Tuesday, January 29, 2013
It’s probably safe to say that most authors, by the time they finish a book, aren’t really sure about what they’ve done. When the writer finally types “The End,” he or she might think it all came together, but there’s always that nagging doubt. When you’ve been working on something for a long time and wrestling with the messy details, you can never be certain about how distorted your perspective might have become.
In one regard, though, authors are something like actors in live theater. They have an opportunity to learn from the audience and its reaction. It takes time to get a reading — after all, the audience may roar at a line one night and chuckle just slightly the next. But after enough nights, the actors get a sense of what’s working and what isn’t.
Last week marked the six-month anniversary of the publication of my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance, and I’m starting to get a handle on the reaction to it. One response in particular has surprised me.
Not Holmes or Brunetti
Looking at detective stories over the years, one sees a range of attitudes with respect to the detective and the opposite (or occasionally, these days, the same) sex. There are loners, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; happily married men like Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti or Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett; and there are detectives, single and married, who get into edgy and loosely defined sexual relationships, like Benjamin Black’s Quirke or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
A central element of my book is the protagonist’s romantic (as opposed to sexual, though there’s some overlap) relationship with a woman. It’s what spurs him to become involved in a murder case and to take actions independent of law enforcement that eventually lead to the solution.
Writing the passages of the book that developed the romantic relationship was about the toughest part of the project. There was a lot of getting up from the computer and having another cup of coffee while trying to come up with the next line of dialogue in a scene. When I finally said it’s time to let go and publish, I was confident about other aspects of the book, but whether the romance worked was as much of a mystery to me as the murder in the book was to the sheriff.
The Reaction You Least Expect
So out came the book, and as the weeks and months went by, I began to hear from people who had read it, and I tried to pay attention to those who offered specific comments, as opposed to those who said, “Loved your book, gotta go now.”
Pretty early on, one comment, expressed in several variations but essentially the same, started to recur. It had to do with the romantic relationship at the heart of the book, and I can’t say what it was without giving away one of the book’s surprises. I can say that it wasn’t something I had expected in any way, and that at first it puzzled me. And yet I kept hearing it over and over again, particularly from female readers.
This past weekend, my godfather Harold Stuiber, 90 years young and sharp as a tack, called to say he’d read The McHenry Inheritance, then made the comment to which I’ve been referring. Hearing it from him, the penny dropped for some reason, and I realized that people were making that comment because at some level they cared about the characters and their relationship. The puzzlement was over. The audience has been letting me know that the romance worked.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Last football commentary until Labor Day — I promise. But there’s a certain type of sports bloviating, rampant at this time of year, that annoys me no end, and I need to vent.
Every NFL postseason triggers a wave of commentary about quarterbacks, more specifically putting them down because their team didn’t win the Super Bowl. A few years into the career of every successful NFL quarterback, that will start to be held against him, as in, “He can’t win the big one.” This year, it’s already being muttered about Peyton Manning, Tom Brady (who’s won three, but they say he can’t do it any more!) and Matt Ryan.
Horseradish, I say. Quarterbacks don’t win Super Bowls; teams do. A good quarterback helps the team considerably, but rarely can a terrific quarterback take a flawed team the distance. At some point, the weight becomes too much for anyone, no matter how good, to carry.
Which One Would You Pick?
Any time I hear a commentator opine that a quarterback can’t win the big one, a hypothetical question comes to my mind. If you were building a football team and choosing a quarterback, who would you pick from the following choices: Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, or Jim Kelly?
The difference, of course, is that the first four quarterbacks won Super Bowls and aren’t in the Hall of Fame, and justifiably so. The latter four never did, but are in the Hall of Fame. There isn’t a quarterback in the second group that I wouldn’t pick over anybody from the first group, with no hesitation whatsoever.
For that matter I’d take Peyton Manning, with his one Super Bowl ring, ahead of Terry Bradshaw (four rings), Troy Aikman (three) and Bob Griese and Jim Plunkett (two). Manning is the better quarterback, but the others had the benefit of playing for better teams (and perhaps coaches), so they carried home more titles. Manning had his team up by a touchdown with half a minute to play against Baltimore this year, when the defense inexplicably gave up a 70-yard touchdown pass. Anyone think a team coached by Don Shula, Chuck Noll or Jimmy Johnson would have done that?
The Necessity of a Star Defender
Actually, if you look at the history of the Super Bowl, almost every winning team has had at least one Hall of Fame defensive player. The deeper a team goes into the playoffs, the more important a great defender becomes, because the extraordinary things that guy can do will enable his teammates to cover the many threats posed by a strong opponent playing late into the postseason.
When Joe Montana “won” four Super Bowls, he did it with Hall of Fame defensive players like Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean backing him up. They covered his extremely rare mistakes, and kept the team in the game so Montana’s quarterback play could win it. Tom Brady didn’t have that sort of defensive cover this year, and his team lost to Baltimore, with at least two certain Hall of Fame players on its defensive unit.
Finally, consider Steve Young. Two years in a row, he took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Cowboys. Commentators were talking. Then cornerback Deion Sanders (now in the Hall) signed up for a season and the Niners won it all. Deion left, and the following year, Young and the Niners lost in the first round of the playoffs. Young is one of the best that ever played, but if not for Deion, they’d still be saying, “He couldn’t win the big one.”
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Beginning back in the newspaper days I got into the habit of making Saturday breakfast something of a treat. At first I would sleep in a bit then go out to one of several cafes that I hit on a rotating business. Typically there was one special dish I’d have at each place.
One of the destinations at the time was Good Golly Miss Lolly’s, which occupied the restaurant at the old Arabian Motel (named for the horse, not the ethnicity) in Aptos. At some point in the early 1990s it went out of business and I moved another restaurant into its place in the rotation.
Several years after the demise of that establishment I was having lunch on the wharf in Santa Cruz. On the way out I stopped at the parking booth at the entrance to the wharf and when the woman in it and I saw each other, we locked. Each of us knew we knew each other but it took a few seconds for the penny to drop. She got it first.
“Miss Lolly’s,” she said. “Bacon and cheese omelet.”
Creatures of Habit
She had of course been one of the pleasant and efficient waitresses there, and like a New York City bartender she could tell you what a regular customer ordered, if nothing else. With my radio face and regular habits, I must have been easy to remember.
From time to time someone will ask if Quill Gordon, the protagonist in my mystery The McHenry Inheritance is anything like me. I generally demur on that one, but in one respect the answer is a clear yes. Gordon is a man who sticks with the tried and true, and at one point in the book, the waitress at the local greasy spoon good-naturedly details his predictable tendencies.
Most people, when you come down to it, are creatures of habit to a certain degree. One of the things I learned in the newspaper years was that our readers were and that changes, accordingly, had to be made incrementally. People got really upset if something changed dramatically, because they weren’t used to reading the paper in the way they now had to.
Being a man of habits, I’m interested in those of others. I recall being really annoyed when I finished Neal Gabler’s otherwise excellent biography of Walter Winchell. How on earth, I asked myself, could someone write a 700-page book about a man who spent his life in nightclubs and not once mention what he drank?
The Benefits of Regularity
Having set habits that are known to those you deal with can pay off. I regularly stop off at a produce stand to buy a lemon to go with my bedtime cup of herbal tea, and the cashiers sometimes have me rung up and my change in hand by the time I reach the register.
These days my Saturday treat is a stop at the donut shop in Capitola. Not to say that I’m predictable, but I get there between 7:45 and 8 a.m. and get one with blueberry frosting and one with white frosting and sprinkles (the type favored by Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive).
A couple of weeks ago I overslept and didn’t get there until 8:15. There were several people ahead of me, but the lady behind the counter saw me come in, waved me forward, and handed over a bag that had been on the shelf behind the display. My two usual donuts were inside.
I guess you could say she knew my habits.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Intoxicated by my success on a football weekend in Nevada in November, I took the risk of posting my NFL playoff predictions against the spread on Facebook and Twitter last Saturday. After the first game, in which I took Denver, I was in the hole and having second thoughts.
A good gambler, even when there’s no money on the bet, as in this case, has to be steadfast, methodical and resolute, so I held on to my predictions for the last three games and ran the table, finishing 3-1 for the weekend. As I replied to one of my Facebook scoffers, a bet on my four predictions, evenly distributed among the four games and factoring in the vigorish, would have yielded a 36 percent return on investment in less than 36 hours.
Divisional playoff weekend in the NFL may be the one time in the pro football season when there are clear protocols a bettor can follow to increase the chances of doing well. In any given year, of course, the odds can let you down, but over time the arc is clear and visible.
Bet the Better Team, Stupid
On divisional playoff weekend, there are four teams playing at home with a week’s rest, against teams that played the week before and typically had worse records. In most years the home teams win three of the four games. You can look it up. If someone had simply bet on every home team this particular weekend, going back to when this playoff format went into effect, that person would have done very well indeed over the long haul.
The other tendency that occurs on divisional weekend is that because the home teams have such a strong general advantage, the ones that win tend to do so emphatically, rendering the point spread irrelevant in most cases. Recognizing this, I pick the teams I think will win the game and ignore the points. Over time, the handful of games where the spread is a factor will even out.
You could go to Vegas divisional playoff weekend, bet on all the home teams, and most years you’d win or break even. That’s too actuarial for my taste, so I try to figure out which underdog will pull off an upset.
Identifying the Upset Special
To do that, I first look at the favorites to see if I can spot a glass jaw. Two things I particularly look for are a team that had a good record but played over its head and had a high takeaway/giveaway ratio. That sort of luck typically runs out in the playoffs. I also look for teams with coaches who are control freaks, obsessing over defense and special teams but never bothering to get a great quarterback and great offensive coordinator. They’re ripe for a playoff choke.
On the underdog side, I look for one thing: A team with a good record (11-5 or better) that outscored its opponents by 100 points over the course of the year.
Following those general guidelines, my picks to win this year were Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and New England. Like a lot of other people, I thought Atlanta would fold and was a bit embarrassed to win that prediction on points rather than actual victory. But how was I to know that Seattle (and Denver, for that matter) would skip their practice sessions on the prevent defense last week? That’s why they call it gambling.
(Betting advice offered for entertainment purposes only. No guarantees made or implied, and past performance is no guarantee of future results.)
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
In one of the vintage episodes of Law & Order, Detectives Briscoe and Green (Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin) are investigating the murder of a young woman whose body was found in an alley. As they look into the case, they begin to suspect it might be connected to the disappearance of a female college student several years ago.
Thinking out loud, the veteran Briscoe asks the question, what were both victims doing when last seen? Answer: Leaving a place to go somewhere a considerable distance away. Followup thought: Being in New York City, perhaps they both called a taxi.
Going where that line of thought leads them, they eventually turn up a thoroughly creepy taxi driver, who turns out to have killed not only the two young women in question, but many others as well. (No spoiler alert necessary. If you happen to catch this one as a TNT re-run, that summary only took you to the beginning of the real plot, which has to do with attorney-client privilege.)
No Sin Against Father Knox
At first blush, Briscoe’s hunch might be considered a sin against the Ten Commandments of mystery fiction, composed in 1929 by the Rev. Ronald A. Knox, a Catholic priest, converted from Anglicanism, and one of the fine British writers of mystery novels in the so-called Golden Age.
In that long-gone era, mysteries were so popular that almost anybody who could write a comprehensible one could get it published and sell a few thousand copies. Most of those books are long forgotten, and justly so, and quite a few of them used story elements now considered beyond the pale. That they are so considered owes a great deal to Father Knox and his commandments.
Among them were, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course,” and “No more than one secret room or passage is allowable.” Other strictures address such matters as the use of unknown poisons and having the criminal be someone who turns up only at the end of the book.
Briscoe’s hunch might at first seem to be a violation of the Sixth Commandment, which reads, “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” The key word is unaccountable. Briscoe didn’t just guess; he thought through what someone logically might do in a situation and it led to the cracking of the case.
When The Crime Labs Can’t Solve It
The vogue in crime fiction and drama these days is for the boys and girls in the lab to solve the case by coming up with an encyclopedia’s worth of information from a single strand of hair or whatever. That’s well and good as far as it goes, but the crime scene doesn’t always yield enough evidence. Sometimes what it takes is a detective asking a simple question, then following the trail to which it leads.
One of the most famous cases of the Twentieth Century was solved in precisely that fashion. A psychopath was terrorizing New York with a series of murders in which people were randomly approached and shot by a poorly seen figure who quickly disappeared.
After months of frustration, with the victim count mounting, one of the detectives asked a question: How would he get away? Most likely he had a car, and in New York, where parking is tight, he may have had to park illegally. The detective searched through parking tickets issued in the vicinity of the crimes, and the same car showed up more than once. That was how they caught David Berkowitz, a.k.a Son of Sam.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Wednesday afternoon I gave a talk to the Rotary Club of Watsonville about “Self-Publishing in the Digital Age.” If you’re wondering how I got such a gig with my meager qualifications, I should mention that I serve on the club’s program committee and can call my own number at any time.
With only a half hour, and wanting to leave time for questions, I could only skim the surface. I began by bringing up the memory of one our late club members, Sherrell Watson, who had self-published a book on steam locomotives in 1995, and tried to draw a contrast between that era and 17 years later, when I published my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance. The primary focus was the rise of Amazon and social media, which can give a hustling self-published author a modest shot at success.
I do a lot of public speaking and (braggadocio alert!) like to believe I’m pretty good at it, which includes reading the audience reaction. This group was clearly interested, and when I finished the prepared talk and asked for questions, a half-dozen hands shot up instantaneously. That’s a sure sign they’re listening.
Interested in the Marketing
As might have been expected from a business-oriented group, the questions were mostly geared to the business and marketing aspects of book publishing, as opposed to the work of writing a book. In fact, the closest thing to a writing question was whether I’m planning a sequel. The answer is yes, but not a continuation of the story, rather a new adventure featuring Quill Gordon (my main character) in a different setting with different characters and a fresh story.
Beyond that, I tried to answer the questions in a complex and sophisticated fashion. A few examples:
Q: Fifty Shades of Gray was self-published and became a huge best-seller. Do you think your book can do that?
A: Probably not. I forgot to include any bondage or S&M scenes.
Q: How do you make any money selling an e-book for $2.99?
A: No problem. You just sell a million of ‘em.
Q: How many people would you guess bought your book because they thought it was written by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes?
A: Not nearly enough.
Yeah, we had some fun.
Surprised by the Response
There were some good questions about tracking sales and about marketing the book as a straight mystery or emphasizing the fly-fishing angle. (Gordon is on a fishing trip in the High Sierra when he gets caught up in the murder and intrigue.) All in all, I was quite pleased with how it went.
One pleasant surprise came out at the end. I had mentioned in my talk that I had probably maxed out on selling the book to my friends and had to be getting it into the hands of strangers now. I really believed that, figuring that if anyone who knows me hadn’t bought it after five months on the market, they weren’t going to buy it at all.
Not so, as it turned out. In the course of the talk I mentioned that I had brought some books for sale (I’d recently ordered a dozen from Create Space, Amazon’s print-on-demand program) and that I would give $3 from each sale to the club’s community service fund. When the meeting adjourned, there was a crush around the head table, and when it finally dispersed, I had sold ten books to an audience of approximately 60 people. Nice work if you can get it, and not a bad day’s work at that.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
In connection with volunteer work I do for a nonprofit group, I recently found myself having to order a thousand envelopes. I was told they’d always bought the envelopes at a place called Darco Paper and Printing on the east side of Santa Cruz, and that’s where I went.
Darco has clearly been around for a long time, but it’s out of the way, on a side street off one of the main drags, so this was my first visit. When I walked through the door I felt as if I’d been transported back in time to a stationery store from the 1950s and 60s.
Along all the walls were shelves stacked high with paper by the ream, paper of all kinds, as well as large boxes of envelopes. In the middle aisles were all sorts of pads, cards and envelopes, along with an array of pens and pencils. They also carried, at a reasonable price, “Things to do” pads, which have long since disappeared from the shelves at Staples and Office Max. I bought two of those pads for $2.07.
A Love of the Tangible
As a writer, reader, and former newspaperman, I have an abiding love for ink and paper. I’ll probably take the print version of the local paper until they stop offering it, and I much prefer writing out notes in longhand to using a computer. As Faulkner used to say, when you write it longhand, you can actually feel the words.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time looking for the perfect pen and paper. It’s a quest without end. Given how frequently pens vanish without a trace, my definition of the perfect pen is one I can readily buy at the drugstore or office supply store for under $5.
At the moment I go back and forth among four in that category. On my desk at the moment are a Pentel 24/7, a UniBall Vision Elite, a Tul and a Stabilo. Two of those are roller balls, two are gel pens, and what they all have in common is a smooth, almost creamy glide over paper, without skipping. Recently, I added to that mix several Pilot Varsity fountain pens, which retail for $3.25 at Palace Office and Art Supply.
The Right Paper Is Important
There are a number of good cheap pens around, but good paper is harder to find. There are so many cheap notepads available now that they have crowded out anything of quality at the large office-supply emporiums. But at smaller specialty shops, I’ve been able to find some good heavier-weight papers with surfaces as smooth as butter.
My two favorites are both imported. From Japan I get Okina’s Seminar pads, available in sizes approximately 6x8 inches and 7x10 inches, with rules of 7 or 9 mm. The paper is a shade of ivory and just looks right. A specialty store in San Jose used to carry it, but stopped. I liked it so much I ordered several pads on the internet from a retailer in Japan, which was almost worth the headache.
I also use a lot of pads manufactured by Rhodia, a French company, and those are still available locally. That paper is bright white, and the pads come in a variety of sizes and rules. For business notes, I use a Levenger notebook with their brand of annotation-ruled paper.
Right now I’m making plot and character notes for the next Quill Gordon Mystery in a bound Rhodia notebook. When I write in it with a Varsity fountain pen, I can almost feel the words. I hope they’re good.
Friday, January 4, 2013
Waiting for someone at Starbucks a few weeks ago, I ran into someone else I wasn’t waiting for — in this case a woman who lives at the end of our road with her husband and three daughters. We’ve known each other for years, mostly on a wave-or-stop-and-chat-for-a-few-minutes basis.
It had been a while since I last talked with her, and when she got out of her car, she came straight over to me to let me know she’d bought my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance and enjoyed it. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, but what she said next really hit me.
“I think that’s probably the first novel I’ve read in more than 20 years,” she said, “and it reminded me how much fun it is. When I was a kid, we used to go to the library a couple of times a month and check out a big box full of books and bring them home to read. I really used to love that, but with a job and a family, I just haven’t had the time. Reading your book made me want to go out and read more.”
Lost Pleasures of Childhood
Her comment brought back some memories for me. I remember my mother taking us to the Pasadena Public Library on Walnut Street between Fair Oaks and Los Robles to get books, especially during the summer when school was out. I’d check out a half dozen at a time and finish them in a week to ten days. The reading habit has stayed with me through adulthood, perhaps because of the business I was in (journalism), but I can see how it easily could have slipped away.
Considering all the things to do now, it’s amazing that anyone reads. It’s something for which you have to carve out a block of time (unless you’re an exceptional multi-tasker), and significant blocks of time are hard to come by. It’s harder yet when you’re getting home late from music lessons or Little League practice. And it’s so easy to turn on the TV and take in the shows passively.
My approach to getting reading done is to schedule it for weekends. When I don’t have to go to work, I can pretty easily finish a book in two days, and do it around the errands and other obligations I have.
Long Plane Flights and Lazy Days
By far the best reading situation, though, is a long trip to a place with not much to do. If I’m going to New York, London, Paris or Venice, there will be little reading done except in planes and airports.
But I’ve had some great reading vacations in Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, Hilton Head and Baja California. Those are trips where there’s enough time and leisure to read that 800-pager you haven’t gotten around to yet. Reading several books on a trip like that is almost like being nine years old and in the Pasadena Public Library again.
Recovering from a surgery is a great opportunity to get in some serious reading, but I’m in no hurry to go under the knife again. Still, if it hadn’t been for that hernia operation in 1979, I probably would never have found the time for George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
As a writer, I have a deep respect for those who read regularly and wish there were more of them. My great fear is that with so many people writing books and so few reading them, every author will eventually wind up with a personal reader, sort of like a personal trainer, and not much more. The good news is I probably won’t live long enough to see it.
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Quite a few people have told me over the years that I have a good voice for radio. A few (and you know who you are) have also told me I have a great face for radio, but we won’t go there. Last week I had a chance to put the voice (and face) to appropriate use.
Rosemary Chalmers, host of Good Morning Monterey Bay on KSCO, the leading local AM station, invited me to come talk about my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. An author should be willing to do anything for exposure, and drive-time radio is definitely worth getting up for.
In fact, I didn’t even have to get up that early. My segment aired from 8:40 to 8:55, so I rolled into the parking lot at 8:20, chatted with the receptionist for a while, then was led into the studio a minute before I went on. Rosemary told me to stay three inches from the microphone, and I tried to focus just on that and on not saying, “you know.”
A Last-Minute Campaign Ad
It had been a while since I had been in the KSCO studios, but the visit brought back fond memories. I particularly recalled an instance a number of years ago when I was working on District Attorney Art Danner’s re-election campaign. He called me at 8 a.m. the day before the election to say he wanted to do a last-minute ad incorporating something that had been in the newspaper over the weekend.
Ten minutes later I was at the studio and sat down with Dick Little, their news director at the time, to write a script for a 30-second spot. That was done in 15 minutes, and the next problem was finding a voice to read the ad. “Why don’t you do it?” asked Dick. “You have a pretty good voice.”
After a few minutes of rehearsal, the DA rolled in to do the “I paid for this ad” tagline and to write the check to make it true. We recorded the ad and ran it a dozen times that day. A lot of people told me they heard it and recognized my voice. The DA was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. Who knows? Without the ad, he could have slipped to 57.5.
A Civilized Conversation
Talking about my book was a much calmer experience. There were no call-ins, so it was just Rosemary and me having a civilized conversation about mysteries and what’s involved in writing a book. Rosemary and I have known each other for a while, so it was a comfortable situation. The time went by fast, and I even remembered to get in plugs, without being asked, for Bookshop Santa Cruz and Crossroads Books, the two local independent stores that are carrying my novel.
At the conclusion of the interview, as is her custom, Rosemary asked me to join her, the receptionist, and another station employee whose name I didn’t get in singing a Monty Python song. Not “I’m a Lumberjack,” which I could have done, but another with which I was completely unfamiliar. I did my best, but Michael Buble and Harry Connick, Jr., have nothing to fear.
As the segment ended, I realized, from the announcement that followed, that my interview had been the lead-in to Rush Limbaugh who came on at 9. There was more than a little irony in that, but to find out what it is, you’ll have to read my book.