Wednesday, February 25, 2015
About this time last year, I posted a piece about getting away from it all to do book revisions. I had just returned from a week in Point Reyes, northwest of San Francisco, where I had been editing my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away. The concentrated effort, in an environment apart from the usual distractions, was highly beneficial, I wrote at the time.
And I said then that I’d do it again for the next book, which I’ve just done. My third Quill Gordon mystery, Not Death, But Love, is about to go to my editor, Lauren Wilkins, for a final look, but I had to get the early-draft kinks out of it before she sees it. Ergo, another week in Point Reyes.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Point Reyes Station is a town of about 350 people near the Point Reyes National Seashore. For my purposes, the town is just right for this sort of working getaway. What makes it so? Well, there are several factors.
What’s Your Environment?
Probably I should begin by saying that’s a personal question. Different writers need different work spaces for this sort of thing. Some would be quite happy in a basement office in central Manhattan. Others would consider Point Reyes too cosmopolitan and distracting.
Point Reyes Station is just right for me as a working base. It has a grocery store and hardware store where you can pick up just about anything you might have forgotten to bring from home. It has an Auto Club-approved garage (more on that later), three nice restaurants, a good coffee shop, and an excellent bakery. It also has a number of boutiques with lovely merchandise (good for gifts to take home) and a sweet little bookstore, where I bought three books.
In short, just enough to provide a bit of a diversion when needed, but not so much as to be a distraction. That works for me. I need to be able to get away from the work a bit, and a short visit to town for a latte and a stroll-through in a couple of shops is just the ticket.
At the Edge of the Marsh
Home for the week was a little cottage behind a house about a mile out of town. It had a small kitchen area, a living area with room to set up a folding table I brought along, and a nook to the side that housed a queen bed and a bathroom with a decent-sized shower. There was an enclosed outdoor patio, where I worked a couple of sunny afternoons, and the main window looked out on a yard full of sheep behind a fence.
The property backs onto a marsh, which offers a great deal of solitude. Perhaps in the summer it’s an insect factory, but in early February, that wasn’t an issue. It was a good, quiet place to work, and I got a lot done.
But I didn’t quite finish. The last morning, I was going to head into town for a pastry, but the car wouldn’t start. The garage sent out a truck to get me jumped, and I had to take the car to a Ford dealer in Petaluma, 35 miles away, to have it looked at. It turned out a battery cell was shot, and a replacement battery was installed under warranty. It took six and a half hours, and kept me from making the final changes on the last chapter. No harm, no foul. I finished the work when I got home, and the drive to Petaluma took me on a beautiful road I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The other day I was revisiting one of my favorite photography books, The American Film Directors by Maureen Lambray. In it, I came across this quote from Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, talking about the great Ernst Lubitsch, who had died 30 years before he could be photographed for the book.
“Lubitsch once said to me, concerning the director’s general approach to the film, that by and large he should make it for himself, as a film he would buy a ticket to see — and then pray for millions of people to agree with him.”
It’s more than a little interesting that Lubitsch’s evanescent romantic comedies — Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, among others — have survived the test of time. Those comedies, more so than most of the socially conscious message movies of the era, are what we now regard as being among the best things ever turned out by the Hollywood studio system. Their grace and understanding of adult behavior make today’s comedies pale by comparison. But don’t get me started.
To Thine Own Self Be True
Regardless of the medium, the Lubitsch approach is the only one that makes sense in any art form — fiction, painting, whatever. And it’s true even in genre work that makes no artistic pretensions. A writer needs a certain degree of talent, to be sure, but plenty of bestselling authors get by without extra helpings of it. What’s hard to fake, I think, is a belief in the story you’re telling.
A story can work for a reasonable number of readers, even when the writing is pedestrian at best, if the author at some level believes in it. Show me a bad book that sold well, and almost every time I’ll show you an author who believed it was a good book. Show me a bad series of books by the same author, and I’ll guarantee the author believed in them.
In the early seventies, a group of newspaper people set out to show that they could write a truly horrible book that would become a bestseller. Each reporter was assigned a chapter to write (in order to ensure stylistic inconsistency), and if the result wasn’t terrible enough, the scribe was ordered to keep lowering the quality until it got there.
You Only Slum Once
The result of their effort was a book called Naked Came the Stranger, which was, in fact, a bestseller, and which kept selling for a while after the authors were exposed. But the interesting thing, from my perspective, was the sequel.
There was no sequel.
My guess would be that it’s possible to deliberately write a bad book as a one-off, but it’s not the sort of thing anyone wants to keep doing. Once is plenty to make the point. After that, there is no point. Anyone who writes a series of bad books has to like that sort of book at some level.
I don’t know if my mystery novels will ever be held up as examples of good books of their type, but I do know that I’m doing my best to write them the same way Lubitsch made his movies — as something I’d appreciate if I were the audience. Doing it that way doesn’t guarantee success, but there’s a corollary. Doing it any other way comes as close to possible to guaranteeing failure.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
People who are more spiritually fit than I am will often say that one way to maintain contact with God is to write up a gratitude list. If I were doing one today, I know what would be at the top of it. I am profoundly grateful I no longer work for a newspaper in this country.
The news from the newspaper world has been so bad for so long that no sane person would need a specific reason for feeling that way. But mine was an article that appeared a few weeks ago, about the Salinas Californian’s attempt to create a “newsroom of the future.” For those not familiar with the business, that’s a euphemism for doing more work with fewer people.
The article contained more gruesome details than the average Jo Nesbo novel. Among them was the fact that the Californian would be laying off all news personnel and asking them to reapply for jobs such as “journalist-marketer” and “content coach.”
Enough to Make You Weep
When I worked at the newspaper, we didn’t have content coaches. We had editors. One of the best was Ward Bushee, who hired me. I can’t even imagine what Ward would have done to any corporate type who tried to change his title from managing editor to content coach. All I can say is, it wouldn’t have been pretty, and no jury would have convicted.
I understand, of course, that every business goes through changes. Nevertheless, journalism, like the Catholic Church, has a fundamental creed from which it departs at its peril. The creed defines who and what you are, and in journalism, editorial independence is a bedrock part of it. Take that away, and you might still have a newspaper, but you don’t have journalism.
The mere existence of a job title like “journalist-marketer” is an acknowledgement that there is no more editorial independence. Once a reporter starts thinking about selling something instead of simply getting the story, he’s not a reporter any more. He’s something else, and I don’t know what.
Removing the Home Town Feeling
Beyond the job titles, the article also mentioned that the Salinas paper’s copy editing had been done in Visalia, a couple of hundred miles southeast, and that its page design was done in Phoenix, AZ. That’s more cost-effective, I’m sure, but the hidden cost is the loss of any sense of there being a home-town paper.
An editor in Visalia, reading a Salinas story, has no real context and no real knowledge of the community. If the story says a criminal incident occurred at the intersection of two streets, how would the editor in Visalia know if those two streets do, indeed intersect? I suppose the editor could look at a street map, but if it were done in every instance, speed and efficiency would be lost. A locally based editor, on the other hand, would simply know.
I cut my teeth in the business having editors only a few feet away, who would shout out questions and call me over to point out how they were editing my copy. That’s how I learned to get better. They also pointed out local details, such as how people referred to a place and which local businesses had quirky spellings. Less of that would happen if you simply moved the editors into the next room. Move them two hundred miles away, and none of it happens. It’s yet another step taken down a road that’s leading us to newspapers from nowhere.
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
The other day I was having coffee with a photographer friend. We meet from time to time to discuss our respective crafts, and this particular day, we were talking about mine. And he asked a very good and very interesting question.
He prefaced it by saying that it seemed to him that there are often a number of different ways of saying something clearly and effectively. So how much, he continued, does it matter, whether a writer gets a sentence or a paragraph perfect? If it was all right on the first draft, how important is it to keep re-doing it; and, in the course of re-doing it, isn’t it possible that something that was good in the first draft gets lost in the course of constant revisions?
My answer was yes.
Genre Fiction vs. “Literature”
Then again, I write genre fiction — mystery novels, to be precise. That no doubt affects my opinion on the issue. I know I’m producing disposable items, not heirlooms. My books should be done well enough to keep readers entertained during a long plane flight, but I’m under no illusions that anyone will be reading them a hundred years from now.
In that case, the standard isn’t getting it perfect (which a writer almost never does, anyway), but rather getting it pretty good within a reasonable amount of time. Once the first draft is written, it goes through three revisions, the last of which involves reviewing and addressing my editor’s changes. After that, it’s caveat emptor for prospective readers.
I do a great deal of planning and outlining before I begin writing, and with years of journalism experience at my tail, I fancy myself pretty good at writing competent prose on the first go-around. Because of that, and because of the standards of the genre, my first drafts are generally 90 percent of the way to what I want, and revisions are mostly housekeeping affairs, rather than major conceptual rewrites.
Buy a Book at the Airport
Now obviously, if something just isn’t right, the author should keep working on that something until it gets to at least some semblance of rightness. You don’t want to put your book out there with something in it that you know is wrong. I mean, we have to have some standards.
Nevertheless, I keep reading posts in author groups and other such places in which people are agonizing over how to get something perfect. A lot of times, it’s the title and/or first sentence of their book. Other times, it’s just the question of revisions in general. The problem with that is that when you look at anything — a manuscript, a house, a marriage — too long and too hard, all you see are the problems, and the good qualities fade into the background. It’s a path to madness, and writers are singularly prone to traveling it.
If anyone really believes their book has to be revised to the point of perfection, my advice would be to go into any airport bookstore, purchase any bestselling novel, and read it. None of them are perfect, and some aren’t even very well written, but they had something — a story, an idea, a strong central character — that made people like them. And that was enough.
As one of my editors at the newspaper used to say, “Just tell the damn story and give me clean copy.”