The Writing Life: Opportunities and New Lessons Learned

2005 began normally enough. My friend had finished reading the manuscript and gave me her thoughts on it. For the most part, she liked it, but she did have some criticisms. I would have been a little suspicious if she had found nothing wrong with it. Ok, so now I had my first “review” so to speak and I felt encouraged, mainly because we both liked reading the same sort of books and the fact that she liked it made me feel that perhaps it wasn’t as much of a mess as I thought it would was. I was ready to “put it out there” and the hell with it. Let the chips fall where they may.

First, I contacted two small presses right here in New York City, known for putting out more experimental and/or non-conventional books. I didn’t send the manuscript but a query letter with the first 30 pages or so. Both of them weren’t interested, which didn’t surprise me in the least. I was very familiar with the types of books they published and they pretty much went with the more “established” writers on the New York circuit (meaning their friends, members of local indie bands, and those with a hipster-approved esthetic. In other words, “the scene”). Ok. No problem. I didn’t think they’d be interested at all but it was worth trying anyway.

Moving on, I combed the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market looking for small presses that would perhaps being interested in seeing the book. I found a couple that looked like a good fit. The first one answered my query with a packet promoting their books and a list of guidelines. Right from jump, I saw that the book was way too long for them. They wanted novels with no more than 100,000 words. This beast was well over 300,000. So that left them out. Then I sent a query and sample pages off to the next one, a press that specialized in experimental fiction. They responded to me with a very personal and sincere letter telling me that they thought there was good writing there but it wasn’t experimental enough for them; it was “too mainstream”. “Too mainstream?” I thought. Wow. Ok. But their belief that the writing was pretty good was encouraging to me and I went to the next one on the list, another press that went for experimental work.

They responded favorably, telling me that they would be inclined to read the entire manuscript however they were short on funds and their “list” was covered for the next year and a half, they weren’t taking on any new books at the moment. Ok, strike three. It was going to be much harder than I thought, harder to just to get someone to even look at it, that is. Perhaps some of these responses were just polite responses, I thought. Then again, I’ve gotten hundreds of rejection letters from my poetry to know that if they really didn’t see anything there, they’d just send the standard slip back with no comments at all. So perhaps these people did find something in it. It was encouraging enough for me to keep trying.

I found another press, again, one that specialized in unconventional work, sent the same packet to them and they eventually responded with a letter saying that it was “too far out” for them. It was all starting to sound familiar. “Too far out” for one, “too mainstream” for another, who the hell knew what to think anymore. So I held off for awhile, submitted more poetry, the usual routine, and began to get to work on my next novel idea, this time, with a whole new approach, leaving behind any notion of “continuing” the “November Rust” story and coming up with a whole new, fresh idea.

I had this idea about an Argentine photographer in Barcelona who somehow gets involved with a vacationing American couple and winds up getting entwined in their drama and head games. I was sort of using Ernest Hemingway’s “The Garden of Eden” as a model for this one. I pretty much had the characters sketched out in my head and sort of knew where I was going to go with it and immediately got to work on writing it. I had learned a lot about Latin American history since reading the many novels, books on Latin American fiction and Latin American history (particularly Argentina) and I had taken extensive notes and thought I would mine all this information to help develop the character of the Argentine photographer. He would have grown up during Argentina’s “Dirty War” and his father would have been one of the “disappeared” which would have had a profound effect on how he wound up as an adult.

The vacationing American couple were to be based on the pseudo-swinger, hipster types who relished in sexual games and “the thrill of the hunt” so to speak and somehow I would make these two worlds collide. I also spent some time in Barcelona so I thought I would use that as the setting because the scenery there was just so interesting to use as a backdrop. I would try a change in direction and write it in the third person this time, so I could get into the minds of all the characters rather than it being filtered through the eyes of a sole narrator. I was ready to go.

It started off good enough, I thought. In a few months time I had written 150 pages, about half of what I thought would come in at a 300 page novel, give or take, but you can never predict how long these things are going to be. It was when I reached the half way point when I realized that something just wasn’t right about it. I reread it and reread it but just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. I learned enough at this point to know that when it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. I just couldn’t identify, specifically, what it was. I wanted to do something different from “November Rust”. I wanted to get away from the “experimental” approach and try to write a good novel, something a lot more palatable, something far more accessible. If I were to get serious about publication, the “November Rust” approach wasn’t the way to go, I realized. However, writing that book allowed me to stretch the imagination a little, allowed me to do a lot more than I ever thought I was initially capable of in the first place. I could now somehow hone what I learned writing that book and channel it into this new one. But again, something wasn’t quite right about it all and it frustrated me to no end as to why I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.

I had pretty much forgotten about “November Rust” for the time being, even though I would still discuss it with Maria whenever we got together. I had told her of my attempts to get some interest in it and how I was having a difficult time of it. I had already decided then that if no one was interested, I could consider putting it out myself and just sell it through my website if possible. I certainly wouldn’t sell a hell of a lot of them that way but it was an option I was willing to explore.

Then one day my friend Linda, who was a school teacher in the public school system at the time, told me that one of the parents of one of her students was some kind of big wig at a major publishing house here in New York. They were discussing books and things and she just happened to mention that she “had a friend who was a writer and had just finished writing a novel”. This woman told her that she would be interested in seeing what I had done. Linda came to me with the news and of course I was surprised by it. “Seriously?” I said. “She said she’d be willing to look?” Linda pushed me to hand it over, even though I knew there was no way they were going to accept it.

A publishing house like that would never take such a thing. No way. But, I said to myself, I also knew that a publishing house like that would never even consider looking at it unless it came via literary agent, something that is just as hard to secure as publication if you are a beginning writer with no real credits to his name. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. The worst that could happen was nothing at all. At best, I’d get some much needed feedback on what I had done, this time from someone in very high position in the industry. I just couldn’t pass on this. Within a day, I handed the monster over to Linda so she could give it to this woman. Now all I had to do was wait.

As I waited, I continued to work on the problem with the new novel and not getting any further along. I wrote pages, scrapped them, wrote some more, scrapped them, and I felt I was just going around in circles trying to make an idea work that perhaps wasn’t a good idea at all to begin with. I thought the premise had potential but for some reason I just couldn’t bring it about. It was very frustrating to say the least.

Then, after about six weeks of struggling with this, I get an email. It was from the husband of the bigwig at the publishing house. He had read the novel and had quite a bit to say about it. Not all of it good, of course, but his reaction was far better than I could ever have imagined. Being that he was a published novelist himself, he understood what I was trying to do and had a lot of wonderful, encouraging things to say. He wanted to meet and discuss it. Naturally, I agreed, excited about the prospect that here was someone who wasn’t a friend who found some worth in what I had done.

So we met, ironically, in the very coffee shop in which I wrote nearly half the book. (He explained to me that he, too, had written many pages of his books in the very same place). We had a very long, thorough talk about the book: what he liked about it, what he didn’t like about it, but he asked me a question that I had been thinking about ever since. “What is it that you’re trying to do, exactly? What are you hoping to achieve?” Needless to say, I only had some vague notion about that. I wanted to write. But what does that mean, exactly? Sure, I could always write but what else? I explained to him the best I could what I hoped to achieve and that was to write novels that were publishable and hopefully be read. He went on to explain to me how the publishing business worked, in reality, that is and what he explained was a real eye opener to me. It was, indeed, much like the music business. We spoke of writers we liked, he gave me his opinions on what he thought worked and didn’t work with the book, even offered possible alternatives to it, which weren’t bad ideas, but I was already feeling so “done” with it that the thought of putting that much more work into it was daunting to say the least.

It would have meant possibly rewriting the whole thing from the beginning, which probably meant a good year at least working on the same book I’d been working on for seven years already. I did think about it but thought perhaps I would take his advice and channel it into the new idea I was working on. I had to move forward and let this thing go once and for all. It was a great talk: enlightening, honest, sincere, and I walked away feeling more encouraged than ever. I still had to wait to hear what his wife thought of it, though, although I still knew it wasn’t going to be accepted. I just wanted to hear what she had to say about it.

About three weeks after that, I got my answer. Linda came home with the manuscript and along with it was a letter (on the letterhead of the publishing house, too, which surprised me. I thought it would simply be a handwritten note). The woman at the publishing house opened the letter that she enjoyed reading it and that she had found “some really good writing” in it however, she felt it read more like a travelogue than a proper novel. She advised me to “find the story I wanted to write and carve away everything else that was irrelevant”. I saw what she meant by that—there was a hell of a lot I still thought could have been pruned. However, I didn’t know what she meant by “Travelogue”. To me, travelogues were guide books. (It would be a little while later when I started reading some of them did I see what she meant—and she was 100 percent correct in her assessment). Needless to say I thought that since she ‘saw some good writing there’ it was just enough of a boost I needed to keep going, to see that perhaps I do have “something” there. I just had to figure out how to do it. To this day, I am grateful for both their input and advice. It would prove very valuable to me in the coming years.

So I put “November Rust” away for the time being, and went back to work on this new novel, which wasn’t going anywhere. I immediately took their advice and cut away all the needless descriptions of Barcelona landscape and focused more on thestory itself. That alone, improved what I had immensely and seemed to make it more concise and more focused. I worked steadily on it for the next couple of weeks, yet something still wasn’t quite right. Frustrated, I put it aside for a while.

And it would be a long while before even attempting to work on it again.

In the meantime, I started to rethink everything: my approach, what exactly I was trying to do, what kind of books I wanted to write, etc. Needless to say, it would begin a long dry spell for me, more or less drifting without any real sense of what I wanted to do. It was time to take a step back and give it some serious thought.

(To be continued…)

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About the Author:

Born and raised in New York City. I am a musician/writer/painter who has poems and short stories published in about 40 magazines and journals throughout the United States, Canada and Europe and also has 12 books under his belt:
"Standing On Lorimer Street Awaiting Crucifixion" (Alpha Beat Press, 1996), "The Terror of Your Cunt is The Beauty of Your Face" (Black Spring Press, 1999), "Street Gospel Mystical Intellectual Survival Codes" (Budget Press, 2000), "Scrape That Violin More Darkly Then Hover Like Smoke In The Air" (Black Spring Press, 2001), "Existential Labyrinths" (Black Spring Press, 2003), "Window Shopping For A New Crown of Thorns" (Lulu Press, 2007), "November Rust" (Lulu Press, 2007), "My Arrival Is Marked By Illuminating Stains" (Lulu Press 2007), "A Symphony of Olives" (Propaganda Press, 2009) and "Divertimiento" (Propaganda Press, 2009). His second novel "Naderia" was released in January 2011 and his third, "Be Still and Know That I Am" (Beat Corrida) was released in September 2011. He is also currently playing guitar and bass for NYC singer/songwriter Linda La Porte. View My Profile

  • Dani Heart

    wow. My mind is flooded and swirling. I started a novel but have put it aside, reading what you are going through, went through, makes me a little hesitant to pick it back up again. 🙂 I am a poet at heart, so I am not sure where the novel idea came from anyway. lol It is comforting to know that even the best writers struggle sometimes. 🙂

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