Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Blog

An Open Apology to Those Who Won’t Get to Meet Me Because of COVID-19

A SHORT STORY

We can all agree – since the virus hit, we’ve been missing out on a lot. No symphony of clinking cups in our favorite coffee shops. No eye contact with strangers, as sidewalk passersby treat us with suspicion. Some of us won’t even have a job to return to when we all escape home confinement.

But trust me – the thing you’ll miss most is meeting me.

I am so sorry.

Sometime next week, we were both going to lock eyes at a show put on by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at a tiny local bar. You were going to stroll up to me and compliment my ironic “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” t-shirt I bought last week at Goodwill, hoping it would draw attention from someone just like you. We would have begun talking, and you’d strategically never ask my real age (26), impressively ducking the most obvious conversation starter.

Instead, I would have casually mentioned I have a podcast and pretended to accidentally throw out my Instagram handle. You would have then walked back over to huddle with your friends, obviously perusing my Insta feed to confirm I wasn’t a creepster. My phone would then buzz with your friend request, and I would know I had earned the votes of the valuable concerned-best-friend demographic.

A week later, we would have met up at a grimy local restaurant, pretending it was fine dining. You’d say “no” when the gum-snapping waitress offered you gravy on your fries, which was standard at this hole-in-the-wall.

That night, we would have kissed for the first time, but you wouldn’t have let me stay over. Two nights later, I would have slept at your apartment, and the next morning we would have laid together all day talking – you’d pretend you like dogs and I’d pretend I care about the environment. I would have teased you for how you arranged the books on your shelves by color; you would have joked that I was just lazy.

I would have held your hand over the weeks as we took walks on the lakefront, watching the weather turn from summer to fall. I would have eaten with your family at Thanksgiving, even though your brother, Brad, who I just met, would have kept calling me “smelly nuts.”

That is SO Brad.

We would have gone ice skating together, even though my balance is awful and I wobble terribly.

You would have put on my long-sleeved shirts when you got cold, a thing that turned me on, but which I would never admit to you.

One night, we would have settled on the couch and I’d suggest we watch something by noted film actor Edward Norton.

“Oh, we should watch Keeping the Faith, the one where he plays a priest,” you would have said. “That’s his best role.”

“Wait a minute,” I would have said. “Clearly, Ed Norton was best in Fight Club.”

“Fight Club is flaming garbage,” you would have said. “Who wants to pay money to watch a cinematic ode to white male rage?”

“I do,” I would have said. “I enjoy the film’s commentary on the perils of rampant consumerism, I never see the surprise ending coming, and I also believe Meat Loaf is excellent in it,” I would have said.

“The surprise ending?” you would have yelped. “The idea that one person is actually two people is one of the oldest literary devices in history. Have you ever read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double?’ Were you aware that in medieval times, seeing one’s double was a sign of impending death? Your ‘surprise’ ending is about as old as the discovery of gunpowder.”

“I was just saying Ed Norton is wonderful as the neurotic narrator,” I would have said.

“Ed Norton isn’t really that great,” you would have said.

“What?” I would have said. “Ed Norton is one of the finest actors of the past two decades,” I would have cried.

“He is fine in Rounders,” you would have said. “And passable in The Illusionist.”

“He was the best Hulk – way better than Mark Ruffalo,” I would have said. “And, of course, that doesn’t even account for his three Oscar Nominations, one for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), one for American History X, and one for 1996’s Primal Fear.”

“He lost to that goofball Italian guy in the Holocaust movie in 1999,” you would have said. “He was just nominated for American History X because he put on so much weight.”

“You’re putting on a lot of weight and I have yet to see you give an acceptance speech,” I would have said.

“You’re an asshole,” you would have said.

“How can you not enjoy the everyday charm of Ed Norton!” I would have pleaded. “He was so endearing in Grand Budapest Hotel. And as the voice of Rex the dog in Isle of Dogs!”

“Do NOT act like he is Meryl Streep!” you would yell. “He was in Death to Smoochy for the love of Christ!”

“That is it!” I would have screamed. “I will not stand here and listen to America’s most relatable and versatile acting talent be disparaged in such a manner! You are even forgetting his comedic turns in 2012’s The Dictator and as Sammy Bagel Jr. in the groundbreaking animated film Sausage Party! You must leave!”

Over the next few weeks, the issue of Edward Norton’s merits as an actor would continue to burn inside you as you begun to slowly poison my food. When I was finally rendered incapacitated, you would saw off my arms, legs, and head, put them all in a garbage bag, and drive them out to a marsh to bury my detached body.

Rather than haunt you for eternity (you were right about me being lazy), my ghost would have avenged my death simply by turning you in to the local police, at which point you would be arrested without incident. After weeks of testimony, you would have been sent to prison on a light sentence from a sympathetic judge who was ambivalent about Edward Norton’s performance as a scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom.

Upon release from prison, the only job you would have been able to procure would be at a local drive-in theater selling popcorn and hot dogs. One night, the theater would have showed Fight Club, at which point you would have realized that Ed Norton is, indeed, one of the finest film actors of our day and that I was completely right.

And as I said before, COVID-19 has robbed you of the glory of this realization.

And for that, I am so sorry.

How Not to Get a Book Published

Given how much I’ve recently thought about how hard it is to get a book published, I considered writing a book called “How Not to Get a Book Published.” But that seemed fraught with contradiction: If the book actually was published, it would undercut its whole premise and render it useless. If it wasn’t published, it would simply remain the private rantings of a crazyperson.

So I wrote this.

If you’ve followed me on social media over the past couple of years, you know I’ve been writing a humorous novel that I think has a great premise. In fact, I became more confident in what I was writing the further I got into it. It’s basically the exact book I would want to read as someone who likes history and jokes. (I refuse to use this post as a blatant platform to advertise for it, so go to the book’s website for that.)

A few weeks back, I finally finished my manuscript (although it is still being read by people I’ve asked to help me edit it.) Yet without an agent and a publisher, it will remain destined for release straight to PDF. The only publishing company currently able to produce it will be the prestigious bubble jet printer in my office. (Which, honestly, is pretty exclusive – it can only print one book every two days, at best.)

The key to being published, of course, is to get yourself an agent. This involves untold hours of combing through literary agency websites, trying to discern which agent would be just the right fit for you. At that point, you must craft your book pitch into the exact format the agent uses to take submissions; some ask for one chapter, some ask for your first five pages, some ask for your first three chapters, and so on and so on. But you have to acquiesce to their wishes – if they asked for the first three chapters in Sanskrit, you better spend the afternoon familiarizing yourself with the language of classical Indian epic poems.

Of course, for most authors, the first five pages don’t even begin to set up the book. One presumes this request is solely to ascertain whether the author can use word processing, spell correctly, and avoid libeling someone for at least 1,000 words consecutively.

The reality, however, is that you will never hear from 99% of these people ever again. Sending manuscripts cold to agents is like sending your bank information to a Nigerian prince, then sitting back and waiting for your $50 million to show up. (It’s almost to the point where I actually enjoy getting rejection e-mails – at least that’s one more potential lead I don’t have to stress over.)

This is especially true of first-time authors. A few years ago, when a friend referred me to one of the country’s most prominent humor agents, the agent told me he liked what he saw, but he only represented “established brands” – properties that had made a name for themselves either by going viral online or by working their way up through the comedy scene. This is why Grumpy Cat has a book and I don’t.

So, in short, the best way to find an agent is easy – all you have to do is already be famous.

Then again, if you have famous friends, this is where you can lean on them for advice. Maybe they’ll give you a referral to an agent they know, which is better than just blindly firing off manuscripts – although chances are, they won’t link you up with their agent, as that means less potential customer service for their books. The “famous friend” strategy is particularly perilous if you’re shy about asking friends for help or even introducing yourself to people you “internet know” and asking for help.

Another friend offered a more helpful tip: Go to Barnes and Noble (they still exist), pick up books in your subject area, and flip right to the “Acknowledgements” section. Authors almost always thank their agents in these sections, so write the agent’s name down, go home, look him or her up, and send them a query.

This has been helpful, although it is a bit emotionally draining to flip through shelves of books you know aren’t as funny as yours. It is a bit of an eye-opener to see what sorts of humor books make it to the shelves; typically, they are nonfiction memoir-type books adorned with some big, cathartic hook as a title. For instance, it appears the most recent trend is to write comedy books about how much you want to punch people:

Yet this strategy assumes your book falls into a specific category – a tricky proposition, as many agents represent different styles of books. They say they’re looking for middle-grade fiction, or narrative nonfiction, or literary fiction, or science fiction, or romance novels, or LGBT-based fiction, or whatever.

I’m not exactly sure where my books falls into these classifications. It’s an alternate history, but it’s also a comedy book. It’s technically a work of fiction, but pretty much every story used in the book is something that really happened. It’s essentially a work of true fiction.

In these classifications, “humor” is always included in “nonfiction” – in agent-world, fictional humor appears not to exist. Which is why I am taking this afternoon to punch random people in the face and include their reactions in the first chapter. (If a book company wants to front my bail money as my advance, we can work that out.)

Naturally, sensitive writers trying to classify their works is always an exercise in self-delusion. “How DARE someone ask me to distill my genius into a crass ‘category?’ you might say. “How does one classification do justice to the genius that is ‘Downton Tabby?’”

Of course, while this is all going on, you have to ask people to read the book to see if another living human being other than you can stand it. This is always awkward – when you ask a friend to read your book, you’re asking them to give up hours and hours of their time to help you out. So choose who you give it to carefully. (And if you are one of the people chosen, please note that “will you read my book?” really means “please uncritically tell me how great it is.”)

Further, you should know that once you foist your book on someone to read, that person will likely disappear completely to avoid having awkward conversations with you about your novel. In fact, you should really ask people you hate to read your stuff, as it will guarantee you will never hear from them again.

“AHA!” you’ve probably already said to yourself, preferably aloud and at a salad bar: “Can’t you now SELF-PUBLISH?”

It is true, this is an option in the world of the intertubes. Not only do you make all the money yourself, you’re completely in control of editing and promotion of your work. You also don’t have to wait a year for your book to go through the complete publication process.

But then again, e-books still do have the taint of not having been accepted by a real, live book company. The fact that a publisher saw what you wrote and stamped it with its imprimatur is a big selling point; by releasing an e-book, you are dropping a teaspoon full of words in an Atlantic Ocean of literary excrescence. It just feels like throwing three years’ of work out on to the internet is like giving your book a Viking funeral without the flaming arrows.

So I’ll keep at it the traditional way. Best case scenario, I finally find an agent, the book sells well, and this post ends up making me look stupid. Until then, I will continue to endure this soul-deadening experience with the knowledge that even J.K. Rowling was turned down by dozens of agents and publishers before she finally got her break.

Which is why, if my current book falls flat, you can look forward to by new illustrated book of cat wizards, “Hairy Potter.”

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