Tuesday, May 5, 2020

APB - Has Anyone Seen My Muse????

   Eight years ago as of February, I sat down and started writing my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM.  That act opened a floodgate of literary creativity that kept going for almost eight years straight.  Between 2002 and 2020, I completed seven novels, and saw five of them published.  I wrote something like twenty short stories, some pretty good, some just silly, and sent them to friends or published them here in my blog.  I also edited my novels and put them through multiple drafts and fine-tuning runs.  I began this blog in 2014 and faithfully updated it, sometimes several times a month, and sometimes just once a month, but never less than that!

   This year, I finished PRESIDENT HAMILTON, my newest novel (see previous entry) in the first week of March, let it rest for a couple of weeks, and then went back in from the beginning and started the work of editing and re-writing.  I got as far as Ch. 11 - a little over a third of the way through the story - and spring break came along, with my daughter Rachel's marriage coming on the last day thereof.  I put the story aside to help my family get the "Big Day" out of the way.

   Then COVID-19 happened.

   I'd heard of it before then, of course.  The pandemic was sending its first tendrils slithering across the country, infecting people here and there, but the death toll was still very small, and the threat seemed far away.  We got the wedding done just under the wire on March 14.  Then my school announced they were extending Spring Break by a week. Suddenly everything shut down - school was postponed, then canceled, for the rest of the year (except for online classes and ZOOM lessons).  My college course suddenly became an online course.  The NBA, MLB, and NHL canceled or delayed their seasons.  My house became a classroom, my home PC a work PC. 

   And my muse took off for parts unknown.

   I have stared at this blog every day or two for two months now, and couldn't think of a thing to write.  I haven't opened the file to continue editing HAMILTON since the week of the wedding.  I write in my journal, I engage in vigorous debates on social media, I have lengthy email conversations with friends and relatives, and I obsessively track the daily level of infections and deaths due to the Corona Virus. But creative writing?  Editing? Blogging?  Short stories?

   Sorry, no one's home.

  So if you see my muse flitting around your keyboard, shoo her away and tell her it's time to come home.  She's two inches tall, blond, wears a Roman-style toga and a Revolutionary era tricorn hat, and has iridescent green wings.  She'll start spouting Latin swear words if you startle her.

    Tell her I miss her.

    And my stories miss her, too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

WHAT A RIDE THIS ONE HAS BEEN!

    Saturday afternoon I wrote "The End" to a novel that has consumed me for the last fourteen months.  PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, was born of a short story that I wrote and published on this blog three years ago.  Called "An Interview at Weehawken," it was a retelling of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that flipped the result, seeing Burr killed and Hamilton only wounded.  The story ended with President Jefferson and his Secretary of State, James Madison, speculating whether or not Hamilton would run for President in the future.

     That was it.  Just a short story, a bit of speculative alternative history, with no expansion planned or anticipated.  At the time, I was finishing up a novel set in ancient Rome, called THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, and cranking out the occasional short story to blow off steam when the muse quit flowing for a bit.  But the idea I'd created wouldn't go away.  What if Hamilton had survived that fateful day in July of 1804?  How would history have changed?

     Time passed.  I finished THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, but my publisher politely declined to have anything to do with it, since my previous book THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY had woefully underperformed.  So I shelved that book and wrote the lyrics to a musical about Theodore Roosevelt, just for the fun of it, to pass the time. Then I busied myself with teaching and all the other things I do on a daily basis.  But the Hamilton idea just wouldn't go away.

     I was a fan of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father, long before HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL came out.  In fact, as near as I can tell, I was reading Ron Chernow's biography of the first Treasury Secretary about the same time that Lin-Manuel Miranda read it on vacation and conceived the idea for the musical.  Hamilton was, in my opinion at least, the most brilliant and (at that point, at least) under-appreciated of our Founders.  But then the musical did come out, and while a trip to Broadway was far beyond my budget, I listened to the sound track and was blown away by the crisp lyrics, epic narrative, and neat lessons in history and civics that Miranda had woven into Hamilton's story.  But there was one line that stuck with me, and still does.  In the end, after Alex's untimely death, his wife Eliza laments "You could have done so much more if you only had time!"

     What would Alexander Hamilton have done with another decade of life?  Was his political career truly over? What could this remarkably talented man have achieved if he had decided to run for public office?  Was the Presidency within his reach?  What would have changed if he had indeed been elected?  And I remembered the story that I had written about the duel, and decided to play it forward from there.  On January 4, 2019, I sat down and wrote the title page of PRESIDENT HAMILTON.  Then I took the original short story, edited and trimmed it a bit to turn it into a true prologue rather than a self-contained narrative, and plunged forward from there.

     I've taught history for nearly 30 years now and have read deeply into the Federalist era.  Politically, it was a time not that different from today.  Newspapers, like today's social media, could make up the most outrageous lies imaginable and print them up with zero repercussions, and fact checkers did not exist. (We have them today, of course, but people refuse to believe that they are, in fact, factual - if the fact checkers contradict their prejudices.)  How else can you explain Jefferson supporters painting John Adams as "a seducer of young women?"   I mean, seriously, ladies, I defy any of you to look at one of President Adams' portraits and think: "I gotta get me some of that!"  Yet it was in the newspapers, so people believed it.

     Another similarity was the absolute assumption of moral superiority by both sides.  To the Jefferson camp, Hamilton was a monarchist, plain and simple, who wanted to destroy the Constitution and see America governed by a hereditary aristocracy.  To the Federalists, Jefferson was a raving Jacobin atheist who wanted to burn their Bibles and set up guillotines on every street corner. The other party was not made up of fellow Americans who thought differently about government, but of enemies who had to be destroyed, or at least, barred from holding power forever.  We've come full circle, haven't we?

     But as I set out to tell the story of Hamilton, moving forward from that fateful day at Weehawken, launching a political campaign, and discovering a cause that would fire his conscience and rally his supporters, I found myself wondering: What if these guys actually talked to each other instead of hiring poison pens to slander each other?  Hamilton and Madison were friends once; what if that friendship had rekindled - as Jefferson's and Adams' did in their old age?  What might these men have accomplished if they simply chose to WORK together?

     When you change one thing in history, it's not long before you change EVERYTHING.  Over four hundred pages long, my story took twists and turns I had not even imagined when I started writing.  At some moments I beamed with pride at what my protagonist accomplished; at others I literally wept at the places my story forced me to take him.  But in the end, I wound up envisioning a timeline far different from the one we live in today,  a glimpse - hopefully not too farfetched - at what might have been had not a brilliant life been snuffed out by a cruel bullet in 1804.  "History turns on tiny hinges," I tell my students at the beginning of every course I teach.  But those turns are sometimes wide and sweeping.

     When will PRESIDENT HAMILTON be published?  WILL it be published?  The answers are "I don't know!" and "I sure hope so!"  But when you finally get to hold a copy in your hands, I hope you will  enjoy journeying through my re-imagined decades of American history as much as I enjoyed creating them. 

     In the meantime, if you would like to read something else I have written, please feel free to check me out on Amazon and buy one of my five already published novels.  You can find them at this link:

https://www.amazon.com/s?i=stripbooks&rh=p_27%3ALewis+Ben+Smith&s=relevancerank&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Setting Goals, Reaching Goals, and Chasing Goals . . .

    What do I want to do with myself this year?  Isn't that a question we all ask ourselves as the glow of the New Year fades and the gloomy reality of the "thirty-nine days of February" set in?  (Yes, I know it's only twenty-nine, but if you're a schoolteacher you know EXACTLY what that phrase means!) Forget New Year's Resolutions.  I mean, most of us break those things, if we bother to make them at all, within the first week of the New Year. 


NEW YEAR'S DAY: "This year I resolve to lose weight!" 
ONE WEEK LATER - "Why don't these jeans fit anymore??"
NEW YEAR'S DAY: "This year I am going to avoid eating sweets!"
ONE WEEK LATER: "Whoa, they make ONE POUND Snickers bars??"
NEW YEAR'S DAY: "I am going to be less bothered by silly little things this year."
ONE WEEK LATER: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You cut me off in traffic.  Prepare to die!!"

     You get the idea.

     Still, all of us try to set some sort of goals for the New Year.  Professional goals (at my work those are actually a requirement!), Personal Goals, Relationship Goals (big hint - if your S.O. isn't on board with those, they ain't happening!), Hobby-Related Goals, Reading Goals, you name it.  These are the things we really and truly TRY to do, and hope to achieve.  And, miracle of miracles, sometimes we actually manage to achieve them!

     So as I sit here on this rainy February evening, contemplating the fact that I have gone WAAAY to long without updating this blog of mine, I think about what my goals are and how I can best reach them this year. And, since this is the place where I share my thoughts with the world (or at least with the couple hundred or so people who read my entries), I thought I'd tell you what they are.

     First of all, I want to finish my current work in progress, my book, PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY.  In all honesty, this isn't that big a challenge, since I am thirty-five chapters in and have perhaps three more to go.  With any luck, the story will be done in the next month or so.  Unlike many authors, finishing books isn't that big a deal for me.  Since I started writing my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM, eight years ago this month, I have completed a total of six novels.  (I know, I only have five in print.  My last published work, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, underperformed and so I was not offered a contract for THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE.)  But still, it's a long and winding road from writing the title page and then typing "The End", and I hope to hit that point early on this year.

     The next big challenge will be securing a publishing contract.  I have been very blessed in my association with the good folks at Electio Publishing; they took a chance on a rookie author and have given me contracts on my first five books.  But publishing is a business, and while I like Christopher and Jesse very much, I haven't yielded them a big return.  I think this book has enormous potential, with a huge audience reach, but I have said that before.  If they decide that this one is not worth the risk, given the current market, I'll absolutely understand.  At that point, my options will be to seek another publisher, secure a literary agent, or perhaps to do the one thing I have not done before - self-publish one of my books.  The thing is, I want this book to come out SOON, while the HAMILTON musical is still touring, and before the theatrical release comes around.  So my biggest professional goal would be to see this story either in print or about to be released by the end of this year, or early next year.  That's a big goal, but not unreachable.

     Those are my professional goals as a writer, and I intend to do my best to reach them.  As always, I hope you, my faithful readers and social media followers, will come along for the ride and enjoy the story when it becomes available.

     As a teacher, I've actually hit a very comfortable place in my career.  I love my job, I love my kids, and sharing the remarkable story of man's past with them every day is all any educator could want.  My goal with them is simply to keep doing what I am doing, watching my little sprites grow up from seventh grade to their senior year, and being able to share that journey with them along the way.

      Personal goals?  First and foremost, to get my daughter's wedding over and done with and see my second baby chick launched from the nest.  The big day is a month away as I write these lines, and lots of plans have been made, while others are still being made.  After that, the big adjustment is coming - after 25 years as parents, Patty and I will be settling into our role as a couple, slightly complicated by the other role we share as senior caregivers for her aging mom.  But we will figure things out, as we always have, and I look forward to the "empty nest" years.  At some point, maybe we'll be able to travel again, that would be nice.  But whatever we do, I hope we are able to enjoy each other's company for many years to come.

   Oh yeah, and I need to lose some weight.   After I eat this big plate of spaghetti!