Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Revised and updated version of post from November 2013
It may well be that the flaws in an author’s first novel are among the things that motivate him or her to keep writing. The sense that it was not bad but could have been better can make a writer want to build on the strengths of the first book and try to come up with a better second one.
Think of writers who, to whatever degree, nailed it on the first try. Harper Lee, with To Kill a Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, come to mind. In her own way, and at her own level, each of them may have written the best book she was capable of, and going on with fiction writing was sure to be a disappointment.
Sometimes an author overcorrects in the second book. In trying to improve on the weaknesses of the first one, he or she can forget its strengths as well and end up with a different but lesser work. Sometimes the third one is where the author gets it right, as Fitzgerald did with The Great Gatsby.
The Mystery of The Mystery
After publishing my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, last year, I’ve been working on the second, which I hope will come out in the spring of 2014. Neither of my books is in the same league as the ones mentioned above; they’re intended as nothing more than trashy entertainment.
But even trashy entertainment has its standards and achieves varying levels of quality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this second book lately and wondering and worrying about how good it is.
While The McHenry Inheritance received generally good reviews on Amazon and seems to have sold a bit better than the average first book by an unknown author, I felt that the characters and dialogue could have been stronger and the story, though crisp and fast-moving, could have been more complex. The second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, relies on characters and atmosphere more than it does on action. I’m trying to do something a bit different and find myself constantly wondering if I’m pulling it off. The hell of being an author is that you have to rely on your own instincts as you write, and it can take a long time after publication to get enough feedback to know if you pulled it off. That uncertainty and anxiety have driven many men and women to drink. (Postscript: Eight months after publication, the reviews, nearly all from total strangers, have been highly positive — average rating 4.7 stars.)
The Puzzle Leaps Into Place
One thing that’s happening the second time around is that the elements of the story are coming together more easily, and I’m getting more spontaneous ideas as I write the book.
Before beginning to write, I made pages and pages of notes about the plot and the characters, going into considerable detail as to what would happen and who the people in the book would be. Then, halfway through the first chapter, as one of those characters was about to appear, I had a flash about a significant new quality for that person that would alter some of the rest of the book. In another instance, a New York Times article I’d just read rattled around in my head and bounced off something my sister had mentioned when visiting recently. The result: A key clue that hadn’t been in the original outline.
What to make of those brainstorms, and other like them? The most likely explanations are a) that I’m gaining the ability to write this sort of thing; or b) that I’m losing the ability to recognize a bad idea when it pops into my head. It will probably be a few years before I know which explanation is right. That’s the hell of being an author.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
The first adult mystery novel I read was Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia. I was 12 years old at the time, and, my moral scruples not being as fully developed as they are now, I cheated and looked at the last page to see who the killer was. I still got it wrong.
As I recall, the book was one of several on a shelf in a cabin our family was occupying in Jackson Hole, WY. The cabin was located at a beautiful cattle ranch that was one of the inspirations for the ranch in my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. There was no TV, the summer nights were long, and I was one of those kids who never had to be prodded to read a book.
Murder in Mesopotamia was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, and I went on to read most of them by the time I finished junior high school. It was the beginning of a lifelong mystery habit.
Coming to Appreciate Miss Marple
During that period I checked out a couple of the Miss Marple mysteries and a couple of the non-Poirot stand-alone books. I didn’t much care for them, which is on me far more than on Dame Agatha. Something about Poirot and his “little grey cells” appealed to my keen adolescent mind.
After ripping through the Christie oeuvre in my youth, I pretty much left her alone for a couple of decades. There were plenty of other mysteries to read, and I read as many as I could. My preference is for British writers, though I am no absolutist on that score, and one preference I inherited from Christie is an appreciation for a story that wraps up all the loose ends. Few things in a mystery novel annoy me as much as a puzzle that’s dangled before the reader, then never explained at the end — especially when it’s clearly a case of carelessness rather than calculated ambiguity.
In recent years I’ve started dipping into Agatha Christie’s books again. With the passage of a few decades, my perspective has changed. Poirot I now find a bit pedantic, while the virtues of Miss Marple have risen steadily in my estimation.
Echoes of Austen and Hardy
What appeals now in the Marple books is the moral understanding of human frailty. Miss Marple repeatedly points out that having spent her life in a small English village, she has witnessed every form of folly and depravity there is. The people who pine for a Mayberry society should take note. And when Christie develops a theme fully and richly, as in The Mirror Crack’d, the sense of damage done by personal obliviousness calls to mind the irony of Jane Austen, and the way in which a casual, unthinking act can unleash a chain of awful circumstances recalls Thomas Hardy.
(We’ve even rented some of the Miss Marple films, starring Margaret Rutherford, from the early 1960s on Netflix. They’re not at all what Agatha Christie intended, but are well-done and entertaining in their own right.)
Something I haven’t done, and don’t intend to do, is re-read Murder in Mesopotamia. I want that book to remain forever fixed in my mind the way I first read it and experienced it, as a 12-year-old in a cabin on a ranch in Wyoming, with the summer sun setting at last. There are some things you just shouldn’t mess with.
Slightly edited version of original post from March 2013
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
My third Quill Gordon mystery, due to be released in the early summer of next year, is set in 1996. Part of the fun of writing it has been recalling the technology of that bygone time in order to be historically accurate. Thus, the Maguffin is a floppy disk; people stand by the fax machine waiting for a message to come across; and a laptop with 128MB of hard drive is considered top of the line.
Oh, and one more thing. The protagonist has a pager, which keeps going off and diverting him to another path.
It was in 1996 that I got my first pager. I had signed on to do public relations for a large land-use project in the community, and the person in charge of community relations for the project pretty much made me do it. He said, correctly, as it turned out, that I had to have a way of ensuring that people, especially news reporters, could contact me when I was away from the office and get a quick response.
An Extra Layer of Separation
For those too young to remember, a pager was a device, about the size of a matchbox (but then you probably don’t remember those, either) that was generally worn clipped to a belt. For a modest monthly fee, it was connected to a system that allowed a caller to phone your pager number and enter the caller’s number, which then showed up on a display on the pager, telling you that someone wanted to talk to you pronto.
The heyday of the pager was from the late 80s to about the turn of the century, when cell phones finally got smaller and cheaper. At that point it no longer made sense to have an extra layer of separation between you and the caller.
I must say, though, that at the time I appreciated that separation. When someone called, they were expecting a call back within a half hour, and that gave me time to, for instance, see that the caller was the San Jose Mercury, hazard an educated guess as to what the call was about, and consider my response.
The Trip Was Redirected
One of my favorite pager memories was when I was working on another project a couple of years later. I was meeting with another client 20 miles from my office and had just started back when the pager went off. I got off at the next freeway exit and called the number.
It turned out to be the aide to a county supervisor wanting to know why the hell my client was cutting down trees without a permit on its property. I told him I didn’t know, but would look into it and get back to him in an hour or less. I detoured to the property and discovered that my client’s alleged tree-cutting was actually a case of a neighbor removing some overhanging branches. I put the neighbor on the phone to the aide and got the matter straightened out on the spot, with no negative media coverage ensuing.
Technology is rendering many things obsolete these days, and in some cases, something of value is being lost. The pager was a stopgap technology at best, and there’s nothing really special to miss about it. But in its time, it provided a few memories, and those are worth keeping.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
In 1939 and 1940, Hollywood turned out two memorable movies about American politics, with distinctly different points of view. Unfortunately for the state of our political discourse, most people fell in love with the wrong movie.
The movies in question were Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty in 1940. Almost everybody knows about the first one, but few people are familiar with the latter, probably because its message didn’t reverberate with audiences.
In Mr. Smith, the story line is that a U.S. Senator dies unexpectedly, and the governor who has to appoint his replacement is torn between factions. To get out of a political pickle, the governor appoints an innocuous nobody as a placeholder, leaving the factions to slug it out at the next election.
Naivete as Virtue
That innocent placeholder, the eponymous Mr. Smith, played brilliantly by James Stewart, decides to try to do one good thing while in office — secure an appropriation for a boys’ camp in the mountains. In moving forward with that project, he is utterly clueless about the fact that various moneyed interests have other ideas for the land, and as a consequence is nearly run out of office. But it all ends happily, when the bad senator (Claude Rains) has an inexplicable change of heart and decides to withdraw his opposition to the camp.
In real life, of course, hardened politicians don’t have that sort of change of heart, and since the James Stewart character had no idea of how to move the levers of power, he could win only with the aid of the sort of psychological miracle the film calls on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be represented by elected officials who are on the right side of issues but need a miracle to get something done.
Yet there are quite a few people in this country, generally unlearned about politics, who think that what we need are purer elected officials. In the area where I live, voters recently re-elected, by a wide margin, an incumbent politician who has been utterly ineffective on the people’s behalf, but who is widely loved because he walks the neighborhoods and talks to people and because he makes a point of giving a chunk of his salary to charity. Voters chose personal virtue over political savvy.
Grimy But Effective
The Great McGinty presented a far more realistic (and cynical) point of view. McGinty (Brian Donlevy) gets the attention of a big-city political machine by voting for mayor more than 30 times in one day. He rises through the ranks to become mayor himself, then governor.
Through it all, he’s taking bribes and kickbacks, which makes him a crook. Hey, nobody’s perfect. He does, however, get an extraordinary number of good things built and done, creates good jobs for the working people he serves, and is able to at least somewhat restrain capitalist greed. McGinty is everything Mr. Smith is not, but he gets what he wants through political savvy, without the aid of miracles.
In the end, McGinty is undone by honesty. He marries a good woman, and when she entreats him to go straight, he does. The other politicians ruin him so thoroughly that he has to flee the country, and at the end of the movie, he’s tending bar at a joint in a banana republic. In real-world politics, that’s what would have happened to Mr. Smith, but Hollywood didn’t want that ending. In Mr. Smith, Hollywood got the politics wrong, but read the public sentiment perfectly.
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Manual dexterity and I have never been boon companions. As a kid, I enjoyed sports, so I learned to be reasonably adept at catching and throwing. And because I wanted to write, I mastered the art of typing pretty well, though I had to take the class twice to do it.
That’s about as far as it goes in the manual skills department. Put a screwdriver in my hands, and I get the cold sweats. And drawing? Forget it. If I draw a cat and it’s recognizable to someone else as an animal of any kind, I’ll put that down as a win.
Those difficulties with drawing carried over to penmanship of any stripe. When I look at something I wrote or printed in elementary school (and by and large I try not to), I shake my head. It was a struggle to make the hand do what the mind wanted, and though I got A’s in almost every subject, I never got better than a B in penmanship.
Just Keep Doing It
A funny thing happened in the course of living a life. Writing, because it’s what I do, called on me to keep using my penmanship in one way or another. As with typing, I found that the more I did it, the better I got.
This is surprising in several ways since a fair part of the handwriting I’ve done has consisted of taking high-speed notes in a classroom or interview situation. Speed is the enemy of elegance, and I would defy almost anyone to make sense of my notes in those situations. A week after the fact, I can barely do it myself.
Those hasty notes, however, weren’t the only writing I did. I’ve always been someone who writes notes to himself and keeps records and notations by hand. With those, I took, and still take, my time. I enjoy doing it and find I remember things better when I write them down by hand. Plus, over the years, I’ve written too many checks to count, and I put care into those, if for no other reason than to avoid error.
A Receptive Audience
The result is that my handwriting is now pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. And I don’t. Bank tellers compliment me all the time, and so do other people who come across a sample of something I’ve written out. I’ve come to take pleasure in the physical act of writing and have lately been doing more of it with fountain pens because I like the feel of them.
Few schools teach cursive any more, so being able to do it at all — never mind well — is a vanishing art. Too bad in a way. It’s good for note taking, and for those of us who use it, it’s an expression of our personalities. In the movie My Little Chickadee, Mae West famously said, “A man’s kiss is his signature.” These days she’d have to say keystroke instead of signature. If you ask me, it’s a hell of a thing to compare a kiss to.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
In my teenage years I embarked on a self-improvement project, part of which was to read good books. At that point, I didn’t figure I was ready for the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even the Victorian authors, but I did think I could handle American fiction.
So in an attempt to put together a list, I decided to lean on expert opinion and buy American books that had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I figured that those books had been vetted by smart people at the time and surely were worth reading. And besides, they’d probably look good on the bookshelf.
Armed with that list, I went to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena to begin building my library. Imagine, then, my surprise, when I discovered that most of them were out of print and unavailable. At this point, it was less than half a century since the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded, yet some of the honored books had sunk without a trace.
Julia Peterkin? Caroline Miller?
To look at some of the titles and authors on the Pulitzer Prize list from 1918 to 1940 is to get a sense of the fleeting nature of literary fame. Here’s a partial list of winning books and authors:
His Family by Ernest Poole, Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia M. Peterkin, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, The Store by T.S. Stribling, Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, and Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis.
Maybe one of those books or authors will enjoy a comeback, but right now you look at that list and say to yourself, I wonder what the competition was like. Well, in 1929, when Scarlet Sister Mary (now unfindable) won the award, a fellow named Hemingway wrote a book called A Farewell to Arms, which you can still buy today in any bookstore.
The Pulitzer committee didn’t get it entirely wrong. Also on the list are books by Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber, all of whom are at least somewhat known and read today. But the only two books on that list that are widely known and read 75 years later are Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
The Mysteries Lasted Longer
An interesting sidelight to that Pulitzer list is that a couple of those forgotten authors wrote mysteries. I’ve never so much as seen a copy of T.S. Stribling’s The Store, but I own his Clues of the Caribees, a selection of mystery short stories that’s actually pretty good.
And I did read John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, which is a decent period piece. But to the extent that Marquand is still known today, it’s probably for his Mr. Moto mysteries.
All this serves as a reminder that every book is subject to the test of time, and the failure rate is high. I read Honey in the Horn, which I think was about early settlers in Oregon, and I can’t remember a single detail about it. But even though it’s been more than 40 years since I read The Grapes of Wrath, I can still recall the Dust Bowl scenes, the entry into California, and the farm labor camps in the Central Valley. What I remember of the two books is probably a good indicator of why one lasted and the other didn’t. It’s one thing to impress your contemporaries, but it’s tough to fool posterity.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
The late, great American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor once observed, “There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” That quote was put out recently in a writers’ affinity group to which I belong, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It so happens that my next Quill Gordon mystery, still untitled, features a retired English teacher as the murder victim. In the book, I’m trying to portray her as a carrier of the highest standards — definitely someone whose students would never grow up to write Valley of the Dolls. Come to think of it, does anyone under 60 remember Valley of the Dolls? It was a sixties-era sex-booze-and-drugs shocker that was the sort of bestseller O’Connor was probably talking about.
But I digress. My point is that in my boyhood, teachers like the one in my book roamed the hallways of nearly every public high school, but, alas, no more.
Swift and Sure Punishment
My wife, Linda, teaches biology at a state university. One of her classes is a lower-division course intended to teach students the correct techniques for writing a scientific paper. She sometimes finds it frustrating when it’s clear she’s dealing with a student who seems never to have been instructed in the basic techniques of writing of any kind.
At the public high school she attended decades ago, the teachers were unforgiving of gross errors. She recalls that Mrs. Roark, an English teacher, and Mr. Hashimoto, a history teacher, demanded good writing. Another English teacher would give a student an F on a paper if it contained a single run-on sentence. Or a sentence fragment. Late at night, reading a muddled effort by one of her students, Linda is given to putting her head in her hands and saying, “This poor kid never had a Mrs. Roark or Mr. Hashimoto in high school.”
Attending public schools in Southern California in the 1960s, I was blessed to have three outstanding English teachers between ninth and twelfth grades.
Three Who Mattered
Mr. McDonald, who taught English and journalism in ninth grade, probably was more responsible than anyone else for setting me on my career path. He also assigned Gone With the Wind as a book in the English class, which was hugely valuable. No one who took that class would ever again be intimidated by the length of a book.
Miss Irwin, who taught American Literature my junior year in high school, taught us how to appreciate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. She also showed how to handle the racially-charged issues of the former book in an enlightened and sensitive way.
Mrs. Carruth was my senior year English Literature teacher, who had us read Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The way she drew us into Austen’s moral world was a triumph of good teaching.
Reflecting back on those wonderful teachers, I’ve decided to dedicate my next mystery novel to them, in appreciation for what they taught me about how to write and how to read a book. The more I think about it, the more I figure it’s the least I can do, really. After all, if not for them, I might have written a bestseller.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
When you publish a book, the reactions you get from people can be one of the positive, and sometimes surprising, benefits. After my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, came out, some of the remarks people made were a test of my well known ability to maintain a poker face.
One of the comments I got from a couple of people was something along the lines of “You must have done a lot of research on this.” The first time I heard that, I had the Tony Soprano reaction (WTF?) but I quickly realized that it was intended as a compliment. It was a way of saying the book felt real to them as they were reading it, and that’s high praise indeed.
The reason for channeling my inner Tony when I first heard the remark was that I was thinking of research as diligently looking into specific issues through authoritative sources — something I did very little of. But there’s another type of research, of which I had done quite a bit, and I suspect that’s what people were responding to.
I’m speaking of research through observation. Well before I wrote the book, I had made many visits to the mountains, going to places similar to the fictitious setting of the book. While there, I’d paid attention to, and mentally filed away, details about those areas. To the extent that the small town, the cattle ranch, the streams and meadows in the book seemed real, it was largely owing to my recall of that prior observation.
Nora Ephron once said that one of the great lessons her parents had taught her is that everything’s copy. In other words, everything you see, everything you hear contains details and information that can be put to some good use in future creative work. A good writer creates a large storage locker within his or her brain in which all that information is safely preserved until an occasion comes up for using it. A great writer knows precisely when and where to use it.
In addition to just looking, there’s a lot to be learned from casual conversations. In the mountains I’ve talked to store clerks, bartenders, sheriff’s deputies, campground hosts and many others. A brief exchange can yield a fine nugget, and most people like being asked about what they do, which can yield multiple nuggets.
Get Out of the Hotel
On a more passive level, good old-fashioned eavesdropping can produce a bonanza, and the best place to do it is in a local café. If you keep your eyes on your food or your coffee cup, no one pays the least bit of attention to you, and you can listen in on other conversations with total impunity.
Recently, Linda and I were in the mountains, and one night we stayed at a chain motel. Breakfast was included, but if you’re a writer, having breakfast in the motel is like looking for gold in the dog food section of the supermarket. We went to a local coffee shop, and as fate would have it, the people at the next table were talking about a local character. In considerable lurid detail.
That local character is going to end up in the next Quill Gordon novel, even if I have to stop the forward progress of the story to get him in. The detour will be worth it, and I could never have made up what I heard at the café that morning. We spent $25 more on breakfast than if we’d eaten at the motel, but it was worth every penny.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
In my third Quill Gordon mystery, due out next summer, one of the clues is the murder victim’s journal for the period covering September 1970 to February 1971. I just got through writing the first draft of the section that quotes excerpts from that journal and found that I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
As you might guess from the photograph that accompanies this blog, I am old enough to remember 1970 and remember it fairly well. But that good personal memory is only a starting point for accurately depicting the time in a book, even a work of fiction.
To be convincing, that section would have to be correct in relevant details, some of which are critical to the story itself. What I found in the course of writing it over the past couple of weeks was that my memory told me what I needed to look for and check, and that, in the process of checking it, I struck some gold I wasn’t even prospecting for.
God Bless Wikipedia
I’ve said before that there are days I love the internet and days I hate it. Looking up stuff from the 1970s made it all the first kind of day. How did an author ever survive without Wikipedia? Without it, I could have spent weeks trying to pin down one little fact that was at my fingertips online.
It struck me, for example, as I was writing the section, that the woman keeping the journal would likely have been a fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” My memory told me it was on in the early seventies, but would it have been on the air during the window covered by the journal? Yup. In fact, I had the keeper of the journal watching it the night of Sept. 19. 1970, and checking Wikipedia, I found that this was the date the first episode aired. How good does it get?
Elsewhere on the internet, I was able to quickly pin down the years in which two pieces of legislation were passed in California, both of which were critical to the plot. Whatever else the reviewers on Amazon might ding me for, it won’t be getting the facts wrong about the timing of those laws.
The Serendipitous Finds
Despite what some people think, not everything is online, and I had to get some information the old-fashioned way. Three days of the journal describe events in San Francisco just before Christmas, so one morning I went to the Santa Cruz public library and looked up the San Francisco Chronicle for late December of 1970 on microfilm.
They had great columnists then — Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Charles McCabe, Stanton Delaplane, Royce Brier, William Hogan, and even that over-the-top sexist Count Marco. A two-line item in Caen’s column became a scene described in the character’s journal. The movie listings prevented the character from seeing “Love Story” before it actually opened. And an ad for a long-gone department store provided a window into what things cost in those days.
The internet is great for looking up specific things, but it’s lousy for stumbling across things by chance. The three issues of the Chronicle that I looked at on microfilm provided a snapshot of San Francisco at that moment of time. As with any picture, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the frame. Still, the details I came across will, I believe, enliven my book, and coming across them in that way was a reminder of what we will be missing if (or when) newspapers go the way of dinosaurs.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
When Amazon offered its new Kindle Unlimited program, which allows customers, in consideration of a fee, to borrow a considerable part of the library, my reaction as a reader was “No thank you.” My reaction as an author was “Hmmm.”
Borrowing is great for some people, but it doesn’t fit the way I read. I’m a long-term guy, and when you borrow a book, you have to get on it pretty quickly. If I’m considering four books and pick two to borrow, I’m likely to forget about the other two before I come back again.
So over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of buying any book I come across in the bookstore, whether brick-and-mortar or online, if I think I’d eventually like to read it. That way, I have it, and it’s in front of me as a constant reminder. I may get to it fairly quickly or not for years, but it’s there.
So Many Books, So Little Time
At the moment, I have a bit more than 120 mystery novels on my shelf or in my iPad, awaiting their turn to be read. That’s about a two-year backlog, and two years from now I expect the number to be the same or greater. I’ve accepted the fact I’m going to die with books unread, so I’m all right with that.
That does mean, however, that I have books for all occasions. If I’m ill and decide to read a mystery rather than working, I have plenty to choose from. If I’m on vacation and bad weather is keeping us inside, I know I can find something to read on my iPad. In both cases I can choose from a small number of books that already interested me, rather than looking blind through everything out there to find something that feels right in the moment. Having that sort of freedom is one of the great benefits of owning, rather than borrowing, your books.
As an author, I also prefer readers who buy, rather than borrow, my mystery novels. The obvious reason for that is that the author gets more money for a book that was purchased than for one that was borrowed. But the reasons go deeper than that.
The Case for Borrowing
Let me say at this point that I welcome people borrowing my books. That’s far better than ignoring them altogether, and a reduced payment to the author is better than no payment to the author. And there’s one other definite positive to borrowing on Kindle: It introduces a sense of urgency to reading the book. If you don’t get to it in a few weeks, it disappears. I look at borrows as a positive sign that someone is seriously ready to read one of my books now.
If that reader posts a review or tells a friend, the borrow has paid for itself by building readership. I think, though, that it’s harder to share a borrowed book than a bought one, and what becomes nearly impossible is the notion of a serendipitous read.
One of my daydreams is that some day, years from now, someone who bought one of my books will die with that book still on the shelf or in an e-reader. A dutiful child comes to clean out the possessions, and in the course of doing so, comes across, say, Wash Her Guilt Away, starts to read it, and likes it. That happened to me with a couple of books I found while cleaning out my mother’s apartment after she went, and they meant a bit more because they were hers. Never would have happened if she’d borrowed them.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Over the weekend I read a mystery-thriller that, according to the review at the top of the back cover, was “chilling without being predictable.” Why, then, was I able to correctly predict half way through that the babies had been switched at birth and that one of the characters in the backstory would turn out to be an ancestor of one of the characters in the main part of the novel?
Was it because the book was poorly done? Not at all. It was actually a pretty good book, and I wish I could recommend it, but having given away a big part of the ending, I can’t tell you its name. The larger point I’d make is that even though I found the book somewhat predictable, that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it.
And the even larger point I’d make is that predictability, particularly in genre fiction, is pretty near unavoidable and shouldn’t, in itself, be held against the author. It’s not necessarily a crime in its own right — only when it’s handled badly.
Somebody Ought to Get It
Being a mystery writer myself, I read a lot of mystery novels , both for pleasure and to see what ideas I can steal and adapt to my own ends. Sometimes that allows me to spot what the author is doing. For instance, I was reading a Scandinavian detective novel a few years ago, and in the first 40 pages, the author cut from the main narrative to a scene written from the killer’s point of view. As I read it, I thought that if I were writing that scene in that way, it would be because the killer was a police officer. Bingo!
It’s also true that when a mystery novelist is playing fair, a certain number of readers ought to be able to figure out the ending. Based on reader feedback, about a quarter of the people who told me they’d read my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, said they’d guessed who did it. That’s about right, and a number of people who didn’t guess, said they were really surprised by the ending.
The reality is that any mystery writer today who fools everybody has either written a new classic or an incoherent book — most likely the latter. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was unpredictable because no one had, up to then, done what Agatha Christie did in that book. A book that used her idea today would be guessed out by half its readers.
Not What You Do, But How
When you get into the realm of mystery-thriller-suspense-crime fiction, there’s practically no such thing as a new story, so the relevant question is what has the author done with an old one. Has she created a structure and set of details that make it difficult to guess the ending of this particular iteration of the old story? Has he created interesting characters and a sense of pace? Is the writing style muscular and vivid? All those things, I would submit, are more important than the so-called predictability of the story?
If you read a lot of mystery fiction, as I do, there are pleasures to be had from seeing how each author spins his or her variation of an old tale. When we were kids, we would fall in love with one book and want our parents to read it to us over and over. As genre-reading adults, we read different variations of the same stories and enjoy the twists and quirks of each particular book. I suppose that amounts to growing up as readers.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Last week Linda and I were in the mountains for several days. I was fishing for trout, she was reading a mystery for pleasure, and we were both scouting locations to get local color for future Quill Gordon mysteries.
This has been a terrible season for wildfires in California. On Monday, the valley where we were staying was choked with smoke from one of them ( I don’t know which), coming from more than a hundred miles away. Some wind came up in the afternoon and blew it away, but my throat felt the effects well into the following day.
On Wednesday, we drove home and ended up going through the smoke from the King Fire near Sacramento. We were driving 50 miles to the north of it, but the smoke was drifting in that direction. It was so dense you could barely make out mountain ranges a couple of miles away, and the air quality … Well, let’s just say it made a smoke-filled Vegas casino look like a medical office by comparison.
We Deserved a Break
The original plan was to stop at Colfax in the Sierra foothills for ice cream, but the smoke was still awful there, so we kept going. Several miles down the road, we suddenly came out of it into clean air and blue skies. At that point, the search for ice cream began anew.
One of the great things about the small mountain towns we were visiting is that they have great locally owned frosty stands that look as if they came straight from the 1950s or earlier. Coming out of the mountains, we had a craving for that sort of place, but in more metropolitan areas they’ve all but vanished.
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. When we stopped for gas in the town of Rocklin, I asked the young lady at the cashier in the convenience store where we might be able to get a frosty locally. Her first response was Wendy’s or McDonald’s.
I kept pressing, saying we were looking for some place local, and she mentioned an establishment called Taylors, about a mile and a half down the road in the nearby town of Loomis. Armed with her directions and no GPS, we set out to find it.
Going Back to 1947
We almost didn’t because it’s surrounded by trees and the only signage was on the building itself. It was a white wood building with red trim and a shake roof; it looked as if it had been built in 1947 and maintained well, but otherwise left unchanged.
School must have let out early because there were a number of junior high school-aged kids at the tables outside. Inside were hand-painted signs advertising the offerings, which included a milkshake made from any available flavor of ice cream. I didn’t count them all, but it looked as if there were about 200 flavors of ice cream. The smell of fried burgers wafted from the kitchen into the interior of the stand.
When I was a kid, going on trips with my parents in the fifties and sixties, we stopped at places like Taylors for a treat. They were everywhere, and it’s jarring now to think how few of them are left. Linda had a loganberry shake and I had a large frosty. We took our goodies outside and ate them at a round shaded table. For a quarter of an hour we were transported back in time, in a positive way. It was the gastronomic highlight of the trip.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
One of the most famous advertising aphorisms ever has been attributed to many people; the first time I came across it, it was credited to F. W. Woolworth: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
It’s been coming into my mind lately as I’ve been thinking about the ways I’ve been promoting my mystery novels. Before self-publishing the first, The McHenry Inheritance, on Amazon, I hired a social media consultant to teach me the ins and outs of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin. I don’t like those things, but they’re not going away soon, so I figured I’d better learn the basics.
For the past two years, I’ve been aggressively promoting my two books on social media to the best of my learned ability. They seem to be slowly gaining a modest audience and helping sell each other, but the one thing about which I have no idea whatsoever is how much, if at all, my social media efforts have helped sell the books. I haven’t an atom of hard information on that point.
What if No One Advertised?
Back in 1989, when I had just become editor of a daily newspaper, our corporate group, Scripps-Howard, held a gathering of all the editors and publishers. A featured speaker was Christopher Whittle, who at the time was attempting — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to launch a TV channel aimed at schoolchildren.
In the course of his presentation, Whittle said something I’ve always remembered for its boldness. I’m paraphrasing, but it was that the dirty little secret of advertising is that it doesn’t work. He maintained that Ford, General Motors, Procter and Gamble, et. al. could eliminate their advertising budgets altogether. If they did, he claimed, the worst that would happen is that they would lose about 1 percent of their sales, but the money saved on advertising would more than compensate for that on the bottom line.
Was he right? I don’t know, but he certainly could be. And lately, I’ve been entertaining the heretical question of what would happen if I stopped using social media to promote my books. If nothing else, I’d certainly have time for more writing.
Try It for a Month
To hone in on one area, I looked at Twitter. Do I see more book sales on days when I tweet about a book and get retweeted extensively? Some days yes, some days no. But even on a day when Twitter is kind to me and the sales are good, I still have no way of knowing whether there’s any causation behind the correlation.
The one conclusion I’ve drawn from running free-book promotions on Kindle is that how well my book moves seems to depend on how many people are shopping in the Kindle store that day. I’ve been in the top 50 of Kindle free crime fiction on days when I had 50 downloads, as well as on days when I had over 500 downloads. The number of people looking for free books on any given day seems to matter more than what I tweet.
In any event, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from social media for a month, and will not be posting anything in October. I doubt that anyone will notice, and I doubt that it will give me any relevant information on the impact on book sales, but it may clear my mind a bit and help me go back to using it more effectively.
And if nothing else, I’m hoping to get more work done on my third Quill Gordon mystery.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
To get to Pleasant Valley Creek, you drive out of Markleeville, the tiny seat of Alpine County south of Lake Tahoe, on the county road leading to Grover Hot Springs State Park. About halfway to the park, there’s a road that leads off to the left, through a small subdivision, then over a hill and down into Pleasant Valley itself.
I first made the trip in 1983 and have been back more times than I can count. It’s a special place, and there isn’t really any one day of fishing that stands out — rather, quite a few of them. Most anglers have a creek of the heart, if you will, and this is mine.
When you come down into the valley, the dirt road runs alongside the creek. There are some primitive campgrounds alongside it: No tents, no toilets, just fire pits and a place to park a camper or pitch a tent if you are so inclined. The road then passes a ranch house, comes into a large meadow, and dead-ends a half mile or so later at a trailhead leading into the backcountry.
Starting the Day off Right
For years, whenever I was in the area, I’d make a point of getting up before dawn so I could begin the day by watching the sun rise over the mountains to the east of that great meadow. I was generally camping at the state park, and would get up, make a pot of coffee in a thermos carafe, and take it with me to the meadow. I’d pull our VW camper into a grassy area, pour a cup of coffee, have a sweet roll and put on my waders. Most of the time, I had the place to myself.
There are several large pools in the meadow, and it’s not uncommon to see quite a few fish gathering in them. When that’s the case, a halfway competent angler can have a good streak of fishing simply by drifting nymphs (Hare’s Ear, PT, stonefly imitations) through the pools.
From the meadow, the creek begins to tumble down a gorge, looping behind the ranch house, then coming back to parallel the road again. I’m getting a bit old to clamber through steep gorges like that now, but in my 30s and 40s, I did it without a second thought. Unless I was fishing next to where someone was camped, I rarely saw another person.
Two’s a Crowd
Because of its more remote location, and because it was restricted to fly fishing only with a two-fish limit, Pleasant Valley seldom attracted crowds. For someone like me, who fishes to be alone, that’s a real selling point. Over the years I’ve had a lot of good days on that stream — good not only because of the fish caught but because of the total quality of the experience.
In addition to being a favorite fishing spot, Pleasant Valley Creek also helped launch my literary career. On one of the rare days there were other people there, I was fishing the bottom of the meadow when one of the campers came over to tell me they were going to be doing a bit of target practice. When they started to blast away, the peace you look for when fishing was gone, and, so, soon, was I.
Readers of my first mystery novel The McHenryInheritance will no doubt recognize a similarity between the scene described above and Quill Gordon’s being chased off the fictional West Buchanan River in Chapter 2. It was a clear case of art imitating life, albeit with considerable embellishment.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
A couple of months ago, rummaging through one of those recommendation lists Amazon sends out, I spotted a book called Crossover by Judith Eubank. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I read the description of it and checked out the first page. It was well written, and the price was right, so I bought the e-book version.
On Labor Day, looking for a short book to read, I came across it on my iPad and went with it. At only 172 pages, it was just right for the day, and I flew through it. It was a highly enjoyable read, better written than most of the bestsellers I see today, and I thought I’d discovered a promising new author who had self-published on Amazon, like me. In the Kindle store, the publication date showed as April 2014.
Then, at the end of the book, I came to the copyright page, which showed that it had originally been published in 1991 by the now defunct publishing house Carroll & Graf. What I had been reading was not a new book, but rather an electronic reissue of an older one.
Not Dead, Just Resting
I’m guessing, since it appears Ms. Eubank has written only one other work of fiction, that her book didn’t do terribly well from a commercial standpoint, and that she eventually moved on to other things. That happens. There are good books that sell poorly and bad ones that sell quite well. But like many other authors, Ms. Eubank has gotten a second chance from Amazon and the e-book.
Not all the authors who have done so are living. I’m noticing a lot of reissues of mysteries from the 1920s and 30s on Amazon. In fact, one of those, The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude, is on my schedule for this month. The first e-book I ever read, Murder at Bridge, was a 1920s American mystery novel that someone put up on Kindle for 99 cents, apparently after discovering the copyright had expired.
And my own first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, got a second chance on Kindle. Passed over by agents and publishers in the 1990s, it has sold modestly but steadily since I put it up on Kindle in July 2012. In fact, this August, more than two years after publication, it had its best month ever in paid sales on Amazon, and this Monday it had its best-ever free promotion, with nearly 600 downloads worldwide.
The Library Vanishes With a Click
There are quite a few good authors whose work has long been out of print. In the mystery genre along, I can think of Father Knox, John Dickson Carr, Richard and Frances Lockridge, and so on. Sometimes a long out-of-print author gets a revival, as Earl Derr Biggers did when the University of Chicago reissued his Charlie Chan novels. But that’s the exception. E-books offer a way for good writers whose audiences would be limited today to stay in circulation, if not exactly in print.
Still, I can’t help remembering the Library at Alexandria, which burned in ancient times, leaving us without many of the great works of antiquity. With everything on a computer somewhere, fire won’t be an issue, but some day a rogue computer virus could wipe out much of the literary canon, and a lot of secondary good stuff, too. I try not to think about it.