Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kickstart Poplar Hill

Ad many of you know I've written a novel titled "Poplar Hill." It's based on the stories my mother used to tell about her early life. I've launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to get my novel edited so that an agent will rep it. Yep, I'm looking for money and feedback. The campaign will run until May 1 with no extensions so please take a look and invest if you are so inclined.

Please pass it on if you like it.


Friday, November 22, 2013

As though it was yesterday

November 22, 1963, South School Playground, New Canaan Connecticut:  We only had 20 minutes to eat lunch before the teachers would shoo us outside for recess. The younger grades ate first, first grade, followed by second grade, …. We were in sixth grade and ate last so it always annoyed us, me anyway, that we had to leave the warmth of the cafeteria after precisely 20 minutes on all but the coldest or wettest day. This was a chilly and gray November day. It was cold and windy enough so that no one wanted to play or be out on the playground. We just milled about and tried to keep warm until the 1:45 bell brought us back inside. It was the kind of day where bullies, out of boredom mostly, would pound their victims mercilessly and I spent most of my time avoiding them. Everyone knew who they were, both male and female.

It was about 1:15 when I saw her crying uncontrollably. Her father was a policeman and I had had a crush on her since first grade. My eyes followed her everywhere. My father had died in August of that year, 1963, so I immediately thought the worst had happened. I wanted to run up to her and put my arms around her but I was scared of her, I was scared of all girls then. Still I inched close enough to listen to her friends, who were now balling uncontrollably too. Someone had been shot, someone had died. "Dead," I heard them say and I thought the worst had happened, but she didn't run inside or run home. It wasn't her father. We just stood there, a growing circle of comrades, feeling an enormous weight coming over us, still not knowing what had happened or to who.

The gym teacher came out first, blowing her whistle and waving for us to come in quickly. Then, four or five somber faced teachers rounded up those that did not respond instantly to the whistles shrill. We knew the world was ending. No one said a word, no one had to, yet we still did not know what was happening. When we walked towards our classroom, teachers in the hall were crying. Men, who were men, our Principal, were crying. I felt the urge to cry … yet.

The black and white TV, the same one we had watched Alan Shepard and John Glen fly into space with, had been wheeled into the room and was blaring the static of the age. Something about Dallas, something about the President, something about the Vice President, something about a shooting. It was quite confusing. Had the President been shot? No, it couldn't be, shot at perhaps. Then Walter Cronkite came on. He looked at the clock on the wall and took off his glasses. I knew then what had happened, he didn't have to say, "The President is dead."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This I know

At the end of time, when the Universe ceases to exist, there will be no record of my existence. All history will come to an end as all grows cold and dark awaiting yet another Big Bang if such a thing is possible. Long before that happens our Sun, in a few billions of years, will swell larger and larger becoming a Red Giant. Eventually the surface of the Sun will encompass the orbit of the Earth, drying the oceans, incinerating the land killing all remembrance of life itself. If humankind moves on to a more hospitable environment can I hope they will bring a faint remembrance of who I was with them?

Long before the incineration of the earth it's likely that famine, fire or some other disaster, an asteroid perhaps, will visit what passes for Civilization, and render our lives as unknown as the pioneers of ancient Egypt, China or Ur. How many Romans do we know and remember? Did the dinosaurs have names?

I will die. That is certain. I have no progeny willing to carry forward my good name or my genetic code. I am the last of the line, already extinct. I no longer have "skin in the game."

When I was a child, when the Universe was still infinite, we played soldiers and Cowboys and Indians in our back yard, our hundred acre woods. I could not afford the specialized weapons of youth, the cowboy hat with duel cap pistols or the plastic rifle suitable for an assault on a German foxhole. Instead I found a magic stick that could be transformed, at will, into a sword, a flintlock, a machine gun or even a spaceship if the game required it.

Later I found that a pen was more convenient and the games and stories grew more involved and evolved. My legacy became the words I wrote on paper, no longer the seed of my flesh and blood. I have to ask myself, are my words good enough to live after me? Are the times willing to remember me? Is this Athens of 425 BC or the Athens of 350 BC? Is this the Rome of 100 AD or the Rome of 600 AD?  What literature was written in 350 BC Athens? We'll never know. Likewise was there a Cicero in 600 AD?  Why Shakespeare in 1600 and not 2013? Why not?

The world will end, Amen. The dinosaurs built nests that would never see children. We write to an audience that may never be born. This much I know, this much is all I know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What is Poplar Hill?

Writing a query letter to an agent is harder than writing the book it represents. There is so much advise on the internet and from readers that my head is spinning. What is obvious is that all the versions of my query letter to date have completely failed. In retrospect I think I was trying to force a round story into a square query. (Note: I try not to torture my metaphors but I couldn't pass this one up)

I have since learned that everyone expects a "historical novel" to have a rather conventional plot that hinges around some decision or action of the protagonist: Life is good, a decision is made (the hinge), life gets very, very bad, the protagonist has an epiphany and life is good (or maybe not). That isn't the plot of Poplar Hill but that is what I kept trying to make my query into. Since I couldn't force a conventional plot line the only agent that read the MS declined it citing exactly the issue I just described - no "hinge." She expected a conventional plot and didn't get one.

This brings up a number of issues: perhaps I've written a real dog or perhaps I'm missing the correct genre. I haven't used the right buzz words to describe the piece. If it's not a historical novel then what is it? It is a fictional biography of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. After a lot of research I discovered that the proper fictional biography sub-genre for Poplar Hill is a bildungsroman or more correctly a sub-sub-genre, an entwicklungsroman. I know, I never heard of these either but then I don't have an MFA. (Do they really teach this stuff in an MFA program? Who makes up these words?)

Wikipedia describes it thus: 

A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society – the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

There are many variations and subgenres of Bildungsroman that focus on the growth of an individual. An Entwicklungsroman ("development novel") is a story of general growth rather than self-cultivation. An Erziehungsroman ("education novel") focuses on training and formal schooling,while a Künstlerroman ("artist novel") is about the development of an artist and shows a growth of the self.
 Well that changes everything. It doesn't mean I haven't written a dog but it does mean that the way I described the story in my query was at odds with what I actually wrote in the novel. No wonder the agent who read the MS didn't like it and no wonder my friends keep telling me that the query is un-inspirational and no wonder over 100 agents have rejected it, the query that is.

If you've ever wondered if anyone has actually written a bildungsroman, Wikipedia lists the following novels:

  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding (1749)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  • Candide, by Voltaire (1759)
  • What Maisie Knew, by Henry James (1897)
  • Martin Eden, by Jack London (1909)
  • Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916)
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
and, of course, David Coperfield by Charles Dickens. So I'm in good company. If you read my last post you can compare it to this new version of a query letter.

Poplar Hill is a fictional biography, a bildungsroman or entwicklungsroman, of the life of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. Kitty learns that she will not recover from the heart attack she has suffered and must confront her imminent death. She reflects on her life. Born into a wealthy and prominent New York family she was put in an austere French convent school where she learned to be tough and self reliant. When the family loses almost everything in the Depression she is expelled from the convent and must find her own way back to America where she discovers her family struggling to survive. She gets a financial reprieve when she goes to Nazi Germany at age 18 in 1937 to spend a small family fortune that Hitler has embargoed only to discover the horrors of the holocaust. She risks everything to help a Jewish family escape, becomes a spy, is expelled from Germany by insulting Hermann Göring to his face, escapes on a Jewish refugee boat and barely makes it back to New York just days before the war starts. In the end she realizes that there is nothing she can do to evade death so she refuses all medical attention, confronts her l’appel du vide*, and dies peacefully. Comic relief is provided by a troupe of Pentecostal preachers who show up at the most inopportune times bent on converting the cynical and agnostic Kitty.
The major plot mirrors Paul Harding's "Tinkers" where the protagonist reflects on his life before dying. The setting is in a rural Nova Scotia full of the same characters found in Annie Piroulx's "Shipping News." Most of the novel is dialog between Kitty and her neighbor Barb, who has her own, rather parochial, view of the world. There are several Nazi subplots that could come from any one of a dozen late Pre-War novels (like those of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, and Erik Larson).
* There exists a psychological phenomenon in which perfectly sane people, with no desire to die, find themselves faced with a steep cliff and experience a strong desire to leap. To jump from their safe vantage point into the unknown. This phenomenon is so common in fact, that the French have a term for it: L’appel du Vide – Call of the Void.

Friday, December 07, 2012

the agented author

Writing a novel isn't easy. It takes a lot of work then it takes a lot more to make it perfect. When it's done you want to celebrate and send it off to that big black hole called the publisher where they  magically transform your manuscript into an object of veneration (a book and/or a movie) that will entertain and enlighten people for generations to come. Unfortunately the gatekeeper, that intermediary called an agent, interrupts this natural flow between the author and his(her) adoring public by insisting on passing judgement not on the work itself but on a small summation of that work called a query.

If you think writing a novel is hard, believe me, writing the query letter is much harder. The first iteration of my query letter was sent to 10 agents. I was rejected by 6 and I never heard from the rest. The second iteration, blessed by (actually mostly written by) a literary icon was sent to 135 agents via surface mail with a SASE. At the moment I've heard back from approximately 50 agents, 45 no's, 4 "we'd like to see more" and one agent who has the whole manuscript. It's been a while so I sent out a third iteration to 50 different agents via email and got rejected from 22 almost immediately. One agent rejected me in under a minute. I guess you have to learn to read very quickly in the agent business.

One of my 500 best friends on Facebook (most of whom I've never met), an author with a stellar reputation, said my last query could be summarized as "Forest Gump meets Adolf Hitler." Obviously that isn't what I wanted my query to say so I've rewritten it yet again and this time I ask everyone for their opinion. Here is the latest iteration of my query letter:
I am writing to ask you to consider my novel, Poplar Hill.

A small valise hidden under a bed is the key to a past she's only hinted at. The book follows the life of the wealthy eccentric and very private Kitty Stevenson, a New York Socialite transplanted to rural Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia. After a massive heart attack she is told that she may only have months to live. As she confronts her imminent death she fights off a parade of Pentecostal preachers bent on converting her and resolves to settle her estate while she still can. She enrolls her neighbor, Barb, in helping her while she waits for a bed in a nursing home.  She asks Barb to fetch a small valise hidden in her room. Barbs eyes widen when she finds that it contains a Nazi flag, hundreds of German postcards, a Star of David armband, a "Jews Forbidden" poster and a photograph of Adolph Hitler autographed by Hitler and Joseph Goebels.

Prompted by items in the valise Kitty has decided that as long as she has a story to tell she won't die. Her story takes her from a pre-Depression era French Convent School in Grenoble through  pre-war Munich.  She meets Hitler, shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand and escapes Germany, just-in-time, on a boat carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine just days after Kristallnacht.  She fights the Nazi's, photographs a concentration camp, is declared persona non grata by the Nazis and helps a family of Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. She's on the last German registered ship headed to New York Before Hitler invades Poland. Hitler orders the ship back to Germany. When the doctors tell her there is no more they can do for her she refuses all medical treatment. Will the Pentecostal preachers hovering over her convert her or will she die apostate? Will she get home from Germany or die before her story ends?

The book is historical fiction. The novel explores an era of continued universal fascination: The Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Readers have said that Poplar Hill could speak to the audience of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, Erik Larson and Annie Proulx.

The work has been professionally edited, is approximately 98,000 words and is ready for publication. There is a sequel tentatively titled "The Social Register."

S.R. Glines has spent most of his career as a journalist with a reputation as an edgy technical writer.  For five years he authored a monthly technical advice column titled Panic in Altos World Magazine.  The column was written in the voice of a fictionalized, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived, computer engineer working for the mob. He also wrote a column titled Famous Last Words for Unix Review about products that never quite materialized or never lived up to their promise.  He is the author or co-author of  five "trade textbooks," a travelogue about teaching in Fiji and a flash fiction chapbook.  For the past seven years he has been the editor/publisher of Wilderness House Literary Review.

Let me know what you think? (Specially if you're an agent)

Monday, October 08, 2012

Light Piercing Water (Guest Boy)

Light Piercing Water (Guest Boy)
by Djelloul Marbrook
Mira Publishing House
ISBN 978-1-908509-06-2

review by Steve Glines

There is always something fun about a book written in English by an author whose native language is not English. Non-native speakers are often very inventive with our language, using interesting metaphors where we might use a cliché. There are other times when the reader skids to a halt with the need to decipher a sentence or paragraph that contains English words embedded in an alien grammar. Fortunately this does not happen very often in this first of a trilogy that vaguely mirrors The Odyssey or so the author promises.

The hero of this thin volume is Bo Cavalieri, a seaman, former U.S. Navy frogman and an artist extraordinaire. Bo, which stands for boson, is half Arab and half German with an Italian step father. OK so we know he's conflicted right there. The book opens with a small convoluted plot that leads to a young Arab boys suicide. Bo takes it upon himself to deliver the remains to the boys home town in Algeria. The task being done Bo signs up with a tramp steamer that's been outfitted by a rich British eccentric (aren't they all) and his mistress to do underwater archaeology.

For the middle two quarters of the book Bo and his British companions wander the coasts of North Africa, Greece, the Red Sea and somehow end up in Oman. Bo meets the Sultan of Oman who likes Bo and calls him Sinbad. A few pages later they discover an important ship wreck. A few pages after that Bo quits for almost no reason and becomes captain of a small Omani ship bound for the African coast. On the return trip Bo discovers that they are carrying slaves. He kills the owner, renames the ship and divides the spoils between the rest of the crew after dropping his female slaves off on a random beach somewhere.

Bo joins up with another tramp steamer headed to England. While this steamer is laid up for repairs he goes to Scotland to visit his fathers former girlfriend. Bo thinks she might be his real mother because his real mother is such a witch (See I told you he was conflicted). She isn't but he (and we) learn all about how Bo came to be and why he is such a good artist: his mother was a good artist. We learn his father was killed in a jealous rage but it's immaterial to the story. After having a one night stand with his fathers ex-girlfriend, Bo is back aboard ship and ends up in New York City where we learn he owns an apartment. The apartment had been rented out to some drug dealers so Bo throws them out and proceeds to get completely drunk, destructively drunk. His free time is spent telling us about his childhood and how he loves to swim the East River. It's after one of these swims that Bo is attacked by a bout of amnesia and ends up in Belleview psychiatric hospital.

That's it. There are two more volumes in this trilogy so it's safe to say that Bo remembers who he is unless the rest is all retrospective but we are given no hint, no foreshadowing of what will happen to him. We have only the publishers promise that the trilogy echoes The Odyssey. A good read, for an immortal.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Letter to a devout Republican

When we lived in Belmont my kids went trick-or-treating on Halloween and knocked on Romney's door.  He handed out toothbrushes. The man is clueless. If he didn't want to play he should have turned out his lights. He is also responsible for ramming the Mormon temple down the throat of the town. He is despised in Belmont, a mostly Republican town.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. He didn’t just mean that they have more money. What he meant, at least in part, was that many of the very rich expect a level of deference that the rest of us never experience and are deeply distressed when they don’t get the special treatment they consider their birthright. "They think, deep down, that they are better than we are.”

Romney is not the creator of jobs he claims. Take Staples, for example, When Staples started they were a warehouse store, cheap and with every conceivable stationary item.  They paid well and trained their staff well ... and they lost money. That is until they put all the mom and pop stationary stores out of business. Then they stopped being the warehouse store they started out to be (they reduced their SKU's from over 100,000 items to under 10,000 ) and stopped most of their employee training and began paying McDonald's wages. If, for example, go into a staples today and ask for log-linear chart paper and you'll only get a dumb stare. Look in the catalog and you won't find it there either.  Some economists have estimated that Staples alone is responsible for the net loss of over 20,000 median income jobs. Romney did a splendid job of feathering his own nest at the expense of others. That is, of course, his right and one could say his duty to his stockholders as a businessman (he was the sole stockholder at Bain) but that is not the job of a president.

Romney is not your friend. Romney's stated policies would eliminate as much of the safety net. He would reduce or eliminate Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment, etc., as well as remove regulation from the financial industry and industry in general like ending the EPA, etc., while furthering the benefits to the very rich. American incomes have (adjusted for inflation) largely remained flat for almost 30 years (thanks to policies begun by Richard Nixon) while American productivity has more than doubled. Where has that added wealth gone? It has gone to the top 1% who have increased their income by 400% over that same 30 years.  The taxes on the top 1% are the lowest they have been in 85 years yet Romney wants to eliminate the capital gains tax and the corporate income tax.

Romney is not your friend. When he was Governor his stated reason for "Romneycare" was to save the state money. He has no interest in you or me. He just didn't want the state to pay for people going to the emergency rooms when they had nowhere else to go so he mandated that everyone had to buy insurance or pay a fine. What a nice Republican. He's against "Obamacare" simply because he thinks it will get him votes, no other reason. He is a man without convictions, without a moral center despite (or because of?) his Mormonism.

I can honestly say that I'd enjoy sitting down with any of the Bushes for a chat (or a beer), as well as Ronald Reagan and perhaps even Richard Nixon in his later years but I get the feeling that any "conversation" with Romney would quickly sink into a lecture about how father knows best. He is clueless both about policy (he doesn't have any except whatever he or his minions think will get votes) and the plight of the common man. His presidency would be one of the greatest disaster to befall the United States. I can easily imagine the United States devolving into a third world nation where the rich live in their isolated enclaves and the rest of us live in unsanitary slums. This is not the America I want to see, not the America my forefathers fought for, not the America my forefathers pledged their lives , their fortunes and their sacred honor for.

Our friend said:
I guess we should agree to disagree. You see we believe Obama is the absolute worst thing that can and did happen to our country, our laws, our prestige in the world, and another 4 years would finish us off. It is a case of voting for the one that will follow, not undermine our laws, start to bring back at least a modicum of trust in our government, and stop playing with the numbers - and that means jobs and finances! So to us, it is a case of choosing who will do the least damage and who do we trust. And since we have absolutely NO trust in Obama...

Why? The rest of the world has a greater respect for the US now than at any time in the past quarter century. Obama has attempted time and time again to enact laws that would encourage employment only to be blocked by a Republican congress. The Republican Congress has voted 33 times to rescind "Obama/Romneycare" but won't allow the "Jobs bill" to even come to the floor. This is a bill that was originally filed by Republicans back when Bush was president and had bi-partisan support. Now the Republicans engage in what I consider a treasonable game of destroying the economy so that Obama and the Democrats looks bad. Here is a litany of other complaints:

Obama said he would close Guantanamo Bay and try all the inmates in American courts. The Republican congress passed (over Obama's objection) a law forbidding the Guantanamo POW's from American soil. Apparently American laws are valid all over the world but the protections of the American Constitution are not.

The TARP program (which was administered by Elizabeth Warren) was a Republican program designed to bail out the banking system. Most economists agree that it wasn't big enough to bring us out of this recession. Since it wasn't big enough to really work and  the Republican congress won't enact another one, they, the Republicans, have the temerity to blame Obama for the economy when it is they who have opposed every measure that might help for purely political reasons. Again I personally consider that to be treason.

The Republicans say that Obama has spent us into oblivion. No, George Bush and Ronald Reagan got us here. When Ronald Reagan came to office the national debt was $2 trillion, total. At the end of George Bush I, the national debt was $6 trillion. Under Bill Clinton the national debt (remember Newt Gingich's closing of the government) actually went down and would have been paid off in 10 years. George Bush II started 2 wars that went unfunded AND reduced taxes so that by the end of his term the US was $12 trillion in debt and he left us with a tax system that Congress refuses to amend that will soon have us over $20 trillion in debt. This is a crisis purely of Republican making.

The Republicans say that under Obama government spending has risen dramatically. If you take out, unemployment, social security and the rise in Medicaid and Medicare (due to people becoming more and more impoverished) then the Federal Government has actually shrunk. Just wait until the Republican mandated reductions in the federal budget go into effect. You think we have a financial disaster now, just wait until all government agencies from the Military to the State department have to reduce their budgets by 10-20%. That means that companies like Boeing, Ratheon, United Technologies, and General Dynamics will suddenly have to fend for themselves and compete in the real world. They can't so sell your stock now while you can.

Unless the Republican Congress backs down this will be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. I won't argue the benefits of getting rid of the Military/Industrial complex (coined by Ike) but I've read that about 20 million people one way or another are dependent on Federal spending. Cut the Federal budget by 10-20% and you loose 200,000 soldiers, 1/2 the Marines. The Navy drops to 6 battle groups from 12 leaving less than a 100 ship Navy (about the size of Frances). That means that instead of the 3 aircraft carriers in the Middle East that we have at all times right now we'd be hard pressed to keep even one. War with Iran, forgetaboutit. Check the Chinese in Asia? No. Keep North Korea isolated? Yeah right. What do you think will happen to American prestige around the world if we don't have the military or financial muscle to stand up to even someone like Iran? What would Japan or the Philippines do if they didn't feel the backing of the US? What would Israel do if they didn't think we had their back?

The mandated reductions also mean that to keep the military staffed even at that reduced level there will be no more big ticket items. no new ships, aircraft, tanks, missiles or satellites.  We are apparently down to one working weather satellite over the US with no new ones on order. When that goes you can forget about watching the weather on the evening news. But that's OK because one of the agencies slated to be reduced to impotence is NOAA - those great folks that warn of nasty things like hurricanes and tornado's. What does Romney want to do, outsource it of course. Perhaps we can buy or rent satellites from China and meteorological services from India. We would have to pay for it by subscription instead of getting it free. For all we know Romney may have a financial interest in such things. We'll never know unless he releases more of his tax returns. What is he hiding?

The bottom line is that we are dependent on the Federal government for many things from Interstate Roads to meat inspection. So far there are no viable alternatives proposed by the Republicans for our health care crisis, the crisis in education or the looming crisis in our national debt. We all want and assume the services provided will always be there but we (I mean our elected representatives) are unwilling to pay for them. The 2 wars have cost almost $10 trillion. We have no choice but to raise taxes to pay for them and the very rich can pay more than their fare share. After all they are the very ones that have benefited the most from the Federal governments largess.