Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Funny how the mind works. Sunday was perhaps our last day of Indian Summer, and Linda and I went down to the Esplanade in Capitola to get a latte from Mr. Toots Coffeehouse and drink it on one of the benches looking out over Capitola Beach and the Monterey Bay.
Because other people had similar ideas, Linda took off to stake out a bench as soon as her beverage was up, and while mine was still being prepared. I paid for both the drinks and left, walking down the Esplanade toward the bench area. Because it was crowded; because I didn’t know where she was; and because I’d forgotten to get a lid for my cup of coffee, I took it slowly.
That was probably why I noticed the menu at Zelda’s, one of the restaurants facing the beach. I didn’t really read it, but it was broken down by meal, and for some reason, when I saw breakfast, I thought of my friend John.
The Business Power Breakfast
John and I had met in 1994 in connection with a political campaign his wife and I were working on, but we really got to know each other in 1996-97 when we were both working on a contentious land-use project in Santa Cruz. That was when a mutual respect for each other’s professional abilities evolved into a friendship that has lasted to this day.
One of the ways in which that happened was over a series of meals, coffees, and drinks after work, where we got together to talk about the project and the conversation branched out to other topics.
Breakfast at Zelda’s was part of that ongoing experience, but I can’t say for sure how many times it happened. Not many; two or three at most, and maybe only once. Nor do I recall anything of great import being spoken or decided. It was merely one of many instances where we got together — one link in the chain, as it were.
And it may be that the only reason it stands out is that I don’t recall ever eating breakfast at Zelda’s alone or with anyone else. Lunch, yes, but the only breakfast memory is associated with John.
Evolution, Not Drama
One of the hardest things to do in fiction or drama is to show the development of a friendship. It’s often done by depicting a dramatic event that brings two people together and establishes an instant bond of trust. And to be sure, there are a number of friendships that develop in that fashion.
More often that not, however, it’s a longer, subtler process. It’s an accumulation of shared experiences that develop a common bond of trust and affection. For every friendship made in the Hollywood way, there are dozens that were forged over breakfasts at Zelda’s and other such gatherings that gave two people a chance to talk and connect and get to feel comfortable with each other.
True friendship takes time to develop, and, because of that, can weather the test of time. And it’s based on a personal connection, forged by extended periods of time spent together, getting to know each other. There’s no substitute for face-to-face experience, and it’s safe to say there will never be an app for that.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
November got off to a good start in terms of book sales. The first two days of the month were well above average, and I had high hopes that things would continue in that fashion the rest of the way.
But, as they say in the financial services industry, past performance is no guarantee of future results. On the third day of the month, sales dropped to below average, and on the fourth day, I sold no books at all.
A day without sales is not unheard of. I’m in the early stages of self-publishing my mystery novels, and while I haven’t been at it long, I’ve been doing it long enough to know that sales are random and fluctuate wildly. The day with no sales simply offset one of the two good days at the beginning, and there was nothing to worry about.
Until, that is, the day of bupkis was followed by another (not unusual), then another (more unusual), then another (quite unusual).
The Skunk on the Couch
Athletes are familiar with slumps. Sports fans can readily call to mind a ball player who suddenly couldn’t hit or a basketball hotshot who suddenly couldn’t make a wide-open shot. It’s in the nature of the game. The athletes, however, can at least practice more, work on their technique, and try to pull themselves out of it.
My book sales, however, are entirely outside my control. People buy when they do for all sorts of reasons, and with no apparent pattern. My wife thinks it’s all random; I think there’s an algorithm somewhere and I just haven’t found it. But no matter what the reason, I can’t control it.
I tried to influence the sales with tweets and other social media. No luck. I had an ad running on television. El Zippo. After days of being skunked, I began to think of the skunk as a personal entity. In my mind, the sales chart was a once-pristine retail outlet purveying my books, now transformed by a skunk on the couch, scaring the customers away.
Beer and Potato Chips
As sale-less day followed sale-less day, and my morale began to droop like a mustache in a Georgia summer, I found myself elaborating on the skunk fantasy. I pictured Skunk lying back on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, watching daytime soaps while swilling beer and eating countless sacks of potato chips. Then I began to envision him inviting his no-account relations over and trashing the room altogether.
Even my wife was saying I needed to sell a book and get this thing over with.
It was getting so bad I asked someone I know to buy a book, just to see if my sales were being properly recorded by Amazon. The sale showed up promptly and told me that Amazon wasn’t the problem.
The slump lasted eight wretched, nerve-wracking days, and then, like a heat wave broken by a rainstorm, it was over. On the ninth day, I returned home after my Rotary Club meeting, went to my sales report, and found that in the time I’d been gone, I’d sold two and a half times the normal daily volume of books. Just like that!
This slump was at the far edge of the bell-shaped curve (if not off it altogether), and I’ll probably have no idea why it happened. That’s all right; I don’t have to know. I just don’t want to go through it again any time soon.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
There are plenty of generalizations about the writing process, and some of them are even true. Today I’d like to talk about one that’s often presented as being absolutely true, even though it’s only mostly true.
It’s been expressed in various ways, but the thrust of it is, “The first draft of a book is always terrible.”
Substitute “usually” or “often” for “always” in that sentence, and I wouldn’t argue too much. From almost everything I’ve written and heard, I’ve concluded that most authors, particularly fiction authors, discover their book in the process of writing it. When the first draft is completed, they’re left with something that ended up being a lot different than what they started out to do.
Get me rewrite!
There are, however, and always have been authors who know what they want to do and pretty much nail it on the first try. In such cases there’s always some cleanup and tightening to be done, but it’s hardly a major overhaul.
The Speedy Genre Writer
I’ve read — though so long ago I’ve forgotten where — that Dickens and Shakespeare wrote quickly, channeling the muse before she escaped. When Dickens, at the urging of Bulwer-Lytton, rewrote the end of Great Expectations, he was simply adjusting what he already had, not reimagining it anew.
A certain number of genre writers, working within an established format, are able to figure out the book beforehand and come up with a first draft that works, with a few changes. I have recent evidence of this. Over the weekend I read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery The Second Confession, written in 1949. And I do mean all written in 1949.
According to a note at the end of my edition, Stout began writing the book (some 240 pages long) on March 16, 1949 and completed it April 23. It was then submitted to the publisher and after typesetting, final editing and legal review, it was published September 6.
That’s five and a half months from first keystroke to book off the presses. And he did it with typewriters. And 65 years later, it’s better written than many current best-sellers.
Doing the Thinking First
It takes me a year to get one of my mystery novels written, but it isn’t the writing and revisions that take up most of the time. A lot of that time involves prep work and outlining. I’m one of those writers who needs to know where the story is going and how it’s getting there before I actually start writing it.
Since I’m not writing mystery novels for a living, and since I have a day job, and since I have a life outside writing, my books get written when I can get to them, which is often in fits and starts. Some weeks I can work on the book nearly every day. At other times, it goes a week or two (in one instance a month or two) without any attention.
But because I’ve imagined the book in considerable detail before writing it, what finally gets into print (or e-book) is essentially an amended and improved version of the first draft. I’m not saying that’s the way any other author ought to do it, but it works for me and it’s worked for other writers who have been deemed good. I won’t tell you how to write your book if you promise not to tell me that my first draft can’t possibly be any good.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
It’s a sign of my age, no doubt, but there are certain new developments I just don’t get. Like Fantasy Football.
It’s all the rage now, and very much in the news, what with a couple of large firms being looked at more closely by the government. But I look at it and ask two questions: Who has the time? And, How can you win?
It turns out those questions weren’t so bad. A recent story in the Times said that in order to succeed in any consistent way in Fantasy Football, a person has to devote huge amounts of time to studying the game and developing algorithms for figuring out which players will do well within the gaming system (as opposed to doing well in real football, like winning games).
Most people who play spend a lot of time on it, but their understanding is so limited that they might as well be picking lottery numbers by using their aunts’ and uncles’ birthdays.
If you’re a business, you have to love customers like that.
The Old Way Wasn’t Easy
Before Fantasy Football came along, people who wanted to bet on the sport usually bet on the outcome of a game, with a point spread factored in to give the underdog a fair chance.
Betting on games in that fashion was never easy. People extremely knowledgeable about the game rarely did much better than 50-55 percent over any period of time, which is essentially breaking even. No matter how much you know and how shrewd your insights about a game might be, an injured quarterback or a couple of freak turnovers can upend everything.
Even so, I like to give it a try once a year. My friend John and I go up to South Lake Tahoe in late October or early November to catch the fall color and make some football investments. The fall color is pretty much a sure thing; the football investments — not so much.
Don’t Kick a Field Goal!
By this time of year, the pro football teams are settling out, and a shrewd observer can get a pretty good sense of which teams are good and which ones aren’t. (Shrewd observation #1: A team with a 1-6 record isn’t very good.) Three weeks beforehand, I started compiling statistical information about teams and tracking their records game by game in order to make informed bets. Well, as informed as it gets, anyway.
One of my picks, for instance, was New Orleans minus 3.5 points over the New York Giants. The game was in New Orleans and ended up being an epic. With seconds left, it was tied 49-49 and the Giants were punting. New Orleans got a good return to just past midfield, but the Giants grabbed a face mask, adding a 15-yard penalty and putting New Orleans in position to kick a long field goal on the last play of the game.
The field goal would win the game for New Orleans but lose the bet for me, since I had them winning by four points or more. Sure enough, the New Orleans kicker booted it right between the goalposts to win the game, but I lost my bet by a stinking half-point.
This is why it’s called gambling.