Sunday, November 15, 2009


I'm not usually a re-reader of books. Oh, if I truly love a book, I'll keep it, place it on the shelf and say: one day I'll re-read this one. But rarely do I ever get around to it. There have been a few exceptions: Of Human Bondage, Emma Who Saved My Life, and As Meat Loves Salt. All books that I love and could read many times without hesitation, but for some reason have only giving one more read over the years.

And then there is Grief by Andrew Holleran, a book I have read once every year for the past three years. It's a slim book at 150 pages but packed with so much emotion that it haunts me for weeks and months afterward.

A gay man in his mid-fifties moves to Washington DC to take a teaching position in order to assuage the grief that has descended upon him after the passing of his mother, whom he has cared for after an accident has left her unable to care for herself. While renting a room in the house of another gay man in his mid-fifties, he begins reading the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln written after the assassination of her husband and her aimless drifting within her own grief for the loss of him and her life.

What Holleran does is intertwined these two lives, the narrator and Mrs. Lincoln, and bounds them by their grief of the loss of their mother and husband, respectively, but he also bounds them by their eras: post-Civil War and post-AIDS. Landscapes have been changed for these characters and neither one is sure how to navigate the new terrain.

Indeed, all the characters in the book are trying to navigate unknown terrain, together and separately. Frank, the narrators friend who also teaches at the university and had secured him the position which has brought him to DC, is navigating a relationship with the Lug, a handsome and thoughtful partner who Frank believes is too good for him. The narrator's landlord, a man trapped by his own ageism: he's too old for the young men he desires and too young to be as housebound and resigned to a state of loneliness as he is. They are all grieving for youth, security, loss, and love. Universal themes that resound in the quiet of this novella (Holleran sets his narrator adrift on numerous night-time walks through the most-times deserted historic streets and buildings of DC lending such a sense of silence that you can almost hear his footsteps on the cobbled stones outside the Ford Theatre or the Capitol or the National Gallery).

I am drawn to this book time and again because it teaches me how to deal with grief, an ever present ennui for my life, the choices I have made, the repercussions of all those choices. I grieve my childhood. I grieve my descent into a world of sex and drugs. I grieve the HIV that was the result of that descent. I grieve that it's taken me so long to pursue my true desire of being a writer.

But this book, as filled with grief as it is, pulls me out of my own grieving by telling me that grief is natural but it can't be all their is: one can't survive on grief alone. Mary Todd Lincoln learns that the hard way. She couldn't release her grief and eventually it killed her, brought her back to her husband and her children who passed before her. She ate her grief until it filled her, until it was all she was. And we learn this from the narrator who ultimately returns to his grief after the brief reprieve of DC. He needs the grief awhile longer: "...grief is what you have after someone you love dies. It's the only thing left of that person. Your love for, your missing, them. And as long as you have that, you're not alone--you have them."

It's a beautifully wrought book of emotion and understanding and searching and survival. And even though I'm in the middle of my third reading, I can't wait to read it again next year.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Lament from the Cubicle

Of course I don't want to whine about my life. I try desperately not to be that guy anymore. So this is not a posting in which I whine, it is a posting in which I lament the fact that I don't have the time to write as often as I used to.

I am a lucky man. This I know. I have a great life, one I never thought I could deserve or acquire: great partner, wonderful dogs, a condo that we are buying (not renting), many little red boxes (from Cartier if you're unaware of what a little red box is), and many other wonderful possessions, I was laid-off but found another job within 7 months (only truly looked for a job for the last 3), good health (for the most part), a completed novel and an agent who believes in it and my talent. All the things one could hope for. But, of course, we always want more. And the "more" that I want is time. Time to write.

My new job is a good one. Great boss who I get along with and like a lot. Fun and helpful co-workers. Decent money. All good, except the fact that it is one freaking busy office. So busy that for the first month I would, more often than not, forget to eat lunch (and breakfast sometimes). Non-stop from the moment I walk in the door. It's a bit crazed, I must say. Granted I started right as they entered into their busiest time of the year. Holiday Image is the name of the company. We create, design and install holiday decorations for many high-end businesses ( It's amazing what goes into the final products of these decorations. It's fun and interesting, but a heck of a lot of work.

Consequently, I have no time to write. By the end of the day, I am exhausted, mentally. Seriously brain-dead. I get home, cook for Carlos and I, watch some mindless television or play mindless games on the computer, then fall into bed less that 2 hours after I've gotten home. It's not a pretty sight. I try to write on the bus on the way into the city and that's worked a bit, but it's a pale comparison to the writing I was producing when I was laid-off. Remember when it was good to be the king? Yeah, well, it sucks to be a peon back in the cubicle.

And then there's school. One of the reasons I took last spring off from classes at NYU, where I've been pursuing my BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Creative Writing, was the fact that writing for classes was getting in the way of finishing my novel. While I have been wanting this BA for years (and have worked hard to get it since 2004), I have to admit that it's become more of a burden now than an achievement sought. Because of the new job, I'm only taking 1 class this semester. 1 class! And I am so far behind in it that its not even remotely funny. The thought of having to read these assigned works, rather than the books I have on my shelf that I need and want to read as research for my new novel, really sets my anger on edge. And then spending what little extra time I do have to write assignments rather than work on my personal writing makes me wonder why I'm still in school. I only have 24 more credits (6 classes) to go to graduate, to get that piece of paper, but I truly wonder if it's worth it if it keeps me from my true goal of writing.

But enough of the whining I wasn't supposed to be doing and back to the lamenting. I lament the loss of time, personal time. It will come again, I know. I have faith in myself, in my talent, in my work, so I know I will succeed and with that success with come the time I walk out of that cubicle (not just the one I currently sit in but the "cubicle" as metaphor for a day job rather than a true career as a writer) and not look back. I will not die in a cubicle, this I avowed myself years ago. Everything I do, all the writing, is in pursuit of that goal. I am not in search of fame and fortune (sorry Carlos), I am in search of freedom and time. And I've always known that it was my writing that would lead me to that goal.

So, enough lamenting as well. Time to continue the pursuit. Research when I can. Write when I can. And it will come. The King will return to his kingdom. It's just gonna take time.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I Have an Agent!

Well, the headline says it all. It's been a long road, though not nearly as long as it's been for others, but it's all been worth it.

As previously posted, in May I attended the wonderful Backspace Writer's Conference (they are having another one this November, which I highly recommend attending). While there I had the opportunity to have my query and 1st two pages read by attending agents in a workshop-style seminar called the Agent/Author day. Of the 18 agents that heard my work, 6 requested more materials, a high percentage if you ask me. Of course, the moment I got home I jetted the requested materials out to them.

Within a couple of weeks, the wonderful April Eberhardt of the Reece Halsey Literary Agency got back to me with feedback. While she loved the story, she felt the 'writing wasn't quite there yet.' She felt the book moved too slowly, which I had to agree. Hard to hear but completely accepted. I went back to the drawing board and decided to take some chances with the book. I decided to approach with a new boldness, stop being coy and "subtle" and just tell the story. The rewrite turned out to the be strongest version I had ever written and finally felt the book was finished.

I sent the reworked version out again. In addition, I requested of a couple of choice agents that already had the older version, to substitute the new version, and thankfully each agreed. That was back in July.

More waiting. A couple of nudging emails and then I started following each of the agents on Twitter. I began interacting with one of them, sending subtle and not so subtle reminders that she had the manuscript, which she assured me she was getting to, but was swamped (all agents are swamped right now). Weeks and months passed and slowing my manuscript rose to the top of her stack.

The week of September 20th, she read the manuscript. We set up a time to talk Wednesday, September 23rd to discuss and, while I figured she'd say the usuals (love the story, love the characters, but...the writing's not quite there yet), she surprised me. "Love the story, love the characters, but above all I love the writing." I was flabbergasted. I was shocked. She offered representation then and there.

So, the contracts have been reviewed and signed. And now I have an agent! Jennifer DeChiara has her own agency and has been in the biz for quite awhile amassing a well-respected reputation for being very nice but very tenacious when it comes to her clients (ME). I am beyond excited to have her in my corner fighting for my book. She is passionate about books and publishing and about my work. While I know selling any fiction is tough these days, let alone Literary Fiction, I have complete faith in her and my book.

Between the two of us, On the Edge of Someplace Else will find its proper place on the bookshelves.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who's Running the Publishing Industry?

As children in our Social Sciences class, we learned about Supply and Demand. It's the cornerstone of all of industry: people want (demand) and businesses create for consumption (supply). Which comes first, though, isn't one for ages, unlike the chicken/egg conundrum. Sometimes a product will be created that fills an heretofore unknown void in the consumer landscape (supply preceding demand), whereas sometimes the consumer landscape demands a certain product and an industry will comply (demand preceding supply).

But what of supply and demand in regards to the publishing industry? As a writer of literary fiction trying to secure an agent to represent my first novel, I have been told frequently in rejection after rejection: "Your story is very interesting. The writing is very good. I love your narrative voice...BUT...I don't think I can sell literary fiction in this market right now." Now, I understand that this could just be a gentle way of saying: "Your writing really isn't that good." And, as a first time novelist diving into the deep end of the pool, I assumed that was the case with the first few rejections that stated the above, but after about the fourth or fifth, I started thinking: "hey, maybe they do like my writing but actually can't sell literary fiction in today's market!" And that got me to wondering: who exactly is running this business?

The usual trail to publication and literary success:

1. Aspiring author writes novel.

2. Writer queries novel to agents

3. At least one agent recognizes the excellence of said novel and offers representation (it only takes one they tell me)

4. Agent and Author work together to create best manuscript possible

5. Agent queries her contacts at the publishing houses

6. At least one editor at a publishing house recognizes the excellence of the novel and offers to publish (again, it only takes one).

7. Editor and Author work together to create the best manuscript possible

8. Novel gets published, sells millions, author never has to work a day job again

Even despite the abysmal state of the publishing industry in this day and age, this happens frequently. According to a's article from this past May, Bowker reports that there were 275,323 new titles published in 2008. That's a goodly amount of new books to be sure, though apparently down 3% from 2007. So, while the odds are stacked against us first-time novelists, they aren't completely insurmountable. That is unless you write literary fiction.

Supposedly the demands these days are coming from the consumers standing in the Young Adult Paranormal section of the bookstore (think Twilight, and Harry Potter, of course). Every agent, every publisher, every bookstore is apparently looking for the next big YA hit. It makes sense in an if-the-iron-is-hot-beat-the-shit-out-of-hit kind of a way. But is searching for the next formerly big thing selling the consumer short? I mean, we've already got Twilight, so why do we need another?

Reading, for many, is an escapism, especially these days. I get that. My mother was a Harlequin Romance kind of woman. She would, literally, get a box of them sent to her and would devour them in a day while lying on the couch, most likely, pretending she wasn't 50 years old, living in Oklahoma, the mother of eight children and working at the local Army hospital in the janitorial department. Books are great for that. I see people reading all the time on the bus into New York and on the subways. They're trying to step out of our lives for a bit, be somewhere else besides the Lincoln Tunnel. And YA Paranormal is about as far from the Lincoln Tunnel as one can get, I would suspect. But, besides the escapism, books can also teach us about others as well as teach us about ourselves. Books can, and should, provoke us to think beyond, not just step out of, ourselves. They should encourage us to turn and look at back at ourselves once we've taken that step beyond. Great books can do that. but not so great books can do that, too.

The thing is: I don't think the publishers these days think about any of that. I think they are merely looking at sales reports and demographics and the bottom line. Granted, the book industry is a business: that's the bottom line in regards to keeping the industry afloat. But surely, they can step outside themselves as well, right?

So, the question is: who's running the publishing industry? Does the consumer want the next Twilight or is it the publisher, merely because Twilight has become such a phenomenon? If the publisher gave the consumer something other than the next Twilight, would the consumer revolt or would they take what's given them? Does the consumer even know what they want before they enter the local bookstore or stop in at to browse the offerings? I doubt they do. Most times, in regards to books, you don't know what you want until you see it. And if they don't know what they want then what makes the publishing industry think they know what the consumer wants? In truth, no one knows what will be the next Twilight or the next Da Vinci Code or the next Freakinomics. It's all a crap shoot, though I would suspect the publishers are trying to make it less of a crap shoot by forcing particular books onto the unsuspecting public. The supplier has to anticipate the consumer's need/demand, but in the realm of books I don't see how that is possible. And the supplier can't either, so they choose which books to push. They create the demand by creating buzz via marketing. But they don't do that for every book they publish. In a way, they don't give the consumer the option as to what they demand.

I guess all this means that the publishers are running the publishing industry but they're doing a shitty job of it (and not just because they don't push literary fiction). They push books that will sell, which aren't always the best written books or even the most interesting books (The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova from a few years back is a prime example: huge success from a debut novelist, but the book itself was boring beyond belief. But the marketing campaign was so thorough an assault the book sold millions, undeservedly, in my opinion. Same with The Lovely Bones. While the story was interesting due to its perspective, the writing was atrociously heavy-handed and in the end the story was banal and uninspiring).

All this makes me wonder what amazing books are we missing out on because they don't fall into the biggest section on the publisher's pie chart. You think about the great works of literature and wonder: would they have a fighting chance in today's bottom-line oriented publishing industry? The Catcher in the Rye? To Kill a Mockingbird? The Grapes of Wrath? Moby Dick? I fear not. I fear they wouldn't make it past the query letter phase from all these agents trying to predict what the publisher is wanting who are trying to predict what the consumer is wanting. "Interesting story. I connected with the character of Holden Caulfield. The writings good. But I don't think I can sell this in today's literary climate. But remember, it's all subjective..."

Not that I'm saying I've written the next Catcher in the Rye but if the agents and publishers don't start taking more chances and don't start having more faith in the consumer to know what they want rather than being told what they want, we may never know.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hearing Voices

Quick breakdown of my writing process:
A character will come first. A "person" with a story. Not fully, usually just a ghost of a person in search of their corporeal existence, which is what I'm supposed to give them: flesh and story. I have to immediately get words on the screen in order to make the characters real for me, even if it's only preliminary sketchings. And once I have that down, I can start learning about and building their world: backstory, family, friends, work, play, dilemmas, etc. I tend to write and do research at the same time. A lot of times, these bits and pieces of flesh will come to me just before I fall asleep. It's some of the best writing time for me. And surprisingly, I tend to remember it all the next day. It invigorates me to get to the computer first thing in the morning, to get it all down, to continue their journey from imagination to print. May not be the ideal process but it's the one that works for me.

So, as many of you know, I've been working on my first novel, On the Edge of Someplace Else, for quite awhile now (diligently for 2 years, but I've been living with the story and the characters for over 10 years now!). Spending so much time with these characters, thinking about them and how to tell their stories, has been an all-consuming process. Not a day or night has passed that they didn't have something to say: you need to change this, Jeff; um, since you have so-and-so doing this, then I can't do that; remember you changed my age in the beginning so you have to change it in the middle too; etc, etc. It's been endless. Until the other night.

August 4, 2009, I finished the fifth version (in 2 years) of my novel. Working off of agent and friends' feedback, I reworked the book then edited it again. Once that was done, I said: this is it! I can't look at this anymore. I need to move on. But I've said that before, after each version. Yet the characters would still come to me at night, requesting and demanding changes, revealing new twists or turns or secrets I didn't know they had, introducing me to knew characters I didn't know were vital to their stories. And then I'd have to go back.

But this time I forced myself to move on. I started work on the second novel, working title: The Reclamation of Karel Benakov. As usual, the getting-going was slow work, with much research to be done (especially this one, which is a good deal out of my inherent knowledge zone) and much backstory to create. It can be fun, but hard work and lonely. You don't want to discuss it too much with anyone else having such paltry information with which to answer the inevitable questions, so you keep to yourself. So, I slogged away, writing here and there, adding this and that to the characters lives and troubles. Slow going. And then the other night, as I was laying in bed, these new characters started pushing themselves into my consciousness, mainly Charles and Wallace, though Father Tony has had a few things to add. They all started revealing themselves and their stories and their lives. I was confused for a moment because I've been so used to Jenny and Brian and Mr. Barnes and the other residents of Ashmoore, Oklahoma coming to visit and talk, but they stayed silent. But the confusion dissipated pretty quickly, and I started to listen.

And since then, Charles has come to my thoughts every night now. I realized yesterday, when I "tried" to think about the first novel, about the characters, nothing new came. According to them, they're done, they've said all they needed to say. The relief that washed over me was nothing short of cleansing. I could officially move on, officially welcome Charles and Wallace and Berthold and all of their family and friends into my bed, my mind, and my life with no qualms or worries. It's been an amazing transitioning. I highly recommend it.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Back Again

So, it's been a month since my last blog entry. Why the silence, you ask? Nothing personal. Nothing you did. It's me, not you!

Actually, it was me and the rewriting of the novel. As I stated in the Revision Update entry, I have been in the throes of editing my book, On the Edge of Someplace Else. While the feedback I had received from a couple of agents, as well as a couple of non-agent readers, simply suggested that the novel needed some tightening up, some reworking of the characterizations, to move the action along a tad quicker, and such, I started seeing it as much weaker than they did. I started seeing my fear in the writing: fear of being too obvious, too aggressive, too offensive with the subject matters (rape and child molestation). Once I realized this, I decided I had to dive deeper into these characters' lives and actions and motives for the novel to succeed, at least for me. So I jumped back in, but this time kept swimming until I reached the bottom, and with that the edit soon became an all out rewrite. From a tense change (from present to past, allowing reflection), to a narrative shift (from omniscient narrator to one of the main characters), the entire feel of the novel changed to one that, I feel, is more intense, weightier, more meaningful. So, the work has been more than worth it.

But why the fear in the first place, though? Of course, all writer's have fears: fear of missing the mark of their true intention, fear of not being understood, and, of course, fear of rejection. But this fear had to do more with being too raw for the reader. Instinctually, I am a raw writer. I love the blatant truth in writing. I love writing about difficult subjects plainly, without smoke, without mirrors. Just saying it, whatever "it" maybe be, gets it out of the way for the real excavation to begin. I've always written this way, astonishing many with the rawness and honesty. But for some reason in this novel, I found myself holding back. Maybe because these stories aren't, technically, mine, I didn't feel I could truthfully speak in my usual manner. But most likely, I just didn't trust that the readers of my novel could handle truth, honesty, and the raw reality of life. I snuck around the subject matters like a scared child, using tricks and subtlety that reeked of dishonesty and, most of all, fear. With this latest version, I decided to turn on the lights, show the reality of these characters' lives in all their blatant ugliness. And lo and behold, the book is the closest it's ever been to my original vision of the story.

So, the moral of this blog entry: Fuck the Fear! Simple as that. Works for writing, as well as life in general. Fuck the fear of even trying to be a published writer. Fear has kept me from this dream for far too long as it is, so fuck it, I say. Maybe I'll work up a t-shirt to sell. Maybe a bumper sticker, refrigerator magnets. I can see this happening, sweeping the nation. I can hear Obama starting the State of the Union address off with the new American motto: Fuck the Fear!

Who's with me? Who's gonna fuck the fear? We've got nothing to loose...but the fear.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Been Away

Just a quick note to tell why I've been MIA on the blog. I've been focused on the rewrite/re-visioning of my book. I think it's going very well. I've chopped 35 pages/over 10,000 words from the first part of the book (Book is in 2 parts). The book reads so much better now, tighter dialogue, tighter action/tension. It's been amazing, though difficult and hopefully worth all the work. Not sure I'd be able to make anymore radical revisions after this, so it better work.

In addition to the radical revision (switch to one narrative voice from multiple, switch from present tense to past tense), I've been working off this amazing list of "Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)" that I got off Twitter. Talk about really tightening the manuscript! It's a must for any writer who hasn't become aware of those writing habits/quirks that can make a manuscript annoying to read (I have an affinity for the word "just" for some reason. In my search of the first half of the book--98 pages--I used the word 153 times!). It's been a very enlightening process.

So, that's why I haven't had time to blog, but I'll get something else here this weekend. Until then, back to the editing board!


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Revision Update

Just about a week ago, I realized, via feedback from one of the agents to which I had submitted my partial, that my novel, On the Edge of Someplace Else, was in need of a serious revision. The agent, who will remain nameless though I am grateful for her comments and suggestions, said the story was interesting but the book itself moved too slow. After licking my wounds for a couple of days, I took another look at my book with her comments in mind, and lo and behold, she was completely right! My first thought was to just chuck the project and continue with my second book (word on the publishing street is that most "first" novels never see the light of a bookstore anyway). But in all honesty, I couldn't send it to its grave. It had been a part of me for too many years and I know the story is interesting and has something to "say", that I couldn't not do all I could to get it right.

So, I went back in. Just as I was wrestling with the rewrite, someone (the wonderful Sarah Cypher, as a matter of fact) offered an amazing bit of advice that she learned/heard from the author, Tom Spanbauer, he of the "dangerous writing" school of writing, which includes such notables as Amy Hempel and Chuck Palahniuk, and espouses the act of writing "dangerously": "writing what personally scares or embarrasses you in order to explore and artistically express those fears honestly."

Now, what Tom Spanbauer said, via Sarah Cypher, is "we should write as if we're telling our story to a person on his deathbed." At first I balked at this bit of "writerly" advice. Yes, actually balked! But then, when the revision I was working on was still churning out huge buckets of boring, I thought I might as well give it a try.

I sat down next to this dying person (in my head he's old and frail, not so much on his immediate death bed, but he's not getting up any time soon) and started telling him the story. It didn't take long to realize that it wasn't me speaking, but Brian, one of my main characters. He is the one that had to tell the story (he always was the one, but I had forgotten that after too many years of reapproaches and revisions). And he is the only one who could tell the story, because he's the one that lived it, not me. So, I let him talk and, my God, he's a good storyteller! His is the voice I've been hearing all this time but kept filtering it through me (with the safety on). His voice is so much clearer and stronger and braver than mine ever was, so I'm letting him tell what he needs to tell. And he's doing an amazing job. I'm grateful to hand over the reins.

And the revision is going well. Better than well, it's going great. I'm excited and energized and so is the story again. I get up each day looking forward to re-entering the world of my novel to find out what I'm going to learn next, and that's a great feeling.

So I thank that nameless agent. I thank Sarah. I thank Tom. But most of all, I thank Brian. Keep telling your tale and they will follow.

Some Links:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Back to Poetry

Lately, I've been thinking about poetry, which I haven't done in quite some time. Focusing on fiction/prose, I've just not been in the poetry mindset, but I think it's time to revisit that genre. For me, poetry actually helps my prose. I like the succinctness of poetry, the direct talk and the need to say a lot in a view words. Before I started studying and writing poetry, my prose was a bit over-wrought, to say the least. Funnily enough, the act of learning poetry actually de-purpled my prose, stripped it down to its essence, which is the kind of writing I like: writing that doesn't read like writing.

My favorite poetry is the poetry that is daring, strong, and even harsh in its subject matter and execution. I've always been the most raw and honest in my poetry, something that doesn't come through in my prose, but I can't figure out why. I still deal with hard subjects (rape, child molestation, HIV) but there's a timidity to it in my prose that I seem to kick right through when I tackle these subjects in my poetry. For some reason, I can get right to the heart of it in my poetry. It's like poetry is a handgun and prose is a bazooka: I can hold and control a handgun easier than I can a bazooka, which is too heavy and too general in its aim. I've got to learn how to us a handgun when I write prose. So, it's back to poetry to reset my mind, my energy, my honesty, my aggression, my aim.

Here's a couple of my favorite poems:

Let’s say…
when you bust your nose on the kitchen table tonight—
drunk and falling asleep as you do in the evenings while we watch
television in the den—
I leave my body, after days and weeks of practicing,
my hand on the back of your head—see how it feels—
just before impact.

Let’s say…
for argument sake I liked the things you did and still think of you
at night half-drunk, half-dead, half you, half me, half lonely.

Let’s say…
maybe I own up to my loving you—but I don’t want you
to get the wrong idea, whichever one that might be.

Let’s say…
I only thought of killing you a few times—knives mostly
because I wanted to see the blood, my blood—but by then you were already dead.

Let’s say…
I eat the gun, the one you keep stashed in your sock drawer…eat it
like I did your cock, shove it as far down as it can go, really work
for the bullet this time because I want to feel the heat inside me, the metal
burning in my belly like coal in a stove, glowing in there so everyone can see it,
warm themselves to the idea, not just suspect.

Let’s say…
the virus is your love, that’s what’s taking me down,
that’s what’s coursing through my veins altering my genetic make-up, reinventing
my cells to unrecognizable. Let’s say I take this fistful of drugs,
approved on a two-year fast-track by the FDA,
to ward off the death you planted in me. Let’s say, just between you and me,
that sometimes I neglect to swallow them all, just because.


At home, I keep my birth certificate in the top drawer
of my night stand along with other important documents:
passport, apartment rental agreement, car payment booklet,

and my HIV diagnosis, its onion skin paper

thirteen years thinner from too much finger oil,
thin as my skin peeling after a bad sunburn because
I used baby oil instead of tanning lotion.

That’s what we used in Oklahoma, my sister and I
laying out in her backyard, the radio on, her kids playing
in the kiddie pool I helped blow up.

I’d spend the evening in front of the box fan
in my room cooling the heat rising from my skin
red and angry with me. I’d press my forefinger

into the meat of my chest, watch it change from white to pink to burnt.

Later the skin would come off in tears
and sheets complete with the indents of the blemishes I never knew my skin held.


Afterwards I sterilize the knife,
the jack-knife from childhood
I keep in my nightstand drawer
in case of an intruder,
and make eight incisions in my flesh
at eight different sites on my body,
on my arms, my thighs, my chest and back.
I apply a leech to each site. They are looking for you in there.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Not So Fast There...

Hot on the heels of the "Moving On" post from two days ago, I just received feedback from one of the agents who was reviewing my partial. While she was gracious in her reaction/rejection, stating that there is definitely potential in the story, she made it clear that the manuscript just "isn't there yet." She also made suggestions on how to revise and invited me to resend to her once I'd reworked the manuscript, which is something, at least, and I'm grateful she left that door open for me.

But now I'm sitting here wondering: is it worth it to keep working on this project, which I've been working on for more than 5 years and diligently for the past 3? While I knew there would be more editing to do on the novel, I figured that would occur once I'd secured representation. Now that doesn't seem a likely scenario as the agent suggests there's more wrong than just some comma usage. Granted, this is one agent's opinion, but, if I'm being honest with myself, most of her evaluation (the book moves too slowly, not enough tension in the beginning) is spot on (though she also suggested that some of the characters are stereotypical which I don't exactly agree with. I'm not one to create quirky characters just to create quirky characters. No Jonathan Safran Foer am I.).

The beginning of the book does indeed move too slowly, which was intentional as I was creating the idea of the town, a small farming community in Northwest Oklahoma. It's not an exciting place to live and I wanted to convey that, though I think I did too good of a job and bored my reader, which was not my goal. Even in Literary Fiction, where the author is given some allowance to indulge, the writing still has to be interesting and purposeful. The scenes, no matter how skillfully rendered, must ultimately move the story forward or else they're unnecessary. So, I'm faced with cutting chapters that, while they add to the ambiance of the story, the setting, they don't exactly advance the action.

At the Backspace Conference last weekend, we writers learned a rather violent, yet vital, piece of advice: "sometimes you have to kill your babies." We create them, birth them, nurture them, but sometimes we have to take out our trusty red pens and slaughter them for the sake of the greater good. It's a tough situation to find yourself in, but it's all part of the process of producing the best book possible.

So, here I am being asked to ready my little lambs for the sausage mill. And I shall do what needs to be done. So, come my pretties. This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Moving On

As stated in the summary of this blog, there is a lot of waiting in the process of seeking an agent and a publisher, and I have entered into one of those waiting periods. As it stands, eight agents have my manuscript for review (5 have partials and 3 have the full manuscript) and I am at their leisure, so to speak. With so many questions unanswered, I have placed a moratorium on the query process as I don't know if I could take adding to that list just yet (assuming that other agents would request more materials as well). So, with the book finished (I have also placed a moratorium on revision for the time being) and the query process at a halt, the only thing for me to do is to move on.

While I know it's the best thing for me to do right now, it's also a hard thing for me to do. The act of moving on means I have to stop thinking about my novel, On the Edge of Someplace Else. I have to stop thinking about these characters that I've lived with for more than three years (in some cases over eight years). I have to stop thinking about this town that I've created, that exists merely because I wrote it into existence. I have to stop worrying about their future: will they be seen and understood by others, will their story be told? I have to stop because it's time to move on to new characters, new towns, new stories.

The process by which I write starts with one character first. With the first novel, it actually began with Brian, though initially he was much younger. The rape of Jenny Wade was always the catalyst but originally she wasn't even going to be in the book, it was all about Brian and his observations about the town in which he lived as they dealt with the events created by this act of violence. As I, via Brian, began to move through the town, I began to meet the people and hear their stories. Most often, I meet my characters at night, after I've gone to bed but before I've fallen asleep. They sit and tell me their life stories and I listen. I don't write anything down because I don't want to hinder them and somehow I retain what they've told me until the next morning, until I can get to the laptop and record what I've learned. Each character has revealed themselves to me in this way. And this is how the book was written, one character at a time who reveals how they intersect with the other characters.

But since their stories have been told, they don't come to me anymore. They've told all they needed to tell me. I've recorded all they've wanted to say.

But now there are new people coming into my bedroom at night, strangers with whom I've yet to feel comfortable, though I'm warming to them. They have their stories and lives that they need to unburden, which they're doing, slowly but surely. Stories that are vastly different than the ones that came from the residents of Ashmoore, Oklahoma. These people come from far away places like Prague and Brazil and New York, and from far away times that I know little about. And, while their stories are fascinating to me, I'm not sure I'm the right person to relate them, yet. There is so much for me to learn about them. And I'm trying to listen carefully, trying to focus my attention on them and not look backward at the other, more comfortable characters. But it's hard.

It's hard to move on, but I have to in order to keep progressing as a writer, a storyteller. While the creative process of a new story, and the characters that inhabit that story, is one of the most exciting periods in writing, it's also the scariest because the writer must enter unknown territory and encounter unknown people. But it has to be done, so that's what I'm doing, if only slightly reluctantly. I am moving on to new worlds and hope that one day soon it will be a world in which I feel comfortable and eager to tell you about.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Selling It With Skin

One of the main points of publishing that was imparted to us aspirings during this past weekend's Backspace Writer's Conference was the idea of a "platform." A platform is a network, a built-in audience that you bring with you to the table before you even sign a contract with an agent, let alone a publisher. This audience is guarenteed sales. Usually, a platform is only required of a non-fiction writer (say a celebrity chef wanting to pitch their cookbook, or a well-known doctor wanting to pitch a self-help book), but we learned that a platform is a major boost for fiction writers as well, even debut fiction writers such as myself.

Well, who among us has a platform? I sure as heck don't (and apparently family and friends don't constitute a big enough platform...sorry, kids). So, that's what this blog, as a whole endeavor, is about: generating my "online presence," building my platform. It's all part of the marketing process of my book, but it seems more like I'm marketing myself, something I'm not entirely comfortable with.

As a writer, a fiction writer at that, I like to hide behind my stories and especially my characters (well, actually, I hide IN my characters, but don't tell anybody). I'm not a fan of doing the song and dance, especially for myself. It's a strange mindset that fiction writers don't like to get into because it shines the light on them and not where it should be shining: on their words, their work. But apparently, it's all part and parcel of the beast known as publishing, especially in today's saturated market. One's book has to be able to "jump off the crowded shelf" and the best way to do that is with name recognition. So here I am on Blogger blogging away. I'm twittering like an absolute fool. And researching the purchase of to launch my website. All the while sitting here saying: "All I want to do is write."

But "just writing" isn't enough anymore. The Harper Lees of the world have to take tap and voice and HTML classes now. None of this creating one of the most amazing works of literature ever and then hiding yourself away. You gotta get out there Missy and sell it with skin! A little nip-slip will peddle a few more of those Mockingbirds.

Yes, it feels that absurd to me. And who the hell wants to see my nips? But I guess if that's what it's going to take for people to read my work: the show will start at 8pm with a two drink minimum (you're gonna need them).


Monday, June 1, 2009

On the Edge of Someplace Else: Mock-up of Cover

Okay, I was feeling creative, so thought I'd do a mock-up of the cover of my book as I see it. I'm loving the starkness of this picture, which parallels the starkness of my novel, and the barbwire cutting through the image just adds that touch of the sinister (also lurking in the novel). If I saw this cover on a table at Barnes & Noble, I'd definitely pick up the book (even if it didn't have my name on it).


PS: I snagged the image from a website via google image search. It's the work of photographer John Hames (

It's Good to be the King

It's June 1st. I've been "off" from work since January 31st (the day after I got laid-off). That's a good 4 months of down-time, which I've used to 1) complete/revise my book and 2) start the process of finding an agent, which will lead to the publication of the book. It's been a great run, I must say. It's been a taste of the King-life (as in Stephen King, as in supporting yourself as a writer and only a writer) and I have to admit: "It's good to be the King!"

Basic Daily Itinerary:
5:10am - Wake with Carlos
6:05am - Drive Carlos to Hoboken so he can catch the Path
6:58am - Arrive home
7:20am - 12:30pm - Turn off the TV and write...
12:30pm - 2:00pm - Research and Query agents
2:00pm - Law & Order starts on USA Network

To sit and write, uninterrupted, for 5 hours straight is heaven. Granted some days, complete and utter shite makes it to the computer screen, but that's better than nothing at all. And it's a hell of a lot better than not having the chance to do it, either.

Time, that's all writers ever want (well, fame and fortune, too, but you gotta have the time first). But, in the "careful what you wish for" vein of existence, more often than not, when we get the time, we tend to freeze-up from the pressure of having to produce actual writing. "I have only this amount of time to get something/anything written...ugh!" and we sit there paralized. It's like the insomnia-circle of thought: "if I fall asleep now, I'll get this much sleep," but of course you don't so in about an hour you start the whole mathematical process over again, which is just more pressure. It's all just great fun!

But 4 months is more than enough time to relieve the pressure. You know that you have time today, tomorrow, the next you're able to write, and write something other than shite, you are able to write your book, the novel that's been trapped inside of you for all these years and for some unknown reason (which you loath to speculate upon) the stars have aligned for you:
  • January 2008, your company's portfolio is purchased by a new company, who instills their personal choice for a new CEO
  • new CEO hates your boss and, consequently, you
  • July 2008, your boss resigns
  • new CEO bides her time until the market/economy takes its toll on your company and the portfolio
  • January 2009, the powers-that-be decide a cut needs to be made, which gives the CEO the opportunity she's been waiting for
  • January 30th: you get your walking papers (with 3 months serverence)
  • January 31st you wake up with buckets of time sitting next to your bed

It all just falls into place, as it should be (one of my most oft repeated phrases). It's good to be a fatalist, as well as the King. you know it all happens for a reason and that reason is to be a writer, in the truest sense of the word: you sit and write.

The past 4 months have been a taste of a life that I will/do strive for on a daily basis. And it shall come to fruition. I too shall be the King!


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jenny Wade

In my book, On the Edge of Someplace Else, one of the three recurring voices is that of Jenny Wade, the 17 year-old girl whose rape sets the town on edge and is the catalyst for the events that follow. I've lived with this character for years now. She's been the focal point of the book, the nucleus around which all the other characters exist. If it weren't for her story, her rape, I wouldn't be in this town reporting on their actions. For the longest time, the title of the book was: I Love You, Jenny Wade. Can't get more Jenny Wade-centric than that.

So, my partner and I are bored last night, but don't want to go through the rigmarole of actually getting dressed and going out to a movie (something we rarely do anymore now that we're crotchety old gays, who can't stand the way people act in movie theatres these days, which is possibly another post in and of itself) and decide to watch a movie-on-demand. We settle on Feast, a horror flick about the patrons of a bar in the deserts of Texas who are set upon by a clan of monsters out to eat them. It's a fun movie: lots of humor, lots of blood and gore (though so over-the-top that you quickly become desensitized, much like with Tarrentino's Kill Bill movies), decent acting by a decent cast. I'd recommend if you're into those types of movies.

Now, the reason for this post is the actress who played Honey Pie in this movie, a good little actress by the name of Jenny Wade. I'll be honest, when I saw that name come up on screen, it threw me for a loop. After all these years (I've been working on my book periodically for over 7 years, diligently for the past 3), to see her name, my character's name somewhere other than my mind or my manuscript was strange, interesting, exciting, and any number of other emotions, but mainly exciting.

Now, Jenny Wade, the actress, doesn't look anything like Jenny Wade, the fictitious character. Jenny Wade, the actress, is blond and sexy (at least in Feast), where Jenny Wade, the fictitious character, has medium-brown, straight hair and, while not mousy, is somewhat reserved in her interactions with others. To be honest, Jenny Wade, the fictitious character, looks like my sister, Beverly, circa 1976 (though not based on my sister in any other way). So, the fact that I've seen this live-version Jenny Wade, though she hasn't imposed on my personal image of my character, there is still something odd and, maybe, disturbing about her walking around out there in the world.

When my book is a resounding success, maybe I'll get a chance to meet Jenny Wade. Maybe I'll be able to sit down with her and talk to her (any writer's dream and nightmare all in one). Would I be able to seperate the two? I doubt it. I'm sure I'll have the urge to take Jenny Wade in my arms and tell her everything is going to be all right. Tell her she's fine. She's not that 17 year-old girl anymore. She's strong and free now. All of which will certainly freak out Jenny Wade, the actress, and, possibly, cause her to press charges for assault, but if not, then most definitely take out a restraining order against me. Then I'll be that crazed author on TMZ and the gossip blogs, which will either help the sales of book or tank my career for ever.

On second thought, maybe it would be best if I never meet Jenny Wade.


Jenny Wade:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

My Query

Okay, I realized that I probably should post my query, which, if you don't know, is the pitch an author creates for his/her book that's supposed to whet the appetite of the agent/editor to the point that they simply MUST read the novel!! So, here it is:

Dear Agent,

During the dogged-heat of July, the small farming community of Ashmoore, Oklahoma is as it always is: slowly moving through the long hot days of summer. At least until news that 17-year-old Jenny Wade has been attacked shudders through the town.

Initially, the people of Ashmoore band together, determined to find the “monster” who has done this to “one of their own;” but with no immediate arrests, the gossip mills soon begin to grind the story into pulp, churning with speculation, distrust and doubt, ultimately aimed at Jenny Wade herself.

After hearing the news and gossip, 13-year-old Brian Thompson turns to Mr. Barnes, his former sixth-grade teacher and emerging surrogate father figure, who preys upon Brian's growing sexual confusion, pulling him into a relationship that crosses all lines, and also adds grist to the ever-grinding gossip mills.

In the shadow of gossip and rumor, an unlikely friendship develops between Jenny and Brian—a friendship of outcasts, that is all too soon marked for destruction by a town seeking to reclaim its, once safe but now fragile, existence.

On the Edge of Someplace Else is a 68,200-word work of literary fiction. While predominantly revolving around the three central characters of Jenny, Brian and Mr. Barnes, the story is also revealed through the eyes of various residents of Ashmoore, as the novel is ultimately about the town and its desperate acts to save the idea of itself.

Originally from Oklahoma myself, I have been in the New York area for the past 8 years, the past 4 spent at NYU pursuing my BA in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Creative Writing. Previously, I have been published in Dovetails Literary Magazine. On the Edge of Someplace Else is my first novel.

I thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Richards

So, who wants to read more?!

Backspace Writer's Conference

Just got back from my first writer's conference here in NYC. Created and sponsored by the Backspace, an amazing online writer's community I was lucky enough to find a couple of months back, it was a great baptismal into the world of writer conferences. In addition to meeting some fellow writers, the conference drew a wealth of high-profile agents for their many panels, seminars, and workshops. Though I'm not sure how long Backspace has been up and running, it's been long enough to grab some great endorsements from these agents, who not only join in on the conferences, but often times join in the online forum discussions, as well as participating in online chat sessions. Simply a great place for a writer to be because of the support and honesty and generosity of all that participate in the site (from administrators to members).

Okay, now that I've tooted Backspace's horn (which I'll most likely do often on this blog), let's get to the conference itself. In this post I'll talk about day one with the other two days to follow. The first day was the most anticipated for me as it was their "Agent/Author" day, where we writers got to sit in a room with the agents and read them our queries (our pitch letters for our books) in the morning session and then the first two pages of our books in the afternoon session. From what I hear, many of these writer's conferences have "pitch session" set-ups, which can be daunting for author and agent alike, sort of a speed-dating set up where the author moves from agent to agent with only a short amount of time to "pitch" them their book. Well, Backspace devised a much more "friendly" and helpful version of this set-up by deeming it a workshop where the agents are there to critique the queries and the initial pages rather than just say "yes" or "no": much more helpful for all involved. What this set-up allowed was for the writers to get professional feedback and for the agents to help teach us how to create a proper query letter which will hopefully save them the task of having to slog through poorly written letters later on. Win-Win, I tell ya!!

Well, I've been querying since February 5, 2009, to date I have sent 48 letters out, gotten 18 rejections, 5 requests for partials (the first 50 pages) and 1 request for the full manuscript. Not horrible reaction but certainly not the instant recognition I was sure I would get (we writers are rather delusional for the most part, hence why we write). Therefore, I went into this first day of the conference will little confidence in my query letter, which I've revised more times than I can count in the past 4 months. Well, much to my surprise, I got an amazing response from the agents! From the morning session, 3 of the 6 agents who heard my query requested me to send them my work (2 partials and 1 full). Needless to say, I was over the moon. My query isn't bad at all, in fact, it's rather well written and constructed! Who knew?

A big sigh of relief and on to the second part of the day: the reading of the first 2 pages of the manuscript. Now, I've been writing and revising this manuscript literally for years, but quite a bit in the past 6 months. Actually, just a week ago I completely switched chapters 1 and 2, so the tweaking and all out revising has been going on up until the day before the conference. Again, the response was tremendous! Not only did all the agents say that the writing was very good and beautiful, 3 of the 6 agents (completely different agents from the morning session, by the way) also requested me to send them my work! So 6 out of 12 agents requested more material! Amazing response. More than I could have hoped for. I am beyond ecstatic, though I know it's just stepping stones, it's still amazing. A complete success for me and well worth the money I ponied up, which wasn't too cheap.

The next two days were the panels and seminars, which I'll leave for the next two posts. Until then, I'll be seeing you on cloud 9.


Premiere Post

Welcome to the blog. I'm a couple of years late but I've joined the blogging community. Woo and Hoo, for me! Basically, I'm setting this up as an personal outlet to get word out about my book, On the Edge of Someplace Else, for which I'm seeking an agent. What I'll be writing about is the process of hunting for and finding an agent (no easy task, let me assure you right off the bat) and then eventually through the publishing process. I'll also take time out to talk about things in the news, both literary and general, that strike my fancy, or, most likely, rankle my fancy (like most bloggers, I'm rather fancy-centric).

Well, I hope you all join me in my journey from obscure aspiring writer to full-fledged published author and enjoy the ride with me.