BOXED SET -- A novel by Bernie Kohn & Gina M. Smith

An unemployed Chicago sports writer quickly finds himself broke and homeless, but he uses his gift with words and some inspiration from Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac to turn his life around, help his fellow homeless and to get the girl, a perky tech at the local plasma clinic who thinks a boob job will solve everything.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Going the distance

There were times when I thought Boxed Set might never be finished. More accurately, there was a period when I didn't know when it would be finished. I think the end was always more or less in mind, but the middle was stuck for quite some time. Now that it has been finished for awhile, left at room temperature and seriously edited, I wonder when the next book will be finished.

Instead of worrying when, if or how Boxed Set will be published, because I believe that it will, that it must be one way or another, I spend more time thinking about going the distance again in a second book. I am about 20,000 words in, and at this point 60-80,000 words seem a lofty goal.

As for Boxed Set, we hope to publish traditionally, but I know as a last resort it could be self-published. The digital age has made that much more sophisticated, attainable and easy to move right onto selling platforms. Still, for two journalists, traditional publishing has much more significance for us. 

So query we will, and meanwhile, I write. Different genre, different style. Must. Keep. Writing. That's what every author advises.

As for what it takes to finish a novel, Amanda Patterson says on her blog, Writers Write, that the five necessary characteristics are self-belief, the ability to learn and grow, the ability to pay attention, perseverance and obsession.

Since I've got perseverance and obsession pretty well covered, I need to remind myself what she says about self-belief. "Too much self-belief can make you blind to your shortcomings. You can become convinced that your way is the only way. Authors who want to publish know they are creating a product. If you’re writing for an audience, you know that you have to consider what that audience wants. This could mean taking a writing class, doing your own research, or reading books on how to write. If you want to become an artist, you take art classes. If you want to learn how to play a musical instrument, you take music lessons. Why would you believe becoming a writer is any different? Being arrogant about your abilities could lead to many wasted years."

Patterson's thoughts on the ability to pay attention are interesting also. "Writers are readers first. Reading is your first step in learning how to pay attention. Published writers read a lot. Writers are also observers of human nature and human behavior. The writers who succeed are curious as to why people, including themselves, do the things they do. They want to know what gives people pleasure and pain. They see patterns in people’s lives. They listen to their words and see if their actions follow what they say. They create characters who are real. If you want to create a memorable book, watch and listen. Most of your material is closer than you could ever imagine."

But my favorite thought from her article is really about obsession. It makes me feel good to be obsessed with our book. "It is easy enough to write a bad book, but authors who make a living out of writing spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get things right. You should care about the final product. This is when being obsessive is a good thing. Every rewrite, every edit, and every stage of your book’s life should be important to you. No mistake, no matter how insignificant, should escape your notice."

The above tells me I am right on track to go the distance, and I'm loving every step of the process.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Wound and Want, and Comps, again.

In a flurry of editing for the #PitchWars deadline 8.18.14 in the Twitter-sphere, I've been trading critiques with other writers, published authors and mentee hopefuls like me, and seeking feedback from a second round of beta readers (gamma readers?) and even neighbors. Sent the manuscript last night to my son, 23, who promised he and a friend would both read and report back.

As I asked in the supportive environment on Twitter where writers gather under hashtags like #amwriting, #PitchWars, #pitchwarssupport group, and more, how much advice is too much? 

Turns out the unanimous answer was: no amount of advice from fellow writers, published or not, is too much. But, said one person responding, you still have to consider your own manuscript. Well, geez. 

So as I sort through the critique notes, print them out so I can see them all together, and as I type up other notes, some from phone advice by a multi-awarded best-selling author, I am "considering" the manuscript we've completed for Boxed Set, before I start any surgery.

One interesting expression from all of this stands out.I have a scrap of paper from a note I took a couple weeks ago. "Remember the Wound and the Want." I love that! It was from Lori Goldstein on YATopia.

As explained, the intensity of want which the main character experiences is key for the reader. It instills doubt in the reader about whether the protagonist can achieve whatever it is, the more intensely he wants it. This also creates needed tension in the plot, especially if circumstances conspire to thwart the main character's achievement(s).

The wound is the thing that makes them want. It's that situation, happening, antagonist, set-up that causes the main character to have to do something. The wound also provides the depth to the story, the motive(s) and back-story. Gotta have that.

So as I study our Jack Wroblesky and Holly Anderson, I'm looking to see if we have fully-captured their Wound and Want. I love a great saying, especially when it speaks to me loudly and clearly.

In an earlier post, I mentioned The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel by Jess Walter, which was suggested as a similar theme to Boxed Set, a comp, then. I finished reading it, and haven't found a book I have loved so, so much in many years. It's just a beautiful piece of literary fiction, and so damn funny at the very same time the prose is making your heart swell. It's only a comp in terms of theme: unemployed, sometime hapless journalist. Our book is not literary fiction, and even if it were, I could not compare it to Walter's book. That would require hubris. Another unemployed journalist, Tess Monaghan, leads the crime series novels of Laura Lippman, also a former Baltimore Sun writer.

What I've also learned about comps is that it's important to find some comps in tone, rather than theme or even setting. I'd thought about searching for non-genre fiction set in the Midwest, until a very smart author-friend reminded me I should search for tone.

We've said before our book leans toward the humor of Hiassen or Dorsey, with a dose of reality and moral message. That may work, although our book does not open in a humorous spot. So the comp search continues...seeking a coming-of-age/second-time-around story for grown-ups in adult contemporary/commercial fiction. Not Young Adult (YA) or New Adult (NA). But our Jack is going to have to make himself into a *new* adult in this book. Different kind of new adult from the genre.

If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment! And if you're the one who told me all about Wound and Want, let me know so I can credit you.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A wisp of an idea and then, 300 pages

In pitching and querying Boxed Set, I've used the phrase, based on actual events and, loosely based...

We wrote the first half of this story about an unemployed journalist while one of us was an unemployed journalist. David M. Ettlin, a legend at The Baltimore Sun, describes the day the real debacle hit its crescendo, on his blog The Real Muck. He uses the words bloodbath and massacre, and five years later they still do not seem like hyperbole. Print journalism was having a moment in 2008, 2009, and it hasn't gone away.

I had forgotten about Ettlin's blog post until recently, although I had read it a couple times in past years. Lived through April 29, 2009 with my co-author, who recovered very nicely and returned very successfully in 2010 to his first love, journalism, after six months of not working and a hateful one year on the dark side in PR.

The column resurfaced as I looked again at our protagonist, Jack Wroblesky, the out-of-work sports writer, to make sure his voice is as authentic as possible. 

But the key reference in Ettlin's column is not about my co-author. It is this: Wednesday afternoon, (sportswriter Rick) Maese was back at work at Oriole Park doing an interview when he got the news of his layoff by telephone, according to accounts from colleagues at the newspaper.

Boxed Set is not about Maese either. We heard about what happened to him when it happened, but we also learned of and heard from too many other journalists in the same predicament Ettlin describes, and not just at the Sun. And specifically there were others notified by cell phone while out in the trenches covering the news they had been assigned to cover: sportswriters, photographers, top editors. 

These threads wove themselves together into the first tiny swatch of an idea for our book. And then we ran with it, adding the color to make it fiction. Fiction based on fact.

The second half of the book and the ending happened when we were both gainfully employed, one of us back in journalism and one (me) working in the field of sales and marketing, a fairly distant cousin several times removed from our matching undergrad journalism degrees. 

Interestingly, once the book was finished, shelved and waiting for edits, I also lost my job in a so-called layoff or downsizing: a financial decision by my large hospital system-employer, just one of so many overgrown entities falling victim to the same overarching issues and diseases as print journalism. 

So although I couldn't know internally whereof I wrote in the beginning, I quite unexpectedly got to know whereof I edited after. And still do. I'm not sure an attack on one's beloved profession and individual employment status is ever really forgotten. It's tucked away when a new job is gained, but it's near enough to inspire us to avoid unemployment in the future. As if we have full control of that. 

After about seven months off for me in 2013-2014, when work on Boxed Set was too far from either of our minds, my own unemployment stint has informed the return to edits and shopping the book. Unemployment leaves you hungry. Inspired. And hopefully, a little smarter.

Today, I am a little smarter and a lot happier/sadder, having just finished The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, a smart, hip, literary genius rock star of a writer with whom I am enamored now and forever. His unemployed journalist Matt Prior is a little bit of all of us, journo and non-.

In a related non-fiction endeavor, Warren Watson, another journo who is six degrees to Ball State University and a former executive director for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, is working on a book, Surviving Journalism, due out in 2015. And see more here at Out of the News, a book and blog by Celia Wexler.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

In the search for comps, one is found

It was suggested to me today that this little tale might be unbelievable. Discussing the novel last night at length with a new old friend and fellow journalist, a mention of author Jess Walter was made. When receiving back a paid-for query- and synopsis-edit this morning from writing coach Lara Willard, she suggested I check out Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel.

I am embarrassed to say that until yesterday I was not familiar with the work of Jess Walter. So I honed in on his latest, Beautiful Ruins: A Novel, hoping to lose myself on the Amalfi Coast or in someone else's romance.

Then I read the summary for The Financial Lives of the Poets. And got goosebumps.

This is the Amazon synopsis: "The Financial Lives of the Poets is a comic and heartfelt novel from National Book Award nominee Jess Walter, author of Citizen Vince and The Zero, about how we get to the edge of ruin—and how we begin to make our way back.
Walter tells the story of Matt Prior, who’s losing his job, his wife, his house, and his mind—until, all of a sudden, he discovers a way that he might just possibly be able to save it all . . . and have a pretty damn great time doing it."

The search for any comps for Boxed Set has been a challenge. Tagging on to the tails or tales of Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey and Christopher Moore either for humor or moral messages delivered with a light hand, felt just okay, not exactly right.

Before I go on, let me say that in finding comps (comparable titles) a writer, especially a debut author, does not mean to assume 'Gilt by Association.' Hiassen, Dorsey and Moore, as well as Walter now, are best-selling authors I admire from afar. I don't seek to imitate or even emulate, or imply that I could.

Nevertheless, agents will ask authors about comps for their work. This, not only to ensure the author is a well-informed, well-rounded reader and current member of the human race, but more importantly, to figure out where the proposed or queried novel would fit upon a bookstore shelf. Are there too many books like it already? How big is the potential audience for a work like this? Can the agent successfully sell this work to a publisher? Can the agent or publisher gain shelf space for it with book-sellers?

So I've been looking endlessly for a good comp (or two) and somehow missed Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel. I wonder how fast I can get it into my hands and my head? And heart? I'd buy it for my Kindle right this minute, but I have this 'thing' that important books have to be held and felt, and slept with, and inhaled. Soonest.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The query for our novel

I promised earlier a peek into Boxed Set. This is an except from our query letter to agents and publishers. Would you want to read this novel? Leave us a comment and tell us why or why not.

Sports writer Jack Wroblesky thought his life was dandy. Tolerable, at least. Sufficient.

Twenty-plus years as a journalist, awards, his face on local billboards and a city bus, nuclear family plus dog, swimming pool, dream car. He takes it all in stride and for granted until, within a few mind-boggling days, all that he had is suddenly gone or out of reach.

Very far out of reach: Jack’s job is abruptly eliminated, he is without available cash or access to any, his car stripped of its wheels and vandalized. He gets served with divorce papers and kicked out of his own house…swindled by his spiteful, soon-to-be ex-wife and father-in-law…just for losing the job, status and income his Ice Princess wife demanded.

As he follows a homeless man to an outdoor shelter in the Chicago suburbs, Jack can’t imagine his life turning around there. But thanks to some intervention from the unlikeliest of characters, and the affection of Holly Anderson, a charming lab tech at the local plasma center where he sells his blood for cash to survive, Jack’s on his way to finding a much more meaningful, satisfying and successful life.

An almost-forgotten family connection to the late Beat Generation Author Jack Kerouac proves both eerily significant and financially valuable as Jack uses his writing skills and heart to turn around his own dire situation and that of the local homeless. His new job will be nothing he ever could have imagined.

Boxed Set is a contemporary fiction work, written from our own experiences as "down-sized" journalists and loosely based on actual events. The all-too-relatable themes of unemployment, financial hardship and self-doubt are balanced with a healthy dose of humor as well as family, friendship and love in this fast-paced story of redemption with a surprising but realistic and satisfying conclusion.

Stayed tuned for many more writing tips we've gathered and gleaned from published experts, and excepts from Boxed Set.