West Village

On the writing industry

Chris Struck

Chris Struck

Chris Struck talks writing.

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Recently, I’ve wondered if there really are any helpful tips that I could give new writers. Sure, I’ve studied a lot of literary techniques and theory, but how helpful is yet another analysis of “what makes a great character” in a world where the evaluation of your work is subjective? Instead, I thought I might throw together a quick blog post on my route to publishing.

My circuitous, 12-year chase finally resulted in my first published book on Tuesday (6/11/19), and despite being compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alexandre Dumas, and Herman Hesse, the book sneaked past the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, and every other noteworthy news outlet. Unfortunately, even after writing a great book, it’s still not that easy to get the word out there, and the advice is generally unhelpful. Authors today need platforms, and the most successful launches are done by people with backing like Michelle Obama and Tom Brady. Even three years ago, the barometer I heard from Penguin reps, was “300 twitter followers.” The same advice sounds laughable now.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen the fiction industry change considerably. When I first started, you could still send snail mail manuscripts to major publishing houses. I even delivered my first manuscript, printed, to the door of a top editor at Tor Books’s home. Only a few years later, I was sending five, ten, fifteen, or fifty pages to agents that I meticulously researched as publishing houses stopped accepting direct submissions. I followed all the advice that I could find on how to write a cover letter and seemingly, less than a year later, agents were publishing blog posts about “how not to write a cover letter,” showing that I had broken all the new rules. The reality is that you can’t base a query letter on the one at the back of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and get anything but rejection. The guidelines have evolved, and cold query letters are beginning to become a thing of the recent past.

For others who have been on the outside looking in, that must seem like the norm. Advice changes as often as it is given. It’s confusing and unhelpful no matter the source. Sometimes you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an editor or agent to spew another list of tips that after integrating into your work, fails to make a difference. I’ve met more agents than I could bother to remember, more “top” editors since that first one in the late noughties, and a variety of other industry reps – and unfortunately, the age-old, “it’s about the writing” hasn’t been my experience. Has it ever been? If it was ever about writing quality, and Moby Dick was always as good as people believe it to be, why did it take almost 80 years to get popular? While I’m not a huge fan of the book, it’s a testament to faith in literature and shows that sometimes it appears legacy is luck.

My first manuscript was not my first novel. My first novels were written in early 2010 and submitted to agents. In retrospect, I think they were good stories, maybe not perfect, but definitely, too short. Even then, short novels were unpopular, but with the rise of NaNoWriMo, they became even more so. Suddenly, the standard went from 50-60k to 80k minimum, and popular books seemed to more likely have the ATOS reading level of a 4th grader than not. If you spent any time developing subtext into your novel (not to be confused with symbolism), then your work might confuse readers and unfortunately, an agent with ten seconds, geared to not care about your book, isn’t going to take ten minutes to analyze one line. To be honest, I don’t think that has anything to do with, “why my novels haven’t meshed well with agents,” but it’s a reality of writing and publishing today. Meaning, you should probably write a simple, long book, but even that’s not a guarantee of success.

My third novel topped out at 85k words, was written at roughly 1000 words per day over about 3 months, and the feedback I received made it seem irreconcilably devoid of quality. But as usual, I took the feedback and integrated it into new novels, and some of it, especially knocks on the depth of my characters, I took as a personal challenge. Two months later, I had written two more novels (my 4th and 5th), one roughly 65k words (after cutting from 74) and another roughly 85k words, that were developed from fragments of the back stories of two of my main characters and featured entirely new supporting characters. The feedback for book 4 was less atrocious, and the agent reception for book 5, which I thought would surely be accepted was…silence.

I went back to the drawing board, picked up some old ideas that weren’t heavy enough to be novels, and made it a 2016 goal to write 2 short stories a month until the end of the year. I made it through 18 short stories before August but stopped there. Only one of the last ones I had written had found a home, and the e-zine went defunct shortly after. Even after all of that effort, while working busy season hours as a junior auditor, I was effectively still unpublished. I took a hiatus from writing, until I wagered with a friend of mine that I’d write another short story if he would start making chocolates again.

So how did I get published? Instead of writing that short story, I followed through on my sixth book; it had been on the back burner, since I had written the opening few paragraphs in early April. With what later became, KENNIG & GOLD, I took a much different approach. It was no longer about reaching a minimum word count or about writing in the vogue style. The goal was to write something genuinely good and technically strong, built through classic literary techniques that had been utilized by writers such as Shakespeare and Ursula Le Guin. I came up with a loose idea, found depth through subject matter that was very dear to me (my friend Nils and his late wife Marilyn), and patterned out an outline based on developing themes through interweaving them beneath plot lines.

The result is something I’m very much proud of. And after reading it roughly 100 times, end-to-end; out loud and not; and at times in one day while timing myself, the book still finds a way of guiding me from beginning to end. Even though I had earned those 300 twitter followers, I knew that I didn’t have the following to entice Penguin to take a chance on me. They don’t throw their advertising weight behind every book anyway. I sent the book to 15 agents and received my first rejection letters, while putting in the work to self-publish the novel, despite 80-hour work weeks.

I printed off 500 business cards, delivered most of them before the publication date of April 5th, 2017, exactly one year after officially conceiving the novel. I grabbed drinks at speakeasies, jazz bars, and cocktail lounges; struck up conversations with Brazilians, Swiss, and other tourists; and held book signing and speaking events at bars in the East and West Village that supported meaningful causes. I began writing theater reviews for a blogger and later leveraged that into writing cabaret reviews for an internationally syndicated magazine. By the time January 2018 had come around, I had sold over 200 books, an important milestone I targeted after attending a Penguin conference in 2016, and through a conference (different conference) connection, I pitched “Kennig & Gold” alongside “The Sun Never Set” (a novel I wrote in 2017) as titles to BHC Press.

BHC decided they wanted both, and I took “Kennig & Gold” off of Amazon’s former self-publishing tool, Createspace, in March, and auspiciously, I received the signed contract for “Kennig & Gold” on April 5th, 2018. In conclusion, along with a lot of late nights, a lot of in-person leg-work, and a heavy dose of schmoozy sales pitching, publishing took following through on all of that advice despite a lack of immediate gratification. I had to go through a learning curve with “how” and “what” to write about, which included novels, short stories, and query letters. I had to hone my story into a concise description and synopsis, while creating an online presence (website, blog, magazine, twitter, Instagram). And ultimately, it took networking at a few conferences to connect to the right people at the right publisher. Sometimes, it feels like trying to lift a mountain, but the important thing is that I’m no longer doing it alone.

In A Word at the Cherry Lane Theatre

This review of Lauren Yee's In A Word at The Cherry Lane Theatre was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

In A Word
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 7/2/17

In A Word delivered a thorough introspective of what it can be like to work with and raise difficult children. The play showcases a child seen as adorable in one moment and then troublesome in another. The juxtaposition of this child's different phases left me wondering whether I felt bad for any of the characters at all. At first, I empathized with the parents who had lost their little boy. The situation seemed so heartbreaking. A child had gone missing and his two loving parents were unable to move on, but as the sequences of the play revealed a clearer picture of the circumstances of the household, I felt like the audience was challenged. We were confronted with the question of whether the value of the loss and the parent's remorse changed with the knowledge that the child was mentally handicapped.

The play began in the living room of the Hamlet family. The husband, Guy, steps in to find the wife, Fiona, searching through boxes. It's the second anniversary of the disappearance of their adopted little boy, Tristan, and as Fiona frantically ransacks the apartment looking for evidence of their child, Guy tries to get her to go out for dinner for the first time since the tragic incident two years ago. Jose Joaquin Perez's performance as Guy was particularly patient and respectable alongside a clever Laura Ramadei. Perez brought a lot of emotion to his part as he made impassioned appeals to his wife. It makes sense right off the bat that he wants her to move on from their lost child, but she has a hard time letting go. He is concerned for her, but he can't understand why she has been so listless these past two years. He tells her, "This has to stop" and in almost the same breath, reminds her, "Was there something that you wanted to tell me?"

The aftermath of the play at the Cherry Lane - great use of stage props to focus the audience's attention.

The aftermath of the play at the Cherry Lane - great use of stage props to focus the audience's attention.

These appeals launch a series of flashbacks that became the main substance of the play. About every 3-5 minutes, the couple would say some lines of dialogue that would cue a flashback sequence and an extremely talented Justin Mark, who played a myriad of roles including the role of Tristan, joined the couple on stage. His comedic timing was impeccable. As a detective, Justin mockingly plays with a cantaloupe from Fiona who thought she had met the kidnapper at the grocery store. She has some trouble when she first sees Justin Mark, the detective because the kidnapper and Tristan were also played by Justin Mark. He says, "I just have one of those faces." It is revealed later that Fiona never saw the kidnapper on the day of Tristan's disappearance, but she is clearly hung up on the loss of her child. She not only hallucinates meetings with the supposed kidnapper, but she also paints a glossy picture over the time that she was living with Tristan. Fiona tells the newspapers that she "loved him" and that she "misses him very much," but Guy tells the audience, "funny, I never remember hearing those words (when Tristan was around)."

One of Fiona's favorite lines to young Tristan is "take care of your things or you're going to lose them." Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Fiona took her own advice. As Guy brings up, Tristan was a much more difficult child than Fiona would let the media know. She likes to tell how great Tristan was, but in reality, he was "difficult." That's what Guy remembers hearing. At school, Tristan was a nuisance, and Fiona had to take him into her own class to keep him from going into special education. It is actually unclear as to why she does this considering that Tristan's behavior is revealed to actually be pretty horrible. He has trouble controlling is bowels. He has trouble learning. He can't make friends. His own father recognizes his developmental disabilities and calls him at one time "retarded." Fiona tries to avoid this word, but she can't seem to come to grips with the reality of Tristan's situation. After a particularly traumatic "picture day," the school gives her a leave of absence and she loses Tristan in the parking lot of a gas station when she stepped in to grab a candy bar. She finally reveals this to her husband, Guy, who reminds her that "even if we can't get justice, we can get better."

At the beginning of the play, I felt remorseful, but when I learned more about how Fiona handled her son's situation and education, I felt a lot less empathetic towards her and unfortunately, her child. It seems to me like she wanted to remain in denial rather than make tangible efforts to help Tristan get better, more helpful attention. That being said, I also wonder if I'd still feel as badly for the missing child as I did at the start if I knew then that he had these difficulties. I definitely feel bad for the husband and father, Guy, who has stayed patiently by his wife's side for these two years, but there is an element of "you reap what you sew" to the whole play. In A Word will keep you entertained for sure, but it may also leave you scratching your head at times at the behavior of the two parents. It's well-written, fluid, and makes you think. If you're looking for that, get tickets atwww.CherryLaneTheatre.org or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.

The Conspiracists at the IRT Theater

This review of Max Baker's The Conspiracists at The IRT Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Conspiracists
Written & Directed by Max Baker
The IRT Theater
154 Christopher Street, Suite 3-B
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 4/22/17

What would happen if you put a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists in a church basement and they disagreed on the true conspiracy? Absurdity perhaps and The Conspiracists, a quirky, funny, and surprisingly dark play that showcases playwright Max Baker's ability to create tangibly deep characterizations. This helped to provide for a uniqueness to the experience that a viewer may be interested in for just the experience. However, despite the upside of a few laughs, the intriguing concept falls prey to awkward arguments and a lack of cohesive direction which can create a lot of confusion. If you try to follow the plot, then you may miss the jokes. The stilted narrative thread follows a strange sequence of events through three alternate realities (also different acts of the play). What's unclear is whether the actions in one reality always affect the other realities or if the sequences are happening simultaneously. The true boon, however, is that the play helps us to reflect upon different aspects of our own lives and circumstances to deconstruct what conspiracies truly are.

Each act starts out the same way. Win, played by Ian Poake and the leader of the Conspiracy Support Group, enters in a flurry and says, "Hi" to Jo (Ricki Lynee), who is sitting in a chair preparing an experiment. Win sets up the room and says a few things like, "I never remember how many chairs to set up" even though we quickly learn that there are only five returning members of the support group. He is followed by Emmett (Arthur Kriklivy) and Dee Dee (Sofiya Cheyenne). After Emmett changes his chair out due to a mark on the one Win set up for him despite there being a plethora of available chairs, Dee Dee arrives spouting a spree of complaints. Why didn't Emmett hold the door? Where is her prayer stool, which she uses to place her feet? Once they've all sat down, Jo's alarm goes off and the chaos ensues. Jo is about to participate in an experiment at the same time that the Hadron Collider in Switzerland will force a collision between sub-atomic particles. She places a favorite doll of hers in a suitcase, hooks it up to a phone, and dictates this to a silver tape recorder marking the other three as witnesses. At this point, things deviate from scene to scene.

In the first act, actress Lisa Jill Anderson appears as a neurotic schizophrenic named Madonna, who believes that she can talk to inanimate objects by tapping into their feelings. Lisa absolutely stuns the audience with an exceptional demonstration of crazy. At first, she is mild-mannered and compliant to the rules of the group, but when Brooke (played by Alice Johnson) begins to complain about being locked in the bathroom, Madonna goes insane believing that she is being talked to by a despondent ghost. She chants that she is the Goddess Madonna while performing a dance with a small statue that looked like a Golden Globe Award. The other characters are as stunned as we are and in attempting to calm Madonna down, we get some pretty funny lines about dealing with the mentally unstable. This is coming from Conspiracy Theorists who believe that Lizard people control the world or that we are merely living in a simulation of our own advanced race. I remember thinking to myself, "O.K., what just happened and where do we go from here?"

In the second and third act, Lisa appears as two different versions of the newcomer to the support group - Steve, a standoffish conspiracy theorist expert, and Hilda, a bubbly girlfriend of Emmett that he met through an online dating app. Each of these characters is so different from the meek Madonna that it's incredible to think Lisa was able to prepare to perform three roles in one. In fact, while Lisa's performance was above noteworthy, all the actors seemed to be really well cast for their parts. I found Lisa's performance of Steve in the second act particularly funny and dark. She laments on the various aspects of conspiracy theories acting like a pseudo expert and eventually commenting that "Hope" is the true conspiracy. Each act definitely takes a unique spin on the quest for answers as the conspiracy theorists slowly unravel and retreat into their own ideas.

While Lisa demands a lot of attention, she also plays catalyst to how the discussion of the group develops. Once her character enters, the group's discussion takes off. Unfortunately, for Win, and fortunately for the audience, Hilda (3rd act Lisa), presses him to seek what he really wants. This happens to be Brooke, who he has been harboring a crush for. He gives an engaging but desperate confession of love, and she, of course, denies his pathetic overture. It's one of the funniest moments of the play and starkly real. This soliloquy-like confession of love tops off a strong performance by Ian Poake. Sofiya Cheyenne, Dee Dee, also had a strong performance delivering some ridiculous lines without even the hint of a smile like describing our real-life Presidential election as being a race between "a Reptilian Shape-Shifter" and a "Snake-Oil Salesman." Without leaving the church basement, the group seems to cover almost all of the dominant conspiracies and even Santa isn't safe from the targeting. While there is no consistent narrative thread, the play returns to Jo's experiment after the discussions between the characters. She ends the act by pulling out what has become of the doll in the box leaving us guessing as to whether actions in this reality or the next affected the contents.

At times this play was emotionally confronting such as when Steve (Lisa Anderson) addresses the pointlessness of existence. Often these revelations are slightly disturbing. Thankfully, the dark, irreverent humor did not dip into the obscene or grow to the point of overwhelming despair. Although, I do wonder if overwhelming despair would have given the play a more substantial feeling. Overall, I did like the play and would suggest it to a friend looking for weird or who is tired of watching reruns of a show that follow the Friends model. On the negative side, the play did seem like one of those stories where in the end, the meaning is that there is no meaning. Whoa, so profound. Still, it was funny and the actors executed their parts well. I'm a huge fan of dark humor, and if you admire amusingly frank and sometimes uncomfortable comedy like that seen in South Park and the Fallout series games, then you'll probably enjoy a number of the jokes in The Conspiracists. Still, it wasn't so funny that my sides were splitting, and sometimes I was the only one chuckling at a particularly dark revelation of the absurdity of the search for meaning in things or life. If that is your thing, then this play is for you. If not, I'd suggest rethinking your decision to go see The Conspiracists. It can be seen at The IRT Theater through May 7, 2017. Tickets can be purchased at www.stablecableabco.org for $18.00 or at the door for $20.00.

For more reviews check out Applause! Applause!