Friday, December 09, 2005

A rock star, 2 outlaws and an English Teacher

Some day soon, I'm going to post about the novelists whose work led me to write a thriller. I mean, they're all thriller writers, and it should be a fun trip down memory lane.

I'm also going to post about the writers who have assisted me with the writing process-- friends of mine, old and new, who have helped me to navigate my way through the publishing business. Most of them already have links on the right-hand side of this page, and I encourage you to check them all out. Buy their books. Buy them in hardcover. Every one is a great read.

But for this post, I want to talk about the writers who led me to become a fiction writer... not a novelist, or a guy who pens mysteries, or short stories, or novellas... but a fiction writer.

Before you can write in a genre, you have to want to write in the first place. Four guys led me down that path. You'll recognize three names and I really wish you'd known the fourth, who is really first in importance.

1. Nick Alicino
2. Bruce Springsteen
3. Johnny Cash
4. Kris Kristofferson

It actually starts with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. As I've mentioned, I listened to them in utero. My mother's doing, not mine, but she did it right. They were my caretakers until I discovered Springsteen in a blatant attempt to curry favor with my 9th Grade English Teacher: Nick Alicino.

Born in the USA came out in the summer of 1984, and it blew me out of the water. More importantly, I knew that my new English teacher loved it as well, so I tried talking to him about it. Nick started loaning me other Springsteen music, and it was like a sledgehammer blow to the side of my head, but in a good way.

I was also starting to write a lot of short fiction at the time, because Nick was encouraging that in his class, and encouraging me specifically. It's amazing how much you actually want to write when somebody tells you you're a good writer. Eventually, it takes on a life of its own and you write a novel or two or ten, or you make a career out of it.

I'm getting a little ahead of things. I developed my love of writing at the same time I found my Springsteen addiction. That's one of the reasons why I've always wanted to write fiction the way Springsteen writes songs... the way Johnny Cash wrote songs... the way Kristofferson writes songs. The goal is to say a lot, in as few words as possible. And that's what any really good song does.

An 800 page novel should tell a great story. But if you cut that 800 page novel to 400 pages, and keep the same story, the 400 page novel will be better. Cutting words is a much more effective editing tool than adding words.

It's harder to write a 375 page book than it is to write an 826 page book. I learned that from experience. I had to tell the same story I was trying to tell in the 826 page book, in only 375 pages, without sacrificing anything important. It's harder to cut than it is to add. Short stories and poems are the hardest of all.

Which brings me back to the late, great Nick Alicino, who was a hell of a poet, and wrote wonderful short fiction, too. You'll read about him a lot.

Everyone hears the question, "Can you name one person who changed your life forever?" It's an old question, so common that it's usually boring. And I'm not talking about spouses, children, parents, or friends you've chosen. I'm talking about people who've entered your life, but they aren't genetically linked to you, and you don't have much choice as to whether you get to associate with them.

Can you name one person who changed your life forever?

Yes: Nick Alicino.

Before Nick, I was a kid who liked reading and not much else. Various teachers had let me know that I could tell a good story. But after Nick, I was a Springsteen fan. And a writer. Those titles are part of who I am, right after Husband and Father, and right before Democrat and Baseball Fan. They're way ahead of the "What I Do" descriptions (PR guy, campaign operative, Recovering Lawyer).

For more than 15 years, I had this crazy dream that I was going to write a novel. I had this other crazy dream that I wanted to go to a Springsteen concert with Nick.

Being a writer, being a Springsteen fan... Nick Alicino had everything to do with those.

After I wrote my novel (more or less), I went to a Springsteen concert with Nick. Nick went home with my novel. Nick liked it. Nothing else really mattered.

When I got an agent, Nick was the first person I told. He would have been my second, but Lisa, the saint I married, was standing next to me when the call came in and she figured it all out. I would have told Bruce, but I haven't met him yet. Turns out my agent is a Springsteen fan, too... so I can thank Nick all over again.

My high school (Cooperstown Central, in Cooperstown, New York) has produced 2 published novelists (see my links for Kevin Guilfoile, class of '86, and Eugena Pilek, my classmate from 1988). I'm in limbo, and there's a guy a couple of years younger than I am who is a little farther back in the publishing pipeline.

All four of us had Nick for 9th Grade English. This is a town of 2,000 people that graduates around a hundred kids per year. At least four of them are novelists, two of them published... That can't possibly be some quirk of fate. That's Nick Alicino, who was a better writer than any of us, and better still as a coach and mentor and friend. You be the judge. Nick died almost two years ago, but his website,, is still up. Check it out.

So I try to write fiction the way Springsteen or Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson write/wrote songs.

But I thank Nick Alicino because without him, I wouldn't be writing anything at all.


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