StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: My Miracle Lunch with Shell

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 15, 2008

So, yesterday, I had my fateful lunch with Shell at Miracle Grill, where we went over the first draft of 85A. I had the Blue-Corn Fried Chicken Tacos with chips and salsa and an iced tea. She had a quesadilla and a few glasses of water.

Before we got started, we celebrated her most recent freelance breakthrough. AARP, circulation 38 million, has accepted Shell’s pitch to write a profile on the graphic novelist who created the Joker. A career salvo, indeed. Way to go, Shell!

Her feedback on 85A was entirely constructive. She began by praising both the writing and the concept. Still, as I already knew, there’s a lot more work left for me to do on the book. An entire rewrite, actually.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. Start with An Action Scene: As it reads right now, the books starts with Seamus standing at the 85A bus stop, ruminating on the racism and violence in his pure-white middle class neighborhood. This is not as compelling as beginning with an action sequence.

(notice the Icarus wings)

(notice the Icarus wings)

I knew just what she meant. What leaped to mind immediately were the first lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest, they can take their time.”

Boom! Sucks you right in. Then, by and by, Morrison weaves in the history of Ruby, Oklahoma. Doesn’t spell it all out at once. She takes her time.

Similarly, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent, Robert Smith (a black Icarus), leaping off the Mercy Hospital roof with a pair of homemade wings on the morning that Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, is born.

So, yes, golden advice: start with a memorable action sequence.

2. Cut down on the F word: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the first draft, every second to third word out of Seamus’ mouth is fuck. I wanted to show how dead-set he is on recreating the Johnny Rotten/Sid & Nancy experience in his barely pubescent Chicago life. Even I feared the fuck-repetitions were excessive. My fears proved true. I fully agree with Shell that it became more pesky than revealing after a while. As a matter of fact, she rightly discerned that, when the story really got moving, she saw that I wrote less and less fuck’s. Now, that’s not to say the fuck’s don’t have their place. In fact, they have a time-honored place. It’s just that the fuck’s are more effective when they’re more strategically positioned.

3. Imagery: Shell told me that I do a great job of vivifying the characters. What I need to do, once again, is to slow it down and include more sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations. Right now, it reads like I’m trying to get my main points down on paper – rushing to get to the point (a symptom of our ADD culture). But there needs to be more sensory input if I’m going to form a complete picture.

4. You See: There are times when Seamus will say things like “But, see, the thing is…” as if he’s speaking directly to the camera instead of soul searching.

A big challenge for me is that, while I want there to be action, I also want to show how Seamus is mostly solitary, idle and given to grandiose fantasies that have little basis in reality. How do you balance that with the kind of dynamism that keeps your reader reading?

I even picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel for help. A sci-fi, fantasy writer named Tom Monteleone wrote it. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he said something about how, every year, a glut of novels about alienated individuals trying to make sense of the big-bad world take up space on publishers’ desks, mostly before being shoved into the recycling bin. Monteleone then says, “If you’re planning to write that kind of novel, do yourself a favor. Don’t.”

I can sort of see the wisdom in that. Only, I feel like I have to write 85A, which fits the very description of the books he condemns. Plus, I have a long history of starting and stopping novels. Dammit, I’m gonna finish this one! Sorry, Mr. Monteleone.

The MFA Question

Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of whether an MFA in creative writing is absolutely necessary for someone who would like to write and publish novels. Still, I felt the need to ask Shell her thoughts on the matter since she got an MFA at Naropa University.

I never went to grad school. Some of our greatest writers never did either. On the other hand, many of our greatest writers – Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, and my newly discovered hero Joshua Furst – did come out of MFA programs.

Shell came down on the side of it not being necessary. You can learn some good things in MFA programs, she said. You can learn the art of the short story. No one is ever prepared for the novel, though. You just gotta go balls-out.

Some years ago, I picked up a book called The Portable MFA. I liked it when I worked with it, but it’s now sitting in one of my dusty book boxes. I should dig it out again. I’ve always been the kind who has learned best outside of confining environments like classrooms and offices. That’s not to say I’ve learned nothing in those settings, but I’ve learned far less in them than I have by doing my own reading, conducting my own dialogues, and following my own interests.

I’m extremely fortunate to have someone like Shell to give me this kind of feedback. With that, let me give Shell Fischer’s services another plug and send you to her website, where you can contact her:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a novel to write.

85A Log: “What We Do Is Secret,” Joshua Furst and James Frey

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 8, 2008
Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A (from now on, I'll use his picture at the top of every 85A Log)

So, I will be meeting with Shell next Thursday, August 14th to go over the first draft of 85A. I can’t wait to hear her feedback, though, I must say, I have enjoyed my little vacation from the book.

In my sophomore year at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, we had Career Day. I went to all the career workshops that had anything to do with careers in the arts – Photographer, Actor, Musician, Arts Critic, and Writer. For a school that had little to no respect for the right brain, it’s no surprise that – instead of flying Hanif Kureishi or Kurt Vonnegut in with the mint the school raked in from its alumni association – some crusty old Jesuit got some crusty old alum, whose name I forget and whose writing was equally forgettable, to conduct the Writer’s workshop.

It was about as interesting as watching roadkill rot. The Fuddy-Duddy stood before us, crushed every bone in his feet with the names he dropped and then rattled off the titles of every award any writer worth his or her salt should vie to win. I wanted to be a writer precisely to get away from all that systemic bullshit he touted. Unmentioned went the opioid orgies that the freaks among us were dying to have with the muses.

Now that I’m done dumping all over that poor man, I will say that he offered all of us one piece of advice, which still resonates with me today. It was: “Once you write something, put it away for a couple weeks before you decide whether it’s any good.”

I guess that, on Thursday, I’ll have more perspective on whether 85A was any good. If not, who cares? Like I’ve been saying all along, that’s what next drafts are for.

So, this morning at 11 am, I took another Artist Date (see, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) and went to see the premiere of What We Do Is Secret at The Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston & 1st Avenue in Manhattan. At the box office, I stood behind some chick who had fresh bullet wounds, with blood spurting, tattooed on her neck. It was kind of cool.

Anyway, Secret is a biopic by Rodger Grossman about the rise and fall of Darby Crash, lead singer of the Late Seventies L.A. punk band The Germs. Shane West from E.R. plays Crash. Evidently, the old band members of The Germs liked West’s performance so much that they decided to reunite and make West their new lead singer.

They must’ve seen something in this movie that I didn’t see. I mean, Shane West is a good actor and all, but he doesn’t come close to expressing the raucous inner life that Crash must have had. (Let me admit before I go any further that I was never a Germ’s fan. Although I did see them featured in The Decline of Western Civilization, I know about as much about them as the folks in the geriatrics home up the street.) Evidently, a major Cross for Crash was that he was a closet homosexual, but the film shows one snippet of that bete noire and then drops it like a burning coal. Also, although Grossman did his best to convince us that Crash was a barroom-brawl-waiting-to-happen, West makes Crash seem more like a leather-clad Merry Prankster than a G.G. Allin-meets-Ian-Curtis malcontent. He even makes his suicide (coincidentally, on the day John Lennon was assassinated) look more like a madcap stunt than an act of total despair.

Great tracks from Bowie on Grossman’s flick, though – two in total, both off one of my Top 20 Albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “Five Years” plays as an allusion to Crash’s five-year plan for the Germs, which he may or may not have fulfilled before his suicide at age 22. Grossman plugs “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” as an elegy to Crash.

In fact, Crash hails Bowie several times in the movie. He’s got Aladdin Sane and Ziggy posters on his walls. He keeps putting Bowie on the guest lists for his shows even though Bowie himself wouldn’t have even heard of The Germs at the time. He demanded that the Editor-in-Chief of Slash magazine form Slash Records and record The Germ’s only LP, GI. Then, he demanded that the Editor get Bowie to produce the album, only to later settle for Joan Jett.

But didn’t that first wave of punks think Bowie was too soft and old school?

Oh! While we’re on the subject of Bowie…last night, I found out for the first time that he’s half Irish! Why didn’t anybody tell me that before? As a kid, I was always looking for Irish heroes – even if they were only part of the Irish diaspora like me – and Bowie was one of my idols.

Back to Secret, though…I’m glad I saw it. It at least reinforced some punk themes and images that will help fuel my writing on the next draft of 85A.

Plus, I’m halfway through a novel called The Sabotage Cafe by Joshua Furst. He’s a writer who teaches right here in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. His novel is outstanding! I came across it on a display table at some bookstore in the Village. Furst is such a gifted writer and his book seamlessly fades in and out of the Eighties punk scene and present-day street-kid culture.

I’ll blog about it more once I finish it – which might not be for a little while, given the work that’s on my plate – but I hope to meet him some day to congratulate him on his remarkable achievement.

In other news, Shinnyo-en in Tokyo has sent me a book to edit called, Turning the Wheel: Stories of the Buddha’s Disciples, so that’s keeping me busy between 85A drafts.

I’m also going to be reviewing Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey for Edge Magazine. It’s his first-ever novel and his first book since the 2006 Smoking Gun/Oprah scandal.

I know he lied a lot in A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, but I still enjoyed reading them. I loved his propulsive, plain-spoken narration and his unpredictable syntax. It sucked me right in and I just had to finish both books in one sitting each.

I’m about 150 pages into Bright Shiny Morning, though, and I’m not sure that the same style works for him in third-person fiction, where he has to be more detached and documentary. There isn’t the same sense of compulsion. Still, it’s good to see that he’s dropped a lot of his tough-guy facade with this book, where he treats the characters with a lot more compassion and sensitivity.

That’s it for tonight. I’m heading to a party in Clinton Hill, right across the street from Pratt actually. Wonder if I’ll see Joshua Furst there. Do I have the nerve to go up and shake his hand?

85A Log: Shell Fischer, HOW TO BE IDLE, and J.D. Salinger

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 28, 2008

Phew! The first draft of 85A is finally off to my editor friend, Shell Fischer (, I’m so relieved. Not only am I blessed to have Shell’s expert counsel, but I can also have some time away from the book. I know that I want to keep busy on it, but there are more important things in life than keeping busy.

How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

By the way, Have you read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle? It is a marvelous treatise on the creative efficacy of laziness. For Hodkinson, this does not mean occasional laziness, but laziness as a lifestyle. He makes a convincing argument in support of sustained idleness and roundly professes to practicing what he preaches. I doubt that Hodgkinson is as lazy as he claims, though. This book is so full of erudition and skillful writing that I can’t help but think that he must have been doing something with all that time on his hands. Check out his online magazine, The Idler: It’s brilliant!

While Shell turns up her sleeves to slug through 85A, a task I do not envy, I will be taking another turn through The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it one summer in high school and, for one reason or another, it didn’t grip me. But I read it cover to cover on an eight-hour flight from Paris to New York this past May. It was outstanding, kept my attention riveted the whole time. I was already writing 85A and couldn’t help but recognize the parallels between Seamus and Holden’s haplessness. I’ll read it again. It might give me ideas for a second draft of my own book.

Okay, that’s all for now. Check back with me later.

Progress Report: 85A

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 9, 2008

Lord knows I have my days, but, on balance, I could not be more thrilled with how my novel, 85A, is shaping up. It’s already crossed its 174th page and there is way more to go.

The Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Set in a racially stratified Late Eighties Chicago, 85A centers on the life and consciousness of a foul-mouthed, Johnny Rotten-obsessed, 15-year-old boy named Seamus O’Grady. Despite his rough edges, Seamus is actually a sensitive artist trying desperately to come to terms with his sexuality, spirituality, and creativity amid the authoritarianism, racism and homophobia of his household, school, neighborhood and city. At the same time, he has big dreams to live in London as a writer or actor or maybe as a psychologist like his mentor Dr. Strykeroth (with whom he has a more-than-questionable relationship).

This day-in-the-life, stream-of-consciousness narrative tracks Seamus’ inner life and outer struggle as he takes the 85A bus to the Chicago L, which brings him to the high-performing Catholic school that is itching to kick him out. Will the heads of the school expel him? And what would he do if they did? These are but two of the besetting questions facing Seamus. My largest ambition for this work is to plumb the depths of Seamus’ character while giving readers a vivid snapshot of life in 1980s Chicago.

Given Seamus’ emulation of Johnny Rotten, my fear is that this book would be too vulgar for a publisher of fiction and/or Young Adult fiction, but…

editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer - Writer/Editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer will be helping me edit the manuscript once I manage to heft it on to her desk. I couldn’t think of a better ‘nother-set-of-eyes than Shell. She is a freelance writer and editor here in Brooklyn and the author of a saucy new novel called The Joy of Mom. If you require writing and editing services, I highly recommend her. Go to

So, having Shell sets my mind at rest. Plus…

I ran into my friend Libba Bray today at Tea Lounge on Union Street & 7th Avenue, here in sunny Park Slope, Brooklyn. Libba is the author of the monstrously successful Young Adult books A Great And Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. We used to write in the same cafe together – she the legend, me the aspiring. Today, when I voiced my trepidation about the marketability of a book as profane as 85A, she spoke with enormous pride and conviction about how YA genre books have become more and more unflinching. If A Clockwork Orange were submitted for first-time publication today, it’d probably find a happy home in YA. I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t know why I was surprised, though. Libba’s work is pretty two-fisted itself.

When I do get a publisher, I’m going to make a special request that I get to keep the quotes already featured on each of the three sections of my book. (That is, if it still has three sections after the publishers get done with it…)

The first quote for Part I comes from:

The Who - Quadrophenia

The Who - Quadrophenia

The song, “Four Faces” from The Who’s Quadrophenia:

You must have heard of them, a kind of screwed-up blend

Split personality

Two sides to fight and argue all night

Over coffee and tea…

I’ve got four hang-ups I’m trying to beat

Four directions and just two feet

Got a very very secret identity

And I don’t know which one is me.

From the time I started writing this book (originally, a short story) in January 2008, it never ceased to amaze me how much influence the album and movie Quadrophenia had on my personal aesthetic and sensibility. Seamus is just as confused as Jimmy, if not more so. (He’s younger, though…)

The quote from Part Two comes from…

New York Dolls

New York Dolls

The New York Dolls’ 1973 invective, “Personality Crisis”

All about the Personality Crisis

You got it while it was hot

But now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got…

In 85A, Seamus’s got a personality crisis, big-time.

Final quote, Part III, comes from:

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

The great Tennessee Williams: “There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go.” Part Three is where Seamus finds himself at the most harrowing crossroads of his life.

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Speaking of literary masters and writing (and because I have not been overzealous enough with posting pics), I read somewhere that Hemingway only wrote 500 words a day. This was an enormously helpful bit of news on those days when I had a famine of ideas but couldn’t answer to my conscience if I didn’t meet some healthy writing quota. I set 500 words as my daily minimum and often found myself surpassing that number each time a narrative momentum started to pick up. But we must also heed the advice that Hemingway gives in A Moveable Feast, which was basically: quit while you’re ahead; otherwise you won’t have anything to start with the next day.

Okay, so, that’s all for now re: 85A. More field reports coming soon.