New Voice: Joseph Lunievicz on Open Wounds

Joseph Lunievicz is the first-time author of Open Wounds (WestSide, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Cid Wymann, a scrappy kid fighting to survive a harsh upbringing in Queens, New York, is almost a prisoner in his own home. His only escape is sneaking to Times Square to see Errol Flynn movies full of swordplay and duels. He’s determined to become a great fencer, but after his family disintegrates, Cid spends five years at an orphanage until his injured war-veteran cousin “Lefty” arrives from England to claim him.

Lefty teaches Cid about acting and stage combat, especially fencing, and introduces Cid to Nikolai Varvarinski, a brilliant drunken Russian fencing master who trains Cid. 

By 16, Cid learns to channel his aggression through the harsh discipline of the blade, eventually taking on enemies old and new as he perfects his skills.

Open Wounds is the page-turning story of a lost boy’s quest to become a man.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

When I was eight my mother married a second time and we moved to a new town. The year before we moved I’d had a mean third grade teacher who had turned me off on reading.

I don’t know the details, but I know that because of my experience in third grade my mother was worried about how I would do in my fourth grade class. She really thought I wouldn’t read gain.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Gheller, turned out to be a wonderful woman who knew how to get boys interested in reading. She read The Cay by Theodore Taylor (Avon, 1969), to us out loud from beginning to end, and while she read to us, I fell in love with reading again.

I remember being terribly caught up in the adventure of the boy Phillip, his ship wreck with the man Timothy, and their cat on the island of Curacao. From that time on, I read just about anything but I was especially drawn to adventure stories.

In seventh grade my best friend introduced me to The Hobbit (Houghton Miffliln, 1937) and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien (Houghton MIfflin, 1965), and although it took me a while to persevere and read The Fellowship of the Ring from cover to cover, it gave me a lifetime interest in fantasy and science fiction that I carry with me today. That same friend was killed in a train accident the following year and reading became one of the ways I coped with his death.

I found and read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (A.C.McClurg, 1917) and read the whole John Carter of Mars series. I moved on to Conan by Robert E. Howard (Ace Books, 1967) then became a fan of The Stand by Stephen King (Doubleday, 1978) and Salem’s Lot (Doubleday, 1975), which both terrified and thrilled me.

I spread out my interests to mystery writers like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (Fawcett Publications, 1964 through 1984) series and historical novels from writers like Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian.

I was the kind of teenager who read all the time and everywhere. I carried a book in my backpack with me wherever I went and stayed up late reading into the night way best my bedtime, so caught up in stories that I couldn’t put them down. I still do that today.

The themes of adventure, loss, world building, swordplay, and the challenges of growing up all heavily influenced the development of my debut novel Open Wounds.

I have also always been fascinated by the first and second World Wars–two events that have shaped every aspect of our modern 2011 society. As I think back now, even The Cay was a story that took place during World War Two.

My natural father (who died when I was a teenager) was a paratrooper in the Second World War, and my great uncle was one of the first to see the concentration camps–something he never talked about. My uncle was in North Africa fighting Rommel, and my step-father and father-in-law were in the Korean War. Warfare surrounded me, in the stories I heard from my family and in the books that I read, whether they were fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction.

My protagonist, Cid Wymann learns of the horrors of war through his cousin-guardian Winston Arnolf Leftingsham. “Lefty” is an English veteran from the first World War. He’s lost his left side, arm, leg, and eye, from artillery shelling and mustard gas. He is rotting from the inside out, and his smell is the smell of the trenches.

Cid’s view of the war is through the lens of film and Hollywood, and when he meets Lefty, his eyes are opened up to the reality of war’s aftermath. Lefty’s nightmares tell Cid about the horrors that he experienced, the death and the carnage.

I read to escape, and Cid sees movies, reads The New York Times, and reads books to escape his harsh childhood, the violence that is done to him, and the many losses that he undergoes. But even with these things there is adventure, great battles, heroic deeds, friendship, and love–all the things that my childhood and teenage readings were also filled with. This balance is what helps Cid to survive and what I hope I brought to my first novel Open Wounds.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Photo by Casey Fatchett Photography.

I have a full-time job as the director of a small not-for-profit training institute and a part-time job as a yoga instructor in addition to writing. I have a nine-year-old son, and a wonderful, patient, partner who happens to be my wife, who also works part time in addition to the full time job of taking care of our son.

And we have two dogs. I just thought I’d add that in.

So how do I find the time to write? It isn’t easy, and it has changed over time. I’ve gone through three phases in my writing career, and I’m sure another one is on the way as my life changes and the needs of jobs and family also change.

The way I write has been greatly influenced by these patterns and habits in both good ways and bad.

These phases can be divided into two time periods: before my son was born (phase one) and after (phase two and three).

Phase One

Before my son was born I wrote mostly in the morning before work. I got more work done when I worked a job that started at 10 a.m. rather than 9 a.m., but doing HIV/AIDS work was emotionally exhausting and highly stressful so I didn’t have the energy when I got home to write. My brain was usually fried, so the evenings were very unproductive for me. I wrote between eight in the morning and nine. I averaged anywhere from twenty minutes to an a hour of writing each morning usually three-to-five mornings a week.

I am a morning person with more energy and focus in the a.m. so this worked well for me for years. I wrote four novels that way, about one every year or so.

I used a technique I learned from Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block (Harper, 1994). Each morning I would edit what I wrote the day before and then write forward from there. I usually knew what was coming next but no more than that. Sometimes I had a larger plot point targeted, and sometimes I didn’t and was simply surprised by where I eventually ended up.

Every once in a while I’d do revisions at night, but it was rare. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was writing. I’d think about it while walking to work or on the subway, or on the treadmill at the gym or lifting weights.

You might say the characters, especially in my first draft, would be with me most of the time, in my peripheral vision. My wife has complained many times that I am married to my computer, but I think it’s more to my characters. It’s like living multiple lives one after the other and can be confusing at times.

Phase Two

After my son was born, I switched almost immediately to writing in the evening. I love being a father, but it is also exhausting. My normal writing time became taking-care-of-my-son time. He would usually go to bed around eight (though he has never liked to go to sleep), so I would finally get time to write around 10 p.m. I started writing late evenings between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., usually an hour or so would be all I could keep my eyes open for. I wrote most of Open Wounds late in the evening like this.

Problems with anxiety (I have struggled with an anxiety disorder most of my life) led me to develop a daily yoga practice early in the morning. This also made it difficult to write any time but in the evening. The problem is, getting less and less sleep has made it harder and harder to write in the evening, when my energy levels are at their lowest anyway. Many evenings I fall asleep with my son when putting him to bed. It’s a joke around our house that when I put my son to bed I usually fall asleep before he does. He’s gotten a lot of extra reading time out of that.

Phase Three

So… in this last six months I’ve gone back to early morning work for my fiction and evening work for my other writing and marketing (interviews, blog, essays). I write two-to-three days each week for 20-40 minutes at a time usually between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. It’s what I’ve been able to carve out time-wise and makes for slow productivity, but it keeps me moving forward.

There have been three keys to making these kinds of schedules work. The first one is to make an appointment with myself to write and keep it. The second is to accept that I’ll get less sleep the night before I’m going to write. I’ll wake up at 5 a.m. and once six hits, there is a shower to take, clothes to put on, dogs to take out and feed, my son’s lunch to make for school, his breakfast to prepare, his clothes to put out, my son to wake up and feed (the dogs help with that), and my wife to help to get him out the door. Some mornings, if I’m lucky I can stay home an extra 30 minutes and write before I go into work. There are times when it’s good to be the boss.

The third key is to remember that even twenty minutes one day a week is enough time to write a novel–if you string enough twenty minute segments together over a longer period of time. Open Wounds took me seven years to write, but I wrote it over the first seven years of my son’s life when time was at a premium. A lot of those first years are still a bit hazy for me.

Only four times in my life have I had the chance to write full time. I was invited to write at four, two-week stays at Ragdale Foundation artists retreat in Lade Forest, Illinois; just outside of Chicago just before my son was born. It was a great chance to see if I could write every day and to see how much each day I could write. I found out that I could write about four hours in the morning and revise three-to-four hours in the afternoon after a good two-hour break for a run or the gym and lunch.

I did this pretty much every day for the 12 full days of writing that I had. I would write five-to-ten new pages each day and came out with 50 to 75 new pages of work from each visit.

But I also know it would be hard to continue like that. Writing retreats are very focused times without any distractions – just you and your room. I craved company in the evenings and in the afternoons towards the end of my stay like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know if I could last a full month, but I sure would like to try.

What advice do I have? Set a time to write and write. Be realistic about your capabilities. If your expectations are unrealistic, you will fail in meeting your goals. Small goals allow for easier success, and each success you have helps you to increase your self-efficacy–your belief in your ability to do more. Don’t try to write eight hours a day for five days unless that’s your style and you have the time.

Remember, small amounts of time can work too. Work will take you longer to finish but… you will finish. When you only have twenty minutes to write, you’d be surprised how quickly you learn to focus and get typing.

Finally, remember that thinking time is also writing time, but sooner or later you have to sit down and type.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt, check out the teacher’s guide, and visit Joseph’s author blog.

See also The Smell of Vinegar by Joseph Lunievicz from YA Bliss. Peek: “With so many details available to establish time and place in a historical novel it’s hard to figure out which ones to leave in, and which ones to leave out. Too many details quickly overburden the narrative with unnecessary detail. Too few leave you wondering where and when the characters exist – with the default being the present.”

4 thoughts on “New Voice: Joseph Lunievicz on Open Wounds

  1. Cynthia, Joe's book is great! Thanks for featuring him today. He's one of the nicest authors there is – along with you, of course!

  2. Cynthia, thank you for giving me a chance to talk to your folks. Your questions were really thought-provoking and interesting to choose from and the layout you use (great book covers – especially the John Carter Princess of Mars!) is really wonderful – as are all the links you included to other features. Thank you again – Joe

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