Tag Archives: novels

Contested

I may have mentioned this before several thousand times, but I’ve written a novel. It’s called Hang A Crooked Number. Here is what I say about the novel to people who may wish to represent or publish it:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. To the outside world, Backstop appears to be a minor league catcher of rapidly diminishing skills. In truth, he is an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of his fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. Backstop gets one last chance at proving his worth when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. His mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

This is the logline (industry terms!). Out of necessity, this omits a lot of what the book is. At the risk of explaining a thing that should serve to explain itself (like art is supposed to do), I can say that Hang a Crooked Number is about a lot of things that have almost nothing to do with spies, or baseball, or an imaginary world that has spies in baseball. A friend of mine who read it described it as “very New York,” which I took as a compliment. What I’m saying is, if you don’t dig baseball and/or spy novels in the slightest, I think you might still enjoy it.

The reason I’m going on about this is because I would like you to know Hang a Crooked Number is currently in the running for something called the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The novel has made it to the quarterfinals, in fact, and is one of about 100 titles under consideration in the General Fiction category. I entered the novel in the general fiction category because despite the novel’s genre shell, I think it’s closer to literary fiction than anything else. (See: defensive overexplaining above.) I’m normally suspicious of any contest that would allow me to advance this far, but they haven’t asked me for any money or to crash on my couch yet, so I think I’m safe.

If you want a tiny glimpse of the novel, Amazon is offering free ebook excerpts of all the quarterfinalists; mine can be found here. If this were in print form, what you get would only be the first 10-15 pages or so. But hey, it’s free, innit? I don’t think people downloading and/or reviewing this excerpt on Amazon will have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not Hang a Crooked Number progresses to the next rung on the contest ladder. But I don’t think it will hurt its chances either, if you catch my drift.

This novel will see the light of day, one way or another. If it’s via this contest, great. If it’s via the more old school method of agent pitching to editor over a three-martini lunch, great. If I have to make and distribute an ebook myself, great. If I have to tattoo it on my back and walk down the beach, great. My primary interest is to see it available to as many people as possible. That probably eliminates the tattooing option, but never say never.

Alright, as you were.

The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

One thing I love about writing is that it can demonstrate someone being remarkably perceptive and oblivious all at once. To witness this phenomenon, read Stephen Marche’s latest piece for Esquire, in which he attempts to argue that we live in a “golden age” of writing. I found myself agreeing with a few of its assertions, yet also felt this agreement was negated by how much the author got wrong, chose to ignore, or could not perceive about the modern writing landscape.

In his article, Marche argues that ye olden days had plenty of bad or just plain boring writing, and I agree. He also disdains the “woe is me” attitude so pervasive among writerly types, which I believe is important. Every writer, at some point or another, firmly believed his/her beautiful art and soul were being crushed by a cruel, unfeeling world. One’s ability to produce work worth writing is directly proportional one’s ability to move beyond this narcissistic mindset. Otherwise, you spend the time you should be writing looking in the mirror, admiring your own bruises.

However, Marche’s stated aim was to show our era as a golden age for writing, and in this he fails. This is because the support for his thesis stems from how spectacularly rich authors like J.K Rowling and Tom Wolfe have become. By the same logic, you could point to J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and say the Gilded Age was one of vast prosperity. It all depends on one’s notion of a Golden Age. Does that mean mountains of wealth displayed by the Morgans and Rockefellers of the world, or does it mean everyone is able to pay their bills?

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The Finish Line

This weekend, this happened.

Which is to say, Love and a Short Leash, the novel I wrote about here and have been mentioning obliquely and incessantly in various social media platforms is finally complete. Now it is ready to take flight in this big, terrible world and hopefully find a cozy nest somewhere. Metaphors!

I am not ruling out self-publishing. I’ve seen more and more people go this route, and not just odd cranks and fanfic enthusiasts, but for-real authors. The idea of having complete ownership over my creative output is very appealing to me, and I have the ebook chops to make my own digital novel with ease. However, what I don’t have is the reach, influence, and free time to hustle and get this book into as many hands as I’d like. And I do feel that, considering the insane amount of time and I spent writing this thing, I owe myself the effort of seeing if more conventional channels want to publish it. If that doesn’t pan out…well, I’ll just burn that bridge when I get to it.

This book began in its life as a short story I wrote when I was in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. The head of program then was Michael Cunningham, author of the The Hours (among other novels). In the first class I had with him, a sort of “freshman seminar” for brand new MFA candidates, he told the assembled hopeful writers, “The world doesn’t want your stories.”

What he meant was, nobody is out there begging for you to finish your work. If you set out to write something and you never finish it, nobody will be banging on your door to demand it. This applies to every creative endeavor, but especially so to writing. The world is a big place and it will get along just fine without you and your thoughts and your dreams, thank you very much.

I don’t believe Michael said this to be discouraging or to intimidate us, drill-sergeant-style. I took it as a simple reminder that writing is really, really, really hard (see?), and there is already so much of it, more than any human could read in 10 lifetimes, that one more story is a tiny drop in an infinitesimally large bucket, and you must know this before you pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard.

When I began writing this novel, I operated under this assumption: Nobody wants this thing. Sometimes this attitude gives you a sense of defiant me vs. the world-ism, which can be useful in the solitary endeavor of writing. But it can also be a crushingly depressing outlook if you’re inclined to dark thoughts, which is me in spades. I blame my genes. My Irish side gets the big ideas, my German side makes me do the hard work, and then both sides gang up to whisper What’s the point, really? That negativity, plus not having long stretches of time to work on this novel, is what caused me to abandon this book at long stretches.

Last year, I resolved to push past this feeling and finally finish a draft of this novel that had lingered on my hard drive and in my mind since 2004. I still had the idea Nobody wants this thing at the back of my head. However, I also began to make regular updates on Twitter and Facebook about my progress. I tried to make the updates an even mix of clinical (how much I’d done and how much I had yet to do) and affirmation/self encouragement (e.g., “THIS IS GONNA MELT YOUR FACE, GUYS.”).

I did this for much the same reason I made similar updates regarding my efforts to get into shape: To create public accountability. (Idea admittedly stolen from Drew Magary’s Public Humiliation Diet.) If I talked online about how I was working out, it’s that much more embarrassing to walk around looking like a land monster, because then people will whisper Oh, he gave up… Likewise, if I kept posting novel updates, that obliged me to continue until I finished. Otherwise, when people asked me about it, I’d have to do the dance of, Yeah, I was working on that book for a while, but you know, I’ve been so busy…

In doing this, I found that many people–real-life friends, online friends, and virtual strangers alike–were both supportive and curious, sending encouragement while wanting to know more about the novel. Especially since I finally completed my first draft, I’ve gotten heartening pats on the back and atta boys from so many people, which is amazing motivation for an endeavor where the payoff comes much, much later, if at all. And as I reached the home stretch, with the end in sight, I got some genuine I can’t wait to read this thing notes from people I love and admire. This, more than anything else, enabled me to power my way to the end.

I still believe it’s best to approach the whole writing business–particularly the novel writing business–assuming that no, the world doesn’t want your stories. But I also found that when you share the journey, even in the most cursory way, the world might like to hear those stories anyway.

So, anybody wanna publish a novel?

Working

I recently acquired new dresser drawers, something I do maybe once a decade. This necessitated relocating the top drawer of my old dresser, which was basically my Treasured Memories Trove. I never looked at any of this stuff, mind you. If I thought I wanted to keep something for posterity, I just shoved it in the drawer, figuring one day I would be able to find it again. A fool-proof plan!

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to transfer my Treasured Memories to their new home, I stumbled and completely unended the old drawer, spilling tons of stuff I forgot I had all over my bedroom floor. It felt like dropkicking my entire life.

Though I was alone in my bedroom, this filled me with a deep, red-face shame, and I tried to shovel all my Treasured Memories back into the old drawer in the most inelegant way possible. I didn’t dare glance at most of them, save for the most valuable items that caught my eye. A silver bracelet my grandfather wore throughout World War II. My dad’s last passport. The only foul ball I ever “caught” at a major league baseball game (quotes = long story).

I had to retrieve one errant piece that floated across the room, away from the other stuff, a rectangular swatch of pale posterboard that caught a drift and slipped away. I had no idea what it might be until I picked it up.

It was a postcard I received a long time ago. On one side, tour dates for a band. On the other, a note from one of my heroes, someone I was lucky enough to correspond with for a while.

I don’t mean to be vague or to tease, but for the purposes of this tale, it doesn’t matter who this person is to anyone but me. Suffice to say, this came from someone I admired immensely, and still do. This is what they wrote (in part):

Loved yr last letter. If yr book is 1/2 as good, it will change everything.

My heart swelled. I had completely forgotten all about receiving this postcard, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time, getting this praise for the first time.

And then, I turned over the card and looked at the postmark: 2000. Almost 12 years ago. And as much as my heart had swelled, it sank twice as far, because I felt the crushing weight of how much time had passed since then, and how far back the book it referred to had receded in my memory.

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