Rob Hart: Five Things I Learned Writing New Yorked


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Ashley McKenna is a blunt instrument. Find someone, scare someone, carry something; point him at the job, he gets it done. He generally accepts money upon completion, though a bottle of whiskey works, too — he’s comfortable working on a barter system. It’s not the career he dreamed about (archeologist) but it keeps him comfortable in his ever-changing East Village neighborhood.

That’s until Chell, the woman he loves, leaves him a voicemail looking for help–a voicemail he gets two hours after her body is found. Ash hunts for her killer with the grace of a wrecking ball, running afoul of a drag queen crime lord and stumbling into a hard-boiled role playing game that might be connected to a hipster turf war.

Along the way, he’s forced to face the memories of his tumultuous relationship with Chell, his unresolved anger over his father’s death… and the consequences of his own violent tendencies.

***

SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO BURN IT DOWN AND START AGAIN

I finished the book. Or, I thought I finished the book. It was three years of work and I was done. I sent it out and a bunch of agents rejected it, but that’s the game. I wasn’t worried. Then a very cool writer I admire a great deal—a New York Times best-seller!—offered to read it.

And he said I needed a page one rewrite. There were a lot of things he liked, but he also pointed out spots where I lost the plot or dropped the ball. He saw the potential and encouraged me to really take it back to the beginning and rethink it.

I was devastated. I thought I was ready to move on to the next step. My life was sunshine and butterflies and a fat contract right over the horizon.

Then I got over myself and rewrote the damn thing. That was the rewrite that won me an agent, and then a deal, and then another deal (ho-ho, we’ll get to that in a second). It’s a better book thanks to that author’s input, and his pushing me to work harder.

Sometimes the answer you need is not the answer you want, but it’s the answer you’ve got—so you have to put your head down and do the work.

BAD THINGS HAPPEN AND IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD

I signed with a publisher. They loved the book! They loved the pitch for the sequel—which I hadn’t even written yet—and bought that one too! My entire life was thunder!

They never sent out the advance check. I’m a patient guy, and figured it would be fine. Then I didn’t get edits or a cover. Okay, this is the new face of publishing. They shall move swiftly and surely any day now. At six months out, with nothing in hand, I got scared. And then I got the call: The imprint was closing and canceling my contract. I went from a two book deal to a no book deal.

Remember how sad I got when I was told I needed a major rewrite? This was apocalyptic. After I got off the phone with my (ex) editor, I went outside and sat on the sidewalk, convinced this was the end of my foray into publishing, and tried to not cry. I know it’s just a book, and this world is full of terrible things, but nothing in my life hurt the way that hurt.

The next day my wife and I walked down to the hospital to have the first sonogram for our impending snorflebeast. I heard her heartbeat. A little tiny baby heartbeat!

It’s exactly what I needed at that moment. A reminder that things aren’t so bad. My agent got me back in the game. Publishers even came knocking on our door.

Sometimes bad shit happens. That doesn’t mean bad shit is always going to happen. And sometimes the bad shit turns out to be good shit. Because now I’ve got an even better deal.

PERSPECTIVE MATTERS

Regret is a strong word and I’m not going to use it. But there’s a part of me that feels uneasy, in retrospect, about the inciting incident of New Yorked. Ash McKenna’s story is set into motion by the rape and murder of Chell, the woman he loved.

On one hand, the book is about death and cycles of violence and how to cope with grief without shattering someone’s jaw. On the other hand, the “dead woman as plot motivator” is such a common trope, especially in crime fiction, I’m sure I’ll invite a few unkind comments. I might even deserve a few.

I understand as a straight white writer dude, there are times where I need to think about my perspective and approach. Still, this is the story I’ve told and I’m proud of it. Chell is stronger than tough-guy, wannabe-PI Ash. I worked hard to get that across. And she’s the one who saves him, even though it takes him years to recognize that it happened.

This has influenced how I’m approaching future work. New Yorked is the start of what I hope will be a five-book series. I’m done with the second (City of Rose, coming early 2016 y’all!), and as I’m sketching out the final three entries, I’m staying far away from putting women in peril. I don’t want to be the “violence against women” guy.

Because the first book taught me that perspective matters. As a storyteller, you can’t make your reader feel devalued—no matter who your reader is.

Unless that reader is a Nazi. Nazis are fair game for ridicule.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DIVINE INSPIRATION

I spent most of my 20s waiting for divine inspiration before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard keys). The time of day had to be perfect and I needed to have drunken just enough wine but not too much, and the planets needed to be aligned just so…

You know how much writing I got done?

Not much. Hardly any, in fact.

Writing is work. It’s fun work—you get paid to make up weird shit in your head!—but it’s still work. And sometimes you need to knuckle down and write. Even if you don’t want to. Even if the words aren’t coming. You need something on the page.

Drafts do not rain from heaven on the wings of inspiration angels. Drafts come from applying your ass to a chair and writing like a motherfucker.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the numbers.

New Yorked – Five years and 20+ rewrites

City of Rose – Six months and three rewrites

Sure, the second book came a little easier because I found my voice and my process. But I also had a deadline and treated it like a job. An awesome job that I love, but a job none the less.

THE POWER OF TOUCH

You’ve heard a lot of this advice before. Writing is a job! Perspective Matters! Et cetera!

Here’s something I hope you haven’t heard before: How much touch matters.

This is a thing I learned two years ago in Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, Dangerous Writing. An incredible opportunity, given that Tom is one of this generation’s great living authors (read In the City of Shy Hunters and tell me I’m wrong, I fucking dare you).

Dangerous Writing is about telling the truth, because fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer. Tom has been teaching the workshop for years (counted among his students is Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club) and while I learned a great many things in Tom’s basement that weekend, the thing that sticks with me is the power of touch.

It is so rare that we get touched. Think about that. How many times are you touched during the day? By loved ones, by strangers, by friends—whoever. Touch means something. It transfers power. It can be a moment that stands in time.

We were still on sub after I finished that class, but I asked my agent if I could do a quick pass on the book. I wanted to apply what I learned in Tom’s workshop. And all those moments of touch jumped out at me. I never really thought of them before, and now I was finding another layer of meaning in the work.

Another way to dig deep into emotional truth.

* * *

Rob Hart is the author of The Last Safe Place: A Zombie Novella. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle, Shotgun Honey, All Due Respect, Helix Literary Magazine, and Joyland. His debut novel, New Yorked, will be released in June 2015, with the sequel, City of Rose, to follow in early 2016.

Rob Hart: Website | Twitter | Facebook

New Yorked: Amazon | B&N | iTunes | Kobo | Google | Powell’s


21 responses to “Rob Hart: Five Things I Learned Writing New Yorked”

  1. I thought I’d never hear the phrases ‘drag queen crime lord’ and ‘hipster turf war’ in the same sentence but here it is and its marvelous.

  2. Hi Rob, I appreciate your honesty. As a crime reader and writer, I find the trope of the sexy female corpse as the inciting incident of crime fiction boring as hell and disrespectful too. I appreciate that you are doing something to change that. I am too. However, in my novels, I keep killing white men (not always straight ones), so I need help with changing that! As we writers, we all need to be aware of our blind spots. Wishing you all the best with your novels.

  3. I love your comment about seeing the privilege and feeling the uncomfortable glare of violence against women in your work. This is something us white guys is crime fiction need to always be looking at. We’re such a trope-driven genre that it actually takes work to meet reader expectations while still trying to move the genre forward and use our privilege for good not for evil.

  4. I am so happy to see this awareness as well. It is hard to understand, even as a woman, what a profound impact all these images have on you over the years. I am in my 50’s, and I am just starting to understand it. I find myself falling into these traps. Unfortunately, it is also true that in a violent world, there is violence against women. Perhaps if this image becomes less ingrained in art, it will have an impact on life. I like to hope so. If nothing else, perhaps it will lesson the victimization within our heads that this is just how it is and our fate. (PS. I would love to read your book, but that first scene would stop me in my tracks. I don’t feed my brain that kind of food anymore.)

  5. I’m glad you said what you said about Chell and her death, and kudos to you for both picking up on that theme in your own work and admitting to it here. But don’t beat yourself up about it; it’s been around in stories for a very long time, and if it appeals to a large demographic of readers (and it must do, to have made so many bestsellers out of books that include it) sometimes it’s hard to recognise it for the trope it is until after it’s out there in the world. It aint gonna disappear from fiction overnight, that’s for sure. Thanks for analysing it and pledging to find another way in future. I might still buy your book anyway (you lured me in with ‘crime lord drag queen’ and ‘hardboiled role playing game’) but just try and skip over that scene when it comes. Not out of making some kind of point, but simply because, as someone who’s known that kind of violence for real, I find it difficult to detach from in fiction (hence why I’ve never seen Game of Thrones either.)

    Wishing you every success with your series!

  6. Awesome post. I *know* what you’re saying is correct, though I haven’t entirely internalized it yet. I’m getting closer though. Every post I read along these lines brings me a step closer to saying, “It doesn’t matter if it is crap now. Get the words on paper. You can edit later.”

    Thank you for bringing me another step closer. 🙂

  7. Rob, these are great observations and congratulations on your books. My most recent book also deals with rape and it was important to me that the women were strong and that the violence stopped short of exploitation. All my best to you and I’m looking forward to reading NEW YORKED.

  8. Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. Very much appreciated.

    I was feeling a bit raw about this one—I was worried about it being taken the wrong way, because it’s a sensitive topic.

    And Sarah–think of your first draft as a lump of clay. You’ve got to get it all set up and roughed out to the correct size. Then you can go in and do the detail work. You can make a sculpture out of a lump of clay. But if there’s no lump of clay, there’s no sculpture.

    Cheers, all!

  9. You are an inspiration and congratulations on the book deal! I loved your take on bad things. It reminded me of a line in my WIP, Call Me Florence. “I could feel her hand on my shoulder as I walked down the steps of the hospital that day, “Shit don’t always stink. Good job,” Florence said.”

    You are absolutely correct, sometimes bad things happen and to good people, but those things do not define us. Thanks again for a wonderful post.

  10. Congrats on the debut novel, mate! 🙂 Will check out things on kindles and things.

    One question and two comments:
    – When you mention the power of touch, did you specifically go back through your work to add or strengthen these instances, or was it just something you noticed (and had an “aha!” moment about) after Tom’s workshop?
    – Well done on acknowledging the women in fridges problem. I’ve had to nuke one of my old drafts from orbit upon re-reading… That said, I don’t think it means we have to avoid all instances of abuse in fiction, only that we have to approach it VERY differently (eg. Mad Max Fury Road did it well), and it sounds like you’ve tried to do this.
    – CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR IMPENDING SNORFLEBEAST! Best times ever are ahead, and little daughters are rad. Mine’s 8 months now, and chubby like the michelin man.

    Cheers! D.

    • – In terms of touch–I went back and reworked a few things, but it definitely jumps out at me now, and it’s something I’m more mindful of.

      – True–I don’t believe in making things off limits. But at the same time, if you’re going to do something, you have to be thoughtful of the reasons.

      – Thanks! She was born in January! She is loud and often unreasonable but I like her a lot.

      (And–I hope you dig the novella!)

  11. “SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO BURN IT DOWN…”(c) Nikolai Gogol
    Great article by the way. But I’m still waiting for DIVINE INSPIRATION.

  12. I am experiancing your “New Yorked” rewriting moment with my book. Maybe it’s just because it’s my first book, but I am on draft 4 and I have no idea what the hell I am doing. BUT, I am writing it at least. Your blogs are so inspirational and the moment I get money, I want to buy your Heartland trilogy and the one with Mirian Black. Mocking bird, I think?

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