The following list is not exhaustive. I’ve been writing for nearly half a century, and inevitably there will be stories, story fragments, and other works that I’ve completely forgotten about. Most of the high (and low) points should be covered here, though.
Untitled (early-to-mid 1970s) — My first sustained effort at a novel was a soap opera-like story about a family with lots and lots of kids (as an only child, I was fascinated by the concept of siblings). Think Eight is Enough with surreal elements. There was no overall plot, just a series of loosely linked episodes—a chapter about the boys and girls digging competing tunnel systems under the house would be followed by one in which they got infected by some weird flu strain and started passing out in the halls. Periodically I’d set aside what I’d written and start the whole thing over again.
The Littles (late 1970s) — The earliest incarnation of Fool on the Hill’s sprites. The Littles were a race of tiny people who lived in the walls, cabinets, and other secret spaces of a huge house. They were organized into clans based on what part of the house they occupied: The Monster Littles lived in the basement, the Aqua Littles lived in the plumbing, etc. Like the previous work, there was no central plot, just a series of episodes—each chapter was like a short story featuring a different clan—but I always thought of it as a single, coherent tale. I think I wrote about five or six chapters in total before getting bored and moving on.
Untitled (late 1970s/early 1980s) — A fantasy novel whose plot I’ve long since forgotten. It did have one, though, and I remember too that I came very close to finishing it, completing thirteen out of a planned sixteen chapters. Once again I got bored—it really wasn’t that great a story—and gave up just shy of the finish line.
The Gospel According to St. Thomas (1982-84) — A semi-autobiographical novel about a Lutheran minister’s son who comes to question his faith, which I wrote in part as a means of letting my parents know that I wasn’t growing up to be the devout Christian they had hoped for. Although its literary merits were debatable—I was a bit too close to the material to maintain a proper artistic perspective—St. Thomas was crucial in demonstrating that I really could finish a novel if I cared enough about the subject matter.
Today’s Tom Sawyer (1985) — A very loosely Twain-inspired coming-of-age story, set in my childhood stomping grounds in Queens, with the freight and commuter train tracks that crisscrossed the neighborhood taking the place of the Mississippi River. I wrote this over the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Cornell—four hundred-plus pages in just three months, a personal record in terms of productivity. As with St. Thomas, the quality was debatable, the experience useful…but in hindsight, Today’s Tom Sawyer is most noteworthy for the embarrassing anecdote that goes with it.
During my sophomore year, I’d developed a crush on a girl in one of my classes. Rather than do something practical like introduce myself to her, I thought it would be fun to borrow a move from Peanuts creator Charles Schultz—whose Little Red-haired Girl was based on a real woman he had unsuccessfully courted—and use her as a character in this novel I was planning to write. I figured it’d make a nice icebreaker, to walk up to her out of the blue one day and hand her a copy of the finished manuscript.
Among the many, many things wrong with this plan, I failed to adequately consider the nature of my love offering. It’s one thing to give a stranger a rose or a box of chocolates, and quite another to lob a big stack of paper at her: “Oh muse, please accept, as a token of my affections, THIS HEAVY BRICK… No, seriously, take it!”
She did not fall madly in love with me. She didn’t call campus security, either, so I guess you could say I came out ahead, although, since we were both juniors, I still faced another two years of mortifying random encounters with this woman (“Hello again, person I made a complete fool of myself in front of!”). But, hey, I did get another novel out of it, and by that point, I was ready to start working on something I could actually publish.
Rocinante Understands (1988) — An updated version of Don Quixote with a female protagonist, which I aborted after only five chapters. The story concerned a woman driven mad by the death of her husband; accompanied by a homeless girl and a greyhound named Rocinante, she set out on a quest to save the world. The climax was going to have her tilting at a nuclear power plant.
Venus Envy (1988-89) — Every Protestant minister’s son has at least one lesbian vampire story in him; this was mine. Intended as a follow-up to Fool on the Hill, it was rejected by Atlantic Monthly Press. I’d like to believe that that was because the story was ahead of its time—in those pre-Ellen, pre-Melissa, pre-Willow-and-Tara days, lesbians just weren’t as cool as they are now—but it’s possible that it wasn’t that good. You can read more about it here.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, my main writing focus has always been on novel-length fiction. There have been a few exceptions to this, though. In elementary school, I wrote a number of short stories, many of them starring my classmates in scenarios cribbed from movies or TV; reading these aloud in English class was my first experience performing in front of an audience and my first solid evidence that I had what it took to entertain people with my storytelling.
“Soup” (1978) — My riff on the controversial TV series Soap, with the seventh- and eight-grade classes of Our Saviour Lutheran taking the place of the Campbells and the Tates. “Soup” was the most ambitious of my elementary-school projects: my preference for long fiction had begun to reassert itself, so instead of a single story it was a thirty-five episode serial. After reading the first few episodes aloud, I ended up circulating Xeroxes of the rest of them; at least one of my old classmates still has his copies.
“Soup II” (1979) — “Soup” proved popular enough that I eventually produced a sequel, just in time for graduation. For this one I invented an imaginary classmate (with telekinetic powers), so I’d have somebody I could kill off.
“From the Depths of the Mind of a Permanently Greedy and Very Sinister DM” (1979-80) — A chronicle of my D&D campaign, written in installments for APA-DuD, a monthly fanzine collated in the back room of The Compleat Strategist hobby shop in Manhattan. “APA” stood for Amateur Publishing Association; “DuD,” according to APA chair Robert Sacks, was short for Dungeons und Dragons.
“This Novella was Conceived in Sin” (1985) — An extended dirty joke I wrote for Alison Lurie’s creative-writing class at Cornell. After my previous submission—an early draft of the first Bohemians chapter from Fool on the Hill—was criticized by some classmates for being “too politically correct,” I set out to create something deliberately offensive (but still entertaining), hence the title.
“Novella” was set in a dystopian future where man-hating feminists had joined forces with the phone company—Ma Bell—to take over the country. Manhattan, renamed Mynhattan, was the new capital, and the Treasury now issued two separate, gender-segregated currencies: Among other shortcomings, male coins were too large to fit in standard pay phone slots.
“Novella”’s protagonist was an outlaw pornographer named Peter Richards. The story, such as it was, had him visiting a brothel and ordering something called the “Around the World” special, a complicated perversion involving seven prostitutes, each one playing the role of a different continent (Antarctica was a 500-pound, extremely pale white woman; Australia walked upside-down on her hands; you can imagine the rest). In the middle of this, the brothel got raided by the phone police, and part one of “Novella” ended with Peter Richards on the run, being chased by a Dworkinesque version of the Terminator. The joke having run its course by then, I never wrote part two.
“Nobs for Wog” (1986) — A comic fantasy short whose plot escapes me now, although I remember there was a werewolf in it. Not having entirely learned my lesson from Today’s Tom Sawyer, I wrote this to impress a girl (in this case, one I actually knew and had spoken to). Didn’t work.
Squirrel Stories, Vol. 1 – A Tour of the Nutty Mines (mid 1970s) — A 46-page hand-drawn picture book describing an acorn “mining” operation in an enormous and oddly symmetrical tree. In .pdf format (8 MB).
Squirrel Stories, Vol. 2 – The Family Album of P.J. Squirrel (mid 1970s) — A vastly inferior pseudo-sequel to the above featuring scenes from the life of a billionaire squirrel.
The Acorn People (late 1970s) — An offshoot of all those squirrel drawings, the acorn people were acorns with arms, legs, and hyperviolent tendencies who spent all of their time killing each other. Whenever things got slow at Our Saviour Lutheran school, I’d break out a spiral notebook and work on the latest battle scene. These days, this sort of anti-social doodling (I named the acorns after my classmates) would probably merit intensive psychiatric counseling, but in the ‘70s, the rules for youthful self-expression were different. As long as the acorns didn’t have sex, they could shoot, stab, and blow each other up all they wanted. In .pdf format (11 MB).
Escape from Black Castle (early 1980s) — My last foray with the acorn people, and the only one to involve an actual story, though it was still mainly an excuse to have them fight and kill each other. In .pdf format (3.5 MB).
The Musician of Hamlin (1983)* — Stuyvesant High School had an annual theatrical competition called SING, in which the senior, junior, and combined sophomore/freshman classes each put on an original musical production (the dialogue and song lyrics were original; the music was usually cribbed from other sources).
For my senior year, I submitted The Musician of Hamlin, about a magical statue that comes to life and rescues a peasant village from the local tyrant. Musician had its champions on the selection committee, but Senior SING director Ben Munisteri convinced them to go with another play, Please Pardon the Interruption, which featured song parodies from Cats—proving once again that You Can’t Stop Andrew Lloyd Weber.
*With musical contributions by classmate Brian Ross.
“An Interesting Moral Education” (2010) — An appreciation of my mom and dad, delivered at the 2010 Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing. Text here.
Letters to the Editor/Op-Ed Pieces/Book Reviews
“Dear Abby” (1992) — Written in response to an article called “Men, Women, and the Sex Thing,” by Abby Ellin, that appeared in the Boston Phoenix. While I can’t reprint Ellin’s article (see the June 19, 1992 Phoenix if you’re curious), my reply (which ran on July 17) gives enough context that you can imagine it well enough—and I still like what I wrote here.
“Cannibals & Bibliophiles” (2002) — An unpublished op-ed piece, submitted to the New York Times, in which I pointed out the hypocrisy of the Authors Guild protest against Amazon.com’s decision to sell used books alongside new books. Text is here.
Review of A Life in Pieces, by Richard K. Baer (2008) — Originally published in the Daily Telegraph. Text here.
Review of Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell (2009) — For the New York Times. Text here.
Risleyians (1987) — A parody of James Cameron’s Aliens that I did for my Cornell filmmaking class. In this version of the story, the Cornell campus administration sends in Colonial Space Marines to wipe out the “subversives” living in Prudence Risley Hall, my dorm. I was Corporal Hicks, the character Michael Biehn played in the original movie; Lisa Gold, the woman I would one day marry, was the Risleyian queen mother.
For many years, my only copy of Risleyians was an aging VHS tape. Thanks to Vonda McIntyre, I now have a clean DVD transfer. If I can work out some additional technical details, I will eventually upload this to YouTube; in the meantime, here are some frame captures from the movie.
Morningstar (1979) — A boardgame simulating “a last, desperate attack on a starbase by a group of human mercenaries,” i.e., your basic blow-up-the-Death-Star scenario, with suicide commandos taking the place of X-wing fighters. I co-designed this with Eric Berend, a fellow playtester at SPI, the wargaming company I worked for during after-school hours. We submitted our prototype for consideration, but the company wasn’t interested in publishing it, a decision I can’t really argue with. A good wargame should offer plenty of strategic options, but in Morningstar, the only real choice facing the commandos was whether to fight their way through a long series of rooms and corridors or opt for a shortcut through the starbase’s ventilation system; and either way, victory hinged more on good die rolls than good tactics.
“Role Up for the Mystery Tour” (1980) — Co-authored with Justin Leites, this was a set of expansion rules for a D&D-type minigame called DeathMaze. “Role Up” was published in Issue 51 of Moves magazine. A .pdf of the expansion is available on the BoardGameGeek website.
Congress: the Gathering (1997) — A political variant/satire of Magic: the Gathering which I wrote for possible submission to InQuest magazine but never got around to sending in. My final draft is here, but be aware that it won’t make much sense if you’re not a Magic player (and an old-school Magic player at that).