#RulesOfSubmission (part 1 of 4)

 

“Unbelievable,” Andrea muttered as she used the NeuroCursor to hastily slide the file to the recycle bin. Query day, she sighed, shaking her head. First one she’d clicked on; a typo, a there/their usage error and—one of the imprecisions she found particularly abrading—a writer referring to their MS as a fictional novel. And all in the first paragraph.

Ugh, coffee STAT!

     Andrea reached for the steaming cup of Columbian Select on the nightstand beside her, took a sip—Black Xanax—her best hope, she knew, to salvage a souring mood. Sorry Mr. Gary Goodreiser, Andrea then mimed, the promise of the coming caffeine kiss already reviving her. Don’t think we’ll be able to review your “fictional novel”, Peeping Zombie, at the moment. Please accept my apologetic apology.    

Ok, what’s next? Andrea mused with little enthusiasm, as she scanned the virtual screen for the Slush Pile folder she had purposely marked with the most inelegant font ever digitized, still getting used to the operational nuances of the MindTouch App. She just had the file right in front of her, now it was nowhere to be found. Maybe she accidentally deleted it. She mentally winced as she realized the notion was not all that upsetting.

Just use your eyes to move the cursor, the tech had told her last week after the install. Then wink when you wanna open a link, he’d said, blinking his eyes in cheery demonstration, works similar to your Eye-Fi lenstop computer. She had tuned him out like a pop-up ad when he’d launched into the geek-speak about cyber-cellular uplinks between optic nerve, the lenstop contact in her eye and the MindTouch’s holographic monitor.

It was clear he was trying to impress her—way too hard—hoping his quirky intellect and cutesy boy-band appeal might sway her to swipe right. Adorable as he was, she was not interested in him beyond his technical skills. He just wasn’t her type, not to mention the age gap. Maybe twenty-two he was simply too young to have acquired the other skills she found appealing. Like her taste in coffee, her relationship palate had changed over the years. Long had she ditched the sweet creamy quaffs bereft of staying power for more balanced blends; rich character and carefully cultivated organic breeding the qualities that revved her engine these days. All that said, she was not averse to the occasional harmless reminder that, even at a pre-owned forty-four with two kids at NYU, she still had it.

Just use your eyes, she mouthed absently as she perused the laser sharp 3-D Holo-monitor spread before her. Ah, there it was, back left corner, Slush Pile scrawled across an icon glowing in perfectly pixilated manila. She must’ve accidentally minimized it. Having an app installed in her brain was not an idea that Andrea was all that excited about, especially the tiny titanium USB-like outlet that had been drilled into the occipital bone behind her ear. A flash drive about the size of a dime (colloquially known as a button-drive) was plugged into it now. The Slush Pile folder having been downloaded onto it last night to have her setup and ready to go first thing in the morning.

Reaching up, she gently touched the button-drive, fingering it in mindless obligation as she’d been doing ever since plugging it in a few minutes ago. Even after a week, the implant still felt strange as she touched it, sensory neurons signaling back a confused phantom limb read of hard plastic where skin had once been. Tapping the button-drive she could feel the tiny clicks of her fingernail pass from plastic to bone and diffuse through the tender tissue that surrounded it, yet to fully heal.

She still found the whole notion a bit unsettling, wondered if she’d ever get used to it, not to mention the whole area still itched like heat rash. On the upside, she reminded herself in what’s done-is-done resignation, it was impossible not to be awed by the rich three-dimensional mat and hyper-saturated clarity of it all.

She scanned the screen now, allowed herself a moment of awe. And it couldn’t be any more convenient, she self-talked, once again, to help reassure herself she’d made the right decision. Along with her Eye-Fi contact lens she had virtually her entire office right in front of her. Hard to beat that. It allowing her to work anywhere, anytime, even in bed. As she was now.

Centering the NeuroCursor over the Slush Pile folder, Andrea winked…the file opened and she quickly scanned its contents. Seventy-seven more queries to go. Reaching for her cup of coffee, she glanced at the clock. 7:45 am. Ugh. It was going to be a long morning.

Early in her career reading query letters was one of her favorite parts of the job. Digging through submissions with the restless enthusiasm of a prospector. These days, given the ultra-competitive climate and the diluted talent pool, she pretty much hated it, found the chore only marginally less dreadful than root-canal. The only thing worse about her job, perhaps, was a face-to-face with Roger Keating, head-editor over at Upper Echelon Publishing. The guy was a lust monger, a dinosaur who’d managed to survive the modern corporate ecosystem by adapting, cleverly shapeshifting to the new rules, walnut brain evolving to avoid the squish of legal meteors—Tyrannosaurs Letch

Unfortunately there were no laws against creepy fuck-me eyes or carefully concealed pay-for-play innuendo. As many times as Andrea had conveyed her lack of interest in any such arrangement, it was always there—sleazily implied in his wink-wink body language and nerve-grating saccharine sweet voice—a novel version of the age old power play….Carnal dickering, the mid-millennial edition. She often found herself wondering how many young literary agents had taken the bait and spread, ambition superseding integrity and skeeve circuits in the name of a sale and/or the hope of a quick rise up the corporate ladder. She felt sorry for any who might’ve fallen for it—and even those who may’ve jumped in willingly—and hoped that at least they’d managed to squeeze him for max deals.

But alas, like reading queries, dealing with Roger Keating and a few other bottom dwellers in the biz, was, on occasion, a necessary part of the job. College tuition wasn’t getting any cheaper and the competition from the young guns was fierce. The industry was wide open anymore. Even Andrea’s track record of success, which was as impressive as any, carried little sway in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately publishing game of 2033. She needed to be ever vigilant and unswervingly on-point if she were to keep the business open and food in the fridge. And those Christian Louboutin pumps she had her eye on weren’t going to just magically appear in her closet on their own.

With a sigh Andrea shelved the digression and winked open the next query…and almost immediately regretted it. Dear Agent, blah blah blah. Was this person for real? Dear Agent! Do any of these people bother to read the basic guidelines on query letters? Writer’s Digest alone had countless articles on the topic, a Google search would spit back a zillion more. Hell, she’d written a dozen articles herself, posted half as many YouTube vids on the topic.

Despite the pre-migraine ache that began squeezing her skull like a diastolic python, Andrea finished reading the query. And it was bad, maybe worse than the first. Aside from being a form letter that’d probably been buckshot to every literary agent from here to Timbuctoo, it was boring. Andrea could overlook its artless form, its unimaginative ransom note prose. As far as query letters went, simple was always better. But it was the content that had her shaking her head in mind-numbing tedium, NeuroCursor cutting swaths across the holographic monitor like an impish child teasing a cat with a laser light.

She knew by halfway through the first paragraph the book had no chance. An autobiography about the life of a single mom living in Manhattan dealing with an abusive ex, struggling to make ends meet, working as a virtual customer service rep for Amazon days and operating a Dominos delivery drone nights to survive. Much as Andrea was sympathetic toward the woman’s plight, no publisher would touch it. Simply put, the story lacked energy, had been done a thousand times over. It was trite and tiresome, fifty shades of cliché. Not every book had to be a profit bonanza but there had to be at least some potential. This was still a business. Beyond family, friends and the occasional social media sale, the book had zero marketability.

Without hesitation, Andrea closed the file and slid it toward the recycle icon. Later she’d upload the email address, along with the other rejections from this batch, to the auto reply app on her lenstop computer. On occasion she’d second guess herself, wonder if some other agent would see something she missed and hit pay dirt. No worry of that here. One could agree to hump Roger Keating six ways till Sunday and even that wouldn’t get it published.

“Dear writer…,” Andrea then said with a breath of frustration as the little trash-pail icon flashed in acknowledgement of contents received, “…next time please remember that, yes, even literary agents have actual names…”

Falling into a rhythm, Andrea ripped through another three-dozen query letters, skimming most, reading a few. To her mild surprise she found a couple hopefuls and a third that had her thoroughly charmed. Her heart pounding with promise and curiosity. It was a novel titled Last Will. So much so she circled back to read it again:

       Will Hastings is going to die. At least that’s what the doctors have told him. And having been diagnosed with ALS, he has no reason not to believe them.

     Only thirty-two, future bleak, Will decides to use whatever energy he has left on a bucket-list crusade. To eschew the NYC rat race and glazed-eye hospice descent to see the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and visit the Olympic National Forest where his parents had honeymooned. To squeeze what he could from his remaining days. And ultimately, to die on his own terms, returning seed to the soils where he’d been conceived, surrounded by earth and wonder and vast open skies.

     But Will’s end-of-life plans don’t go quite as expected, his journey taking a radical shift once immersed in the rambunctious ecosystem of fate. Because there’s a serial killer in the woods. Bodies piling up in gruesome numbers and in such random Rorschach patterns of slaughter, that the authorities have no clue who—or what—might be the culprit. 

    The situation is compounded by a series of strange “sightings,” footprints and folklore whirling in a high-mountain haze on intrigue. All taking place under the larger shroud of questionable corporate interests, as environmental protections in National Parklands are eased.

    Throughout it all, a beautiful Native American girl, Nina, the daughter of a local shaman, tries to help Will with his condition. Spending time together in a “healing” cabin built by her father, they become close. And when the crosshairs of danger suddenly turn upon Nina, Will must summon everything he has left to help her. He’ll do whatever it takes—risk everything, spend every breath—to try and protect her. Because he loves her now and, as it happens, has nothing to lose.

      After all, he came here to die.

The execution wasn’t perfect, Andrea noted on the second read-through, but it definitely had energy. Highlighting the query with a wink-face emoji Andrea NeuroCursored it off to the side. She’d send the author a note later requesting more info. Andrea felt a rush of excitement that had nothing to do with caffeine. Along with the other leads, the story had her feeling a little of the old mojo.

She checked the time, 8:30. Not bad. With her assistant, Mandy, opening the office today and things beginning to trend positive she might even have time to bang out a few chores, maybe even slip in a visit to the gym on the way to the office. Another twenty minute push here and she was out the door.

“Refill first,” she whispered to Caesar, the feline fur ball curled up beside her, as she grabbed her coffee cup and disentangled from the blankets. The cat, not a morning person, replied with a grumpy meow and a gaze of disapproval, as if wondering where the fire was.

Walking down the hall, heading toward the kitchen, Andrea took the opportunity to check out the handling on the new MindTouch program. The tech had said the app could be used during almost any activity—walking, jogging, in the elevator, even in the shower—and nobody would even know. Only she could see the screen.

Downing the last sip of coffee, she used her sightline to move the NeuroCursor atop the Slush Pile file, the steady strut of her slippered feet and hardwood floor gliding beneath the virtual monitor. Come on, she mouthed, working to center the jiggling NeuroCursor, feeling a little of the old magic, make me squirt, she mouthed playfully. Hovering the cursor over the next query letter she winked it open…

…A flash filled her brain and Andrea went down. She couldn’t see, hands flailing for the wall as gravity opened up like a trapdoor. Scrabbling for balance, she lost the coffee mug, it exploded on the hardwood floor, sending porcelain shrapnel skittering everywhere. WTF, she screamed in her mind, grasping behind her ear and ripping out the button-drive as she slid down the wall. Dammit, she muttered, shaking her head, body trembling. She knew this was a bad idea.

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