Sunday, January 27, 2008

Seriously Seeking Susan Brown

When Is Something Not a Mixture?

There was a time in my life when I was free to write to my heart's content---no job to go to (I was seriously unemployed), no kids to take care of (unless you count my cat Rewrite), no place to go, really (the first Volvo was reliable but ugly), and no one to answer to (unless you count my Mother, who did occasionally wonder aloud about my getting a "real" job).

By virtue of my most recent job, I had met a film director who was impossible to work for and yet desperate to find a secretary/assistant who wouldn't walk off the job after three weeks as my predecessors had. The alliance with him lasted seven months, but I knew if I could stick it out, something good would come of it. It was not, however, going to be friendship: He loathed me and I despised him; only in that regard were we a good match. I believe he did fire me about five times, but as I kept showing up for work each day, each successive firing was laid aside never to be mentioned again. Later I realized he was happy to see me because he got to look forward, once again, to firing me.

One day, six of his very big-shot Hollywood Agents came in for a meeting, or as we say here, 'took a meeting.' They were from a really big talent agency in Hollywood, and the meeting was important. I was to deliver tea and coffee to the upstairs loft where the director had his office. Oh, and answer the phones, which rang off the hook with people wanting their scripts read. One of the agents, named Mike, came down the stairs just before the meeting began and asked if I could do him a favor. If his wife called, would I let him know right away---but I was to do it by slipping him a note when I came to refill the coffee. Mike was very nice, and so of course when his wife did call, I assured her he'd have the message in 10 seconds. I wrote him a small note on a very small Sticky: "Call your wife." I delivered it to his tea cup saucer as I went from person to person refilling coffee. When he came downstairs a few minutes later to call home, he thanked me and said he loved the way I stealth dropped the note on his plate, as it were.

As the agents were leaving, several hours later, this same agent was the only one to purposefully walk into my section of the office to say goodbye. I knew I only had one shot, so I took it. I told him I was a writer, and that I was writing a book and wondered if I might call him sometime to get some direction on who to talk to for a literary agent. As he was a talent agent, I knew he would not feel pressured to look at anything I wrote. He was completely at ease with my request and actually named the day in the following week that I should call him. I did call him, and he gave me the name of a literary agent in his office that he felt I would work well with---and he offered to give her a heads up that I'd be calling. Huh? An agent I could work with? Oh my G-d!

With a great deal of trepidation, I made the call to the agent Mike suggested. Her name was Cheryl, and although it was pretty obvious that she was taking the call more as a favor to Mike than because of any real interest in me, I just kept talking and ended by saying that I wrote much like I spoke. As I had made her laugh a couple times, she figured that was worth seeing. She said, "OK, send the book over tomorrow."

Oh dear. Thinking quickly, I told her that the book was only three quarters done, and that three quarters was "at the typist." I promised to get her the first five or six chapters the following week, and the rest sometime soon after that if she liked it well enough to read on. Of course I was playing for time, and if she knew, she never said. It took me another ten months to get the full manuscript to her, and when I did, it was 650 typed pages.

The truth: I had written about 100 pages of what was to be a 350-page novel. I was unemployed, so there was no "sending things out to the typist." The typist lived with me and I lived alone, not counting Rewrite. Rewrite? Oh hell, this 100 pages needs a serious rewrite, or if not that, then a good edit. I had to get Cheryl hooked on that first 100 pages. I had to do it.

I went down my short list of friends, and although all of them were intelligent, not all of them read much. They weren't literary. But one had a degree in English Literature. I dialed Susan Brown and told her my good news. She didn't even know I was writing a book. Naturally, I asked her if she'd like to read it. She'd love to. How about that evening? Perfect.

Susan Brown was someone whose first name was never said without also saying her last name. It was never "I saw Susan," but rather, "I saw Susan Brown." Susan was very educated, very well spoken and very savvy about how the world works. She also had a great big heart. "Can I bring you anything," she asked, after accepting my invitation. "How about some diet 7-Up and a pint of vanilla Hagan Daz," I said. After a notable pause, she said, "Sure, why not?"

Skipping ahead to the good part, I cajoled Susan Brown into being my "editor," for that first 100 pages, and she later assured me that she was only staying on the job for the entire 650 pages because she wanted to know how the story ended. It was a lie, and I was grateful. Although her editing skills would come in handy, we both knew I needed a deadline that incorporated just the right amount of comfort, trust and inspiration to get the book finished. We set up a daily schedule: I would write during the day, and in the evening, Susan Brown would come over to my apartment in Studio City to read and edit the previous day's pages. And to celebrate that day's literary output, we'd share the 7-Up poured over a huge dollop of vanilla ice cream in a big, tall, wide-mouthed tumbler. It is believed by people who know about such things that this period in my life was the beginning of the high cholesterol count which I'd have to work on years down the line. At the time, though, it was a delicious way to finish off an evening.

One Sunday afternoon, Susan Brown called and said she wasn't sure she could make it because her car wasn't running very well. Was it running at all? Well, yes, but it was making funny sounds. Having had a particularly satisfying day in front of the IBM Selectric (yes, this was that long ago!) I was far too selfish to let a little car noise get in the way of what I felt would be a most productive editing session. At some point, Susan Brown decided it would be easier to deal with her car than deal with my disappointment, so she agreed to keep our editing date, and yes, she would pick up the ice cream and 7-Up.

About two hours later, I began to look out my window and wonder what happened to my editor. I no sooner pulled the curtain aside when I saw and heard a red Ford turning onto my street in a gigantically wide arc, wheels squealing, motor sputtering and Susan Brown's hair blowing across her face and pretty much blinding her to oncoming traffic. As I started to laugh at the sight, one of Susan Brown's tires and wheel came right off her car, bounced up on the curb and went flying across the neighbor's yard straight at my kitchen window and me. As I ducked, I heard the tire hit the side of my building, right beneath my kitchen window, and I heard but did not see Susan Brown's red Ford screech to a stop as it fruitlessly tried not to jump the curb, where it landed perilously close to my ugly Volvo.

I ran downstairs and outside to see about Susan. She climbed out of her soon-to-be red-tagged sled, raised a grocery bag above her head and said, "I think the ice cream's melting." We knew the car was going to need some pricey work, if it were not a complete lost cause, but as it was Sunday, we couldn't really call the local fix-it guy until Monday morning.

We decided to have the 7-Up and ice cream while Susan read the pages, which she would always do once before getting out the editing pencil. As I was slurping away enjoying my slivers of ice cream iced into small sheets of tasty, crunchy deliciousness, Susan Brown laughed out loud. I saw that she was only on the second page of that day's work in review, and I knew there was nothing funny in that section of prose.

"What? What's so funny?" I said.

"This passage," she answered, handing
me the page.

I read it. I could see absolutely nothing wrong with the
section. In fact, it was one of my favorites. But it certainly wasn't meant to be funny.

"I don't see anything wrong," I sniffed.

"OK," she said, laughing, "let me read it aloud."

"Fine, go ahead." Slurp. Crunch. Smack lips.

Holding the page in one hand and her glass of vanilla float in the other, she read:

"He looked at her with a mixture of bug-eyed silence."

She laughed again. I did not.

"What's missing?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Sounds just like I
meant it to sound."

"Really?" she answered, "Let me read it aloud

She read it. I starred at her. She laughed. I didn't. She
laughed some more.

I finally said, "OK, smartypants, tell me what's missing?"

She looked at the page and read:

'He looked at her with a mixture of
bug-eyed silence,' and?" she said.

"And nothing," said I. "That's what he looked at her with."

Susan Brown was seriously beginning to annoy me.

"Bug-eyed silence," she repeated "and what was it mixed with?"

"Nothing!" I answered righteously,

"It wasn't mixed with anything---should it be?"

"I think," she said, trying really hard not to spew her
ice cream all over my bug-eyed silence, "that you've mistaken a hyphenated word
for two words. A "mixture of" bug-eyed silence? No such animal."

I don't think I've ever felt quite so dumb. I had that deer-in-the-headlights look, and then I sprayed her with the big spoonful of 7-Up and ice cream that I had just put in my mouth. I laughed so hard, I fell over. I laughed so much, I...had to cross my legs. Then Susan Brown started laughing as hard. Then for some reason, the vision of Susan Brown sailing around that street corner with her tire and wheel flying off sent me into paroxysms of laughter and glee, and I felt the need to do a re-enactment. I had her on the floor, laughing, and by the end of the evening we both agreed her broken car was worth the price of admission, not to mention the utter embarrassment it saved me when I turned the manuscript in.

That novel was shopped around by my agent Cheryl to some New York literary agents, but the general consensus was:brilliant but flawed. Several years later I realized just how kind everyone had been to call it that. I re-read it, and I saw that it was entirely more flawed than brilliant. That agency never made a dime off me, nor did I by having signed with them. We let my contract expire, and I went out to get "a real job." How I got to be signed with a major Hollywood agency, how my book got shopped around to major agents in New York, and how the whole experience blew me away is the stuff, one hopes, of legends. It took me years to get over the notion that I had wasted my big chance.

I never realized how hurt my feelings had been that nothing ever became of that book, but not writing for a dozen more years would have been a clue to most people. Not surprisingly, it was Susan Brown who told me that I was a good writer, I just needed to practise my craft more and get great. That was so Susan.

The thing about writing fiction is that, at the beginning at least, your novel is your whole show. There's no additional fancy dance steps, no prettying up of one's outfit and no showing of one's sizzling personality(if one even has all that to add to the mix) to help your story and quality of writing. And if my experience is any indication, it's not, strictly speaking, even who you know. I didn't even know Mike, who gave me my first big break. No, it's all in the story and all in the way you tell that story. I basically decided that I had ended up a telling a pretty half-baked story in a decently skilled way, but that wasn't enough, I realized. Now, I think I have a wonderful story, and let's see if I can get it written well. I believe I can and will.

I lost track of Susan when she moved to San Francisco, but maybe the Internet gods will send this blog post to her or one of her friends. It's a long shot, but so was my getting back to writing, which I've done over the past few years. I do have a new book I'm working on, and I do have a new editor, who seems to have got as wise to me and my tricks as Susan Brown was. Fear of rejection is a terrible thing, especially when one thinks one is oh so very brave. ::shrug::

But I was onto something in asking Susan Brown to edit my work. Some people have critique partners, official ones, and that works great for them. I need a little more one-on-one attention, encouragement and...oh yeah, editing.

Karyn, my beloved, and, I think, my biggest fan, reads and loves everything I show her. If I ask her to, she'll even edit a bit, leaving me a few very soft, light pencil marks where something needs fixing. And she's always right---it might be a typo, it might be clarity needed, it might be one of my famous run-on sentences. But I'll tell you this: By the time Robin (known on this blog as Occasional Guest Blogger) gets it, there's not a single mixture of bug-eyed silence anywhere to be found. And that's a good thing 'cause there's no soft, little, gentle marks on the page when Robin gets done with it! I write and she edits in MS Word, and if part of being a good writer means never having to see another red cartoon balloon with the words "What the heck does this mean?" from Robin, then I'll not only be a good writer, I might just be an author! It could happen.

Thank you Susan Brown!


azteclady said...

Thank you! I've been siting here smiling since the first line.

Thank you for sharing this--and best wishes with your novel from the peanut gallery!

Occasional Guest Blogger said...


I’m eternally grateful to Susan Brown for training you properly. However, I feel the need to reinforce your point that the relationship between writer and editor is symbiotic. Susan would undoubtedly agree. I try my level best not to work with anyone whose writing I don’t enjoy. In other words, you’re the best. (laughing)

Keep writing these essays for your blog and eventually you’ll have TWO new books.

Tara said...

T.T.--I'm the other Tara known by your occasional guest blogger. How I absolutely gobbled up this post! Yummy! Not just the 7-up and ice cream, but Susan Brown and the tale of your first big break. I normally don't read blogposts this long, but I didn't even realize I had scanned down three screens-worth. If your novel is anything like this, I'm going to devour it. Good luck and keep writing.

T.T. Thomas said...

Hi Tara! Thanks so much for your generous words. It's true: Reading me means never having time to do chores! Allow an hour. Robin speaks so highly of you, and I thank you for dropping by to meet me. Come by often! tt