Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's alive!

That's right--my novel, A Witch to Live, is now available at


[The following is a transcript of a presentation I made about A Witch to Live earlier this year at the Columbus (Ohio) Mensa Regional Gathering. It was not given as it is presented here, but contained quite a bit of last-minute editing, ad-libbing and stage fright.]

At this RG, you are going to hear presentations from best-selling authors who have honed their craft into the basis for a career that has blessed them with the opportunity to make a living doing what they love, as well as the respect of their friends, readers and fellow writers.

This is not one of those presentations.

Instead, this presentation is about struggle—the struggle with putting the right words on the page, the struggle with rejection by agents and publishers—but most of all, the struggle with my own self-doubt.

It might help to provide you with some background. Some people were born to be writers. I’m still not sure if I was or not. My favorite books as a child weren’t even fiction—they were the World Almanac and the Guinness Book of World Records. I would have rather read the Racing Form than anything by Shakespeare. Still would. As a teenager, I did develop some favorites: Animal Farm, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird. I enjoyed mysteries, especially those by Dick Francis. Big shock there, huh?

But the idea of writing for a living was far from my mind. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said a high school band director.

All that changed in my junior year of high school thanks to an English teacher named Bonnie Auletta. There was a class assignment about the end of the world and I wrote a story for it called “Crimson Haze.” Miss Auletta liked it so much that she had it published in the school newspaper. And so, to steal a line from William Butler Yeats, a terrible beauty was born.

The thought occurred to me—how cool would it be to make a living by coming up with ideas? No heavy lifting, no nine to five, and I could get out of taking most of those math and science classes that I didn’t like. And lots of people would know my name!

OK, so my motives weren’t the most noble in literary history. The important thing was that I wanted to be a writer.

So I went off to college thinking I was going to take the local literary community by storm. There was a literary magazine at the college, and it seemed like destiny that I would submit “Crimson Haze” to the magazine and the staff would fall over in awe. Turns out that the only things that fell were my literary aspirations. I received the story back with a note reading, “Please do not submit this again unless you like rejection.”

OK, so I wasn’t going to be John Updike. My true calling seemed to be journalism, anyhow. I was Sports Editor of the college paper and wrote for the college sports information department. And I did eventually get published in that literary magazine, for what it’s worth. I found it helped to join the magazine staff.

I made my living, meager as it was, as a writer for several years. I was a news reporter and sports editor for ThisWeek Newspapers, which many of you who live in Columbus know quite well. After that, I wrote for the Daily Racing Form, the national horse racing publication. You might remember it as that paper Yemana was always reading on Barney Miller. To answer the first question that non-racing fans always ask me when they find out I worked for the Form—no, I was not able to make a living betting on horses. I would not be standing here talking to you (at least not about writing) if I could.

All along, I wanted more. I always had some sort of side writing project going, usually something that I considered Literature. With a capital L. There were poems—mostly whining about how tough life is when you travel the country hanging around race tracks. There were songs that sounded like a cross between George Gershwin and Charles Manson. There was also an extremely transgressive novella that I wrote after reading Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and getting the idea that True Art is supposed to drown the reader in a sea of vulgarity. I think I might have missed Burroughs’ point a wee bit.

For all my literary efforts, all I have gotten so far is a lousy T-shirt. OK, that’s an exaggeration. It was actually a polo shirt bearing the logo of a bar in Shakopee, Minnesota. I won it by finishing second in a poetry slam there. I think I gave it to St. Vincent DePaul while cleaning out my closet a few years back. I imagine some hipster in Pittsburgh is wearing it now, wondering where in the hell Turtle’s Bar and Grill is over his Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Well, actually there was one other thing I got out of my attempt to be the next Jack Kerouac. When I was between jobs (or about to be) in 1993, I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch on the MFA program in creative writing at Ohio State. I thought I had found my big break, which only goes to show that I was unfamiliar with both the competitive nature of MFA programs and their correlation with success as a writer. I applied to the program and didn’t make it. But I took the GRE and got pretty good scores, so I decided to send them to the national office of a certain social organization—and guess what happened! This is my favorite of my life’s many ironies—my GRE scores were high enough to get me into Mensa but not into grad school.

While my journalism career is now dormant, I’ve never given up the glimmer of hope that I could make my living as a novelist or a creator of some other form of fiction. I’ve even tried to actively kill that idea sometimes, but it doesn’t work. As they said in the movie Halloween, you can’t kill the boogey man.

So how did A Witch to Live come to be?

First of all, it wasn’t originally called A Witch to Live. The original title was The Lord and The Lady, but I changed it because I thought A Witch to Live sounded more provocative.

I’m reminded of the story Joseph Heller once told about Catch-22. He said that the first scene he wrote was actually the book’s final scene. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I won’t ruin it for you—it’s too good.

So it was with A Witch to Live. The year was 2005. George W. Bush was President, a young Jimmy Fallon taught us how to laugh, and I had developed an interest in paganism. One morning before I left for work, I was reading an invocation of the Horned God online when a vision came to me in a flash. That vision turned out to be the final scene of A Witch to Live. Again, no spoilers here.

So I had a final scene involving the novel’s three major characters. I spent the next 15 months finding a way to get them to that final scene. I worked on the novel bit by bit until it was completed on January 14, 2007. Sounds easy, huh?

Then came the hard part—shopping the novel around to agents and publishers. The miracles of Microsoft Word and the Internet made my job a bit easier than it was back in the ancient days of the word processor and the U.S. Mail—but the results were still next to nonexistent.

It was hard to get a response. A couple of agents turned it down in a friendly manner—one just said she wasn’t in love with the idea—while one publisher did offer a bit of constructive criticism. That publisher had a problem with the book’s omniscient viewpoint. Which led me to a host of writing websites to find out what omniscient viewpoint was.

For those of you who have never driven yourselves crazy trying to write a novel, omniscient viewpoint means that the point of view shifts from one character to another regularly during the novel. I’m not sure why publishers consider this a problem. I asked a novelist at the Pittsburgh AG about omniscient viewpoint once, and she said that it’s considered old-fashioned, but that many writers have used it. She gave Dorothy Sayers as an example. I think that’s pretty good company, so I’m not changing it.

At the same time, I was starting to lose enthusiasm for the project, mainly because all the rejections were starting to get to me, and I was starting to think I was wasting my time. I know that getting published is not easy—there are people in this room who will tell you that. At the same time, the cumulative effect of those rejections gave me the same message I got from that college literary magazine—“Please do not submit this again unless you like rejection.”

How strange that one of those rejections pushed A Witch to Live back to the front of my mind. It was pretty standard—an agent said that it wasn’t quite the thing they were looking for, yada yada yada. What made this e-mail different was that I received it three years after I sent the query! Nice to know that someone is a bigger pack rat than I am. Amused by this e-mail, I mentioned it in my Facebook status message and people started asking about the novel again. I sent it to a few friends and never heard back, so, again, I figured that the tribe had spoken.

So here was a novel that I couldn’t get anybody to read—so what could I do with it? I have a blog and I decided that I could use it for something other than posting misheard song lyrics and making fun of politicians. So, between January and April of this year, I posted the novel on my blog.

Then a funny thing happened—I found out that people actually liked it.

Not only did I receive positive comments from some of my fellow Mensans, but my blog received hits from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Lithuania and Malaysia, just to name a few countries.

One suggestion I received was to publish the novel myself on CreateSpace, a self-publishing arm of The procedure seems simple—just set up an account, copy and paste the novel using CreateSpace’s own template and sell it on the website. It was such a thrill when it dawned on me that A Witch to Live had its own International Standard Book Number.

There are currently some technical glitches. Several chapters of the manuscript have lines running through it in strange places and I haven’t been able to remove them. There have been some personal financial setbacks this season and I’m working two jobs to make ends meet (and, yes, that’s one of the main reasons why I’m publishing the novel), so I’m working on getting the kinks out in between obligations. In the meantime, please feel free to give me your name and e-mail address, and I’ll keep you posted on its publishing status.

So what is A Witch to Live about?

The easy answer is that it’s about a 17-year-old girl named Alaina Cole. Alaina lives in a small town in southern Ohio called Shady Glen. She’s been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, and, while she is quite intelligent—I’m sure she would qualify for Mensa—and has always hoped for a life outside Shady Glen, she has never seriously questioned her family’s worldview—until now.

Several factors are contributing to her crisis of faith. She meets a boy named Will Clayson, whose mother, Mary Jane, has recently opened a pagan shop in Shady Glen. Encouraged by her church, she starts talking to him about Jesus, with predictable results. At the same time, she feels drawn to him for a reason she can’t quite define. Then she visits the pagan shop, meets Mary Jane and is surprised by how non-threatening the experience is. Meanwhile, she finds out that one of her best friends, Justin Fitzgerald, is gay, which conflicts with her church’s teachings. When she sees the way Justin is treated by members of her church, she starts to question those teachings. How does she resolve the conflicts in her life?

Some people may read A Witch to Live and get the idea that I don’t like Christianity, which is far from the truth. I was baptized as a Methodist and went to a Methodist college. I have had issues with organized religion of many stripes and have never felt welcome in any church. While I’ve explored many spiritual paths, Mensa is the closest thing to a religion I’ve ever had.

I suppose I was inspired by a teenage girl I knew when I was writing for ThisWeek. At one point, she joined one of the largest evangelical mega-churches in her area (and one of several that inspired “The First,” the church in A Witch to Live) and was very enthusiastic about it. I asked myself—did she really know what she was getting into? (I know the answer to that question now: Of course not! She was a teenager!)

But A Witch to Live is not an endorsement or criticism of any one religion so much as a story of one person’s struggle to go against the majority in order to do what’s right. As Mensans, we all know what it’s like to be in the minority, right?

What will happen from here? Who knows? My literary odyssey is certainly not complete. It is a journey without a map—only fragments and rumors of maps that have been used by others—so I have no idea how long it will be or even where it will go. But to steal a line from Jim Croce, if it gets me nowhere, I’ll go there proud.

Will it become a best seller, or even help me buy groceries? It’s hard to say. If nothing else, I hope that my six-year journey will inspire other writers out there.

I keep coming back to that note I received in college—“Please do not submit this again unless you like rejection.”

I’d like to leave you with some comments publishers have made about a few novels:

“I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”

That was said about Catch-22, which also became an excellent movie and added a new phrase to the English language.

“Overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

That was said about Lolita, which sold 50 million copies and inspired a really cool song by The Police.

"We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless ... we don't think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves."

That was said about The Clan of the Cave Bear by Mensan Jean Auel.

"The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

That girl’s name? Anne Frank, whose diary has sold 30 million copies.

"...she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes ...hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly ..."

That was said about Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. OK, even if those words are true, it still sold 30 million copies.

Like rejection? Maybe the secret is to learn to love it!

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