“You’re avoiding the worst of it, you know,” she said.
I don’t know what I expected her to sound like. Joan Cusack, maybe, or Mel Blanc when he did the voice of that mobster who looked like a baby. But she sounded like a flight attendant, only less rehearsed, like the one on the flight I took back in 1986 when the TWA people were on strike: cheerful, slightly insolent, and not at all interested in whether or not I liked her.
“This chapter needs work, too,” I told her.
“Not the kind you’re giving it. You’re not fixing what’s wrong.”
“What do you know about it?”
“It’s too isolated from the rest of the story,” she pointed out. “You could remove the rest of the book, and it’d lose nothing. You’re not tying it into anything else.”
Well, hell. She had a point there. I picked up the second page and frowned at it; there had to be somewhere I could weave in some plot. A sentence or two, maybe. Maybe just dropping in another character’s name would do it.
“Plus there’s too much sex.”
I put the page down and looked at her. She was looking at me sideways. “There is not,” I said. “There is exactly as much sex as their needs to be.”
“There doesn’t need to be any.”
“Shut up.” She had made one good point, but I was done listening. She was a doll; what did she know about writing a novel? I picked up the page again, but my concentration was shot. I threw it down. “All right, what’s the worst of it?”
“You have no third act.”
This was getting ridiculous. “You’re talking about the first draft. I fixed that part.”
“You have no third act,” she repeated. “There’s no tension, no peril. Nobody really believes anything bad is going to happen. It’s like the sex; you could take it out, and it wouldn’t matter.”
“Would you get off of the sex?” I thought about the third act. There was a prison! And torture! And…Celia was really beginning to annoy me.
Celia stared at me from underneath her drawn-on eyelashes. “Look. The first act is workable. It starts kind of slow, but it has promise. The second act you set up some interesting questions. The denouement has a few moments, although you tie things up too neatly for my taste. But the third act…it’s tissue paper. You can see right through it. It falls apart if you push on it too hard. You want to sell the book, fix that.”
Now I had her. “But nobody’s read it,” I said smugly. “It’s not the book that’s been rejected, it’s the query letter.”
“You’re not working on that, either.”
Apparently there was no way to please Celia. “That’s a different art form. It’s marketing. I’m not in query-letter-mode right now.”
“You haven’t been in query-letter-mode for months.”
“So what?” I picked up the same page and stared at it, but really, it was just for show. “It’s not ready yet anyway.”
Celia sighed, and I’ll tell you, dolls really shouldn’t sigh. It’s a rickety, thick, contrived sound when you have no lungs and are made of plastic. “I take it back. It’s not your third act, or the sex. It’s you.”
Now it was my turn for the sideways look. “Is this the part where we switch personalities, and I wake up in the morning sitting on the nightstand, watching you get my kid ready for school?”
“That’s less derivative than your book.”
“What’s wrong with derivative? Derivative sells.”
“Not if you don’t fix it.”
“So what would you have me do?” If she knew every damn thing, let her prove it. “Add something life-threatening? Earthquakes? Volcanoes? Killer bunnies? Oh, I know – a talking doll that kills people by driving them bat-shit crazy! Right?”
She looked at me, and she didn’t say anything, and I really wished I hadn’t said that.
“Look,” I said after a while, “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”
She was silent so long I began to wonder if I’d hurt her feelings.
“It’s just that I’m frustrated,” I explained. “With all the time and effort I’ve poured into this…I can’t get it right. I know if I just work harder, work longer, I’ll get it, and it’ll sell.”
“Fine.” I gathered up my mangled Chapter 2, and tossed the stack of papers onto the floor. “Be in a snit. See if I care. It’s late and I’m tired. Get off the bed and let me sleep.”
She didn’t move.
“Now you’re just being childish.” But it was no use; I’d wanted her to shut up, and shut up she had. With a sigh I picked her up and put her back on the nightstand, straightening her skirt so it covered her pudgy molded knees. She was looking the other way, staring at the opposite wall, unblinking, smiling. That was it; in the morning Celia was getting her picture taken, and I’d subject her to the vagaries of eBay.
I crawled under the covers and turned off the light, turning my back to Celia and burying one hand under my pillow. Slowly I began to lose awareness of the world around me, slipping comfortably into my own head toward sleep.
And then she finally spoke.
“You know,” she mused, “that killer doll thing? That’s not such a bad idea.”
I rolled over. I couldn’t see much of her in the dark, just a faint silhouette against the far wall of my bedroom. She didn’t move, but I stared at her all night, just to make sure.
Of course I must have dozed at some point. When I woke the sun was bright in the room, and it all seemed rather silly. She was sitting on my nightstand, posed, not a worry in the world, and the pages of my chapter lay scattered on the floor. I’d been working too hard, clearly. Never mind query-letter-mode; I hadn’t been in decent-novel-writing-mode in weeks. Months, maybe.
Celia was right. I needed a break.
I spent the morning buried in the Job from Hell, which has the virtue of sucking every creative impulse from my body. I did not think for one moment about third acts, query letters, or killer bunnies. I didn’t even think about Celia, but that’s mostly because I stayed holed up in my home office, studiously avoiding any reason I might have had to wander back into the bedroom. Yeah, there was the laundry, piled on the floor; but she was still sitting in there. The laundry could wait.
That afternoon I did what I always do when I work from home, and wandered down to the end of the driveway to get the mail. You wouldn’t have known it was routine based on my neighbors, though. The old lady who passes me every day jogging couldn’t be bothered to say hello this time; she just stared at me as she ran by. I figured maybe I’d forgotten to comb my hair when I got out of the shower; but before I could check, a passing car swerved and nearly ran into a telephone pole across the street. People are stupid around here at this time of year. Maybe it’s the impending holidays, or maybe it’s just the days getting shorter.
And of course my three outstanding rejections were in the mail. Lovely. Just what I needed after a sleepless night staring at my little plastic kibitzer, after I’d decided I wanted to ignore the damn book for a while. Well, might as well get the ego abuse over with. Leaving them on the kitchen counter wouldn’t make it any better. I carried it all back into the house and tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin, then ripped each letter open.
“Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately…”
“…appreciate your submission. Please note we do not…”
“…intrigued by your query, and would be interested in receiving pages.”
I dropped the form rejections on the floor and started at the last one again…and sure enough, it wasn’t a rejection. It was an actual agent who actually wanted actual pages. Not just pages, but chapters. Even the problematic, honed-to-the-bone Chapter 2. She had liked my premise. She had liked my perky little sales pitch of a query letter. I had, so she said, piqued her curiosity.
“I am especially interested,” she wrote toward the end, “in seeing how you work the killer doll into the rest of the story.”
I frowned at that. Had I put a killer doll in after all? Well, why not? It wasn’t a terrible idea. Done before, sure; but done properly, in the right context? It could work. It could provide all the tension and peril I needed for my still-sagging third act. Celia was right. She was wrong about everything else, of course; but she was right about the third act.
The agent asked me to call when I received the letter so we could set up a time to meet, but before I call her, I need to find Celia. Just to thank her, you understand; after all, credit where credit is due. But she’s not on the nightstand anymore, and I can’t find her on the floor. She’s not in my daughter’s room, either, or anywhere else I can see.
Well, it’s not a big deal, I suppose. If I can’t find her I’ll comp my mother what Celia would’ve fetched off of eBay, and if she turns up, she turns up. In the meantime, there’s my wardrobe to be considered. What does one wear to meet a literary agent? A suit, to look professional? Jeans, to look confident and unconcerned?
Damn, I wish I had something to choose from besides this poufy purple dress.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people is…oh, hell, you guys know who you are.