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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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

One Kitten After Another

My updated website shows that the second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, will be available on May 1, so last weekend my ace technical team (composed of my wife, Linda, and me) set to work. We were full of excitement, brimming with confidence, and looking forward to meeting or beating the announced publication date.
And then we read the directions on Amazon.
The directions, as far as we could tell, were different from the ones last time, and they explained one of the problems we had publishing the first book in the series, The McHenry Inheritance. Namely, why the indents were bigger than I would have liked. Apparently, you are not supposed to submit the document with tab indents; What you are supposed to do is send them a Word document with formatted indents. A bit problematic when you have a novel-length book with a lot of short, dialogue paragraphs, all indented with a tab. A Google search turned up no easy solutions, so this meant going through the book and taking out each paragraph indent — some 2,000 to 3,000 of them — one at a time.

A Litter of Kittens

It all reminded me, somehow, of what Mehitabel, the comic female cat created by American humorist Don Marquis, used to say: “Life is just one damn kitten after another.”
This seems like an exceptionally large litter, rather than just one, but I take the point. Famous writers don’t have to do this sort of thing because their publishing houses pay someone to do it for them. But when you’re publishing your own books, this is an example, albeit an extreme one, of the sort of mind-numbing, detailed formatting you have to do in order to get the book up and available.
And actually, the kitten analogy is germane in another way. When you’re this close to publication, you just want to get it done, and you chafe at any delay. I started writing the book in December of 2012, and I’m ready to move on. At this point it feels as if I’m carrying a baby that’s a month past its due date, and I’m ready to let it go. It’s probably the closest that any male can come to understanding the experience of childbirth.

Just One More Thing

And then, just when we thought the paragraphing issue was all taken care of, we tried submitting the book to Amazon. They allow you to do a preview to see what it looks like, and when we checked it out, guess what — The paragraph indents were still too big. Not only that, but the sub-chapter headings within the chapter were gibberish. Apparently some vestige of a previous format remained.
So we went through the whole book, making the paragraph indents 40 percent of what they were, which could at least be done on an auto basis, though only one section at a time. And we went back and formatted the sub-chapter headings so that they were the numbers they were supposed to be. We submitted again, and the indents were better, but the sub-chapter headings weren’t centered as they should have been, so we had to go back and reformat all 60 or so of them one at a time.
At 8:30 last night we tried for the third time, and it all looked good, so we hit publish and sent it off to Amazon. Shortly before noon today, there was an email notification that the book had been successfully published and is now available for sale. Buy it here. Please.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Did You Hear?

            One of the first indicators that told me the newspaper business was going irretrievably downhill came when I attended a ten-day seminar for editors and managing editors at the American Press Institute, located back then, in 1987, in Reston, VA. The aha! moment came during the session on lifestyle sections.
            The seminar leader, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, had sent us questionnaires to fill out beforehand. One of the questions was, “Does your newspaper run a gossip column?” I said we didn’t.
            Imagine, then, my surprise, when the session got under way and the chap produced samples from the papers present of what he called gossip columns. They were, without exception, the columns in which we printed the boring stuff people wanted us to print (“John Smith was named to the advisory board of the Heart Assn.”). It was what we printed to get people off our backs so we could cover the real news.
            Planet earth to instructor: If people WANT you to print something, it is, by definition, NOT gossip.

You Could Look It Up

            Webster’s, by the way, backs me up on this, its first definition referring to “personal or sensational facts.” Call me jaded, but Smith’s affiliation with the heart association does not seem personal or sensational in any way.
            Gossip is Walter Winchell asking who was the tycoon making woo-woo with a chorus girl at the Stork Club Thursday night. Gossip is Herb Caen reporting that the prominent political figure who just died unexpectedly was a case of mistress’s nightmare: a fatal heart attack during the height of passion. That’s what I’m talking about!
            Participating in gossip, either as a teller or a listener, is supposed to be a vice, even a sin, which it certainly wouldn’t be if the gossip consisted of Smith’s appointment to the heart association board. I have my doubts about the sin part. To me, gossip is simply human, and I would hope a just and merciful God would see it that way.
            Really, it’s just a sign of interest in people and a grasp of what they really are. Samuel Johnson once said that a man who is tired of London is tired of life. You could substitute “gossip” for “London” in that sentence and it would be just as true.

A Small-Town Pastime

            Gossip is frequently connected with small towns, and in those places no sentient human being can be under any illusions about the probity of his or her fellow citizens. That may be why Americans simultaneously romanticize small towns as being virtuous, while fleeing them in droves for the past 120 years.
            In my second Quill Gordon mystery novel, the characters are cooped up in a remote fishing lodge and housebound by rain. Gordon and his sidekick spend a fair amount of time gossiping about the other guests, and the other guests were no doubt doing the same about them. Gordon’s sidekick actually serves as sort of a Greek chorus, making comment on the action.
            The third book, now in the outline stage, will be taking a close look at the community structure of the town where the story takes place. Will there be gossip about the inhabitants? You bet your sweet bippy there will. It is, after all, a murder mystery, and most people get murdered for a reason. You would have to spend a lot of time reading newspapers to find a case where the reason for the crime was that the victim won the coveted spot on the Heart Assn. advisory board, and the killer was mad with jealousy.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ghosts and Witches, Oh My!

            When I started writing mysteries, I certainly had no intention of getting into the realm of the paranormal. I saw myself as following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, rather than H.P. Lovecraft, Oliver Onions, and Jack Mann. But once you start writing, stuff happens.
            The first Quill Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, was entirely rational and grounded in the everyday. The second, Wash Her Guilt Away, which will be out in a couple of weeks, started out that way, but at the beginning I threw in, almost as an aside, one brief supernatural reference — to a rumored witch placing a curse on the place where the action occurs.
            It turned out to be like taking one piece of candy from a box of chocolates, and the next thing you know, you’ve eaten the whole damn box. By the time the book was written, it had an entire coven of witches, a headless boatman, and a suspicious death with possibly supernatural overtones. How did it get out of hand like that?

Was it Carr’s Influence?

            The easy way out would be to blame John Dickson Carr. He was one of the great practitioners of the locked-room mystery (the murder is committed in a locked room, which the killer shouldn’t have been able to enter or leave), and a couple of his books, notably Below Suspicion and The Burning Court also had a strong witchcraft angle. Wash Her Guilt Away is dedicated in his spirit — which, come to think of it, is a loaded word.
            My second book is something of an English country-house mystery, in which a group of people are brought together for a short time, tension develops, and a crime is committed. But it also has a locked-room mystery in it, hence the dedication to Carr. That mystery has a natural explanation, as they all do, but I started to see how other supernatural elements might come into play.
            Because the setting of the book is a lodge in the remote forests of Northern California, it lent itself to an air of the supernatural. After all, there’s a reason that Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were set in the woods. I stole from both of those, by the way. If you’re going to steal from an author, do it to a dead one whose copyright has expired.

Two Feet Firmly on Ground

            At the moment I’m trying to figure out how much to make of the paranormal angle in marketing Wash Her Guilt Away. A lot of people eat that stuff up, but the fact is that I’m a pretty rational man when it comes to such issues. My favorite ghost stories are the ones written by authors such as J.S. LeFanu and M.R. James, in which the supernatural elements are reflections of the emotional states and consciences of the characters. For a really good example of this, see LeFanu’s story, “The Familiar,” about a man driven mad by mysterious footsteps that follow him through the city at night.
            I’ll probably compromise by teasing to at least the witch element in the dust-jacket blurb, but otherwise not making too much of a deal about it. Any future books I write will appear in the mystery section of Amazon, not the paranormal, and that’s the way I prefer it. The third mystery, which I am now outlining in detail, should again be perfectly rational, and the general ideas I have for books beyond that are also paranormal-free. After all, the real world is scary enough.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

End of the Company Man

            Within a few years of going to work for the newspaper in 1972, I had more or less decided I was going to be a company man. John P. Scripps Newspapers was a good organization that valued the quality of the product, and if I couldn’t hit the top at the paper where I started, it offered me a fair chance to do so at one of its other publications.
            As matters turned out, I stayed with them for 19 years and made it to the top where I started. But just as I reached the pinnacle, the company was sold and the whole corporate culture changed — not for the better, in my view. After three years as editor, I had to admit it wasn’t the same place it had been for most of my time there, and that it was time for me to move on. I went before the decision was forced upon me.
            Even so, I still have fond memories of my time at the newspaper, and a lot of those memories relate to the great people I worked with, quite a few of whom were company men themselves.

Hitching Your Star to a Wagon

            For the benefit of readers under 40, if any, I should probably explain what a company man was. He (the term began more than a century ago when women weren’t much in the work force) went to work for one company and was loyal to it. The company in return was loyal to him, moving him as far up the corporate ladder as circumstances and his abilities warranted.
            In his worst iteration the company man could be an unquestioning stooge and lackey for a bad company’s noxious practices. But the term was more commonly benign, referring to such people as the dispatcher who was the sober, dependable, respectable face of the railroad he worked for in the small town where he lived. He either died with his boots on or retired after 40 years with a gold watch.
            The two editors who preceded me were both company men. They worked for John P. Scripps Newspapers for decades, and both of them came to our paper after working for another in the group. The three business managers during my tenure at the paper were all company men as well. They were all great guys and great professionals.

What Sense of Loyalty?

            In recent months, Santa Clara University has been sending me out to do a series of articles on alumni who are starting their own businesses — which seems to be almost all of them. They’re bright, energetic, optimistic and innovative, and a line that came up over and over in the interviews was that they wanted to start their own business.
            We certainly need innovators and entrepreneurs, and I wish them all the best. Yet I couldn’t help wondering, as I did the interviews, about the desire to start their own business. More specifically, how much of it came from a sense that it was what they were meant to do, and how much of it came from a sense of resignation — a feeling that in today’s business world there’s simply no point to working for someone else.
            Estimates vary slightly, but the average seems to be that 90 percent of new businesses fail. The people who launch those failed businesses can either try again (up to a point) or go to work for somebody else. If they do the latter, they will most likely move from job to job the rest of their lives, rather than becoming company men or women. The two-way avenue of loyalty that made the company man possible has been closed for good, and weeds are growing in the asphalt.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Every Day and in Every Way

            When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I didn’t really have any goal other than to see if I could come up with a mystery good enough to show to other people. Because it was the first time around, I did it on a wing and a prayer, plodding forward with the idea in my head until it was done. I had no experience or basis to compare the effort to.
            The result was a book that has garnered decent reviews and decent traffic for a first work by an unknown author. But when I was finished with it, I knew I could have done better, and, knowing at least some of where I stumbled along the way, made some effort to change the way I wrote the next one.
            So the second time around I did more outlining — not just of the plot, but also putting down details of the setting and the characters before I sat down at the computer and began writing. I’d done a plot outline for the first book, but the second outline was considerably longer and more detailed.

Pick One Thing and Work It

            I also decided to try to focus on improving in one specific area, and chose character and dialogue. With that in mind, I looked at my grab-bag of story ideas and went for the one that was probably most dependent on character and atmosphere to carry the story forward. The result was the second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, which should be up on Amazon in four to six weeks.
            As I’ve mentioned before, this is essentially an English country-house mystery, in which a group of people — some known to each other, some strangers — are brought together in an isolated setting. Tensions simmer, and eventually someone ends up dead. Because Americans don’t, by and large, do country-house weekends any more, I made the setting a remote fishing lodge, at which the guests are thrown together by a stretch of unremittingly bad weather.
            Starting afresh with the same protagonist, but otherwise a different setting and different cast of characters, I had the freedom to invent anew and be only slightly limited by what I had written in the first book. I even gave my lead character a different fishing sidekick and had some fun developing the new sidekick’s persona.

Diagramming the Plot

            There’s no telling what the readers will think, but I felt there was some improvement and plan to follow much of the same process for the third one.
            Which, by the way, is already started, with a goal of being in print (or at least in e-book) by the end of 2015. At the moment I’m only 90 percent sure about the title, so I won’t be giving that out yet, but I can tell you three things about it:
            1. It will take place in a different setting from the first two books and will have a new set of characters;
            2. The exception being that Gordon and one of the sidekicks from the first two books will reprise his role;
            3. The focus for improvement will be the complexity of the plot and the ingenuity involved in unraveling the mystery.
            This time I’m doing a formal story board and calendar for the action to ensure that everything falls into place as it should and diagramming the plot with even greater precision than before. Perhaps this is an exercise in literary Coue-ism, but if you’re not improving, you’re going backwards. I even know what I want to work on in the fourth novel, but let’s get this one done first.