Monday, May 28, 2012

The Pitch (Take Two)

The reviews are in on my rough draft pitch for Strange Arrangements.

Here are some words and phrases that came up: clunky, awful, disconnected, a mess, and "train wreck."

One guy in my writing group said it literally scared him.

'k, that's why we draft.

My writing group did give me some quality feedback about where to go next with it. After swinging the other way and writing a pitch so abstract it sounded like the opening narrative of a classic Twilight Zone, I came up with a better attempt.

I'm learning it's much harder to pitch a short story collection than a novel. This makes sense. A novel has a singular focus (hopefully). A short story collection needs to be united by some kind of a theme and the pitch has to thread them together. Also, rather than writing a one-sentence description of each story, I decided to highlight three of the best in the hopes of drawing would-be publishers in, rather than scaring them with a big, fourteen-sentence paragraph with fourteen seperate ideas.

Here's the improved attempt:


Life is full of odd people, in bizarre circumstances. A young man sees a connection between transformation and fire: his awakening demands a Molotov cocktail. Another young man earns court-appointed anger management therapy and confronts the unwritten rules of manhood. A war-weary C.I.A. operative plants the secret weapon in the war against fundamentalist Islam – a pheromone bomb that causes gay arousal. Then he turns it on its makers and broadcasts the results. These are a few of the stories of men in strange arrangements.

STRANGE ARRANGEMENTS is a 45,000-word short story collection, my debut. Thank you for your time and consideration.

(Feedback is always welcome.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Best Week (Readings)

What a week! I wrote my own vows and had to read them in front of an intimate group of friends and family. I was invited to read a piece for the first time and was privileged enough to do both in the same calendar week.

The vows were scarier, but not by much. In both cases I had to kind of dive head first into the paper and hope what I'd already written was good enough to carry me. I basically broke every public speaking rule I've ever taught my students about eye contact, especially at the author reading. (Having Shane to look up at and share the stage with me certainly helped with the vows.)

Two people helped me at the author reading. Obviously, my husband, who whooped it up just like he did when we went to see Brokeback Mountain together (right when Heath Ledger crudely seized Jake Gyllenhall to the horror of the stuffy art house queens in attendance). The other one was my new sister Flower Conroy, poetess extraordinaire, who wouldn't let me hide and helped me to mingle, terrified creature that I was. The two of them cheered so loud they reminded me of the table of folks who came to my Master's graduation. You can always tell a Jersey table at a graduation.

I met some of the other authors in this year's Saints and Sinners Anthology, including the winner, Jerry Rabushka. I had to have an honest moment with him after his reading: the egomaniac in me really wanted to hate his story. I couldn't. It was too damn good.

I was also privileged to meet Jeff Mann, my instructor, who reminded me of the many subtle differences between a good story and one that's ready to be published. The pieces we reviewed in the course, and the ones in the anthology, had a "clockwork effect" going for them - each part of the story aided the central metaphor, motifs, and overall theme. This is what makes a story something greater than a collection of clever lines.

Another big takeaway for me - self-publishing won't meet the goals I have for my short story collection. Therefore, I needed a better pitch for the traditional route. I wrote one that I think is pretty solid. This is it:


A graduation speech becomes uncomfortably honest after Pete Petucci loudly moos. Two old queens learn the hardest truth a gay bar can offer - sometimes you have to recognized when a place has passed you by. A young man discovers the beauty of transformation and learns how to make a Molotov cocktail. An Agnostic college professor looks back on a lost moment of faith from his high school religion class. For an unwilling patient, anger management means confronting the unwritten rules of hetero manhood. Compromise leads to disaster for two miserable cat-owners. Expose reporter Joshua Mendham goes undercover as a "Guide of Christ" at a gay-to-straight conversion camp. A haunted writer tries to bury his lost childhood friend once and for all. Corporate-national school inspector Charles Vance Cohen documents the test run of fascism's latest classroom tool. A boy learns about sex and karate, friendship and denial. Seeking a mid-life "reboot", a teacher has a delayed reaction to a student's revelation - a reaction involving meatloaf. Doomed teen Kevin Woods sees the collision of his birth and first sex, as he commits suicide. The military's ultimate weapon in the war against Islamic fundamentalism - a pheromone bomb that causes gay arousal - is turned against its masters.

These are the stories of men in strange arrangements.

Now all I have to do is get one of the gatekeepers to open the damn gate...

More to come.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Milestone Week

This week I have two events to celebrate that are kinda-sorta related.

The first is I'm getting married on Tuesday. I was going to say united or "unioned" or something but fuck all that. Tuesday is our eighth anniversary and we've been living together for more than seven years. It's marriage. To hell with semantics. The culture war is over. We won. The sexually retarded minority can move to Utah and mope about it. Thank you, Mr. President.

Digress? Sure.

The best thing about it is how nervous I'm not. Yes, I'd like our brief ceremony to go off without the proverbial hitch but I've never for one moment doubted that we were amazing together. We love each other. He's supported my little writing dream more than anyone. We both love bar games. He cooks. He's there for a playful butt slap or supportive back rub and rarely gives the wrong one at the wrong time.

And I guess I must do something for him too. My foot rubs are outstanding. You would feel that shit in your neck if I was on my game. I also break a crossword puzzle logjam like nobody's bidness.

We're honeymooning in New Orleans, where I'm participating in my first author's panel to talk about my fourth published piece, "Divine Hand", which will be part of QueerMojo, an anthology of up-and-coming (pun?) gay authors. The discussion is part of the "Saints and Sinners" festival, a collection of homophile bibliosexuals or homosexual bibliophiles depending on how stimulating the book you're reading is.

My better half was the key editor. We spent much of October and November working and re-working "Divine Hand" to get it under 7,000 words and leave only the narrative that was contributing to the main storyline. The process left me with two related writing certitudes:

1.) Sometimes you have to cut clever shit out of your stories when it (said clever shit) isn't contributing to the main storyline in some way.

2.) The best stories have a "clockwork effect" - all the gears fit into one another and they turn with shared purpose. Every phrase of every sentence contributes to an effect far greater than the final word count.

This week, I simply celebrate the benefits of some great decisions past. The main one is my choice to ask for my future hub's number way back in the spring of '04. (His cousin is the only reason I knew about Saints and Sinners to begin with.) In my tragicomic love life, there is at least that one decision that added love, support and happiness.


Here's the except I'll be reading from "Divine Hand"

What do they do at a gay-to-straight conversion camp?
I know why they exist – some parents choose to believe they can change their children. They believe they can write a check and drop off a theater boy, a softball girl. Then in a few weeks, pick up their quarterback, their prom queen.
The best of them believe it because they don’t want life to be any harder for their children. The worst of them believe it because the Bible told ‘em so.
But just what the hell do they do there? What is their success rate? How would one even judge if the kid had turned?
As an exposé reporter, I had to know.
Arrogance and decency are the engines that motivate my profession. They play off each other like some great emotional dynamo, driving the reporter to fulfill the journalist’s mission. As they teach it in journalism school, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”
That takes arrogance. Who am I to determine who the “comforted” are? Who am I to label the “afflicted?” Are Wall Street brokers comforted, and the homeless they step over afflicted? What is my Edward R. Murrow duty then? Grab the broker’s Brooks Brothers case and afflict him in the head with it, handing it off to the newly-comforted bum?
It also takes decency. If one ponders the last quarter-century, it’s really the tale of greed, the few causing the suffering of many. A good exposé reporter goes to war against the powerful few, feeding his ego while freeing the world from ignorance. Photographing the CEO in bed with the Senator; patting ourselves on the back on national television for months. Think of my profession, think of me as Superman, without that tedious humility.
My editor at the Village Voice likes to say “The ego has landed” when he sees me at the office. I don’t argue that point with him.
So when my ego decided it wanted to go undercover as a “Guide of Christ” at Divine Hand, a gay-to-straight conversion camp, my editor gave me his blessing.
As far as comfort and affliction, Divine Hand deserves to be afflicted. I’ve never been more certain assessing any institution. They operate their conversion camp under no outside supervision. They are a church, and a corporation, with no distinction made. They are completely tax exempt. They receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from various Mormon groups in Utah, proving that mutual prejudice can unite. They take tens of thousands of dollars from Midwestern parents, desperate to “convert” their teenagers. Their motto is “Finding the power to change, in the touch of Christ” but “Praying the gay away since 1989” would have been far more bold and candid.
I went to find my inner “reformed gay.”
Reformed gay.
Eye-widened Asian.
Bleached Negro.
Read them all back and see if they aren’t equally ludicrous and appalling.
As to my own sexuality, I will only say that I’ve had sex with men and with women, all kinds of sex with both genders. I always enjoyed ejaculating and always enjoyed giving pleasure to others. I might be old fashioned, not Donna Reed 1952 old fashioned, more like pre-Constantine Rome old-fashioned. I have more use for orgasms than prayers, though I realize how silly it is to compare. One can have both, though I prefer to keep my prayers separate from my orgasms. I don’t even like it when my mattress pal says “Oh, God” or “Jesus, fuck me.”
I contacted Ben Harris, who was both the Divine Hand assistant Human Resources Director and one of the head counselors. I introduced myself as Matthew Rosenstein, followed by a battering of hyphens: Ex-bi-sexual, Born-again, ex-Jew, teacher-track coach. They paid my air fare and flew me to this collection of flat dirt called “Municipal Air Field” in Cherry Tree, PA. It was the least they could do with their Mormon friends’ dollars.
Ben met me right on the dirt strip they called a runway. Gym teacher describes him perfectly. The Divine Hand shirt he wore was an orange polo with Jesus on the cross slapped on the tit. The way Jesus bulged I could tell Ben had spent some time on his chest. Before he told me, I guessed he fancied himself a “reformed gay.” If he bent over to touch his toes these days, it was only to stretch his hamstrings. When on his knees, it was only before the lord, though I noticed later, during our thrice-a-day prayer sessions, he would still stare a bit too long at the risen lord’s shredded midsection and that just barely clinging loin cloth.
He crushed my hand in his. I had to squeeze back, to fight for life. He asked if I worked out and I told him I did. He led me to his Hummer. He drove.
We discussed scripture. He asked if I believed the Bible was literally written by God. I said yes. He asked me if I believed a homosexual could change, through the power of prayer and a renewed commitment to God’s love. I told him that it was possible, but not easy, and needed a day-by-day approach, similar to Narcotics Anonymous. Those who were expecting to rid themselves of homosexuality overnight probably never were ready to submit fully to the Lord’s will. He ignored the road for a moment, to turn to me and smile. He said he couldn’t wait to hire me. 
I felt like an outstanding little liar.
As we bonded, Ben said that hobbies were essential to keep a man productive and occupied. “Waiting gives the devil time,” he said, probably echoing some adage-spewing conservative uncle. We exchanged small talk about our hobbies. Ben was fond of jogging, lifting weights, fishing, and reading. When I asked him what he liked to read, other than the Bible, of course, he said his favorite stories were tales of sacrifice and heroism, tales where an unlikely hero finds a part of him that is selfless, and acts to protect the weak.   
He said the first book he’d ever really loved, at the age of ten, was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. As the youngest of three brothers, Ben could relate to Ponyboy. He fixated on the scene where Ponyboy and Johnny rush into the burning church to save the children. He’d never read a better portrayal of sacrifice and brotherhood, even in real war accounts. He teared up a bit.
By the time we reached Divine Hand’s gay-to-straight conversion grounds, I was madly in love with Ben. 

(end of free preview)