Category Archives: Writing

“Method” Writing Vs. “Character” Writing

I did some acting in my youth—dinner theatre, community theatre. I even managed to make a few bucks. It was fun, but in time I tired of the work that went into learning characters and lines and rehearsing for a show that ran for two weekends. After writing a few murder mysteries that were produced and well accepted, I realized I much preferred writing than spewing the lines of other writers.

Let me digress a moment: in my theatre days I rarely played the romantic lead. Most of the roles I played were characters, and I was okay with that. Romantic leads are rather dull, or as Michael Keaton said after he walked away from Batman, the villains are the fun roles.

I used character acting to create characters that were unusual, sometimes over the top, maybe not very realistic—like the murderous Jonathon Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, who received plastic surgery from his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein. Boris Karloff played the role in the Broadway production. At the end of the show, when the police hauled me off to jail, the audience applauded my final exit. What greater approval can an actor hope for?

Method actors, on the other hand, employ a specific and intense preparation to create a character that is realistic, often relying on their own personal experience.

Now, the point of this post: Writers today are advised, taught, to never infuse any aspect of themselves into their characters. Writers who do are, in Elmore Leonard’s words, butting into the story.

I’ve read several novels whereby the writer employed that best practice, and honestly, I found them sorely lacking. The characters were somewhat cardboard, one-dimensional.

So, I ask, how can a writer write believably without, like a method actor, relying on their own personal experiences?

Red Smith, a prominent sports columnist from the middle of the last century, was asked, “Is turning out a daily column a chore?” “Why, no,” he replied. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

That’s the approach I take with my fiction. My novels are character-driven, and I rely on a lot of my own personal experiences. My story lines may be fictional—time travel, alternate realities, the supernatural—but my protagonists contain large quantities of me, while secondary and tertiary characters are often based on people with whom I’ve shared rooms throughout my life: my parents, friends, former lovers. That’s how I achieve what I perceive as the realism I seek to share with my readers—by opening a vein and bleeding.


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Why I Write

Do I write for wealth? No, but I wouldn’t turn it down if it came my way.

Is it a game to me? I’m not sure what that means. Do I make a game of it? Again, no, although at times I find it as challenging as a game.

Compulsion or curiosity? The former, not so much; the latter, well, maybe. Every novel I’ve written (nearly 10) has left me with discovery: about the craft of writing, about people, relationships, about myself.

Was it a calling? I’m not sure. It started nearly 25 years ago as therapy in the aftermath of a bloodied and bruised heart. But as I learned to enjoy the creative process, I can honestly say writing leaves me feeling closer to my higher self and, yes (if it’s not arrogant to admit), closer to God.

I write fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, op-ed, sports… whatever I’m moved to write.

I used to have goals but found it interfered with my creativity—worrying about publication, finding an agent or a major publisher. At some point enjoyment of creativity abates when your creations fail to leave an impact, that your audience is hardly bigger than it was with your first publication. It doesn’t help when family members tell you they think reading is a waste of time, and that fiction is nothing but lies.

Today I write for many reasons: I believe words have power. I use them as a soapbox. I write for my own amusement. I write to push myself, to stretch. My work in progress is written from the perspective of woman, which I find extremely challenging. It’s about a fetus about to be aborted who sees her unlived life flash before her eyes. Hardly mainstream, and I eliminate half my audience—those who are pro-choice.

I also write to learn about the craft of writing and about myself. I write to connect with readers and, with no offspring, to leave behind a legacy. My novels are the only children I’ll ever have, so I want them to go out into the world and be accepted, enjoyed, loved. I want them to impact the world in some small (or large) way.

I’ve many times considered setting down my pen. I’m frustrated by the publishing industry. It more often than not rewards the mundane, the formula, that which can be sold to Hollywood for next summer’s blockbuster movie.

I write about everyday people dealing with everyday issues like love (finding it), loss of love (ouch!), regret (who doesn’t have a few of those?), infidelity (from love to hate to compromise), death (the Grim Reaper recently visited me in a dream to tell me he was coming for me; “Great,” my dream self said. “You bring the whiskey and I’ll provide the cigars”). I write about redemption (that transformation from the anti-hero the reader wants to like into the hero for whom they root), and more. I write about relationships between men and woman, and fathers and sons. Yet each character, although flawed and in some cases broken, is in their own way extraordinary. I write mainstream, non-traditional romance (Fabio will never grace the cover of one of my novels), and soft science fiction.

My work has been called, “Gritty, entertaining… real. Romance for the non-romantic,” but with nearly a half-million new novels published every year it’s nearly impossible for the cream to rise to the top, to find an audience.


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Is the Novel Dead?

That nearly a half-million novels are published each seems to indicate the novel is not only alive, but thriving.

But the other side of the coin seems to indicate otherwise.

A couple years ago I read that in 2014 sixty percent of Americans admitted to not reading a novel. Additionally, forty percent of college graduates claimed to never crack another book after graduating. A former colleague of mine, a Millennial, backed that up by telling me he reads only non-fiction.

Oh, and that sixty percent, it was put forth, was only expected to grow.

Last holiday season I watched a roving reporter in Times Square polling shoppers what they were buying their kids for Christmas. When the reporter suggested to one mother, “How about a book?” she looked at him sideways and replied, “You’re kidding, right?”

So demand is dwindling while supply is increasing. So how can anyone not named James Patterson, Stephen King, or JK Rowling hope to compete with nearly a half-million new titles released every year, most poorly written, just as poorly edited (if at all), poorly packaged drivel?

Additionally, Internet shorthand, texting, and emojis seem to not only be destroying communication but the beauty of language as well. People no longer have to express their feelings with words; they simply click one of hundreds of emojis to relate what they’re feeling at any given moment.

It seems people no longer have the patience to read a novel. Many would rather wait for the book to be made into a movie, which is why the major publishers look only for manuscripts that can be sold to Hollywood to turn into next summer’s blockbuster movie.

Is the novel destined to become only a curiosity, something to be studied in school as an archaic art form?


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What Is It Readers Want?

Writers today are advised to identify their audience and write to it. Hence vampires and werewolves were, for a time, the hottest genres in literature. The Hunger Games became a phenomena, as did Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code; Fifty Shades of Gray continues to inspire erotica.

I recently read that a large portion of the Potter books go unread, used as doorstops, despite Rowling’s imagination and talent. Dan Brown has been labeled a hack for employing numerous bells and whistles to keep readers turning pages. Even readers who propelled Fifty Shades to the number one bestseller of all time snickered at the writing, even as they professed a connection to the female protagonist, a victim of sexual abuse they chose to ignore, wanting to see a romance, a poorly written one at that.Genre

Genre has existed since the beginning of literature. Poetry, the oldest form of literature, older even than prose, was in ancient times divided into narrative, dramatic, and lyric forms. Narrative poetry was primarily epic. Dramatic poetry was divided into tragedy and comedy. Greek philosopher Aristotle named story genres by categorizing dramas according to the value-charge of endings and the design of stories.

Today no fewer than twenty-five genres exist, from romance to mystery to western to horror to fan fiction, and a host of others, including mainstream and literary. All because the publishing industry requires everything to fit into neat categories to increase their bottom line, and perhaps driven by demographics that prefer the same to facilitate their tastes.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what today’s consumer seeks in a novel, mostly because I have eclectic taste. Oh, in my youth I had a voracious appetite for science fiction, but as I grew older my tastes expanded.

Today I seek novels that are well-written, with an artistic flair. Characters with whom I connect are more important to me than storyline. Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad employed a different set of best practices, but they’re still talked about in creative writing classes. Raymond Chandler is considered one the greatest stylists of the twentieth century; but today’s writers are advised to write in a vanilla style so as not to take the reader out of the story.

The stories to which I gravitate don’t have to be world changing, but I’m attracted to characters who transform, the result of some life-changing obstacle—real people faced with real challenges. But it seems I’m in the minority.

As a writer, I’m faced with a dilemma: write what pleases me, stories similar to those I enjoy reading, or employ a formula to attract an audience hungry for genre. A critic called my work, “Gritty, entertaining… real. Romance for the non-romantic.” I like that as a brand.

Yet I continue to struggle to find an audience, an audience I know exists because I’m a part of it.

But my work is difficult to brand, perhaps because that audience isn’t a member of the vast social network that promotes today’s popular genres.

I must face the probability that today’s consumer cares little about the lyrical and more about being hooked by the first sentence else they will close the cover never again to be opened. With short attention spans, they seek entertainment first and foremost, and care little about three-dimensional characters or stories well-told. Curious as lemmings, they follow the trends.

Self-published writers consider themselves independents, along with small independent presses. They blog about how digital technology has transformed the publishing industry, and it has; just not all for the better.

Yes, it gives consumers a variety from which to choose. But a lot of it—most of it—is poorly written, unedited, poorly packaged drivel. Self-publishing allows publication without having to learn craft. Good writing requires more than simply opening a vein and bleeding. It requires knowledge of craft and best practices as well as talent.

Self-published writers boast that with a traditional publisher they have to do as much work and share their royalty, and if they don’t succeed—if the publisher doesn’t make enough money quickly enough—their title will be dropped.

They look at E.L. James’ success and think they, too, can win the lotto: self-publish and wait for Random House to come calling. It happens, but not all that often. Random House doesn’t care about quality. They care about return on investment. If Fifty Shades had bombed, do you think they’d have published the sequels? They were in such a hurry to get the first book to print that they didn’t bother to work with James to improve the text.

All of the above is true. The only thing good about the twenty-first century publishing model is that it gives voice to talented writers whose work might not ever see the light of day with one of the Big Five. Unfortunately the number of talented writers is minimal compared to the number of hacks.

Nearly a half-million new titles were published in 2014, most self-published. In my opinion that just makes it more difficult for the cream to rise to the top.



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On the Road With Jack Kerouac

On the Road: the Original Scroll was published in 2007—the first ever publication of Jack Kerouac’s original draft of the novel that defined the post World War II Beat and Counterculture generations, its characters living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use.Kerouac

First published in 1957 by Viking Press, On the Road is a roman à clef—fiction in which real people or events appear with invented names—with key figures in the Beat movement, such as William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) and Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), represented by characters in the book, including Kerouac as the narrator, Sal Paradise.

The idea for On the Road, Kerouac’s second novel, was formed during the late 1940s in several notebooks, later typed out on a roll of paper. Largely autobiographical, the book describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico in the late 1940s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. After several film proposals dating from 1957, the book was finally made into a film, On the Road, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Walter Salles, in 2012.

The New York Times hailed the original novel as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.”

In 1998, Modern Library ranked On the Road 55th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Time magazine lists it as one of the 100 best English-language novels between 1923 to 2005.

The first draft was completed in April 1951, while Kerouac lived at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty. It’s said that the first draft, an extended session of spontaneous confessional prose, was completed in 20 days. The legend that Joan supplied Kerouac with Benzedrine, cigarettes, bowls of pea soup and mugs of coffee to keep him going is a myth.

Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a typewriter, and taped them together into a 120-foot long roll which he fed into the machine. This enabled him to type continuously without having to reload pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks.

Kerouac continued to revise the manuscript for six years, resulting in five versions, the last which was published. In all, the project took Kerouac 10 years to complete.

John Sampas, brother of Stella, Kerouac’s third wife and administrator of Kerouac’s legacy, states that Kerouac knew that certain passages of the book having to do with sex and drug use would be censored, so he eliminated them to avoid having the whole manuscript rejected.

Although it has been fifty years since its first publication, The Original Scroll presents On the Road the way it was intended—ragged stream of consciousness—and it remains fresh in its depiction of a restless, anti-establishment youth.

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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I recently participated in an online forum that discussed the ethics of self-publishing. The poster suggested that the image of self-publishing has diminished in the eyes for many, including the media, literary critics, and even readers. I count myself among those who carry a prejudice toward self-published works and their authors, to the point where sometimes I could scream. But in an online forum I have no mouth, merely a keyboard and a monitor, which, they say, is mightier than a sword.

I’ve long ranted against writers who jump at the chance to self-publish their work as an end around to learning craft. As a result, with more than 400,000 books published last year, most self-published, it makes it that much more difficult for the cream to rise to the top.

The debate digressed to a discussion of vanity presses. A vanity press, vanity publisher, or subsidy publisher is a term describing a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. In the past, authors paid vanity presses to print “X” number of copies. They were then drop-shipped on their doorstep, and from there the author distributed their work to bookstores. Writers of the past used vanity presses because publishers turned them down.

Digital technology and print on demand have eliminated the need to print copies for distribution. Authors today can upload their text to any number of online sources to list their work at no cost. But it amounts to the same thing: vanity publishing because writers resort to self-publishing when they’ve been turned down by a traditional publisher. Today’s self-published writers cite L. Frank Baum, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, William Strunk, Jr., John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter, Tom Clancy, and Mark Twain as having self-published, as if these giants in the industry give credence to the practice. The trouble is, Grisham, Canfield and Clancy never self-published. It’s urban legend that they did. Stephen King was a fifteen-year-old high school student when, with help from a classmate, he published a collection of short stories on his amateur press. His first published novel is Carrie.

Self-published writers today call themselves “independents”, a term I’ve always related to small houses not associated with the Big Five publishers. My work is published through Second Wind Publishing, an independent press. But self-published writers wish to brand themselves as more than what they are: self-published through a modern version of the vanity press.

One of the participants in the forum, in his signature line, called himself “President” of a publishing house. I clicked over to his website to find a list of his own published novels, and no publishing guidelines or links by which a writer could submit their work. When I questioned the ethics of this, he told me, “I cannot publish without a press” and promptly bowed out of the discussion.

Huh? Digital technology and self-publishing have virtually eliminated the need for a “press.”

Granted, self-publishing gives voice to some good writers who would not otherwise see their work in print because, well, the publishing industry is in the business of making money. They are the gatekeepers of what likely will make money and what won’t. I was turned down by just about all of the major publishers not because my work was sub-par—I received some very complimentary rejection letters—but because they felt there is but a small market for what I write: stories about everyday people dealing with the universal ideals of love, loss, regret, and death, and the emotions associated with those ideals. Several years ago I self-published a novella because, after shopping it around, I discovered that few publishers publish novellas in today’s world. I consider Chaotic Theory a novelty, perhaps appealing to enthusiasts who own my entire catalog.

Many self-published writers slap the term “Best Selling Author” on their covers and websites. They apparently have no idea what it takes to become a bestseller, which varies. In the United Kingdom for instance, a hardcover book could be considered a bestseller based on sales between 4,000 and 25,000 copies per week; while in Canada, the measure is 5,000 copies. The Indie bestseller lists use only sales numbers provided by non-chain bookstores, while the New York Times list includes both wholesale and retail sales from a variety of sources. USA Today has only one list, not hardcover/paperback, to ascertain relative sales. Self-published writers don’t seem to understand that becoming a bestseller is an achievement; it’s not something one arbitrarily assigns themselves.

The bottom line is that many writers want to see their work in print and choose to self-publish rather than learn the craft of writing. I’ve been writing for more than twenty years. My later novels show improvement over my early work. Some of that improvement is based on feedback I received from agents and publishers who were kind enough to offer assessment and invite me to submit again; perhaps they saw something of merit in my words.

It’s difficult to be critical of one’s own work. We all think we’re great writers—until the tenth or twentieth rejection letter comes in. Before my first novel was published—I’d written two more by then—I questioned the worth of my work. It’s something with which I continue to struggle as I brand myself and fight for a market share, to help my audience find me. Yet today’s writer lacks a thick skin. After two or three rejection letters, rather than consider that their work needs improvement, they throw in the towel and go the self-publishing route.

I’m often asked what advice I’d give to emerging writers, and I’m tired of hearing myself: Don’t be so quick to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon. Take your time, learn your craft. Anyone can self-publish. It’s infinitely more gratifying when a publisher sends you an acceptance letter and a publishing contract.

My thanks to Harlan Ellison for the title of this post.

J. Conrad

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January’s Paradigm

Robert Porter is enjoying the fruits of success: a best-selling detective novel featuring a hard-nosed detective circa 1947 named Joe January, and a lucrative contract for the sequel. But his world comes crashing down around him when he witnesses his wife’s infidelity.

As Porter sinks into a morass of grief over her abandonment, only one person can help him regain his self-esteem and dignity. One man alone can help Porter set things right … and that person’s name is Joe January. But he doesn’t even exist … or does he?

In 1992, a man approached me to tell his story. His name was Joe January. I was intrigued after our first meeting—I thought there was something of Philip Marlowe in January. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. With January’s direction, I’ve since written the second volume, One Hot January and the final volume, January’s Thaw—both available from Second Wind. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time.

A private investigator from the South Bronx circa 1940, January, perhaps best described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart, is as hard-boiled as they come. Despite spanning two centuries and dealing with time travel and alternate realities, January’s story is anything but just a story. The denouement is less than happily ever after (but such is life), and January at times comes across as a sort of comic book superhero. But in youth we often view ourselves as invincible, only later seeing the global repercussions of our actions. Yet given the chance to live life over again, who would turn their back? Hence the meat of January’s story is largely about regret: how, through his own foolishness, he lost the two women who meant the most to him.

January’s Paradigm is the first book in the January trilogy, although I consider it a standalone novel. References to its successors, One Hot January and January’s Thaw, abound, but the two can be read without having read the former. Reading all three provides the reader a firm grasp on the workings of Joe January’s mind.

The third edition contains a new afterword.

What They’re Saying About January’s Paradigm

“J. Conrad Guest has taken the heartbreak of sexual betrayal and turned it into a romance-fantasy … Readers will not be able to put it down.” Current Entertainment Monthly, Ann Arbor, Michigan

“Prompted by his detective’s instincts and the photograph of a woman who seems strangely familiar, January begins his search for the reasons behind his existence. His quest will take him down numerous and occasionally violent paths: there’s a beast lurking at the periphery of this, Robert Porter’s alternate reality.” —Ellen Tanner Marsh, New York Times best-selling author

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The Next Big Thing—J. Conrad Guest Interview

Narielle Living, author of Signs of the South, invited me to be part of the Next Big Thing Blog Hop. It sounded like fun, and I get to promote my work and the work of other gifted writers. I was tasked with answering the questions below, and to tag three others to be part of the hop. Look for their answers next Wednesday, December 26. You can read Narielle’s post here.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of your book?

A World Without Music.

From where did the idea for the book come?

I’ve always been fascinated by music. Although I’m tone deaf and won’t sing even in the shower, and I can’t play a musical instrument, I love music and have a rather large collection of CDs—jazz, classic rock, blues, and more. I’ve always wondered how music does what it does: bridge cultures—remember when the Iron Curtain fell and Billy Joel went to Russia? Those in attendance (I imagine most didn’t speak English) cheered and rocked like any American audience. Music can incite a people to revolt, fill us with inspiration, and bring us to tears. It can bring two lonely hearts together.

Well, it occurred to me, what if our civilization had evolved without music? What if ancient man had never learned to communicate over distances by beating a stick on a hollow log? What if he’d never devised stringed instruments, or reeds or woodwinds? What if he’d never learned to write ballads to his lady love? Might we have evolved into a much more peaceful planet?

A spiritual being from a distant galaxy—a walk-in—stumbles upon our planet and shares lives with a number of historical figures: Jesus, during his ministry and crucifixion, and Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, helping him to develop Western Christianity. When he shares the childhood of Johan Sebastian Bach, he becomes fascinated by music because, on his world, although highly mathematic, they never devised music. He leaves Bach, gifting him with his mathematic knowledge (music is numerics), and moves forward, to inhabit the body of Thomas Jefferson, who also loved music and played the violin, during the time of the American Revolution. Eventually this walk-in moves to the twenty-first century where he befriends a musician—a bass player in a jazz quartet who is also a veteran of the first Gulf War suffering PTSD, which cost him his marriage. After fifteen years, his world devoid of music despite playing in his quartet, he contemplates suicide.

How’s that for a short answer?

What genre does your book fall under?

All my novels tend to defy categorization. I’ve written science fiction, sports-themed novels, paranormal, a mystery. I guess the one thing that ties them together is an element of romance, although not in the bodice-ripping sense. You’ll never see Fabio on the cover of one of my books!

In all my novels the protagonist is broken in some way, seeking redemption. In A World Without Music, the protagonist seeks for the harmony his life once was, prior to witnessing a horrific scene in the desert of Kuwait.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t write with a screenplay mentality, and no one has ever asked me the question. But this was a fun exercise, even if I spent more time on it than any of the other questions.

  • Reagan (the Gulf War veteran): Jim Caviezel
  • Prisco (inhabited by the walk-in): Kevin Spacey
  • Sarah (Reagan’s ex-wife): Susanna Thompson (she played Lt. Colonel Hollis Mann, Gibbs’ romantic interest for a few NCIS episodes)
  • Cam (Reagan’s Facebook romantic interest) Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black)
  • Rosary (the groupie who stalks Reagan): Bellamy Young
Jim Caviezel

Jim Caviezel

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey

Susanna Thompson

Susanna Thompson

Claire Forlani

Claire Forlani

Bellamy Young

Bellamy Young

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Can a veteran of the Gulf War suffering PTSD finally leave behind his past, to find love and peace of mind?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

A World Without Music will be traditionally published, likely by a small, independent press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I anticipate completing my first draft by late winter 2013. I commenced the project in March 2012.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t think of another book to which A World Without Music compares. I would hope that’s a good thing, although the publishing industry often likes to piggyback off the success of works that have come before.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Actually, I think I was inspired by events in my own life. More than two years removed from an ugly breakup and going through a career crisis, my own life was devoid of much harmony. As luck, or fate, would have it, a month after I started the project, I met a wonderful woman who has brought the music back into my life. Still, the story was started and I couldn’t bring myself trash it—I’d already gotten too attached to the characters. I also pride myself in finishing what I start.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

All my novels deal with relationships—those between men and women or sons and parents. A World Without Music is no different. The protagonist is broken, seeking love and redemption. Who can’t relate to that? Introspective, A World Without Music also attempts to answer those questions we all ask, at some point in our life, about the meanings of life and love. I hope it will leave readers with their own introspection.

Please checkout next week’s participants:

With ten published books under his belt, Peter Watson Jenkins, an Anglo American, has just added his first collection of short stories. This genre has allowed him to range widely in location, just as he has done in life. Since graduating from Cambridge, he’s been a jack of all trades: a school teacher, minister of religion, journalist, leader of a peace movement, stockbroker, and hypnotist. He hopes this book, Found Money, will prove him a master wordsmith and successful at selling books. He should be, as he was also once a carpet salesman.

Jennie Nicassio is the author of Moondust. While attending Chatham University for her master’s in professional writing, she rediscovered her passion for writing. A clairvoyant with a strong belief in the power of positive thinking, Jennie resides in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her sons, three cats, and dog.

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Ah, the Rejection Letter: Nothing Sweet About It

No writer likes them—the rejection letter—but they teach many things, if one is open to their lessons. Perseverance for one thing—unless you do an end around and self-publish. They can also help teach how to write a better query letter. To the more discerning eye, they can sometimes reveal a weakness in a manuscript, if the agent or publisher reveals why they didn’t care for the work.

I’ve gotten much better over the years dealing with rejection letters. But I prefer the form letter to the more personal rejection. “Thanks for submitting; however, we feel this just isn’t right for us” is much easier to take than “There is much to commend about your submission. It’s obvious you have talent; however … blah, blah, blah.”

I recently received such a rejection letter. I’d submitted my latest novel, 500 Miles to Go, to a Michigan publisher. Being a Michigander, I played up the local connection in my query and submitted the first ten pages of my manuscript, as directed in their online guidelines. The response I received:

Thank you very much for taking the time to submit to us. Unfortunately, I am going to have to take a pass—and it’s not because of your writing or opening. You have a very strong opening and very clean writing. However, the racing topic is not one I am passionate about, and in order to have a good-selling book, you need to have good marketing behind it, and I’m afraid I’m not the person to do that for you. But, as you know, this is a very subjective business, and I wish you the best of luck in placing it with another publisher.

Most novelists would be thrilled to tack that one on the wall in their den. Make no mistake, I wasn’t displeased; but it did give me pause to reflect. I’m nothing if not retrospective. Not that being retrospective has done me much good over the years. I’ve had my heart bloodied and bruised more times than I care to admit, and the only thing I’ve learned is that none of them taught me anything that I could apply to the next one because that next one brings a whole new set of rules, most with which I’m unfamiliar.

I understand when someone tells me, “I’m not passionate about your novel because I’m not a sports enthusiast.” I once tried sales and I wasn’t very good at it because I wasn’t able to convince the consumer that I believed in what I was peddling—retirement plans for educators in the public school system.

But Decca Records turned down the Beatles because one of their executives didn’t much care for their sound, and he also believed that guitar music was on its way out. After the Beatles launched one of the most successful musical odysseys in history, I imagine that suit kicked himself, hard, and continued kicking himself until the day he died.

I read where J.K. Rowling received in the neighborhood of a hundred rejection letters before someone took a chance on her. I wonder how those who turned her down now feel. Maybe they are inured to their loss and simply shrug it off—such is the publishing business. Which is too bad since a “kick me” attitude might go a long way toward leaving them open to take a risk on the next potential bestseller, even if they don’t much care for swords and sorcery—or, in my case, a mainstream romance novel set against a backdrop of auto racing during the golden era or motor sports. Most sports novels aren’t really about the sport anyway; they simply give a human aspect to the uniform that bears a number and a name.

An ex-girlfriend of mine hated sports. She viewed athletes as all brawn and sweat, with little between the ears. But some of her favorite movies were sports movies—61, for example, because it chronicled Roger Maris’s 1961 run to top Babe Ruth’s single season record for home runs. It humanized Maris because it showed the adversity he endured at the hands of the media as well as the fan base in New York—no one wanted to see a Jewish ballplayer top the beloved Babe’s record. It was a heart- and gut-wrenching story to say the least, even though anyone with little more than a casual acquaintance with baseball knows Maris broke the record.

Many of the most popular sports movies are based on novels—The Natural, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game just to name three.

I’ve had other agents tell me there is no market for sports-themed novels. Really? Amazon lists 884 novels as baseball-themed, 662 set against a football backdrop, and 441 basketball novels. There is not much out there with an automobile racing theme; but that might only mean that if you publish it they will read it.

I know many novelists have received similar rejection at the hands of agents and publishers alike. Do you take it lying down? I know there is little any of us can do about it; but does it bother you—the subjectivity, the mentality that they won’t swing at anything out of their sweet spot?

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The Long and Winding Road

Finally. One Hot January is available through my publisher, Second Wind, and also from Amazon, in hard copy and Kindle formats, and from several other online sources that sell good books.

It’s been a long, arduous task, from inception to publication. Other writers understand this. Yet, as writers also understand, there is no greater feeling—that sigh that reflects a host of emotions—than seeing the labor of your love in print, bound and on a bookshelf in a brick and mortar bookstore.

I started writing my first novel, January’s Paradigm, in 1992. It’s the story of a writer who has written a best-selling novel—One Hot January. References to OHJ abound in January’s Paradigm, and I soon decided my next project would be to write OHJ, a sort of standalone prequel to January’s Paradigm, with a sequel of its own. It’s a Chandleresque piece (although I hadn’t yet read Chandler) about a private investigator, Joe January, circa 1947. January uncovers a seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities. What started, in January’s Paradigm, as therapy for me following the grief of a broken relationship, ended with the discovery that I am a writer.

I started writing OHJ in 1995. The going was slow—there was plenty of research about the period and World War II. Purely fictional, I couldn’t draw on the personal experience that was my inspiration for January’s Paradigm. Populated with characters fictional as well as factual, OHJ’s plot is based on the premise that Winston Churchill withheld from U.S. Intelligence the vital decrypt specifying the date and time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—a decrypt that many believe lies locked away in a box, to remain unopened for seventy-five years. But what if he’d passed along that intelligence, allowing the U.S. to perhaps head off the attack, thereby delaying U.S. involvement in the war? Would Germany perhaps have grown too strong to defeat? Would we today all be speaking German?

About a year into the project my father was diagnosed with colon cancer after years of annual colonoscopies that revealed nothing. He was given no more than a year to live. So much for catching it early. On top of that, Mom was nearing the end of her eighteen-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. She succumbed in March 1996.

Work on OHJ came to a crashing halt. I wanted to spend as much time with Dad as I could. Dad hadn’t been the most nurturing father in my youth; but somehow, after Mom passed, we began to connect. We had a lot to connect over and so little time. The writing would have to wait.

Dad passed away in March 1998. I grieved both their losses at once. I have no children of my own so it hit me hard. Perhaps it was only natural to look behind me, focus on the family who’d left me behind instead of the family I would in time abandon. With Mom and Dad gone I lost my passion for words as well as my muse.

The short: I wouldn’t finish OHJ until 2001, after which I immediately launched into the sequel, January’s Thaw. I began submitting OHJ to agents and publishers alike; although I received several encouraging rejections, I had no takers.

Two years later I finished January’s Thaw and commenced writing Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. I continued submitting the two January books as a package but received only more rejection letters. One publisher suggested they might be interested if I cut about 30,000 words and combined the two into one novel. I resisted that idea; but when I finished Backstop, on a whim, as an exercise, I did what they suggested and resubmitted. They politely declined.

When I completed Backstop I focused on submitting that novel, easily the most mainstream novel I’d written and commenced my next project—The Cobb Legacy. The January books were put on a back burner, but not forgotten. About a year later, Second Wind Publishing accepted me into their family of writers, agreeing to publish Backstop. I was elated. Subsequent to that, I proposed the two January books and Second Wind agreed to publish them under their Blue Shift science fiction imprint.

Oh, and I since have completed The Cobb Legacy and my sixth novel, A Retrospect in Death, and have commenced my seventh novel.

And so, more than fifteen years after sitting down to write the first sentence in One Hot January—My name is Joe January—the journey comes to an end. Sort of. It will end proper when January’s Thaw hits the shelves. Not my best work—that honor goes to A Retrospect in Death (my White Album)—but they were the best work at that time and I’m proud of them nevertheless. As I’m sure are both Mom and Dad.

As for that sigh: Ahhhh.

Click to purchase

Click to purchase

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Author Interview with J. Conrad Guest

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

I start with a protagonist and his conflict; most times I have the ending in mind and simply write to it, although often the ending is amended depending on what happens prior to my getting there. Everything before that—the digressions, the journey—are discoveries that, hopefully, translate as discovery for the reader. I’ve never written from an outline. I haven’t even tried to work from an outline; I feel it would be too restrictive to me.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain number of words each day?

Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite novelists, despite Faulkner (no stranger to drink himself, Faulkner butchered the screenplay for The Big Sleep) calling him a “world class drunk,” wrote Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off. My writing schedule is like that: the first sentence is magic, the second intimate, the third settles me in for the session, and after that it’s like taking the girl’s clothes off. I used to set a word count but learned to accept what comes. Some sessions produce more word count than others; but I focus on the content as my goal. Certain parts of the story are going to be more difficult to put down on paper than others. Some sessions result in 1,500 words, while others end with 4,000 words. I’m grateful for it all.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes, I do. We laugh at our pets for being creatures of habit, but we are, too, if we’re honest. My morning sessions start with a pot of coffee and a trip to my humidor to select a cigar. (In the evening, substitute bourbon and beer for the coffee.) The cigar is all about the ritual—selecting the right cigar to go with my mood, the time of day; taking it out of the cellophane, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, admiring the label, the workmanship (the better cigars are still handmade by someone with skilled hands in another culture thousands of miles away), snipping its head, lighting it, those first few draws, and watching the smoke infiltrate my den. The ritual helps get my creativity flowing.

Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?

Yes, my preference is for Sunday morning. I schedule my entire day around my session. During the week, in the evening, I’ll polish or edit what I wrote on Sunday; but sometimes, if I’m really humming along, I’ll push the story forward during the week. But it’s difficult to do that consistently with a day job, especially one that puts me in front of a laptop writing. Sometimes the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is switch on my own laptop and be creative.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a major project—A Retrospect in Death. It begins with a man’s death, and the reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way. I’m just now tinkering with a concept for my next novel, a period piece during the golden age of motor racing—the 1960s—with the Indianapolis 500 as the centerpiece.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

When I started my first novel, nearly twenty years ago, the hardest part was sitting down to write the first sentence—even though I’d written it in my head several weeks previously. I was intimidated by the whole process and feared that I’d never complete it. I only talked about it to friends. Finally, someone asked me when I would stop talking and do something. It was the kick I needed to set pen to paper. Now, when I near the end of a project, I begin to worry about my next one. What’s the story? Who are my characters and what are their conflicts? How can I top my last novel? Today I find the revision process the most difficult part. I love polishing a text; but sometimes I get carried away with the tinkering. At that point I go back to the original draft and determine whether the tinkering adds something, some new dimension, or does it get in the way?

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

The late great sports writer Red Smith wrote Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed. Opening a vein is never easy, but it’s essential, in my opinion, to great writing. It separates the great writers from the mercenaries, who write simply for the masses, for profit. Unfortunately, that seems to go against what many creative writing courses are teaching young writers today. They’re told that they must allow the reader to experience the text in their own way. I understand that, but one must still lead the horse to the water. What if your reader has never experienced what you’re writing about? For example, I’ve never fathered children, so it does me little good to read about a character’s joy over holding his newborn son for the first time by writing, “He was proud.” I like metaphor and so I could relate to something like, “Holding his son for the first time he felt as if he’d just hit the walk-off homerun in the seventh game of the World Series.” Raymond Chandler was one of the greatest stylists ever to write, and I consider myself somewhat of a stylist, too. It comes natural to me. I love language, and to me how something is said is as important as what is said; yet sadly, the publishing industry seems to frown on anything that might take a reader out of the story. Well, commercials do that on TV; but it doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of our favorite shows, does it? If the industry is losing money, perhaps they should reconsider the cookie cutter mold stories they seem to want to publish.

Does writing come easy for you?

It comes a lot easier today than it did when I started twenty years ago! That’s a product of experience—like an exercise routine, the first few workout sessions are difficult as your muscles rebel against the abuse you put them through. But in time, your body craves those workouts. Writing is like that for me. The more I do it the more I feel the need to do it. Raymond Chandler wrote Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say. I hope I never reach that end because every session is an adventure. I learn something about the craft of writing and, more importantly, about myself.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

For me, the most essential quality of a good story is characters with whom I can connect. Finding a good story to write is easy; but writing about characters the reader cares about is more difficult. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most demented characters ever conceived, yet he was fascinating, a train wreck away from which we want to look but can’t.

Where can we learn more about your books?

My third novel, One Hot January, is soon to launch, through Second Wind Publishing. You can learn more about me and all my literary endeavors at my website.

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Author Interview

What is your book about?

School of Lies is funny mystery novel about a bunch of teachers who work in a dysfunctional, urban high school. The stressful environment is a perfect catalyst for the murder that takes place. My new book, Deadly Traffic takes a teacher out of her comfort zone into the word of human trafficking when female students disappear from campus.

Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite? Why?

My MC is a Special Ed. teacher named Kendra Desola. She’s compulsive and overly inquisitive; every problem has to be examined and solved. She is devoted to her students but has learned the hard way that the best way to help them often involves breaking the rules. There’s a tension between her wanting to be a good role model and her willingness to lie when she thinks it’s useful. In Deadly Traffic, Kendra meets a young man, Win Ni (who my brother decided to call Win Ni the Pooh). Win has a good heart but he wants to be rich and is willing to do almost anything to achieve his goal. I wanted to make him a lot darker than he ended up because I became fond of him.

Who is your most unusual character?

I’d have to say most of them are unusual, but they’re true to form. The good characters I create are never all good and that bothers some people. Readers who aren’t familiar with what really goes on in public schools may think the teachers I portray are over the top. I’ve had people react in shock. They say, “A Vice Principal wouldn’t talk like that.” Oh, but they do, they do.

Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

For School of Lies I relied on my own experience moving through different schools. I mentally filed away what other teachers told me of their experiences as well. The book, in fact, started because some of my fellow teachers knew I liked to write and said, “You should really make a book about some of this stuff because no one would believe it.” For my second book, Deadly Traffic, I read several nonfiction books about modern slavery—in this country as well as overseas—and human trafficking, and visited many websites.

What was the first story you remember writing?

My family used to make up poems and stories in the car during road trips when I was very young and I’d try to contribute when my older brother would stop torturing me. Just kidding. I do recall writing a play in 9th grade with some friends about a super pigeon named Supersplatt.

What do you like to read?

I like mystery novels, fantasy and science fiction. I try to find mysteries with puzzles and with as little gore as possible. Some of my favorite writers are Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin and Tad Williams.

What writer influenced you the most?

Mark Twain. Absolutely.

What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you’d written yourself?

Hitchhiker’ Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

I want the main characters to have a “quest.” The quest can be a real journey or one in their heads and if there’s mystery involved all the better.

What is the best advice another writer gave you?

I asked how you tell when your manuscript is finished. The reply: “You don’t leave a book when it’s done, it leaves you.”

See also:

Mickey Mickey Hoffman’s author page at Second Wind Publishing, LLC
Interview of Kendra DeSola the Hero of School of Lies by Mickey Hoffman
The first chapter of School of Lies by Mickey Hoffman
Review of School of Lies by Mickey Hoffman

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Music a Part of My Writing Ritual

I recently completed my sixth novel and it was no surprise that, like many of my novels, music plays a large part in the narrative.

In my first novel, January’s Paradigm, each of six parts is prefaced with a lyric from a variety of songs; while in One Hot January, a reference is made to Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, two successful songwriters from the 1940s, not to mention appearances made by the late greats Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum.

In Backstop, my protagonist is a pianist, and in The Cobb Legacy, much of the epilogue references many of my personal favorite songwriters and songs; indeed, it concludes as I conclude all of my novels, listening to the Beatles legendary Abbey Road CD—I type “The End” as The End blares from my Bose speakers.Abbey Road

Indeed, all my writing sessions are accompanied by music, as much a muse as are my cigars and coffee or scotch and beer (depending on time of day).

Music has been called a universal language. I recall when the Iron Curtain fell and Billy Joel played to a packed house in Russia; I own the CD. No doubt very few in attendance that night understood the lyrics, but they cheered as loudly as any English speaking audience.

Music moves us, perhaps better than language—and no one is moved by a beautifully written passage, a lyrically conveyed sentiment, more than me. Music speaks to us, overcoming language barriers, through its rhythms, the feelings the composer and, later, the musicians put into notes.

I use music to amp up my own feelings when I’m writing, and I reference lyrics in my narratives as a means to connect with my reader as much as I endeavor to connect with them through my text.

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Written many years ago and dedicated to the Dilbert generation—those cube rats who are overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. I never did find a home for this with a publisher, although one suggested I write an alternate ending, which I did; they never did accept the piece. The alternate ending appears after the original. Which do you prefer?bathman

I’d had a miserable day. A perfectly miserable day. A perfectly miserable ending to a perfectly miserable week.

I work with college nincompoops. They may be very good at what they do—providing consulting services to the healthcare industry—but they sure as hell aren’t any good at writing about what they do for our clients. That’s my job—making them look good in the eyes of the client. I format their documents to a certain standard and perform a business read. I chase down errant punctuation and place it where it belongs, correct incorrect punctuation, and eliminate it entirely when it’s unnecessary. I cut the strings on dangling participles. I splice split infinitives and juxtapose compound sentences into their proper order, making sure all clauses are properly tucked into place where they belong, and further making certain that the predicate actually predicates what the subject is or does. I get tense making certain the nincompoops use the proper tense, and lower the case in cases where uppercase is inappropriate and vice versa (or as one nincompoop once wrote, “visa versa”). I also correct misspelled words as opposed (or as another nincompoop once wrote, “aposed”) to letting the nincompoop embarrass himself in the eyes of our clients by ignoring my penchant for perfection. I ensure that modifiers modify what they’re supposed to modify and make my own modifications when they don’t. I also meet impossible deadlines.

Got a deliverable that needs to be at a client site by tomorrow? Give it to me; I’ll get it to done. I just wave my magic wand and it shows up at the client site on time looking like a million bucks and reading like someone with some actual intelligence wrote it.

It was Friday and I’d had a particularly brutal week. I’d had to stay late tweaking some nincompoop’s HIPAA Impact Analysis—over a hundred pages of drivel (if you can’t impress them with clarity, overwhelm them with garrulous claptrap)—and had just finished a hastily prepared meal: a Dolly’s pizza that had been less than hastily delivered a little more than an hour after I’d ordered it… twenty minutes longer than had been promised. The pizza was good, but it was difficult to tell whether it had hit the spot by itself, or whether the shot of bourbon chased by the beer had paved the way.

I settled into my recliner to watch the ballgame. It was late September and the Tigers were struggling mightily. They’d been out of the hunt since late April, and now, instead of struggling to make a late run for the playoffs, they were struggling against finishing the season with 100 losses. If I’d been a betting man, I’d have bet on them to attain that triple digit milestone. Having fallen behind the Yankees early, tonight’s game looked like they would move one game closer to that dubious plateau.

Two and a half hours later the game ended with yet another loss, and I shut off the TV and went to bed. No sooner did my head hit the pillow than I heard the bathroom water go on in the apartment above mine: Bathman was awake and on the prowl…

Since moving into this apartment a few months ago I’d been continuously annoyed by the bathing habits of the resident of the unit above mine. Not having met him, I could only surmise I’d recognize him instantly if not by his acute cleanliness, then most certainly by his water-wrinkled skin, or maybe even by the scales I was beginning to suspect he needed to irrigate so regularly. I never heard splashing, so I assumed he was merely enjoying some perverse Calgon moment, letting the water soak away whatever dirt may have accumulated during the couple of hours since his previous soaking.

He bathed constantly. By noon on weekends he’d already have bathed twice, without ever having left his apartment. Twice more by six in the evening, and twice again by midnight. On one particularly restless night I’d been treated to the sound of his bathroom plumbing (located in my bedroom closet) groaning its protest at 2 a.m., signaling to me that it was time for rub-a-dub-dub, one man in a tub. By the end of my first month, for the first time in my life—no mean feat considering my ex-wife (towards the end I’d taken to playing at full volume Jimi Hendrix’s Hey, Joe, the song that asks the musical question “where you going with that gun in your hand?”)—I’d been ready to commit murder.

I soon began referring to this Bozo as Bathman. The name was accompanied by an image of a caped crusader clad in black latex, with soap scum around his ankles.

The plumbing sang in a high falsetto as Bathman shut off the water, and a moment later I heard him slip-squeak into his porcelain tub. I imagined pasty-white blubbery skin and wondered if his tub, too, might have stretch marks. I closed my eyes and began to drift off…

The bright light outside my bedroom window brought me instantly awake: a circular white spotlight against the night sky with a black “W” embossed within its halo. The Commissioner was summoning The Wordsmith. Someone needed my services.

I bounded out of bed and adjusted my tights made tighter still by a nearly full bladder. “No time,” I told myself and threw my cape over my left shoulder and dashed out the door and down the two flights of stairs that lead to the parking lot. Sliding behind the wheel of the Wordmobile, I flipped the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. I threw it into drive and picked up the Wordphone as I sped around the corner on two wheels and headed east. A moment later the Commissioner picked up.

“Wordsmith,” I heard him say. “We’ve got a situation at a client site.

“What is it?” I said doggedly. My heart was racing with expectation. Last night I’d been summoned to lop the “s” off a series of pro formas, one of those funny little words who’s plural is the same as its singular. The night before someone had relied on Spellchecker and I had been called in to slash all the hyphens from multiple appearances of inter-dependencies and bi-weeklies. God, I love my job.

“One of our consultants has been submitting status reports to a client without first submitting them to you to work your magic.”

“Damn,” I breathed. “How many?”


It looked like I’d be pulling an all-nighter. “What’s the excuse?”

“She said the CEO never reads them.”

“And now?”

“The CEO resigned. The new one wants to see the documentation for everything we’ve done on this project. The three documents are waiting for you on your office e-mail.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll copy you on the final versions.” I broke the connection.

Moments later I squealed to a halt next to the unmanned booth outside the parking lot. I palmed the green disk that prints the ticket, pulled the ticket from its slot, and waited for the gate to lift. I stuffed the ticket into my tights so I wouldn’t forget it.

I raced across the street and stooped at the door so the scanner could read the big red “W” scrawled in script across the black backdrop that was my costume. A moment later I heard the lock click open. I raced to the elevator and pounded the Up button. The door sighed open and I leaped inside and pushed the button for the fourth floor.

Consultants, I thought to myself as I waited impatiently to reach my destination. I couldn’t think of another business where a client is happy to pay someone they didn’t call to tell them something they already know.

The elevator door parted down the middle (I felt like Moses standing on the bank of the Red Sea), and I dashed down the hall to my cubicle. I put on a pot of coffee while I waited for my PC to boot up.

The files were there, as the Commissioner had said. I downloaded the first one. I groaned. It was a mess. It would need a tremendous amount of reformatting to bring it to standard, and from the Executive Summary I could tell that whoever had written it had probably had someone else write their college dissertation.

I took a sip from my coffee mug and—


Awoke with a start from the sound of water draining from the tub upstairs.

“Just a dream,” I sighed with marked disappointment.

I settled my head back onto the pillow and into my own very mundane life. I closed my eyes determined to get some sleep. Tomorrow was Saturday and I didn’t have anything major planned. But I knew Bathman had a big day in store for him.

I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my ears to muffle the sound of the draining water…


And the alternate ending:

I took a sip from my coffee mug and —

Six a.m. and the plumbing in my closet that was my alarm clock went off: Bathman was determined to start the day off with a clean slate. Yesterday’s HIPAA Impact Analysis had had its impact on me. I rolled into a sitting position and launched myself into action. Without bothering with slippers, I raced into the bathroom.

If it’s clean he wants to be, I can help with that, I thought as I reached for the toilet bowl brush that stood in its plastic receptacle in the corner behind the toilet.

I was in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, but I didn’t care. I needed to make sure I got to Bathman before he hit the water. I bounded up the stairs and pounded on the door with my brush raised, prepared to do battle.

A moment later the door swung in and I stood there, with water trickling down my upraised arm, unable to say a word. In the few months I’d lived here my febrile imagination had created for me an icon I was certain reality could only fail to match. And so before me stood the figure I had not dared to imagine.

“Uh,” I stammered, at a loss, for the first time in a long time, for words. I looked away from the dark eyes that stared at me, down at dainty feet with nails painted red.

“Yes?” came a sultry voice that sounded to me, as my blood pressure fell, as far away as last night’s dream.

My eyes moved slowly up from those two delicately formed feet to take in two dangerously curved legs that disappeared beneath the hemline, about six inches above the knees, of a tiny robe cinched tight at a narrow waist, to linger a moment on the proud swelling of two rather large but not too large breasts that the tiny robe Bathman… um, Bathwoman, wore couldn’t conceal.

What I’d envisioned as pasty white skin akin to something that might crawl out from under some rock was instead a medium shade of Mediterranean bronze, well irrigated not from repeated bathings, but instead, or so I imagined, from recurring application of skin lotion, rich in aloe and vitamin E.

“Can I help you?” the sultry voice asked.

A few minutes later, armed with a pint of Vanish, I padded back down to my own apartment. Yesterday’s HIPAA Impact Analysis was forgotten. And as I vigorously brushed a bowl that didn’t need brushing, I heard my neighbor slip-squeak into her bathtub and cursed myself for not asking her opinion on use of the ellipsis as a licentious literary device…

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What Has Happened to the Novel as an Art Form?

He transcended all the rules. There have been, perhaps, greater novelists, but he was incomparably the greatest artist who wrote a novel. — H. L. Meneken on Joseph Conrad

Today’s emerging writers are encouraged by a host of resources, including Writer’s Digest and The Writer, to adhere to a strict set of rules. The result is that today’s popular fiction finds all the punctuation in place and the sentence structure clean, narrative held to a calculated fraction of dialogue, and certain devised bells and whistles implemented to urge the reader to turn to the next page; but the characters seem a bit detached (writers are advised to separate themselves from their characters), the grammar a bit bland (lacking the beauty of a finely crafted sentence that leaves the reader breathless and stays with them, like a song they can’t get out of their head, long after they’ve closed the book for the last time)… all of which amounts to a formula, as if anyone with a good grasp of basic writing technique could’ve written it. Something is missing—signature.

Signature identifies the author to the reader. If you’ve ever read Joseph Conrad, you most certainly will be able to identify his signature. The same can be said about Poe, and Twain, and many other artists of the written word. These and many other writers from previous eras created art. They weren’t afraid to infuse their work with a healthy dose of themselves, perhaps because they understood, at some level, that readers read novels because what they really want is to know the author. Today’s writers are taught to remain apart from their creations. Yesteryear’s writers also knew how to turn a phrase, to elicit emotion, to, literally, paint with words. Today’s writers are advised to write down to a ninth grade level — keep it simple, stupid.

For a story to appeal to a reader, it must mirror, either through its protagonist or storyline, something in the reader’s life or it will fall flat. The failure to touch all readers is not a failure of the author; like other art mediums, fiction is not meant to appeal to everyone. You either get Jackson Pollock or you don’t. Rodin leaves you in awe or yawning.

Samuel R. Delany, arguably one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time, said: “Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is — and is only — what its words make happen in the reader’s mind. And all readers are not the same. Any reader has the right to say of any text: ‘But I didn’t think it was that good.’”

In other words, what reverberates in my being, what moves me and causes me to shiver, and leaves me both satisfied and hungry at once, may leave another reader in search of something else that in turn might leave me untouched. That’s the nature of the beast.

It could be argued that the publishing industry knows what the public wants to read, as evidenced by what appears on the best seller list. But despite publication of 100,000 more books (in part due to the growing self-publication industry) in 2003 than in 2002, a recent report by the Book Industry Study Group, a not-for-profit research organization, stated that twenty-three million fewer books were sold in 2003 than in 2002. While net profits increased slightly, due to higher prices, overall sales dropped despite high-profile releases such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Dan Brown’s thriller, The Da Vinci Code, neither of which, a century from now, will likely be used in classrooms as examples of exemplary writing.

While a struggling economy and the used book market can be considered factors in declining sales, cable and satellite, radio, music and movies all offer better value for the consumer’s entertainment dollar. Reading is a solitary endeavor (although its rewards are potentially far greater than the others), while the other entertainment offerings require much less effort and can be enjoyed, sequentially, as a couple or as a family. Is it any wonder that many consumers are finding it more difficult to justify parting with up to thirty-five dollars for a hardback, something which they will in all likelihood enjoy but once?

Yet the one factor the publishing industry fails to consider as contributing to declining sales of fiction is the product they continually feed the consumer. The publishing industry, once comprised of seventy or eighty competing businesses, today, as five corporate bean counters, insists on such wide audience appeal that most popular fiction is, like two opposing politicians afraid to talk about their respective platforms for fear of offending some minority group, watered down. Hence they’ve taken much of the innovation and signature, and unfortunately most of the art, out of the novel.

These five corporate bean counters all claim they seek new, original and fresh writing, but it often must also wear the scent of a best seller before they’ll take a chance on it. Sadly, the message this sends to agents and emerging writers is that the only formula for success is to produce mainstream fiction that will appeal to the masses.

It’s unfortunate that the market for literary art seems to go largely untapped, and perhaps even more unfortunate that most of today’s popular fiction will, in the next century, be forgotten, while past works that today are considered classics will endure. Such is the significance of true art.


Filed under Op-ed, Writing