A Literary Lion Roars Again

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 22, 2006

I'm going to write another book! I'm back in the game! This is a huge decision. Writing a book is something I urgently need to do, almost like a burning sensation, an itch, a boil that must be lanced, a scab that must be picked, a -- well, you see already my gift for imagery. I'm the kind of writer who forces metaphors to kneel in my presence. What I can do to an analogy is like what a coyote can do to a limb caught in a leg-trap. In my hands, a simile is like putty, and I just trowel it onto the text like peanut butter on a sandwich.

These are talents that can't be taught.

The only thing I need right now is a whatcha-macallit. A topic. A "subject." The thing that the book would be technically "about." Also, I must decide on fiction or non-fiction. Possibly I'll go in the direction of that new, in-between genre, like those memoirs full of stuff that never actually happened. A fictionish non-fiction book.

These are all minor details to be filled in later. The important thing is to declare my imminent authorship and to feel the creative juices flowing, or even, in my case, trickling. Then I must envision the moment when I'll be sitting at a card table at a sparsely attended book festival, accosting passing strangers and waving my book frantically and saying, "Hey! You! Lady! I wrote this!" I must imagine, in other words, the Literary Life.

Alert longtime readers may sense that this is the part of the column where the writer tells stories of his hapless history as an author, including various book talks before audiences of four, three, two, one, and yes, zero -- rituals of humiliation so similar to a bad dream that the writer had to double-check that he was not stark naked.

But the past does not concern us. Onward! Never look back. Though I must tell the story of selling my books at yard sales. For years, I've had boxes of unsold, mint-condition books in my basement, awaiting the moment when my supply would suddenly encounter something that could be described as demand. Occasionally, desperate, I have been known to sell some right out of the box on the sidewalk at a yard sale, alongside broken furniture and headless dolls and tricycles missing a pedal.

So there I was with a stack of trade paperbacks with a cover price of $10. They were brand-new. I priced them at $2 each. Signed by the author. They didn't move, so I marked them down to $1.

A guy came along, picked up a copy. He read some. He kept reading. Minutes passed. He liked it! He was clearly going to buy it. More time elapsed. By my calculation, he read at least one-tenth of the book right there on the sidewalk. Finally, he spoke.

"A dollar?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"How about 50 cents," he said.

And I refused. Because when you are a man of literature, you have to draw the line somewhere.

But before I get back in that exalted business, I must take the first important step, which is writing the book proposal. This is a marketing document designed to persuade a publishing house to offer money and resources despite the author's track record as a worst-selling and award-losing writer.

My strategy may involve using a pseudonym -- isn't "Jacqueline Susann" available? -- and coming up with a simple, easily grasped marketing pitch, as in, "Simultaneously hilarious and deeply tragic, certain to make you chuckle and weep, chortle and sob, Tuesdays With the Tipping Point of the Da Vinci Code combines historical thrills with steamy romance, stock tips and diet advice guaranteed to give you rock-hard abs in 14 days."

And if a publisher says yes? Then it's time to buckle down, take a deep breath and start trying to sell the movie rights in earnest.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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