This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New Citizen, New Soldier

            Almost every time you do something new, there’s a side benefit in terms of learning something else along the way. It might have nothing to do with what you were doing, but can be kind of neat to know about when you hadn’t before.
            When our son, Nick, graduated from Army basic training at Fort Jackson, SC, two weeks ago, there were a number of announcements on the Fort’s website and Facebook page. One of them, which piqued my interest a bit, was that Family Day activities would begin with a naturalization ceremony.
            Several people responded on Facebook, asking if that was something they had to attend, and one of the officers diplomatically responded that while they were certainly welcome to, it was primarily a ceremony for new soldiers who were also becoming U.S. citizens following completion of basic training. As fate would have it, we got an opportunity to meet one of the new soldier-citizens the next day.

The Private from the Middle East

            In a post last week I noted that the basic training graduation is an event the Army tries to promote these days, and there were several thousand people in the stands at Hilton Field for the ceremony. When it’s over, the new soldiers are marched down to the far end of the field, and the families rush on to it to join them. It’s kind of like the fans storming the football field and tearing down the goalposts after a big win.
            That makes for a lot of bodies you have to work through to get to your soldier, but finally we found Nick in the scrum. After hugs, handshakes and greetings, he told us that he had taken the liberty of offering one of his fellow soldiers, whose family wasn’t present, a ride back to the barracks in our car.
            I won’t be giving out the soldier’s name, but the reason he had no family at the ceremony was that he was from one of the countries in the Middle East where we have lately had a considerable presence. The details were a bit sketchy, and we didn’t press for more, but apparently he had been helping U.S. troops in his country as an interpreter, and with things becoming more unstable, it was getting a bit hot for him back there. An offer to join the Army and study languages looked pretty good, so he took it.

Don’t Put Me on Facebook

            We took the two of them to their barracks (they were in the same modular building) so they could get their gear together and get ready to move on to their next posts for advanced training. Nick went with us to Fort Eustis in Newport News, VA; his friend was off to a posting a couple of thousand miles away, but still closer than his home.
            I asked if I could take a picture of the two of them, and Nick’s friend hesitated for a moment, then said it would be OK as long as I didn’t post the photo on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet. I promised I wouldn’t and took the picture on my phone, but later deleted it. Why take any chances?
            Nick said two or three people in his platoon had become naturalized citizens at the end of basic training. In addition to his friend who rode to the barracks with us, one was from China, and another from Latin America. It would be interesting to know what their stories were, but their presence certainly adds another dimension to America’s modern Army, about which most of us know very little.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Celebrating My Book's Anniversary

            This week marked the one-year anniversary of the digital publication of my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. I’ve had quite a year promoting the book, getting feedback on it, and working on the next Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, which I hope to release in early 2014.
            Anniversaries are always a good time to celebrate and take stock. The celebration takes the form of a free giveaway today (7/26) on Kindle. This essay will be the inventory, as it were, of what has happened and what I’ve come to understand about self-publishing in the digital age.
            The first big lesson I learned was about the power of free, as in free book. I decided to do a promotional giveaway within a couple of days of when the book went up, and on that first free day moved 250 copies. As I hadn’t yet notified most of my friends, those “sales” represented new readers who were willing to take a chance on the book if it cost them nothing. The strategy is that if they like it, they’ll be willing to pay a modest amount for the next one. I hope.

Building the Fan Base

            Based on the response to free-book giveaways, my understanding of how to market the book underwent a seismic change over the next few months. Before the book came out, I was thinking mostly about maximizing revenue from it, but I quickly came to realize that for an unknown writer, that’s a pipe dream. There are so many books out there that it’s a rare first novel indeed that will rack up an impressive number of paid sales.
            Instead, I came to think of it as a way of establishing some sort of base of followers for the books that I hope will follow. Simply put, I see it as the acorn, from which a solid oak tree may some day grow.
            More than 3,000 people have acquired the book, and about 90 percent of them got it as a free promotion. For a first book, that’s a decent acorn, and if a reasonable number of those folks review the book, tell a friend, or come back for the next one, I may be on to something. I don’t need John Grisham numbers to consider the Quill Gordon series a success. A half-dozen books, each generating a few hundred paid sales a month, could produce a steady stream of income over the years.

Finding an Audience Takes Time

            Realistically, building a fan base takes time. Most authors do it in increments, one book at a time, until they finally get a breakout book (if they do) that hits the bestseller lists. Keep writing; keep promoting; hope for a break; and maybe good things will happen.
            For instance, I was wondering for nine months why no reviews were forthcoming from people who’d picked the book up earlier. In the past three months, those reviews, mostly positive, have been showing up on Kindle, and I now have a respectable 15 reviews. That starts to make it look like a book that people are actually reading, which I hope they are.
            And it’s been a lot of fun along the way: Book signings, newspaper interviews, learning to use Facebook and Twitter for promotional purposes, talking to classes at schools, blogging. These days, writing the book is only part of the author’s job description, and I consider myself fortunate indeed that I enjoy the rest of the package as much as I do. Onward to book number two.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Our Soldier Moves on

            During World War II, millions of Americans served in the armed forces, and it’s unlikely that more than a handful saw a friend or relative (or at least one who was out of uniform) on the day they finished basic training and moved on.
            There were several reasons for that. Travel was more difficult and expensive in those days, for one. But probably the main reason was that it wasn’t regarded as an occasion for celebrating. Almost every man of a certain age went through it, so there was nothing special about it, and the next step for many was going into battle and facing death or dismemberment.
            Times have changed. Serving in the military today isn’t mandatory; it’s a choice. Like all choices, some are made for better reasons than others. But even the young man who got his girlfriend pregnant and is trying to escape the wrath of her parents has easier options than the Army. It’s a serious commitment that entails considerable sacrifice, and the commitment should be honored regardless of the reason for making it.

They Came From All Over

            Because military service is now optional, the services have recognized the public relations value of celebrations. Having spent a number of years doing PR for a living, I know that it’s not all Spin City. In the best sense of the word, it can be an exercise in doing the right thing and making the right gestures, and there’s a personal and social value in doing that.
            Our son, Nick, went into the Army May 6. He’s been in love with flying ever since he was old enough to know it was possible, and is looking at a career in aviation. The Army offered him training as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic, and he signed up for six years. There are easier ways to get into the business, so I have to admire him for taking this considerably tougher and more dangerous one.
            Before helicopter school, he had to go through infantry basic training, same as every other soldier. So he was sent to Fort Jackson, SC, one of several bases where they do that. The fort history says the site was chosen because of “its year-round temperate climate.” I reflected on that point last Wednesday as I sat in the bleachers at the fort’s Hilton Field for family day ceremonies. Before the thunderstorms arrived in the afternoon, the mercury climbed into the 90s, with stifling humidity.

Private Wallace Carries the Banner

            Linda and I had arrived from Atlanta the day before and were in the bleachers early. Nick was his platoon’s Guide-on, which means he carried a banner behind one of the drill sergeants as his platoon and company marched on to the field. He looked lean, fit, and in command of himself.
            After the family day ceremony Wednesday morning, we got to spend 10 hours with him on base, catching up. He was craving pizza, so we had lunch at a Pizza Hut, then visited the base museum and had a long talk in a shaded pergola by Lake Semmes, the fort’s largest park.
            The following day he graduated, and we drove him to his next posting, at Fort Eustis in Newport News, VA. He was calm, accepting and funny about his new life in the Army, and looking forward to the next assignment. After three wonderful days with him, we came away with the sense that he was feeling good about his decision, which made us feel better, too. We’re glad the Army made a big deal out of the occasion, and provided the chance for us to be with him and see how it’s going.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Creating the Paracosm

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

Playing God on the Computer

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

No Rain in the Forecast

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

Originally posted October 2012

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Great Borrower

            Writing as Poor Richard, Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of frugality and the debt-free life. “The second vice is lying; the first is running in debt,” he wrote in a fairly typical entry for the 1748 edition of the Almanack.
            So there was more than a little irony in the fact that perhaps Franklin’s greatest service to his country was borrowing a ton of money from France to finance the War of Independence. Our freedom from England was, figuratively speaking, charged to a credit card and not entirely paid off.
            Over the recent holiday I brushed up on the topic by reading Stacy Schiff’s wonderful book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, published in 2003. It outlines in entertaining detail Franklin’s years in France as the American representative, trying to cajole money from a government that was having a hard time meeting its own obligations.

Borrow and Spend or Tax and Spend?

            The weakness of the American appeal was not lost on the French. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, at one point, according to Schiff, told the American Congress of “his astonishment that an independence-obsessed republic continued to draw for its defense on a foreign monarch rather than taxing its citizens.“ Some two and a quarter centuries later, we were borrowing money from China, rather than taxing ourselves, to pay for our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nations, like people, apparently don’t change that much.
            France, to be sure, had an interest in vexing England, its long-term enemy. But it is not at all clear that the self-interest alone would have led to a substantial outlay in money to fund a war that had every appearance of being a lost cause. Someone had to ask, and Franklin, feeling his way around a foreign country with almost no direction or support from home, was the right man in the right place.
            His reputation as a scientist and inventor preceded him and made him, commoner though he was, a respected man at the highest levels of state. His embrace of French culture and society endeared him to his host country. Patiently working from those starting blocks, Franklin carried off one of history’s greatest triumphs of diplomacy by personality.

A Prophet Without Honor

            It was a triumph greatly unappreciated at the time, especially back home. The Continental Congress was as dysfunctional then as Congress is today, and Franklin was frequently presented to that body in the worst possible light by his detractors, who included John Adams and Arthur Lee, who were supposed to be helping Franklin negotiate a treaty with France and raise money.
            Franklin’s performance, to be fair, gave his critics plenty of ammunition. He was hopeless as an administrator, made no attempt to protect official secrets (not that it would have mattered much in the spy-infested Paris of the time), and was frequently betrayed, financially and otherwise, by people he had trusted too much.
            His record, in that regard, illustrates a fine historical point: A public official can make plenty of mistakes as long as he or she does a couple of big things right. Franklin’s big things were the treaty with France and the money that came along with it; at the birth of this country, almost nothing was bigger.
            His supreme gift, Schiff writes of Franklin, “was his very flexibility. He was the opportunistic envoy from the land of opportunity that is the United States. His was an initial display of America’s scrappy, improvisatory genius; it is the gift Falstaff gives Hal.” It was the gift that made Franklin, in Walter Isaacson’s words, the Founding Father who winks at us.
Originally posted in November 2011

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

If Only I Could Just Write …

            I’ve often wondered what it would be like to write a mystery novel if that was the only thing I had to do. Like most first-time authors, I wrote my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, when I could find the time outside my day job. It was a short book, about 200 pages, and the first draft took about six months. I started it in July and finished it Christmas Eve.
            That’s not to say that it was written at any sort of steady pace. I pay the bills by being a freelance public relations and publications consultant in a mid-size market. Essentially, I work when my clients have projects for me, and when they don’t have projects, I don’t work.
            For reasons I’ve never been able to figure out, the business oscillates wildly between feast and famine. It seems that I’m either working until nine o’clock every night or else doing nothing but making sales calls and drinking coffee. Maybe two months out of every year I have a normal workload: enough to keep me busy and profitable, but able to knock off at five o’clock every day.

Start and Stop

            The year I started that first book, I had an insanely busy spring and plenty of money in the bank at the end of June. I’d planned on starting the book in April, but suddenly clients, most of them new, were coming at me from all directions, and I had to do justice to the work for which they were hiring me.
            At the end of June there was a sudden drop-off in business, and I decided to concentrate on the book. July and August were relatively slow for the business, and I was able to make good progress. I probably had 40 percent of the first draft written by Labor Day. At that point the business gods smiled on me again, and things got busy again until mid-November. It wasn’t as crazy as April-June, but less work was getting done on the book.
            For me, at least, writing fiction isn’t something I can do in 15-minute bursts. I have to have a block of at least a couple of hours, where I can really get into it and start feeling the characters and the story. I was busy enough that those blocks of time weren’t reliably there, and I began to despair of my goal of finishing the first draft by year’s end.
The Holidays to the Rescue

            About a week before Thanksgiving, a couple of projects ended at the same time, and suddenly nothing was on the horizon, work-wise. In a project-driven business such as mine, the rule of thumb is that if a client doesn’t start a job before Thanksgiving, it will be postponed until after Martin Luther King Day.
            My days were open again, and I got back to the book with a fury. There were a couple of slowdowns along the way, where I had to work through a story or writing conundrum, but I was really ripping, with almost no distractions. At 4 p.m. that last day, I typed the final sentence into the computer, hit save, did a double fist-pump, and headed home where my wife, son, and mother were waiting for my arrival so they could start the Christmas Eve dinner.
            So what if I’d been able to start in July and had nothing else to do? I have a sinking feeling I know the answer. Parkinson’s Law (Work expands to fill the time available) would have kicked in, and I would have dawdled over it, daydreamed more, and drunk more coffee. The last sentence and the fist-pump still would have happened at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.