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.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Friday, March 29, 2013

Everybody Needs Editing

            Not too long ago, I tossed off a brief Facebook post before leaving the house for a few hours. It was intended to be a sardonic followup to a blog I’d recently posted, but apparently it didn’t come across that way.
            In this case I didn’t check mail while I was out, and when I got back found a message from someone whose opinion I value, who had been confused and even disturbed by the Facebook post. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of those situations where you don’t argue or ask questions.
            Immediately I went to Facebook and deleted the post, which fortunately hadn’t received any comments or “likes.” Then I replied to my correspondent, thanking him for calling the problem to my attention; thanking him again for doing it by email rather than commenting on my post and spreading it farther; and explaining what it meant, which, I think, reassured him that I had not completely lost it.
            Then I began thinking of the late Ward Bushee, Jr., one of my great mentors at the newspaper.

The View From a Fresh Eye

            Ward was — and this is an understatement — a great copy editor. Even when he was familiar with the elements of a story, he had the ability to look at it with a fresh eye and imagine how a less knowledgeable reader might react to it.  He forced reporters to tell a story clearly and simply, and to leave no holes in the tale, into which a reader could disappear and be lost.
            His persnickety questions could be infuriating at times, and he was occasionally wrong (or so I thought, anyway), but he had a complete and unwavering grasp of what was involved in making a story comprehensible, no matter how complicated the subject matter might be. No one who worked for him came away from the experience without having become a better writer — often a much better one.
            After I had been at the paper about six months, and established a basic level of competence, Ward gave me a story to edit. It was one of his own; though primarily an editor, he would cover an event or write a feature from time to time. Halfway through it, I came across a sentence that didn’t make sense to me and asked him about it. I’ll never forget the response.

No One Is Exempt

            “Well,” he said, after re-reading the passage and marking it up to fix the problem, “that just goes to show you. Everybody needs editing.”
            Of course, and one of my great laments about writing and publishing today is that there seems to be less and less editing going on. A couple of decades ago, cub reporters used to be able to get guidance from the editors at smaller papers; these days they’re lucky if a story they write is even run through a spell-check program before being published.
            Editing deficiency is rampant in the book world as well, and I’m not just talking about typos in self-published $2.99 Kindle books. The sorts of embarrassing tone problems I described in the first paragraph are creeping into mainstream, big publishing house literature. A few years ago I read (or started to read) a mystery by a really big-name author, who had created a character with a name that was a dyslexic version of an outhouse obscenity. Perhaps it seemed funny and clever over drinks the night before, but the author should never have still loved it in the morning. If the copy had gone through Ward, it wouldn’t have been allowed, and I’d like to believe the author would be grateful today.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Can't Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

            I am nearly done writing the first chapter of the second Quill Gordon mystery, tentatively titled Wash Her Guilt Away, and have found myself thinking about Ellery Queen. Early Ellery Queen, to be precise.
            What drove my mind there was the experience of trying to write a book that is a contemporary American take on the classic English country-house mystery. If you’ve read Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, or any of the other practitioners, you’ll know that’s a story where a diverse group of characters are invited to a country estate for the weekend and a murder ensues, with all the guests being suspects.
            Americans in the present day don’t do that sort of thing (I mean the country-house weekend; we certainly do murders) so in my book the characters assemble at a remote fishing lodge that has a bit of a history. The challenge facing the writer is bringing in all the characters, establishing their characters, and getting the reader interested in those characters without the benefit of the seven or eight corpses that usually appear in the first three pages of a modern mystery.

The Nephew or the Secretary?

            A caring and considerate author also wants readers to keep the characters mentally sorted without too much effort as the book progresses. When Jones reappears after an absence of 20 to 30 pages, you don’t want the reader scratching her head and saying, “Let’s see — was Jones the rich uncle’s nephew or was it his secretary?”
            Based solely on my own reading experience, this can be a serious problem. Quite a few mysteries (and serious novels, as well) have left me dizzy trying to remember what the relationship between the characters was. That’s what sent me to the bookshelf for a look at Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery, which I pulled down at random to see if my memory was correct.
            The Greek Coffin Mystery was published in 1932, which definitely makes it early Queen, and sure enough, right at the front, I found what I was looking for: A list of characters. Each was described in only a few words, but those few words established the relationships between the characters and generally what they did.
At any point in the book, a reader could flip back to that page to double-check on who someone was.

So Old School It’s Not Even Retro

            Looking through the character list of this particular book, the reader can quickly be reminded that George Khalkis is an eminent art dealer (and the victim); and that Alan Cheney is the son of Delphina Sloane, who is Khalkis’ sister, and who is married to Gilbert Sloane, the manager of the Khalkis galleries. Got that?
            That sort of scorecard to help the reader keep the players straight can be most helpful, but it went out of style in the 1940s. A writer who tried to use the technique today would probably be laughed off Amazon for being so out of date he wasn’t even retro. The contemporary author has to write his way through that problem without the help of a cheat sheet.
            My approach to separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is threefold. First, I’m keeping the character list short; Wash Her Guilt Away has 15 characters compared to 39 in The Greek Coffin Mystery. Second, they aren’t related, except for the married couples. Third, I try to introduce them one or two at a time so the reader can get to know them before moving on. Will that help the reader avoid confusion? I don’t know, but the more critical question is, will the reader care about them? We’ll see.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Who Are These People, Anyway?

            By my best calculation, the last friend to buy my mystery novel did so on January 9 of this year. That was when I gave a talk on self-publishing to my Rotary Club and sold about a dozen copies after the meeting.
            From that point on, I figure every book that’s sold has been to a stranger, someone who doesn’t know me at all. Well, maybe not every one. There are no doubt a couple of stragglers out there who know me and have been meaning to buy the book but haven’t. But the bottom line is that I’ve reached that tipping point that every first-time author has to face. What happens when your friends stop buying the book and your sales depend on people you don’t know?
            This is not an insignificant question. I read somewhere that the average self-published book sells 150 copies, and the number is no coincidence. Sociologists say that’s how many people the average person knows tolerably well, through family, school, work, church, and other organizations. How the first-time author gets past 150 sales is the sixty four thousand dollar question.

Numbers on a Computer Screen

            Since the beginning of the year, when I figure my friends stopped buying it, my book, The McHenry Inheritance, continues to move on Amazon. Almost every other day one of those strangers I wonder about shells out $2.99 to buy the e-book version. The print-on-demand version sells less well, but still gets a couple of bites each month. And when I offer it free as a one-day promotion, the numbers steadily improve. In January, I did two promotional days and “sold” 154 books. For two days in March the number is up to 378.
            (A cynic might argue that the volume of free books simply establishes what mine is worth, and perhaps that’s so. But there seem to be fifteen to twenty thousand free books available each day on Kindle, and a lot of them seem to be moving in single digits, so something about my book must be ringing a bell.)
            The sales figures for my book are mere numbers on a computer screen, and I wish I had some way of knowing more about who is buying the book and why. The people who actually paid for the book (albeit less than they’d pay for a latte) clearly had to make a decision, but what about the ones who take it when it’s free?

Literary Hoarders

            I wonder all sorts of things. How much time do they spend considering the book before adding it to the cart? What’s the tipping point that makes them buy? How many free books do they “buy” in one shopping spree? How many are seriously interested, as opposed to simply locking it in for nothing, just in case they feel like reading it later?
            There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that quite a few of the free sales are to people I would characterize as literary hoarders, people who can’t stand to pass up a free book because maybe some day they’ll want to read it. Many, if not most, will never open it, or if they do, won’t read beyond the first few pages.
            What I have to hope for is that a handful of those who impulsively snapped it up free will eventually read it. That probably won’t be for a while, because they didn’t really set out to buy it.  But if they like the book, and tell their friends about it, those friends might actually go to Kindle and pay for it because they want it. I can only hope.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Have Story, Will Travel

            I was having coffee one time with the late Marybeth Varcados, who was then the managing editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Before joining the Sentinel, she had worked with me at the newspaper in Watsonville, where she was one of the best human-interest feature writers I’ve known.
            Marybeth was telling me about someone who had come into the newspaper office with a request that the paper cover some fund-raising event. The person talked to Marybeth for a quarter of an hour, going into every excruciating detail about the organization of the fund-raiser, about which almost no newspaper reader would be interested.
            Finally, in answer to her questions, the visitor explained that the event was to benefit a person active in the community who had suffered a bizarre accident, lost their job (and health plan), and was in dire need. That should have been the first thing the visitor said in making the pitch, but Marybeth had to coax out the information.
            Then she set down her coffee cup, shook her head, and said, “Isn’t it amazing how many people just don’t know how to tell a story?”

For Some, It Comes Easy

            Being professional storytellers of long standing, she and I both had a difficult time understanding how someone could not understand what the key elements of a story are and pull them together. To us, that comes so naturally, it’s almost done on autopilot. And certainly, quite a few people who don’t tell stories for a living have an instinctive feel and talent for it.
            Human beings are in touch with stories all their lives — through books, plays, movies, TV shows, and jokes told by friends. I used to wonder how, with all that exposure, the technique never rubs off on some folks. Then it was pointed out to me that I’ve been driving a car for almost half a century and still have no more than the most primitive idea of what makes an automobile run. It is entirely possible to be exposed to something constantly, even enjoy it considerably, and have no clue as to what makes it tick.
            I’m also reminded of the old joke about the visitor to a prison. He’s walking through with the warden, when a prisoner yells out, “237!” and the other prisoners all laugh. Another prisoner shouts, “412” and again everyone laughs. The visitor asks the warden about it, and is told that the men have been behind bars for so long that, as a form of shorthand, they’ve numbered the jokes they all know.

One Line, and He Can’t Pull It Off

            Then another prisoner yells out, “298!” and there’s a dead silence. The visitor asks what happened, and the warden shakes his head.”
            “Some guys just don’t know how to tell a joke,” the warden says.
            Sometimes I wonder how much of the storytelling talent is cultural and familial. My father, who came from Tennessee, was a great storyteller, and so were some of his friends. As a kid, I used to have to sit and listen while the adults talked, and maybe something seeped in. My mother wasn’t much of a storyteller, but after living with my dad for years, she knew a lot of his stories and told them after he was gone, which helped keep them alive.
            Marybeth Varcados eventually left the newspaper business, co-authored a mystery novel, and started her own public relations/freelance business, at which she worked part-time. She had the best business card since “Have Gun Will Travel.” Aside from the phone number and e-mail, it read simply, “Let Me Tell Your Story. Marybeth Varcados.”


Friday, March 15, 2013

You Don't See What You Don't Look For

            There was a story in The Washington Post a while back about how auto accidents happen, and it began with the experience of a nurse in the D.C. area who went to work the same way every day. Her shift started at 5:30 a.m., so she’d get up, shower, dress, and groom, then leave for the hospital, about five miles away, a little before 5. A mile from her home she’d stop at a 24-hour gas station/store to get a large coffee and sweet roll for the road.
            One day, on a morning just like any other, she made the left turn into the gas station and creamed a kid who had been skateboarding on the sidewalk and was crossing the gas station entryway. He was hospitalized, but survived and recovered.
            When the police interviewed the nurse, she said she never saw him. She had been driving to work this way for years and always looked to see if there was a car coming the other way before making the left turn. But she never checked the sidewalk because she knew, after all that time, that there’s never anyone on the sidewalk at that time of the morning.

We All Make Assumptions

            We can probably all relate to that story; I certainly can. There’s one road I drive on from time to time where I always slow down at a particular point because one night I almost ran over someone who was crossing the street there — jaywalking in dark clothes on a street with no lights. It’s on my radar now to look for pedestrians there, even though there’s no crosswalk.
            One of the ways the human mind deals with the complexity of modern life is by weeding out information that seems irrelevant, often with tragic consequences. The tragedy can be amplified when that normal practice turns into a prejudice.
            For instance, police officers tend to develop a set of beliefs based on experience, one of them being that when a married woman is murdered, the husband is a likely suspect. That makes sense because so many husbands do, indeed, kill their wives, but the trap is that a couple of scraps of corroborating evidence can lead detectives to zero in on that possibility and not see — like the nurse who didn’t look at the sidewalk — the other evidence that points elsewhere.

Observation and the Crime Novel

            As a mystery writer and reader I have more than the usual interest in the phenomenon of not seeing. To begin at almost the beginning, Sherlock Holmes became famous for seeing what others didn’t, and doing it because he had trained himself to observe.
            One of the standard lines in crime fiction — a cliché, in fact — is when a detective asks a witness to go over everything, leaving nothing out because the witness may not realize what’s important. In a well constructed crime novel, some small detail that comes out in that way eventually leads to the solution of the crime. Typically, it does so only after being merged with some other seemingly random fact in a way that required an imaginative leap to make that connection.
            Of course it’s also possible to be too observant. People sometimes say, after a serial killer is arrested, didn’t the neighbors suspect anything? No doubt they noticed some weird behavior, but most of the time that just indicates weirdness, not pathological criminality. They didn’t see a serial killer next door because they weren’t looking for it, and that’s probably a sign of normality on their part. We pay the police to be suspicious; the rest of us have to live and let live.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fifty Six Years Is Enough

            Watching (and thoroughly enjoying) Elementary last week set my mind drifting to the question of copyright. How wonderful, I thought, that the character of Sherlock Holmes, having achieved literary immortality, is now in the public domain, allowing a new generation of writers and filmmakers unlimited freedom to adapt Holmes and Watson to the modern era or invent new stories featuring them in their own time.
            It turns out that, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, I was misinformed.
            A couple of days later, I came across an article in the Times about how the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle has been aggressively collecting licensing fees from authors and filmmakers wanting to use Holmes (and/or Watson) as characters, even though most of the stories were written before the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The reasoning is that ten of them were first published in the U.S. in 1923, are still subject to the copyright law, and, being part of an entire body of work featuring the character of Holmes render the character still protected. That argument is now being challenged in court, and it will be fascinating to see how it turns out.

Fourteen Years Is Not Enough

            America’s first copyright law was passed in 1790 and provided that an original work could be copyrighted for a period of 14 years, with an option to extend the copyright another 14 if necessary. In 1909 the law was amended (not for the first time) to make the copyright period 28 years with a 28-year renewal. Beginning in 1976 the periods were progressively extended to the point where a copyright is now good for 95 to 120 years, with no need for renewal.
            At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck, I think they had it pretty much right in 1909. If the 28-28 rule were still in effect, readers everywhere would benefit from cheap editions (print and online) of such books as A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, Gone With The Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and more than half the writings of Agatha Christie.
            Copyright law, as originally conceived, had two purposes: to protect the authors of creative work and to ensure that that work eventually entered the public domain and became broadly available to the public and subject to use and interpretation by other creators. Instead, we have such absurdities as the just-released Oz the Great and Powerful being unable to use Dorothy’s ruby slippers because they are deemed to be protected under the copyright of the 1939 Wizard of Oz.

When My Ox Is Being Gored

            Last year, I published my first mystery novel, so I suppose I should be grateful for the benefits of a 95-year copyright, in the event the book really takes off at some point along the line. I still think it’s ridiculous. That’s three times longer than I have any reasonable expectation of living, and my only son would be 117 years old when the copyright expired. A 56-year copyright would have been just fine, even if it leaves Nick without royalties at the age of 78. I expect he’ll be able to take care of himself at that point.
            If my book were to go into the public domain in 56 years, there’s a chance that someone might discover it, bring it back to life in a cheap e-book edition, and get some new readers for it, in some way keeping my memory alive. When I’m dead, that would be more important than getting some hypothetical royalties into the hands of a geezer great-grandchild I never knew.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

When the Keychain Gets Legs

            Last Thursday, at 10:15 a.m., I got up to go to the post office to pick up my mail. The rest of the day was ruined.
            I rent two P.O. boxes, one for personal mail and one for business. (It’s complicated; don’t ask.) On one of my two sets of car keys I keep the P.O. box keys, so I went to the kitchen to grab that keychain. It wasn’t on the desks in my office, so it would be on the kitchen counter, which is the other place it lives.
            Not this time. The car key without the P.O. box keys was there, but not the one I wanted. It happens sometimes, so I wasn’t too concerned at first. A pass or two through the house generally turns it up.
            Not this time. Two hours later, having gone through the house multiple times, searched every surface meticulously more than once, checked in every drawer (plus the oven, fridge and microwave), I still couldn’t find the keys. Took everything out of the car, too, and checked under the seats. Still keyless.

They Got Up and Walked Away

            Usual protocol in a situation like this is to try to remember the last time you used the keys and work forward from there. I knew I had them Wednesday at noon when I picked up the mail and would have needed them to drive home. After that, I had gone out twice, later on Wednesday, but couldn’t say which keychain I took. Generally, I grab the first one I see and head out the door.
            Possibly I had taken the missing keychain when I already had the other set of keys in my pocket. So I checked the last post office I visited and the other places I’d been afterward to see if the first set had been left behind anywhere. No luck. Came home and searched the house thoroughly several more times. Still no keys, and no work getting done, either.
            When Linda got home that night she suggested that perhaps I had put the missing keys on top of the car and driven off, using the other key. The next morning, when it was light, she went all the way to the end of our road (about a quarter-mile) to see if they were lying at the side, where they had fallen off the car. No luck.

How Did They Ever End Up There?

            At this point, matters were getting serious, and my mental health was none too good. I got a replacement P.O. box key for the business box and checked into the cost of replacing the missing car key. The figure quoted was enough to spur me to look further.
            Shortly after five on Friday afternoon, I was going through my home office one more time. Near my desk was a pile of research materials for a project I’m working on. I had lifted them up several times to see if the keys had fallen in among them, with no success. This time, for some reason, I opened up the top three-ring binder, and there, inside it, were the missing keys.
            It was easy to figure out from there. Late Wednesday afternoon, I’d opened that binder to check a fact and left it open on the desk. An hour later, we went out to dinner for my birthday, and I must have taken the missing keys. Returning home, I probably tossed them on the desk and they landed on the open binder; closing it while cleaning up the desktop a while later, I must not have seen the keys inside. What a relief to have them back — and without a supernatural explanation.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Watching the Numbers All Day Long

            A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about giving away copies of my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, as a Kindle promotion to build readership. That blog got an uncommonly high number of page views, leading me to follow up here with additional thoughts and details on the practice.
            Wednesday was my birthday, and believing that I shouldn’t be the only one getting presents, I scheduled a free giveaway on Kindle that day. On giveaway days, I check every few hours (no point being obsessive about it) to see where I stand on Amazon’s free book sales list.
            The morning of the 27th dawned bright and clear in coastal California, and at 6:15 a.m., Linda picked up her iPad and did the first check. She yelled out the number, and I forgot to write it down, but it was 21 thousand and something. It gives you a scary idea of how many books and authors are out there that on a weekday, there would be at least 21 thousand books being given away on Kindle.

Cresting, Like Obama

            At that time of day, of course, the West Coast is just getting up, the East Coast is going to or arriving at work, and Europe is still at work in the afternoon. The people buying books at those hours are probably in India, Australia and New Zealand.
            By 8:48 a.m., I had climbed 11,000 places on the list, to number 11,092. At 10:33 a.m., I had soared to 6,648th place, a climb of 14,000 places since the day began. I tweeted about it. At 1:45 p.m., I was up to 5,010th place.
            Clearly, like Barack Obama in a presidential election, I do better as the results start coming in from the west. The book continued to creep up the charts for the rest of the day, and when I checked at 10:07 p.m., before turning in, it was number 3,460 on the Amazon free book hit parade.
            How does that translate into actual sales? Amazon tells me that 64 people “bought” the book that day. What an author hopes for in this situation is that at least a few of them will read it, like it, and tell their friends in some way. Maybe they’ll even post a review on Kindle.

Weekdays Versus  Weekends

            One thing this tells me (and it reinforces earlier data, so I should have thought of it sooner) is that weekdays generally don’t seem to be too good for giveaways. Earlier in the month I gave the book away on Saturday the 16th, the first day of a three-day weekend in America, and it moved more than 150 copies, or twice as many as on the weekday. Stands to reason, since that’s when more people are likely to be looking for something to read.
            Nobody knows how Amazon’s algorithm works in terms of generating referrals for a book, but anecdotally, it seems mine has gotten some mention after a good giveaway day, so I want to be trying to maximize that.
            Accordingly, my next big idea is to use my three remaining free promotion days on weekends in March, clustering more giveaways closer together than I’ve done up to this point. The questions should be, first, are more people snapping up the book when there’s a free offer, and second, are the ones I’m giving away generating any increase in paid sales of the book. Trial and error, but I’ll let you know how it turns out.