Friday, July 20, 2012


The Cobbler’s Kid

Before we can go forward, we have to go back. To understand the mystery of Now, you have to reconstruct events by sifting through a big honking pile of Then.

We could start here (from the blog, Feb. 21, 2008):

…there's the story I promised Thomas I would write. Not long ago, I told him about my real-life boy detective adventure and what really impressed Thomas was not that his Dad actually acted and thought like a genuine detective at the age of 11, but that he broke all these rules and still got away with it…I assured him that I was simply very stupid and very lucky, and that today, if I'd been caught…they'd probably send me away to reform school…Thomas insisted that I wouldn't go to reform school (or "kid jail," as he charmingly called it) because those were places for bad kids, and I was just a good kid who did one little thing wrong. He seemed to think there ought to be a reform school for good kids who did one bad thing. "You know," he said, "maybe you'd get sent to, like, a home for wayward boy detectives."

My 9-year-old’s last statement stuck in my head, and led to a few nights’ fun talking about what it would be like to go to a place that corralled characters based on every boy (or girl) detective I ever loved, and taught them the skills and procedures that real detectives use. After a few conversations about this, Thomas got bored—he was 9 after all—and our nighttime chats and stories soon turned to other more fascinating subject matter, such as dinosaurs. Or poop.

Time passed, spring and summer rolled in, and one long weekend, during a brutal heatwave, I found myself stuck indoors and at loose ends. Her Lovely Self and the kids were gone for a week, visiting the grandparents. Nothing good was on TV, and the dog was never much of a conversationalist, so eventually I found myself on the computer, doing work. In fact, I was editing a story that was about to run in my magazine—a family-focused feature about all the amazing and diverse summer camps you could send your kid to. I was reading through a sidebar listing all manner of highly specialized kids’ camps: for cheerleading, chess, computers, karate, the list went on.

I thought, idly, There should be a camp for boy detectives. I would have been all over that when I was a kid.

And then, remembering those nighttime conversations back in February, I started writing a story. When I surfaced for air a day or so later, I had written 55 pages.

I got distracted for a day or so, and when I finally came back to the story and read through it, a terrible thing happened: I remembered that I suck at fiction.

This is a painful admission for me. When I was a boy, I filled whole notebooks with nothing but fiction. Actually, nothing but detective fiction. I began writing mystery stories when I was 9 or 10. They were largely one-page stories, starring myself and my friends. I remember that I dispensed with any kind of plot (as a purely labor-saving measure) and generally cut right to the action: me and my friends storming the secret hideout, or the abandoned mill (all locations in my stories were either "secret" or "abandoned"), foiling the counterfeiters or rescuing the girl, sometimes with the aid of advanced martial arts, often armed with "smoking hot .45s, blazing bullets of death at the criminal evil-doers."

My friends enjoyed these little daydreams on paper, although one day, my friend Shawn said, "You know, these are pretty good. But when are you going to write a real mystery?"

Literary criticism was a concept then unknown to me. "Whadda ya mean?" I asked. "That's real!" I said, shaking my notebook at him. "That's real as it gets!"

"No," he insisted. "This is, like, the end of the story." He opened my notebook and read the opening line of the story. "'Once the last piece of the puzzle fell into place, the answer hit the brilliant young detectives like a bug on a windshield.'" Then he looked at me. "Well? What was the piece? Heck, what was the puzzle? That's what’s cool about a mystery—the puzzle part." He handed back the notebook. "Also, the whole thing about using .45s is stupid," he added. "I would definitely have a .357. Like the guy on Starsky and Hutch."

In the moment, I'm sure I grumbled about this unlooked-for appraisal of my plotting skills, but I took his comments to heart, and shortly thereafter I started writing mysteries under the heading of "YOU Figure It Out!" (in my head, I always shouted this, typically at Shawn, the mystery critic's friend). I can't say they were a big improvement over my previous efforts—they were still very short stories, and the solution of the mysteries nearly always hinged on a suspect making a minor slip of the tongue, an error of obscure historical fact, or revealing information he had no way of knowing ("unless HE'S the culprit!!"). I can't show you any of these stories, because I'm sure the estate of the recently departed Donald J. Sobol would initiate immediate litigation, and they'd be right to do so. I never strayed far from my inspirational sources.

But a curious thing happened: These stories started making the rounds beyond my circle of friends. During our school's silent reading period (every hour after lunch), other kids started asking to borrow my notebook. Although I see now that this was due to the fact that we had a very small library at school, at the time, I took it as a sign of my growing literary prowess.

I was wrong, of course. About having literary prowess of any kind, a fact that did not hit home until college. The school I went to had a much-esteemed creative writing program whose faculty then included a modern master of short stories and, more interesting to me, a highly regarded novelist of crime fiction. To get into any of their creative writing classes, you had to fight for a spot by submitting audition stories for their judgment. For three years I tried to get into the creative writing classes, and for three years, I was rejected.

My senior year, I decided to dispense with the whole submission process and simply showed up to class. That was a high point in the annals of MM's Most Embarrassing Moments, I can tell you. I guess I thought the class would be in some big lecture hall, with dozens of students, and I could more or less blend into the background. In fact, the creative-writing workshop was held in a little lounge filled with cushy chairs, all occupied by a grand total of eight students. I couldn't have been more awkwardly out of place if I had showed up buck-naked and announced my intent to use one of the cushy chairs as a toilet (although if I had, it might have given the other students something to write about). The teacher was unfailingly polite and kind to me, but he threw me out just the same. Later, when I caught him in his office, he surpassed himself in grace and kindness by pulling all of my audition stories out of a file and critiquing them on the spot.

The last one he looked at, the one I was proudest of was, of course, a mystery story: A first-person thriller told from the perspective of a douchebag frat boy whose mistreated girlfriend is systematically killing (or extravagantly maiming) the frat boy's pals until he's the last douchebag standing (that might have even been the title of the story). Oh, and the best part: He's absolutely clueless that his girlfriend is the killer/maimer. As he relates everything that's happened, as the body count rises and the net tightens, it becomes horrifyingly clear to the reader what's going on, but the fact that the narrator himself hasn't twigged was, I thought, a mighty feat to pull off, heightening the suspense to absolute Everest altitude.

The kindly master writer didn't agree. In what I thought at the time was a compliment, he did comment on my fast pacing, and on the snappy reportorial style I employed. Then he suggested that I consider switching majors from English to journalism.

"I'm a dual major in the j-school," I admitted.

"Well, there you go!" he said brightly, handing me my stories. With a gentle wave toward the door, he signaled the close of our interview, and the end of this surprisingly long digression.

That was pretty much it for my career in fiction.

And now here I was, 20 years on, looking at these 55 pages and feeling like I was back in that office or even the workshop lounge, buck-naked and looking for the nearest chair to crap in.

To sum up, I had written 6 and a half chapters focused primarily on a boy who, as we meet him, is in the process of breaking into his school in the middle of the night. He's caught by the police, charged with a felony, spends a little time in jail, and then is transferred to a specialized juvie boot camp with other delinquents, where he quickly becomes friends with an amoral computer hacker and a kid who likes beating people up. These are the three main characters I chose for my young-adult mystery/adventure story.

What in the name of God was I thinking? I wondered. This is complete crap! I dragged the file to the trash and turned my attention to something I knew how to do: nonfiction. I probably wrote a blog post.

Summer passed. Fall arrived. The kids started school. I came home one day to find Thomas on the computer, ostensibly doing homework. He was reading what appeared to be a very densely worded assignment sheet on screen. It wasn’t.

"Where did you find that?" I asked, eyes widening in horror.

"It was in the recovered file folder," Thomas murmured, barely registering my presence.

"Well…well, don't read it. It's…"

"It's pretty good," Thomas said. "Did you write this?"

"Months ago. It's—"

"It's really good," Thomas clarified. "Are you going to write any more?"

"I don't think so," I said. "I kind of hit a dead end. I'm not really sure where else to take it. Probably should just delete it."

Instead, Thomas saved it as a proper Word doc. In a folder marked "Dad's Book." Right in the middle of the desktop. Where I couldn't miss it.

But there it sat, untouched, unread. By me, anyway. Time passed. I lost my job. I took up freelance work. I started working on another book—the nonfiction thing I shared here a few years back (and which you probably thought was the book I had finished when I posted last night after a year of monastic silence. Boy, were you wrong, huh?). I stopped working on that book to take another job. We moved. I took another job. We moved again. Life became an unending succession of transitions and turmoil and uncertainty. Addresses changed. Kids grew. Computers crashed. Dogs died. The world turned.

But there was one constant. Every few months, Thomas would ask, "Hey, are you ever going to finish that story?" A folder marked "Dad's Book" mysteriously appeared on our new computer. And my laptop. Cleaning up our apartment last summer—during a long weekend when the wife and kids were, coincidentally enough, off on their annual sojourn to the grandparents—I was dragging out debris from under Thomas' bed and found, carefully folded in a shoebox, 55 dog-eared pages. They had been read many times. But the shoebox had a thin layer of dust on it.

On my stomach, stuck halfway under the bed, up to my elbows in gum wrappers and comic books and LEGO blocks, I lay there and traced my finger in the dust on the lid of that shoebox. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a child again, the boy detective, on a case, searching for clues. And for sure, I was in the presence of a mystery, the kind of mystery every parent encounters when his child does something strange and wonderful. For three years, for a full quarter of his life, my son had kept this fragment of a story in his heart (and under his bed). Despite the passive disinterest of the author and the active discouragement of his father, he had never stopped asking me if I was going to finish the story. In deed, if not in word, he had never stopped asking me the question all storytellers hope to hear: "What happens next?"

Someday, he’s going to stop asking, you know.

I cannot tell you where this thought came from, nor convey to you just how much that thought chilled me to the bone. But it struck me with such force that I sat bolt upright. Which, by the way, I don’t recommend when you're under a metal-framed bed.

I saw very clearly that I was the proverbial cobbler who had let his kid go without shoes (although at least he had a shoebox). My entire adult life, I made a living by putting one word after another, writing and editing vast swaths of copy for money. But had I ever done that for my kids, for love? I fished the pages out of the box and, after finding an ice pack for the lump on the back of my head, I sat down and read through those 6 and a half chapters for the first time in three years.

Maybe it was the blow to the head, but I saw something different when I read the story. The characters didn't seem quite so negative and aberrant as they had three years earlier. I remembered that each of them had admirable qualities and skills, and their own peculiar moral code. I just hadn't yet given them enough pages to show it. I also realized one big thing about one of the characters, something I hadn't realized before. And this realization also seemed to point a way around the wall I had hit. So I fired up the laptop and found that folder. Where it had been waiting for me all this time.

I am here to tell you that the past year has seen me do some of the hardest, most exhausting work I've ever done. Writing, as I'm not the first to observe, is work, brother. Fiction especially. I'm sure there are many out there who take to it like a duck to water. But for me? After 20 years? As a lefty, it was like trying to write a letter with my right hand. It's awkward, mentally fatiguing, and takes an enormous amount of time and focus to make the words on the page even remotely readable. And the whole time you're doing it, you're only too aware how easy it would be to just stop, to switch to your good hand and stick with what you know. But my kid didn't want nonfiction from me. He didn't want journalism. Good or bad, he wanted this story.

After a slow start occasioned by a total write-over of the first 55 pages, I hit a respectable pace that first month of 1,000 words per night (2,000 on weekends). Then we moved out of our apartment to the new Magazine Mansion, and the pace dropped to around 1,000 words per week. But that was okay: I had crossed the 100-page threshold. The story had critical mass. More importantly, I began to see that there was a story, containing all the elements that I had loved as a child. I had worked in a few riddles and codes and mini solve-it-yourself moments that were building to a larger mystery. But there was more: danger, excitement, clues in unlikely places, secret underground passages, hidden staircases, abandoned buildings, mysterious figures in the moonlight, bicycle tracks in the mud. My characters came to life for me. They were jerks, they were kind, they had their flaws, but also their radiant virtues. They made mistakes, they said and did stupid and funny things. But they were also brave and loyal and absolutely dogged in their determination to see the thing to its end. Like some kids I know.

I had my moments, though. Sometime last October, I began to see that the story was going to be long, 5 or 6 times longer than those first pootling 55 pages. It's too big, I thought. I'll never get to the end. I shared my misgivings with Her Lovely Self, and my brilliant wife said, "Well, why don't you give Thomas what you've got so far and see what he thinks? It's what got you to keep writing in the first place."

I was coming to a big moment in what I now saw was the first half of the book. It seemed like a good temporary waypoint. By Thomas' 13th birthday at the end of October, I finished part 1which ends on a pretty decent plot twist (if I say so myself), printed it out, hand-bound it and gave it to him as a present. The first half weighed in at around 200 pages. My son, newly minted as a teenager, thanked me laconically, then set the book aside and went on to the next present.

It's too late, I thought. He's not interested anymore. It's all dinosaurs and poop, and no more detective stories. But we'll see, I thought. Give him a couple months to start reading it. Then we'll see...

Thirty-six hours later, Thomas burst into the bedroom. It was after midnight. He had read the thing in one sitting. And let me tell you, few events in life compare to the moment when your cooler-than-thou teenage son appears in your bedroom in the middle of the night, book in hand, jaw hanging open, screaming "Wait! You mean [what I thought was happening] is really [something completely different that just blew my freaking mind]?!?"

"See?" Her Lovely Self slurred in her sleep. "Now you have to finish it."

That was eight months ago. In that eight months, I've been knee-deep in all sorts of unexpected home improvement (and repair) projects. I weathered the storms of corporate upheaval at my current employer and found myself promoted to a new job in the company, one that often leaves me stressed and too tired for words at night.


Three weeks ago, wife and kids left again for the summer trip to the grandparents. I shoved things around at work, gave myself an unnaturally long weekend, and took a running start at the homestretch. By the time the unnaturally long weekend was over, I was just finishing the penultimate race down the abandoned logging road as our heroes tried to intercept the villain at the secret airstrip before he could make good his escape. All that was left was the wrap-up chapter.

It was, you might say, a long goodbye. My first pass at the last chapter had more false endings and dragged-out farewells than the Lord of the Fricking Rings. But finally, inevitably, I knotted the thing off and called it good.

Except that I didn't.

Someone—Neil Gaiman, I think—once observed that you teach yourself to write a book while you're writing it. Which means, unfortunately, that when you get to the end, since you now know how to write the book, you have to go back to the beginning and write in the things you didn't know when you started. And to my utter astonishment, that turned out to be completely true; I have to go back. But that can wait. For now, I'm going to stick the story in a folder and let it age. Not for three years, but maybe for three weeks. Then I'll go through and make some hard-copy notes. Then I'll do a second pass. I think I can get it where I want it to be in time for Thomas' birthday in October. I don't know. But then, I don't know how I got here in the first place. I don't know how my son kept his faith in 55 poorly written pages for all those years. I honestly do not know how I managed to write a 433-page book that will, incidentally, never be read by more than a few people. Because after all these years, after all those late nights and long weekends, I don't know if this damn book is any good at all.

All I know is this:

It’s a mystery.

Welcome home, you magnificent, poor doomed bastard.
Well the story of how the book was made is very, very sweet. I would really like at least a tiny peek at what you're writing, but if it's Thomas's gift, then it should be up to the both of you if anyone else gets to see it.

Don't give up on the damn book, MM! There has to be something good in there. Beat it into submission and find a non-family pair of eyes to look at it and give you an honest opinion on publishing. DO IT!

Thanks for posting again. I'm sorry you're so overworked :(
Wow I'm happy to see you. Now please polish it the way you want to and get an honest opinion.
Welcome back! I can't tell you how thrilled I always am to see a post from you, no matter how long it's been since the last one. I'm thrilled to hear what you've been up to all this time...and I hope you unravel the mystery. :)
Glad to read an update and see that you're up to something good! :-)
Welcome back.
You've reminded me of the stupid thrill of having written my first (and to date only) book. The muddy handful of paragraphs you throw at a clean sheet of paper because emotional angst drives you to. Then you keep going and somewhere at 4.30 in the morning next to a printing press in Indiana you write "The End" after the better part of a year.

Thanks for that memory. Now if you don't find an agent and a publisher, I'll be upset.

And you know how pissed rabbits can get.
OMG, there you are! I was just editing my dashboard list last weekend and even though you haven't blogged in "forever" I left your link in the hope that someday you would write another entry.
It sounds as if your life has continued to be eventful and maybe someday you'll have time to share.
The book sounds intriguing and if I was able to read the YA Harry Potter series, I'm sure I would enjoy yours at least as much.
Isn't there a way to publish online so that you wouldn't have to get an agent, etc.? However, if it's as good as I'm sure it is, perhaps you'd want to use a conventional publisher. Hope Thomas gives the okay to share.
Best to you and yours. Did you ever get another dog?
Welcome back, and, like everyone else, I sure want to read that book! Maybe you know someone with contacts in the publishing industry? ;-D

You do realize that you owe us a whale of an October Moments this year, right?
Congratulations on finishing your mystery, MM! That's great. I know there's editing to come but just finishing a first draft is such a huge accomplishment. Bravo!
Hey MM,

I'm so ridiculously glad you're back, we've missed you! Congrats for finding the energy and motivation to finish the book, it sounds like you're giving Thomas a truly incredible gift.

- Aquilegia
Sounds like my kind of book. If you want to mail it to Australia, let me know.
You'll let US read it, won;t you?
Yes we get to read it, right? With Thomas' approval of course. We have to read it. We just have to. :)

I'm right there with the rest of the bunch above, patiently standing in line. :)

Bravo MM. Thomas is going to love it

We missed you. Welcome back.
As I paused before clicking on your link, I had the negative thought "he'll never post again" and to my complete surprise...

You have been missed!!!!!!!!!!!!
You cannot imagine how happy and excited I was this morning when, going through my reader, I saw this post from you! And it didn't disappoint me either. Just helped immeasurably to improve the frame of mind I've been in for a long time now. Don't stay away so long and do finish that book for Thomas -and probably for those of us, your other readers, to read someday too!
The story about the unaware frat boy intrigues me. Of course, EVERYTHING you write intrigues me, so no surprise there. I don't suppose that one will ever see the light of day, even here amongst your great and faithful friends? Hell, I might be willing to pay you for a private copy.

(Not one hell of a lot; maybe an even trade for something I felt unworthy of publication.)

(Oh, wait, I forgot! I've never written anything I felt unworthy of publication. Never mind.)

In any case, seeing you return to this space makes me almost as happy as having had a few of my own pieces published, for which I owe you great thanks for your encouragement and very gentle criticism. This and a buck will buy you a double cheeseburger at Mickey D's, but you have been restored to your former place of prominence on my sidebar. It's the least I could do, and I'm always willing to do that.
Hooray! Are you shopping agents/publishers? Because this sounds like just the kind of book the twins will need in their collection of must-reads. So thrilled for you, and thrilled for us to have you back!
Lucky Thomas! I'll chime in as another who wants to read the story you wrote for him.
It'll sell. You've got both the connections and the wherewithal to sell the book. The only question is how you're going to digitally publish. Will you go with the now traditional Amazon model, or something more innovative and personal?

I'm sure you could sell it on your blog for a few shekels - in fact you might make more monies that way. In any case it's good to have you back. Anxiously awaiting an update on the family....
First off, love Jack Feerick's comment!!!
Second, I'd happily pay for a copy! I am sure your book would surpass all the freebie self published Kindle books, I have read as of late, by proper grammar and lack of typos alone.
Third, I cannot imagine your fiction style to differ overtly from your blogging style. You already have a loyal fan base that love your writing.
Please, when you feel it's ready, bless us with this book or the ability to buy this book.
Did that work?
I'll have to go the guilt route and say something about abandonment and blogging withdrawal if it didn't.
Love that you posted and that you've been writing for something other than work. Glad to hear the family is doing well too. You have been missed.
I'm thinking you could easily publish it in e-format on Amazon. Set up an account and charge $5. I know I would pay to read it.
You never know, that book could end up being read by a few million people. I'm certainly going to get a copy, if it is ever available for sale.
I don't care how you do it but I will buy the book if you put it online.
I will print it out and put in along side my other favorite books.

Please say you will give us a copy even if you think you don't want to sell it.

Pretty please with cherries on top?
I had your blog address filed under "busted blogs" but hope springs eternal and I kept checking every few months. My family probably heard my WOOHOO from the other end of the house when I saw you had posted. Welcome back!
I've loved your blog for a very long time, and while you were away I'd check every now and then to see if you'd posted anything. I'm so glad you're back--and so sorry I never commented before.
Yay, you're back. Now find an agent and get that book off to a publisher!

We can hardly wait to read more adventures of Art Lad, the Brownie, and sweet Eclair.
I'm 110% with the others that with Thomas's approval, you publish your book! I've been following your blog for years & would pay whatever you ask. Please let us know what Thomas thinks of it once he's read it. So glad to have you back!!
you leave us to write a book (and you know, live life), come back and tell us about it and then say we can't ever read it? mean, mm, very mean.

if nothing else, put it up electronically on amazon - we'd all buy it. please?
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