Manuscript Postmortem

On August 11, 2014, my novel The Dragon’s Heir received its 100th rejection by a literary agent. This is significant, as a manuscript that has been rejected one hundred times is generally considered unmarketable. To help explore this concept further, I have decided to break down information on those rejections and study in depth how a manuscript fails.

THE BASICS

It's better, but is is good?

I sent a total of two hundred queries between January 26th and June 3rd. The vast majority were sent electronically; however, 5% were sent via mail. Of those queries, one hundred received a definite response, either a rejection or a request for a full or partial manuscript which was subsequently rejected. The rest were written off as “no-responses” after three months with no response.

Technically, I have been rejected more than one hundred times. Many agents adopt a “no response means no” policy and do not sent out rejection letters in response to queries. This means that at least some of those one hundred no-responses are implicit rejections. They may also be the result of email delivery failures, overzealous screening or simple oversight, or they may be awaiting a response (although as I’ll demonstrate later, the odds of receiving a positive response after three months are very slim). Since I can’t be sure what any individual no-response means, I’ve chosen to exclude them from consideration.

I used a stock query letter with minor personalization for most requests, excepting a few agents who employed online forms or had specific demands for formatting. For queries by email, the first contact consisted of the query letter, a short sample (up to five pages) and in some cases a two-page synopsis, depending on the agent’s request. For queries by mail, the first contact consisted of the query letter along with a request to make further contact via email.

In total, my campaign generated five positive responses (requests for a full or partial manuscript). This is a 2.5% positive response rate – well shy of the 10% rate indicative of a book likely to be published.

Information for this post was recorded with Query Tracker.

QUERIES SENT AND REJECTED

Chart01

Note that the “sent” line includes only queries that received a response.

The number of queries I sent varied by week. For the first month, I sent a small number each week. This was done in accordance with a common view that one should only have a handful of active queries at any given time. As this proved ineffective, I accelerated my frequency. At peak, I would send as many as twelve queries in a single day. Starting in May, I tapered off the number of queries I sent as the list of agents I hadn’t contacted grew short (at any given time, there are only 700-800 agents who handle fiction and are open to queries) and I was forced to become more selective.

TIMING OF REJECTIONS

Chart02

Most agencies request that writers wait 4-8 weeks for a response to a query, though the actual time can vary. For me, the mean response time was 27.79 days. For nine of the queries, the response came the same day as the query, in some cases in as little as one hour. An additional nine responses came the day after the query. On the other end of the spectrum, fourteen responses took longer than eight weeks, and eight took more than ninety days. The longest wait was 165 days, just over five months.

POSITIVE QUERIES

When an agent has some interest, s/he takes much less time to respond. Of the five positive responses, three came on the same day as the query. The longest wait on a positive response was twelve days, to a query that was sent via mail (which adds about four days to the process, depending on the day on which it’s sent). The mean response time for positive queries was 3.6 days. Due to the small sample size, this is not a conclusive figure; however, it is consistent with my own results in other projects as well as feedback I’ve received from other authors. In short, unless you know for a fact that a certain agent has a reputation for slow responses, you shouldn’t hold out much hope for a positive reply after the first few weeks.

Once I sent out the manuscript, the time to receive the rejection varied greatly, ranging from eight hours to 96 days. The mean average was 38 days, although the small sample size means that this is not necessarily representative. Three of those rejections were personalized, the other two were form letters.

RESPONSE RATE – ELECTRONIC V. POST

Many query writing guides recommend sending queries via mail. The logic is that, due to the ease of sending email queries, many writers “shotgun” queries heedless of the manuscript’s relevance to the agent or the agency. Indeed, many agents who accept both electronic and mail posts insist that they can only guarantee a response to mail queries.

In my experience, this is not true. I sent a total of fourteen mail queries – ten for The Dragon’s Heir, four for a secondary project. Five received a response, giving me a mail response rate of 35%. My response rate for The Dragon’s Heir was 50%, and my overall response rate across all projects is approximately 40%. Only one response was a request to see the manuscript. As a result, I can only recommend sending mail queries to agents who will not take electronic queries.

Hello There, Dear Author

Hello there, Dear Author:

Many thanks for the chance to consider these pages, which we have read with interest. Thanks so much for thinking of me for your book. We apologize for this very tardy response.

For books like this, we need a good, likable protagonist. We all love strong leading women, but why does your lead need to be so rude? Yes, I realize that she’s been placed in a position of authority in a society that historically devalued women and is often distrustful of outsiders, but that’s no reason to be unpleasant. What’s that? It’s in her personality to be standoffish? Well, tweak her personality. Instead of arguing with people, she can be sassy and disarm them with clever quips. Maybe a gay best friend.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite right for me. After careful consideration, we have decided to pass on this project. As to your material I’m afraid I will be passing — I’m just not enthusiastic enough about the concept of your story to feel that I’d be the right agent for the project. Sorry I couldn’t give you a more positive reply. We appreciate your thinking of us.

Your teenagers are unrealistic. I’m sorry, that’s just not how young people talk. Where’s all the lingo? The slang? No one ever tosses off a playful “LOL,” and the leads never talk about their “bromance.” And why isn’t there any chatter over viral videos? That’s what they talk about, you know. What do you mean teenagers from different backgrounds will speak in different ways? Again, you’re just wrong. All people born in a certain 20-year period use the exact same language. I would think that you’d get that, being a Millenial and all.

This is just one opinion in a subjective business and someone else may feel differently. Because of the number of submissions our agency receives, we often are not able to take on clients who merit publication. While we believe that your ideas might have market appeal, we are not convinced that we could represent it successfully at this time. I really appreciate the opportunity to consider your work.

This thing needs a lot more action. Don’t you get the genre at all? A post-apocalyptic story needs to be about a big, scary dude with a crazy sword in each hand, cutting the heads off of zombies or cyborgs or what have you. Where are the scenes like that? Oh, what’s that? The protagonist’s rejection of the violence that defines his world is the point of the story? Are you sure you’re in the right genre? Science fiction isn’t about explorations of society or human nature, it’s about decapitating mutant lizard men.

Unfortunately, we are taking on very few new clients. The concept just didn’t grab me, and you deserve an enthusiastic agent who can champion your work. Please be assured that every manuscript is reviewed by at least one member of our staff; please know that I give serious attention to every letter and writing sample I receive. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work.

I don’t know why you’re so resistant to having white male leads, since that’s what you are. You had a perfectly serviceable white male here – why didn’t you make him the protagonist? And don’t give me any of this “underrepresented” crap. It’s her story and not his? Eh…what else you got? Oh, you feel that stories written by white men often treat Asian women as prizes to be awarded to the white man who earns them, and you didn’t want to add to that? Drop the liberal intellectual bullshit, here. Your book’s not going to change the world. Write yourself into this thing as the lead, or I guarantee no one will ever see it.

Agenting is very subjective, however, and even though we could not take on your project, another agent might feel differently. Agents often have very different opinions, however, and we wish you the best of luck in your search for representation. Please forgive the form letter. We greatly appreciate your sending your ideas to us for consideration.

Multiple perspectives are so confusing. You honestly think that a sixteen year-old can track that? They’re dumb, they can’t follow more than one character at a time. Speaking of which, what were you thinking writing chapters from the perspective of the villain? How do you expect the reader to know who to root for? Maybe it could have worked if it were a little more clear who the villain was. I get that you couldn’t make him a jock – they’re obviously too stupid for a plot like this. But you could have made him rich and blonde.

I realize it is difficult to judge your potential from a query; I realize it is difficult to judge your potential from a query alone. Of course this is only one response, and tastes vary widely among agents. Please know that we do give each and every query serious attention. Thank you, and again, best wishes in your future endeavors.

One more thing – this whole “let the story tell itself without distracting, superfluous details?” I appreciate your commitment to your style, but can’t you flex a little? Maybe write just four or five hundred words on each character’s appearance when they’re introduced? It’s not that much, really. Oh, and maybe a sentence after each line of dialogue, beef up the action paragraphs by a hundred words of so, drop in a few little paragraphs every time someone enters or exits a scene…Pack another fifteen or twenty thousand words onto this thing and you might have something. Have you considered describing the clouds? That helps.

Warmly, Dear Sir or Madam.

————–

(Bold passages are excerpted from actual form rejection letters. Italics are based on things I’ve heard, but are strictly creative license)

The Dragon’s Heir, Now Available Direct

The Dragon’s Heir is temporarily available. Short version: You can buy it direct for two dollars through this link for as long as I’m shopping it around. Long version: Read here.

The Merit of All Literature, or Self-Published is Not an Excuse to Suck

I’m a little late to this particular fracas, which started last month, but it’s worth commentary. It concerns some comments made by Chuck Wendig (via) regarding self-published authors. To summarize, Wendig feels that for self-publishing to be considered a legitimate choice, the writers need to hold themselves to certain standards regarding editing and design. None of it struck me as particularly controversial or inflammatory (how out-of-bounds is it to suggest that you put effort into the product you’re selling?) but the internet being what it is, there was a backlash. Many self-pubs stepped up to defend their right to sell crap, which led to another post by Wendig, which led to further backlash, which ultimately led to someone putting a book on KDP that was nothing but hundreds of pages of the word “fart.” I invite you to read the story of that one yourself.

Read the rest here.

New Author Site

Hello, there. You may have been wondering what I’ve been doing this last few weeks. Well, I’ve always hated my author site – it was a weird, seldom-used portal that I hastily stitched Frankenstein-style onto this blog. I always wanted to combine the two in a more organic way, and guess what? I did.

You can find the new blog here. The format should look familiar, but there have been plenty of changes on the back end that should make it a lot nicer once it all settles down. In particular, this will be home to many of my serials. A rewritten version of The Fabulist is on tap, for those of you who don’t care for JPS – new chapters come up every Monday. On Wednesday, you can read newly rewritten samples of The Dragon’s Heir. Down the line, I’ll have Nerd World there – keep an eye out. You’ll also find new posts and stories put up throughout the week. I’m not abandoning this site just yet, but if you are interested in keeping up, you may wish to follow the new site.

Thank you, and as you were.

Nerd World Bonus: The Original Script (Part II)

Here’s the next part of that original script, covering Chapters 7 and 8.

********

SCENE I

(The school commons. A crowd of students has gathered outside of the office. One of the students is using a DV camera to record interviews with some of them)

PAUL (V.O.): Registration for Trivia Master lasts for three and a half days, but close to half of the participants sign up as soon as the office opens on Monday. Inevitably, these are the ones who have some deep and personal feelings about the competition.

(The following lines are seen through the camera viewfinder)

STUDENT #1: (almost crying) This contest. . . Two years I’ve waited for this, and now. . . and now. . .

STUDENT #2: This is Striker, herald of the new age of real rock. I’m here to prove that not only can I shred – and you can check out my YouTube channel if you don’t believe that – but I’m also smarter than all y’all!

STUDENT #3: Yeah, Trivia Master is awesome. But you know what’s not awesome? Fiat currency, the biggest lie ever perpetrated. . . (the cameraman starts to move away). . . Where are you going? Come back, I have more to say!

STUDENT #4: This contest is so stupid. I’m only joining so I can quit and mess with the sheep and their masters.

KEN: Last year was a fluke. Let me repeat that – a FLUKE. This year will be a reckoning. We’re going straight to the top, and nothing’s gonna slow our ascent. You want that in writing too?

PAUL (V.O.): Personally, I don’t care for the circus, so I let Ken take care of the paperwork. It gives me a few extra minutes in the halls, where it’s quiet and I can be with my thoughts.

SCENE II

(In the halls. PAUL is walking to his locker, but AARON is waiting for him)

 PAUL: Something you wanted to say to me?

AARON: I’m just hanging out.

PAUL: Surprised that you’re not downstairs.

AARON: Oh, I’ve got one of my people taking care of that. Personally, I enjoy having a little quiet time at the beginning of the day.

PAUL: So this is your little strategy? Act all nonchalant, lull me into a sense of false security?

AARON: Don’t be so paranoid, Mr. Sunshine. It’s not all about the game.

PAUL: Oh, don’t even try it, Aaron, I know how you operate. Aaron Bellamy plays dirty from the jump. (starts to walk off)

AARON: And of course, Paul Liston only uses good, clean tactics like splitting up two very old friends.

PAUL: (stops, turns around) What, are you following me now?

AARON: No, but news travels very fast. I don’t blame you. A year like this, you really have to pull out all the stops to stay competitive.

PAUL: Why does everyone keep saying that? It’s the same people every year. What makes this year different?

AARON: You haven’t figured it out? It’s because of you and me. Three years we’ve done this, and we’ve never faced each other. That’s all these idiots are waiting for! And after all this time, they’re gonna want to see blood.

PAUL: I’m gonna go sit somewhere else. (walks away)

AARON: Fine. You can run from me now, but not when we’re on stage!

PAUL: (sighs) I really should have gone to the office with Ken.

SCENE III

(The school office. The room is filled with students filling out Trivia Master submission forms. KEN enters with a notebook, jotting down notes as he works his way towards the stack of forms)

KEN: Brian Booker! I almost asked you to be on my team.

BRIAN: I’d rather be on a winning team.

KEN: And now I’m glad I didn’t. (Looks up) Hey, Isabel!

ISABEL: Piss off.

KEN: Say “Hi” to Jane for me! (under his breath) Bunch of assholes at this school, I swear. (Looks around) Hey. . . Haven’t seen you around.

LEON: Leon Mara. I’m new here.

KEN: Well, good luck!

(KEN reaches the desk. He takes one of the sheets and starts filling it in)

KEN: “Team name.” (long pause) Shit. Uh. . . okay. (He scribbles something down)

SCENE IV

(Upstairs. PAUL is seated on the steps, trying to clear his head. LEONARD VAUGHN, carrying his football helmet, walks up)

PAUL: (springing to his feet) Oh, I’m sorry.

LEONARD: Hey, you’re cool. It’s Paul, right?

PAUL: Uh. . . yeah.

LEONARD: You’re not doing the trivia thing?

PAUL: . . . My friend’s signing us up.

LEONARD: Cool. ‘Cause, you know, after last year, you guys are a lock to win.

PAUL: You watched?

LEONARD: Hell yeah! Doesn’t everyone?

PAUL: I guess so. Are you participating at all?

LEONARD: Nah, I’m gonna be real busy this next few weeks. So no time for that. But I’ll be there to watch every round.

PAUL: Well, it’s good to have supporters.

LEONARD: Tell me about it. But I hear that there’s some kid giving you shit?

PAUL: Where’d you hear that?

LEONARD: My older brother knows your cousin.

PAUL: Oh, Diana? (freeze)

PAUL (V.O.): As the designated smart kid, you eventually get used to the fact that people you don’t actually know are discussing you. What I never got used to was my family discussing me with people in other cities and states. It’s a little disconcerting. (unfreeze)

LEONARD: Yeah. Now I know a few things about people who play dirty, so if he keeps messing with you, let me know.

PAUL: Thanks, Lenny.

LEONARD: No problem. Well, I’m off.

PAUL: Take it easy.

(PAUL sits back down. KEN walks up the stairs)

KEN: Was that Lenny Vaughn?

PAUL: Yeah.

KEN: Really?

PAUL: Yeah!

PAUL (V.O.): Jocks vs. nerds is something that I don’t think exists, assuming it ever did outside of bad 80’s coming-of-age movies. Still cultural memories are hard to shake.

KEN: Well, I got us all squared away. Took a few notes while I was down there. Some of these teams are going to be tough.

PAUL: The only one I’m worried about is Aaron Baines Bellamy. He’s already pulled out his bag of tricks.

KEN: I’m not surprised. You know he’ll do whatever it takes to beat us.

PAUL: We’ll deal with him when the time comes. Speaking of things we need to deal with, we never discussed our team name.

KEN: That’s because I forgot about it.

PAUL: You planned every aspect of this team down to the finest detail but you didn’t come up with a name?

KEN: I was gonna do it over the weekend, but I got really distracted. So I had to come up with something on the spot. (Hands Paul a scrap of paper)

PAUL: “The Raging Nerds”?

KEN: It’s not great, but you have to admit that it’s catchy.

PAUL: I do? You really want to compete under this name?

KEN: It’s not really an insult these days, more like a term of endearment.

PAUL: That’s not what bothers me.

KEN: Well, I know you don’t have a problem with rage. I was with you when they announced 4th Ed, so I know you don’t have a problem with rage.

PAUL: Yeah, yeah. Let’s just get going, okay?

(PAUL and KEN walk off together) 

Update 02/02/14

Over the next few days, you may see some weirdness if you try to visit the author site. Rest assured that this is normal, and everything will make sense eventually. Thank you.

Nerd World Bonus: The Original Script (Part I)

So here’s something that I thought might be amusing. It’s been just under two years since I started working on the Nerd World script, back when I thought I might be able to turn it into some kind of video serial. The remnants of that script are still hanging around, and with the release of Nerd World to JPS, I think it’s high time I shared it with someone. Between this and the original novel version, I hope that this will help you learn more about the writing process.

First off, there are a few things to know about the original script and how it differs from both novel versions:

1.) Paul is not just the main character (POV in all but one or two scenes) but is also the sole narrator.

2.) While they did happen behind the scenes, Jane’s and Aaron’s scenes are usually not depicted in the script.

So with that out of the way, here’s the first episode. There were a total of ten, though I’m not sure if I want to post them all just yet. This one covers the Prologue and Chapters 1-5 (Exempting 2 and 3, which aren’t here for reasons listed above).

********

SCENE I

(7:00. PAUL LISTON awakens to the alarm. As he gets ready for the day, his phone rings)

PAUL: Hello? . . . Hey Ken . . . Yes, I know what day it is. Do you want me to come in early or something? . . . Fine. I’ll see you in like twenty.

(Hangs up. Downstairs)

PAUL: Hey Mom, I’m taking off early, okay?

MOM: Something big come up all of a sudden?

PAUL: Ken wants to talk to me. I guess it won’t wait.

(Montage of PAUL headed through the streets)

SCENE II

(In front of the school, 7:25. KENNETH GREEVEY is standing around, checking his watch when PAUL shows up)

PAUL: How long have you been waiting out here?

KEN: Not long. Come on.

(They walk inside)

PAUL: What did I tell you about calling me early in the morning?

KEN: Hey, you said you get up at seven. I called a 7:02. (He taps a poster on the wall) Check it out.

PAUL: This is why you called me in early? Why do you do this? It’s not like the rules ever change.

KEN: (waiving a stack of papers) Not true. They changed the rule on team member substitutions.

PAUL: (rubbing his temples) Can we talk about this in the library? I want to check my email.

(They walk off down the hallway. Paul stops at his locker to stash his bag)

KEN: That’s not why I called, okay? I just thought we could get an early start this year.

PAUL: An early start?

KEN: On team selection. If we take too long, the best people will all be gone.

PAUL: All right. Hit me.

KEN: Thanks. I spent Saturday compiling some stats on the questions asked in recent history. Here’s the breakdown: Science, 19.7%; History, 17.5%; Literature . . .

PAUL: (interrupting) You really don’t have to read all of the numbers.

KEN: Paul, please! This is important. Literature, 14.8%; Math, 13.7%; Geography, 10.7%; Popular Culture, 6.8%; Sports, 6.3%; Current Events, 5.8%; Fine Arts, 4.2%.

PAUL: Great. Where’s this leading?

KEN: The two of us have pretty good coverage. You’ve got us handled on history, geo and current events.

PAUL: I’ve got current events?

KEN: Well, you watch the news. That’s all they ever ask about, really. I’ve got math covered, of course, and we can both do science. That leaves a few small, yet crucial gaps in our knowledge.

PAUL: You have some candidates in mind?

KEN: A few. I wanted to run some of these past you, get some feedback. . .

(As PAUL and KEN near the library door, it opens and AARON BAINES BELLAMY walks out. Both of them stop talking immediately)

AARON: Paul.

PAUL: (pausing) Hello, Aaron.

AARON: You doing Trivia Master this year?

PAUL: We do Trivia Master every year.

AARON: (grinning) Cool. Just wanted to make sure you’d be in the mix. It’s gonna be a hell of a year. (Awkward silence) Well, I’ll leave you to it. (walking away) See you at the finish line.

KEN: (pause) Mind games.

(PAUL takes a seat. KEN is standing behind him)

KEN: As I was saying, I’ve compiled a short list of candidates for the other two slots. This part isn’t as scientific as the rest of my strategy, so I thought we could have a little back and forth. Are you paying attention?

PAUL: Yes, Ken.

KEN: Brian Booker, Karen Schumaker, Terry Brown . . . Jane Anders . . .

PAUL: (surprised) Jane’s on your list?

KEN: I thought that might get your attention. Listen, I’d love to have her on the team too, but you know she’ll be going in with her friends, just like last year.

PAUL: Yeah . . . well, what else you got?

KEN: I was thinking about those fine arts questions. There aren’t a lot, but they could be crucial. You remember how we got screwed by those questions about symphonic music last year.

PAUL: And Broadway performance numbers. I still can’t believe that one.

KEN: So I figure we get a specialist, we’ll have a leg up on everyone else. That’s why I want to get Scott Carroll.

PAUL: Amateur Dramatics Scott Carroll?

KEN: Yeah.

PAUL: Drama club kids don’t do trivia.

KEN: I think I can convince him. Come on, this is a chance to get a leg up on a topic that no one else knows! Will you at least think it through? We can meet up later. I have to make some inquiries. (Leaves)

PAUL: “Inquiries”? (sighs) (starts typing)

PAUL (V.O.): My name is Paul Liston, seventeen years old. Senior at Northwest High. In the high school pecking order, I’m not the cool kid, or the funny kid, or the bad kid. I’m the smart kid. I’ve always been the smart kid. That’s an identity that has a few perks, but it does make me effectively invisible most of the time, with one exception.

Northwest, like many schools, participates in the national Scholar’s Bowl. Now, most schools just pick their teams out of the gifted program, but the administration of Northwest has a bit more flair. We are represented by the winning team in a school-wide event known as Trivia Master.

To most people, competitions like this are just sawed-off game shows, not worth a second thought, but if you’re the smart kid, this is the one chance you get to shine. For two weeks, I am an important man. People wave at me in the halls. They discuss me over lunch. For two weeks, I get to be the cool kid.

I’m not going to lie – I love it. Of course, there are always people who take it too far.

SCENE III

(Outside of the school. PAUL is seated on a bench, taking notes when KEN approaches)

KEN: Hey Paul. Ready to go?

PAUL: “Go”?

KEN: The drama geeks are having a meeting today. Yeah, I checked around – Scott’s not spoken for, so I thought we could drop by the auditorium and talk to him.

PAUL: There’s no way you’re getting Scott Carroll. Forget it.

KEN: So you’re not gonna help? Why are you even here? (pause) Oh my God . . . you’re waiting for Jane, aren’t you?

PAUL: I was going to have a word with her about Trivia Master.

KEN: You’re so pathetic.

PAUL: I’m pathetic? You’re the one who’s skulking around a drama club meeting.

KEN: You’re never gonna ask her out.

PAUL: I’m taking my time.

KEN: You’ve only got eight more months!

PAUL: Unless we end up at the same college, then I’ve got four years. Don’t you have better things to do than make fun of me?

KEN: Okay, man. I’ll talk to Scott, you talk to Jane. Hell, maybe she’ll join us after all.

PAUL: Speaking of which, who did you have planned to handle literature for us?

KEN: One thing at a time. I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow, okay?

PAUL: Fine.

(KEN leaves. A few seconds later, JANE ANDERS comes up behind PAUL)

JANE: Paul?

PAUL: (startled) Oh, Jane! Sorry, you caught me off guard.

JANE: What, you spending your free time outside of the school now?

PAUL: No, I just had to do something for Ken.

JANE: Ah, the trivia masters at work.

PAUL: Yeah, yeah. You doing the competition this year?

JANE: Always do. Isabel’s setting up the team for us. I guess she thinks we have a shot.

PAUL: Well, if anyone’s got a shot, it’s you.

JANE: Maybe. I got things to do, but I suppose I’ll be seeing you around. (Leaves)

PAUL: Yeah. (sighs heavily)

SCENE IV

(The auditorium. Various students are milling about, talking. As KEN enters, SCOTT CARROLL looks up)

SCOTT: You Ken?

KEN: Ken Greevey, that’s me. I was hoping I could talk to you for a minute about the upcoming trivia competition.

SCOTT: Yeah, I don’t do trivia.

KEN: I realize that you’ve never done anything like this, but . . .

SCOTT: Look, man, I’m an artist. There’s no art in trivia. It’s just a bunch of boring virgin dweebs memorizing fact sheets.

KEN: No offense taken. And there’s art in trivia. Last year, one of the matches hinged on a question about . . . what was it? “Hair”?

SCOTT: (exasperated) “HairSPRAY.” I can’t believe none of you got that one.

KEN: So you watched us! Man, if you’d have been on my team, we might have won the whole thing.

SCOTT: So I like watching the contest. Doesn’t mean I want to participate. We’ve got a dozen competitions coming up, I don’t have time . . .

KEN: (interrupting) Time? Paul and I take care of all the details. All you’d have to do is show up.

SCOTT: (thinking) I can’t be thinking about this now. It’s all we can do to keep interest up. Our attendance numbers suck.

KEN: Yeah, I can’t imagine how participation in a high-profile public competition could help with that. (Starts to leave)

SCOTT: I’ll be in touch, all right? (KEN nods in response)

SCENE V

(In front of the school, next day. PAUL enters the scene)

PAUL: Hey. Thanks for sparing me the wake-up call today. How’d it go with Scott?

KEN: Pretty good. I think I got through to him. How was Jane?

PAUL: Entering with Isabel, just like you thought. So we still need a fourth. I assume you’ve got someone in mind?

KEN: . . . Yeah.

PAUL: Great. Give me the name, I’ll talk to him.

KEN: You don’t have to do that.

PAUL: I think I do. I did kind of leave you in the lurch yesterday, and I don’t want all this to be on you. So you can go iron out the details with Scott, and I’ll talk to the other guy. I just need the name. (silence) Why aren’t you telling me the name? Ken?

(KEN starts to leave, but PAUL blocks him)

PAUL: Who is it?

KEN: (meekly) Trevor Galloway.

PAUL: Trevor? He’d never be on our team. He always joins with Duncan.

KEN: Yeah . . .

PAUL: You prick! You’re going to try to, what, drive a wedge between them?

KEN: Calm down. It’s not like they have to stop being friends or anything. Believe me, I thought this through very carefully . . .

PAUL: (interrupting) You never think things through. You run calculations, and that’s not the same thing. (rubbing his temples) Why couldn’t we just take them both?

KEN: Duncan’s only good with history, and we don’t need that. Look at it rationally, Paul. It’s just one little event. Duncan will get over it, and so will you.

PAUL: I’m not going to help you talk Trevor into this.

KEN: You’re too late! (sheepishly) I talked to him last night.

PAUL: So what, you were going to hide this from me until the sign-up?

KEN: Just until I’d worked out the details. I wanted you to stay hands-off so that if anyone got upset, they’d be mad at me and not you.

PAUL: You’re full of shit, Ken. (shakes head) I’m gonna talk to them. Duncan shouldn’t hear about this from you.

PAUL (V.O.): Not everyone takes these competitions seriously. For most people, Trivia Master is a chance to have some fun with their friends. Unfortunately, sometimes the fanatics and the fun-lovers come up against each other. It never ends well.

SCENE VI

(Noon, outside of the school. TREVOR GALLOWAY and DUNCAN WASHINGTON are sitting on the steps, talking. PAUL walks up, hesitantly)

PAUL: Hey guys.

DUNCAN: Paul Liston! It’s been way too long.

TREVOR: Have a seat, man.

PAUL: Maybe for a minute. (He site down) I just wanted to talk to you guys about Trivia Master.

DUNCAN: Yeah? Well, what I’ve heard, this is gonna be a hell of a year.

PAUL: I’ve heard that too, yeah.

DUNCAN: I’m sure that friend of yours is putting together some kind of super team. Well, we’ll be waiting for them.

TREVOR: Oh, shit, I didn’t tell you? Ken wants me on their team.

PAUL: That’s what I wanted to talk about. Look, Ken doesn’t mean to interfere, he’s just not much of a people person.

DUNCAN: Don’t sweat it, man.

TREVOR: Yeah, it’s not like we’re not attached at the hip or anything. We can play on separate teams this one time, right?

DUNCAN: You’re gonna be on their team?

TREVOR: Well, that’s okay, right?

DUNCAN: Yeah, sure.

TREVOR: Cool. Well, I guess I can tell Ken that we’re good to go. (He and DUNCAN stand up) Hold on, this’ll just take a minute. I’ll be right back. (TREVOR leaves, DUNCAN sits down)

PAUL: I gotta go get something from my locker. (Stands up) I’m sorry.

DUNCAN: Yeah. (PAUL walks back inside)

PAUL: (under his breath) Goddamn it.

An Announcement

It’s been a while. Here’s the deal:

NWRedesign

Nerd World is now on JPS. Expect to see updated twice a week, probably on Mondays and Thursdays, with a possible third chapter on weeks where the chapters are short or in which two chapters are closely linked.

And speaking of JPS, keep an eye on The Fabulist if you haven’t already read it. At some point, I plan on giving it a much needed re-edit. Chapters which have been edited will have a new title to indicate it.

Thank you, and go about your business.

Nerd World Rewrite: Chapter 9 (Paul)

This is probably my favorite chapter. When the book came out, I wrote a post covering some of the themes, but that’s only the half of it – there’s plenty going on here. As with Chapter 8, there wasn’t too much that needed fixing, but there was one thing that needed changing. Originally, this chapter contained the line “It’s a little disconcerting, knowing that somewhere out there is a group of graduate students that know all about my life.” This stemmed from a very early version of Paradise Gardens in which Diana and Rebecca were grad students. Now, I could argue that it still tracks – I’d always planned on Diana and Lidia having a friendship outside of class, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Diana would mention Paul to Lidia and that Lidia would then talk to another grad student. But isn’t changing the line a lot easier than dreaming up new excuses?

Oh, and there are still a few days left to get super cheap copies of The Illinois Trilogy. Don’t miss out…

*****

Ken and I have a bit of a tradition on Trivia Master registration day. On that Monday afternoon, Ken handles the paperwork while I hide in the library.

You need to realize that, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, Ken loves every part of this thing, and that includes registration. I guess he sees it as an opportunity to mix it up with the other teams, get some info – that sort of thing. I’m not sure what sort of information you’re going to get out of that crowd other than that a lot of them are completely nuts.

Actually, some of you may already know this. Last year, Ron Janowski brought a camera to school and shot some footage outside the office on registration Monday. He then uploaded the footage, where it received a few hundred thousand views in a pretty short period of time. I can’t say that I’m shocked – train-wreck video is always popular, and he got some good stuff. No fewer than three students broke down crying while talking about the competition. One kid pulled out a sheaf of papers as thick as a textbook and detailed his theory – based on the composition of the question sheets from the last three years – that the school was conspiring to hand certain favored students the victory. Another guy used the opportunity to go off on a rant about fiat currency, actually grabbing and holding onto Ron when he tried to move on. The crowning moment, however, was definitely Christine Hekkler, a lead member of the championship team. I’m not sure which was the best part – her belief that she was being stalked by dozens of students and faculty (she knew because they were all wearing red) or when she declared that she never drank anything onstage because she thought the school’s water supply was adulterated with neurotoxins. I often wonder just how many of the other school’s teams saw that video.

My point being that it’s a circus down there, and I never have liked the circus. I don’t relish seeing what fresh madness Ron is going to capture this year, and it would be easy enough to find online anyway. So I always spend my lunch break in the library. The library has been a regular sanctuary for me over the years. There’s never anyone in there at noon, so it’s whisper quiet. I can lean back, read magazines, and pretend that none of this nonsense is happening.

But of course, the library is not a sanctuary. It’s a public space that admits everyone, whether I want them there or not. So when I walked in there on Monday and saw Aaron sitting in my usual spot leafing through an issue of Time, there wasn’t much I could do about it.

“Something you wanted to say to me?” I asked him.

Aaron, of course, played it cool.“Say to you? I’m just hanging out.”

“Why aren’t you downstairs at the office?”

“The registration? Oh, I’ve got one of my people taking care of that.” He put the magazine away. “Personally, I enjoy having a little quiet time during the day, don’t you? Just a chance to be alone with your thoughts.”

“Your people, huh?” The subtext of that line never ceased to amaze me. “And you just happened to come here? To my place?”

“The library is not your secret hideaway, Paul. You don’t own it, as much as you’d like to.”

He was smiling as he spoke. That smile…it wasn’t a friendly smile. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that Aaron isn’t capable of expressing regular human emotions. This was more like a “I’m about to make you regret being born” smile. I’ve seen it many times, always right before he does something awful.

“So this is part of your strategy? Act all nonchalant, lull me into a sense of false security? You really think I’m going to buy that?”

“You’re getting so paranoid, Mr. Sunshine,” said Aaron. “It’s not all about the game, you know.”

“Oh, don’t even try it. You’re forgetting that I know better than anyone how you operate. Aaron Bellamy plays dirty from the jump. And I don’t have to put up with it.”

I started to leave, but Aaron kept on talking. “And of course, Paul Liston only uses good, clean tactics like splitting up two very old friends.”

I turned to face him. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Oh no?” He stood up and approached me. Aaron is a good two inches shorter than me, but he can be intimidating when he wants to. “So that wasn’t you talking to dear old friends Duncan and Trevor? I understand that after you spoke, they went their separate ways.”

“Are you having me followed?”

“No, but news travels very fast. Hey, I don’t blame you. A year like this, you really have to pull out all the stops to stay competitive.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that? It’s the same people, the same teams every year. What makes this year different?”

“You haven’t figured it out?” It was at this moment that Aaron dropped the act. Suddenly, it wasn’t two friendly rivals having a chat in the library. It was a rabid hyena eyeballing his blood enemy. “It’s because of you and me. Three years we’ve done this, and we’ve never faced each other. I mean, what good’s a rivalry when you never get a chance to test your rival? And I guarantee that that’s all these idiots are waiting for. After three long years, they’re not going to be satisfied with a nice, gentlemanly contest. They want to see ugliness. They want to hear the bones break. Do you understand?”

Sadly, I did. “I’m gonna wait somewhere else.”

“Fine. Go and find yourself another hidey hole. You won’t be able to run when we’re on stage! Flee while you can!”

He was still ranting and raving when I left. I imagine that he had that little speech ready and waiting for a while, and he was going to finish it even if no one else heard it.

The library isn’t the only place where one can get a little peace and quiet. Over the years, I’ve found any number of hidden little spots in this building. There’s a little-used classroom with a broken lock on the third floor – it smells funny, but I don’t mind. The choral room’s a good place, too – it’s abandoned after third period. My favorite spot, though, is a side stairway which, for whatever reason, gets very little foot traffic. Over the noon hour, it’s even more deserted – a perfect place to sit and ponder.

That’s where I was sitting when he came down the stairs. First came the heavy thump of footsteps, then a massive shadow covering me entirely. I looked up very slowly, already afraid of who it might be.

“Hey there, little guy.”

I was right. It was Leonard Vaughn.

In a place where football is king, Leonard Vaughn is the emperor. Varsity quarterback. Two-time Junior All-American. Lettered more times than I can remember. I don’t follow sports at all, but even I know that the Northwest Salamanders were consistent losers before Vaughn and his buddies turned it around.

Once I saw who it was, I jumped to my feet and stepped aside. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was in your way.”

“Don’t sweat it, you’re cool where you are. It’s Paul, right?”

I like to think of myself as the kind of person who doesn’t care about celebrity, who isn’t affected by someone’s status. I’m lying to myself. The fact that Vaughn knew me by name made me feel downright special.

“Uh…yeah, I’m Paul.”

“So what’s up? You’re not doing the trivia thing this year?”

“…Oh, because I’m up here? No, I’m in it. My friend is signing us up.”

He smiled at me – a different kind of smile. “Cool. ‘Cause, you know, after last year, you guys are a lock to win.”

Vaughn didn’t just know my name, he had an opinion about me. “You watched the tournament?”

“Well, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”

“I guess they do.” I never quite got used to having fans. “Are you participating at all?”

“Nah, I’m gonna be real busy this next few weeks, so no time for that.” He actually sounded disappointed – I swear by whatever deity you respect.

“With practice?” Once again, I failed at being nonchalant.

“Yeah, practice. But I’ll be there to watch every round. All of us will. The offensive line’s pulling for you guys.”

I chuckled like an idiot. “Well, it’s good to have supporters.”

“Tell me about it. But I hear that there’s some kid giving you shit? What’s going on there?”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“My older sister knows your cousin.”

“Oh, Diana’s talking about me now?”

That’s another thing I never got used to. As the smart kid, I occupy a specific place in the high school hierarchy, meaning that I’m more visible that I would be otherwise. As a result, there are people I’ve never met discussing me on a regular basis. Since sixth grade, I’ve lived with the fact that, on occasion, a perfect stranger would come up to me, greet me by name, and start asking questions about my personal problems. It’s strange, but I got past it. What I never got past was my family discussing me with people in other cities and states. It’s a little disconcerting, knowing that somewhere out there is a group of strange college students that know all about my life.

“It’s not that big a deal,” I said. “There’s just this guy who has some problem with me, I don’t even really get it myself.”

Lenny nodded. “Listen, I know a few things about people who play dirty, so if he keeps messing with you, talk to me or one of my friends. I’ll deal with it.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem. Well, I’m off. Have a good one.” At that, Lenny departed, and I sat back on the steps to think about what I’d just heard.

A lot of people might be surprised by how civil that conversation was, but with the benefit of hindsight it makes perfect sense to me. The jocks vs. nerds rivalry is something that no longer exists, assuming it ever even did. The whole thing is based on stereotypes that originated in 1980’s coming-of-age movies – the same movies that we’re still watching thirty years later. It’s become a cultural memory, something no one saw but everyone remembers.

Ken came up the stairs a few seconds later. “Were you talking to Leonard Vaughn?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?” Cultural memories are hard to shake.

“Did you come up here to tell me something, Ken?”

“Oh, right.” Ken dug through his pockets. “I got us all squared away. Took a few notes while I was down there. Some of these teams are going to be tough.”

“The only one I’m worried about is Aaron Baines Bellamy. He was waiting for me in the library. I got a preview of his bag of tricks.”

“I’m not surprised. You know he’ll do whatever it takes to beat us.”

“We’ll deal with him when the time comes. Speaking of things we need to deal with, we never discussed our team name.”

“That’s because I forgot about it.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at him. “You planned every aspect of this team down to the finest detail but you didn’t come up with a name?”

“I got a little distracted, you know how it is. I’m not perfect. So I had to come up with something on the spot.”

Ken handed me a scrap of paper. Scrawled across it was The Raging Nerds.

“This is seriously what you wrote down and submitted?”

Ken shrugged. “It’s not my best work, but it’ll really stand out on the posters. Plus, you have to admit that it’s catchy.”

“I have to? You really want to compete under this name?”

“’Nerd’ isn’t really an insult these days, more like a term of endearment.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Hell, I’ve heard you use it a hundred times.”

“That’s not the part that bothers me, Ken.”

“Well, I know you don’t have a problem with rage. Do I need to list all the times you got mad over a rules change in some tabletop game or a release delay?”

There’s no point in arguing with Ken over things like this. Besides, it was already done and behind us. Also – and I’d never admit this to his face – he had a point. Trivia Master is a geek’s game, one in which we hold court. Perhaps the best way to attack the game is to revel in our inner dorkiness, to own it and show the world what a nerd can do.

That’s the real reason I keep doing it year after year. It gives me one real shot at a moment of triumph. That’s worth dealing with the odd psychopath, right?

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