Before I read the first chapter of Wasted to an small, but engaged crowd at the Ecology Center, I talked about how I came to write the book. My favorite part was describing how, last year, I had the opportunity to read my own book as if I were a reader and not its author.
In the 1990s, in addition to serving on the Ecology Center board of directors and working at the Sierra Club as a writer and designer, I was covering recycling and other environmental issues for a variety of publications, including the East Bay Express, where I wrote a cover story titled “The End of Garbage.”
I visited the Altamont Landfill, the San Leandro transfer station, Urban Ore and other salvage yards, and interviewed dozens of people. I had so much material that my first draft was like spaghetti, strands of pasta twisting all over the place.
Eventually, I wrestled that monster draft into submission and distilled it into something suitable for print, and got lots of kudos for the story. Some folks suggested I turn it into a book.
I had enough material for half a book already. Probably more. And the idea of writing a book had always appealed to me. The thing is, I rarely read nonfiction books. I read magazines and news stories, sometimes even the really long ones in the New Yorker, all the way to the end. But a nonfiction book, beginning to end, not that often. A couple I loved come to mind — Cadillac Desert, Fast Food Nation. Both had great storytelling. They were written like novels.
What I wanted to write was the kind of book I liked to read. Fiction. Fast-paced, with a dramatic story and compelling characters, well-written, but not necessarily something you’d study in literature class.
So I took a couple classes at UC Extension, one on mystery writing, another on writing a novel. Somewhere along the way, I decided that a mystery set in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling might be fun to write and read.
Through the UC Extension class, I connected with some other writers and ended up becoming part of a critique group that lasted 12 years. Some of my fellow writers read Wasted many times, often in two- or three-chapter chunks, with months in between, sometimes multiple drafts of the same sections.
Then, in the early 2000s, satisfied that I was “finished,” I sent out query letters to about 60 or 70 agents. I got about eight or nine nibbles, two who read the whole book, and one who I was sure was going to take me on, but didn’t. She said she really liked it, but didn’t think she could sell it. She may say that to everyone she turns down.
I put the book aside, got on with my life, and a few years later, wrote and published Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, a thriller set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico.
I had intended from the beginning to self-publish, because it was easier than ever, and because I knew that not only might I once again not be able to find an agent, but if I did, getting the book to print could take a while and I wanted to be done in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.
I only missed that by a year.
Finding readers has been challenging, but response has been heartening. Enough so that, in the spring of last year, I decided to go back and read Wasted again, rework it one or two more times and get it out onto the marketplace.
One day in the spring of 2014, when I was about three-quarters of the way through the book, and it was lunchtime and I was hungry, but I couldn’t stop reading. The story was racing along, and I could not remember where it was going. I was totally hooked.
It had been maybe five years since I’d last picked it up, and I read the book almost as if I were reading it for the first time. I’d forgotten enough of the details that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. That was a pretty thrilling feeling. The only time I experienced Wasted as a reader and not as the author.
Of course, I also saw plenty of potential for improvement, so I spent another year, rewriting it, sharing it with beta readers, and making it at least 10 percent better.
You can read the first three chapters at greennoir.com.
My next reading is on Saturday, October 17, 7 pm, at Copperfields Books in San Rafael.