Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The LIRR: My Rolling Editorial Office

Twenty-two years. That’s how long I’ve been a daily passenger on the Long Island Railroad. I’ve pretty much seen it all over these past two decades. Crazed commuters. Yapping yentas. Cell phone screamers. High stakes card games. Reckless revelers. Ticked-off ticket-takers. I’ve weathered broken trains, busted seats, overcrowded cars, overheated passengers, increased fares and a world of noise. And yet over the past 14 years, I’ve somehow managed to complete a full-length novel on my daily back-and-forth commute aboard America’s busiest railroad.

          According to Wikipedia, the LIRR averages a weekday ridership of more than 337,000. On some noisy days it feels like there are that many in my train car! The railroad - founded in 1834 - now has 124 stations, more than 700 miles of track, and stretches from the eastern tip of Suffolk County to Manhattan’s Penn Station. It’s also one of the few commuter railroads to operate 24/7. For better or worse, it has been my ride to and from work since 1994.

          Okay, so I’ve got to admit, I didn’t actually write my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, on the train. At least not the first draft. That was done over a three-month span at a desktop computer when I was living in Bayside, Queens in the autumn of 2002. Then came the re-writes. No first novel by any aspiring author is ever publication-ready after the first attempt. Dare I say that the same applies to writers at every level of their career. It’s not just the discovery of typos and missing quotation marks. First drafts are a writer’s best attempt to put the story down on paper. Little did I know that this monumental accomplishment would actually be one of the easier aspects of preparing my novel for publication.

Re-writes require a great deal of discipline and determination. Also a dose of serious concentration and a more discerning pair of eyes. You find yourself cutting many well-written but unnecessary paragraphs, pieces of research, and sometimes even eliminating a character, or story-line. It can be painful at times, but is entirely necessary.

          When I lived in Bayside, my commute to Penn Station was a mere 17 minutes on average. Hardly the sort of ride that would allow more than a quick peek at a few pages. I vividly recall printing out the full 402 page document and tucking it inside my work bag. This of course was back in the day when tablet computers didn’t exist and laptops were cumbersome to carry. By the time I found a seat and displayed my ticket for the conductor, I had time to peruse  perhaps as many as five pages before arriving at Penn. Another five would be read on the way home from the city.

          This early round of editing had me traveling with two different colored pens to make various notations on the pages. Blue was for corrections and new content. Black was used to cross out sentences, or even full paragraphs. And heaven forbid the train ever come to a short stop while I attempted to mark the pages in ink… a discouraging mishap that occurred all-too-often.

          My older daughter, Amber, was not yet two when I took the plunge into this process of becoming a novelist. Her evening schedule required my loving participation. So even with my wife’s very best efforts, I still could not concentrate full-time at home on whipping this novel into shape on my “downtime.” Being a new Dad left me to a handful of bleary-eyed late-night hours to plug in my mark-ups from the train ride home, email the updated document to myself, and print out the next several pages for tomorrow morning’s commute. This was in an era just before external hard drives, memory sticks and the like.

          It took me a full three years of polishing (mostly on the train) before I came to the realization that I needed a professional editor. I had been printing out the document and allowing a few close friends and family members a gander, receiving much encouragement. But when I shared it with some publishing professionals, the feedback wasn’t nearly as complimentary. In fact, it was the kick in the butt that I greatly needed.

Editor and Author Jeannette de Beauvior
          Jeannette de Beauvoir is both a published novelist and an experienced editor. I selected her in large part because she had stated on her website that she was a fan of 1970s folk music. We hit it off right away and agreed on three rounds of editing. However, with my busy day-job and continuing parental responsibilities, the train commutes became all the more essential. Now living on Long Island’s south shore, my commute had grown from 17 to 45 minutes each way. Some may have considered this a drawback. In my case, it more than doubled my precious editing time. A fortuitous inconvenience.

          The LIRR passengers have their unofficial code of conduct and routines. Morning commutes tend to be quieter. Especially those prior to 7:30am. Sure, you’ll always get your occasional conversations, although most passengers are respectful of their decibel level. I say “most” because sometimes – particularly on summer Monday mornings – you’ll get some loud out-of-towners who carelessly violate this decorum. And then there are the groups of friendly daily riders who sit in clusters and hold boisterous gossip-fests across the center aisle, drawing angry glares from those trying to rest, or concentrate on work. To be stuck in a four-seater with one of these groups can prove a fate worse than root-canal.

          Afternoon trains tend to be far noisier. Those in the 4pm hour are often packed with construction workers just getting off a jobsite. One can regularly find these burly hard-hats drinking copious amounts of beer, while holding loud, foul mouthed rank-out sessions. Relocation to another car is strongly recommended, even when one isn’t trying to edit a novel. Commuters on afternoon rush hour trains also tend to increase their speaking volume. It can prove an annoyance to those concentrating on work, although it is more tolerated than the morning westbound rides. An investment in an MP3 player and a pair of earbuds is a MUST for those who prefer peace of mind.

          Most riders fall into a routine of catching regular trains home in the evening. Mine became a 6:05 express. I generally ride at the front of the train in order to be closer to my car when pulling into the station. Suffice to say, I encountered an interesting cast of regulars.

A spry quartet of 60-something men would regularly engage in heated rounds of blackjack with a deck of cards resting on a flattened FedEx box. Serious money was usually at stake. One woman – a wedding planner perhaps – would chat loudly and constantly on her phone about catering and flower arrangements, oblivious to the angry glares of those around her. And then there is one 40-something woman who would call her family and friends each evening, routinely revealing generous personal details including her home address for dinner delivery, and her house alarm code for her forgetful kids to get inside. It is a testament to the morals of daily LIRR commuters that this single-mom and her family weren’t robbed, or physically harmed.

          The suggestions from my editor were plugged in at home in my constantly changing Word document. Re-reads of these revisions continued to be conducted along the rickety tracks between Manhattan and Merrick. This process took just over four months to complete. And even after we had deemed it “ready,” I continued to tinker with improving the pages using techniques that she had taught me. Meanwhile, the initiation of a “quiet car” program on the train helped to create a more conducive working environment. It was all falling into place.

          Two years later, I landed a literary agent. I was supplied with a trio of editing reports from the in-house editors and a two month-deadline to implement them. My daily commute was never more valuable. Without those 90 minutes of round-trip revisions, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it completed in time. Not that it mattered in the end.

          An impasse with my agent over the degree of “adult content” caused me to shelve the project for the past several years. Well, sort of. I never really stopped polishing it. My purchase of a tablet device in 2011 enabled me to resume daily editing without having to schlep piles of printed pages in my work bag. It was on the LIRR that I developed a new ending to the original story. And eventually it became my research headquarters for various publishing options.

          It has been a long and arduous journey for me in bringing Poet Of The Wrong Generation to publication. The tracks between New York City and Long Island are figuratively littered with countless sentences, paragraphs and characters cut from the original manuscript. I can’t be certain as to whether my novel is the first to be so thoroughly constructed on the Long Island Railroad. But no doubt, I can’t imagine of another book in which more time was invested by an everyday commuter.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.

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