The letter informs you of a sale—you are now, officially, a published author! Your heart thumps, a grin stretches your cheeks. You fold the letter and put it back in the envelope, then take it out and unfold it, all for the pleasure of reading the lines again as if for the first time. It is then you notice a yellow Post-it note caught in the envelope. Scrawled on the note with a ball-point pen: “Tell no one of this until our meeting—AGLoW.”
You had been meaning to call your mother. She had thought you should have gone to law school, but now that you are a published author, you can show her she was wrong. It is not that you can buy many groceries with this forthcoming check; it is the principle of it. But the note says to tell no one. Probably it would be best to obey the note. Possibly the sale could be lost if you do otherwise.
Then you wonder if the note was even meant for you. It was not, after all, stuck to the acceptance letter at all. Maybe it had just gotten put in the envelope accidentally. If that were true, then you are worrying yourself needlessly. You can call your mother and tell her you’re a real author now. You can work it casually into conversation with Judy at the grocery store, the girl you’ve had an eye on. When strangers ask what you do, you can say “I’m a writer” instead of “I’m an associate at Fry’s Food and Drug.” But the note was, after all, in an envelope addressed to you. Why be impatient and ruin this joyful day, this peak of a high mountain you’ve been climbing since you won that essay contest in ninth grade, when your teacher said you were a better writer than your older brother?
You unfold the acceptance letter again and read each line slowly. It is a form letter, of course, and no better written or more beautiful than the twenty-three rejection letters you have in your drawer. The content of the letter is quite different and more satisfying. Still, it would have been better if someone would have taken the time to write it in their own words. Or called or even e-mailed. It would have been better if you could call your mother or maybe even your older brother and tell them that you were a writer now. You look again at the yellow note. The gummy strip is lint-strewn and not so sticky. It really is not clear it was meant for you. And what is this meeting? The letter was sent from New York City and you live in Tempe, Arizona. Will a representative of the publisher be sent here? Will you have to travel to the East Coast? You have never heard of AGLoW. The name is reminiscent of the font used in hostage notes in movies, although it could just be a clumsy acronym.
Just then your phone vibrates on the table. Momentarily the opening strains of Basil Pouledouris’ rousing theme song to Conan the Barbarian emanates from it—your ringtone. It is an unknown number, the area code is 212. You do not usually pick up random calls.
The caller greets you jovially by name.
“This is Lester Burnhardt from the aglow.”
You could ask “What is that?” but you don’t. He talks before you get the chance.
“First, sonny, congratulations on your first sale. Welcome to the ranks of published authors.”
Quickly he goes on. “I just wanted to verify”—there is a pause—“you have not told anyone about this, have you?”
You assure him that you just got the letter today, and no, you have not talked to anyone about it.
“Good!” Another pause. “I try to make sure I get ahold of ’em before they can. But it’s hard. Time zones, the odd working hours of writers—some of them hobo or backpack across Europe; some are paranoid. We’re a”—pause—“weird bunch. Ah.”
You then realize he is a smoker, inhaling during the pauses.
“I don’t really understand,” you say.
“Yeah, sure, sure. ’Course not, how would you. In fact, I’m glad you say that, because it shows me that me and my department are doing our job. The job of, one might say, authorial obfuscation.”
You do not answer. It doesn’t make sense to you. Even if it did, you are the type who always thinks of what to say after the other person is already walking away. That’s why you’re a writer, not a talker.
“Right. Well, sonny. Here’s the thing. I can’t say too much over the phone. In fact, I can tell you very little, almost nothing. What I can say is that what the note says, holds. Please, let’s keep this to ourselves. It is absolutely”—pauses—“imperative that we meet before you tell anyone about any of this. Capiche?”
“Capiche,” you say. “Does this mean I have to go to New York?”
“New York?” (coughing) “Nope. I’m based in Vegas. You’re in my sector, see? Nah, we know funds are limited. I’ll come to you. Get your calendar out and we’re gonna set a date.”
There is a time next week, after a nine-hour shift at the checkout counter at Fry’s, when you have some free time and Lester Burnhardt is available. You will meet at the Denny’s on Rural Road that you have passed by many times but never visited. He insists that this all be kept “need to know, which means don’t tell anyone” and says goodbye.
You get to Denny’s a few minutes early. It’s ten o’clock at night, but still hot out. Cars whiz by on Rural Road. The freeway is also nearby; from it comes the hum of night traffic. You push inside the glass doors and through the vestibule where there are free community newspapers and colorful promotions stuck to the glass walls. You wait in front of a hostess stand by a sign that asks you to wait to be seated. You look around at the scattered people in the orange booths, trying to see if Lester Burnhardt is one of them. You see three chubby girls with finely drawn eyebrows, black lipstick, and lots of lace and fishnet. You see a gaunt man in a mechanic’s shirt, sipping coffee. You see a guy in a black leather jacket, graying goatee, with a ponytail, who’s reading a paperback over his plates of demolished food. None of them look like Lester Burnhardt sounds.
You wait for quite a while. People laugh and howl from back in the kitchen. You can see into the kitchen where short-order cooks would stand before the gleaming exhaust hoods and grills, but no one is there. It sounds as if, further back in the kitchen, the staff are playing a game or gossiping. Again, the laughter crescendos into shrieks and squeals. There is no bell on the hostess stand to alert them. You wait even longer. There is a menu and you look it over. You aren’t hungry right now, not in the mood for Moons Over My Hammy or a Grand Slam. You would like to get this meeting over with so you can be an official author and get your check. You take a few steps on the grungy thin carpet toward the back. At the same time, a waitress with a tray loaded with breakfast food on white plates comes from the kitchen. She notices you aren’t standing behind the hostess stand.
“I’ll be right with you.”
“I waited here but no one—”
“Like I said, I’ll be right with you.”
She goes to the table of girls with drawn-on eyebrows. They talk and laugh with her, and you can see they are friends. She is one of them, or they are one of her, but off-duty. She delivers the food. It takes a long time. She goes back to the kitchen without looking at you. You wait even longer. Eventually the door swings open and a short, dark-skinned man of Mexican descent strolls to the hostess stand. He winks at you and “shoots” you with his hand.
“’Sup? Welcome to Denny’s. My name is Manuel.” (He pronounces it exactly the same as “Manual.”) “Just one tonight?”
You nod. “Actually…” You then remember you were to meet Lester Burnhardt. “Sorry, I am meeting someone.”
“One plus one is two, homie.”
Manual saunters into the dining room without waiting to see if you follow. He leads you past the man in the mechanic outfit, who does not look up from his coffee. He leads you past the three girls where they are seated in the booth right next to the kitchen. You hear them whisper loudly and giggle when you are only a couple booths away. Manual brings you to the next room, which is shaped something like a hallway and has no other people.
“’S my section, bro. You play D&D, bro? Program computers and shit?” he asks, miming typing with his fingers.
“I’m supposed to meet a man named Lester Burnhardt.”
He shrugs. “’At’s cool. Didn’t see him here. ’Less he’s in the Saguaro Room.”
“Could you check?”
He nods. “Yeah man. I will do that.”
He strolls away back into the dining room. Giggling comes from there. You look down at your clothes. You are wearing a clean, striped polo and grey Dockers and tennis shoes. How he got D&D from that, you have no idea. You have not played D&D for years.
A minute later, Manual comes back. “Hey, bro, you were right! Your friend is here. In the Saguaro Room.”
He brings you to the other side of the restaurant, past the unpeopled open kitchen, past the single diner bar where no one sits, to a place where a closed, wooden pocket door ends the room. He slides it open. Cigarette smoke wafts out. There is a man waiting inside at a table; there are many other tables but no other people. He stands up. He is tall, maybe sixty, has a grey crew cut and regular features. He wears a blazer over a white shirt and black slacks.
“Okay, you two lovebirds have a good time,” says Manual. He leaves and slides the door shut.
“Come over here, sonny,” says Lester Burnhardt. You walk across the carpet. It seems a long way. You shake hands. His hand is dry and creased and large.
“I didn’t know you could smoke here in Tempe,” you say by way of greeting.
He shrugged. “Can’t. I had to grease that little weasel’s palm with a tenner.”
“That’s probably why you came back here.”
“Naw”—pause—“we’re back here because of security reasons. Have a seat, sonny.”
You sit down. There is a beaten-up briefcase on the table. From it, he takes a manila folder, studies the contents. Reading upside down, you see your name on the tab. AGloW stands for Ancient Guild of Writers. You wonder if when it was first created, the founders thought of their time period as being “ancient,” or rather, if it was a modern addition.
“Coffee or something? You hungry?”
“So, Mr. Burnhardt—”
“Call me Les.”
“Les. So, what is this meeting about? Why is it a secret?”
“It’s a secret so no one else knows. Capiche?”
He puts the file carefully on the table. “Here’s the deal, sonny. You know how when the President is elected, he meets with the outgoing President. Repugnican or Democrat, it don’t matter. And he is briefed. He finds out in that conversation some secrets, you might say, things that have been passed down for decades. Things about Russia, about England. Things about NASA, things about nukes. Things you can say, things you just can’t say. Certain facts and certain rules that are—you might say—on a need-to-know basis.”
You nod. You didn’t know that. “So, this is like that?”
“Precisely like that. Thus. The secrecy.”
You scratch your head. “Okay.”
He leans back in his chair (you are on the booth couch, he is on a normal chair), which squeaks with his weight. “It’s like, have you played D&D?”
You are forced to nod.
“It’s like, the players, you know—the barbarian guy, the wizard, the weasely little thief—they don’t get to see the map. The Dungeon Master, he’s the one who has the map. He draws it on the graph paper, y’see? With little numbers. And the numbers, those go back to his notebook where he has the monsters and the treasure and whatnot in there.”
“Yeah, I’m aware of the concept.”
“So. If ordinary people are the players. What is happening now is you are becoming a Dungeon Master. For that, after all, is what a writer is.”
“So… I don’t follow,” you say.
He shrugs. “Let’s get to brass tacks, then. Rules and so on, so forth. The first rule is this meeting is completely confidential. You tell no one about this meeting. Not your mother, not your friend at the grocery store, not the guys you play D&D with.”
“I actually don’t play D&D.”
“Whatever. Confidential. Got it?”
“Good. Now. I need to look at my notes.” He puts on glasses with black plastic frames, examines a list from your folder.
“The first order of business is… ideas. Dirty little secret is writers don’t really have any. There are two places to get them. The first one is your friends. People you run into at the bus stop. People you tell you’re a writer. Here’s how it works: You say you’re a writer; he says, I got an idea, I’ll tell you the idea, you just have to write it down for me. Here’s a more modern trick: Go to, like, a writer’s forum or workshop. What you’re going to find is an amazing amount of brilliant ideas that you can just steal and really make a killing on. Truth is, that’s how writers get their ideas. Half the battle. But. If that were to be known, then publishers would have to pay those guys. There just isn’t enough money for that. Capiche?”
You make yourself nod.
“It’s true,” he says. “You’ll see. My suggestion: Keep a little notepad or journal. When someone says he has an idea, pretend you aren’t really that interested. Oh, be polite. Just polite enough so that he’ll run his mouth. And they will, once you give ’em the smallest opening. Just listen, play along, pretend like you really are just being polite but not really interested. He’ll spill the beans, can’t help himself. He has this great idea that he got in a dream or is really the culmination of his whole life experience. Pure gold! And he’s giving it to you! There’s a small part of him that thinks writing’s hard or something. Otherwise, he’d do it himself, see? But now he’s giving it to you! What you do: make an excuse, have to go to the lady’s room or something. Pull out that notebook and write it down. Then go home and just write it up. Bang! That’s all there is to it!
“If you’re running through a dry spell or too shy or whatever, there is another way. We can send the ideas to you. You—”
“Oh, I know this one!” you say. “A bureau, right? In Schenectady or something? They mail it to you.”
He fixes you with a stare as he puffs out smoke. “Snail mail? You think we’re dinosaurs or something? Hey, maybe we should tap it out and send you a telegraph. Nah, come on, kiddo. Join the 21st century. We use texts. On a mobile phone, you know? Send a request to the number and— ‘bing’ or ‘whrow’ or whatever sound you set it to comes up, and there’s your new idea.
“Second thing. You know how hard everyone says writing is. Like, oh I’m a tortured artist and I rewrote the ending to this forty-six times, and I lost my whole manuscript in a fire because of the power outage—come on. That’s a fairy tale. Writing’s easy.”
You shrug. “Right.”
“Sure it is. You want hard work, try digging ditches eight hours a day. Go out there and wait in front of Home Depot for some gringo to pick you up and take you to their yard and make you chop down the redwood back there using Grandpa’s rusty hacksaw and some clothesline! Try being a seventh-grade math teacher. At a public school. Or a Japanese pearl diver. Those gals ain’t no joke, sonny. Writing’s easy. You steal someone else’s idea and then, you know, you just write it down.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. And so do you. That’s part of the rules and regulations thing here, right?”
“So I’m supposed to tell people writing’s easy?”
“Yes. No, the opposite.” (puff) “You tell them it’s hard. Tell them writing is so hard you’ve been slaving away over your manuscript for fifteen years. Tell ’em you read constantly, all sorts of things. That you research. Throw out the names of famous writers. No one will ever know, because no one else reads that crap either. No, you tell ’em you had to write it seventeen times, that you took out all the adverbs or that, I don’t know, something like ‘The most important thing for a writer is that you are a writer even when you’re not writing.’ Pssshh!”
You laugh. “Because we’re not, right? I mean, when I’m dialing up the number for broccoli on the express aisle or calling the manager to unlock the cigarette case, I’m not a writer!”
“Hell no! It’s just what you might call the mythology of the difficulty of writing. But it ain’t hard. I mean, it’s just English, ain’t it?” Burnhardt grins. “Hey, you hungry, kiddo? Ain’t seen Manual since he brought us out here.”
“I could go for some grub.”
He strides across the room with long, angular steps, heaves open the pocket door, and hollers into the dining room. Shortly thereafter, the waitress appears. “YeahManualsonbreak.”
“Seems like he’s been on break since I got here an hour ago,” says Burnhardt. “Gimme a fried fish sandwich with hash browns and extra tartar sauce. This fellow here’s gonna have a—”
He’s looking at you. “Oh. I’d like the extreme Denver skillet. Eggs scrambled.”
She rolls her eyes. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, honey,” says Burnhardt. “Give it wings!”
He turns back to you as she slides the door shut with a smirk. “As I was saying. Steal your ideas from people you meet in line, writing’s hard… ah, yes! Writers are poor. That’s the next thing.”
“So they aren’t poor?”
He puffed, staring. “What have you heard?”
“I think I heard the average novelist makes less than $4000 a year. So obviously, they have to get other jobs. Some of them make money selling to magazines, but that market has been shrinking since the 1930s. That if averaged out how much time they spent on writing, that it would come out to like fifty cents an hour.”
He slammed a hand on the faux-wood table and guffawed, coughing out smoke. “Puurfect! Wuurms my heart! You believe all that stuff, then?”
“Yes. I mean, I guess?”
He shook his head with a fierce grin. “All lies. Disseminated by yours truly. You don’t know how good it makes me feel to know that I do good work. Yes, it’s true—that is, it’s true that those are all lies. You bet your ass the average novelist makes a hundred grand and that’s your average loser. I mean, what the hey, it’s paper. People are paying like five dollars, twenty dollars for some paper. You’ve been to Staples. Office Max. Paper ain’t that expensive. Editors and publishers and all that, they take a cut. Believe me, they take a cut. They’re all rich, you know. Drive Benzes. But there’s plenty to go around.”
You shake your head. “Uh, really? That’s not what I’ve heard.”
“Exactly. It’s not an accident. Put yourself in the shoes of other writers. They make their first sale. I meet with them, or one of AGLoW’s other representatives does. They realize that writing is easy and lucrative. But they also realize—this is key, kiddo—that it remaining lucrative depends on their willingness to play ball.”
He snorted. “Come on, kiddo. A setup like this can’t last forever. A cart of grain is overturned in the field. The happy mice come hither, eat it up, have lots of mice babies. Soon, there are too many mice babies. Thousands of them! They eat everything up. Then there’s no more mountain of grain. Then where are ya? Dead, I tell ya!”
“Well, I don’t really understand… but if I can make a hundred thousand writing, I won’t say anything.”
“No, you will say something. You will say that writing is haaaaard, that you sweat blood and tears, that your fingers got RSI from typing so much, that you lost your vision and your health, that you had to dictate it to your daughter from your sick bed. You know, lay it on real thick. We can’t have too many mice.
“Which brings me to my next point. How these guys get published. I mean, come on, Stephen King. Steve King? Have you ever even read that crap? He has photographs. Of the chairman of the board of Simon and Schuster. Nasty pics, they say.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“No, of course not. He has talent. He works hard. He’s prolific. Blah, blah, blah—reality is he has pictures of the chairman of the board of Simon and Schuster with—well, I have already said too much. Reality is you get published ’cause you know someone. You got something on someone. You’re a celebrity. You’re very good at basketball or something. It’s not ’cause these guys are some kind of special writers. You should see the stuff they send in. It’s not even double-spaced most of the time. The editors basically do all the work, clean it up and correct the grammar. Then we’re good to go.”
You laugh. “All this time, I thought the vampire girl was some kind of prodigy.”
“You kidding me? A gifted blackmail artist as well as a Wicca-practicing freak!” He stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray, pulled out another and lit it. He took a big puff. “So, kiddo, what’s your in? How did you get your first strike? Don’t BS me now.”
You shrug. “Not really much to tell. I just wrote my story. Did the second draft, tried to cut out ten percent of the words like they say. I realized one of my main characters was totally unnecessary, so I just cut him out. That was hard, because I had really written so much of my own experiences as a minority growing up in South Carolina into his backstory. Also, I spent quite a few hours buried in the microfiche in the public records room at the library chasing after some leads I wanted to straighten out. Then, I had this idea, based on one of the stock boys that come in to Fry’s at about 4 A.M. Poor guy’s very sleepy by the time I even come in to work…”
You notice a marked lack of interest in Lester Burnhardt’s demeanor. You rush to the conclusion. “Right, so I just e-mailed it to the submissions person. And then, well, four days ago, I got the acceptance letter. So, when do I start making all the big money and all?”
“E-mailed it, huh?” he asks, his eyes glittering. “Where? Where did you e-mail it?”
“To the editor.” You pull out your acceptance letter and push it across the table to him. His eyes scan back and forth like a typewriter. You look down where the cigarette smolders on the cheap burgundy rug. The cigarette drops out of his mouth. He grimaces ferociously. His eyes have not left the paper.
Now, very calmly, he pushes it across the table. “This is online.”
You nod. “Yeah. Supposedly, it’ll show up on the main page in two to three months.”
“Online doesn’t count.”
You laugh. “Yeah, that’s what my mother says. If it’s not made out of paper, if you can’t hold it in your hand, it means nothing to her. I tried to get her to get a Kindle or something, but she just won’t. Ridiculous, huh?”
He is staring at you. He pivots his leg and crushes the cigarette on the rug with scuffed wingtips. “Sonny. This is a mistake. Online doesn’t count.”
“As a heart attack.” He shifts his gaze to your file, looks through the scant documents. “Someone at the office fouled this up. This is a problem. Big problem.”
“How big? What about the 100K thing? All the rules? The text messages?”
He shakes his head. “No way. Like I said, online doesn’t count. That’s not really writing; that’s blogging or something. No, when people say writing is hard, that it doesn’t pay, that it’s competitive, that you get less that minimum wage, that’s all true for online stuff. We were talking about books. Real books!”
“Oh.” You clear your throat. “What do we do now?”
He licks his lips. He takes your file and puts it in his briefcase, closes it and locks it. “Indeed. What we do now is this meeting is over. You forget everything I said, and I forget I met you.”
“Until I break through in print.”
He smiles sarcastically. “Yeah, right.”
“I do have a novel I’m working on,” you say. “It’s about five-sixths done. There’s this boy who thinks he’s a farmer, but can talk to wood and gets a magic ring and ends up being the king. I can have it ready in the next month or two, if you’re in a hurry.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t you get it? This was a mistake. If online guys, bloggers or whatever, got into this action, there’d be none left for anyone. No big bucks, no groupies at book signings or conventions, no movie deals. Remember the mice cart!”
“I need an in,” you say.
He gives a sarcastic smile. “Exactly. Well, I must go. Maybe I can catch the red-eye to Vegas. I just wasted about six hours of my life as it is.”
“What about your fish sandwich?”
“Keep it. Later, kiddo!” He pulls open the pocket door and disappears through it. You wait a few moments to make sure he’s gone. Manual arrives with a brown tray of steaming food. “What’s up, bro? Got your food. Where’s the other dude?”
“Had to catch a plane.”
“That’s messed up, dude!”
“Sorry. I’ll still have mine though.”
“Cool.” He deposits the loaded-up platter on the table. After a moment, he arranges it in a surprisingly careful and artistic way.
“Here’s a rollup for you. Damn it, smells like smoke in here! So what are you guys, secret agents or something?”
You smile up at him. “No… But look!”
You take out your phone, which shows an increasing digital readout and a red dot. You press the dot, stopping the readout. You scroll back about ten minutes and hit play. The voice comes muffled but recognizable: “Reality is, you get published ’cause you know someone. You got something on someone.”
You grin up at Manual. “I’m a writer.”
Michael W. Cho plays guitar for his day job and writes stories for a hobby. You wonder if he’s ever worked a day in his life! He lives in Tempe, AZ with beloved wife, daughter, dog, and fish.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Acceptance”
Author Michael Cho pulls off an excellent satire on the writing trade and populates his story with three interesting characters. We especially liked the mice reference, as you can tell from the picture we used to accompany it.
We also appreciated his use of second person, present tense. We’re seeing more and more authors use this viewpoint. Done well, as it is here, it gives a fresh voice and makes the writing seem effortless. Pay attention to how it puts the reader into the head of the main character and his story without coming off as talking to the reader.
What have you done? Now they all know the secret the secret!
And so true. I caught one publisher’s editor splitting an infinitive, and I’ve had the drop on him ever since.
[…] Taubold, one of the Moderators there, is the editor of Fabula Argentea. He picked my story “Acceptance” to be in his e-zine, which was my first paid publication. I’ll never forget […]