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 In Hell’s Kitchen, the building that once housed January’s office—across from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle—had been replaced by a huge medical facility, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.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

Contest Winners

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.

Banana Man

May 26, 2008

He works in produce under a cloud of vegetable matter, avoiding shopping carts filled with all the things you can get at Super Wal-Mart. He is an island unto himself, never making eye contact with shoppers, never speaking to co-workers except through the subtle arch of an eyebrow or the barely perceptible lift of one shoulder. Screaming children do not faze him. Obese women on cabbage diets do not deter him from his goal…restocking the bananas.

Wheeled carts stacked to the toppling point with boxes bearing the DOLE BANANAS logo make their way from the back room, propelled past the nuts, garlic, potatoes, and onion bins to the enormous banana island that holds the place of honor in the center of the produce section.

One can feel the envy of the other produce workers as Banana Man maneuvers his load through throngs of customers ready to start their Memorial Day drinking early…tapping their toes as they await the latest shipment of non-organic bananas from Cuba…or somewhere. “If only I could be Banana Man for a day,” the other workers, shelving pre-packaged spinach and field greens say to themselves.

But Banana Man doesn’t hear this. He pushes back the top of the first box, his eyes focused on a point on the horizon somewhere over behind the seafood counter, and pulls bunches, two at a time, from the box. He moves quickly, nothing but a torso and legs in his dark blue shirt and khaki trousers…his hands are nothing but a blur. He turns on his heel and is gone, already on his way to fetch the next cart as the banana crowd sighs, “Oh my. Look at this, thirty-three cents a pound.”

I didn’t realize I noticed him or the ritual “unpacking of the bananas” until he was gone. And I didn’t realize I missed him until I saw him last week, back in produce, handling a tomato. “What,” I wondered, “debauchery is this? Where has he been and what is he doing with a tomato?”

I don’t know what he was doing handling that tomato. Chances are I’ll never know. But he is a character I’ve come to rely on here in the great state of Virginia. He helps to define my new home and he gives me something to wonder about. I’ve made up his whole story… where he came from and what he does after he goes home, where he was raised and why he likes produce so much.

Banana Man, what I know of him in the real world, appears to be anti-social. He does not smile. I’ve smiled at him a few times, desiring to know more about this bearer of produce. But he shuns me as he shuns all other shoppers, preferring instead to do his work…and only his work.

So why am I telling you about Banana Man? Because he is fascinating…like so many other people who carry out their jobs day after day…unnoticed and underappreciated. And because he inspires me. He reminds me to look to my environment for inspiration. Amazing people are everywhere…and it is imperative that a writer remember that.