Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where I've been

GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, which goes on sale today, is my first new novel in five years, following 2003's THE BARBED-WIRE KISS and 2005's THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE. Both those books had paperback editions as well, so I wasn't totally absent from bookstores in the interim, but it has been a solid half decade since I had a new hardback out.

What was I doing in the meantime? Well, most of my time and energy was taken up with my other job, as the Sunday Entertainment Editor at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. It was a good gig, one I was lucky to have. It was (and is) a great paper, and I worked with some of the smartest and most talented people in the business. It was a wonderful time. I did publish a pair of short stories during that period, especially one close to my heart called "Lovers in the Cold," which appeared in the anthology MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER, a collection of stories inspired by the Springsteen song.

And then there was 188 pages of a standalone third novel, tentatively titled SHADOW LAND, which I worked on for a good part of 2005. I liked the plot (as far as I'd figured it out. I never outline), and I was eager to jump into another book quickly after finishing HEARTBREAK. But something was wrong. After an energetic start, the going got tough. Though it was a standalone, it began to feel too much an echo of the books I'd already written, in both tone and content. And although I liked the main character, a disgraced former U.S. Marshal, he was clearly walking the razor's edge of cliche - troubled man with a past seeking redemption.

In an interview I did with Stephen King once, he described two modes of writing, one in which the story is a speedboat and it carries you along behind it, like a skier. In the other, you're the skier and you're dragging the boat. If it's the right story at the right time, and all your cylinders are firing, you're often in the first mode - it's energizing and invigorating. If you're spending a lot of time in the second, you're in trouble. By the time I got to page 180 of SHADOW LAND, I felt like I was dragging the Queen Mary.

I remember vividly one afternoon sitting down at the desk, about to write a scene I was actually looking forward to - a character gets out of his pickup, goes into a bar and has a confrontation with one of the minor villains. I love those kinds of scenes. They come easy to me and they play to my strengths - terse dialogue, action and ambient detail. But I realized, as I described him getting out of the truck, that I had no interest whatsoever in what happened to him once he got inside. I couldn't have cared less, and I figured a reader wouldn't care much either.

The next morning when I woke up, I knew I'd decided to bag the novel, all 188 hard-fought pages of it. And when I came to that realization, I felt a tremendous sense of relief flooding through me. Not long after that, I started working on a short story about one of the characters who would eventually figure in GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER. And suddenly writing was fun again.

I haven't thought about that novel much since, which I guess is another indication it was never meant to be. I may eventually revisit the plot, but it would be with an entirely different cast of characters, I think. Life's too short to write the same thing twice.

So I hope you enjoy GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER. And if you're wondering about that lost novel in between, trust me - you didn't miss anything.

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