FRANK BILL – AN EMERGING VOICE
While Keith Rawson works on revising “Life on the Mesa,” the next Challenge writer, Frank Bill, is ready to go. He’s had stories accepted at Plots With Guns 4 & 5, Thuglit #28, Pulp Pusher, Talking River Review, Hardboiled, Darkest Before the Dawn, and Lunch Hour Stories.
Frank has already established himself in the e-zines as an emerging talent. His style is defined by direct, sharp, staccato sentences, and I think of him as the Ornette Coleman of the crime short. When Ornette first played horn in the 1950s, he was considered highly controversial with his cascade of bleeps, blats and squawks. Some critics dismissed him as a music illiterate. But jazz musicians and free thinkers recognized something very special in Ornette, and they were eventually proven correct by his exemplary career. Like Ornette, Frank Bill has a rhythm all his own, with a sentence structure that takes deliberate grammatical “license” to create a cadence in his prose.
Frank contacted me about a novel he’d written and sent on the rounds to agents called Acting Out. When not one agent or publisher out of fifty gave him any kind of encouragement, just impersonal rejection letters, Frank concluded that his style was too dark, too edgy; he’d better pull it back. I suggested he send me the first ten pages, because it might be terrific material for the Challenge. It sure was, but not for the reasons either of us thought.
My comments on Acting Out continue in this post, below the excerpt….
ORIGINAL NOVEL EXCERPT
by Frank Bill
Turnage is jabbing his right index finger into the center of your chest. His finger is a paralysis treating your sternum like an Etcha Sketch. Digging in. Twisting. Threatening you he barks, “Fix it!” With the cuticles pushed back on his fingers. Creating borders for the clear polished finger nails. Filed down. No hang nails. From the appearance of his hands, they mean a lot to him. It’d be awful if one of those fingers were to get smashed in-between something and you tell him, “That’s embezzlement.”
Standing in the hallway outside of his office on the fifth floor it’s Thursday before lunch. He tells me that’s why he hired me. An accountant. Doing your job. This is what you get, what you learn when pointing out mistakes from the accountant you replaced. Bringing numbers to his attention. Numbers that don’t add up. Cash from nowhere being filtered through his company. Looking at his fingers you’d like to bite off one or two of them. Chew them up. Spit them into his face. Being naive. Wanting to get your foot in the door with a growing company. Taking this job you thought you could handle the pressure. The stress. Make a good impression. Build a resume. Not a criminal record.
Down the hallway to my left, at the end, two maintenance men are working on the fifth floor elevator of Liberty Chemicals. One of them says this shit happens all of the time. Turning their heads, they look at us. Turnage thumps his index finger into my sternum. Into the bone. Hard. Tells me to keep my voice down. Pulls his finger from your chest to his oversized pink earthworm lips. Pushing index finger to thumb miming a zipper as if it were closing. Zipping shut. Gritting your teeth you wonder how his thick lips would taste between your teeth.
This balding prick with gingivitis, towering over you with his gut pocking out of an expensive suit. He’s a slap in the face. A bucket of ice water dumped on you in the shower. A surprise. More conditioning. Wanting to remove your special pen from the inside pocket of your blazer, the one made for poking, to jab the needle end into one of his oversized anal-crack-brown eyes. Make him bleed. Drag him down the opposite end of the building. To the right. Kicking and screaming. To the Fifth floor window overlooking traffic. Shatter his irresponsible power pushing ass down onto the corner sidewalk of Second and Market. Offer his body a little conditioning. That’s one scenario you’d find pleasure in.
Two months out of college with honors. The top of your class. With a degree in accounting your one-night-stand that became a live-in girlfriend tells you about a job. She manages a job placement firm. Says an immediate opening for an accountant became available. Available with a small but growing chemical company. Producing chemicals for paint, textiles, plastics and even oil. One phone call leads to an interview leads to a job. A job with a private office in a six story glass palace and a six figure income. With
a thirty minute commute from a small town outside of the 16th largest city in the US. What you were told, the numbers are jumbled. But manageable. Fixable. His meaning of this word differs from your meaning.
The last accountant, the guy you replaced, he did a tight job until his unexpected departure. During his last month of employment he logged numbers as payments. Cash. Money from unknown names. Blank spots. You question them. And Turnage tells me the numbers are payments from investors. That from time to time he helps out friends. Says, “Part of your job is to fix these numbers. Maybe I didn’t make that clear before. I am now.” He says, “You make these numbers appear legal. Make them add up. Make this
company look profitable just like the last guy.”
This is worse than being drunk at a frat party. Passing out with your girlfriend in the upstairs bedroom.
Then waking up to the best blow job ever. And just when you’re ready make a donation. Opening your eyes. Its not your girlfriend or an unidentified female. Its some guy named Brett. Something’s are misleading and you tell Turnage the contract you signed. Negotiated. It never mentioned anything about embezzlement. He tells me new contract negotiation with two options. Option one you make the numbers appear legal without question. Or option two you end up someplace tight and untraceable.
Quitting isn’t an option. But then you weren’t raised to be a quitter. You were raised to suffer for your beliefs. But a threat, that’s personal.
At the end of the hall, one of the maintenance men sticks his arm palms down through the elevator doors. The doors close around his arm. Shaking his head he can’t pull it out. It’s stuck. Just like me. The center door. The safety door. It’s not working. It’s not doing it’s job. And one of the maintenance men asks the other one if he remembers the lawyer from Louisiana whose head got stuck between the doors. Got decapitated. Acknowledging him the other maintenance man tells him yeah, accidents happen. This’ll take weeks to fix.
Turnage, your boss, the terd in the punch bowl, the owner of this company, lets out his high pitched dolphin bark and yelps, “Are you paying attention?” Turning your attention back to him, withdrawals are tightening your insides and you tell Flipper, “I brought it to your attention didn‘t I? ”
Turnage explains how the last guy, the accountant you replaced, he made a big mistake. Got a little greedy. Wasn’t doing his job anymore. Just like the elevator. So I gave him two options. He chose option number two. So I packed him up for a fishing trip. Smirking with big ceramic teeth, he says, “The other accountant thought he could walk away like nothing ever happened. He never got unpacked. He‘s an episode on Unsolved Mysteries.” He says, “Once you’re in you’re in. I decide when you’re out.” Jabbing his
finger back into my chest he says, “Your job is to take care of the numbers on our end. The bank will do the rest.”
To be threatened. Degraded by manicured hands is like learning Spanish to understand immigration. My job is embezzling money for the hearing impaired and you tell him, “I’m not into fishing.”
Down the hall a door opens. Turnages business partner Deacon comes out of his office flipping through a magazine. The door closing behind him, approaching us he’s a temperamental suit. With steel wool hair and a shylock nose pressing into his upper lip he appears hair lip. But he’s not. Glancing up from his magazine he makes eye contact with me and says, “Am I interrupting anything?”
Rumor is Deacon enjoys contact sports. Big crowds. Packed elevator rides. Concerts. He has a paraphilia. He’s a frotteur. Derives sexual gratification from rubbing up against other people. Strangers. Co-workers. He’s the guy who gets off on playing a full court basketball game at the local YMCA. Gets worked up. Aroused. Then joins everyone in the sauna afterwards so he can crack his carrot in front of them. He’s not shy. Keeping your distance, glancing at Deacon you say, “No, we’re finished.”
He’s one guy you don’t get stuck with in tight proximity. No crowded spaces. No close quarter contact.
Nodding at me Turnage says, “I want those numbers Monday morning.”
Exhaling, you choose option number one and tell him, “I’ll put them on your desk first thing.”
“No.” He says, “Nobody goes into my office. My personal space. We can review it over lunch.”
Lunch for Turnage is a buffet of Porterhouse Steaks and eye candy at a local shoe show. Cause the only thing the women wear during his lunch outings are shoes. Another term would be a strip club. You saw the shoes at your interview. When you were hired.
Your first impression upon meeting someone new is they’re an asshole. A prick. A leach. You’re their host. It’s a metaphor. Helps to not let life become a major let down if you’re wrong. But with your new master rubbing his new puppy’s nose in his mess, it only reinforces my belief. My metaphor.
Turnage pushes Deacon’s magazine up with his hand and barks, “You sick bastard where in the hell did you get that?”
Rumor is Deacon’s a tight wad. So tight you couldn’t get a toothpick up his ass and he
says, “I’m getting this shit in the mail every week, plus someone keeps dumping it into my PC files.”
The cover of the magazine has a couple of naked boys blowing kisses below bold letters that say ‘12 & UNDER.’ My palms are getting damp with disgust. With anxiety. Repulsed. You need a fix. To review your options. Turning away. Heading to the co-ed bathroom. To stall number two. Turnage grabs my arm and barks, “Have a good lunch. Don’t do anything hasty. I’ve got eyes and ears, know where you live, shit and hibernate.”
Then he winks at me and the two twisted fuckers bust up laughing.
Your boss barking threats at you like Flipper barking to an audience at Sea World. A couple of suits throwing around their power. Threatening you to commit a crime. To cover it up. Make it appear legal. Bullying someone else into taking responsibility for their wrongs. Their responsibilities becoming your responsibilities. With your heart pumping in your throat. In your skull. Walking down the hall toward the bathroom, for every cause their is an effect. They’re pushing you to question your morals. Right and wrong. They’re opening old wounds. Throwing around that dummy gene. To do this you can’t have a conscience.
In the bathroom with the commode lid of stall number two down. The door locked. It’s my table and chair. Putting left ankle to right knee, the rage is a rush of quivers and shakes. Being threatened by Flipper and his over affectionate business partner. Mr. Touchy Feely. Enforcing their deviant business plan upon you. Sweat drips into your eyes. Burning the pupils. Clenching them tight. Opening them wide. Blinking.
You slide the sock of your left leg down. Pant leg up.
First week of employment. Getting your foot in the door. You don’t need this shit.
Pulling your special pen from the inside pocket of your blazer, this is what you need. Your fix. Conditioning. The pain inflicted by a mother during adolescents. Preparation. Statistics say you begin when you’re 14. A piece of middle-school eye candy. That combustible age of sticky bed sheets. Cracking your carrot in the shower. Male hormones. Starting in college would make me a late bloomer.
Pushing the spring loaded Parker-Push-Button-Pen, revealing a three eights surgical steel needle, grazing the flesh of your left calf, you’re a surveyor. An entrepreneur of tissue.
Ink pens are masochistic tools disguised as instruments of script.
Doctors and therapists refer to this as ‘Cutting.’ A behavior. You refer to it as ‘Coping.’ A family heirloom. How you were taught to deal with suffering for your beliefs.
Plotting for my point of entry. The needle goose bumping the scar tissue. Taking it in. Scratching the surface, your lip twitching, until you find your spot. Imagining Turnages anal-brown-eye, breathing in, denting the tissue of your left calf, you’re ready for renewal. A release.
Then a voice to your right says, “Who there?” A young Slavic accent. A female. Coming from the stall next to you.
Dammit, you can’t even mutilate yourself in private.
Being a prick you say, “Me.”
She says, “Who me?”
Porky The Pig pronounces English better than this and you say, “Trent.” Not caring who this tripping hazard to the English language is. Pressing the needle to your calf. This is what an alcoholic refers to as his ’Beer’ or his ‘Wine.’ My lunch break being interrupted. People have withdrawals from this shit.
She says, “You new book keeper, right?”
“No.” You say, “I’m the new accountant on your left.”
Sweat drips from my forehead onto my left calf. My body trembling inside. You’re an open blister saturated by gasoline. Boiling out.
With her tripping hazard speech she says, “Other man you replace, he go on trip. No come back.”
Cutting is a private venture. Something experienced alone. An artist with his canvas. Van Gogh and his ear. Pain equals creativity. Not a public Think Tank where everyone invites questions and receives answers. You’re not unveiling your privacy.
Wondering about the guy you replaced you ask, “How did you know about that? The other man?”
Half laughing she says, “Every person know bout that.”
Great, a company that also embezzles its employees private ventures. Tragedies. Or assassinations. So much for privacy.
Scratching your skin with the needle, waiting for this sloppy accent to tinkle, flush and leave. She doesn’t. Instead there’s the noise of fabric moving. Then glancing down, from under the stall you see dark strands of hair. She’s bending forward. Trying to look under the stall. And you say, “Whatever you’re doing, stop. In the US we admire our privacy.” You say, “What you’re doing is referred to as voyeurism.”
Maybe she’s from Amsterdam where everything is acceptable.
Seeing the bottom portion of her face, just her chin, she says, “What you doing over there?”
She’s a curious child. A peeping tom. A noisy neighbor. Maybe this is how they use the toilet in her country. Bending forward. Warming the bowels. Engaging in small talk with strangers until they can download waste.
You say, “Trying to relieve myself. In private.”
Her hair is almost touching the tile floor and this tripping hazard says, “In toilet?”
Gripping the pen with the needle sticking out, you look at it then your foot. Then what you think is her face. You want to stomp it or stab it. You don’t know which and you say, “Where else would I relieve myself?”
She says, “Only I ask.”
This conversation has no purpose and you say, “Are you warming your bowels or have you already went?”
Maybe she’s irregular or just air drying.
Hearing water hit the bathroom floor, looking down, its not water. Coloring the white grout between the gray tiles is a river of yellow.
She yells, “Chit!”
Raising your foot you say, “What the fuck. Hey, either cut back on the coffee or buy a Depend.”
The valley of foreign urine is dark and putrid. Stagnated fish smell better than this foreign piss.
Her voice is crackling and she says, “Oh, I forget to lower lid.”
Closing my eyes. Pinching myself. It doesn’t help. You tell her, “No, you forgot to raise the lid.”
Her feet splash into the urine. Then her stall door unlocks. Opens. She didn’t even wipe. Or air dry. She’s not irregular, just an inexperienced pisser.
Her footsteps click across the marble tile. You put your right foot on the stall door. Bracing yourself. Sink water is running. She’s washing her mitts. Good camouflage. With left ankle still to right knee. The pant leg still up. Reaching behind you flush. More camouflage. Thinking of the ledger you dig into the flesh. A quick jab. Not too deep. Grazing my lips with my tongue. Wanting to recycle my torment. Turnage and his manicured finger poking into my chest. His Flipper voice. That Free Willy Mother Fucker. Finger nails on a chalkboard. Making another dig. Another jab. Same as the first. Licking my lips. Then the exchange. An Endorphin rush. A rollercoaster ride of molecules to an Atom. A fresh wound. A tiny explosion. Letting out the old blood. Its a breath of fresh air. Then the healing begins. The body produces new blood. The sink water is off. Hearing the loud echo of a vacuum, she’s drying her mitts with the
automatic hand dryer and she yells, “What you doing?”
Noisy ass neighbor. She must be an exchange student writing a research paper on American Bathroom culture. With sarcasm you say, “It’s called a courtesy flush.” And you flush again.
Blood exits the fresh wound. Forming bubbles. Flowing with the palpitation of my heart. Dabbing the bubbles with the needle. The bubbles explode. Saturating the needle. Rubbing the needle to my lips. Tasting with my tongue. This is my ink. The process of healing. Recycling the afflicted energy. The torment. Satisfying a hunger. Dealing with life. Like an unaccountable bully dragging me into church for confession.
Unrolling the toilet paper you create a wad. Blotting the rest of the blood. The torment. Standing up. The piss splashes. Raising the lid. Not making a sound. You drop the bloody wad of toilet paper into the toilet and flush. Turning around, unlocking the stall door, splashing more foreign piss, smiling on the other side of the bathroom, it’s your urinating tripping hazard neighbor.
With broken English she says, “So you new bookkeeper. Maybe we have drink sometime?”
Giving her the once over. She’s tall. Built like a model. Perky tits. Smooth legs. Her face? You’ll call her old but-her-face. A dimpled complexion of sunken cheeks. An arrow nose. With straight chest length hair. Green eyes. Beer nut skin. A shiny silicone smile. Other than the mispronunciation of English, everything looks good but her face.
You’re pushing the soap dispenser and she doesn’t even know you and you say, “Sorry, I’ve got a live in girlfriend already. In the US we‘re only allowed one per household.”
Staring me up and down, molesting me with her eyes, she says, “That ok. I done mine.”
Feeling violated, you’ve had enough of the Pebbles and Bam Bam mispronounced monologue and say, “You’re an attractive person but I’m not interested.”
Washing your hands, lathering up. This is worse than being bullied. Having a finger digging into your chest. You’re a teen dealing with peer pressure. His first sexual experience. Reading the how-to directions on the back of a condom package. Flinging the water from my hands. Pushing the dryer button with an elbow. The hot air hitting my hands old but-her-face raises her voice. Gets personal and asks, “So what Mrs. Live-in Girlfriend name?”
She’s a noisy immigrant without a proper introduction and you say, “Who the hell are you?”
Smiling she says, “Helga, I-” Cutting her off you say, “Turnage’s secretary.”
Opening her mouth, wrinkling her eyeliner brows down she says, “How you know?”
Leaving the bathroom you say, “He mentioned your name during lunch.”
The elevator is Out Of Order. Taking five flights of stairs you’re outside in the company parking lot, walking toward your car for lunch. Trying to put space between yourself and Mr. Flipper’s English tripping hazard female, whose doubling as his secretary. On your ass she yells, “Hey, you no answer my question.”
Turning around to confront this irritation. Her hair is air born to the backdrop of a six story smoke glass building. She resembles an expensive harlot. A high dollar escort but she’s not. She’s Turnage’s secretary and with a short term memory followed by short term patience you say, “What question?”
She says, “You live-in, what her name?”
Pulling your keys from your pocket. Pushing a button on your key ring. Your BMW, a gift from your father, it chirps. The doors click. Unlock. Opening your car door is similar to pulling up your pant leg in the bathroom stall, privacy isn’t an option in this company unless you’re being threatened to fix numbers. You have more important issues to figure Rolling the window down. Glancing at old-but-her-face you say, “Her name is Zadie.”
– END EXCERPT –
When I assess the opening of a novel, in my opinion, the most important considerations are:
• Does it hook me?
• Am I engaged by the main character and want to know more?
• Does information unfold in a logical way?
• Do I want to keep reading (or am I bored, unengaged, confused or lost)?
• Is there something fresh about the material, adhering to general guidelines of genre, but pushing the envelope in some way?
If the answer to all these questions is yes, chances are an agent will request the entire manuscript for consideration, even if the sample pages got dropped unsolicited through the window via carrier pigeon, handwritten on a roll of toilet paper.
Frank’s manuscript gets yes answers from me to all five questions. Does it break the rules? Yup, but in a good way. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Anthony Neil Smith, Editor of Plots with Guns appreciates Frank Bill’s style, and he’s a professor of writing at a university. The secondperson narrative, starting sentences with “You” is a bit unorthodox, but Jay MacInerny’s first novel was written that way too, and it never hurt him. So why then did FIFTY agents turn up their noses?
The answer lies in the query letter. Ah-HA.
(Now that I’ve said nice things about Frank and compared him to Ornette Coleman, I’m going to poke a little fun, with his permission…)
FRANK BILL – CURRENT TITLE HOLDER, WORLD’S WORST QUERY LETTER
Frank won’t hold the title for very much longer, but here is the query letter that sent fifty agents and publishers running for cover.
Dear Name of Agent:
Threatened by a power pushing boss and a business partner who enjoys contact sports, Trent Vile, a new accountant with an addiction to pain, has two options, embezzle money for Liberty Chemical or end up like the last accountant; an episode on Unsolved Mysteries.
Trent wants to build a resume not a criminal record. But the live-in girlfriend who helped him get the job believes embezzlement is a stepping stone. Choosing embezzlement over death introduces Trent to a black market prostitution ring ran by his boss Turnage and business partner Deacon. Whose value for human life is witnessed by Trent when he listens to their mock, beat and murder of a prostitute. Which pushes Trent into a sociopathic state of how to make them accountable for their crimes. Until an accident feeds his addiction to pain and reveals a resolution. A premeditated scheme. Where downloading pornography onto Deacon’s computer. Phoning the Electronic Crime Division to report a slave trade involving minors. And getting caught in Turnage’s office stealing incriminating documents, leads to a chase down into the company parking lot. Where a parade of bullets from a double-crossing live-in girlfriend and the Electronic Crime Division leaves everyone accountable for their criminal beliefs.
Acting Out (58,000 words) is a dark humored crime novel where white collar crime ties into black market crime. Where two men’s addiction to flesh offer a new slant on the human condition. One man abuses his flesh to deal with life. The other abuses flesh for profit. Having researched the black market slave trade overseas. Case studies on self-mutilation. And big business embezzlement I found people overlooking their morals for personal gain. For freedom. And to deal with everyday life. I found common men and women without boundaries. People who suffered for their beliefs regardless of the outcome. With the readership of hardboiled crime novels growing, I hope you’ll find that my story offers a new slant into this genre as well as an entertaining one.
Enclosed for your consideration are the first three chapters and a SASE for your reply. This is my first novel.
Thanks for your consideration,
– END QUERY LETTER –
I’d put money down that not one agent even looked at the sample pages. I’d lay additional money down that they didn’t get past the letter’s first paragraph. Based on response to a query letter that represented him badly, Frank came to the conclusion that his writing had been rejected—that he had to pull back and change. As an editor, I could weep.
Okay, where did he go wrong? First, the letter’s opening makes Acting Out sound like it’s based on a produced episode of a TV show, Unsolved Mysteries. Right away, the agent’s mind goes to the headaches involved with copyright law. The rights belong to the producers of the show, and chances are pretty slim they’ll allow a new novelist to piggyback on their success. They’ll want big money to loan the name and likeness of the characters etc. etc. It doesn’t matter that the novel hasn’t got anything to do with Unsolved Mysteries and merely references the dang show in passing. Frank has unwittingly stepped in deep doo-doo by making it sound like Acting Out is based on UM, when he really means to compare it.
Yikes. Already, half the agents have thrown this letter away. The other half are scrambling through the attached pages for a sign of hope that this writer might actually be good; he’s just bombed the query. (Lots of writers fit this category.) Did he send a resume? Mention any writing credits in the rest of the letter? Is he published anywhere, for goodness sake? Nope, not a not a word about Frank, who he is, or if he’s written a word other than Acting Out.
Returning to the letter, the agent frantically scans for something they can catch hold of from a business angle. Problem is, Frank wrote the letter as if he were talking to a fellow writer, or an editor. He cut his query up into the same staccato style as his novel. The letter reader isn’t into the rhythm of the novel yet, they’re reading a business letter. It’s grammatically incorrect. One sentence even starts with “Whose.” Is it becoming clear how they might jump to the wrong conclusion?
You see, most agents don’t care about the story. They care about the marketability of the story. You must speak their language, show that you understand what an agent’s job is by providing some selling tools. Part of marketability is your track record as a writer—has anybody else out there published you? E-zines anybody? That’s a good start. It’s a sign that the writer is building a body of work.
Frank was onto something waaaaay down at the end, when he mentioned, “With the readership of hardboiled crime novels growing…” but it was too late at that juncture, because the agent crowd had stopped reading already.
Frank hasn’t done anything that hundreds of other query writers do every day. There is very little information on persuasive query letter writing out there, and nothing that shows the writer how to “think like an agent.” That’s the trick, ladies and gentlemen. When you’re writing a query, you’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of that hardworking seller of stories, the agent. You’ve got to grab him by his tie, pull him into that letter and keep him glued there until he’s salivating to see the manuscript. You don’t get that reaction by talking to him like he’s a writer. Nope.
I’ll stop editorializing here, but more will be revealed. In the next few days I’ll post the transcript of my conversation with Frank, plus the query letter that could have been sent out, to perk those agents up and get them scrambling to request the whole manuscript.
Hopefully, this exercise was helpful, and everybody got a few chuckles. I know I wore the crown for Worst Query Letter in the World at one point in my career. How about you?
Not to worry, help is on the way.