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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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The First Day on the Job

            October has been so busy that I nearly got to the end of it without pausing to remember that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of my 19-year stint with the newspaper. Given how formative the experience was, the milestone can’t be allowed to pass without comment.
            For half the time I was at the paper, my starting date, 10/16/72, appeared on the paycheck, so I’m never going to forget it. Not only the date, but the day itself will be in my memory until my last breath.
            A major storm had blown in, and it was pouring rain as I drove to the office for that first day. I arrived shortly before 8, and Ward Bushee, the managing editor who had hired me, showed me my desk, with a beat-up Underwood manual typewriter, handed me a box of business cards and a list of phone numbers for the local fire stations and the Monterey County Highway Patrol. Making those calls was my first task.

Being Cheap With Cheap Paper

            When it was time to write up a story, a reporter would put a piece of cheap paper, the type with chunks of wood in it, into the typewriter. If the story was three paragraphs or less, you were supposed to use a half-sheet to save money. When you’d typed out the story, double-spaced, you were supposed to make any necessary changes or corrections with a #2 pencil, then jam the corner of the paper on to a spike on Ward’s desk, from which he would collect it for editing.
            Many young reporters, I’ve been told, impaled their thumbs on the sharp end of the spike in the early going. The fact that I never did no doubt singled me out as potential executive material.
            I was at the end of a row of desks, with Andre Neu, the school reporter, to my right, and Howard Sheerin, the city hall reporter, behind me. Howard retired two years later, and Andre left about the same time, eventually ending up as a journalism instructor at the local community college.
            The telephones were beige and covered with a layer of permanent grime from having been repeatedly touched by ink-stained hands. The headpieces had attachments screwed on that allowed a reporter to rest the phone on a shoulder while typing or taking notes longhand.

A Scoop on the First Day

            Late that morning, Marj Von B, our legendary crime reporter, called in with an exclusive story: Nick Drobac, one of the county’s three superior court judges, was resigning to go into private practice. There were no remote computers or even fax machines in those days, so she dictated the story to me over the phone while I typed it on the Underwood. Two hours later, one of the circulation staffers came into the newsroom with copies of that day’s paper and laid one on my desk. The Drobac story was right there on the front page.
            My beat was to be North Monterey County, so that afternoon, Bill Akers, who had been covering that area, took me out and introduced me to the harbormaster, the school superintendent and business officer, and the justice of the peace. Midway through that tour, the rain finally stopped. By the time we got back, it was almost quitting time.
            Andre Neu and Judge Drobac are still alive, but the others are all gone, though I’ll never forget them. In fact, I recently had occasion to contact Drobac in connection with a publication job I’m doing for a client. That first day was the beginning of something that still continues.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"I LOVED Your Book"

            A wise person once told me that the best way to respond to a compliment is simply to say “thank you” and leave it at that. It’s good advice, and I do my imperfect best to follow it.
            In the past couple of months I’ve had more occasion than usual to follow the advice, or try to. The publication of my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and the resultant publicity led to the realization that a gratifyingly high number of people I know were willing to buy the book, read it, or both. Consequently, there were a number of follow-up compliments.
            Back in August, I wrote in this space about the problematic nature of evaluating reviews of one’s book — especially the type that can be put up on Amazon by anyone who bought it. That’s a plenty daunting proposition, but it’s easier than trying to assess the validity of compliments from friends and acquaintances.

Experience of a Cynical Newspaperman

            My attitude toward receiving compliments will be colored, to my dying day, by two decades of working for a newspaper. For more than half the time I was an editor with the power to determine which stories got written. In that position, there was a pretty simple rule about compliments. At least 98 percent of the time you got one, it would soon be followed by a request for a favor and ha to be considered insincere.
            As the proud author of a book, I’m not dealing with favor-seekers anymore, but with well-meaning friends. And the first consideration in evaluating their compliments is to remember that almost no friend is going to tell you your book is a piece of crap and you just made a public jackass of yourself by publishing it. So when they tell you they loved it, what do they mean?
            You can go nuts obsessing about that, and I try not to. But I have, for whatever it’s worth, come up with a few rules of thumb for evaluating praise. If someone says, “I loved your book,” then changes the subject, it may mean they didn’t like it (or didn’t read it) but felt they had to say something nice. Or it could mean they did like it but are uncomfortable giving a compliment. I give the friend the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter but try not to assign much weight to it.

The Compliments That Resonate

            What really gets my attention is when the compliment is followed by further discussion of the book. If the compliment is followed, for example, by a number of questions about the book, how I got the ideas for it, how long it took to write, etc., I figure that’s probably an expression of genuine interest and take the compliment more seriously.
            Better yet is when the person who compliments the book talks about its content in some detail and with genuine perception. Last week I got a call from one of Linda’s friends, who wanted to say she enjoyed the book and went on to talk about some of the details she liked in Chapter 7. They were details I felt I had nailed, so the compliment was particularly meaningful.
            Best of all, of course, are the rare compliments from total strangers. A woman in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, who has never met me, wrote on a blog that she had read The McHenry Inheritance while recovering from a major surgery, had really enjoyed it, and planned to recommend it to her book club. Now that’s a compliment you can take to the bank.           

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Creating the Paracosm

            Psychologists say that most children at some point create an imaginary world, known in the professional literature as a paracosm, where they feel more comfortable. As they grow older, most of them eventually abandon the worlds they have created and deal exclusively with the one at hand.
            Those who don’t grow up and abandon their paracosms typically end up behind bars or writing fiction. Reasonable people can disagree over which outcome is less damaging to society.
            Having written fiction, I must confess to feeling a bit of envy for the child creating a paracosm. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense internally, the rules can change from time to time, and it doesn’t have to be shared with someone else who can criticize it. Working in a genre like mystery, where the rules are strict enough as it is, the freedom accorded the child creator is almost unimaginable.

Playing God on the Computer

            As has been often noted, a fiction writer gets to play God. The author can decide who lives, who dies, what happens and what the ramifications are. When I’m writing a book, I can decide whether a character lives to 90 in robust good health or dies in a shootout. I can move someone out of the way temporarily when it suits my purpose or throw them over a waterfall and get rid of them for good. Though, come to think of it, that last one didn’t work too well for Conan Doyle.
            Those machinations, however, don’t make sense or have emotional resonance unless they occur in a created world that feels real to the reader. Creating that world — a world drawn from our own but not quite exactly like it — is a real challenge for an adult author.
            A number of people who have read my mystery, TheMcHenry Inheritance, have asked for instance if some of the settings are this or that real place. I typically stumble for an answer on that one, saying something like, “Well, they’re obviously drawn from real places, but they’re elements of several different ones plus some stuff I made up.”
            That applies to everything — not only the geography, but the people, the situations, the weather. To give just one example, the book takes place in September of 1993, and the dates in the book are exactly as they were for that year.

No Rain in the Forecast

On the other hand, there’s a major afternoon thunderstorm on Thursday September 9. I didn’t even bother checking weather records to see if there were thunderstorms in the High Sierra that day. I needed one to advance the story, so in the paracosm that is Summit County, California, on the east slope of the Sierra, there was one. Any connection to the real weather of that day is purely coincidental.
For me, one of the hardest things about writing fiction is getting into the zone where my imagination is, for the moment anyway, living inside the paracosm I’m creating. I typically have to work myself into that position before I actually start writing, and when I’m there, good things happen; the characters and the story take on a life of their own.
This summer The New Yorker published some excerpts from the diary of fiction writer Mavis Gallant, and one of them resonated with me. “No one is as real to me as the people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them as if the half-empty cafĂ© were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.”

Friday, October 19, 2012

Steal My Book — Please!

            Ever since I published my mystery, The McHenryInheritance, in July, I’ve been cultivating two fantasies about how the book might make me rich in a hurry.
            The first is that some Hollywood big shot will find it on Amazon, love it, and buy the movie rights for an astronomical amount of money. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll let you know when it does.
            My second fantasy comes courtesy of my intellectual property attorney. Among other things, he recommended registering the copyright for the book with the U.S. copyright office. There are a number of reasons for doing so, but one of the better ones is that if the copyright is registered (cost $35), any infringement of said copyright carries a statutory liability of $150,000 per violation. That would be a return of $4,285.71 on each dollar invested in the copyright —better than Bain Capital.

Dealing With the Federal Government

            As far as I know, no one has violated the copyright yet, but hope springs eternal. In order to secure this protection, however, I had to deal with the federal government, and we all know what that means. Or do we?
            Actually, dealing with the copyright office was pretty easy. You go online, and the forms are right there, along with clear and simple explanations of how to use them. You can call up a PowerPoint presentation that will walk you through the process, or you can look at a video tutorial that does the same thing.
            It can all be done on the computer in less than an hour and paid for by credit card. Then they e-mail you a confirmation and a packing slip to enclose when you send them two copies of the item being copyrighted. It’s that easy, and leaves you feeling, if only momentarily, that the federal government is your friend.
            (There was one bit of dissonance, however. The copyright office asks that you don’t send the copyrighted materials by registered mail, but use FedEx instead. I know the Postal Service isn’t technically a federal program any more, but it used to be family, and you’d think the copyright office would show it a little more love.)

Dealing With the Private Sector

            Dealing with the copyright office stood in stark contrast to an experience we had a day later, with the web site of a prominent American company. Linda saw a story on CNN that there had been a recall of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats owing to a more than acceptable number of metal shards making it into some batches of the cereal. Given that our son considers said product one of the basic food groups, there was a definite local angle.
            Linda went to the Kellogg’s web site, which had a much snappier and livelier home page than the copyright office. What it didn’t have was any useful information. Nowhere on the home page did the words “product recall” appear, so she clicked for the news page. That took her to a bunch of happy-clappy press releases that had nothing to do with the recall.
            After noodling around a while, she found the recall information under a heading that no ordinary person would think of looking under. The information was incomplete, which required more noodling around for a customer service number and a call to get a human being (at least there was one!) who verified that our stash of Mini-Wheats was indeed safe. A lot of wasted time, and we couldn’t help feeling that if the federal government had been running that web site, we’d have had our answer in three minutes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Town That Time Forgot

            My son, Nick, and I are back from three delightful days of fly-fishing in Northern California. We stayed at a ranch about 13 miles from the town of Burney, which itself is about 55 miles east of Redding. There’s a lot of lonesome between the two towns.
            As predicted in the last post, we saw quite a few political signs on the way up, all of them Republican or Republican-leaning in nature. The big difference was that four years ago, there were a lot of McCain/Palin signs in that rural part of the state, while this year there were relatively few Romney/Ryan signs and a lot of signs with the general message that it’s time to get rid of Obama. To my keen political mind, that suggests that the prevailing sentiment is less pro-Romney than it is anti-Obama, but the vote should come out the same in any event.

Coming Back to the Same Place

            But enough about politics; let’s talk about the all-too-brief vacation. Short version: We had a great time. The fishing wasn’t red-hot, but it usually isn’t. The trout showed enough interest in our offerings to keep things interesting, and we caught and released a number of nice fish.
            Like the protagonist in my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, we stayed on a ranch (alfalfa, not cattle). The ranch owners were gracious hosts and let Nick drive their John Deere Gator, which they leave parked near the house with the keys in the ignition. The first two days were clear, sunny, and downright hot in the afternoon; the last day was overcast with a chill wind, a harbinger of the winter that will soon be upon the mountains.
            During the course of our all-too-short stay there, I got to thinking about the fact that this marked the 28th straight year I’ve been fishing in the Burney area. (No, it’s not the setting for my book, but it might make a future one.) And that got me to thinking about what’s changed since I first visited the area in 1984, six years before Nick was born.
            It’s not the population or the traffic. The town still has about three thousand people, and the traffic is so light that Mister Magoo could drive there without fear, though come to think of it, he did that just about anywhere. What I really notice now is the sense of economic constriction.

A Tough Place to Make a Living

            As in most of California, the lumber industry has been scaled back, which pretty much leaves agriculture and tourism as the local industries of note. Considering that there’s not much of the latter from November to April, the margin for every small business in town (and except for Safeway, Rite Aid, and a couple of banks, that would be all of them) is exceedingly tight.
            In 1984 the town boasted a Holiday Grocery (part of a small regional chain), a Chevron station, a specialty fly-fishing store, a general sporting-goods store, two first-class steakhouses, and one of the best breakfast joints ever, BJ’s Coffee Hut, where the waitresses never let a coffee cup get empty. Only one of the steak houses, The Outpost, remains.
            I got into a conversation with a few locals Wednesday evening, and they told me that the owner of Vaughn’s Sporting Goods had wanted to retire and tried for a couple of years to sell the place. No one would buy, so he finally just quit, leaving another empty storefront on the main drag. In a market that small, one bad year can finish off any merchant, and I guess nobody wanted to take the chance.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Going Fishing at Long Last

            The last time I held a fly rod in my hand, it didn’t really count. It was June, and we were filming a video trailer for my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. I say it didn’t count because the photographer was trying to get some casting footage, and I was casting an empty line, with no fly attached to it. No matter how willing a fish in that stream might have been, I couldn’t have caught him.
            My book’s protagonist is a man on a fly-fishing vacation who gets caught up in the local drama, which happens to include a trial over a contested will and a murder, among other things. Unlike my protagonist, I haven’t been able to get away on a fishing trip this summer. That’s about to change. Tomorrow my son, Nick, and I leave for a three-day fishing trip to the mountains east of Redding. And as the United Airlines commercial used to say, “I need a vacation.”

The Heart of Red-State California

            Going trout fishing in California these days involves a trip into another world. California as a whole is one of the bluest of states, but once you get north of Sacramento and east of Interstate 5, you might as well be in Wyoming, politically speaking.
            My guess is that once we take the Highway 505 cutoff  at Vacaville, it will be three days before we see a political sign for Barack Obama again. It will be all Romney, and perhaps a Ron Paul or two. Sprinkled in with the election signs will be a few general advocacy signs with statements like, “Produce the birth certificate.” I first noticed this tendency in the fall of 2000 when I took my then-new car for a four-day trip up the eastern slope of California to Southern Oregon and back. By day four I’d almost forgotten there was a fellow named Al Gore running for president — there certainly was no evidence of it where I was.
            But I’m not going there to talk politics and don’t expect to. Early October is a great time of year to be in the mountains, magical, really. It’s too soon for the peak of fall color, but there will be some. If it’s sunny, the days can be mild and pleasant, but as soon as the sun goes down, it gets cold in a hurry, and there typically will be frost on the ground at dawn.

The Wide-Open Spaces

            Like my character, Quill Gordon, and his sidekick, my son and I will be staying in a cabin at a ranch. It’s 13 miles from the nearest town, which boasts a population of only 3,500 people. Driving 13 miles where I live in coastal California is a high-intensity expedition nearly any time of day. Where we’ll be staying, it’s a wide-open, laid-back experience. Just point the car, turn up the radio, relax, and reach your destination in 12 minutes.
            There’s considerable nostalgia in America for living where there’s a lot of land and not too many people. I wouldn’t want to do it for any length of time, but I totally understand the feeling, and admit to a sense of renewal from spending a few days in a place like that. It’s a different pace and it induces a different frame of mind, and from time to time, I really enjoy the switch. There may or may not be some cooperative fish while we’re up there, but regardless of what the fish do, we’ll have a good time. The clock may seem to move more slowly, but it will be over all too soon.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Lost Virtue of Brevity

            In his excellent mystery My Late Wives (1946), John Dickson Carr, writing as Carter Dickson, tells the story of serial killer Roger Bewlay. With a wittily observant eye, Carr shows how Bewlay targets vulnerable virgins of a certain age (early thirties, considered past marriage in those days) and woos each according to her ruling passions. One he takes to the symphony; another for long walks along the beach promenade at Brighton, and so forth.
            The result, in each instance, is the same. The lady in question falls head over heels in love, marries him quickly, signs over all her property to him, and they go off on an idyllic honeymoon, from which only Bewlay and the lady’s property emerge. A chance occurrence leads police to become suspicious and another allows them to close the net on Bewlay. But at the end, he slips away and vanishes into the vastness of metropolitan London.
            And that’s just the first 12 pages. The rest of the book takes place 15 years later, when it appears that Bewlay has returned to his old ways, and the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, attempts to catch him once and for all.

Telling the Story Succinctly

            Carr, a master storyteller if ever there was one, was able to cram enough material for an entire book into a fairly short chapter. In today’s world of mysteries and thrillers, the opposite seems to be happening. More and more books seem to be taking 250 pages of story and stretching it into 350-400 pages.
            How and when this happened is a mystery to me, but I can trace some examples. One successful author began writing about 30 years ago and originally wrote brisk 250-page books. Then she started adding characters, and in subsequent books, each character had to be brought in, often to the detriment of the narrative. On the other hand, she sells way more books than I do, so either the readers don’t care, or they like her enough to put up with it.
            The bloat in book size affects even older books. I have in hand a recently published copy of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? In this version, the spacing between lines is generous to a fault, as are the margins. That makes what was probably a 225-page book originally come out at 279 pages.
            When I wrote my mystery, The McHenryInheritance, I deliberately tried to keep it to 200-225 pages so it could be read on a cross-country plane flight or on a rainy afternoon. It came in at 200, but I wonder if anyone appreciates the brevity.

Longer Movies, Too

            Movies, like books, seem to be getting longer as well. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot, writing about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, noted that a number of the films he made for Warner Brothers in the 1930s were an hour and ten minutes long. These days, it’s hard to find any movie that comes in at less than two hours. It seems as if fewer directors today know how to move a story along, the way directors like William Wellman, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks used to do.
            In 1935, MGM made a movie of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo and Frederic March. The book is more than 800 pages, but after some competent scriptwriters got through with it, and it was turned over to veteran director Clarence Brown, he was able to get Anna under the train in a brisk hour and 35 minutes. If they tried to make it today, they would sink so much into stars, costumes, props and locations, it would turn into a three-hour epic and probably be less entertaining than Brown’s version. Less is often more.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Bullet and the Moon

            Back in the days when giants walked the hallways of The New Yorker offices on West 43rd Street, none had the stature of the late E.B. White. Not only did White write many of the magazine’s editorials for a quarter century, he also edited one of the most popular features, what I call the mistake fillers. These were excerpts from books, magazines and newspapers that featured embarrassingly funny mistakes, to which White would often add precisely the right quip at the end.
            I actually sold a couple of mistake fillers to The New Yorker over the years and always enjoyed reading them. There were several that ran under standing headlines, such as “Block That Metaphor!” and “Our Forgetful Authors.” The latter consisted of quotes from a book, usually pages apart, in which, for example, the author would describe the leading female character as a blonde on page 65 and as a redhead on page 132.
            At the time I shook my head over such errors, wondering how an author could be so careless. Then I wrote a mystery novel myself, The McHenry Inheritance, and came to appreciate how easily it could happen.

Where’s The Bullet?

            A book is written and rewritten over a long period of time — years, in the case of mine, and, lame as it sounds, the author can’t remember every detail. Sometimes an entire section is added or removed along the way, and everything still has to remain consistent, not that it always does.
            The first chapter of my book, “The Angler and the Sharpshooter,” didn’t even exist in the first few drafts. It was added a couple of years later at the suggestion of an agent, who thought it would be good to get a dead body into the first few pages, on the theory that readers who don’t encounter a corpse within a few minutes are apt to give up on the book.
            So I added that chapter as a flash-forward, from a different point of view, to the murder that occurs in Chapter 4. It was quite well-done, if I do say so myself, and has received a number of compliments. There was just one itty-bitty problem with it. In the original draft, I had the bullet lodging in the victim’s body; in the flash-forward, I had it going clean through. That was a lot more dramatic, but given how the scene was described, it would have been nearly impossible for the sheriff to recover the bullet, which was a vital clue.

Two Full Moons in a Week

            Don’t ask how it happened, but this July, days before the book was to be submitted to Amazon, I realized there might be a problem there and caught it when I re-read the two chapters. I rewrote the opening to keep the chain of evidence intact.
            Several years earlier, on about the fifth rewrite of the book, I was tinkering with Chapter 8, where the action takes place under a full moon. Something at the back of my mind told me I’d mentioned the moon in Chapter 3, which took place five days earlier, and sure enough, when I checked, the moon was full then, as well. Since it mattered to the story in Chapter 8 but was merely descriptive in Chapter 3, I shaved a little off the moon in the earlier chapter.
            That made two close calls, and who knows if there wasn’t a similar mistake I failed to catch. If you spot one, please e-mail me. On Amazon, at least, it’s easy to make revisions.