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On April 19, 2016, I am launching OUTLAWS OF TIME: THE LEGEND OF SAM MIRACLE. It’s my first novel in two years, and to commemorate the memmorateness of the occasion, I’m focusing all my book promotion on giveaways!
Anyone who buys OUTLAWS in the first week (no later than April 23) will receive their choice of rewards. Multiple copies earn multiple rewards. I don’t care what format you might purchase or which retailer you might use, just email a receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org and name your reward.
Over the years, I have heard from thousands of aspiring writers, young and old. And so my first giveaway centers focuses on all of you with interest in the craft. Read the rest of this entry »
At the behest of some among the nameless, I’ve decided to post a couple of old pieces from the era of my life when I was an eager aspirer, but had not the gumption (or the time) to attempt a novel. I focused on short stuff that I could manage and that could help me refine my word juggling. This one is from the summer of 2000, when I was picking up classes toward my MA at St. John’s in Annapolis, MD. I was 21 (pretty sure), and the root scenes for the piece were all real.
So here’s a little flashback to my beginnings. I have resisted the amazingly powerful urge to edit and improve…
He was there the first time I made the drive. Just off the left side of the road by the light. Winding up and pitching. His motion was jerky and hard, too hard to be accurate. But then he couldn’t be more than four years old, and his hand was empty. As I sat at the light I watched the repetition of this exertion. He was off by himself in the grass of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. There were other children dancing around and stomping, yelling, singing and falling down. But none of them even noticed the small, black pitcher off to the side, and he never took any notice of them. Then the light had changed.
The pitcher had been in my head all evening. As I sat and discussed Aristotle and Aquinas, his motion repeated itself again and again in my mind. The intensity of his contorted face as each strike blew by a batter, the rapid motion of his small dark arm as he followed through, almost over-balancing, his windup as he slowly stepped back before exploding forward bringing his empty hand around to deliver; all of these things played themselves out on the table in front of me. With a small motion of my fingers I joined in. My pen was swinging at every pitch, hitting nothing but air, strike out after strike out. Dust rose off the catcher’s glove behind me as each pitch hit its target. Class ended and I went home to eat, my defeat forgotten.
I drove to class four times a week. Four times a week I pulled up to a red light and looked left. Four times a week I watched a small, black boy pitch with his heart. He pitched in every scenario. He came from behind, he battled to the wire, and he strolled in victory. I watched him walk around the mound with pride in his step and such a grin on his face that I knew his opposition couldn’t be smiling. When he walked and laughed I couldn’t help but smile myself. The game was obviously in hand. But there were other games.
I had run out my door into the usual moist August heat of Maryland without a thought of the pitcher. The world was a grand place even in its humid glory. The wet, warm greens held hands with the dry, stark blues and a breeze blended them both. It wasn’t a long drive and I spent most of it looking around at the world. Then, I turned a corner. As was frequently the case, when I saw the light in the distance I remembered the pitcher. I knew that soon I would look over my shoulder and watch a child swing his empty hand. I would see a small boy off by himself, apart from the games of the others, dreaming. I knew that he would be standing where he always stood, where he could be by himself but still under the eyes of the tired woman from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church whose job it was to keep the children born of other women. I knew a pair of small eyes would be staring into nothing and that they would see a batter to defeat and the catcher’s target held waiting. He would focus his mind and body beyond the abilities of any of the great pitchers. He would throw with concentration that is unequaled, for he had no glove on his hand, no hat on his head, his fist held no ball, and while the traffic of Route 70 poured by he could climb the mound, remove reality, and swing his arm.
I didn’t look over until I had stopped at the light. And when I did he wasn’t pitching, he was circling the mound. By his look I knew he was in a battle. His face registered blank intensity as he walked. There was no pride in it. He strolled to the spot where I knew his eyes saw a dirt mound instead of green grass and assumed a position that obviously wasn’t a windup. He was in the stretch. There were runners on. He glanced right. Runner on third. He glanced left. Runner on first.
“He’s going.” I told the inside of my truck, and I could tell my pitcher knew. He glanced left again. The runner on first would steal. The pitch came, batter takes the strike. Runner on third dances, daring the catcher to throw to second. Runner on first advances. The ball is back on the mound. I glance up at the light. The red glow still hangs in the air, and traffic still streams past.
The pitcher is back in the windup. Runners on third and second. By his face I know we are in the ninth, hopefully the top, but because of the obvious pressure on the pitcher’s face I doubt it. My pitcher’s small body stands on the mound gazing at the catcher. He takes a sign and I know it’s a fastball.
“Bunt.” I whispered. The windup comes, the explosion in the small arm. The light turns but not before I see the surprise on the pitcher’s face. He spins around looking up. He shakes off the glove that only he and I can see and puts his hands to his head and stares out to the wall, waiting. The batter took it for a ride. He parked it. Homerun, three runs score. My pitcher falls to the ground in shock. I turn with the traffic and the image is growing smaller in my mirror. A small body in the green grass, the other children don’t even look over, but there is a tired woman walking towards it.
After that, I couldn’t look at him the same way. The next day he was smiling and strutting again, but even his enjoyment seemed different to me. I could still laugh when he did, but the joy was double edged. He was surrounded by traffic, given by his parents to be cared for by another; he had no ball and no batter, and still he enjoyed himself.
I would have bought him a ball, but I knew he wouldn’t be allowed to throw it. The one time something had risen in his hand it had been a pine cone, and the tired woman had removed it before a single pitch had been completed. I would have stopped and played with him but I knew people didn’t take kindly to strangers approaching day care centers. I would have done a lot of things, but I did none of them. Instead I always went to class and watched him pitch from there, the same way he watched a batter crowd the plate.
Then came the last day. There were many distractions to keep me from remembering my pitcher, but for some reason he still climbed into my head. Everything about him flooded my brain as I loaded my book bag. His bib overalls, his oversized tennis shoes, his uncut hair, all these things presented themselves and I did not realize why until I was leaving. It was the last day I would ever see him. It was the last game of the season. I would drive by, watch him throw his arm, and drive on. Only this time driving on was permanent. I would never make the drive again. I flew home the next morning. I realized that he was a boy that I had always wanted to talk to; I wanted to know his name and his mind; I wanted to see his life. But I was driving by.
The drive felt longer than it usually did and I spent the time oddly not thinking about class, or the past session, but about that thin boy with an empty hand. I wondered about his father, and if he had played baseball. I wondered if he had simply seen it on TV and latched onto it. His behavior was detailed enough in its imitation that he had to have watched a good deal of baseball. I thought about his drive. His desire to pitch as hard as he could when he wasn’t throwing anything to anybody and knew it. But I knew he went home tired every night. Tired from the workout of throwing his arm. Where did his love of the game come from? Where was his father? Who would play catch with him? We were all too busy. We were driving by. His father and mother were driving by. I was driving by. A thousand others were driving by. Only the tired woman wasn’t driving by, and she was busy, busy sitting and making sure my pitcher didn’t really throw anything. He was as invisible as his catcher, and the batters he struck out. Humanity’s traffic sped by him and had stored him safely on a piece of grass that he had made a mound. All things were blind to him, and he returned the favor.
I reached his street and looked at the light hanging in the distance. It was green. It was never green. It would change. I kept driving and watching the light. It wasn’t changing, I began to feel nervous, I needed to say goodbye to the pitcher. I looked for a place to pull over and there was nothing. I was in the left lane with traffic on my right and oncoming. I was through the light, and I had only time to glance over my shoulder as I turned.
The pitcher was standing on his mound staring into nowhere. He wasn’t pitching. Was he taking a sign? I couldn’t tell. I grabbed my mirror and saw the beginning of a windup before he disappeared.
The next semester I had moved and didn’t need to make that drive anymore. But I did. I drove by before class. The grass was empty of everything. There were no children laughing and screaming and falling down. There was no tired woman. There was no pitcher. I drove to class. I sat at the table. Someone was talking about Homer. I looked down. My pen was swinging.
Yeah, I’m back (on my blog). And yes, once more I have waited a month or so between posts. So what? I’ve been busy. And having fun. Almost forgot that I had a blog. But then I heard it whispering to me in the night. And here I am.
Rather than fiddling around with a goofy little piece, I thought I’d jump right back in and tackle a new installment in one of the more requested serieses(es). Heregoes.
Assuming that you’ve labored long and hard and have produced a manuscript, assuming that you have licked some stamps and sent it out with a shiny query letter (or have acquired an agent to do it for you), assuming that you have landed an excited editor, and assuming that excited editor has sent you a letter that doesn’t say yes, but also doesn’t say no, and assuming that they have suggestions for a major reworking of your manuscript which — if completed — may (or may not) lead to a book deal, then . . . what do you, the aspiring author, do?
But let’s back things up a bit. Before I landed with Random House, a goodly number of publishers were given the first draft of Leepike Ridge. I was hungry (literally). I was eager. I was teaching part time and doing layout (part time) and wearing sweaters and two pairs of socks inside during the winter. At that time in my life (a mere six years ago), my personal American Dream was to land a full-time teaching gig and then write at night. (That dream completely eluded me. For years. Funny right? Shouldn’t it be easier to get a teaching job than a publishing deal?) But I ramble. You get the pic. I was ready to take whatever came my way. Or so I thought.
And then the (major) head of a (major) publishing house left a frantic voicemail about Leepike on my (college friend) agent’s phone. I heard it. It was exciting. So exciting that my wife and I headed out to Starbucks to celebrate with grandes. And then the follow-ups came. Rookie though I was, I’m grateful that I wasn’t a complete moron (my agent made sure of that). He asked them to drop all the praise and adulation and friendly talk and just hit us with the criticism. How would they want to proceed with editing? Did they think any major changes would be necessary? And, yes, it turns out they did.
If you have read Leepike Ridge, then you’ll remember a character by the name of Reg (Reginald Ulysses Fisher). If you haven’t read the book, well, go forth and sin no more. Read it and rejoin this blogpost later. Well, the feedback from this publisher was that they would like to see me cut Reg. Not polish him. Not expand or refine him. They wanted him all the way completely gone. Killt. Dead. Erased. Reg no mas. And they wanted the story to be more about the love of a mother for her son.
So . . . what do you do? First, no matter how crazy criticism may seem at the knee’s jerk, always consider it. And I did. I tried to throw away all my emotional commitments and objectively consider euthenizing Reg. Of course, emotional commitments go both ways. I had an emotional commitment to Reg, but I also had an emotional commitment to getting a book deal and keeping the lights turned on in my house. In the end, with the full and complete support of my wife, I waved goodbye to that publishing house. “After all,” she said, “if they don’t like Reg, then they don’t like you, because he’s just you stuck in a cave. You won’t get along with them.”
I’ve heard way too many authors give terrible advice (in my opinion) to crowds of the aspiring: “Do whatever it takes to get your first deal, even if you hate your first book.” “If they say cut it, cut it.” “Only write what is currently selling.” “This is business not art.”
Throw all those things away. At least if you wanna be a good writer, not merely a published one. And here’s where I finally spit out the advice: as an author, you should be absolutely bull-headed when you know you’re right, absolutely slow to decide that you’re right, absolutely easy-going when it really is six of one and half-dozen of the other, and absolutely eager to hear and weigh even the most outlandish suggestions. You must have confidence in what you hand readers, and part of that means never betraying those things that you know to be true. Do not become a liar. Ever. If the publisher offers you a deal if only you’ll tell him that the sky is green, you laugh and walk away (unless the sky is green). If he wants you to betray yourself and your eventual readers and chuck some dear imaginary friend into oblivion, chuckle. And go through another winter wearing thick sweaters inside. It’s worth it.
Never be a diva, occasionally be a donkey.
It’s Sunday again. My non-writing day. So here I am. Not writing.
I’ve already talked about working on description (sunset exercise) and stealing dialog (from strangers), Read the rest of this entry »
In the comments section on a previous post, I promised a dialog exercise. Look at me now. Apparently, I keep a promise.
One of the easiest ways a story can fall apart (or never come together), is in the humanity of the characters. A story could be terrific conceptually, well plotted, outlined and re-outlined, read (and loved) by aunts and mothers and siblings and former 6th grade teachers, and still be populated by characters who limp around like zombies patched together from old classmates (with the emotional depth of sock puppets). Read the rest of this entry »