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, September 30, 2015

Repeat Customers

            Every business wants to know if it’s getting satisfied, repeat customers. And every business has a different measurement.
            In a small town café, for instance, the owner and employees can simply keep an eye on who’s coming in and how often. That can be more effective than other considerably more complicated techniques, such as tracking credit card sales or use of reward cards.
            No system is perfect. A friend of mine used to go to the same coffee house for his morning brew every day without fail, and was on a first-name basis with the owner and all the employees. Then he got a new girlfriend and moved 30 miles away. A thing like that can wreak havoc on a man’s coffee habits. Neither personal observation nor electronic monitoring will explain a situation like that. It takes a face-to-face conversation.

The Author’s Dilemma

            Book authors also want to know if people like their work, but figuring that out isn’t easy. You can look at sales numbers, but those don’t tell you how many people actually read the book, and, if they did, what they thought of it.
            On Amazon, you can look at the reviews, but, again, those aren’t terribly helpful. If one out of a hundred readers bothers to write a review, an author is doing well. When the reviews reach a certain number, you can kinda sorta assume they’re representative of the sentiments of readers at large. But it’s still pretty squishy.
            Amazon doesn’t provide authors with a whole lot of information about who’s buying the books, but it’s possible to read between the lines of the information and draw some conclusions.
            My Quill Gordon mystery series is now three books strong, with book four due out next year. Having a few books out there does allow me to make some deductions.

A Loyal Fan Base

            For starters, Amazon tells authors what other books your customers have bought, and for each of mine, the other two in the series figure prominently. That certainly suggests a growing base of support for the series as a whole. And I recently noticed that they’re now offering customers a chance to buy all three books with one click. I like that.
            It’s also possible to get a handle on things in a smaller market, where connections are more obvious. For instance, in late July, I sold a copy of my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, in Spain. It was the first sale ever in that country, where the book is available only in English.
            In early September, I sold a copy each of books two and three in Spain in a two-hour time frame. Considering how few sales there are in that country, it’s unlikely that two separate customers each bought one book in that slender a time frame. Far more likely that the July customer liked the first book and decided to buy the others.
            In the USA, which is my primary market, I also assume that most people who are giving my books a try for the first time will buy either the first and original or the third and most recent, then buy the others if they like what they thought.
            Assuming I’m right about that, sales of the second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, should be a good indicator of repeat customers, and that book has been selling well.
            Few authors get rich, but most of us, I think, want to feel that people are reading our books and enjoying them. Faith in that is enough to give us the resolve to keep on writing, and based on my reading of the tea leaves, I want to write some more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Scientific Management and the Newsroom

            One of the great fallacies of scientific management is that everything at the workplace can be measured. Perhaps in a basic sales or manufacturing operation it can (though I have my doubts), but there are plenty of areas where judgment calls have to be made.
            Reading the recent news stories about the work culture at Amazon, I was glad I don’t work there and never will, and I was reminded of the time our small-town newspaper was prodded (with little success as long as I was around) to engage in its own form of scientific management
            The time was the mid 1980s, and the paper had been going through a spot of labor trouble, with a unionization effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful, but that made the company take a harder look at itself. Some good things came out of that, like performance appraisals and formal pay scales (I know, 50 years late, but, hey!) along with some notions that I can only regard as crackpot propositions.

Clean Desks? For Writers? Really?

            One was a suggested requirement that every desk in the newsroom should be completely clean before the occupying reporter or editor left for the day. Supposedly this was supposed to instill order and cleanliness to the operation, but to me it smelled like a recipe for mutiny. I never lifted a finger to implement that suggestion.
            Many newspaper people in those days took pride in the messiness of their desks. A typical reporter would have on the desk surface, at any given time, notes for various stories, a solid selection of coffee-stained government reports (with the most necessary one at the bottom of the stack), agendas of coming meetings, press releases needing to be rewritten, etc. These days I suppose it’s all on the computer, but back then you actually had to touch the stuff.
            A good reporter or editor knew (or claimed to know) exactly where in the mess any given document was and could, if you believed him or her, be able to produce it upon demand. Scotchy Sinclair, the longtime editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had a desk that I never saw with less than three vertical feet of paper on it at any time. In multiple piles.
            That’s tradition, friend. You don’t mess with something like that.

Two Stories, Hold the Quality

            A second recommendation that died in my arms was that reporters be required to produce a quota of, say, two stories a day. To someone who doesn’t understand the business, that might seem reasonable, but to someone who does, it provides an excuse for malingering.
            If all a reporter is being judged by is how many stories are turned in, it’s easy for someone sharp to game the system. Just take two press releases you’re given, make a phone call or two on each one, and write them up. You can meet the quota in half a day and spend the afternoon on the golf course or wherever. On the other hand, if a reporter is going after the stories that should be gone after, those stories may be more difficult to complete, and some days, it won’t be possible to do two.
            A good editor ought to have a sense of whether or not a reporter is producing, and should be directing reporters to the stories that really need doing. That can take longer and call for some judgment and discrimination, but it’s what leads to a quality news product. Story quotas satisfy the bean counters — not the readers, who are, of course, the ultimate customers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Fiction Longhand

            Shakespeare did it, and so did Dickens. Tolstoy, too, for that matter. In fact, up until about a century ago, everybody did it. Everybody who wrote, anyway.
            I’m talking about writing in longhand, with a pen and paper. Before the age of the computer, before typewriters came into wide use, everyone wrote in that fashion. Over the years, a number of people have believed (and still believe) that doing it that way, putting actual pen to actual paper, makes someone a better writer.
            Unless you were William Faulkner. He used a pencil, rather than a pen. A soft pencil on a cheap, ruled drugstore-style pad. He said it was important to him to be able to actually feel the words as he was writing them.
            And then there was Hemingway, who wrote on a typewriter, but what would you expect? He used to be a journalist.

If They Can, So Can I

            Being a recovering journalist myself, and being of the computer age, I’ve written all of my first three books on a computer. I do the outlining and plotting longhand, using a fountain pen and good paper, but when it comes time to do the book, I sit in front of the computer and let the fingers fly over the keyboard.
            Until this time. As I was finishing my third book, NotDeath, But Love, I decided to try something different. I’d write the first chapter of the fourth book (title still undetermined) in longhand with a fountain pen, or pens, just to see how it would feel to do that, and to see if I could detect any difference resulting therefrom in my writing style.
            In anticipation of the experience, I visited Silberman Brown Stationers in Seattle during our recent trip there. It’s an elegant stationery store, located at street level of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown. When I said I was looking for a pad of high-quality paper for writing with a fountain pen, the knowledgeable clerk steered me to Clairefontaine Triomphe, a French luxury brand. I bought one pad lined and one unlined.

Feel the Glide

            I used the ruled paper, of course, and now that I’ve finished the first draft of the first chapter, I wish I could give a more definitive answer to the question of what difference it made to write fiction longhand. I’m really not sure.
            The experience was certainly different, inasmuch as he words weren’t coming out as if shot through a fire hose. I’m a fast typist and tend to really get on a roll when I write, and doing it by hand definitely slowed down the proceedings.
            One consequence of this, which may or may not be a good thing, is that it gave me more time to think about (and have doubts about) the quality of my writing. When I finished the chapter, I felt less confident about the quality of it than I had of the first chapter of the two preceding books.
            Then I showed the manuscript to Linda, who said she was drawn in by the story elements and that it seemed faster-paced than my other books. I wonder if writing it out is enough work that you steer clear of excessive verbiage and perhaps do more editing as you’re writing. I don’t know. I’m going back to the computer for Chapter 2, but think I’ll try doing the first chapter of the next book in longhand as well to see if I gain any further understanding of the process. I need all the understanding I can get.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Angling in the Summer of Drought

            My first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, had its genesis in an episode that occurred in Alpine County CA, on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada. Like my protagonist Quill Gordon in Chapter 2, I was fishing on a small stream in a remote area when some people camped nearby came over to let me know they were doing some target practice.
            The sound of their gunfire became so unnerving that after several minutes of it, I moved on to another creek. My shooters were just a bunch of weekend plunkers, but it occurred to me, with the citizen militia movement in full bloom at the time, that if it had been such a group, there would be a story there.
            Alpine County is one of many places I’ve drawn on for the settings of my three Quill Gordon novels, and for a long time it was one of my go-to fishing places. In the past decade, I’ve drifted away from it, and this year I decided to go back for a short visit and see how its fine streams have been affected by the drought.

Roughing It No More

            I used to go up in my 1977 VW camper and stay at Grover Hot Springs State Park, but I sold the camper in 2011. Instead, I booked a small cabin at the Carson River Resort, about two miles out of Markleeville, the county seat. It turned out to be just right for my purposes.
            From the cabin, you could walk across Highway 89 and fish the East Fork of the Carson River. Like all the streams in the mountains this year, it was down considerably. The river, in fact, was more like a large creek, and it was hard to believe that in a normal wet year, there are companies that set up river-rafting expeditions on it.
            Even though the water level was down a foot or more from normal, the East Carson had plenty of fish in it. There were good deep holes and decent riffles still, and I caught a few fish and saw others. I had feared it would be even lower than it was and unfishable, but that turned out not to be the case.

The Reservoir Was Down

            My first morning there, I drove up the highway to Kinney Reservoir, near the summit of Ebbets Pass, thinking I might try my luck there. No such luck. Ordinarily, you could walk out on the dam and cast into the lake a few feet below. The morning I got there, the water was about 60 feet below. It was like looking into the crater of a volcano.
            So I went over the pass and took a rugged dirt road to Highland Lakes, about five miles off the highway at an elevation of 8,600 feet. I was glad I did. Those lakes are natural, and they were full. I fished a couple of hours and had a few bites, but just being there was enough. There had never been any reason to go before because the streams were always full enough to fish.
            What this tells me is that drought conditions are situational. In the river, places I didn’t fish before were pretty good and places I usually fished were unfishable. One lake was fine and one wasn’t. It depends. However bad the drought might get, the fish will usually find a place to live. If you want to find them, you have to go check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Quarterback Reflections

            It’s September and a man’s thoughts are turning to football. This year, I’m thinking about quarterbacks again.
            A couple of years back in this spot, I wrote a piece criticizing the tendency of sports writers to blame a quarterback for not winning championships. I pointed out that teams win championships, not quarterbacks, and that the best predictor of Super Bowl victory is having a future Hall of Fame defensive player on the team.
            Lately, I’ve been reflecting on another quarterback issue: Statistical evaluation. Ken Stabler, the great quarterback for the Raiders in the 1970s, died earlier this summer, and is now up for consideration for admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
            One sports writer, and I can’t recall who, wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated online, saying, in essence, that though a case could be made, Stabler’s overall statistics just weren’t good enough.

True, But Wrong

            I’ll concede the statistics, while arguing that in some cases the numbers are behind the point. And it seems to me that in sports these days (and particularly in baseball) we’re trusting the numbers too much and our own eyes too little. How do you quantify a great game or a great play that takes your breath away?
            Two Stabler stories, recalled from memory:
            In the late 1970s, the Raiders were playing New Orleans on Monday night. With about five minutes to go in the third quarter, they were trailing 28-14 on the road, when Stabler, trying to avoid a sack, threw up a wounded duck that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown to make it New Orleans 35, Oakland 14. I turned the game off, did a couple of chores, then called home a half hour later. My father answered.
            “Aren’t you watching the game?” he asked. I told him I’d turned it off, and he said the Raiders were coming back furiously. We talked briefly, and I turned the TV on again to see Stabler lead the Raiders to a 42-35 win, with four touchdown drives in the last quarter and a third.
             Then there was the game against Miami in the 1975 playoffs. Trailing 26-21 with almost no time left, and facing fourth and goal, Stabler broke out of the pocket moving to his left (he was left-handed) and threw up an absolutely terrible pass as he was being tackled.

Hey, It Worked

            Terrible, that is, in every way but one. As it sailed over the goal line, the Raiders’ Clarence Davis leaped up and took it away from two Miami defenders for the winning touchdown.
            That’s the thing about Stabler. He was a gunslinger and a gambler who took chances other quarterbacks didn’t take. It drove down his stats, but also won his team a lot of games it might otherwise have lost. John Madden, who knows a thing or two about football, has said that if he could pick one quarterback to lead the drive for a winning touchdown in the closing minutes of a game, it would be Stabler. Isn’t that more important than completion percentage or touchdown-to-interception ratio?
            My favorite Stabler story involved the 1976 playoff game where the Wild Card Raiders were playing the Baltimore Colts in Baltimore. The game was tied 31-31 in regulation, and still tied after a quarter of overtime. At the start of the second overtime, Madden turned to see Stabler looking at the stands and laughing out loud.
            “What’s so funny?” Madden demanded.
            “I was just thinkin’, coach. These fans sure got their money’s worth today.” Then he went out and threw a touchdown pass to Dave Casper to win the game.
            That, alone, should be enough to get him into the Hall.