Tuesday, May 28, 2013
There are several ways of learning to write well, and one of them, certainly, is to learn by reading good writing. My junior high school journalism teacher, Jack McDonald, understood this. He taught us the fundamentals of journalistic style — the five W’s, how to write a lead paragraph, the inverted pyramid — in short order, as we were putting out the student newspaper for one semester only.
So after the brief instruction, he added, “If you really want to know how to write a good news story, read the front page of the Times every day and do what they do.”
That would have been early 1965 in Southern California, so he was of course talking about the Los Angeles Times, which, under the direction of Otis Chandler, was rapidly becoming one of America’s best newspapers. Situated in an area that was booming economically and growing rapidly, the Times could spend all the money in the world on its news department and still be spectacularly profitable. And they spent it well, hiring top-notch people who taught and learned from each other, producing a paper that was a joy to read.
Learning from the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I took his advice and read the front page thoroughly almost every day for the next year, and, by George, I learned how to write a news story. Now that I’ve published a mystery novel and am working on another, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries by other writers in much the same way I used to read the Times back in junior high. That is, I’m trying to watch what they do and see what I can steal.
Any aspiring mystery writer who could learn plot from Agatha Christie, voice from Raymond Chandler, and sense of place from Tony Hillerman would certainly have a leg up on the competition. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’ve been learning something else in my readings. You can pick up a lot of writing pointers from a bad book, too.
Not too long ago I read a self-published mystery that I felt wasn’t very good. You can find it on Amazon, but you’ll have to do it without my help. Attacking an unknown author is bad form; public attacks should be saved for big-buck authors who are coasting, and if you find this particular author yourself, you might disagree with my assessment.
Not So Good, but Compelling
In spite of the fact that I concluded early on that the book wouldn’t be very good, I read it all the way to the end. A major reason was that I wanted to break down what was going wrong, if only to avoid doing the same thing in my own writing.
Part way through the book, I realized that one of the major problems the book had was the author’s use of adjectives. In almost every paragraph, there was an adjective that was wrong in some way: it didn’t need to be there at all; it jarred because it wasn’t descriptive enough or overly descriptive in the wrong way; or it editorialized. After all, if you’ve accurately and specifically described what the villain has done, there’s no need to keep referring to him as “wicked.”
Strunk and White famously wrote, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak and inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Bud O’Brien, one of my mentors at the newspaper, used to say, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” Like guns, adjectives are good tools, too often wrongly used. The next time I sit down to write, I will be herding adjectives tenaciously and keeping them on a tight leash.
Friday, May 24, 2013
One of the neat things about reading nonfiction is the unexpected stuff you come across. For instance, in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet, I learned that Lincoln successfully pressed the U.S. Post Office to dramatically speed up its delivery so that soldiers fighting the war could receive morale-boosting letters from their families and loved ones.
For any other president, that would have been the crowning achievement of his administration; for Lincoln, it’s a forgotten footnote. I thought it interesting at the time and made a mental note of it, but never expected that it would come to mean something personal to me.
Now that we have a soldier in the family (or more accurately, a soldier in training, since he’s still in basic at Fort Jackson SC), the mail has taken on a new meaning. Soldiers in basic training have next to no access to computers and telephones, so good, old-fashioned snail mail is about their only means of sending and receiving information.
The Letter Written by Hand
Apparently mail call, where the sergeant stands in front of the group and calls out the names of those who received a letter that day, is still a big deal, and the Army really encourages families to write to their soldiers. Before Nick shipped out, we made sure he had a good ruled writing pad, an ample supply of envelopes, and a couple of sheets of Forever stamps, so he could write to us as well.
Whatever else our son may lack, he at least has a father who’s a professional writer and doesn’t mind firing off a letter — enjoys it, in fact. Linda doesn’t write for a living (unless you count final exams), but she’s also comfortable writing a letter. We’re each trying to write twice a week, staggering the mailings so the letters arrive on different days. Nick’s aunts and friends have also said they’ll write.
Back in the Pleistocene, before there was email, I used to write a lot of letters. Mostly I typed them or printed them from a computer. I have a few friends I send long e-mails to, but except for thank-you notes, I hardly ever mail anything handwritten. That’s changing now, because I want the letters I send to Nick to be as personal as possible.
What? You Do Cursive?
I have pretty good penmanship, if I do say so myself. And I don’t; bank tellers are always fawning over my handwriting. I’d never have made it as a doctor, but it comes in handy now. Even though he never learned cursive in school, my son should be able to read what I’ve written to him.
For the letters to Nick, I bought a couple of types of high-quality off-white paper with matching envelopes. That in itself was a revelation. At the best stationery/office supply store in town, they had only a handful of choices in the section of formal letter-writing paper. After all, who sends letters these days?
The letters are written with a Japanese ink-cartridge pen with an old-fashioned nib. Linda got it for me as a wedding anniversary present in March, a few weeks before we learned that Nick was enlisting. It glides over high-quality paper with an effortless smoothness, and I can easily dash off a two-page letter in half an hour. Funny, when I stop to think about it. I’ve been earning a good living as a writer for 40 years but am just now doing my most important work, and I’ll never see a dime in revenue from it. The payoff, however, will be huge.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
At a wedding this weekend I was sitting across the table from an English teacher, and somehow the subject of reading came up. The discussion took a turn to book-reading habits, and she told me that she typically has three or four books going at the same time and goes back and forth between them, adding a new one to the mix whenever she finishes one of the ones in the stack.
I’ve heard there were people like that, but it was the first time I’ve ever met one.
That approach to book-reading is incomprehensible to me. I can read only one book at a time, and when I start reading a book, finishing it becomes a priority. I even plan my reading around available blocks of time. For instance, if I’m flying from San Francisco to New York, I don’t want a book much longer than 250 pages because that’s about the length of book I can read on that flight. I don’t want to be sitting in a Manhattan hotel room, forsaking the pleasures of the city, to finish a book I can’t put down.
The Unread 800-Page Novels
If there’s a book of any considerable length that I want to read, I have to plan ahead. I won’t start an 800-page novel unless I feel confident that I will have five days in a row during which I can spend at least three hours a day reading it. Not only do I read one book at a time, but I don’t want to put it aside even for a day while I’m reading it. I have to stay connected.
That’s one reason there are so many famous novels I haven’t gotten around to yet, or so I tell myself. It’s also the reason that a number of very good (and long) books are associated with the circumstances in which I read them.
Team of Rivals will forever be associated with a summer vacation at Lake Tahoe. David McCullough’s Truman took up the better part of a week in the Bahamas. George Eliot’s Middlemarch got me through the recovery from my second hernia surgery. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin made a flight from Paris to San Francisco almost bearable.
I Love a Mystery — All at Once
Almost every week I read a mystery novel, typically on Saturday. With a mystery, I feel that I need to devour it in one day, and the way I go about it has become a ritual.
Saturday morning I devote to a number of weekend tasks and to cleaning up any unfinished business from my business. By noon or one o’clock, I’m ready to go. The book was chosen earlier in the week, but occasionally there’s a late substitution. If something unexpectedly comes up for Saturday afternoon, for instance, I might take the book I had planned to read and swap it out for a shorter one.
I get started between noon and 2 p.m. and usually read the book in a recliner by the window in our upstairs family room, where I can look outside and see the trees and be aware of the weather. About an hour into the book, I take a break to make a small (2 cups) pot of tea and set out two scones on a plate. I read until 4:30 or 5, take a break to check email and work on dinner if necessary. After dinner I read until the book is finished. By then it’s night, the lamps are on in the room, and I feel that the day is over and has been particularly well spent.
Friday, May 17, 2013
For Mother’s Day, I tried something different in the way of a book promotion for my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and I’m still scratching my head.
Up to this point, I had done one-day promotions on Kindle, where people could download the book free for 24 hours. I figured that on Mother’s Day, there would be a lot of mystery readers getting Kindles or iPads and looking for a cheap or free book to test the device. It also occurred to me that there would be some of that activity going on the following day as well, so I scheduled a two-day promotion, Sunday and Monday.
The results were reasonably good, though far from my personal best. Over the two days, 248 people downloaded the book, a large enough number to drive it up to number 51 on the Kindle free-mystery list by Monday night. But there was a number within those numbers that boggled my mind.
When the Night Owls Shop
During a free-promotion day, I check the numbers every few hours to see how things are going, and sometimes do an update on Twitter to generate a bit of publicity. The last check on Sunday was at 10 p.m., when 99 books had been downloaded.
Monday morning I rose bright and early, and at 6 a.m., when I had a cup of coffee in hand, looked at the numbers again. Total downloads were up to 120, which means that 21 people acquired the book in the wee small hours. It was after midnight on the East Coast when I last checked, with a work day coming up, and pretty much bedtime for most people on the West Coast as well. Moving a few books during that period wouldn’t surprise me, but the 21 sales were two or three times what I would have predicted, especially given the previous day’s volume.
I suppose it’s possible that some readers from the UK, Australia or New Zealand picked up the book then, but that seems unlikely. It hasn’t been moving well in those countries to date, and it’s weird that it would start now. I’m at a loss to explain this.
Insomniacs with Kindle Accounts
Certainly one can imagine a situation where someone unable to sleep would get out of bed, turn on the computer, and start looking at free books on Amazon. But how many such people can there be in any given night, and what are the odds of more than two or three of them finding my book and deciding to get it?
Monday night I checked the free sales at 10 p.m. Pacific Time, then looked again Tuesday to see what the final number was for the two-day sale, which ended at midnight. Ten books were sold in the last two hours, which would suggest that perhaps there are a few people in the Pacific Time zone (and perhaps elsewhere) who stay up late and go to Amazon before turning in. Then again, maybe there were a lot of bored night watchmen surfing their iPads for something to read.
Impossible to guess, but whatever the reason, one point becomes utterly clear. In the digital world, where almost anything is available at any time, there’s apt to be a buyer (or two or three) out there for almost anything you want to sell almost any time you want to sell it. For a first-time author like me, who can’t afford to miss out on a single sale, it’s reassuring to know that the store is always open.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
When Nick turned 16 in October of 2006, I bought him a fly rod for his birthday and took him fishing. He’d fished with a spinning rod on earlier summer vacations, but some experts I consulted with said 16 was a good age in terms of having the maturity to handle a fly rod.
That autumn we made the first of several trips to a ranch in the Mt. Shasta area of Northern California. We were there a day, and the fishing wasn’t good at all. The fish, as they are wont to do, simply weren’t feeding, and nothing we tried worked very well. But the weather was pleasant, the ranch is a singularly beautiful place (no relation to the one in my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance), and we had a good time. Fishing can be hugely pleasurable, even without the fish.
We returned in subsequent Octobers, and the fishing was better, which made the trip even more fun. The birthday fishing trip became a father-son ritual that we both looked forward to. I was starting to think about this year’s fall fishing trip in late March, when something unexpected happened.
He’s In the Army Now
On the first of April, Nick announced that he was joining the Army, where he’d been promised an assignment to the training program for Blackhawk Helicopter mechanics. Linda and I never saw it coming, but in hindsight, we should have. He’s crazy about planes and flying and wants a career in aviation, so some military background would be a real plus.
After the decision sunk in, I made an executive decision. Since we wouldn’t be able to do the fishing trip this fall, I booked it for the end of April, just before Nick had to leave for basic training. I don’t generally believe in “fronts,” but this clearly was a case where an exception was called for. I booked the guest cabin on the ranch for the nights of April 29 and 30, which meant we would have two days of fishing between Monday and Wednesday afternoon.
Spring weather in the mountains can be unpredictable; I’ve experienced snow as late as early June. But we caught a break. Monday afternoon was warm and a bit overcast, and Tuesday and Wednesday were bright, warm and breezy.
The End of a Tradition?
We had a really good time. There was no dry-fly fishing when the wind came up, but the fish were still feeding on nymphs under the surface. When that activity slowed down, I taught Nick how to fish with a Woolly Bugger, which imitates a leech or minnow, and he caught and released several nice fish that took it.
At the time I booked the trip, I thought maybe this would be a good chance for me to give my son some fatherly advice, but when we got there, I decided to forget about that, and simply let this be a fishing trip. It could turn out to be one of those instances where what wasn’t said is every bit as profound as anything that could have been said.
For the next six years, the Army owns Nick’s time, and there’s no way of knowing when, or if, we’ll be able to do a fishing trip. It also turns out that the ranch we’ve been going to for eight years now is for sale, and there’s no guarantee that the new owners will be amenable to fishing guests. Either way, this trip could be the end of a tradition. But what memories we’ll always have!
Friday, May 10, 2013
In two decades of working at the newspaper, I came into contact with some interesting characters, to put it mildly. Many of them hovered around the office for a while until they realized we had run as many stories about them as we were going to (sometimes none at all), then faded away.
One was a man who claimed to have been former black-ops, and who certainly affected the air of one who feels everyone is out to get him. He had to deal with our advertising department for a while, and at one point a sales rep told me he had paid cash for an ad in a most memorable way.
He took out a big roll of bills, she said, and explained that the serial numbers began with a letter of the alphabet that corresponded with the city hosting the Federal Reserve Bank where the bill was printed. “I like to keep my money in alphabetical order,” he said, “and spend San Francisco last.”
When I heard the story, I filed it in a compartment in my brain that holds information or anecdotes that might come in handy later. It sat there for 15 years, and then I used the serial-number shtick in my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance.
The Wool-Gathering Mind
In one of the obituaries of Nora Ephron, it was reported that her parents, professional screenwriters, used to tell her, “Everything’s copy.” I’d say material, not copy, but I absolutely agree with the sentiment, even going so far as to say that the propensity for collecting such daily flotsam and jetsam is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the writer.
Decades ago the collection of seemingly useless facts and stories was referred to as “wool-gathering.” I’m not sure what it’s called now, but it’s a skill that requires a certain critical judgment. You have to have a sense of when something is interesting enough or piquant enough to be worth saving.
The gifted wool-gatherer must also be patient. Occasionally you come across something that can be put to immediate use, but that’s an anomaly. Usually, it’s something you realize could potentially be of value later on, but you don’t know how. So you file it and hold it until something else comes along and triggers a memory of it. At that point, the knowledge of how to use the material is generally instantaneous, and the rightness of its use obvious.
What’s In a Name?
Similarly a good and distinctive name is something to be saved carefully for the right character. One of my duties at the newspaper for a while was doing the historical column, which reported happenings of 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago.
At one point, somewhere between 1912 and 1914, I came across an item that read, “Rex Radio, the radium healer, is in town for a few days. Treatments at reasonable prices at the Mansion House.” It went into the column and into my personal mental file. Years later, when I was casting about for a name for a disgraced radio talk-show host in my mystery, I remembered Rex and realized I had it all along.
Use of a name can deviate from the original plan. If I’m on the road and in a small town on a Friday night, I sometimes go to a high school football or basketball game. A kid playing in one of those had a great quarterback name, which I filed away in case I needed one some day. I ended up using it in my book, but the football player, Mike Baca, ended up being the sheriff. It fit.
Originally posted August 10, 2012
Friday, May 3, 2013
This coming Tuesday marks the beginning of what I call the 91 days of light. It’s the day of the summer solstice (June 21 this year) and the 45 days on either side. The period from May 7 to August 5 will be the quarter of the year with the longest days.
At some point in the past this must have been considered summer, hence the designation of solstice day as Midsummer. Actual summer runs from June 21 to September 22. What I think of as high summer, the time when students are out of school and the beaches are packed on weekdays runs roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Even that is not a strictly accurate measurement. It used to be, in California at least, that the schools didn’t get going until after Labor Day. Now they start a week or two before, which makes those last two weeks of August a great time for a getaway for mature adults.
What to Do With the Long Days
During the days of light, sunset is at 8 p.m. or later, with another half hour of decent light immediately afterward. In the mornings, it’s light before 6 a.m. Plenty of time, in any event, for a walk before work or after dinner.
Every season has its points, but summer, however you calculate it, is my favorite. Growing up in Los Angeles, it meant staying out playing really late in warm, if not downright hot, weather. Now it means barbecuing in shorts and a T-shirt (if the fog hasn’t rolled in early) then going for a walk on the beach after dinner. On the whole, the longer days and extra light mean more time to appreciate the world around you.
That sense of squeezing every moment for all it’s worth is particularly powerful when you’re on vacation. If you’ve spent a day getting somewhere, and have only a few days there once you arrive, long summer nights are value-added. In my formative years, our parents took us on several long driving trips during summer vacation. Often, we’d check into a place around 4 p.m. and have dinner, then my sister and I would play afterward.
Long Nights 50 Years Ago
It’s amazing how vividly I can recall some of those places 50 years later, and a large part of that is that we had a long summer night to impress them on our minds. Just off the top of my head, I’m flashing back on a cabin on the Snake River in Idaho; a motor court along the Willamette River in Oregon; a ranch in Wyoming; a summer home without electricity in Puget Sound, Washington; and a garden-variety motel in Penticton, British Columbia, where we sat outside the door under an overhang, watching a powerful thunderstorm break up at sunset.
Plenty of fishing memories, too. My father always used to insist that you had to get up early to catch fish, a theory for which the evidence seemed spotty at best. I remember plenty of May and June mornings in the mountains, where we hit the water before 6 a.m. and were freezing and miserable for three or four hours before the sun finally warmed things up. On a more positive note, there’s nothing like being on Hat Creek in Northern California when a good evening insect hatch gets going in May and June and the fish are on a binge.
We have no plans to go anywhere during the 91 days this year, so I’ll be enjoying them at home. And in coastal California, it takes a long time for summer to dissolve into fall, so we could get two more months of summer after the 91 days end — but without those long nights.
Originally posted May 4, 2012; dates adjusted for this year.