Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

The January Saga Concludes with Launch of January’s Thaw

I was fortunate in that my first novel, January’s Paradigm, was picked up by a publisher in the U.K. fairly quickly. I’ve heard stories from other writers who claim to have written five or six novels before they hit pay dirt. In addition to learning perseverance, they also end up with a nice backlog of novels ready to go.

The success I had finding a home for January’s Paradigm spoiled me. It came easy, and so I expected the same for the sequel, One Hot January. It was not to be. My publisher went belly up and I self-published January’s Paradigm to keep the title available with the hope another publisher might pick it up. I completed One Hot January and immediately commenced submitting queries to agents and publishers while I started writing the third and final book in the January series, January’s Thaw.

Eighteen months later I completed January’s Thaw; but where One Hot January was concerned, I had accumulated nothing more than rejection letters. Most were form letters, but there were a few very encouraging letters, too—“we like your voice; however, not for us,” “regrettably we must pass, but it’s obvious you have talent; feel free to submit to us other work.”

So I continued submitting queries, but now offering both books, convinced that having a sequel would be appealing to a publisher. Then I commenced my next project—Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings.

As I approached completion of Backstop, I received some interest in the two January books from an independent press; but they suggested I combine the two into one volume and pare it down by about thirty thousand words. I wasn’t ready to do that, so I politely declined. After I finished Backstop, I began submitting it. Then I started work on Chaotic Theory, a novella that explores the theory of a butterfly in Brazil flapping its wings and causing a tornado in Texas. I’d written it as a short story a couple years previously, but I wanted to expand its scope.

After completing Chaotic Theory, I hadn’t yet come up with my next project, so I reconsidered the January books, the suggestion that I combine and shorten them into a single volume. I decided it would be a good exercise for me, getting out a scalpel and slicing and dicing my baby. So I combined the two files into another file, renamed it January’s Penitence, and went at it.

It took me about six weeks. I found cutting twenty-eight thousand words was fairly easy—deleting scenes and, in some instances, whole chapters. It was those last two thousand words that were a challenge—a paragraph here, a sentence there. But as I neared my target word count, it became more and more difficult to find paragraphs and sentences with which I could part. I started looking for single words and phrases to cut.

In the end, I managed it. Originally, the two books were composed of 180,000 words. I now had a single novel of 150,000 words. I resubmitted it to the publisher who’d made the suggestion. This time, they politely declined. I was disappointed and began to think that maybe it was time to let the second and third January books go. They’d taught me a lot about the craft of writing, but Backstop was a much better story, better written, and certainly more accessible. I had to consider that maybe January’s Paradigm would be the only January book to grace a bookshelf.

But I wasn’t having much success finding takers for Backstop either. One agent told me there was no market for baseball novels. I resisted, somehow, the urge to tell her she should search Amazon using “baseball” as her keyword.

So I started work on The Cobb Legacy, a mystery romance written around the shooting death of the father of baseball legend, Ty Cobb, by his mother. All the while I was collecting more rejection letters for Backstop … until I struck gold with Second Wind Publishing.

2W was not yet even a year old when they offered me a contract. It was a risk for me, such a small independent press with very little record, but I took a chance. Shortly after Backstop launched, the title was submitted as a 2010 Michigan Notable Book, and a year later the Illinois Institute of Technology adopted it as required reading for a spring course—Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.

With that success, I explained to Mike Simpson (2W) the exercise I’d gone through with January’s Penitence and offered it to him, along with One Hot January and January’s Thaw; Mike opted to publish them as the diptych I’d originally envisioned. However, it was my choice to use the revised January’s Penitence text, with some minor revisions, rather than go back to the original 180,000-word editions.

You see, I realized, after making the edits, I had a much stronger, tighter narrative than I did in the original manuscripts. Never underestimate the value of edits.

One Hot January launched in March 2010, and January’s Thaw is due to launch any day. I’m proud of the entire January series—they hold their rightful place in my growing body of work.

Below appears a short excerpt from January’s Thaw:

1982

Our eyes meet, hold for a moment. We are thirty-five years older: Lindy in her 1982, me from my own 2082.

Despite her affliction, which has left her much thinner and frailer than I would’ve imagined, I still recognize her. Despite my own aging—more than a few pounds heavier, longer, grayer hair, bearded and hobbled by a bad knee—perhaps she, too, recognizes something familiar; she looks back at me, her gaze at least steady, perhaps wanting to recognize me.

I smile, nod. It is the polite thing to do.

“Do I know you?” she asks, rushing the four words together nearly as one, the sound more breath than voice; it is difficult for her to support her speech.

I shake my head. “I don’t think so.” More truth than lie: I had withheld from her in our youth any hint of the Joe January I would become.

“Listen,” I add. “Do you have the time? I seem to have left my watch elsewhere.”

Lindy’s eyes widen; I see the light of recognition. A corner of her mouth rises. A moment later a full smile breaks across her face and I glimpse the Lindy I knew so long ago. In that moment I realize that it was this anything but chance meeting that had resulted in Lindy taking the necessary steps to return my watch to me sixty-five years into her future.

John Roberts—I can’t bring myself to refer to him as her husband—seemingly embarrassed to be seen with her, says angrily, “It’s twenty after four.”

“Thank you,” I say to Lindy, and, “I hope you will forgive me.”

My apology leaves no impact on John Roberts, who only takes Lindy’s arm and starts to turn her, roughly; Lindy nearly loses her balance but John Roberts is quick to support her.

“Come on, Lindy,” he says. “Let’s go.”

I watch Lindy’s back recede as they make their way to the diner’s exit.

As John Roberts opens the door, Lindy turns back to offer me a smile and a nod that is not the result of her condition, and I steel myself to put the next stage of my plan into motion.

2082

I arrange the cutout letters in semblance of my message and paste them, letter by letter, onto a blank piece of paper:

Bring the package to Indianapolis

Using the time travel device I’d confiscated from Ben Junior, I return to 1947 to leave the envelope outside my office door for Lindy to find when she opened up.

I have time enough, before returning to 2082, to watch my past self interact with Lindy, Melissa and Lance before they depart for Indianapolis. I marvel at how young I look, chuckle over the arrogance in my demeanor—how self-important I once thought myself—and Lindy, for whom I feel a flood of warmth: the love a brother might feel for a sister with whom he is fixing up a friend. I see in my past self’s eyes the look of love for Lindy I had, at that time, worked so hard to mask.

And I believed Lindy could not have known! I think.

I grieve for her in that moment, grieve for and regret, not for the first time, the heartache my past behavior caused her, and still she persisted in loving me, hoping she would in time win my heart.

“She sees in you what I see in you,” Melissa would say later that day.

She saw in me what Ecstasy had seen and been instrumental in bringing out more than a century later.

Someone once wrote that history is a fickle science left mainly to those who wish to enshrine the past.

So here I am, finally letting go my past by trying to set things right: to give my past self a chance to find the love I found with Ecstasy by creating another timeline, one in which I wouldn’t be swept into the future, in which Lindy wouldn’t be trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who, in time, would be embarrassed to be seen with her.

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Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop and One Hot January

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

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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