Commuti-cation

If you follow this blog religiously (of course you do!), you know that I am currently working full-time as a language teacher, now with adults and not noisy messy kids.  Actually, it’s the most interesting job I’ve had…maybe ever. When I was single and lived in New York City, I spent long hours as an editorial drone, sitting at a desk behind a stack of galleys and manuscripts, reading other people’s stuff, and sometimes actually falling asleep. So this is pretty good, though my writing is taking a big hit. But it’s only fulltime till the end of September, so in the rare moments I have to just sit and think—if I give them a writing assignment—I dream of the many projects just waiting for me to burn up the PC with in October.

The other interesting part of this job is that I have become a commuter again, taking the train to work. Thanks to the outrageous cost of parking in the town of my employment, I have taken to the rails, and so spend every weekday morning standing at our hometown station, gazing anxiously up the track. It’s a solid 30 minutes from boarding the train to getting off, so I have resolved to use that 30 minutes for writing.  Which is actually quite hard to do; it’s hard to keep from just gazing out the window, as suburban New Jersey flies by; and at this time of the year, it’s a very pretty and green view. I have a little notebook, which I write in, but sometimes this is physically difficult, in these old jerk-y NJ Transit trains. There’s a spot just outside Morristown where I’ve learned to put down my pen before the big ka-THUMP! that always disrupts my writing.

And what do I write about? Good question. It can’t be on any of my big projects, because there’s just not enough time to think then start writing. So I just start writing as soon as I get seated, even if it’s just a description of the weather. It has turned into an interesting sort of journal, basically a look into my state of mind on that particular day. I talk a lot about work (rant about it too sometimes), but also about my writing, and what I’m hoping to achieve with it; and sometimes I rework scenes from my up-and-coming novel, even though I’m not supposed to be thinking about it. It’s writing I don’t ever intend to have published; though I can’t rule out that one day my heirs will find this little notebook in a box somewhere, and maybe published it themselves: “Kathy Cecala: The Train Journal, August 2016” Ha! As if it would be interesting enough to publish! But it is a great comfort, and, I think, helpful in keeping the creative muse close by, as I finish out my sentence of employment.

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Not writing about you

In previous employment—not, I must emphasize, my current job—I once had a big disagreement with one of my bosses, feeling she had been  unfair and disrespectful of me. I was  annoyed with her, but not overly consumed by it, since my identity and sense of worth don’t hinge on my gainful employment. After all, I’m a writer, and hence, have the best and worst ultimate boss of all: Myself. But later in that workday, I got a memo from her, apologizing.  And someone told me the reason she caved was not because she thought she was wrong, but because she was afraid I would mention her in the blog I was writing at the time.  As if!  (It was a blog  supporting my medieval-Ireland YA novel, the Raven Girl; where did she think she fit in there??)

Then, when I was training for my current job, we had one of those around-the-table, tell-us-what-you-do things. I usually hide my light under a bushel, because when I tell people I’m a writer, all kinds of presumptions get made and…well, for some reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and reveal that I was not just a writer, but a novelist. And frankly, the reaction was underwhelming except for one gal—who I can mention, because she ended up not getting the job. She  peered at me with suspicious eyes and remarked: “Oh. You’re one of those people-watchers. I bet you listen and study people and then put them in your novels. We better be careful around you!”

To which I  replied…actually, I did not reply, I just did what I usually do, gape at the speaker with a look of mild surprise and faint disapproval. But one day I’m going to say: “I’m not gonna write about you, idiot!” Or maybe just a cool, “Sorry. Most people I meet are not interesting enough to write about.”

But this is not really true. Just yesterday (I’m full of anecdotes today, must be the weather), I was at retreat-and-lecture breakfast, and was seated next to an elderly member of the Palatine religious order, a brother. After explaining to me the difference between a brother and a priest (for he was dressed in a black suit and white collar) (oh, and the difference is, priests are ordained and brothers are not), he told me his life story: I won’t go into it here, but in essence, he had suffered  a spiritual and emotional burnout at mid-life,  an event he still felt deeply troubled by even though he’d long since regained his faith. Of course I couldn’t help but think—there’s a book! But of course, I already wrote my spiritual-burnout book—twice, as a matter of fact. But I wouldn’t write that man’s story as he told it, using it as a template for my own fiction—that is his story to tell, not mine.

But fiction writers do this all the time, steal other peoples’ stories and lives and tell them in their own words. The term of course is roman a clef, or “thinly disguised fiction.” I don’t really do this, not because I think it’s dishonest (I don’t), but because I always like to tinker with real life and embellish it to suit my fancy. You might say I don’t like dealing with the truth. My novels are like complex, well-mixed drinks, like the kind that cost $24 at an upscale bar and have a skewer of exotic fruit thrust into them: All kinds of unique personality quirks and traits, each like its own finely distilled liquor, go into them, are soundly shaken up, and then served up in the most appealing form possible. We could argue for days whether fiction writers are essentially thieves, honest or dishonest; but the bottom line with me is, I’m not going to write about you! At least not in your true, honest, unvarnished everyday life persona. If I  were, in some lapse of judgement, to actually write about you, you probably would not recognize yourself.

Perhaps the person we most write about is ourselves, which, of course makes us all narcissists. But it’s okay to call ourselves that…as long as nobody else does!

 

Don’t judge my book…

Yes, I’m on a writing break, but it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the cover for my next. As we all know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But we all do, it seems.  Supposed experts in publishing tell us the cover is your most important marketing tool, though my own informal survey of readers begs to differ. Some readers will choose a book solely on its cover, but others could care less, using reviews or information on the product page to make their decision.

Truth be told, I’m in the latter group. Half the time I don’t even look at the cover of a book, even when I’ve finished reading it. And this probably explains why I tend to give short shrift to my own covers as an author. But this time I’m trying to take it seriously, mainly because I don’t feel the cover of my last book was particularly successful. It was a pretty picture, based on some artwork I admired, but didn’t really capture the essence of the book and maybe was misleading.  Many readers thought it would be a religious book, and that explains a lot of the anger of some reviewers over its explicitly adult content. It seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate covers, and although it snagged plenty of ‘up’ votes from a NetGalley survey, I was wishing I had gone with an earlier instinct, and another painting, of a moody Southern Tier streetscape. I may change it yet. Readers and buyers aside, an author should have a cover he or she is happy with, because once it’s published, you’re going to have to look at the damned thing every day of your life, several times a day, as you relentlessly check your rankings and sales.

A cover needs to reflect its genre, but as a genre-less writer leaning toward literary, where does that leave me? Based on my research into (almost) similar titles, basically: Big type on a plain background. Or, weird type on a bold background. Or something arch and clever. Script fonts.  There was an interesting article online about a bestselling literary writer—Sorry, can’t recall her name at the moment—who has been coming under fire for her covers, which seemed to be deliberately fluffy and sentimental, designed to draw in female romance readers who might appreciate something a little more upmarket. I don’t think I want to do that; I don’t want to succumb to anything that smacks of cold-blooded marketing. That said, I do think my new work will appeal to readers who like romance and so-called ‘women’s’ fiction. But I don’t want to turn off the men, although…I suspect most of them don’t even notice covers.

So back to type on some kind of background. No bare-chested hunks, no hauntingly beautiful maidens with pre-Raphaelite hair, no idyllic beach scenes or any of the other nonsense authors slap on their books to make them sell.  I think I have an idea…But I need to play around with it for a few weeks, so there won’t be a cover reveal for a while. But meanwhile, if you have thoughts on covers, share them with us!  What appeals to you or makes you stand still in the aisle at Barnes and Noble in shock and awe? Not that it would necessarily work for me, but still want to know!

Welcome back Tama

In this morning’s Washington Post (Yes, my morning paper of choice even though I don’t live in the Potomac region at all, and should be a New York Times subscriber, but am not. The writing in the NYT has been very lackluster of late, while the Post seems to be running great stuff) I was surprised to read a review of a new book by Tama Janowitz. I thought she had actually dropped off the face of the earth.

Ms. Janowitz and I are the same age, and when I was starting out as a young writer, she was the Hot Young Thing. Her novel, Savages of New York, was a blockbuster best seller, and she was everywhere, and of course I hated her bitterly and was insanely jealous of her success. But I had to admit she was very talented, and steeled myself to endure a lifetime of brilliant offerings from her, which I could not possibly hope to compete against. But that didn’t really happen.

It made me think about the trajectory of a writer’s life, as far as fame goes. It seems only a chosen few get to be famous all their lives: Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind. And you always have the Brilliant Debut Artist who never produces anything of note ever again.  Or, the reverse of that, the sprightly senior who produces a work of genius in the autumn of his/her life—Frank McCourt and that  woman who wrote “And The Ladies of the Club…” But for the great majority of us, it’s a bumpier and predictable road, usually through a long stretch of valley, with maybe an occasional up-bump or peak.  You’re trying to mesh the best of your talents with readers’ fickle tastes and whatever’s in fashion at the moment.  Usually it doesn’t work out so well. But it’s okay, because you have to live your life anyway, and it’s good to have something to shoot for, a golden dream, as you grub along and count up pennies to buy groceries.

I like a writer who’s paid her dues, rather than one who gets sudden fame handed to them on a platter, but I think Ms. Janowitz has done her penance. So I will give her memoir Scream (A Memoir of Glamor and Dysfunction) a chance, if only to see what transpired   between those crazy 1980s and now.  And we’ll see if she can overturn that old chestnut cliché, about there being no second acts in American life. Or at least in American literary life.

My rocky start in publishing

One of the best things about writing this blog is all the new people it has brought me into contact with—not only readers, but other writers as well. I always assume everyone knows my back story, which is a little embarrassing and not something I like to revisit, although I did mention it in my author’s note for The Novice Master. So for those who have asked…here it is. Take it as a cautionary tale, even though it happened so long ago, it probably doesn’t have any relevance in today’s crazy-mixed-up world of publishing. And your experience with traditional publishing could be completely different. I sincerely hope it is.

My very first novel, Secret Vow, was published in 1996. Looking back on that book now, from a distance of two decades, I cringe a bit: It’s a typically earnest first novel, full of rookie mistakes, but even more galling, it’s a compromise novel, full of all the concessions I made to my agent and publisher out of desperation to get the damn thing published. I know I should be grateful to have been published at all,  to have gotten my shot. But I wish the experience had gone a little better. Getting published for the first time is a lot like losing one’s virginity, but not in a good way: One hopes for a great experience, but sometimes it’s just kind of icky and embarrassing, and one feels used and abused afterwards.

So there I was back in the 1990s, a relatively new mother, with a part-time job and all kinds of other distractions, but I had  managed to bang out a coherent novel. At the time, I was pretty sure I was writing a literary novel. I was intrigued with religious people (I’m not, but I’m endlessly curious about people who are) and wanted to explore the relationship of religious faith with mental illness, having worked once in a mental ward. So my main character was a definitely bipolar priest who suffers a harrowing breakdown, abandons his calling and takes up with a nurturing older woman who has her own reasons for talking up with him. And amazingly, the very first agent to look at it took it on, immediately. Now at the time, the big bestseller had been a novel called The Thornbirds, about a cynical, libidinous priest, which was made into a miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. My novel was nothing like that. There was also another bestseller, called Bridges of Madison County, about an extramarital affair between a wandering photographer and an Iowa farmer’s wife. Again, no relation to my book. And yet, my book would constantly be compared to those two—unfavorably—again and again and again. Because in that era of publishing, no one was allowed to be original.

Now, one of the first things you must learn, if you manage to acquire an agent: They are NOT your friend. They could care less about you, as a person. Your book is a product for them, a possible revenue source. There are some rare cases where a warm friendship may blossom between author and agent, but I believe those are very, very ,rare. And this quickly became apparent when the agent told me I needed to rewrite my book. I was told it was ‘unmarketable’ in its present stage, that it needed to be clearly classified into a genre (I was assigned to ‘upmarket contemporary romance’), that my male protagonist could not possibly be bisexual, and that the ending was too depressing for words. “You can’t have him dying at the end, there has to be a happy ending, you can’t let the reader down.” Sigh. So I swallowed my pride and rewrote it to her specifications. After that about a dozen publishers turned it down.

And then…

The day my agent called me to tell me she had sold my book—for a low five figures, but more money I had ever seen in one place at a time—she first angrily harangued me for five minutes solid about not being able to get in touch with me sooner. But she did her job, got me the money, and pretty much abandoned me after that. An agent, I learned, will not be your advocate, your mentor, or  your friend. Now enter the publisher: It was Dutton, which had just been snapped up by the mega-giant Penguin/Putnam. I learned that the editor who’d bought the book was also Stephen King’s editor. I was invited to New York, taken to lunch, regaled with stories about how wonderful the book was (“It’ll be the American Thornbirds!”) So far, so good. But all I had to do was change the title. I liked my title: Phases of the Moon. I resisted (i.e., became the ‘difficult’ author), but to no avail. The editor called and told me it was now ‘Secret Vow,” even though there are no actual vows in the book, secret or otherwise.  I don’t even know what  that title means, to be truthful. I was sent a picture of the cover, which was kind of pretty, but did not give any indication what the book was about.

About three months or so before a book makes its debut, the publishers generally start to publicize it, and send out galleys for reviews. I felt uneasy when I realized I was not seeing any sort of publicity about it. The reviews that came in were mixed; it appeared my book was a love-it-or-hate-it sort of affair. I think I wrote here in the blog about my horrific experience with Kirkus (before they sold out and started charging money for reviews)—I had been three months pregnant at the time, and the very day I read the devastating and mocking review they published (“a Bridges of Madison County wannabee”), I suffered a miscarriage. Now maybe Kirkus was not to blame for killing my unborn son, but…I suddenly realized there might be an unbearable price to pay for being published.

My editor stopped calling me and communicating. I was told by others, who had been through this wringer, that if a book looks as if it’s not going to earn out its advance, the publishers try to dump it as soon as possible and not waste precious promotional funds on it. So this is what happened to Secret Vow. It came out very quietly.  With a whimper instead of a bang. A few weeks later, my agent called: “It’s not exactly flying off the shelves, if you know what I mean.”

Well, she was wrong in a sense: The book did sell. I did earn out my advance, thanks in part to paperback sales and the Frankfurt Book Fair, where German-language rights were sold. The books also seemed popular in the UK and other non-American English speaking countries–I could not tell you why. And, the book was very popular locally here in New Jersey: I remember, to my delight, seeing a sign in an independent bookstore nearby: “We Have Secret Vow!” I was besieged with offers to speak, at many libraries, at Barnes and Noble, at book clubs around the state. I was even on TV, interviewed by former Entertainment Tonight correspondent Lee Leonard on a News-12 celebrity show, “Jersey’s Talking!” Officially, I was an author. But because the book had not been the critically acclaimed blockbuster bestseller the publisher wanted, they had no interest in seeing any future books I might write. And my (now former) agent bluntly told me that unless I could come up with a “better” novel, I really had no future in fiction. I do admit that my next efforts were less than stellar, but I wasn’t really in a good frame of mind to write quality fiction. So there I was, washed out at the very beginning of my career.  Self publishing was not an option then; we called it ‘vanity’ publishing, and it was only for losers. I tried to find another agent, but agents only want hot young things, they don’t want to revive a faltering author’s career. And in those days it was impossible to contact a publisher directly; I think it still is.

Yet, I continued to write fiction. I don’t know why, even though I had no hope of ever publishing it again. I turned to business writing, and found some success there; and eventually became a teacher of English, which I found I loved. But that whole Secret Vow episode of my life rankled me for a long time, and then, exactly five years ago, I was lying in bed early one morning, and read an article on my iPod (remember those?) about the rise of ‘kindle’ publishing, and the huge success some self-published authors were having. It was a revelation: No agents! No overbearing publishers! Complete control over your product! And there seemed a new cachet attached to the process: Independent publishing.

So I went to work, and pulled out an old manuscript for a historical novel, set in medieval Ireland, which I thought would work in a young adult genre. I uploaded it, pushed the button…Voila! I was a published novelist once again. I did some rudimentary marketing, but surprise, it sold, eventually up into four figures, it got some excellent reviews, and it continues to sell to this day. Not a blockbuster bestseller, but enough to keep me going. I released two more in a series and then, I decided to tackle my shame over Secret Vow, and ‘redeem’ it somehow, by revisiting the main character from that book as an old man. That became The Novice Master.  I’m still contemplating re-releasing SV as an ebook, but not sure what the legal situation is there, or how to go about winning back the rights. It seems to be enjoying a flourishing afterlife in the second-hand book market; every time I visit a new city, I always check out the used book stores and have actually found it a number of times. How many copies did Dutton print up of that thing anyway! And I get letters, still, about it, from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.

So that is my sad crazy story, but with a good ending. I’m just thrilled to be publishing my own books. And you know, I’ve found most readers do not care who publishes a book; they only want to love reading it.  I love choosing a title, thinking about the covers (which I know, have to get better…), even formatting them and seeing them emerge as real books. I don’t love proofreading and marketing, but it’s got to be done. And bad reviews are still painful. But I love being an ‘indie,’ being part of a movement, a publishing revolution, and not having to kowtow to anyone. Being true to my vision and all that. Being part of a writing community, not the prima donna with the flashy author photo and a lapdog. (I’m really more of a cat person)  And I’ve finally reached an age (I’m not that old, but I am getting there) where, having done without it this long,  I could care less about fame and acclaim and extreme popularity, so it’s all good.

Would I go back to a traditional publisher, if I were wooed and flattered by one? Hard to say. I wish I could answer a firm and unreserved ‘No!” but… I think I would have to give such (an unlikely!) offer some consideration. I don’t think publishing in the 21st century could possibly be as painful as it was in the 1990s.  And there are decent agents and editors out there…somewhere…

But I’m not changing any titles, dammit!

Sneak Peek!

 Just to show you all I’m serious about this next book…Before I pack it away  for a rest, I thought I’d release a little morsel of it. This is chapter 9, sort of a third of the way in, but it’s a good standalone chapter and really represents the tone of the whole book. The title is  Wives of the Saints, and is about two long-time married couples, told in alternating chapters. Now to my writer-friends: Not looking for critiques, please, just wanted to share a bit of my writing. But if you like it, do let me know!

It had been a long day in the Memorial Hospital emergency room: Three fractured bones, an accidental poisoning, two car crashes, a stroke victim, a man with chest pains, another with vertigo, and finally, a bodega stabbing involving both the clerk and his customer. Miranda was exhausted, and stumbled to her bedroom, without even stopping in the kitchen for food or sustenance. She wanted only her bed, her side of it, with the big comfy Swedish foam mattress to ease her aching bones, the giant TV at the foot turned on to a soothingly dopey movie channel. It was eleven pm: Maybe she would just listen to the news and then fall asleep. But as she was stripping her flowered scrubs off—they felt almost welded to her skin, soaked with sweat–she was dismayed to see her husband, lying diagonally across the bed, grinning up at her.

“Helloooo gorgeous!” He crooned.

“Oh, God, no! Sal, not tonight! Of all nights!”

He was dressed only in a pair of red skimpy briefs, something she had bought him on a whim years ago. His generous belly hung over the waistband. But there was something odd about his face; in fact, it was as scarlet as his underpants..

“What’s wrong with your face? It’s all flushed! Are you sick?”

He jumped off the bed and stared at himself in the bedroom mirror. “What the hell…!” He clapped his hands to his face in horror. “I’m hot! Not in a good way! Jesus, what was in that shit?”

“What shit?”

“This stuff I got, from Fulton’s drugstore—“

“Fulton gave you something to take?”

“No, no…He just weighed me and took my blood pressure, told me to see a doctor if I wanted…you know, the blue pills. Pain in the ass friend of mine! But I saw this stuff at the counter, and thought I’d try it. It’s herbal, and if they sell it at TriTowne it can’t be anything bad. Can it?”

“Oh for God’s sake, Sal! What the hell is wrong with you!” She grabbed the small, empty plastic bottle he handed her. “This is CRAP! Guys show up at the ER after taking this stuff!  You don’t even know what’s in it!”

“I just wanted to try it!” Sal gave her an anguished look. An anguished, deep-scarlet look. “I didn’t think it could hurt. Am I gonna have a heart attack?”

“I hope not! How do you feel, otherwise? Except for the hot face?”

He rubbed his hand around his chest, as if trying to pluck out his heart. “Okay, I guess. A little jumpy, but…”

“Do you feel horny?” She grabbed the waistband of his underpants, pulled, then peered inside. “Not seeing much progress in there.” She let the elastic snap back.

He scowled. “I just feel really, really warm. And a little shaky.”

“Well, give it a few hours. It should wear off. I’m going to sleep. Don’t disturb me, or I swear, I’ll kill you.”  She flopped onto her side of the bed, face-down.

“But what if I….what if it kicks in…you know, later?”

“Then wake me up,” she muttered into her pillow. “I’d like to see that.”

And several hours later, she was awakened. But not by Sal, who, amazingly, was sound asleep beside her atop the bedspread, snoring, still in his carmine underpants. She realized her cellphone was chirping on the night stand.

Work. She glanced at the clock: It was just after four am.

“Miranda? Sorry to bother you at home, but you need to get in here, stat.”

“Big emergency?” Miranda was already out of bed, pulling on her scrubs.

“Well, it could be,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “For you.”

“What–?” But the clerk had hung up. Miranda stared at the phone for a moment—was this a prank? Her fellow nurses wouldn’t be that cruel. But catastrophes did happen, even in their sleepy city.  She finished dressing and hurried out of the house and into her car, heading right back to the hospital she had just left hours before.

She walked into the ER waiting room, feeling a bit confused. It was almost completely empty, a rather somnolent summer night. The admitting clerk was playing solitaire on her computer.

“What’s going on?!” Miranda demanded, holding out her arms in protest. “I thought there was some kind of crisis going on here?”

In response, the clerk pointed across the room, without taking her eyes off her computer screen. And now Miranda saw a man. At least she thought it was a man: He had long white hair grazing his shoulders, tussled and well-mussed, as if he had just come through a wind tunnel. He was wearing an odd outfit, all white, baggy trousers and a strange, white-cowled sort of top with long sleeves. He looked as if he had been in a pretty bad brawl: His face was bruised and he had a huge shiner under his left eye; his white outfit seemed to be streaked with both dirt and dried blood.

And under his arm, was a long, old-fashioned mountain dulcimer, that seemed to have a few strings missing.

He gazed up at her, his green eyes shining. “Murrr-anda!” he murmured, with a strange kind of joy. “I found you, at last!”

She stared into those green eyes. “Oh. God. Kenny? Is that you?” Her mouth dropped open.

“Why sure it’s me, honey child, can you imagine, after all these years? Come give Papa big ol’ hug—“ He rose to embrace her, but she backed away.

“Says he’s your husband,” the clerk offered. “They were thinking of putting him in Psych.”

Miranda turned to him. “You’re not my husband! Not anymore! How did you find me?”

“Well, I remembered you was from this little city in Connect-ti-cut. And this here’s the only hospital, and when I asked for Nurse Miranda…well, here you are!” He grinned, and even though he seemed to be missing a few of his bottom teeth, his smile retained a good deal of its old boyish charm.

Miranda blinked, still struggling to emerge from her initial shock. “I have a million questions to ask you, but…You seem to need some medical attention. Come on back with me, to the clinic.”

“Doesn’t have any insurance,” the clerk snapped, crisply.

“Just going to wash him up and put on a few bandaids,” Miranda snapped back, pushing her former husband through the waiting room doors.

Once inside, Kenny sat on a gurney, wincing as Miranda applied antiseptic cream to various little cuts about his face. “What the hell happened to you?” she asked, giving his blackened eye a good look.

“Well, I got beat up, is what. By a cruel and vicious man. By the name of Athanasius.”

“So you had a fight. Not surprised to hear that. Where at, some bar?”

“No, it was in the kitchen.”

“Whose kitchen?”

“The monastery kitchen. Back in Pennsylvania.  Oh, I didn’t tell you. I’m a monk now. Well, a novice. That’s why I don’t have the full robes yet. But I don’t know if it’s gonna work out now. This monastic business.”

She stared at him, incredulous.

“You know, I got this chigger bite on my back—Think you could look at it and make sure it’s not infected?”  He took off his shirt, and she was startled to see he was  quite fit, his shoulders still broad and the butt sitting on the gurney—still tight. There was no sign of any chigger bite on his back, but she found herself stroking a shoulder blade with her finger tips.

“Yeah, once I turned the big five-oh, I had what you’d call a religious experience. True that. I was working in western Pennsylvania for the highway system cleaning up road kill, and I saw God. In the eyes of this big dead stag I had to drag off I-78. And it was then I realized, I was done with this world. Done with women. Done with working my ass off and not being able to do my music. But I didn’t want to kill myself or die. So… I entered this monastery that was nearby.”

“What in the world ever made you think you’d be a good monk? You’re not even Catholic!”

“Oh I am. I converted, when I was with Rosalita from Santa Fe.”

“Was she the one you left me for?”

“Oh, no that was Sally Geraldine. That didn’t last very long, either. I truly loved you, Miranda. You were the best of the lot. But I wasn’t made to be a family type man. So I figured I was probably meant to be celibate. But that ain’t working so good, neither.” He winced, and glanced down at his crotch.

“Oh, God. The other monks must just love you.” Miranda muttered.

“Well, it’s not such a bad gig, really. It’s food, really good food, and lodging and honest work. And most of the other men, they’s okay. And I don’t mind the praying and singing every few hours, but the bells did get to me, after a while. But my real problem was that jerk Athanasius, who I had to work with in the kitchen. He was a real pain in the butt. He was the one that give me this black eye.”

“Let me get this straight. You were beaten up by another monk?”

“Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”

“What were you fighting over? A woman?”

“Well there ain’t no women at Mount Benedetto, Miranda.”

“Was it a man?”

“Hell, no. It was…You know, when you’re at a place like a monastery, where you’re supposed to be quiet most of the time, and secluded from society in general, the littlest things…Well, you’d be surprised what we fight over.”

“And you fought with this Athanasius about…?”

“Well, it’s gonna sound stupid but…it was because I gave a reading, at Compline, from Lives of the Saints, and he didn’t like the way I was pronouncing the name of Saint John Chrysostom…mum…um. I guess I kept adding an extra ‘-mum’ and the end, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. And don’t get me started on Saint Charles Borrom-m-m-meo.  He said I was showing disrespect by not pronouncing it correctly, but I was trying to say it rightly! Well, maybe I was trying to rile him up a bit.So one thing led to another, and then he knocked me down, and I grabbed him, and we went right at it, there in the kitchen—“

Miranda sank into a nearby chair. “Oh, Kenny. When are you ever going to grow up?”

“Never, I suppose,” he said, with some contriteness.

“How did you get here?”

“Well, I just left the monastery. I grabbed the money I’d saved, ‘cause they do give us a little bit now and then, and just started walking. Didn’t know where I’d end up, just knew I had to go. I walked to town and took the bus to Pittsburgh, and then I had the idea to come East and try and find you. I remembered you, Miranda, all these years. I felt terrible for ditching you like I did. And I knew you’d be remarried and all, but I figured you’d take pity on me, and take me in a while, so I could get back on my feet…”

“Oh, Kenny,” Miranda murmured. “I can’t take you home. My husband would kill me!”

“I understand. It would be awkward. Well don’t tell him I’m your old husband, just say I’m this monk friend of yours that needs some shelter for a while.”

“He knows I don’t have any ‘monk friends’ ! ”

“He’s kind of a bastard, huh?”

“No! He’s—Put your shirt back on!—He’s a good man. A very good man. But he’s…jealous. And things are a little strained right now with us. And we already have our son’s girlfriend living with us—“

“Please sweet Miranda? Just for a night or so, just till I get my bearings? I just don’t know what I’m going to do next…”

Miranda buried her face in her hands. “Oh! I wish Grace were here! I wish she’d answer her phone…I can’t do this, I just can’t! I shouldn’t do this but…” She sighed, in defeat. “I suppose I can put you in my younger daughter’s room, since she’s moved to Nepal…” She rose. “But here’s the story: You’re just…an old friend, from my Cincinnati days—“

“Your monk friend!” he said, with a big grin.

“Do not, under any circumstance, tell my husband, Sal, that you were married to me!  He’s Sicilian, and I swear, he’ll rip the balls right off of you.”

“Sounds a bit like Brother Athanasius.”

“I mean it, Kenny! Just keep quiet, and start looking for some other line of work, preferably out of state.”

“I gather you ain’t so happy to see me again,” he said, mournfully. “I’m sorry, Miranda.”

“Oh, don’t do the puppy eyes with me! I’m not the sweet young thang you seduced back in Cincinnati anymore. Some of us have grown up.”

“But you sure have aged well, missy. I do love that extra weight on you! Makes you even more of a woman. You’re fierce, sweetheart! Sure do envy that husband of yours.”

“Yeah, well, don’t provoke the beast, and everyone should be all right.”

She led him out of the hospital, and to her car, just as dawn was starting to break. And once home, snuck into the house with him, gingerly pushing him up the stairs and into Jennie’s rose-pink room, while Sal’s snores bounced off the hallway.

“Just stay in here and lay low for a while, before I introduce you to the family. But first I need a couple hours sleep. You too. Good night.”

“Well I’m sure all these stuffed animals will keep me company!” He chortled, and she shushed him.

At about ten in the morning, Miranda awoke groggily on her side of the bed, still dressed in her scrubs. Gradually, she recalled the events of the early morning, slowly filling with panic. Sal was up and about already, and she heard clinking noises from the kitchen below. Stealthily, she walked by Jennie’s door, and heard only silence. She tiptoed downstairs. She thought Sal had a summer staff meeting that morning, so she was stunned to see him sitting at the kitchen table—

Right next to Kenny, who was holding forth about his life in the monastery.  He seemed to be retelling the tale of his beating over John Chrysostom-mum-mum.  Tobias sat to his left, looking bewildered and a little fearful, while Mika leaned forward eagerly, vastly entertained by the whole spectacle. But Sal was simply sitting there, seeming in shock, his face almost as red as it had been the previous evening, but for a completely different reason. His eyes, dark and steely, focused on Miranda as she gingerly entered the kitchen.

“And since when,” he demanded, in a voice of tightly controlled fury, “do you have ‘monk friends’?!!!”

Packing it away

Now that it’s August, I must take off the novelist’s hat for a while, and don the language teacher’s bonnet: My new job requires a dedicated full-time stint of about six weeks, which, combined with a lengthy commute, will leave little time for fictionalizing. But it comes at a propitious time, since it gives me a chance to take my latest effort (still not revealing the name, or cover, yet) and put it aside for a while, to let it ripen and ferment within the mysterious inner workings of my little laptop (or maybe on the Cloud). Now, I could publish it today: That’s how done it is. But I won’t.   For the next four weeks, at the very least, I’m going to try to not look at it, or even think about it, in the hope that when I finally look at it again in September, the scales will be lifted from my eyes and I’ll realize it’s either a complete piece of crap or the best thing I’ve ever written. Or, more realistically, something in between.

This is something I do with almost all my novels: Forget the conventional wisdom about rushing them out as quickly as possible; that only leads to remorse and sorrow, in the long run. There are always fewer regrets when you give yourself  space to find the errors and weak spots in your book before it’s published. I like to give them a slack period, pull them out of my brain for a bit, before jumping back in and concentrating on them anew. (Am I mixing metaphors again? Sorry about that)  I wish more of my fellow independents did that. But the gurus on the self-pub forums tell you to write and write and write and publish as fast as you can. And that is why we are bring crushed under so many loads of really bad fiction, at least those of us with Amazon accounts.

Perhaps most of us have one really good book inside ourselves, so what makes folks think they have ten or twenty? I think it’s the rare author who’s truly prolific and good, and I think that applies to genre fiction as well as literary. So give it a rest—Make yourself forget about it. Get a job, if you have to, or find some other distraction. Sometimes I start another book, but this can be dangerous because you get so caught up you forget about the one in storage. Sometimes it’s just best to (gasp) stop writing completely for a little bit.

So I will be spending my writing sabbatical driving halfway to New York City every day, and cheerfully harassing adult foreigners into speaking proper English. Hoping to sneak in a weekend at the Jersey shore somewhere in there, and then come September…Well, be prepared for my Next Big Thing.