This blog was originally intended to keep readers posted on my books both published and in progress. But I have an ADD-class tendency to get distracted by other matters like politics, religion and life itself. Maybe not such a bad thing, but I realized today I haven’t posted an update on my writing activities for some time. Not that the world has ground to a halt on this account. On the other hand, there have been developments, and I would like to share then with you, perhaps over a series of blog entries if you can stand them.
Big Picture: I now have five novels and a short story collection in print or pixels or both, plus three science fiction novels. In addition to Billy Boy and Look at Me Now — both already written about in this blog (see the tabs at the top of this page) — there are also My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird and Father Walther’s Temptation plus The Jew’s Wife and Other Stories.
I’d like to discuss the short story collection first, because it encompasses just about all the subject matter I usually write about in both my short and longer fiction. The Jew’s Wife is titled after my most successful published story (“successful” meaning best-liked), partly for that reason and partly because it just struck me as a good title. The story itself, though still available online, was published in the most obscure of magazines, a publication that lasted, I think, just two issues, an irony that was not lost on me, of course.
By contrast, another story in the collection was broadcast on the BBC World Service and reached an audience of about 1 million listeners worldwide (out of a weekly listenership at the time of 34 million; the story was broadcast three times). It’s called “The World,” a woman’s retrospective of a failed marriage and her somewhat ungrateful son, both considered against the backdrop of a moment in her religious education that takes on an unintended meaning twenty-some years later.
Perhaps if I had submitted “The Jew’s Wife” to the BBC instead of “The World” I would have had an audience of 1 million for that story instead of its being virtually buried buried in the deep bowels of the Internet. Those two stories also represent opposite ends of whatever spectrum represents the range of my short stories (“The Jew’s Wife” is about a tobacco farmer, an immigrant who works for another immigrant, a Jew from the same part of the world as himself where their roles, the farmer realizes bitterly, would have been reversed).
My influences, as best I can tell, have been Anton Chekhov, Eudora Welty and a handful of other writers who principally or exclusively wrote short stories. This was because I never intended to write anything but short stories, considering novels a lesser art form, just as ballads are inferior to lyric poems. At one point I thought I would support my short story-writing by producing mass-market science fiction novels, which worked for a while, a very short while, then failed when my publisher was sold to an owner who stopped publishing sf altogether and I wasn’t able to connect with another.
Meanwhile, my head down over my last and well out of the mainstream of the literary influences of the day, I missed the postmodern movement and all the other lit-fads entirely, having opted many years earlier not to get a Masters of Fine Arts, though I was accepted at the University of Iowa back when that program was one of the few offering an MFA and was full of people who went on to have big careers. I didn’t believe there was anything to be gained for a writer in an academic setting. In fact, I was a bit ashamed of myself for not dropping out of college once I had made my mind up to spend the rest of my life writing fiction.
I was wrong about one aspect of that decision. Had I obtained a masters degree from Iowa I would have graduated armed with a Rolodex full of invaluable professional contacts, much like someone graduating from Harvard law or business schools. I never did learn the business of writing as opposed to the craft. And writing is like every other activity people engage in. It ain’t just about talent. It’s not even principally about talent. But I underestimated how much business savvy a writer, or any artist, needs to develop if he or she is to succeed in the sense most people understand the word “success.”
Still, I like to think my ignorance also saved me from the contagion of those literary fetishes, mostly cooked up in universities, as well as from the opinions of other people generally. I might have been as susceptible as so many American writers have who soared for a while and then self-destructed or ended up trying to please the professors and their acolytes in the upscale review venues rather than what used to be called the “common reader.”
Lack of success is painful, even debilitating, but it can also be liberating if you don’t let it cause you to eat your heart out. I have written the stories and, I confess, eventually the novels, I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them. That’s cold consolation some days, but I think it amounts to something more than self-delusion, much as I still wished I had learned how to play the game of writing better.
But, as usual, I’ve gotten sidetracked from my original purpose in writing this blog entry. Lest I risk losing you entirely (I assume I haven’t if you’ve read this far), let me stop here and continue in a few days with more talk about my newer titles along with, no doubt, more deviations despite the best, or at least, entirely innocent, of intentions.
For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon — still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is currently free at Smashwords.com (available in eight different formats).
Till next time, happy reading.
The road from the point of finishing a book to seeing it into print or pixels can be a long or a short one, largely dependent on factors that can seem out of a writer’s control.
For Billy Boy the road was at first a long tedious one, then unexpectedly it became fast and scenic.
Initially I went the usual route. I canvassed agents. I already had an agent for another book of mine, and before that had had an agent for my third science fiction novel (the first two were published by mass-market houses). Anybody in this business, if “business” is a way to describe it, knows that finding and then waiting on an agent is a nerve-wracking and long-drawn-out affair. Eventually it became clear that the novel was not going to find a publisher via the traditional route. It was too hard to categorize (at that time the term for a mystery, romance or sf book was “category ficiton”), neither fish nor fowl, fell between two stools…pick your metaphor.
It certainly isn’t a mystery novel, because you know who “done it” right from the git-go. And it’s not a detective story because the main character is the criminal–petty criminal though he may be. There’s a murder, all right, and the story turns on it. But that’s because our hero Billy Conover did not do it, rather than because he did.
Believe it or not, after a long and inauspicious experience the book had with agents, I eventually found not one but four publishers for the book.
The first was in Britain and looked very promising. They made me an offer, but the terms were not something I could live with. At that point I wanted badly to see Billy into print. It had been more than a year in the writing, and I had invested not just my imagination but a good deal of material that had been stewing inside me ever since I had spent several years as a Narcotic Parole Officer with the State of New York. But I didn’t want publication at any cost. I decided to bide my time. Meanwhile a raft of new Internet publishers were popping up. One of them made me an offer, and I took it. A CD and online version of the book appeared just a few weeks later.
And then the crash. At least of that particular publishing venture. Poof. And then it was time to look for another home for Billy. Thanks to a publishing venture of my own, an online magazine for writers in the third world, I came upon a small publisher in New England that functions as a kind of writers co-op. They produce superbly turned out books, and I was delighted to hook up with them. Billy Boy was finally in print, dead-tree print, and for good.
Technically, the book was available as well as an ebook, but it never got off the ground as such. Besides, the more reputable reviewing venues were and are still loathe to take on books that exist only electronically. But the ones who did review Billy Boy, in print or pixel, took to it with gusto. To this day it has never gotten less than an enthusiastically positive review. Which has got to make you wonder why traditional publishers are so averse to stepping outside the hidebound genre categories. If a book is a good read, it should be a successful business venture to publish, no? But publishers and their gatekeepers the agents tend to stick to the tried and true.
Or maybe they’re smarter than I give them credit for. After all, readers, genre readers, tend to like their fiction in predictable plot formats, and for good reason perhaps, just as a fan of Star Trek doesn’t pay to watch Captain Kirk get mixed up in an involved romance that eats up most of the movie.
The fourth home Billy found has been with a publisher primarily of science fiction and fantasy titles, the same that has republished my old mass-market titles as well as that third sf book that was “too low-tech” for the biggies in Manhattan. The publisher there in fact now shares Billy with the small publisher which brought out the print version. In effect, Billy has two mommies, or daddies, now. And I get checks from both.
Was it all worth it? The mailings of canvass letters to potential agents, the endless market research to see who was publishing what, the rejections…the rejections, the rejections, the rejections.
The answer is yes, and not just once but every time someone tells me how much they enjoyed the book. Cash is nice, but knowing you’ve created something that has entered another person’s imagination and found a welcome there, even made a difference in their life in some small way, is priceless.