my classroom was still a place of learning.

“I think of Billy Chin as a kind of Jesus figure,” Dana said when I called on her the Monday after my dinner with Frank. “Not in a religious sense with God and angels and all that bullshit, but in the sense that even though he’s dead, his spirit lingers on and he wants revenge.”

A handful of students scribbled her observation in their notebooks. Others nodded judiciously. One or two stifled laughs in the back row; apparently they were using their Norton Anthologies as more than doorstops.

“Revenge,” I said. “I like that.”

“Like in that play,” one of the frat boys said. “With the ghost and the guy who’s sleeping with his mother.”

Most of the class nodded vigorously while the students in the back of the room rolled their eyes and slid their books into their backpacks. Apparently I wasn’t fooling everyone, but I had to keep going. After all, I did promise Karen that I’d talk to someone about Billy’s death.

“But who’s the culprit?” I said. “Who has to pay for Billy’s death?”

“Frank?” another frat boy guessed.

I started to nod, but Dana shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said, betraying her petit bourgeois leanings. “I really don’t see why Frank’s so bad. He’s just doing his job, isn’t he? The same with that other guy.”

“Beecham?” I said. “Are you nuts? Those two are the devil incarnate.”

Dana shrugged. “But they didn’t actually do anything, so you can’t really blame them.”

“Well, no,” I said, looking to the frat boys for help. “You can’t really blame them, but that’s only because the situation transcends blame. We need to examine our assumptions. We need to look at economic factors and think about things like capitalist ideology and the fascist jeu d’esprit. Think about Billy Chin’s entire cultural milieu and ask yourself how people like Frank Dearborn and Rick Beecham might be symptomatic of the larger problems of society.”

By now, any of my students who had so much as glanced through their anthologies had packed their bags and were heading for the door, followed by anyone with a vested interest in catching a few winks before their next classes or hopping an early bus home. The few that remained seated were leafing frantically through their books, searching in vain for some hint that might clue them into the context of the discussion. With words like ideology and milieu thrown into the mix, everything I said was bound to show up on an exam sooner or later.

“But it’s still a tale of revenge, isn’t it?” I said as Dana closed her book and led her minions out of the room. “I mean, Billy still demands vengeance, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,” she shrugged. “You’re the teacher.”

Using the Elevator Pitch for Editing

Anyone who’s been in the writing business for a while knows about the elevator pitch. It’s the super-short version of the book you’ve written, the single sentence you’d use to convince an agent or editor to give the manuscript a read if you happened to be stuck on an elevator together — or, as is more frequently the case, when you’re allotted two minutes to chat with an agent or editor at a writers’ conference.

Needless to say, learning to craft a strong elevator pitch is essential in marketing a book-length manuscript. It not only gets your foot in the door but also forms the basis for what, if you’re lucky, eventually becomes your book’s marketing campaign. That blurb on the back of the book? The pithy description of what to expect? Often enough, it’s pretty close to the author’s original pitch. And the first line of that description is the elevator pitch.

But the elevator pitch can be more than a marketing tool. In fact, it can be the star that guides you through the countless rounds of revision you do before the manuscript goes in front of an agent or editor — and the countless more you’ll do after it’s been accepted for publication.

I was talking to my friend (the incredibly talented) Kelly Simmons recently, and she mentioned that the reason most manuscripts get rejected is that they don’t deliver on the promise of the query package. In other words, a writer can still stumble after making it past that first hurdle of tempting a potential agent with a great elevator pitch and even the second hurdle of starting to reel the agent in with a great query letter and one-page synopsis of the novel. The problem comes when the novel in question doesn’t bear a close enough resemblance to the pitch.

The good news, however, is that the problem isn’t insurmountable. Indeed, the fact that the author came up with the elevator pitch along with the aforementioned one-page synopsis suggests that what these documents contain is the ideal, distilled vision of what the author is trying to accomplish with the manuscript. It’s a little bit like an outline written after the book’s been drafted. And since — in the case Kelly described, anyway — the pitch and synopsis have already gotten an agent’s attention, that means the book, in its “ideal” form, will likely be a marketable commodity.*

So let’s look at the situation in practical terms. Let’s say you’ve drafted a novel. It’s in the neighborhood of 110,000 words long. You’ve heard that selling anything over 100,000 words long is next to  impossible, so you’ll need to do some cutting. On top of that, you also know that no first draft is ever publishable right out of the gate, but the prospect of editing this behemoth is a little daunting, to say the least. Where do you begin?

My best advice is to figure out your elevator pitch and also to craft a brief synopsis of the novel — a single page at the most — but to do it without looking at your manuscript. Basically, you’re explaining to yourself what you think you just finished writing. Once you’ve done so, let a little bit of time pass and start reading your manuscript with an eye toward whether or not it matches your elevator pitch in broad terms and your synopsis in relation to the details.

Let the elevator pitch serve as your compass and the synopsis as your road map. Whenever you sense the story is drifting away from what you envisioned, make a note in the margin. This is where you’ll have to do some work — cutting or reworking various passages until the manuscript matches up with what you thought you were trying to do.

This strategy worked especially well for me when I revised The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl for The Permanent Press. Martin Shepard said he liked the story, but he thought it could be tighter. His only real instructions were to cut about seventy pages from the manuscript. The rest he left up to me because, in his words, I was the writer, so I should know what to cut.

So I went back to my query materials and used them as a guide, particularly my elevator pitch: “The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl paints a riveting portrait of a woman whose quest to be everything to everyone exposes the dark secrets of America’s suburbs.”

Right off the bat, if it wasn’t riveting (to me, anyway) and wasn’t focused on the pressure the protagonist feels with respect to being all things to everyone, then it had to go. Then there were the dark secrets of America’s suburbs; if the secrets were just a little dim or poorly lit, then they had to go, too. Seventy pages worth of cuts later, I re-submitted my manuscript, and Marty offered me a contract.

So work on your elevator pitch and hone your one-page synopsis, but don’t forget that they’re not just marketing tools. They’re also editing tools, and you can use them to make sure that the manuscript you’ve produced matches the novel you’ve been envisioning all along.

*Profoundest apologies for using such crass language.

Getting Far

In an earlier draft of The Grievers, the narrator’s life was closer to my own than in the version that eventually found its way to publication. One major similarity was that Charley and I were both teachers — a detail I changed for both dramatic and comedic effect when I gave him a job as a human dollar sign. Of course, this change meant I had to make some major revisions and cut a number of passages in which Charley talks about his ambivalence toward teaching (among other things).

Getting Far

You could probably make the argument that I hadn’t gotten very far in life. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition at Russell Conwell University that summer, and I could see the twin spires of Saint Leonard’s Cathedral from my office on the tenth floor of the liberal arts building.

Technically Saint Leonard’s wasn’t a cathedral insofar as no bishop had ever made his home at the Academy, but we called it a cathedral anyway because no other word would suffice. In fact, just as we called our school the Academy, we simply referred to the Church of Saint Leonard as the Cathedral. Towering over the rundown neighborhood a few blocks west of the concrete quadrangles and redbrick dormitories of Conwell U, it was the fourth-largest place of worship in the Delaware Valley and the only survivor of the fire that gutted the rest of the Academy back in 1968 when my father and Buddy Dever were juniors there and my uncle Frank was a freshman. Two years later, my uncle Joe would enroll, and two years after that, my uncle Rich.

All told, my grandparents sent four sons to the Academy, and my grandmother was still making regular payments to the place as if they were all still enrolled. That’s the kind of pull it has, the kind of loyalty it engenders. Even so, I hate telling my students where I went to high school because they always react with an odd mixture respect and disappointment. On one hand, all the smart kids from their grammar schools went to the Academy, and now they were attending big-name universities like Princeton, Georgetown and Duke. On the other hand, these were the same kids my students used to beat the shit out of on a daily basis, a fact I happen to know because I used to be one of the smart kids myself, and between the ages of nine and thirteen, I suffered three black eyes, a chipped tooth, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, a scrape running from the inside of my elbow down to my bellybutton, two near drownings (one in a swimming pool and one in a toilet), a mild concussion and countless noogies, wedgies, Indian burns and wet willies. All in fun, of course, but it made me one of them. How in the world could I expect my students to take me seriously when they’d only finished beating the shit out of their grammar school equivalent of me a scant four years earlier?

The worst, however, was when the odd Academy boy who hadn’t made it into the ivies ended up in my classroom. Suddenly I’d have a new best friend who always sat in the front row in a hooded SLA sweatshirt and baseball cap, kept all his papers in a crisp, clean SLA folder, smiled with perfectly straight SLA teeth and without fail started doodling SLA RULES! in the margins of his SLA notebook with an SLA pencil the minute class started, lest I forget our unshakable bond. And every day there was always the obligatory conversation about how the librarian was a closet sadomasochist and the gym teacher was always hung over and the religion department was full of communists and Shane Kirkland had a million half-baked conspiracy theories and the crew team was a bunch of assholes and the stage hands all jerked off in the light booth and the track team was on steroids, and on and on for what seemed like an eternity, each of us adding lie after lie to the million or so bits of hearsay we both knew were ninety-percent fabricated in the first place, and all I could think was Jesus, this is the same damn conversation I’ve been having with my buddies for the past ten years. Something’s gotta change.