January 11, 2010
As you know I held a contest recently where writers were asked to submit a 500 word story on second chances or redemption. From the pool of entries a first and a second place winner were chosen.
Today I’m happy to introduce J. Conrad Guest to you as first place winner of the Redemption Contest. Mr. Guest won with his short story “A Case of Writer’s Block.”
For more information on Mr. Guest, please check out the links included in his post and be sure to visit Second Wind Publishing to buy copies of his books.
Unblocking Writer’s Block
By J. Conrad Guest
Truthfully, I think procrastination is a greater enemy for me than writer’s block. It’s often easier to put off until tomorrow what I’d planned to do today. However, A Case of Writer’s Block was written in response to a block I suffered nearly 10 years ago.
I was working on the second book in the January series—the sequel to January’s Paradigm. The trilogy is a very complex storyline composed of an alternate reality in which Germany has won World War II. The backdrop is based on my revisionist theory to an actual conspiracy theory that Roosevelt and Churchill had conspired to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place, thereby enabling Roosevelt to declare war on Japan without political consequence. For One Hot January, I asked myself, what if Roosevelt had thwarted the Japanese attack on Pearl, delaying U.S. involvement in the war by a matter of even a few weeks? Would such a delay allow the Tripartite to grow too strong to defeat?
The trilogy spans two centuries and deals with speculations on time travel and creation of alternate timelines rather than the paradoxes normally associated with traveling through time to change the present. Throw in elements of romance and a man’s regrets over a love lost and I began to feel bogged down and, well, blocked.
In September 2001, a woman I was dating at the time invited me to come along with her on a business trip to New York City. Since the protagonist in the January books, Joe January, is a private investigator from Brooklyn, I readily agreed, thinking I might visit some of the same haunts he does in an effort to catch up with him.
The trip was just what I needed. In Hell’s Kitchen, the building that once housed January’s office—across from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle—had been replaced by a huge medical facility, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. We visited Zabar’s deli on the Upper West Side, where January had had, in the 1940s, a sandwich named for him—J.J.’s Special (pastrami with grilled onions and Swiss on Jewish rye bread). Through Gramercy Park and down to Greenwich Village we traipsed, all the places with which my protagonist was so familiar.
Then one day, as we crossed Central Park east to west, the idea for a short story took seed—told from the perspective of a character in a novel, abandoned by his author the result of writer’s block, its denouement so hopeful.
We returned to Michigan on September 9, two days before the WTC fell. I watched events unfold the night of 9/11, the images of the towers dominating the view of Lower Manhattan I’d seen a few days previously from the top of the Empire State Building relegated to memory and jpg. So I resolved to finish January’s saga, using January’s voice to espouse my own discontent with the political climate of this country at the turn of the century, and how it might impact the world order for the next 75 years.
I finished One Hot January and January’s Thaw, eventually combining them into one shorter novel—January’s Penitence—at the urging of a publisher who reluctantly turned it down.
As for A Case of Writer’s Block, what started out as 1,000-word short story, much maligned by everyone who read it, it’s always been a favorite of mine. I continued to pull it out every year or so, when I found myself between major projects, to rework it, polish it. We bonded and became great friends, and now, in its abbreviated 500-word format, it won a contest! Which goes to show that a writer should never give up on a piece about which he or she feels strongly. It’s also a lesson on the power of rewrites and the editorial process. Some might say it’s not my best work; but it holds a special place in my heart because of its autobiographical nature, and I couldn’t be happier that it connected with J.B. After all, that’s in part why writers write—to connect with others.
I’m in a good place in 2010, the best place in which I’ve been in many years. My latest novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings just launched through Second Wind Publishing, I’m heading down the backstretch with my fifth novel, Cobb’s Conscience, a murder mystery that spans two centuries centered on baseball legend Ty Cobb, and I’m looking forward to working my next case with Joe January as we embark upon possible publication with Second Wind as they expand this year to include a science fiction imprint.
Oh, and let me also add that Second Wind is having a launch party on January 29 and 30, which will include Backstop. I’m inviting readers to submit a personal account, between 200 and 400 words, of their most memorable baseball date. It could be disastrous, it might’ve led to marriage. The outcome of the game is really unimportant; what is important is what happened between the couple.. In addition to a signed copy of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, the winning submission will receive a signed baseball from Backstop himself!
January 7, 2010
Congratulations to J. Conrad Guest and Elizabeth Sweetman, winners of our latest short story contest. The mission: to write a 500 word story about redemption that dazzled. I’m posting the stories here for your entertainment.
On Monday, Mr. Guest will be blogging from here. Ms. Sweetman will also be posting from here, so keep checking back.
And now, here’s some great work:
A Case of Writer’s Block
By J. Conrad Guest
I once had a life outside this park. Years ago, and it was a pretty good one, too. I’d been a private investigator and some of the cases I worked on would’ve made good reading had they been fictional. As a matter of fact, my last case had started out as a simple missing person—an attractive young woman from Gramercy Park had hired me to find her missing father.
It seems her father had, for six years, been on the lam from a very elite overseas group. When I finally caught up with him, he spun a wild yarn about an alternate reality future in which the Nazis had won World War II. Of course the story sounded crazy to me, and I hadn’t believed any of it, but I couldn’t disbelieve the two Germans after him—I’d met them both.
That was 50 years ago and all I remember until …
I first noticed the tall man passing through the gate at 86th Street. Obviously he was a tourist, with a Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, and holding hands with a pretty woman who had eyes only for him. He looked familiar—slender with broad shoulders and gray hair showing from beneath the edges of his cap. Because I have a good mind for names and faces, I knew I’d never seen him before; yet I felt we had unfinished business between us.
Our eyes met as we passed, going in opposite directions, and I saw brief recognition in his eyes followed by a look of shame mingled with guilt. The woman holding his hand, oblivious to the look we exchanged, laughed and whispered, “So do you love me just a little, J. Conrad Guest?” and the name registered, although I couldn’t say from where or when. That feeling of unfinished business grew stronger.
I followed the two of them across Central Park, not intending to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of their conversation—two lovers on vacation from someplace in Michigan, and something about an unfinished novel and the writer’s block that seemed to have crippled the man’s creativity.
Just before they exited the park from its west side, the tall man glanced back at me. I considered pretending I hadn’t noticed, but somehow I knew I couldn’t pretend anything in front of him: he had known I was here from the moment he entered the park. Even from a distance I could see his nearly imperceptible nod. A smirk came to his mouth; a moment later he winked at me and turned to leave the park with the woman.
The exchange puzzled me, yet it seemed to comfort me as well. Somehow I knew this tall man who seemed familiar but whom I had never met, knew me intimately. I also knew that he wouldn’t forget me in this park, and that one day soon my life outside its walls would resume …
Lying in State
by Elizabeth Sweetman
Royal Helmann Dorset III was lying in state at Colbin’s Funeral Home dressed in his navy wool suit, a crisp white shirt and his favorite silk tie. In his hands was a small, new bible. Jack Colbin had done a nice job with Roy, his final resting pose was dignified. His face had the same expression in death as it did in life, he didn’t look dead.
It was quiet at Colbin’s. In two hours the hushed gathering of mourners would stand in small huddles, murmur it was a blessing Roy didn’t suffer and solemnly shake Luella’s hand while telling her they were sorry for her loss. The wake of Royal H. Dorset III would last about 3 hours. In accordance with his final wishes, all mourners would have to file past his open casket (it was their choice to pause or kneel) to pay respects to Luella Jeanne Hastings Dorset.
The weight of the silence in Corbin’s pressed in on the windows and doors. Suddenly the air was exploded! The deathly stillness was destroyed by a supercell which broke directly over Cobin’s Funeral Home. Lightening struck the chimney, made a hole in the roof which smoldered while bits of burning wood, shingles and brick pelted the green manicured lawn.
The fire department responded within five minutes. Thankfully the lightening strike didn’t cause the whole building to blow up. The damage was limited to the chimney, a small area of the roof and to the main room with the fireplace. Ash and cinders blew down coating everything in a layer of gray dust. Some cinders scattered about the fireplace and made small burns where they landed. The very unfortunate thing about the room was the body of Royal H. Dorset lay in it. Damage to the room was superficial, Colbin’s staff would have it ready for the wake that afternoon. But the body, there was no quick fix to that.
The corpse’s skin was singed and peppered. The blast had retracted his lips from his teeth and caused his hands, comfortably clasping the small bible, to pull back and upward. His head, which rested on the soft white pillow rose several inches. His peacefully glued-shut eyes were wide open. It looked like good old Roy had gotten a hard glimpse at his future and it wasn’t pretty.
Jack Colbin could have, with time and hard work, repositioned Roy back to his comfortable repose but there was nothing he could do about the skin or lack of lips and eyelids. As it was, all Jack could do was slam the lid of the casket closed and inform the Widow Dorset that it would be impossible to fulfill her departed husband’s wishes for an open casket.
Not one single mourner present at the wake (which took place one hour late due to the unexpected weather) was disappointed with the closed casket of Royal Helmann Dorset III. No one wanted one last look at that smug face.
July 23, 2008
Bitternest has been out awhile now. How are you feeling about it? Do you find it hard to promote this book while working on so many other projects?
Bitternest has done beyond my expectations in terms of reviews, and the acceptance from readers has been tremendous. I’ve developed a loyal fan base with this book and I am extremely thankful for it. It has been a long and hard journey. The first couple of months were brutal and I didn’t see many sales. Then as reviews kept appearing and the more I promoted the book, things started to pick up. The pricing of the book has always been an issue—at $19.95, it’s been a major hurdle in my promotional efforts. I’ve had countless readers tell me they can’t afford to pay that much for a book and I completely understand, especially when it’s a first time author you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, I have no control over pricing and even fought to get my publisher to lower the retail price. This is why I wanted to make sure that Sinister Landscapes would be affordable for everyone. I think my future books will really help boost the sales of Bitternest as new readers will discover me and seek my first novel.
As far as ongoing promotion is concerned, I seldom promote Bitternest these days. It’s been out for a year and three months. After a year, I decided to move on and focus on my current writings and editing Sinister Landscapes. I still have some ads scheduled to appear in magazines before the end of the summer and word of mouth has been generating some good sales. I’ll also be bringing a bunch of copies of Bitternest with me to signings this fall while I promote Sinister Landscapes. This will be new for me; I’ve never done signings before. This will be my first time going out there with the book and shaking hands with readers. I’m excited and scared at the same time. I’m more of a recluse when it comes to my craft and getting myself out there on the Internet is no problem for me. But doing signings and readings in front of a crowd is another story. It took all this time for me to feel confident and comfortable enough to do this. Also, since I couldn’t give the proper discount to bookstores in order for them to carry Bitternest (another serious obstacle), it wasn’t easy to get in there. Sinister Landscapes will open new markets and will be much more accessible to both readers and retailers.
Tell us about Sinister Landscapes, your up and coming anthology. What inspired you to undertake such a big project?
I’ve wanted to put together an anthology for as long as I’ve been writing. I had to make sure I knew my craft well enough before I undertook the task of editing other writers’s stories. This spring I was in a good place. I had short stories appearing left and right online and in print, I’d developed good relationships with many writers with whom I wanted to work with, I was in command of my craft, and I had a great idea for a theme for an anthology. So I went ahead and came up with some guidelines and posted them for the world to see.
I chose a gothic theme because we rarely see gothic anthologies nowadays on the shelves in bookstores. I miss them dearly and my love of the horror genre comes directly from gothic horror. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is one of my favorite books of all time and M.R. James’s ghost stories are still unmatched when it comes to a good ghost story, in my opinion. Movies also played a big part in this; I have many fond memories of watching the old Hammer horror films with Chris Lee and Peter Cushing and all those Poe adaptations that Roger Corman directed starring Vincent Price. I wanted to recapture some of that magic and these memories in this book and I think we’ve succeeded in creating a diverse anthology with echoes of the old gothic ghost stories and we’ve put a spin on them for the readers who like their horror to be more up-to-date.
After editing such a large body of work, do you find you have a taste for editing/publishing, or do you prefer the writing aspect of the craft?
I’ve really developed a taste for editing and I love the publishing process (even though the formatting part gave me many headaches). When you put a book together from A to Z, from cover to cover, when the end result exceeds your expectations (something that rarely happens in my case), you can’t help but be proud of what you’ve accomplished. I had a great time going through the submissions and commenting and doing revisions with the authors. Coming up with the cover was a challenge and I’m thrilled with the finished product; this is a book that I think we can all be proud of.
My writing has taken a backseat these past months and I will play catch up for the rest of the summer until the release of Sinister Landscapes. I wrote half a dozen short stories while I was editing and am now a little over halfway through my second novella. I’ll be starting my third novel (I’m currently seeking a publisher for my second novel) sometime in August, so I’m looking forward to that. I miss working on longer works which is where I feel more in my element. I’m a novelist first and foremost, but editing and publishing is a close second after this wonderful experience. I’ll have guidelines up again April 1st 2009 for next year’s anthology.
And speaking of publishing, tell us about your new publishing company. How did this come about and what are your plans with it?
I wanted Sinister Landscapes to have the widest distribution possible and thus was born Pixie Dust Press. Many anthologies are released these days through Lulu and most of the time, they’re only available through Lulu. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I wanted to be a bit more daring and put out a book that would be available everywhere online and try to get it in brick and mortar stores as well. I would do a small book tour with everything that it entails: signings, readings, interviews, and a massive viral campaign which is currently underway. One of the goals of my small press and these anthologies is to give us independent writers more exposure. A reader might buy the book for two or three writers and discover a handful of writers they’ll like in the process. They might wind up picking up a new author’s books and our collective fan base will expand considerably that way. This project is all about working together; egos should be checked at the door, because we’re all equal in this book. It isn’t my book, it’s our book. This is what Pixie Dust Press stands for—independent writers united. I just make sure that everyone comes together and that it all fits like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. There’s also the combined force of eighteen or so writers to promote the book which gives this project even more impact.
Themed short story anthologies will become a staple of Pixie Dust Press. For the first anthology, the contributors received a PDF of the book and a hefty discount if they wanted to purchase copies. Next year I will find a way to pay them a monetary compensation for their stories. I’m hoping to be able to increase the pay to a professional rate eventually. And starting in 2010, I want to release two books a year; the short story anthology in the fall and a novella collection in the spring. This would be an invitation-only collection where I would invite three writers to each write a novella following a theme. This would be a royalty-paying publication and an excellent opportunity for writers to showcase their storytelling talents. I want to make sure I have some strong foundations before attempting anything bigger such as venturing into publishing novels and releasing more than two books a year. I leave the door open to all kinds of possibilities, but it’s also a question of time. My writing will always come first and I will not publish a book if I don’t have the time to promote it properly. It’s also very time-consuming to read submissions, edit stories, and do the layout of a book. With a goal of writing two novels a year and releasing two books a year through Pixie Dust Press, I think I have my work cut out for me.
I’m curious about the short stories you’ve been writing. Give us the low down.
In January of this year, Amazon.com published my story The Bypassed Mind as part of their Amazon Shorts program. I often get asked if I only write horror; the answer is no and this is the proof. This is a time travel story and it is more of a romantic suspense. It’s the first story I wrote after I decided to take a shot at writing for a living. It has now since become a personal favorite. It can be purchased on Amazon.com as a PDF file for only $0.49: here.
In April, the popular anthology series Darkened Horizons published my story The Errand in their fourth volume It’s the story of a man goes through a forest to run an errand and on his way back he will find his life changed forever. The book can be purchased through Lulu: here.
In June, my story Breaking and Entering appeared in the excellent NexGen Pulp Magazine’s June/July issue. This is what I consider to be my finest short story yet and it’s about a man who enters people’s homes just for the thrill of it until one day he makes a shocking discovery. It can be purchased in hard copy or electronic form here: http://www.nexgenpulp.com/Back_Issues.html
In July, the free e-zine SNM Horror Magazine published my story Hershell’s Motel, about a couple who spends the night at a strange motel in Bitternest. It can be read here until the end of August after which it will disappear: http://www.freewebs.com/snmhorrormag/julysnmissue2.htm
Next, I have a story in the afore-mentioned Sinister Landscapes, titled Beyond the Doomed Cave. This is a coming of age tale set in a churchyard. The gothic anthology will be available wherever books are sold in September. For all the details, visit my publisher page: http://www.alandraven.com/pixiedust.htm
Are there any that are your favorites?
The Bypassed Mind, which features Aldous Finch, a character from my novel Bitternest, has a fond place in my heart. This is a story that I find has aged well over the last two years. It also pays homage to Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return (filmed as “Somewhere in Time”). There’s also Breaking and Entering, which I consider my best short story. As a writer, I constantly evolve and I get better at my craft and oftentimes stories that I wrote early on in my career tend to show their flaws over time. I’m particularly proud of these two tales.
Are there any characters you’ve created that you love? hate? Wish you’d never made?
I don’t think I hate any of the characters I’ve created … yet! Timothy Crane who is hinted at in my first novel takes center stage in my second novel, Fractured Time, as a powerful antagonist and one of the most evil men that has ever walked the earth. I think he’s more the type of character you love to hate than one you would hate because of what he does. He hasn’t done anything morally disgusting for the time being. My next novel, Alicia’s Last Stand, a revenge thriller, will have many characters that both readers and I will hate. It is filled with some of the most repugnant human beings I’ve ever encountered.
As far as characters that I love go, Aldous Finch, an old eccentric Englishman well versed in all things supernatural is a personal favorite. And to this day is the character my readers seem to love the most. I have received many e-mails and messages from fans who requested more of him. Terry Graves, the protagonist of my first novel who has also made appearances in short stories, is another that I really like and identify with. Ritchie Campbell, one of the supporting characters from my second novel, is another one I dearly love.
Do you ever feel bad about killing your characters?
Oh yes; I killed plenty of them in Bitternest and I tortured one in Fractured Time and it was hard at times to write these scenes. Kind of like watching someone you know suffer or losing an old friend. I always try to keep the twists coming and I never want readers to think that just because a character is one of the main protagonists of the book, they are safe from death’s grip. In my stories and books, anyone can die in the blink of an eye.
What advice do you have for writers, both published and aspiring?
Read as much as you can. Know the genre you write in well. Also read outside your genre. Write as often as you can, even if it’s only 500 words every two days. The more you’ll do it, the better you’ll get at it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t make it as a writer. There is no surefire way to get published or to achieve success, but know that there are many ways to get there and in my opinion, none of them are wrong. Get your work out there any way you can; the important thing is to be read. Stay humble and always remember where you came from. Treat your readers with respect because they spend their hard-earned cash on your work. You owe it to them to write the best stories your mind can come up with. Always.
Any parting thoughts?
As an independent writer, I’d like to invite all book lovers and horror nuts to pick up a book from an independent author; it will be greatly appreciated. You’ll see that we write stories that come from the heart, and that we are passionate at what we do. A lot of the time, even more so than authors from the big NY houses. Visit me anytime at www.alandraven.com and if you have a MySpace page, send me an invite at http://www.myspace.com/alandraven