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.

JB

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 In Hell’s Kitchen, the building that once housed January’s office—across from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle—had been replaced by a huge medical facility, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.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!

J. Conrad Guest

Thanks kids, Mom loves you.

September 9, 2009

School started yesterday, which means that summer is officially over. As I think about the last three months at home with the kids I can’t help but reflect on what I’ve learned. It is funny how children, if given the chance, can be our best teachers. And they teach not only with their words; they also teach by example.

This summer I’ve learned the following:

  • I should never drink while lying down.
  • I should always run with my eyes open.
  • I should never walk barefoot through a field of clover when it is in bloom no matter who dares me to do it.
  • Even peanut butter can mold if given enough time, the right conditions, and a great hiding place.
  • My definition of “noise” is entirely different from that of my kids.
  • I should never taste a slug.
  • I should never hit my sister when Mom is watching.
  • I should never hit my brother when Mom is watching.
  • I should never make a face at Mom when I think she’s not looking. She has eyes in the back of her head.
  • I should avoid trying to vocalize impromptu poetry involving words that rhyme with “duck,” “fit,” and/or “pass mole.”
  • Having a dog lick it does not make it clean.
  • I should never put a wet bathing suit back in my drawer.
  • I should probably pick up the dog poop before trying to run it over with the lawn mower.
  • I should heed the expiration dates on milk cartons and bread packaging. They are there for a reason.
  • Shoving an entire ice cream cone in my mouth for the amusement of others hurts no one but me.

So with this new knowledge, I feel ready to embark on a new year of writing and editing and living. Thanks kids. Mom loves you.

The Evolution of It All

April 14, 2008

My oldest child is 15, at the stage of life where much of his time is spent in his room brooding over the meaning of his existence-wondering how these strange people he calls his parents could have produced one such as him: normal.
It is with awe that I watch him change from boy to man, from child to adult-the change in interests, the difference in how he solves problems, relates to his siblings.  I am proud.
This summer, he will be left over a thousand miles from us.  We will drop him off and trust that the teachings and lectures and discipline we’ve offered over these 15 years have served their purpose.  He will be with friends in the city.
As I think about that trip-the importance of it, the reality of it, the necessity of it for a boy on the threshold of manhood; I don’t think about the trouble he could get into.  I don’t worry that he will make bad decisions.  I don’t worry that he will be homesick.  I know too well his level of responsibility, the dry wit that sees him through every situation with his own warped form of optimism.
Rather, I worry about how he will experience these friends he left behind two years ago.  I think of the things they did at ages 12 and 13 and recognize that the gap from there to here is a big one.  Friendships evolve as children evolve.  As adult features push out from childlike faces, so too do the mannerisms and points of view of the adult emerge from the personality of the child.
And I suppose this is what I worry about as my son prepares to spend weeks away from me this summer.  We talk a lot, he and I…about everything.  And as he has grown, I have grown.  And so, our relationship has evolved.   But what about these friends he has not seen for years.  Will they relate to one another in the same way?  Of course not.  Without being present in their lives, he has missed out on the evolution that has no doubt taken place within the workings of the group.  And although I know this will not be a disappointment to him, I know he will, on some level, feel the strain of it and wonder if all childhood friendships end after one moves away.  Perhaps he will mourn a little.  Perhaps they will find new ground on which to build a friendship.   Only time will tell.
As I think about my oldest child today, I think about the lessons he can teach me about my work; my writing.  As much as I hate sitting with my hands on the keyboard some days, I know it must be done.  Without the discipline, evolution in my work cannot occur.  What I write today will never improve unless I work at it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
And so, I’d better stop all this musing and get back to work…or I’ll stay a monkey forever.

Pitcher In The Rain

April 10, 2008

Baseball

A game was played last night in the mist and rain. Spectators sat huddled under umbrellas and blankets, trying to keep dry. The players were all aged 11 or 12 and growing frustrated with the wetness of the ball, how hard it was to throw and catch. Those of us with children on the team watched from the stands, hoping they would pull it together to get through the last inning.

The pitcher was having none of it. He grew more and more frustrated as the ball slipped from his hand during his pitches. He’d throw his arms in the air, sink to his knees, moan out loud. And all the while, the parents in the stands shouted their reassurances. “It’ll be alright. You can do it. Hang in there.”

His mother wrung her hands, wondering if she should be embarrassed about his behavior. Be embarrassed why? I wondered. Because he is behaving like he is 12? So the parents, dripping and wet and miserable, reassured her too.

At last, the pitcher dropped to his knees with an “ankle injury.” And, truth be told, it was the most mysterious ankle injury I’d ever seen. It happened while he was merely standing there, very still, on the mound.

We were disappointed, but what could we do? He’s only 12. He was frustrated and cold and wet. And I’m sure he could smell the hot dogs and the popcorn that all of us were eating. That had to add to the frustration. One can’t exactly eat a hot dog out on the pitcher’s mound.

So the coaches put the player in right field, where he made an immediate and miraculous recovery. And they called my son to the mound. My son doesn’t pitch. My son, I thought at the time, can’t pitch.

But there was no worry on his face, just a wide-eyed expression and an eager grin, despite the cold rain and the late hour. He warmed up for five or six pitches, the ball sailing over the catcher’s head at one point, veering widely outside at another. But his face was all smiles. From all the way up in the stands, I could see his teeth as he grinned, oblivious to the water dripping into his eyes, the wetness of the ball, the misery of his teammates.

He walked his first batter. But everyone cheered for him anyway. I think I cheered the loudest…because he was so obviously thrilled to be throwing that ball. There were two outs…achieved by the pitcher before his “injury.” A batter stepped up to the plate. My son wound up. And pitched.

Strike one! I squealed. I actually squealed.

By the third strike, I was better composed. I stood and yelled and cheered. Just like everyone else.

My son’s team totally lost that game. Their hearts weren’t in it. But I felt pride for my boy. And I felt envy and admiration too. He was able to smile when the rest of the team was faltering for their determination and the will to go on. He slapped the catcher on the back and said he was sorry that ball was so high. He’d try to do better. He knew he wasn’t a “born pitcher.” There were others on the team better qualified for the job. But the coach chose my son. Perhaps he knew that this was the boy to turn to when everyone else was in the gutter…this was the boy who would finish the game just for the sheer joy of playing.

I’m thinking of my son today as I try to find the will to write the next scene for my book. I’m trying to smile as I throw the pitches out…watching them veer wildly in all directions. I think of his face out on that mound and look for the joy in what I do. Who would have thought that inspiration could come from a baseball game on a rainy day?

The Grit Of It

April 3, 2008

From Daschiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to Bill Waterson’s Tracer Bullet, we’re all familiar with the detectives of Noir. There are the usual trademarks: the trench coat, the fedora, the Colt .45 in a side holster designed by Smith and Wesson. There’s the stubbled chin, the half full bottle of hooch in the bottom right hand drawer, and the dame with the red lips and big knockers pleading for help.
There’s a lamp outside the window. Its glow filters through the lettered glass, reversing the name and projecting it as a distorted trapezoid on the far wall. There’s a sink with a dripping faucet in the corner. Above the sink is a grimy mirror…and when he looks in that mirror, the detective doesn’t like what he sees.
But Noir doesn’t necessarily envelope only the hard-boiled detective alone in his office; untouchable, unlovable, misunderstood. Noir is about darkness of character; the unlikable side of all of us…and we all have one. Film Noir doesn’t necessarily end well. The main character may succeed, but only at great personal cost to himself.
I offer as an example The Maltese Falcon (Daschiell Hammett). Sam Spade falls in love, but has to turn his woman over to the fuzz when he learns the dame is a cold blooded killer. Is Mr. Spade a knight in shining armor? Hell no. He’s flawed, terribly so. He’s had his secretary as a lover…and it’s clear he’d still take advantage of her on a mattress if the opportunity presented itself. And before his partner was killed, good ol’ Sam was boffing the Mrs.
So…No, Sam Spade wasn’t a knight in shining armor. But the movie is irresistible because he’s so flawed. And he does the right thing despite those flaws.
But, like I said, noir isn’t just about detectives. Take The Stranger, the 1946 film directed by and starring Orson Welles. It’s a film about a crazed Nazi living quietly in a small Connecticut town. His capture means the end of a young girl’s hopes and dreams for a happy future. Yet she does the right thing. A happy ending? No way. But a damn fine film. And there’s more misery where that came from. Check out 1950’s D.O.A., starring Edmund O’Brien and Pamela Britton. In this film, O’Brien consumes radioactive poison and has only hours to live, during which time he has to solve his own murder.
Maybe it’s the sick fascination we have with these undesirable characters and their situations, like being unable to turn away from a dead squirrel in the street, that makes us want to watch Noir. Or maybe it’s knowing we aren’t as bad as these characters are that keeps us watching…or maybe it’s knowing that, despite how bad we really are, there are some redeeming qualities in us that make us desirable to someone, somewhere. But that’s a little too poetic for my taste. Let’s just say….I like Noir…and leave it at that.

Hello world!

April 3, 2008