Friday, October 30, 2009

time for fiction

Earlier this month I sent a proposal to my agent for a book about my experience in the mayor's office. It's the third proposal I've written about the subject over the last year. When I heard back a couple week's later, the message was pretty much the same: "Great story. Great writing. Not quite enough there to warrant a book."

This time around the angle was to use the Funkhouser story as a device to examine the decline of the American newspaper. I offered the Kansas City Star as a model for the Great American Newspaper and the Funk saga as an example of the paper exerting its power and directly impacting a city. The time frame for the story conveniently includes a period when the Star lost tons of staff and its news coverage became more anemic than ever, causing the news makers themselves to essentially give up on them and start feeding news directly to a dude who lives in his mom's basement.

It's a different take on the much talked about story of the death of the newspaper. It's not about the ideal of the Fourth Estate -- the noble watchdog -- slipping away. It's about what happens when an institution of power loses its strength, what happens to its power.

Great subject and story, no doubt. And I just about had it nailed, except for two obstacles: 1. I'm too close to the story; 2. I couldn't figure out the news hook for two years from now, when the book would come out.

I think I could probably deal with the first one with good old self deprecation and lots of it. But still. It wouldn't be easy. I am too close to the story.

The second one? That's a really tough hurdle. The problem is that things are happening so quickly in the news industry that I can't even begin to suggest what the world's going to look like when the book comes out.

So I'm putting this one on the shelf to revisit as a memoir years from now.

What now?

Young adult fiction!

I've started a novel about a group of nonconformist druggies at a suburban high school who mount a bid for the student body presidency and win.

I'm only a little ways into it and I'm loving the hell out of it. I've got a lot of the plot mapped out, and a solid theme is starting to emerge.

And the timing is perfect. I'm in the graduate writing program at KU. Next semester I'm taking a writing workshop and literature class with Laura Moriarty. Except it's not really a literature class. She's teaching the modern novel as a form. The class is geared toward writers; we'll pick apart acclaimed books and figure out what makes them work.

Also, my recent switch to a new agent better fits the new plan. She spent most of her career as an editor at various publishing houses, most recently FSG (she bought my book), where she edited a couple of my absolutely favorite books (1, 2). About half of her clients are novelists; she's got lots of experience helping writers pull books into shape.

All in all, I'm quite happy on the writing front. I wish I had an advance to live off of. But you can't have it all.

And for those of you hoping for more deep, dark secrets about the Funk and Gloria show, you might get your wish. My article for didn't fully exorcise my demons. I'm more than likely going to write a multi-part series for KC Downtowner.

The Salon piece was geared toward a national audience. A lot of the material was familiar to locals. Plus, it was more about all the weirdness and a lot less about the policy stuff. And there's some pretty interesting policy aspects of the story.

Really, the question isn't so much if as when. I was planning to roll it out sometime next year, when the race for mayor heats up. But I might start as early as next month, depending on whether or not some of the rumors that are swirling around City Hall are proven true.

The thing that got me thinking that now is better than later was an email I received this week from someone wanting to know: How did a man who ran on bringing an end to secretive, deal-making, vindictive politics turn into such a secretive, deal-making, vindictive mayor?

I'm not sure I can fully answer those questions -- Mark Funkhouser and Gloria Squitiro are profoundly strange and impossible to fully comprehend, even for those who become very close to them. But I think I can shed some light.

More importantly, I hope, I can show how the whole debacle emerged out of our system of government and the culture that dominates City Hall at this moment in Kansas City's history, and some of the ways the whole ordeal has altered city governance -- most of them for the worse.

So stay tuned.

As for this site, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I got a nice note the other day asking me to post more personal stuff. I haven't been lately because I've been absolutely swamped with school and writing a column.

But one of my favorite sayings is, "If you want something to get done, give it to a busy person."

My experience is that the more I have on my plate, the more I can add to it, and the more I get done.

Maybe it's time to test the limits of that theory.