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, December 31, 2014

The Second Book, Before and After

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

A Half-Century With Agatha Christie

            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

The Pager: A Remembrance

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

Falling in Love With the Wrong Movie

            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

Making Bank Tellers Swoon

            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.