Some of the all-time greats suffered their own travails. Did you ever see Trimalchio in West Egg on anybody’s shelf? No—that’s because the publisher prevailed, and F. Scott Fitzgerald agreed to call his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.
(Anybody else think the trailers to the new movie are over the top? But I digress.)
Maybe you’ve seen Fiesta. But the book we’ve all read is The Sun Also Rises. Again, the publisher prevailed. All I can think is, What a tough job. Can you imagine telling F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway that their titles sucked?
Mary and I were discussing the ordeal of naming a book recently and, in true MBA fashion, decided to run the numbers. Ordinarily, I assign spreadsheets to the same bucket as root canals.
But hey, I thought, what’s to lose?
Methodology and full disclosure: our universe was limited. We looked at the top fifteen titles on the New York Times Print and eBook Fiction Bestsellers list from February 3 of this year to March 10.
Then, we analyzed titles according to four broad categories: i) number of words, ii) number of syllables, iii) starts with what word, and iv) about what. The last category, about what, probably needs the most explanation. We studied whether bestselling titles referenced characters, emotions, events, places or whether they included numbers.
Mary and I also learned that an MBA is the wrong degree to conjure up a great title. Spreadsheets don’t cut it. What we really need is somebody from Silicon Valley to code a Title Maker app similar to all those random name generators.
I’m sorry. To really appreciate this story, it’s necessary to read: Part One: Will You Shut Up?
Are We There Yet?
Personally, I find serial posts annoying. I want gratification. I want it now. And I find the cliffhangers annoying because they make me wait. But this story is best told in two parts.
Maybe you’re okay with serial posts? Please tell me what you think: annoying or the reasonable consequence of an on-line world where most people lose interest after 500 words?
There’s Something About Rich
It was that time of year again. Montanarama! In my previous life as a stockbroker, I worked on a team that hosted a fly-fishing event every June. We invited a few clients, never more than ten, to join us in small cattle town named Big Timber.
I was telling our guests and guides my story about Rich’s misadventures. As you may recall from Part One, Rich was a business legend. He was tallish, athletic, and in his mid sixties. He had a rangy look about him, perhaps because he arrived in an Orvis fishing vest with a thousand pockets, the kind of gear that says, “I’m trying too hard.”
When he smiled, you couldn’t help but stare at the gap between his two front teeth. And when he spoke, his southern accent was jarring.
What Do You Keep Inside All Those Pockets?
I finished my story and delivered the punch line. That’s when one of guides stepped forward and said, “I was in the boat last year with Rich.”
The guide told us, “I rowed Rich and Sam (another guest) to shore and noticed that my scissors-forceps were missing.”
Scissors-forceps are exactly what they sound like. The tool, about 5” inches in length, is one of those must-have items for fly-fishing. They’re used to trim line or grip hooks, any number of things. Fishermen hang them from the outside of their vests for easy access.
In any event Rich, of the thousand pockets, said, “You can borrow mine. He patted his vest for the scissors-forceps and, not finding them, unzipped one of those pockets and reached deep inside. He fumbled around for the longest time.
His face became a road map of wrinkles.
Rich—business giant, household legend with a long and storied career—pulled out a dead trout. “It was bloated and nasty,” the guide said. “Stunk something fierce.”
But business legends don’t give up when they’re fishing around (no pun intended) for scissors-forceps. Rich kept fumbling through his vest pockets.
“And then he pulled out a second trout,” the guide said. “It was nastier than the first. That’s when Rich sneezed and got dead trout gak up his nostrils.”
I’m not sure there is a precise definition for “gak.” But as the guide described the retching that followed, I realized that gak up the nose is never a good thing.
I know. I know. Time for a communal “Yuk.” If anything, this story illustrates the importance of catch-and-release fishing.
Back to the questions at hand: Do you like short posts with multiple parts? Or are you like me and want it all at once?
You don’t tell a prospect, “I’m begging you to shut up.” Not if you’re serious about your career. But OMG, I was ready to pull out every hair in my head.
Let me set the stage. In my previous life as a stockbroker, my team hosted a fly-fishing event every June. We invited a few clients, never more than ten, to join us in a small cattle town named Big Timber. We called the three-day weekend, “Montanarama.”
During the days we fished for brown or rainbow trout. Sometimes we hooked cutthroats, which are named for the red markings on their gills. During the evenings we watched the rodeo, barbecued steaks and sauntered around Big Timber pretending to be cowboys.
The time away from the office was nirvana.
One year a client named Sam (alias) asked, “May I bring a friend?” Sam was a high-profile media personality and an absolute prince of a person.
“Of course,” we said. Nobody on my team asked, “Who?”
Sam brought Rich (alias), who was married to Jane (real). And in a word, we were floored. Rich was a business giant, a household legend whose business escapades are still chronicled in MBA programs across the country. My team would enjoy bragging rights forever, if we landed him as a client.
Rich was tallish, athletic, in his mid sixties. He had a rangy look about him, perhaps because he arrived in an Orvis fishing vest with a thousand pockets, the kind of gear that says, “I’m trying too hard.” When he smiled, you couldn’t help but stare at the gap between his two front teeth. And when he spoke, his southern accent was jarring.
Now, this is important.
I grew up in South Carolina and am genuinely fond of southern accents. They feel familiar, friendly. I like the way nobody bothers to pronounce the R’s that follow vowels. But to my ear, Rich’s voice sounded like that screech from the Emergency Broadcast System.
And talk? He never stopped. He had opinions about everything.
There were five boats on the lake that day. Sam, Rich, and their fishing guide were in one. My team, the guides, and the other clients were in the remaining four.
We should have been losing ourselves in Montana’s big skies, the blues and billowing clouds that go on forever.
We should have been savoring the prairie scrub, the kind of raw landscape that’s so arid and harsh it’s breathtaking. Here we were … at the end of June … and there were snow-capped mountains in the distance, eagles patrolling the skies and hunting for prairie dogs.
We should have been “back-casting” in bliss. Bending our elbows back slowly, slowly, until our carbon rods stood straight up. Waiting for the lines “to load,” to extend their full length behind us. And punching forward with gentle hammer motions, so our lures would glide lazily through the air and float gently onto the water’s surface, deceiving, enticing, and dancing for the trout below.
But we were freakin’ miserable.
Rich wouldn’t shut up. His yak-yak-yakking drilled our ears. All we could hear was him booming about this or that, talking politics, or wondering where his stock was trading.
Fishing guide: “Mr. Rich, do you collect western art.”
Rich: “No, son, I collect the West.”
The fish stayed away. I felt like joining the brown trout in the reeds at the bottom of the lake. Even there, I doubted anybody or anything would be safe from Rich’s incessant ranting.
Perhaps my alpha waves silenced him, because Rich finally shut the f–k up. Thirty seconds. Five minutes. Ten. I have no idea how long the magical spell lasted. But I know there has never been a more delicious lapse of time.
The sun burned bright. The fresh scent of Montana sweet grass filled our lungs. It was serene, otherworldly, measured only by the chop of oars hitting the water.
At long last, we could fish. We sailed nymphs and wooly buggers through the air, back-casting to spots where we hoped browns and rainbows would poke through the surface and gulp our lures.
Then, Rich’s twanging siren blasted the silence again. He bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Damn it, Sam. You got my ear.”
I looked at our guide, one hand over his mouth, the twinkle in his eye that said everything. The client in our boat was sniggering, trying hard not to laugh.
Same story in the other boats. We were all watching, smothering snickers because, when you think about it, a hook through the ear is no laughing matter. But our raucous guffaws exploded.
Sam eyed us curiously. So did Rich. After a moment, they laughed too, everybody filling the big skies of Montana with giant, belly laughs. And I think it was Rich, who howled loudest of all.
The following year, I was telling this story at Montanarama. One of the guides—we hired the same ones every year—asked, “Do, you remember Rich’s vest, the one with all the pockets?”
“You’ll never guess what he kept in them.”
“Do you know where I am?”
“It’s three in the morning,” croaks Son, his voice raspy from sleep.
“I make it … twenty-two minutes after three … London time.” Dad is calm, his voice commanding. His accent hints of a childhood down south. He is standing outside on the street corner, cell phone in one ear, finger in the other as cabbies scrape and squeal for post-Broadway fares.
“Can’t this wait? I have a test tomorrow morning.”
“At that fine center for higher learning where I’m paying your tuition, right?”
Son thinks, Uh-oh. Stretching, rubbing his eyes, he is awake now. He says nothing, bracing himself for the downward spiral about to begin.
Dad says nothing either. They are two men separated by 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, five hours of time zone, and thirty-two years in age. But the silence between them cannot be quantified. It is a vast, infinite gulf of dead air time.
Finally, Son returns to the beginning, to Dad’s opening salvo. “I take it you’re in New York?”
“Hosting a dinner for my biggest client. Which begs the question: why am I calling while your mother and two other people, who indirectly underwrite your tuition at the London School of Economics, are patiently waiting for me to return?”
Son returns Dad’s sarcasm in kind. “The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Let me ask you something. Did you have a good time in Germany?”
I liked that. So much so that I googled “money porn” which, much to my dismay, generated a list of websites likely to leave your computer with gifts that keep giving. Know what I mean?
But I digress.
This story is pure money porn. I have taken some liberties with the dialogue and locations in order to protect the identities of Son and Dad. But the events are completely true, and I have written them as best as I remember what my friend said.
END OF INTERMISSION
“Err … Germany was okay.” No more retaliatory sarcasm from Son. He knows this conversation will not end well. Not sure why.
“I take it you enjoyed Oktoberfest?”
“If you like that sort of thing,” replies Son, attempting to sound contrite. Months ago he had reported to a friend, “Dude, it was the bomb.”
“Your flight was okay?”
“So let me ask you something. Did you go with anyone?”
“Couple of the guys.”
“Good,” says Dad. “That’s helpful. Now, while you and the guys were bouncing around the beer halls, is there any chance you had a few too many?”
“Not on purpose. It just kind of happens that way at Oktoberfest.”
“Right. And when you returned to London, did you ever develop a strange feeling in the pit of your stomach that you had left something behind? Anything?”
Son replies, “No.” But realizing he has spoken too quickly, he stretches the word into two syllables. “No” sounds somewhat southern, like his father’s pronunciation. “No-oh?”
“Let’s go back to the flight. ‘Uneventful’ if I recall correctly.”
“Can you please tell me what’s wrong?” Son glances at the woman in his bed. She is starting to stir. He hopes she does not wake and say something. No doubt Dad will hear.
“Can you remember how you and the guys got from the terminal to those beer halls?”
Son thinks. He really thinks.
Suddenly, a vague recollection morphs into an uncomfortable, horrifying moment of eureka recollection. Son says, “Oh sh**.”
“Right. Oh, sh**. I’m sitting here with your mother, my clients, and a restaurant bill I can’t pay. And you know why? I’m maxed out on my credit card all because the rental company charged me for the BMW you never returned.”
This is money porn gone bad.
I’ve blogged about my oh-sh** moments in the past. See The Worst Interview of All Time. Personally, I think real-life bloopers empower novelists. Every time we go oops, we take one step closer toward the mental anguish of our characters, right?
But ‘tis the season. Time to move on. Sort of.
Here’s the thing. Every year during Hallowmas—that crazy time between Halloween and Christmas when retailers declare open season on our wallets—stuff happens. With all the rush, rush, rushing and the egg, egg, eggnogging, something always goes wrong. If anything, ’tis the season for oh-sh** moments IMHO. This year I kicked off the holidays with another one of mine:
An ethical dilemma no less.
Let me set the stage. Mary and I have some new friends in Narragansett. I’ll call the couple Husband and Wife, in part to offer them anonymity and in part because J.R. Moehringer uses this function technique to name a few characters in Sutton. (Great book and the perfect Christmas gift, especially if you need something last minute. But I digress.) To celebrate the season and cement our growing friendship, Husband, Wife, Mary and I went out to dinner at the Matunuck Oyster Bar.
The restaurant, as you might guess, is known for fish. But I opted for Sausage Bolognese. It was cold outside. I had bicycled that day. The weather and the workout seemed like reasonable excuses to eat sausage and pasta rather than something from the bay.
The Oyster House was neither dark, nor particularly bright. It was comfortable. And the evening was perfect, warm laughter in the room, Mary and me drinking a decent bottle of wine with new friends. Somebody in our group ordered oysters. Most days, those mollusks are freakin’ ugly. But that night they looked spectacular on the platter, fresh, briny, evocative of the sea and that classic paragraph from Hemingway:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
But, again, I digress.
There we were, the four of us, sitting and eating and enjoying each other’s company, when something on Husband’s sleeve caught my eye. Like I said before, the room was neither dark nor bright, the light just enough to toy with my eyes which are feeling a little more wear and tear every year. I squinted and, much to my horror, identified the object as a remnant from some philistine’s Sausage Bolognese.
That philistine was me. I was the only one who ordered the dish, both at our table and the ones surrounding us. The errant Bolognese, about the size of a small button, had lodged above Husband’s right elbow. He was sitting to my left. The sausage looked like a third eye on his white shirt, winking every so often to remind me that with all the yak, yak, yakking, I had somehow spewed Bolognese on a neighbor and our new friend.
In milliseconds that could have been a lifetime, I cycled through my choices:
I was lost in this personal reverie of choices when Mary began calling my name. “Norb, Norb, why are you so quiet?”
What would you do?
I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve, right here in this post, to tell you what happened, how I handled the situation with Husband and Wife. And if somebody makes a particularly pithy observation, I’ll send him/her a free copy of The Gods of Greenwich.
Happy holidays to all.
Update: I’m getting trickles of information everywhere: email, dm, tweets, etc. Please “like” my Facebook page to join in/follow. I’ll try to direct all conversation there.
Forget the long lines at the malls. I hope the expression “Black Friday” takes on a different connotation for one thief, who’s been on the run for over thirty years. With this post, I’m announcing a reward for the return of a priceless object taken from my dorm room between 1978 and 1980. I was living in Eliot House at Harvard College.
Even if you have no direct knowledge of the theft, I ask that you re-tweet this post or share it on Facebook—because somewhere, someplace, somebody knows the whereabouts of a missing treasure. And I sincerely believe that nothing can remain secret in these days of e-mail, social media, and the Internet.
Background on the Reward: I’m researching art theft for a Grove O’Rourke thriller. Priceless by Robert K. Whitman and John Shiffman is an excellent read. So is The Art of the Heist by Myles J. Connor and Jenny Siler. Each book, one written from the perspective of the FBI and one from the perspective of a thief, describes how authorities turned to rewards when they had no clues about a case. I’m taking a page from their playbooks.
Priceless Object in my Dorm Room: Okay, okay. I know the description sounds hyperbolic. My mother spent twelve months knitting a large, crimson blanket with a big white H on it (Harvard colors). I think Vermeer completed thirty-five paintings during his lifetime. My mother knitted only one H blanket, and it is priceless to me.
The Heist: After returning from the Christmas holidays, I pinned the blanket to my bedroom wall. Several weeks later, my roommates and I hosted a party in our C-entry suite just over the Eliot House library. Everybody was welcome. Everybody had the run of our rooms. I never thought twice about a theft during our open house.
The night in question, I was mixing daiquiris in our common area. I walked into my bedroom at one point and noticed a guy sitting near my desk, alone, either buzzed or high or out of it—or so I thought. He had dark hair and wore glasses. I did not recognize him and am not sure whether he attended Harvard. He seemed suspicious. But I didn’t notice whether the blanket was missing. We spoke for a few minutes, and I forgot about him until the next day when I discovered the theft.
Reward: If your information leads to the return of my blanket, I’ll take you and another guest out to the restaurant of your choice in the city of your choice anywhere in the United States. Just to be clear—I’m not paying for airfare. But if you and your guest want to meet at a fish house in Hawaii, or any other US location, I’m picking up the dinner tab.
I promise to be a charming and engaging host. And who knows? Maybe we can work one of your ideas into a novel—a discussion to be continued during a fun meal and perhaps a glass of wine or two.
Other: No questions asked. I’m not interested in prosecuting anybody. I just want the blanket back.
Like I said before—the Internet is a great equalizer for fighting theft. Sure, there are spectacular thefts that go unsolved for long periods of time. The Gardner heist may be the most notorious.
But I’m optimistic. Two books inspired me to re-open this cold case, and with your help I think we’ll find that missing blanket. Thank you in advance for your participation.
“Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?” It’s a question that readers always ask at book signings.
“First book?” I like to fish around for details before offering advice.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
The problem, as I see it, is there are a million reasons to stop writing. We all suffer from the same mind games at one time or another. People will laugh… I won’t get published… No free time… I could go on. I probably used all the excuses at least once myself.
Check that—all the excuses except for one. I never thought, My book’s not good enough. That’s because I never told anyone I was writing Top Producer. I believed then, and still do now, that secrecy insulated me from disappointment.
Side note to reader: I’m building up to the Internet porn in the title of this post.
Think about what happens when you tell someone, “I’m writing a book.”
Your friend asks, “May I see a few pages?” This is the moment when those shower noises from Psycho play in the background.
But you forge ahead, oblivious to certain disaster. “Sure.”
You send your baby over. You wait for feedback. Your mind plays tricks. Will she like it? Why hasn’t he gotten back to me? Maybe my hero needs a dog. The gymnastics of self-doubt take over, and you stop writing while waiting for validation.
The moment of feedback arrives. It is the pinnacle of fear, the make-or-break time for your ego. Your friend, somebody you trust, somebody you care about, says something noncommittal. “It’s okay.”
The comment is, of course, devastating. That’s because every author, whether budding or published 100 times, wants to hear the same thing. “Your book is the greatest piece of literature since the Bible.”
Instead you hear, “Okay.” The word feels like a dagger buried six inches in your back.
Right about now, you might be thinking to yourself, I can take criticism. I have a thick skin. I’ll use the feedback and move on.
Maybe. In my previous life, I was a stockbroker and know a thing or two about rejection. I once cold called a guy who asked, “Wanna know what I think about your profession?”
He didn’t say a word. Instead, he held the receiver inside a toilet bowl, flushed, and then hung up—gurgle, dial tone, oh my.
I phoned him right back. “Hey, that was great, John. I’ve never been flushed before.”
No, I didn’t get the account. And yes, John was his real name. No pun intended.
It seems to me, however, that writing a book is a far more intimate experience. You pour out your heart and expose yourself to the world—your vulnerabilities, your aspirations and your observations about the eccentricities of life, everything that’s important.
Getting flushed by a prospective client is a piece of cake. Rejection of a passage is crippling.
I didn’t even tell my wife about Top Producer. Mary is a voracious reader and my number one editor in the books that have followed: The Gods of Greenwich, The Trust, and Mr. President. But back then I never disclosed my secret project to her.
I’d get up at five in the morning and write two hours before heading off to work. I’d write in the evenings, after dinner, on the weekends, and on planes while traveling to meet with clients.
“Is everything okay?” Mary asked. She noticed the long hours I was spending in my man cave.
“Lots going on at work, sweetie.”
She didn’t buy the explanation. She concluded that I was suffering from an Internet porn addiction. And one Saturday, while I was exercising in our basement, she sneaked into my office with a zip drive and a mission.No racy .jpeg files or movies of celebrities in the buff, I’m pleased to report. Nothing that required an intervention. Mary found a file labeled book, however, which was where I kept my drafts of Top Producer. That afternoon she never confessed to stealing my book.
The following day, I was in my office, writing, thinking about three sharks eating a fat money manager in front of 500 guests at the New England Aquarium. And I heard Mary laughing. Big belly laughs. I assumed she was on the phone with one of her great friends from childhood—there’s no stopping the two when they get together—so I forced myself to continue working and ignore the noise.
That night we ate spaghetti bolognese, or “sauce noodles” as we call it. The dish is a Sunday night tradition in our house. After our kids headed upstairs to do their homework, Mary flattened me with the four scariest words between spouses. “We need to talk.”
It got worse. “I have a confession to make.”
Now I was nervous. I stopped rinsing dishes and sat down.
“I stole your book,” she said. “I’ve been reading it all day.”
My heart should have been pounding. But, strangely, I was calm.
“I loved it,” she continued. “You’ve got to finish. I need to know what happens next.”
Her comments could have gone the other way. Mary could have said, “It’s okay.” In which case, I would have stopped writing. Or she might have said, “Why don’t you feed Charlie Kelemen to jelly fish instead of sharks. Less blood, right?”
She didn’t. She said, “I loved it.” I was safe. But the fact is, I still didn’t tell most of my friends about Top Producer.
Mary had a different agenda. On Wednesday of that week, she told her walking buddy that I was writing a book. That my long absences were legitimate. The Internet-porn scare was over.
So began a chain reaction. Mary’s walking buddy told her husband, who told one of his former students, who agreed to meet and is now my über agent from Folio Literary Management.
I know many authors have had great experiences with writing groups, where the members offer constructive feedback to each other. My advice: write your book before you join. No matter whether you find a publisher, self publish, or bury your manuscript somewhere—finishing a book is a big deal. Nobody can ever take that away from you.
Agree, disagree? Tell me what you think.
Norb’s new eBook short. $1.99
What happens when greed collides with blind ambition? In this short story, available exclusively as an eBook, Grove O’Rourke discovers how far powerful adversaries will go to push their political agendas. The prize: the presidency of the United States. Continue reading
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