Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sorry About This But I Have To

I finally received my TIME magazine, and a joke/riddle just occurred to me that's pretty damn corny... yet I'm swelling with pride, so here it comes.

(Probably better spoken aloud than written but what can you do?)

What's black and blue and read all over?

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Results Are In: Blue Ink Defeats Black Ink, 31-24

Last month I shared my unsettling suspicion that, against all traces of good taste and common sense, the majority of the country might prefer black pens to blue pens. In an effort to confirm or disconfirm this suspicion, I encouraged you all to participate in a poll. I wish to offer my deep thanks to you for providing the first real scientific data on this important issue.

The race between Blue and Black proceeded not unlike our recent presidential election. Things stayed neck and neck for the first week, and sometime into the second week Black even managed to eke out a slight lead. But after an ill-advised comment from Black concerning the “fundamentals of the economy” being sound, Blue pulled ahead by a comfortable margin and maintained that lead until polls closed.

My fears, it turned out, were completely unfounded. I apologize for my lack of faith.

This study also produced myriad additional findings that were rather unexpected. A project this comprehensive was bound to produce a few random or arbitrary correlations, but I don't think anyone could have predicted how intricately ink preference seems to be woven into the fabric of the human condition. Below are just some of the associations that emerged.

Those who prefer blue pens:

eat more broccoli
are slightly taller

exercise more often
have more hobbies

more likely to be married
stay married longer

have higher incomes
give more to charity

watch more news programming and less reality television

have read more books in the past year

report a higher quality of life
have a higher life expectancy

Those who prefer blue pens are also more likely:

to live on a cul-de-sac
to own a hybrid
to be CPR-certified
to agree with the statement: "I have a responsibility toward my fellow man.”
to have a graduate degree

Those who prefer black pens:

prefer Blu-Ray to HD
have higher cholesterol
are more overweight
own a greater number of firearms
have lower IQ's
(men) have lower sperm counts
(women) have more irregular cycles
(both women and men) have partners who report lower satisfaction with sex life
raise children who are more violent
consume more natural resources and produce more carbon emissions
kill more puppies

Those who prefer black pens are also more likely:

to have brown eyes
to have or develop brain tumors
to enjoy dog fighting
to be addicted to cocaine, heroin, and PCP

to be incarcerated or on parole
to engage in prostitution or solicit the services of a prostitute
to discriminate against minorities
are more likely to agree with the statement: "No means yes."
are more likely to agree with the statement: “I secretly hate myself.”
to bite their toenails

I'm in the process of applying for federal grant funding to support a study that will attempt to replicate these findings with a larger subject group, and perhaps identify additional correlations. I'll keep you posted.

Coping With Setbacks to Finishing a Book

Some of you may remember my excitement, back around May, at successfully negotiating a part-time schedule at work so that I could invest more hours in the blog and in revising my manuscript.

Unfortunately it has not worked out so well, and now I must resume full-time hours much earlier than planned. In the five months at part-time I did get, I've also not made nearly the amount of progress I'd hoped for. Though my work hours were reduced, the workload actually increased, and I was getting closer and closer to my full-time hours with each passing month. Not knowing when I was going to get out of work on any given day was frustrating and stressful, making what hours I did have for writing less than inspired.

I'm disappointed, a little angry, but also relieved at having made the decision to go back. For a while there I was beating up on myself for progressing so slowly, but now I can see it was not a lack of discipline or willpower on my part, it's that the circumstances were not conducive to a calm and consistent writing schedule.

It was a noble effort, if I do say so myself --- but I guess now was not meant to be my time to be a fiction writer for more than 10 hours per week. Sucks. But what can you do?

I must admit this is completely consistent with my experience up to this point. As I've said even recently, some writers thrive on goal-setting and self-imposed deadlines, but it's just not my bag, baby. So I cringe and repeat my mantra: It has a life of it's own. It will get done in its own time.

But I must also be pragmatic, which unfortunately means cutting hours somewhere. To keep progress on the book steady I think I'll have to reduce my investment in the blog. My goal will now be to post 1-2 times per week, and will probably spend a lot less time promoting (which wasn't yielding much extra attention anyway).

Except today, when I will post twice, because we've got a snowstorm brewing and there's nothing much else to do --- also this post is kind of a downer.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Holiday Poem

For the sake of nostalgia and freeing up time during the holiday crunch, I've decided to recycle this invite to a New Year's Party I co-hosted back in 2006.

I hope it's not too inside to appreciate: My apartment at the time was a lovely salon overlooking Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass. The occupants included me, the hearing impaired writer, plus an actuary undergoing rigorous training, a software engineer with a massive head of hair (that was removed immediately prior to the holidays), a pro football junkie cum construction manager, and Bruce, the inflatable moose (cum lingerie rack).


Twas the night before New Year's, and all through flat six,
The men lay sedate due to absence of chicks.

The undies were hung on the moose head with care,
In hopes new donations might find their way there.

The Bala was nestled all snug in his bed,
The 'fro now removed from his brown little head.

Lassonde dreamt of study guides, textbook abyss,
And deferred liability! Actuarial bliss!

Machado played Madden, two thousand and fifty.
The players weren't born yet... but the graphics were nifty.

The pillow pressed hard against Jim's working ear.
It's easy to sleep when it's so hard to hear.

A knock at their door proved a loud intervention,
And except for the deaf one, it got their attention.

Unexpected is this! What have we in store?
They woke up the Jimba and ran to the door.

Lassonde took a look through the small peeping lens,
"Well, what do you know? It's our freeloading friends!"

"Let us in your crapartment!" they fiercely commanded.
"We're drinking your booze. Don't you dare leave us stranded!

In case you've been wondering, your party starts now.
No need to worry. We'll help you. Here's how:

We'll blow this thing up like a Taepodong nuke.
We'll play drinking games like Beirut till we puke.

We'll pee in your sink, we'll barf on your floor.
We'll dance to shit music, and drink even more.

"In the end you will thank us!" they assured the four guys.
They all kept on chugging, till the clock caught their eyes.

Twelve fast approaches! Chicks, find your dudes!
It's a Boink Fest at midnight! (...making out is for prudes).

The party pressed on till the wee waking hours.
It was time to take Advil, and a cold effing shower.

Their friends made a vow (the ones still alive),
"Start counting down now, from three-sixty five.

We'll be back soon. Make sure you're prepared,
Clean up and restock, no beer will be spared.

We will do our part, bringing holiday cheer,
Till then, have an uber funtastic new year!

~ Come along and celebrate another uber funtastic year with Andy, Bala, Chris and Jim. We promise just the right mix of shenanigans and tomfoolery.~

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bizarre Search Phrases

As a lighter post-script to my 286th Day progress report, I thought I'd share with you some of the more interesting phrases that brought people to my blog. If there's one thing a Google Analytics report will tell you about your blog, it's that you've exposed yourself to a weird, weird world. The most curious phrases in my list include:

top 5 worst theme parks
sex big black pen
romantic fiction about hilary clinton
novel 6.0 not start
my dad french kissed me . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (yikes...)
magical fairy personality quiz
about using of bulb and trumpet horn
from the mother of notepad
henry ford quotes on leveraging efforts
giraffe address book
discover did not approve me instantly
html for notepad dancing jesus
darius dinesh father . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Huh?)
celebrity sighting white coat
bluehost yui
marijuana starting novel

I can claim with confidence that none of these phrases (and in some cases, not even these words) appear anywhere in my blog. Regardless, let me assure my newest readership: As soon as I find out what a bluehost yui is, I will write a thoughtful post about this crucial issue.

Apparently, none of these people found what they were looking for, evidenced by their instant exit (time on site for each was 0:00) --- none of them, that is, except for the last guy, who stayed on for a really, really long time. I imagine he'll be starting his novel any day now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Writer's Blog Progress: 286 Days (Part 2)

Part 2: Blogging is still hard.

I say this for two reasons. One, the title of my fourth post ever, "Blogging Is Hard," turned out to be a popular search phrase (thanks, World, for this implicit sympathy), so the more I say it the better.

Two, it remains true. The blog is a signficant time investment, and though I didn't have specific measures in mind, I thought I'd be attracting more readership, outside of my own circle, by now. True to the popular conception, starting a blog is very easy, but I feel confident now in estimation: Promoting your blog requires just as much time as writing for it does.

First, there's learning about, and then installing, all the add-ins that don't come standard (the e-newsletter, google analytics, feedburner, etc.) which help make your blog more accessible, and track and improve your blog's progress. These points I addressed in "Blogging Is Hard."

Second, there was the effort to promote this to my friends, family and other associates, which included, among other things, a time-consuming (but admittedly fun) romp through Facebook. I'm utterly grateful to my friends who have supported me in this effort by taken an interest, but even getting your friends to check you out is not automatic. They all have busy lives and I try to make my invitations to read and subscribe as concise yet enticing as possible, the instructions as clear as possible, etc. What I wanted to avoid was having my friends come to check out the blog once or twice, then forget about it (just like I might).

Even with those two time-sinks ironed out (for the most part), my promotional efforts are just beginning. My PageRank for instance, which debuted at "2" in September, has since dropped to a 1. I'm not sure why my Google PageRank dropped; probably the early 2 was a fluke, or maybe some really influential website or blog (I can't imagine who) linked to me temporarily. At any rate, a low page rank is what I should expect right now. After all, not many blogs are linking to me from their homepage yet. I'm starting to spend more time tracking other fiction writers' blogs, commenting on their posts, and will begin making explicit requests for home page links (which I'll of course return in kind).

Using Technorati --- a popular blog search engine --- and specifically, using their Authority score, I can begin to sculpt some linking goals. One writer's blog that I follow, for instance, which has a Google PageRank (GPR) of "3" has a Technorati Authority (TA) of "13," which means that 13 other blogs link to it. Another writer's blog I follow, with a GPR of "4" has a TA of "69" (so 69 blogs link to her). I have a GPR of "1" and a TA of "2" which means 2 blogs links to me.

Note: Bear in mind, only Technorati-listed blogs count towards your TA. Ink and Beans only recently got listed in Technorati. I'm not sure what merits Tecnorati listing your blog except that, as with Google, you need to be around and posting for a little while.

Both blogs I mentioned above are solo efforts maintained by fellow novelists, so there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to attain a GPR of "3" and eventually, a "4." Just gotta earn those links. The more people link to me --> the better my GPR and TA --> the better my SEO --> the higher my blog will appear in search results when someone searches a phrase like "starting a novel." Just like with a newspaper, I'm trying to appear "above the fold." As you can see I've got my work cut out for me.

Follow all that? 'Cause I barely did.

Time spent actually writing on my blog is about what I anticipated, but I struggle with allocating that time in the recommended fashion, i.e. short and frequent posts. I've written 60 posts with an average length of roughly 500 words. Since some of my posts end up being long I try to vary with a short one now and then, but it's tough.

My average post length does seem to fall within the recommended norm (a relief for a windy boy like myself). The rare post that exceeds a 1000 words I break up into pieces, as I have with this one. Still, keeping posts short and pithy while at the same time banging them out quickly and regularly is a real challenge.

Perhaps concise and frequent posting is easier on political, or news-oriented, or technical blogs, when posts often serve as an afterthought to a full length article. But writing about writing is as abstract a topic as I can think of. Unless I'm talking about a matter as trivial as pen color preference, it takes at least 300 words for me to begin developing a though. Plus, I'm not afforded the luxury of regular developments in the field to spur the dialogue --- the only recent catalyst I can think of was the death of David Foster Wallace, and since I know little about him I had little to say.

Even this post, long as it is and rich with outgoing links, has taken me about five hours to complete. As I said, I've broken it up into three posts, so that should take care of blog writing commitments this coming week.

But that's still five hours I'm not spending on my novel. Add to that the promotional time I'll spend reading and commenting on other blogs, and I start to feel like I'm neglecting my primary responsibility, which is my manuscript.

Experientially, the blog has been plenty-worth the investment. I enjoy the break from my main project, I enjoy writing for my friends, I enjoy making a few new friends, and I enjoy getting the immediate feedback. As far as the blog's worth as a cross-promotional tool with the book, which has always been my main intention, only more time will tell for sure, but I confess that I've grown more skeptical. Even so, I'll see it through, so stick around!

Part [1] [2]

Friday, November 28, 2008

Writer's Blog Progress - 286 Days (Part 1)

Part 1: There is some progress.

Last time I reflected on my progress with this blog was at 55 days in. Let me use some of the metrics I used then. In the past month I've averaged about 20 visitors per day (up from 9). I have 110 people (all friends; up from 22) subscribed to my e-newsletter and 15 people (probably all friends?; up from 3) getting me through their RSS feed readers.

Googling "ink and beans" (no quotes) brings my blog to the top of a search results list. Googling "Jim Cooney" (no quotes) my blog comes up as hit #8 (up from #25), and googling "fledgling novelist" puts me at #3 (up from #151).

Visitors don't necessarily find their way to my site via any of these search terms --- the only people googling "ink and beans" or "jim cooney" are those who know and are looking for me anyway --- but their higher placement on the list does reflect improved Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Thanks to my Google Analytics reports, however, I'm starting to identify key search phrases that are bringing visitors to my site. These are the search phrases I really want rank high on, and one of the most logical ways to do that is to write posts that focus more on the topic/phrase in question.

Example - A handful of people found their way to me by googling "starting a novel" or some close variation. Meanwhile, my push to promote the blog to my friends last month returned additional feedback from people interested in a starting a book. Thus, in an effort to leverage this popular concept, I added variations of the phrase as labels/tags on various posts, and also titled a two-part post "Starting a Novel."

Though I'm not getting deluged, I have since received somewhere between ten and twenty visitors who found their way to me via some variation on that phrase. And unlike the majority of my visitors via keywords, who leave instantly(time on site 0:00), these guys actually stayed and read a little bit (average over 2 minutes, a good attention span by blog standards).

Currently, typing in "starting a novel" (no quotes) places me at #13 in the search list.

Other phrases that appear significant, which I'll try to play to a little more in my posts, are "writing a climax," "submitting short fiction," and "submitting to literary journals."

Addendum to Part 1: I just searched those three terms now to statisfy my curiosity, and it turns out they return my blog as search result number 3, 3, and 7 respectively. Wow. If that's the case I'm surprised I haven't gotten more traffic off those terms. How many people do you think, writers or otherwise, google "submitting short fiction" every day? Maybe less than I thought?

Part [1] [2]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Are You a Honker? Die.

A fun article from my favorite online mag Slate.

From "Honk if You Know Why You're Honking: The car horn is beeping useless," by Dave Johns, Nov. 25, 2008.

"For years I've been telling my mom that she ought to learn to honk a little more. After all, honking is a venerable automotive tradition. Just over a century ago, Henry Ford's first Model T rolled off the production line. Inside, near the driver's side window, was a grapefruit-sized squeeze bulb affixed to a twice-looped brass trumpet. It was a horn—one of only a few basic amenities that came standard. Thus, the car that "put the world on wheels" also gave the world a way to complain about it: a horn for the great honking masses."

I've never had much interest in becoming a journalist --- it seems like a brutal profession especially at the ground floor (I think the breakneck pace would crush me), but if I ever do write something even quasi-journalistic I want it to sound like this. Irreverent, personal, thoughtful, well-researched, reasonably objective and fun! Love Slate. Just love it.

The article basically illustrates what most of us know (and some of us relish) that the car horn is only secondarily a safety device, at best, but primarily a tool for scolding. The majority of drivers, even many of my most gentle-natured friends, abuse the car horn, in my opinion. What I hadn't considered, but the article points out, is that there's more evidence to suggest that horns are dangerous than there is to suggest they promote safety.

Music to my ears, was my first reaction. Sudden, earsplitting noises are my Kryptonite --- I get mad at ambulance sirens, wailing babies, even a telephone that rings too loudly. When a sudden noise is both piercing and completely unwarranted, I approach (what I believe to be) the known limits of my homicidal impulses. One afternoon when I was twelve, my best friend at the time sounded an air horn inches from my one and only working ear while I napped on my father's docked sailboat, and to this day I doubt he knows how close he came to drowning in our backyard lagoon.

When roaring motorcycles approach --- you'll forgive me if I don't buy the argument that a muffling mandate for bikers is unsafe and discriminatory --- I instinctively look on the ground for heavy objects to throw.

I've never killed anyone, but if I ever do, I'm quite sure it will be a stranger standing behind me who laughs too loudly.

So I was thrilled to learn that the godforsaken car horn might actually cause more accidents than it prevents. As a member of America's unilaterally deaf population, I also found the linkage (article's citation) to hearing loss quite vindicating. Was a movement to eliminate the car horn altogether actually plausible?

Then I recalled a fateful encounter I had driving on the highway years ago. About to change lanes, I signaled, checked my mirrors but not my blind spot, and began to shift just as a loud blare from the car passing on my left startled me into swerving back to my lane. I reluctantly confess that a horn has saved me from at least one nasty accident that I can remember.

So how do we (how do I) reconcile horn abuse with the fact that horns can be vital when maneuvering to avoid an accident is not an option? Well I tell you, I really, really love the idea of increasing the volume inside the car (article's citation). If you really feel the need to honk, you ought to at least experience your offense the way everyone else does.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Blue Pens or Black Pens?

Blue pens. Of course blue pens. Because they contrast better with the documents you're writing on, which invariably use black ink.

Most recent example: Every so often I glance over a draft of my first chapter that has been sitting in my satchel for a while (usually when I have nothing else to read). This draft was marked up by one of my friend/editors who, for reasons I can't fathom, is partial to black pens. Every time I pick up the chapter, I see another of her markings that I'd missed on previous scans. Why? Because the black pen blends in with the black type-face. If she had used blue, I wouldn't have had to go back to my now-posted chapter to add a comma here, a period there. What good is an editing suggestion if I can't see it? What am I paying her for? (In case you're wondering, I pay my editors in friendship).

Okay, you say. But what if you're writing on a clean sheet of paper? Still blue. Why? Because it's a color. Color stimulates the visual cortex. It stimulates. Color is beauty. Blue jeans. Blue eyes. Old blue eyes. The great blue ocean. A big blue sky. Smurfs.

Black is the absence of color. The absence of light. Black is depressing. It's evil. Black sucks.

Blue pens are better. The choice seems perfectly obvious to me, and yet black pens seem to be the office standard. Half the time I can't find a blue pen when I need one. I have to make a special request through our office manager. My mom literally gave me blue pens for Christmas last year.

It gets worse, because now I'm starting to suspect that black pen dominance does not merely reflect some fallacious though easily correctable business standard. I'm getting the sense that I may actually possess a minority opinion on this issue. Is the rest of the world that stupid?

Let's find out. If you're delusional, cast your vote for black pens in the top right corner of my blog. If you know what's up, join me in voting for blue.

Honor code: One person, one vote. Don't try to be cute and vote multiple times (from multiple computers or what have you). I want a clear and honest winner here. Polls close in one month, on December 19th. Blue!

Addendum: The results are in!  Check 'em out.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Whine and Cheese

October and early November are turning out to be pretty uninspired months for me. I'm going to chance whining a little bit here, hoping that it will either magically turn into interesting writing, or that it will cathartically dispel some pressure and other icky feelings. At the very least, when these writing doldrums pass, as I'm confident they will, I'll have documented yet another case of "This too shall pass," to reassure my fellow writers as well as my future uninspired selves.

Getting word out about the blog turned out to be a real time sink, and an hour here and an hour there of adding names to my address list, finding people on facebook, editing and resending an invite, etc, doesn't leave me feeling very accomplished. Not like writing a good post or a couple of good paragraphs. And, go figure, now that I've got a hundred people roped in I have less than usual to say. Want your money back?

I just now finished revising chapter two, which took longer than chapter one even though I rewrote less of it. Definitely not filling me the way fixing chapter one did. It feels substandard and yet there's not much more I can do right now. I anticipate each subsequent chapter will require less work but still, this is taking way longer than I thought. Meanwhile, my magic bank account --- the savings that partially fund my current part-time writing schedule --- which miraculously avoided shrinking for the first few months, has not just shrunk finally but "caught up," which means my new routine will have to come to an end at some point.

And speaking of disappearing money, I paid a hefty sum two weeks ago to get my hellishly slow computer up to speed, and it performed like a normal computer for maybe ten days, and is suddenly slower than ever.

I wish someone would invent a computer you could punch without damaging.

Circumstances like this make it easy to question a lot of things, not so much about my writing ability (thankfully that's not suffering this time), but about my plans, my goals, my strategy. Is this blog worth the time? Will I be revising my manuscript for years before I can submit it? Will it be years before I can start a new project? Should I look into methamphetamine?

I need a boost dammit. One or two good days of kick ass writing and revision. Even if I'm not as far as I thought by next summer I want to be able to look back on significant progress.

Silver lining: Thanks to the puppy we're dogsitting, whose bowels have no snooze button, I'm getting to the gym every morning. Complimented with a no-carb diet I've been able to lose five pounds in the last ten days. I'm eating a lot of cheese.

And then there's that well-spoken young man getting elected president, which I rather enjoyed.

Chapter 3 here I come. Wheeee.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Starting a Novel (Part 1)

In the last few weeks I've made a push to get more people reading this blog, and in the process, received many congratulations (thank you!) from people who hinted that they, also, have entertained the possibility of starting a book or novel someday.

For those of you harboring similar aspirations --- we'll call it the "large writing project itch" --- let me encourage you by first confirming the obvious: Starting is the hardest part.

Seriously. And I'm not talking in terms of having your plot mapped out or your characters thought out or finding your voice. All that will come. And I'm not talking developing your idea sufficiently before actually starting, because in my opinion, if you have an idea that you think could take the form of a book, you have enough fodder to begin writing one.

Here, I'm talking about the only hurdle to writing your first book that really matters, which is confidence and motivation --- the simple act of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, writing the first words, paragraphs and pages of a single continuous narrative, and (this is the important part) fighting through the feelings of disgust and loathing over what you have written, the voices urging you to stop and scrap.

Before going on let me acknowledge that some people thrive on setting goals and deadlines when writing a first book --- just look at the crazies at National Novel Writing Month. Even if you don't go that extreme, setting rigid deadlines may be the best path for you. This absolutely did not work for me. When I first started writing my novel I vowed I would finish in a year. It took me two years and a lot of guilt to even start getting out of that mindset.

Try setting deadline for yourself (e.g. a novel in one year), or imposing similar structure (like 2 hours per day, or one page per day, etc), if that feels right to you. Give it a real chance, a couple months perhaps, but don't get discouraged if it doesn't work out the way you'd hoped. There's another way, the Jim way, and you can switch over any time. Or if deadlines, even self-imposed ones, scare the shit out of you, you can adopt my philosophy right away! Here it is.

A first chapter, especially of a first book, will almost certainly suck --- I base this theory on personal experience of course and I elaborate here.

In writing my first chapter, I now realize what I was really doing was laying a foundation --- in fiction, laying a foundation may mean introducing a few characters, an environment, a catalyzing event; in non-fiction you may be articulating a thesis statement, outlining points of argument, setting a context. The point is, my second chapter was superior to the first, and not because twenty pages of writing practice improved my style (style improves more gradually than that). No, it's because the first 20 pages, shitty as they were, supported what came after. I had context, I had greater focus, I could even identify some semblance of "voice" that I tried to keep consistent.

In short, I had direction --- I went from trying to swim a straight line in an ocean, to swimming down a wide river, still overwhelmed, but at least I could measure my progress a little.

Part [1] [2]

Starting a Novel (Part 2)

[Continued from page 1.]

Here's my promise to prospective book authors. Write the first 20 pages (and not just any 20 pages but the beginning 20 pages) and see it through no matter how awful you feel it's coming out. Then, write ten more, and see if they feel any better.

And somewhere in there, whether it's on page 3 or page 30, you'll have a moment: you write the first thing you actually like, the thing that makes you say, "I knew I was this good!" And it's true, you are. If you weren't, why else would you have started writing? This won't be the last time you feel this way. This feeling is called realizing your potential, and it's absolute heroin.

You like that? You want some more of that good shit? Yeah you do, you little crack whore.

When you have thirty pages, thirty pages that now include a gem or two, you'll no longer view your manuscript like a deformed arm, for it has become your baby. And the thing about your baby is you can always make it bigger and better, a little bit at a time. Even if you have to leave it for a while, it will be there when you come back (barring fires or computer crashes of course --- back it up!).

I'm jumbling a couple of metaphors here, but let me introduce one more. I've often thought of working on my book like building a model city in my basement. I descend the stairs, and first take in all I've done so far --- I mean, really try to appreciate it --- then start thinking about what to add next. The adding isn't always satisfying, and sometimes it's a real struggle, but the ratio of satisfaction to struggle improves with each new bridge or building I add.

And there, in the middle of my city, I can see the first little tower I made, the one that started it all. Sure, it's crooked, the paint's gooey and blobby... truth be told it's ugly as sin, but it doesn't ruin the whole city. I can barely tell it's there unless I look for it. Probably I'll replace it at some point with something that does the rest of the city justice, but I'll save that old rickety structure, that kernel that sprouted everything. Why? Because I'm sentimental. I won't show it to anybody --- it's a little embarrassing to be honest. Okay, maybe I'll show it to other beginning model city builders just to demonstrate that it's okay to start by producing something below your standards. Not just okay, but necessary.

One day at a time, one building at a time. Sooner or later it will be "finished," and I've got some idea of how that might happen, but it's aways off and I've got more towers to build, and that's satisfying work. Live for the process, not the result, which will happen in it's own time. Your work has acquired a life of its own. Respect it, nurture it, love it.

Part [1] [2]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Magical Fairy Penguin Princess

[In the 10-18 post Diana Brown comments: "In your spare time, can you write me a story about a magical fairy penguin princess?"

Let it be known forthwith that Jim Cooney writes for the people.]

One morning a handsome young Bostonian was walking down Commonwealth Avenue when he spotted a penguin. For the most part, it appeared similar to any other penguin he'd ever seen, except that this penguin had a sparkling little tiara on its head—also it was waddling pedestrian-like down Commonwealth Avenue.

The young man expected the penguin to dart away at any moment, but no, it kept on its path, just as he kept to his. To his delight the penguin stopped only when he did, when they were no less than two feet apart. It looked up at him curiously.

"Hello there, penguin," he smiled. "Did you escape from the aquarium?"

The penguin first looked at him dubiously, like he was an idiot.  Then, to his astonishment, the penguin shook its head no.

"Did you just shake your head 'no' to me?" he asked.

Slowly now—like he was a real, super-duper idiot—the penguin nodded its head, yes.

"What kind of penguin are you?" the young man asked, disbelieving.

"I'm a Magical Fairy Penguin Princess," the penguin said—or rather, the penguin thought and the man heard. Because the penguin was magical, it did not need to speak in order to communicate.

The man bent his pinky finger, stuck it in his ear and rattled it around to make sure he wasn't just hearing things the way schizophrenics hear things but that he was, in fact, hearing the thoughts of a penguin.

Then in a moment of spontaneous but lethally misguided irony, the man said, "Aren't all fairies magical? Kinda redundant to call yourself a Magical Fairy Penguin Princess, isn't it?"

The penguin clapped its flippers together (mostly for effect, as this gesture was not necessary to generate penguin magic), and the young man was consumed by a plume of pink smoke.  The smoke cleared, revealing that the young man had been transformed into a VHS cassette player.

The penguin pondered the VHS cassette player, which sat idly on the sidewalk, the plug and cord trailing behind it like a withered garter snake. The penguin waddled up toward it. It tried to hop on top, didn't quite make it, then hopped again, scrambled and flapped, finally catching its balance atop the flat, boxy device.

It looked down, raising its wing-flippers in the air. "What'd you say?" the penguin thought, thinking the thought as loudly as it could toward the obsolete gadget below its stumpy orange feet.  "What'd you say, bitch?"

The young man did not respond, because he was now a VHS cassette player.

"Yeah, that's what I thought!" thought the penguin.

And with that the Magical Fairy Penguin Princess hopped down from the cassette player to the sidewalk, shook itself off (using both flippers to keep the tiara steady upon its head), then resumed its waddling journey down Commonwealth Avenue.

As far as we know that's the last time anybody ever saw the Magical Fairy Penguin Princess.

A Note on the Excerpt

...for those who have read it already. The excerpt I've posted includes the Prologue and Chapter 1.

It's a total of 20 pages (not 3 pages).

Unfortunately, I had a page break in between the two sections which has caused some confusion about where the excerpt ends --- confusion that was exacerbated by the fact that the prologue is a dream sequence that is very abstract and bizarre on its own (but which I hope is illuminated somewhat by the context that follows in Chapter 1).

So, after a mere 10 days on the road I am recalling Excerpt - Alpha Series, and have posted Beta Series with the page-break nixed. Thanks Amanda for guiding me to this problem!

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Thanks for coming to Ink and Beans! Now that I have an excerpt posted I'm going to put more effort into promoting this blog, and if this is your first time here, I thank you heartily for checking it out!

Some of you I haven't spoken with for quite some time, and I hope this blog remedies that, if only slightly. Partly I'm trying to build a little advance notice for the book, but I also view this as an opportunity to connect with my many friends who have encouraged and supported me (whether you knew you were or not) throughout this process, and perhaps to make some new ones.

You're certainly not obligated to read everything I write --- my only wish is that you allow me the opportunity to remind you every once in a while that I'm out there, and maybe a headline will catch your eye now and then, and make you want to read more. I aim to make the posts I write interesting, humorous, and (mostly) brief and digestible.

If you do like something I write, please:

1. Leave a comment.
2. Forward the post to others!

I thrive on feedback. Truly, it may be the primary thing that drives me to write in the first place, so keep it coming! And thanks for reading.

*Important e-newsletter tip - Add "" to your address book to prevent Ink and Beans from going to Spam!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Exorcising My Facebook Demons

I bitterly created my Facebook account two years ago so that I could look at some pictures a friend of mine had posted there. I say bitter, because here I was compelled to sign up for yet another faddish social networking site. I was already on MySpace, Friendster, LinkedIn, and was constantly prodded by friends to approve me, approve me, approve me, though I utilized none of these sites myself. Why did we need another "look-at-all-my-friends" tool? What was so special about this one compared to all the others?

I don't have an answer to that last question, but Facebook has obviously demonstrated a certain staying power, and somewhere in the intervening years I went from skeptic to raring horse at the starting gate, all but pissing myself to start hunting down people I hadn't seen in years.

It wasn't so much that I wanted to revive contact with them. I just wanted to peer voyeuristically into their lives. To justify this kind of behavior and the amount of time I'd inevitably dedicate to it, however, I needed a practical excuse, and now that I have my excerpt posted on the blog, I had one. I wasn't spying on old acquaintances, I'm just promoting my book.

Many friends had found me over the years but I resisted seeking out any friends myself until late Friday afternoon. Thus, I don't have to tell you how I spent most of my Saturday and Sunday.

Things ramped up pretty quickly. I started by using the "People you may know" tool which makes guesses based on mutual friends between the Facebook-friends you already have. A useful start, but my appetite grew steadily and this was hardly cutting it.

The real juice came from poaching friends of my friends, and truly it felt like I was stealing them, not sharing them. And it felt good. As the confirmations came back and I watched my network total climb ever so steadily toward 200, I grew frenzied. I wrote on walls out of decency but it was hard to pull myself away from the name search and picture viewing. I was now "friending" people from high school I hadn't seen in ten years, and with the memory of them still fresh in my mind the photos they displayed on their Facebook page were like a time warp. The people who had grown decidedly unattractive fascinated me just as much as the people who became striking, who in turn fascinated me just as much as the people who stayed exactly the same. There was no photo I did not find mesmerizing.

I was on a roll now, and grew angry when confirmations didn't come back instantly. I was Arnold Schwarzenegger begging of the Predator: "Come on! Do it! Approve me!! Approve me naaugghww!!!!"

I grew even angrier whenever I discovered that someone I searched for did not have a Facebook profile. They were holding me back, hindering my network magnitude. What was wrong with them?

After scouring every list of every friend I sent another Facebook application to infiltrate my e-mail address book and --- rapture! --- a whole new world! Keystones into untapped networks I hadn't even thought of --- old jobs and intramural teams, non-credit classes.

There was no stopping me now. Not even ex-girlfriends or brief flings were off limits. I observed that some of my friends had networks 500 large or more --- it plagued me. How did they do it? What was their secret??? I was obsessed, and getting a little out of control. Now I was friending people I hadn't exchanged more than ten words with, ever. Clicking "add a friend" became such a reflex I was starting to make bad calls. Sometimes really bad calls. "Oops," I would mutter to myself as I emerged from my intoxicated haze, realizing with awkward shame the person I'd just inserted back into my life.

It was a wild ride, but by Monday the confirmations being returned were down to a trickle, and I had exhausted each and every friend's network. Today I can sense my honeymoon with Facebook is wrapping up, and I'm relieved that my addiction promises not to extend long into the future.

And, true to my original intent (I swear), I've been posting links to my new blog entries and it's getting some people over here. Nice!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Excerpt Rears Its Lovely Head

The day we never thought would come has finally arrived. Thanks for reading!

Max Underground - Synopsis

Stirred by the death of his cynical father Max Underwood vows to find purpose in the adult world, but looks in the most dangerous places. Fresh out of college, he’s confident destiny awaits him in Boston; his new boss, a social entrepreneur with ambition to match his own, seems the perfect mentor but increasingly leaves him out of the loop as she builds her afterschool empire. Meanwhile, his subterranean apartment never gets comfortable as tensions build between his two friends—one a dashing romantic, and the other a brooding cynic who creates an internet groundswell when he posits that young men of their generation are destined to destroy themselves. As Max finds it ever more difficult to draw inspiration from his job, his friends, or his broken family, two new figures enter his life, both as alluring as they are detrimental. A prison inmate, presumably Max’s to tutor, ends up teaching Max a thing or two about spirituality—and about powerlessness. And a quirky, but unavailable, medical student seduces Max with her relaxed atheism and tendency to rhyme like Dr. Seuss after two glasses of Bordeaux.

Discontent turns to desolation when Max’s idol dies in a thrill-seeker suicide. Unable to sleep, spiteful of his privileged life, he roams the city streets at night seeking alternative sources of wisdom, but answers elude him. His dangerous acquaintance with two Roxbury gang members, a daunting encounter at a swingers club, his botched attack of a South Boston rowdy and a drug-induced tour of a desecrated graveyard (and his own mind) give him no peace but rot his soul, and he considers whether discovering his end might be the enlightened path. On his most desperate day Max sets these wheels in motion but discovers, to his horror, that he’s not ready to die.

Read the first chapter.

Max Underground is registered with the United States Copyright Office.
Unpublished work. © 2008 James R. Cooney.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Submitting Short Fiction to Literary Journals

Since my epilogue/short story has now been roundly rejected by 10 magazines and journals, yesterday seemed like a good time to start the next round of submissions.

I submitted to 9 additional literary journals --- 7 by standard mail and 2 by electronic submission. The process took me four hours from start to finish including: adding a few polishes to the draft, printing 7 copies, looking up 7 mailing addresses, editing and printing 7 copies of my cover letter, labeling 7 mailing envelopes plus 7 self-addressed stamped return envelopes, determining postage then buying and printing stamps, double-checking, packing, and sealing.

When you add this to the time it took me to mail to the ten previous journals (another 4 hours) plus the time to generate the cover letter and the list of journals where I'd be sending the piece (maybe another 4 hours?), the time I'm spending submitting the work is about half the time it took me to write it in the first place. Oiy.

Thankfully, the process is getting easier and I've grown far more systematic about it. My fellow writers out there have probably established their own method for submitting short works --- and in fact may be submitting multiple works at a time, which I'm not doing, thank God. For what it's worth, I thought I might share my personal method here, on the off chance someone finds it useful or at least encouraging.

I wanted to submit to journals with the best reputation first, because the better the journal, the greater the bragging rights when I start submitting my full novel, right? But what determines which journals have the best reputation? Good question.

Circulation might be a good indicator. The major commercial magazines, for example, like Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, have a high circulation (about 200,000, 400,000, and 1.1 million respectively). Also their stories are regularly featured in anthologies (see below), so the prestige is high if you get accepted for publication in one of these magazines. But as you can imagine, this is quite difficult. The acceptance rate for many top-tier journals is less than 1 percent (example), so just imagine how low it is for the commercial magazines where everybody wants to get published.

Outside of the commercial magazines, literary journals, even the highly respected ones, have a low circulation (50,000 down to 5,000 or less), and are obscure to the general public. Google "best literary journals" and you'll find lots of lists out there, with many of the same journal titles repeated, so that's a reassuring indicator, but in most cases I found no particular rationale behind the list --- they are simply one knowing person's opinion.

*Bear in mind I'm speaking here of literary fiction journals, not those that primarily publish genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, etc). I'm less familiar with those.

To generate the list of periodicals where I would send my piece, I looked to see which journals were publishing stories included in well-known serial anthologies, namely, the O. Henry awards and Best American Short Stories. The list I created (link below) includes every journal that has had 2 or more selections in O. Henry and/or BASS in the last ten years, roughly 35 journals:

I then went to each journal's website to view their submission guidelines, which are usually accessible and clear, and took down all the relevant information.

I separated my list into those who accept simultaneous submissions versus those who don't, because why submit to 1 and wait when you can submit to 10 at a time? In each sub-list, the ones that appear more often in O.Henry or BASS tend to be near the top (I didn't record the actual number of appearances however... sorry!). Hence, these were among the first batch I submitted to.

There's also a few I couldn't submit to because of thematic limitations (e.g. looking for African-American themes), length limits, limits on accepting novel excerpts, etc.

It's also important to pay attention to reading periods, which can be anywhere from 3 months to 8 months, or year-round, and if you submit work outside of these reading periods the manuscript gets returned unread. You'll see from my list that now was the perfect time for me to send to multiple journals because their reading periods overlapped.

I've recorded the response time for most journals on the list as well, so if I see that more than that amount of time has passed and I've not heard from them, I can send a quick follow-up. I've had to do this only twice, but in the end, I have heard back from every journal I've submitted to, eventually.

I should note that there are web services, like Writer's Market, that compile all this information, but I found that I often ended up visiting each journal's website anyway, because some of the information was outdated. I'd rather get my info directly from the journal's website (call it paranoia). Also, Writer's Market doesn't give much clue as to the reputation of each journal, so if my search returns a list of fifty journals, how do I decide where to start? At least with my method I have some logic to the order.

There you have it, a keen plan for submitting short fiction from somebody who's never been published in his life. But just you wait! Please let me know if any of this ends up being helpful. Here again is my submission list, plus my cover letter, for your reference:

Is this the most boring post I've ever written? Yeah? Well who asked you jerkface?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Romance and the Red Sox (Part 1)

[I've rewritten and posted this piece as a stall tactic (first chapter still being finetuned), but hopefully you'll find it a timely treat --- Sox are up one game in the first round as of this posting. I originally wrote this piece 4 years ago, in October 2004, weeks before the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

I admit my interest in the Sox has waned since that milestone, but I can let myself get nostalgic. Interested in baseball or not, though, the prospects for October courtship in Boston remain the same.]

I keep saying this to myself, the way I might say it to her, hoping that it will keep me sane till the end of the month: "Right after the Sox win it, I’m going to cook you a quiet, romantic dinner."

I’d seen the girl often, tending bar in what was becoming my Monday night dive. She was very pretty, and exuded an indiscriminate, intoxicating warmth that seemed unaffected by shifts lasting late into the night, dealing with the same smarmy regulars day after day. It made me wonder if somebody new didn’t fall in love with her every single night.

I was excited when she agreed to go out to dinner with me, and it wasn’t long into our first date that I started to see a lot of other things I really liked. She was intelligent and well-read, confident yet modest She took eccentric pleasure in simple things like candy stores, objects colored yellow, and watching strangers let loose on the dance floor. Seeing her smile over these things, I smiled too, and the night lasted hours and hours. It was one of the most enjoyable I can ever remember having.

It took just that one date to know I was interested in this girl the way I hadn’t been in someone for years. I was committed to discovering how far the potential reached, and in a few days I was dying to see her again.

There’s just one problem. It’s October. And I live in Boston.

Other prowling singles may find this issue counterintuitive. After all, you say, October is the perfect month for love, isn't it? Can one do better than the prime of autumn in an old New England town? Trees are bursting into flame, you say, and as the air crisps it inspires in every warm body a longing to cling to another. What more could you want? Romance must be the first thing on everyone’s mind.

You're obviously not from around here.

Of course, this time of year isn't always off limits to flirts and flings, but this year, right now, is the worst time to get weak at the knees over some girl. Boston is, at present, a city at war, and it's all hands on deck.

Baseball's regular season has ended, the playoffs are here, and the Red Sox have once again secured the wild card spot. This achievement alone would be enough to stall any courtship, but it's even more hopeless than that, because after years of playing the plucky underdogs the Sox have entered the American League Championship Series, against their age old rivals from New York, favored to win. At stake is the chance to witness history, nay, to see an ancient and epic prophecy come finally to fruition: The Boston Red Sox, baseball's original champions, after being raped, pillaged and burned for a near century, after finding redemption at their fingertips again and again only to see it slip away each and every time, finally rise from the ashes and charge over the imperial Yankees on the road to the—(gulp) am I even allowed to say it?—World Series, where they will finally smash the evil curse that has for generations oppressed us Bostonians.

It’s an opportunity that comes less than once in a lifetime, as thousands of fans, who cheered for decades and died without ever seeing a championship, might beseech us from that sunny, neatly clipped ballpark in the sky.

Part [1] [2] [3] [4]

Romance and the Red Sox (Part 2)

[Continued from page 1. This revised piece was originally written in 2004]

Now you see my problem, because how does one who’s smitten compete with the Red Sox when a World Championship is on the line? The simple answer is you can’t.

Before raising any undue suspicions, I declare to you now that I, too, am in love with Red Sox baseball, but I confess it's a troubled love as late. I also confess to you that until last year, I couldn't have cared less. The story of how the Red Sox and I came together is, itself, a timeless love story, perhaps the only kind of love story possible right now.

I grew up in northern New Jersey about fifteen minutes outside of New York City, and was still in high school when the Yankees renewed their dynasty. New York was building an army, and growing up so close to the Lion’s Den, one would think the conditions perfect for baptizing me, a neophyte, into the ranks of imperial loyalists, but in spite of the fanfare I continued to think baseball the most boring of all sports.

Several years later, upon moving to Boston after college, I still felt that way. But I loved living in Boston, and from the start I’d always regarded the Red Sox with respect. It didn’t matter if you weren’t a sports fan, nor did it matter whether you were a New England native, or a new arrival like me. Truer of no other cultural phenomenon, the Red Sox were the glue that held the city, my city, together. It was on the tip of everyone's tongue, the most reliable common ground between total strangers. Just ask some stone-faced fellow on the subway, "Hey, how'd the Sox do today?" and watch that famous Boston iciness melt away. This was the magic I admired, even if I didn't care to watch them in action. Love for the close-and-close-and-close-but-no-cigar Red Sox was universal, and it was (obviously) unconditional.

When the playoffs arrived last year, however, and the Sox squeezed in by the skin of their teeth, I found my options for how to spend the evenings grew limited. I could, for instance, follow my friends to a venue to watch the game, or I could spend the night by myself watching a movie. There were no bars that didn't have the game on, and there were no friends who were doing something else. Even the friends I knew to be privately indifferent fell in line, unwilling to fight the tide.

This vexed me greatly. I'd seen a handful of games on TV. I’d even watched one or two Fenway. I watched with the same enthusiasm that a father might have listening to his son fart out trumpet notes at a fourth grade band assembly, but I watched. I’d put in my time.

I fell in line too (what else could I do?), and was perplexed to find my fingernails digging deep into my chair by the sixth inning of each game. Oakland fell, New York marched up to the horizon. Without knowing exactly when it happened, the space between home runs ceased to be dead time, and suddenly each pitch was significant. What was happening to me? I was yelling. I was cursing. Each time they pulled victory from the depths of their souls it was methadone relief. And when Aaron Boone, a Yankee I didn’t even know by name, cracked his home run in the extra innings of game seven, my heart broke.

The day following their defeat, I walked slowly, without purpose. I'd forget what I was doing, why I walked into rooms. It was hard to know what to make of the whole experience. I’d watched more baseball games from start to finish in past three weeks than I had in my entire life previous. The affair had been intense, tumultuous. It hardly left time for reflection.

Part [1] [2] [3] [4]

Romance and the Red Sox (Part 3)

[Continued from page 2. This revised piece was originally written in 2004]

Time heals all wounds, however, and healing brings with it new wisdom. I observed as people emerged out of mourning, and their strength became mine. The bars, the streets, the subways came to life. Smiles returned to faces. Time not spent watching the World Series was time to seize and cherish. Books were read. Bathrooms were cleaned. Kids and pets were fed. Within days, life for Bostonians returned to normal, and as for me, I came to a reckoning that quelled the last and lingering ache in my heart. The Red Sox had managed to make me enjoy baseball. My sleep was sound that night, and the next morning I awoke vowing that, come next season, I would love again.

The past year has not proven me wrong. Now I was on board. I watched games at Fenway with the same belligerent fervor as the rest. When Jason Varitek mashed A-Rod’s liver lips in, with his dense catcher's mitt, I tasted blood. When Nomar was traded, I bid him a melancholy farewell, believing that if you love a butterfly, you set it free. The Sox and I traversed the season's peaks and pitfalls and our relationship grew stronger. I entered this playoff season with renewed hope. Last year we'd been flying by the seat of our pants. Now, we had a history.

Who needs human love when you’ve got high stakes baseball to keep you heated up? I’d figured that as long as the Sox stay alive in the playoffs I had plenty to keep my passions occupied. Now then, I am not opposed to romance that defies my expectations, and shatters my best laid plans. I am open-minded. I cede control over my love life to Cupid and go with the flow. But Cupid, I've learned, is a merry little prankster. Just as I was regrouping from his first sniper attack of infatuation, tending as best I could to this new baseball fetish, I yelped at feeling my rump pierced by a second arrow, and whipped around just in time to see that pudgy whore retreating to the bleachers at Fenway, wagging his red bow at me like a giant foam finger.

Scheduling the first date with the girl from the bar had been challenging enough, but it's only getting harder. Every conversation on the phone begins with “We should definitely hang out again,” and ends with, “Hmm, well, I guess we'll try for something next week... maybe?” Two out of every three nights is game night. There are pre-game events and post-game events. The spare hours in between are dedicated to recovery and playing minimal real life catch-up (work, errands, marriage counseling, etc). There's no time for quiet, candlelit ambiance, and for that matter, in this town for the next few weeks there's no such thing. Wandering the city, actively trying to avoid Red Sox pandemonium, I can't help but feel like Indiana Jones retreating from the Inca temple with his golden idol, dodging darts and leaping over chasms before finally getting steamrolled by a boulder that, curiously, resembles a gigantic baseball.

I feel you raising a skeptical eyebrow again. Surely, you say, no great amount of ingenuity is required to reconcile your wish for a second date with your desire to look at the playoff schedule with excitement that is pure. Is the solution not simply to suggest to this girl that you watch a game together? After all, you say, she loves the Sox, and so do you.

I've pondered this, and decided it’s a recipe for disaster. If the ultimate goal is for us to get to know each other better, then what happens if she’s telling me about an ex who didn’t pay attention to her, and I’m distracted by a wild pitch? What if I start sharing some long anecdote about self-discovery, and she politely listens while privately wondering, “When will this guy shut up so I can watch this thing?” And what if, god forbid, she’s disappointed by my novice knowledge of New England’s most important sports franchise? Even if none of these fears are realized, what masquerades as a relaxed evening on the couch in front of the TV is, in reality, a date with enough pressure to crush a confident man like a beer can on a batting helmet.

Part [1] [2] [3] [4]

Romance and the Red Sox (Part 4)

[Continued from page 3. This revised piece was originally written in 2004]

So I wait, impatient, desperate, with no control over the matter. Mercifully, I was granted a brief lunch with her in Harvard Square this past Thursday. It had been over two weeks since our first date, and despite its success, much of the momentum had dissipated, at least in my mind. My anxious desire to make a good “first” impression had been entirely renewed, except that now, I had less than an hour to do it, and it would likely be my last opportunity for another few weeks.

I entered into this lunch with a handicap far greater than anxiety or limited time however, namely, a private and profound sense of guilt. The Sox had lost their first two games to the Yankees, and I wondered whether I wasn’t responsible. There was dark, deep wish inside of me so evil I feared it might have the power to alter air currents surrounding a pitch, or affect an umpire's critical thinking. Part of me wanted my team to lose, wanted the Yankees to sweep them even, so that all of Boston, and I especially, could get on with our lives.

No man should have to bear the burden of such sin, especially not on an important date.

We met at the subway kiosk, and within a minute of walking to our lunch stop, she said she had something to show me. Reaching into her pocketbook she produced a thin, colorful strip of cardboard. My heart sank. ALCS, Game Four, Fenway Park. “A tip last night from one of my regulars,” she said (I told you everyone loves her). I stared hard at the ticket, desperate to avoid notice of her beaming face. Of course, I told her that I was so, so happy for her, and I was, but I wept inwardly, knowing that any impression I made that day would be overwhelmed by her anticipation of the game the following night.

I tried to smother my despair with a Bartley's burger and frappe, but they only weighed on me further. She was as gracious as one could be under the circumstances. I smiled, let her change the subject back to the game whenever the urge overtook her, sympathizing. I tried my best but in the end, my best was not to jeopardize a chance for a third date, however deep in the distant future it might be. Through no fault of hers or mine, I’d become just another passing hour that brought her closer to Red Sox euphoria.

It's not fair, but I know that life isn't fair. I have moments of rationale, when the right course is clear. I must remain patient and wait, take nothing personally, and enjoy watching the Red Sox make history in the meantime. Soon enough, win or lose, this season will end, Beantown will experience another return to normalcy, and Cupid will leave Fenway, sober up, and continue where he left off, tending to the newly christened, hopeless romantics he's left neglected the past few weeks.

Perhaps for some of these blossoming relationships a unique prospect lies ahead, the promise of standing alongside a loved one, arms wrapped around waists, free hands holding five-dollar domestic drafts, sharing in cheers and jeers hurtled from the bleachers. These privileged few may find they have unwittingly negotiated a blissful ménage a trois, one that trumps those found at Midwestern college campuses or even filthy European hostels, a rapture that unfolds only in the plush red velvet bedroom of old Boston town.

Part [1] [2] [3] [4]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Real Life Characters

I believe the best characters in fiction aren't invented, so much as they are plucked from reality, cloned, tweaked slightly (if at all), and inserted into your story where they proceed along a new trajectory within your fictionalized environment, a path different from their real-life counterpart even though they share a common foundation, like twins separated at birth. In other words, if you ever feel you're writing flat characters, just start looking around you. Sometimes a human being is so colorful, so bizarre and perfect, that inserting them into your fiction while changing virtually nothing about them can almost feel like plagiarism--but it's totally legit!

Writing about the twin Asian evangelists last week has reminded me of another real-life character I've been meaning to tell you about: My grandfather. James Cooney, the First, passed away about ten years ago, and though I remember him fondly I do wish I had known him better --- perhaps that's a natural consequence of getting older, and growing more interested in your roots.

Grandpa was an Irish immigrant. From what I knew of him, he was a strong man, a simple man, a man who found comfort in his routines. He was a confident but quiet man --- my grandmother spoke enough for the both of them, most agree. Unassuming and reserved like he was, one had to look closely to see when he shined, and last month at my sister's wedding ceremony, my aunt (Grandpa's daughter) gave us one example that which, from a writer's perspective (not to mention a grandson's) is an absolute gem.

It turns out Grandpa's favorite television show was Murder, She Wrote. For those who don't know, the show starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a murder mystery writer and amateur detective, who always managed to get herself caught up in real-life murder investigations. The show invariably had law enforcement itching to arrest the red herring while Ms. Fletcher gathered up contrary evidence on her own. At the end of each show, she pieces together what she's found, and reveals the true identity of the killer.

Talk about a comfortable routine.

Grandpa watched the show religiously, and was so engrossed that he was even willing to shoosh his chatty counterpart if Grandma got rolling. But then, without fail, at 8:45 pm Grandpa would take off his shoes, and announce, "Time for bed," then walk upstairs minutes before the murderer was unveiled. And that was that.

The next day, Grandma would rant, "Don't you even want to know who the killer was?"

Nope. By then he didn't care.

Even now, as I write this, I can barely articulate the myriad questions such behavior raises. It's not just weird... it's like, Alice in Wonderland, Mad-Tea-Party weird. Can somebody be so married to his schedule that he resists such delicious anticipation??? How is it possible I share this man's genes when I myself have stayed up till 4 am on work nights, plowing through episode after episode of The Wire, or The West Wing, or 24?

It's charming, fascinating, marvelous, and you can bet I'll be looking for the next story I can squeeze Grandpa into.

My Writer's Blog: Google Page Ranking

Not sure when it happened, but somewhere in the last few weeks I attained a Google Page ranking. It's a two.


Once my chapter goes up I'll start pursuing links on other sites more aggressively, but for now, it's comforting to know I'm in the system!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Backpocket Notepad of Wonderful Ideas

My blogging friend Amanda, from Highland Madness, commented in my last post:

"Thought of you the other day whilst digging tatties. I was listening to the radio on my earphones, as is my want, and there was an interview with a successful writer whose name escapes me. I was interested to hear he actually keeps a diary of things that happen that he may at some time use in a book. Real experiences and snippets, like the cab driver explaining a point of English (as opposed to American) to him or a funny incident with his niece. Seemed like a good idea to me."

One step ahead of you Amanda! Nyah. I've actually tried a couple of ways to record unique experiences and ideas intended for future use, and have lately settled on keeping a small notepad in my back pocket. I held pad tryouts for about two months and the criteria that bubbled to the surface were (1) it must be comfortable enough for me to sit on, and (2) it must have a side spiral big enough to fit a pen through.

I haven't used any of the snippets I've jotted yet, probably because all my eggs are in this one basket (my novel) right now, but I do think their day will come.

Rather than a "journal" or "diary," I call it a notepad, not just because of its small size but because I limit myself to about 20 words per entry, much less if possible. I write only the date and enough detail to cue to my memory and (most importantly) to recapture my own interest, like a newspaper headline to myself.

A timely case in point, today's entry reads:

"9-17-08: Blue-white bonneted twins dispense bad Engrish hellfire pamphlet."

Walking through Harvard Square one sees all sorts of characters, all harmless and most of them familiar, but I'd never seen these two Asian women before. Both in their 60's, they dressed in identical turquoise and white dresses --- long, heavy, and blocky, like the Amish (but bluer) --- with white bonnets (I think they were bonnets) on their head. They might actually have been sisters since even their faces resembled one another's, and they were the same size, four and half feet tall, if they were lucky.

They walked either edge of the sidewalk silently handing out a lenghty black-and-white flyer. There's so much pamphleting in the Square my natural inclination is to indiscriminately avoid it all, but the women were so cute I got curious, thinking maybe they were championing the political freedom of some tiny breakaway region I'd never heard of, where all the citizens were short women dressed in blue pilgrim dresses, virtually identical, like the monks of Tibet, or the Oompa Loompas.

At first I was disappointed to see the flyer was merely another loopy, evangelical "Repent or burn" manifesto. It's obvious when you read these that most are written by folks with one or two screws loose, yet I can't help feeling insulted. Who are they to assume I'm going to hell? How do they know they're not pushing their litany of sin on Mr. Super-Christian? Hmm???

I got back to my office and started reading, and boy, was I ever tickled out of my vexation. The flyer contains three admonitions, each addressing "My little sons," from a holy trinity of sorts --- The Merciful Father (merciful seems to be a very flexible word here), Jesus, and Your Mother (I assume the Virgin Mary but you never know).

Here are some highlights:

Merciful Father

"...I do not want to sent ponishments but I must so that my sons learn to know ME."

[and then]

"EACH ONE OF YOU HAS AN ANGEL TO HELP YOU, & LISTEN TO HIS VOICE. He say dont; do this or that, do not go here or there because is a mortal sin."

[And finally]

"... but because you are in mortal sin , you cannot listen. SO I WILL SENT PONISHMENT OVER PONISHMENT OVER PONISHMENT."


"This life is a TRIP for everyone .With a passport to go to HEAVEN or to HELL,In the final days I will SEPARATE THE GOATS FROM THE SHEEPS. Many will say why I will go to HELL? This is why open your eyes &your Brains. BE on earth is not to be dancing, eating,drinking,singing,& going to movies, & going to partties,thisis you should be alert with your soul because it is the most important BIGGEST TREASURE,"

[And for good measure]

"... my sons are here on earth with imigrant visa."

Your Mother:

"LIFE IS NOT ONLY EAT & DRINK & BEE HAPPY. Everyone has a soul to take care. There is Heaven & HELL. Purgatory is to pay for your sins by one day you will go to Heaven.with your soul white & pure.But those who go to HELL is a disgrace for all their ETERNAL LIVES. There is not peace there they will heard yelling, scraming. fighting,hating & curse. They never are happy. In the door of the Hell there is a SIGN THAT SAY;: FOR EVER & EVER EVER."

Fire and brimstone have never been so adorable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Culture Consultant

My novel includes a lengthy episode (a 27-page chapter) which brings my hero into a mostly poor, mostly black neighborhood of Boston, a neighborhood only five miles from where I live, but which I've only walked through once. When I wrote the chapter I was confident that inserting my main character into this environment (and brushing him against a pair of local gang members) would be both exciting and revealing. I also knew that I was writing about a slice of urban living I have virtually no experience with, which has made me very anxious.

After reading the chapter a sympathetic friend offered to put me in touch with an acquaintance of hers who she felt might be a good resource, a young man who had grown up in the neighborhood and was familiar with exactly the type of characters I wanted to create. When she told me a little about him I grew very excited by the prospect.

That was over a year ago, but it was only last month that I finally got in touch with him, introduced myself, explained my situation and proposed a (I hope ample) consultant's fee.

Talk about money well spent! Perhaps it is because this guy, M, is currently a creative writing major, having his fiction work-shopped every day, that his criticism was so clear and helpful, so forthcoming without being discouraging. We spent over two hours just going through the first nine pages, almost line by line. He kept hammering on the same four or five key points over and over, and continued to give me specific examples, suggesting ways to make the dialogue and dynamic more plausible or more authentic. M's conversational style was probably more sophisticated than mine, but at times he slipped effortlessly into a unique and thrilling vernacular, one I'd wager is quite difficult, if not impossible, to find represented in any movie or TV show, any book (fiction or non-), and maybe even in any song. To my ears, it was an untapped gold mine of language.

The thing I appreciated most about M is that he managed to steer me in the right direction without making me feel like an idiot, or worse, a jerk. M is black, and lived in the actual environment that I subjected to my imagination, and no matter how respectful I tried to be in my first crack, it was probably inevitable that I'd come off sounding ignorant and stereotypical, to say nothing of the quality of the writing itself. I was dreadfully afraid he'd be insulted, but better one person (a fellow writer, no less, who can hear my apologetic voice as I explain myself). If my writing ever offends, I want it to offend because it penetrates at some uncomfortable truth, not because it misrepresents or sensationalizes something I never bothered to understand.

I have a lot of work to do on this chapter, I realize, but who'd have guessed how good I'd feel about it? There's a popular but misleading guideline in writing fiction: "Write What You Know." It's great advice to keep your writing deep and authentic provided you don't feel overly limited by it. Research is the key to making experiences that are not your own, your own. Start with books and articles, but then move to interviews (or consultations) and walking tours. Exploring these uncharted territories, finding your truth in them, might even be more compelling than fictionalizing events, characters and environments you've actually experienced.

When you don't research and explore, you end up with ten stories that have a fiction writer as the main character. You know why that's really hard to make interesting over and over again? Because, mostly, what fiction writers do all day is write. Yeesh. Boring! Time to learn more about cops and how they cope, or Iranian women and what their passions are, or schizophrenics and why they see the world they way they do.

Speaking of consultants, I'm also hoping to connect with my military consultant soon too. Very exciting!

And lastly, after I receive feedback from one more person and work it in, I'll be posting (finally) the first chapter. Before the end of the month, I vow!