Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Joys of the Writing Game

I got up at 5:15 a.m. yesterday to take the early Amtrak train from central Illinois, where I live, to Chicago, where I was scheduled to do a book signing. Necessity dictated that I take the 6:30 a.m. train instead of the 8:30 a.m. train because the signing started at noon, travel time was three-and-a-half hours and you have to allow for an hour's delay for every 100 miles you travel on Amtrak.

I'm a big fan of proposals to build high-speed rail lines in the U.S .

Much to my surprise, Amtrak's early train did an unexpectedly good imitation of the Eurostar—a great way to travel between London and Paris—and arrived only five minutes late. Which left me with almost two hours to kill before the signing. That turned out to be a good thing.

Not five minutes after leaving Union Station, I was walking east along Adams Street in the pouring rain when a westbound taxi roared through a puddle big enough to hold one of Steve Alten's sea monsters. The wave that arose was not quite as high as the nearby Big Willie (formerly the Sears Tower), it only seemed that way from my point of view. I'm happy to say my reflexes are still blink-of-an-eye quick; I regret to say my umbrella wasn't adequate to stop the approaching deluge.

Though I managed to shield my head and upper body, I was doused from the waist down. I didn't think showing up for a book signing in wet pants would make a favorable impression. I needed a place to dry off. I squished into a nearby Panera cafe and ordered a chocolate pastry, a small orange juice, and 300 napkins.

The young woman behind the counter was accommodating, but said even on a rainy day the limit on napkins was twenty-five.

I did what I could. Strangely enough, I wasn't too upset. It had occurred to me things could have been a whole lot worse if the taxi had hydroplaned and tacked to port. I could have wound up as a hood ornament. Perspective is all.

The indoor heating dropped the humidity level in the café below that of Death Valley in July and the dry air soon began sucking curb water out of my pants. As I'd arrived between the breakfast and lunch rushes, I was allowed to lollygag for an hour and forty-five minutes without making any additional purchase.

Then I headed out into the still-pouring rain to go to the signing. I was welcomed to the Books A Million store at 144 S. Clark Street by store manager Jeff Burakowski. He'd graciously set up a table with a display of copies of my new book, The President's Henchman. He provided me with pens to inscribe the books, a bottle of spring water, and said I should feel free to browse the nearby display rack of magazines.

Outside, it was raining harder than ever. The temperature was 36 degrees. The wind was gusting to over 30 miles per hour. It felt colder to me than when I'd last been to Chicago at the end of January. In other words, it was a perfect day for the Chicago Cubs to play their home opener of the 2009 season. Which they did, winning on a one-hit shut out.

As for people going out to book stores on their lunch hour, things could have been better. There were people in the store, but not a lot. There were people buying books, but not too many. At the checkout stand to my immediate left, I saw two customers buy titles by James Patterson and Stephen King, respectively, but in paperback not hardcover.

Long story short, I sold exactly one book. Again, though, I didn't feel too bad about it. The woman who made the purchase, Anne, was friendly, enthused about my book's premise, and looking forward to reading it. Luckily for her, she worked in an office above the store and didn't have to get soaked to make the buy. Which isn't to say, the day being what it was, she didn't have problems. The first pen I used to write the inscription ran out of ink, and the store had trouble running her credit card. I switched to another pen, someone gave the card reader a whack, and all was well.

Except that I faced another Amtrak ride to get home. In unprecedented fashion, though, not only did the train leave on time, this one, too, experienced a delay en route of only five minutes. Amtrak must have had its Swiss crews working yesterday. And after I got home I learned that another five-star review of The President's Henchman (that makes twelve out of thirteen; the other was four stars) had been posted on Amazon.com.

It really is a terrific book, my latest, and it's being discovered bit by bit. Critical mass is going to be reached.

Someone once said you can't stop talent. You can slow it down for ten or twenty years. But eventually the sun will come out.

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