This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Just Answer the Question

            Every so often you set out to get an answer to one question and end up learning something else altogether. Something like that happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was attempting to finalize the cover of my fourth mystery novel.
            The cover image, which I conceived and developed with the help of a very good graphic designer, was to show a football field at night, with a lone pompon lying forlornly in the foreground, suggesting a missing cheerleader. It’s a simple enough concept in concept, but it took several attempts before I was satisfied that the pompon was immediately readable as a pompon.
            If readers look at a book cover and go, “eh?” when they see it, that is not something that is likely to increase sales. So, given the downside of being wrong, I decided to get a few more opinions on how well the pompon image worked before I put it out there on Amazon.

Unscientific, But Telling

            I had the cover image as a jpg and decided to email it around to a few friends to see what they thought. I settled on three men and three women and sent it out to everybody at the same time.
            In the covering email, I simply said that I’d like them to look at the book cover and tell me in a line or two what they saw in it. It seemed to me like a straightforward and unambiguous request, and I really wasn’t prepared for what came back.
            Two women and two men replied within a couple of days, and the responses were clearly differentiated by gender. Both the women wrote that they saw a football field with a pompon on it, which was the answer I was hoping for. The men, on the other hand, looked at it completely differently.

What’s the Catch?

            Both of the guys, interestingly, regarded it as a trick question, and in their response tried to point out what they thought was the hidden flaw in the picture, without making any attempt to describe the picture, which is what I was asking them to do.
            One of my friends thought that the bench behind the football field shouldn’t have been there. Another thought he saw someone peeing in the trees in the background. Both of them said they weren’t completely sure of it and didn’t know whether they had registered the trick in the photo.  Neither response was any help to me in terms of getting a confirmation or denial as to whether the pompon registered.
            One of them subsequently wrote, in response to a followup question, that of course that was a pompon in the foreground. Since nobody had said they were wondering what that lump above my name was, I figured at that point that I was overthinking the matter and that the cover was fine. My friends helped me figure that out, certainly, but they also provided a valuable object lesson in yet another way that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What's In a Book Title?

            In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles. It’s the sort of thing authors do when they’re nearing the end of a book and haven’t yet named it. Nonfiction writers have it easy; they can always go with something drawn from the subject matter. With fiction, one has to be a bit more opaque.
            I’ve written on this subject before, and to summarize my conclusions, a good title for a work of fiction should ideally convey a sense of the feel and tenor of the book. I don’t believe titles sell books as a rule, and the reality is that most books have rather prosaic titles.
            Looking at the mysteries on the bookshelf in front of me, for example, I see: The Stone Wife (Peter Lovesey), Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie), A Beam of Light (Andrea Camilleri), The Return (Hakan Nesser), and Finding Moon (Tony Hillerman). Well known authors all, but the titles hardly grab you by the lapels.

It Was Easy at First

            For my first two mystery novels, I had decided on the title before I even started writing. The McHenry Inheritance was a straightforward distillation of the essence of a book that revolved around a challenged will, and Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from the well-known poem by Oliver Goldsmith, got to the heart of the murder victim’s character.
            The third book was more of a struggle, title-wise. At the outset, I considered a half dozen possibilities, but wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Two thirds of the way through the first draft, I was no forrader, when, flipping through my Oxford Book of English Verse, I came across a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that ended with the words, “not death, but love.”
            The sonnet itself dovetailed wonderfully with the themes of the book, and the final words of the poem made for a great title. So, Not Death, But Love it was.

Seems to Get Harder

            The fourth book, which should be out in a few months, was even harder to name than the third one. Coming up with a title was like digging a ditch in frozen ground. I had a couple of ideas early on, but the more I thought about them, the less I liked them. Given that I still like the titles of my first three books, that probably meant the early ideas for Book Four weren’t right.
            Finally, a breakthrough of sorts came when I was discussing the matter with my sister Susan, a poet of some renown in New York City. She asked me what the name of the town was, where the story took place. Alta Mira, I said. She suggested something like Bad Day at Alta Mira.
            That title didn’t fit the book, but it got my train of thought on the right track. The book is about a mountain town undergoing a double trauma. Several female students have inexplicably gone missing from the local community college, and a high school cheerleader has accused the quarterback of getting her drunk and raping her at a party.
            It occurred to me that the book’s theme is that the young women in town — its daughters, if you will — are in danger, and the book is about attempts to set right the wrongs done to them. So I came up with The Daughters of Alta Mira, and that one felt right the more I thought about it, so that’s what it will be.
            Now all I have to do is come up with a title for Book Five.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Marines and My Book Cover

            One of the less lovely aspects of self-publishing is that the author has to do it all. There’s no publishing house to provide the backup of cover design, writing the dust-jacket blurb, formatting the book for printing, etc. You can, of course, hire people to do some of this, but the results can be unsatisfactory.
            I’ve always taken the lead role in designing the covers of my mystery novels. I flatter myself that I have an above-average visual sense, and I have worked with photographers and graphic designers throughout a 40-plus-year professional career. So I usually come up with a concept for the cover, along with supporting items to get the project started, before turning it over to my go-to graphic designer.
            One of the things I like to do in this regard is take a photograph that can serve as a basic template for the cover design, and it was in the course of doing so that the story you are about to read unfolded.

The Best Laid Plans

            For the cover image for my fourth novel, I needed an image of a football field. I wanted the image configured in a certain way, with the field in the foreground, a yard-line number showing clearly, and the goalposts in the background.
            Such a photo no doubt exists within the stock archives available to graphic designers, but it could be hard to locate, and subtle distinctions in terms of what I wanted could result in a number of false starts.
            So I decided to take the picture myself.
            One of the high schools in our area has a football field with southern goalposts backed up by a row of trees. With no identifiable background, it could pass for anywhere. Monday night after dinner, Linda and I set out for that field to get the photo from the exact angle I wanted.
            We got to the high school, parked, and walked up to the athletic field. It was nearly deserted, the light was perfect, yet the picture I wanted was impossible. With football season long over, the field had been converted to soccer, and a huge soccer goal directly under the football goalposts ruined the shot.

Marines to the Rescue

            Off to the side of the field, on the track that circles it, I saw a group of young men in shorts and T-shirts, with a slightly older man holding a clipboard. Thinking he might be a coach at the school, I went up and asked if he knew how long the soccer goals would remain where they were.
            It turned out that the clipboard man was not with the school, but rather was a Marine Corps recruiter, who was testing several applicants to see how physically fit they were. He asked me what I wanted, and I explained that I needed to get a photo of the football goalposts without the soccer goal underneath them.
            “Oh, we can move that for you,” he said. And he ordered his recruits to push the soccer goal out to the 30-yard-line so I could get on the field and take my picture. The goal was on rollers, but was big enough and heavy enough that Linda and I couldn’t have done it. For seven husky Marines-to-be, it was a piece of cake. I got my cover photo, they pushed the goal back, and we all got about our business.
            So when Book Four comes out this fall, there will be a line in the acknowledgements reading, “Thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps, Santa Cruz Recruiting Office, for visual assistance with the cover image.” This is the story behind that acknowledgement.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Idea and the Execution

            In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called Saboteur. It starred Robert Cummings as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in California, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop the Statue of Liberty.
            It was maybe the 20th best movie Hitchcock ever made, and is seldom seen today, except at Hitchcock film retrospectives.
            In 1959, 17 years later, Hitchcock made a movie called North by Northwest. It starred Cary Grant as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in New York, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop Mount Rushmore.
            It’s widely regarded, half a century later, as a masterpiece, one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.

Same Idea; Different Execution

            The discerning reader will no doubt have noted that Saboteur and North by Northwest were essentially the same movie. Except that they weren’t, and the contrast between them shows the difference that the execution of an idea makes.
            As a mystery novelist, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. My standard reply is that ideas are all over the place and any idiot can find one. The hard part is turning ideas into a coherent story, with lively and interesting characters and details.
            In a book, the author has to get everything right without much assistance. In a movie, the actors can make a huge difference. Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, and while he did a capable job, he didn’t hold the screen the way Grant did. Similarly, the villains in the first film were not particularly memorable, whereas James Mason and Martin Landau in the latter gave such vivid performances they immediately come up in the mind’s eye, when you think about the picture.

A Matter of Tone

            North by Northwest had a better script, too, credited to Ernest Lehman. The script for Saboteur was nothing to sneer at (Dorothy Parker worked on it, for crying out loud), but about the only line I remember is Cummings’ “Who’d listen to me? I’m just an ordinary guy from Glendale, California,” which was the inspiration for the title of this blog.
            The really big difference between the two was the tone. Saboteur was released when America had just entered World War II, and the outcome was far from certain. It dealt with enemy sabotage, and the tone of the picture, despite several engagingly pleasant light moments, was pretty serious. At that point in time, a light-hearted espionage thriller would have been neither appropriate nor well received by audiences.
            North by Northwest, on the other hand, is a sure-handed, light-hearted romp from start to finish. The villains are simply villains, the situations are more over-the-top (think of Grant being attacked by a crop duster in the middle of a cornfield), and no one seems surprised by anything. It’s as if Hitchcock saw the story anew and realized, “Ah, this is the way to handle it.” Moviegoers everywhere are delighted he decided on a do-over.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tromping on Your Backstory

            One of the problems with writing a series of books with the same running character or characters is keeping the stories straight. You might, for instance, have a character who appeared in Book 1 and is now coming back in Book 4, but you can’t remember if in the first book he was selling insurance or real estate.
            If you’re lucky, you’ll remember where you put that information in Book 1 and be able to look it up fairly quickly. Or, perhaps, you can slide around the question of the character’s occupation. If not, well, nobody ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.
            There’s also a question of dealing with backstory. In the early books of a series, you can make up the backstory as you go along and, if you’re smart, which I wasn’t, make notes on it as you go along in case it comes up again. But another serious issue plagues the writer of serial books. At some point you get into a situation where you need to rely on some backstory that was in an earlier book.

Teasing Without Spoiling

            I’m encountering that situation now, in the fourth book of my Quill Gordon mystery series. I’m trying to create a situation where Gordon, my protagonist, is letting go of some issues created in the first book, The McHenry Inheritance, and writing those sequences is a case of threading an extremely fine needle.
            If everyone who reads the fourth book has already read the first three, there would be no problem. But that’s never the case. Some readers are scrupulous about reading a series of books in the order written. Others, like me, read whatever books in the series we can get at the time and come back to the others later.
            I try to write my books in such a way that each one will stand alone, but also in a way such that a reader who takes them in order will see some growth and development. But there’s one other consideration that looms large in writing these types of backstory scenes.

Oh, No! You Spoiled It!

            For readers who haven’t yet read the earlier books, you don’t want to spoil the surprises in them. So if you’re mentioning something in a past book, you need to do it in such a way that the reader who read the earlier book will understand, while the reader who hasn’t read the book can at least get the general picture without missing out on some of the surprises if and when he or she does get to the earlier book.
            How, exactly, does the author do this? I don’t know of any magic way. It basically becomes a situation where the author has to say, “I’ve read enough books and written enough words that I think I know more or less how to finesse this.”
            Then you do it the best you can. Then you show it to a couple of friends and get their feedback. Then, after all that, you click “Publish” and unloose the book on a waiting and sometimes cruel world. If you’re good, lucky, or both, the stratagem will work well enough and no one will complain. If you didn’t get it right, maybe the readers will let you know, and you’ll have another chance to do it better the next time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Praise of Daylight Savings Time

            As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I always loved summertime. In addition to no school, there was a lot to love about it: Hot weather, baseball, swimming pools, fresh fruit, and long nights when it seemed as if you could play forever.
            I still recall one particular game of Over-the-Line played at Balboa Elementary School, just down the street from where we lived in Glendale.  Our three-player team had racked up a big lead, and the other team was coming up for its final at-bats just as the sun had set.
            In the gloaming, every fly ball — every pop fly, even — turned into a potentially lethal missile, nearly impossible to see or catch. We got two outs early, but our invincible lead was melting as an ice cube would have on that same playground two hours earlier. Finally, with the lead down to one run, I snaffled a ground ball for the third out and we won the game.
            It was 8:30. We walked home in the dark, laughing.

Plenty to Do After Dinner

            I don’t go out and play with friends after dinner anymore, and maybe kids today don’t do it either. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the inexplicable pending ballot initiative to end Daylight Savings Time in California.
            But even so, you’d think people would like long summer nights for other reasons. They give you time, when you get home from work, to run some errands, go for a walk, watch the sunset, or do some gardening after dinner. The earlier the sun sets, the less likely you are to do those things.
            Look, I get that people don’t like changing time and setting the clock back or forward an hour. It’s a pain and it messes up your sleep patterns for two or three days. But isn’t that small price to pay for those summer nights? If the extra hour at night lets you catch one good sunset you otherwise might have missed, the change was worth it.

An Earlier Wakeup?

            The summer solstice is on June 20 this year; sunrise in Santa Cruz that day will be at 5:49 a.m. and sunset at 8:31 p.m. The lingering light will mean you can still see without artificial light until 9 o’clock. That’s with Daylight Savings Time.
            On Standard Time, we’d be having sunrise at 4:49 a.m. and sunset at 7:31 p.m. The predawn light means you’d be able to see outside by around 4:20 a.m. I’m sure there are people who would get more done with an extra hour of light in the wee, small hours of the morning, but a whole lot more of us are going to find the light a whole lot more useful in the evening, when we’re awake.
            We are now at the beginning of what I call the Hundred Days of Light, the longest hundred days of the year. Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time are both man-made concepts, neither one inherently right or wrong. The critical question is which gives us the best use of those long days. That’s a no-brainer. It’s Daylight Savings Time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Tying Up the Loose Ends

            I once read a mystery novel by a conventionally published author of multiple titles in which four bodies were discovered in a storage locker early on. By the time the book reached its conclusion, there still had been no explanation of who killed the four people and why.
            Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Leaving one murder unaccounted for might charitably be excused as simple carelessness. Leaving the reader in the dark about four corpses borders on gross negligence.
            When something like that happens, the reader is left wondering not only about the lack of editing services at the publishing house, but also dissatisfied in a spiritual and existential way. To put it another way, unexplained puzzles are a violation of the author’s compact with the reader and the reader’s expectations.

Better Than Life

            Life is random, absurd and chaotic, which is why we expect mystery novels not to be. One of the great pleasures of a mystery novel comes from being confronted by a baffling situation (the crime) and seeing smart, competent people (the detectives) work through the confusion and get everything sorted into place. The comfort of seeing chaos turned to order is one of the reasons for reading these books.
            In the classic mysteries of the Golden Age (between the First and Second World Wars), authors took great pains to be sure and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s at the end of the book. They assumed the reader wanted that, and probably no publisher of the time would have accepted a novel that didn’t explain everything (or almost everything) in the final pages.
            In the hands of masters like Carr, Christie, and Ellery Queen, the explanations made for gripping reading. They were so tight and plausible that, after reading them, you could find yourself wondering why you hadn’t seen what the detective ultimately saw so clearly.

Sometimes Not So Plausible

            Of course, not everyone brought it off as well as the masters. I recall reading one book of that era in which the criminal got into a rowboat during a tide so high it took the water nearly to the top of a 60-foot cliff, enabling the killer to fire a shot from the wave-tossed boat through the windows of the house and plug the unfortunate victim. It was a case of better shooting than plotting.
            As a writer of mystery novels in the classical tradition, I do my best to see that a reader gets a good explanation of the crime or crimes by the end of the book. Loose ends belong in bad hair, not mystery novels. You can no longer call all the suspects into the study, as the detectives of the 1920s and 30s routinely did, but you can show the investigation as it develops and leave the reader in no doubt as to how and by whom the crime was committed.
            Tying the story up neatly by the end is important in a mystery novel, but so are character development, atmosphere and detail. It’s a challenging time to be practicing in the genre, but some of the old ways are still good ways. If nothing else, the reader should finish the book knowing what happened and why.