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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Friday, December 28, 2012

Behind Every Great Picture

            In connection with my day job, I had the opportunity the other day to be present at a professional photo shoot. For years, when I was at the newspaper, I worked alongside professional news photographers and in my work as a writer and publications consultant I still work with freelance professionals. Not as many as I used to, and there’s a worrying trend happening here.
            The proliferation of iPhones and point and shoot cameras has taken some of the mystery out of photography. It’s no longer necessary to worry about such things as the choice of film, the F-stop and shutter speed, and anyone can now take an in-focus photo that’s decently exposed.
            That has led to a trap, however. Too many people are beginning to believe that because they can take a technically competent picture, they can also take a good one. Usually they can’t, and the result is a form of unconscious incompetence — what you get when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

It’s Complicated

            The photo shoot referred to earlier was for a publication being done by a local educational organization. They wanted a picture of a group of kids engaged in learning on both the computer and traditional books. To get it, they lined up six kids whose parents signed releases for a photo shoot, and we all met at the library of one of the local schools late one morning.
            Greg Pio, who took the author photo for my book The McHenry Inheritance, was called in to get the picture. He arrived early, checked out the site, and set up some lighting to illuminate a corner where a table was set up in front of shelves of books.
            At 11:30 the kids came in, and Greg sat them down and talked to them, explaining what we were doing and stressing that it was a joint project where he really needed their cooperation. Addressing them as adults, in a matter-of-fact tone, he pulled them into the project right away. He then gave them some specific things to do while he took the photos. Watching from behind, it was clear to me that they were getting into it, and that the shoot was going well.

Creating the Opportunity

            He took a lot of photos, and if you’ve ever shot a family gathering, you’ll know why. Whenever you have more than two people in a picture, the odds that one of them will have closed eyes, be drooling, be making a face, or otherwise inadvertently wrecking the picture are pretty formidable. Because the kids were relaxed and acting out a scene, that was less of an issue here. Greg has told me before that when he sets up a picture like this, he’s creating an opportunity to make the magic happen, then shooting enough pictures to be sure he’s capturing it.
            Sure enough, the results were terrific. There were enough good photos that it was tough to choose among them, but that’s the kind of problem you want. The client picked one and everybody was happy. (I can’t show the photo here because it belongs to the client, not me, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
            It would have been easy for the client to cheap out and have someone on the staff take a picture, rather than calling in a professional. And odds are, it would have been wrong in a lot of subtle ways that add up to a boring photo. There’s a lot more to getting a great picture than telling everybody to get behind the table and say “Cheese.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Literary Fuller Brush Man

            Self-publishing used to be a mug’s game — something you did because your book meant enough that you’d shell out a lot of money, with no hope of return, to get it out there. That was largely owing to the physical limitations of the printed book.
            As recently as ten years ago, an author had to spend thousands of dollars to have a book typeset and have a printer run off a few thousand copies. Without a distribution channel, the author had to take them to every bookstore within driving range, begging the stores to take a couple of copies on consignment. The author, in effect, became a literary Fuller Brush man, always having samples in the car.
            Often as not, that same author would end up with several boxes of unsold books in an attic or basement. And the area in which the books could be sold represented a mere fraction of the possible market, nearly all of which would be forever out of reach.

A National 24/7 Bookstore

            For better or worse, Amazon changed all that. Certainly from an author’s perspective it’s better. A writer like me, who doesn’t fit into the system, can publish a book through their self-publishing program, get it out in front of the whole world, have a whisper of a chance of promoting the book through the internet, and make a decent return on every sale.
            The down side, of course, is what that does to local bookstores. I believe they have a real role to play in terms of making books accessible to people and as community gathering institutions. My mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, has sold quite a few copies on consignment at Crossroads Books and Bookshop Santa Cruz, but the numbers pale compared to how it’s sold on Amazon.
            Despite the popularity of e-books, there’s still a large demand for the print version, and the wise author has a few copies in the car at all times, just in case. I can order printed author’s copies from Amazon’s CreateSpace, or have them run off on Bookshop Santa Cruz’s Walt book machine (named after Walt Whitman), and I am never without.
            In the past couple of weeks there have been a few examples of why it pays to be prepared.

Everyone’s a Potential Customer

            When I spoke at a local middle school earlier this month, there was no danger that the kids were going to spend their lunch money on my book, but there were also some adults in the audience, and two of them ended up as customers. After hearing the talk, the school principal and one of the teachers asked about buying a book. Because I had two copies in the messenger bag in the back of my car, I was able to gratify them on the spot, with autographed copies.  If they’d had to go to a bookstore or get on Amazon when they had the time, those sales could have slipped away.
            Six days later I took my Ford Fusion in for servicing at the dealership, and when I went to pick it up, the dealer, Rocky Franich, saw me and came out of the office. I know him through Rotary and he knows about the book. He had a friend in the hospital who enjoys mysteries and wanted to get a copy for the friend. Fortunately, I’d reloaded the messenger bag after the middle school talk and was able to oblige.
            That made three personal sales in the space of a week. As any Fuller Brush man would say, keep those samples handy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mickey Spillane, Reading Instructor

            Earlier this month, I heard a school principal make a good pitch for the value of mystery novels. I was at E.A. Hall Middle School in Watsonville, talking to seventh and eighth graders about my own mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, and Olga de Santa Anna, the principal, was in the audience.
            I forget what prompted her remark, but the gist of it was that reading fun books, such as mystery novels, is a good way of both learning and getting pleasure from reading. As an example, she cited her mother, whose first language was Spanish, and who learned to read English through the novels of Mickey Spillane.
            Somewhat forgotten now, Spillane (1918-2006) was the first hard-boiled detective writer to become a huge bestseller. I, The Jury, his debut book featuring detective Mike Hammer, was published in 1947 to supplement his income as a comic-book writer.  It sold six million copies, and he never looked back. All told, his books have sold more than 225,000,000 copies.

Meaning? Don’t Even Think About It

            Critics hated his books, which they panned for their graphic sex and violence, but Spillane ignored them and laughed all the way to the bank. In later years, some post-modern critics tried to find deeper meanings in his books, and, to his credit, he dismissed them as well. He was a hack who had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and was content with that.
            Olga’s remark about her mother, though, took me back to eighth grade. I learned to read before first grade, by following Sports Illustrated on my father’s lap. A lot of my childhood was spent with my nose stuck in a book. When I reached junior high school, my mother, in one of her few failures as a parent, tried to get me to read Literature — stuff like Moby Dick and Great Expectations.
            It didn’t work. I much preferred trashy mysteries and sports stories, and mom was beside herself. Finally, she went to Mrs. Castlen, the librarian at our junior high school, to vent. Mrs. C. heard her out and finally said, “Don’t worry about it. Just be glad he’s reading and enjoying it. His taste will get better as he gets older.”
            Perhaps she should have stopped after the second sentence. It’s true that two great high school English teachers, Carroll Irwin and Ruth Carruth, taught me to appreciate and enjoy Moby Dick and Great Expectations, and it’s true that I subsequently received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

The Redeeming Value of Junk

            The college degree in that subject has hardly guaranteed me a lifetime of well-compensated employment, and it’s an open question what reading the great books has done for my character and moral fibre. There are no doubt plenty of people out there who would be happy to tell you that I’m far from a model citizen.
            Would the world be a better place if everyone read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain?  I have my doubts. But I have no doubts at all about the wisdom of what Mrs. Castlen and Olga de Santa Anna said.
            Learning to read, and learning to enjoy it — however that may be accomplished — is always a good thing. Reading is the most fundamental skill of the educated person, and when it isn’t accompanied by a sense of dread, there’s always room to move on and acquire new depths. Some will dive in head first, and others will barely dip a toe in the waters. Mickey Spillane may lead to Henry James, or maybe to Jim Thompson, but either way the door’s been opened a crack.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Long Lines and Cursive Ledgers

            Yesterday morning, combining civic duty and business, I drove to the county courthouse in Santa Cruz. It was the day property tax was due, so I figured I’d pay in person then see what my money was getting me by sauntering over to the superior court clerk’s office to research a legal matter in connection with a project I’m working on.
            Most years I pay my property tax in person. It makes it seem more like a civic gesture than an anonymous sendoff of money, and it can be a social occasion as well. More often than not I run into someone I know, either in line or because they’re doing other business of their own at the county offices.
            Last year I went a day before the payment deadline and there was hardly any line at all. I wrote about it at the time, wondering if tax paying had become one of those civic rituals, like waiting for election returns, that has become privatized. I was worrying for nothing.

Counting Out the Hundreds

            When I arrived a little after 11 a.m., the line was out the door of the tax collector’s office, extending to the door to the county building itself, nearly a hundred feet away. It took 40 minutes to get to the window, and when I reached the door to the office it became obvious what part of the problem was.
            Several of the people ahead of me were paying their property tax in cash. Why anyone but a drug dealer would do that, I can’t imagine, but even in this county it’s hard to imagine that there are that many property-owning drug dealers, so I guess they had their reasons.
            In any event, two payment windows were open, and only one of them accepted cash payments. People were taking a fistful of hundreds out of an envelope, counting them out, handing them over, then waiting while the clerk counted the money again and made change. Tax bills here aren’t rounded up to an even number, so the clerk had to count out a lot of dollar bills and coins.
            Me, I handed over the bill and a check for the exact amount, got a receipt and was off the window a minute after I arrived. Then I walked around the corner to the civil division of superior court, where the line was considerably shorter.

Handwritten Ledgers

            For a historical research project, I was trying to find out how often a local businessman had been in court between 1921 and 1932, either suing someone or being sued. I had no idea whether it would be possible to get the information without a ridiculous amount of going through files, but figured I should ask.
            As it turned out, they had a system for that. For years the county had kept alphabetical ledgers of all the parties in lawsuits, the names written out in beautiful cursive. They were on microfiche , and I was able to check out the period in question in less than an hour.
            There was no big story; he was the defendant in one suit for an unpaid bill (they were able to retrieve a microfilm of the original filing) of $781. Nothing much in itself, nor did it appear to be part of a pattern, but it ruled out a possible angle, and that’s a big part of research as well. The two women at the desk were extremely pleasant and helpful, and I left feeling that the check I’d just handed in around the corner was actually paying for something tangible. Not a bad feeling in the age of The Cloud.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Tough Questions From Eighth Graders

            Wednesday of this week I was invited to E.A. Hall Middle School in Watsonville to talk to a group of seventh and eighth graders about writing my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. Early in the game it became obvious I was facing a tough crowd.
            The students were part of the Reading Buddies program sponsored by the Rotary Club of Watsonville, which has adopted the school. As part of that adoption, club members volunteer to go to the school once a week and spend an hour reading with a student. It’s been wildly successful, and the kids who take part typically show a significant improvement in test scores and classroom performance.
            Since they have been reading books, one of the club members thought of asking me over to talk about writing my book. It’s probably a bit above their grade level, but I was happy to do the presentation. No author should ever turn down an audience, and I wound up selling two copies — to the principal and one of the teachers.

A Future Investigative Journalist

            My plan was to start out by showing the two-minute video trailer for the book, ask if there were any questions about it, then move on to other topics based on the initial response. So at 11 a.m., the lights were dimmed, the video was shown, and when it was over, I stepped forward and said, “Any questions?”
            A boy at the back of the room raised his hand, and I called on him. “How old are you?” he asked.
            Damn. The kid has a future on 60 Minutes, and I mean asking the questions, not answering them. I couldn’t think of a clever evasion, so I answered as quickly as I could and called for the next question. As it turned out, the questions filled the hour, and I never had to go to my prepared talk.
            Some of them were from adults, but still provided an opportunity to share a point with the kids. One of the Rotarians asked, for instance, how hard it was to get a copyright, and that led to my explaining to the students what a copyright is and why it’s important. I also talked about print-on-demand book machines, such as the ones they have at Amazon and Bookshop Santa Cruz.

We Talked About Fishing, Too

            When we asked for a show of hands, it turned out that more than half of the kids had been fishing, though only one had been fly fishing. In anticipation of such a response, I had brought some props, including a 9-foot graphite fly rod, a vest of the sort worn by fly fishermen, and a selection of trout flies, including a Quill Gordon, the fly for which my main character is named.
            The props enabled me to talk about several of the detail points of the sport. It was raining, so we couldn’t go outside for a casting demonstration, but I tried to use the furniture in the room to explain how precise an angler has to be in casting to a rising fish. What I think really impressed them was my description of how the fishing vest allows a fisherman to pull out and tie on a new fly while standing in the middle of a river.
            Any time I speak to a group of adults, I can generally read the audience pretty well. With kids, it’s tougher. It’s hard to say how interested they were or how much of this will stay with them. But I was happy to do it because it can’t hurt for students to see that books are written by real people. Maybe some of them will write their own books down the road.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

64 Megabytes? More Than Enough

             Four years ago, at about this time of year, I bought a new MacBook laptop. The economy was crumbling, people were talking about an upcoming Depression with unemployment of more than 20 percent, and I had no way of knowing, at the time, whether I’d bring in a single dollar in income in 2009.
            But I bought the laptop anyway because it was time, and because I considered it a business necessity. In late 2004, the laptop I’d bought at the end of 1998 went kaflooey, taking half my business with it. After a couple of days of tense waiting (plus a not inconsiderable expense), a computer guru was able to retrieve most of it. From then on, I’ve made a point of upgrading every four years.
            And so it was that last Friday found me at the Apple Store at Valley Fair in San Jose, purchasing a new MacBook Air. It’s not set up yet, but once it is, by the end of December, it should see me through the Obama presidency.

More Space Than You’d Ever Need

            My first laptop was a Macintosh PowerBook, bought at the end of 1993. My consulting business was in its infancy, cash flow was tight, and it was unclear if I would succeed. But I bought the laptop anyway because I could see the value of it for my business and because I’ve always believed you have to spend money to make money.
            That first PowerBook had a black and white screen, would have gagged if you’d tried to run a movie on it, never got connected to the Internet, and had 64MB of hard drive. I couldn’t imagine using all that space, and I never did. But I did do a lot of the revisions to my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, on it, and it’s still in the garage.
            Being equipped for business hasn’t yet turned out to be a losing proposition for me. After buying the PowerBook in late 1993, I had a breakout year in 1994. Despite the fears over the economy at the end of 2008, the year 2009 turned out to be all right — not great, but far better than I had feared. Experience has shown that getting what you need for the job, even if you have to bet on unknown revenues to pay for it, is a wise move.

The Dread Before the Setup

            Working out of my house for the past four years, I’ve become even more dependent than before on my laptop. If the power goes out, I take it to Starbucks to check my email and get some work done. If we have people working at the house for the day, I take it to one of the shared office spaces in Santa Cruz and work from there.
            Right now, I’m waiting until I can figure out where to get the best deal on Microsoft Office, without which I can’t function. In years past, I would have set aside a weekend to get the computer set up (there was always a maddening glitch that took hours to sort out), and I had to be fairly certain I wouldn’t need the new or old one for work during that time.
            Now I have the luxury of an in-house computer guru, my 22-year-old son, Nick. At a mutually convenient time, I’ll hand him the old and new laptops, leave him alone for a couple of hours, and everything should be good to go after that. Technology is a beautiful thing when you have someone around who understands it.