Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Every so often you set out to get an answer to one question and end up learning something else altogether. Something like that happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was attempting to finalize the cover of my fourth mystery novel.
The cover image, which I conceived and developed with the help of a very good graphic designer, was to show a football field at night, with a lone pompon lying forlornly in the foreground, suggesting a missing cheerleader. It’s a simple enough concept in concept, but it took several attempts before I was satisfied that the pompon was immediately readable as a pompon.
If readers look at a book cover and go, “eh?” when they see it, that is not something that is likely to increase sales. So, given the downside of being wrong, I decided to get a few more opinions on how well the pompon image worked before I put it out there on Amazon.
Unscientific, But Telling
I had the cover image as a jpg and decided to email it around to a few friends to see what they thought. I settled on three men and three women and sent it out to everybody at the same time.
In the covering email, I simply said that I’d like them to look at the book cover and tell me in a line or two what they saw in it. It seemed to me like a straightforward and unambiguous request, and I really wasn’t prepared for what came back.
Two women and two men replied within a couple of days, and the responses were clearly differentiated by gender. Both the women wrote that they saw a football field with a pompon on it, which was the answer I was hoping for. The men, on the other hand, looked at it completely differently.
What’s the Catch?
Both of the guys, interestingly, regarded it as a trick question, and in their response tried to point out what they thought was the hidden flaw in the picture, without making any attempt to describe the picture, which is what I was asking them to do.
One of my friends thought that the bench behind the football field shouldn’t have been there. Another thought he saw someone peeing in the trees in the background. Both of them said they weren’t completely sure of it and didn’t know whether they had registered the trick in the photo. Neither response was any help to me in terms of getting a confirmation or denial as to whether the pompon registered.
One of them subsequently wrote, in response to a followup question, that of course that was a pompon in the foreground. Since nobody had said they were wondering what that lump above my name was, I figured at that point that I was overthinking the matter and that the cover was fine. My friends helped me figure that out, certainly, but they also provided a valuable object lesson in yet another way that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles. It’s the sort of thing authors do when they’re nearing the end of a book and haven’t yet named it. Nonfiction writers have it easy; they can always go with something drawn from the subject matter. With fiction, one has to be a bit more opaque.
I’ve written on this subject before, and to summarize my conclusions, a good title for a work of fiction should ideally convey a sense of the feel and tenor of the book. I don’t believe titles sell books as a rule, and the reality is that most books have rather prosaic titles.
Looking at the mysteries on the bookshelf in front of me, for example, I see: The Stone Wife (Peter Lovesey), Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie), A Beam of Light (Andrea Camilleri), The Return (Hakan Nesser), and Finding Moon (Tony Hillerman). Well known authors all, but the titles hardly grab you by the lapels.
It Was Easy at First
For my first two mystery novels, I had decided on the title before I even started writing. The McHenry Inheritance was a straightforward distillation of the essence of a book that revolved around a challenged will, and Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from the well-known poem by Oliver Goldsmith, got to the heart of the murder victim’s character.
The third book was more of a struggle, title-wise. At the outset, I considered a half dozen possibilities, but wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Two thirds of the way through the first draft, I was no forrader, when, flipping through my Oxford Book of English Verse, I came across a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that ended with the words, “not death, but love.”
The sonnet itself dovetailed wonderfully with the themes of the book, and the final words of the poem made for a great title. So, Not Death, But Love it was.
Seems to Get Harder
The fourth book, which should be out in a few months, was even harder to name than the third one. Coming up with a title was like digging a ditch in frozen ground. I had a couple of ideas early on, but the more I thought about them, the less I liked them. Given that I still like the titles of my first three books, that probably meant the early ideas for Book Four weren’t right.
Finally, a breakthrough of sorts came when I was discussing the matter with my sister Susan, a poet of some renown in New York City. She asked me what the name of the town was, where the story took place. Alta Mira, I said. She suggested something like Bad Day at Alta Mira.
That title didn’t fit the book, but it got my train of thought on the right track. The book is about a mountain town undergoing a double trauma. Several female students have inexplicably gone missing from the local community college, and a high school cheerleader has accused the quarterback of getting her drunk and raping her at a party.
It occurred to me that the book’s theme is that the young women in town — its daughters, if you will — are in danger, and the book is about attempts to set right the wrongs done to them. So I came up with The Daughters of Alta Mira, and that one felt right the more I thought about it, so that’s what it will be.
Now all I have to do is come up with a title for Book Five.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
One of the less lovely aspects of self-publishing is that the author has to do it all. There’s no publishing house to provide the backup of cover design, writing the dust-jacket blurb, formatting the book for printing, etc. You can, of course, hire people to do some of this, but the results can be unsatisfactory.
I’ve always taken the lead role in designing the covers of my mystery novels. I flatter myself that I have an above-average visual sense, and I have worked with photographers and graphic designers throughout a 40-plus-year professional career. So I usually come up with a concept for the cover, along with supporting items to get the project started, before turning it over to my go-to graphic designer.
One of the things I like to do in this regard is take a photograph that can serve as a basic template for the cover design, and it was in the course of doing so that the story you are about to read unfolded.
The Best Laid Plans
For the cover image for my fourth novel, I needed an image of a football field. I wanted the image configured in a certain way, with the field in the foreground, a yard-line number showing clearly, and the goalposts in the background.
Such a photo no doubt exists within the stock archives available to graphic designers, but it could be hard to locate, and subtle distinctions in terms of what I wanted could result in a number of false starts.
So I decided to take the picture myself.
One of the high schools in our area has a football field with southern goalposts backed up by a row of trees. With no identifiable background, it could pass for anywhere. Monday night after dinner, Linda and I set out for that field to get the photo from the exact angle I wanted.
We got to the high school, parked, and walked up to the athletic field. It was nearly deserted, the light was perfect, yet the picture I wanted was impossible. With football season long over, the field had been converted to soccer, and a huge soccer goal directly under the football goalposts ruined the shot.
Marines to the Rescue
Off to the side of the field, on the track that circles it, I saw a group of young men in shorts and T-shirts, with a slightly older man holding a clipboard. Thinking he might be a coach at the school, I went up and asked if he knew how long the soccer goals would remain where they were.
It turned out that the clipboard man was not with the school, but rather was a Marine Corps recruiter, who was testing several applicants to see how physically fit they were. He asked me what I wanted, and I explained that I needed to get a photo of the football goalposts without the soccer goal underneath them.
“Oh, we can move that for you,” he said. And he ordered his recruits to push the soccer goal out to the 30-yard-line so I could get on the field and take my picture. The goal was on rollers, but was big enough and heavy enough that Linda and I couldn’t have done it. For seven husky Marines-to-be, it was a piece of cake. I got my cover photo, they pushed the goal back, and we all got about our business.
So when Book Four comes out this fall, there will be a line in the acknowledgements reading, “Thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps, Santa Cruz Recruiting Office, for visual assistance with the cover image.” This is the story behind that acknowledgement.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called Saboteur. It starred Robert Cummings as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in California, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop the Statue of Liberty.
It was maybe the 20th best movie Hitchcock ever made, and is seldom seen today, except at Hitchcock film retrospectives.
In 1959, 17 years later, Hitchcock made a movie called North by Northwest. It starred Cary Grant as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in New York, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop Mount Rushmore.
It’s widely regarded, half a century later, as a masterpiece, one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.
Same Idea; Different Execution
The discerning reader will no doubt have noted that Saboteur and North by Northwest were essentially the same movie. Except that they weren’t, and the contrast between them shows the difference that the execution of an idea makes.
As a mystery novelist, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. My standard reply is that ideas are all over the place and any idiot can find one. The hard part is turning ideas into a coherent story, with lively and interesting characters and details.
In a book, the author has to get everything right without much assistance. In a movie, the actors can make a huge difference. Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, and while he did a capable job, he didn’t hold the screen the way Grant did. Similarly, the villains in the first film were not particularly memorable, whereas James Mason and Martin Landau in the latter gave such vivid performances they immediately come up in the mind’s eye, when you think about the picture.
A Matter of Tone
North by Northwest had a better script, too, credited to Ernest Lehman. The script for Saboteur was nothing to sneer at (Dorothy Parker worked on it, for crying out loud), but about the only line I remember is Cummings’ “Who’d listen to me? I’m just an ordinary guy from Glendale, California,” which was the inspiration for the title of this blog.
The really big difference between the two was the tone. Saboteur was released when America had just entered World War II, and the outcome was far from certain. It dealt with enemy sabotage, and the tone of the picture, despite several engagingly pleasant light moments, was pretty serious. At that point in time, a light-hearted espionage thriller would have been neither appropriate nor well received by audiences.
North by Northwest, on the other hand, is a sure-handed, light-hearted romp from start to finish. The villains are simply villains, the situations are more over-the-top (think of Grant being attacked by a crop duster in the middle of a cornfield), and no one seems surprised by anything. It’s as if Hitchcock saw the story anew and realized, “Ah, this is the way to handle it.” Moviegoers everywhere are delighted he decided on a do-over.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
One of the problems with writing a series of books with the same running character or characters is keeping the stories straight. You might, for instance, have a character who appeared in Book 1 and is now coming back in Book 4, but you can’t remember if in the first book he was selling insurance or real estate.
If you’re lucky, you’ll remember where you put that information in Book 1 and be able to look it up fairly quickly. Or, perhaps, you can slide around the question of the character’s occupation. If not, well, nobody ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.
There’s also a question of dealing with backstory. In the early books of a series, you can make up the backstory as you go along and, if you’re smart, which I wasn’t, make notes on it as you go along in case it comes up again. But another serious issue plagues the writer of serial books. At some point you get into a situation where you need to rely on some backstory that was in an earlier book.
Teasing Without Spoiling
I’m encountering that situation now, in the fourth book of my Quill Gordon mystery series. I’m trying to create a situation where Gordon, my protagonist, is letting go of some issues created in the first book, The McHenry Inheritance, and writing those sequences is a case of threading an extremely fine needle.
If everyone who reads the fourth book has already read the first three, there would be no problem. But that’s never the case. Some readers are scrupulous about reading a series of books in the order written. Others, like me, read whatever books in the series we can get at the time and come back to the others later.
I try to write my books in such a way that each one will stand alone, but also in a way such that a reader who takes them in order will see some growth and development. But there’s one other consideration that looms large in writing these types of backstory scenes.
Oh, No! You Spoiled It!
For readers who haven’t yet read the earlier books, you don’t want to spoil the surprises in them. So if you’re mentioning something in a past book, you need to do it in such a way that the reader who read the earlier book will understand, while the reader who hasn’t read the book can at least get the general picture without missing out on some of the surprises if and when he or she does get to the earlier book.
How, exactly, does the author do this? I don’t know of any magic way. It basically becomes a situation where the author has to say, “I’ve read enough books and written enough words that I think I know more or less how to finesse this.”
Then you do it the best you can. Then you show it to a couple of friends and get their feedback. Then, after all that, you click “Publish” and unloose the book on a waiting and sometimes cruel world. If you’re good, lucky, or both, the stratagem will work well enough and no one will complain. If you didn’t get it right, maybe the readers will let you know, and you’ll have another chance to do it better the next time.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I always loved summertime. In addition to no school, there was a lot to love about it: Hot weather, baseball, swimming pools, fresh fruit, and long nights when it seemed as if you could play forever.
I still recall one particular game of Over-the-Line played at Balboa Elementary School, just down the street from where we lived in Glendale. Our three-player team had racked up a big lead, and the other team was coming up for its final at-bats just as the sun had set.
In the gloaming, every fly ball — every pop fly, even — turned into a potentially lethal missile, nearly impossible to see or catch. We got two outs early, but our invincible lead was melting as an ice cube would have on that same playground two hours earlier. Finally, with the lead down to one run, I snaffled a ground ball for the third out and we won the game.
It was 8:30. We walked home in the dark, laughing.
Plenty to Do After Dinner
I don’t go out and play with friends after dinner anymore, and maybe kids today don’t do it either. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the inexplicable pending ballot initiative to end Daylight Savings Time in California.
But even so, you’d think people would like long summer nights for other reasons. They give you time, when you get home from work, to run some errands, go for a walk, watch the sunset, or do some gardening after dinner. The earlier the sun sets, the less likely you are to do those things.
Look, I get that people don’t like changing time and setting the clock back or forward an hour. It’s a pain and it messes up your sleep patterns for two or three days. But isn’t that small price to pay for those summer nights? If the extra hour at night lets you catch one good sunset you otherwise might have missed, the change was worth it.
An Earlier Wakeup?
The summer solstice is on June 20 this year; sunrise in Santa Cruz that day will be at 5:49 a.m. and sunset at 8:31 p.m. The lingering light will mean you can still see without artificial light until 9 o’clock. That’s with Daylight Savings Time.
On Standard Time, we’d be having sunrise at 4:49 a.m. and sunset at 7:31 p.m. The predawn light means you’d be able to see outside by around 4:20 a.m. I’m sure there are people who would get more done with an extra hour of light in the wee, small hours of the morning, but a whole lot more of us are going to find the light a whole lot more useful in the evening, when we’re awake.
We are now at the beginning of what I call the Hundred Days of Light, the longest hundred days of the year. Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time are both man-made concepts, neither one inherently right or wrong. The critical question is which gives us the best use of those long days. That’s a no-brainer. It’s Daylight Savings Time.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
I once read a mystery novel by a conventionally published author of multiple titles in which four bodies were discovered in a storage locker early on. By the time the book reached its conclusion, there still had been no explanation of who killed the four people and why.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Leaving one murder unaccounted for might charitably be excused as simple carelessness. Leaving the reader in the dark about four corpses borders on gross negligence.
When something like that happens, the reader is left wondering not only about the lack of editing services at the publishing house, but also dissatisfied in a spiritual and existential way. To put it another way, unexplained puzzles are a violation of the author’s compact with the reader and the reader’s expectations.
Better Than Life
Life is random, absurd and chaotic, which is why we expect mystery novels not to be. One of the great pleasures of a mystery novel comes from being confronted by a baffling situation (the crime) and seeing smart, competent people (the detectives) work through the confusion and get everything sorted into place. The comfort of seeing chaos turned to order is one of the reasons for reading these books.
In the classic mysteries of the Golden Age (between the First and Second World Wars), authors took great pains to be sure and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s at the end of the book. They assumed the reader wanted that, and probably no publisher of the time would have accepted a novel that didn’t explain everything (or almost everything) in the final pages.
In the hands of masters like Carr, Christie, and Ellery Queen, the explanations made for gripping reading. They were so tight and plausible that, after reading them, you could find yourself wondering why you hadn’t seen what the detective ultimately saw so clearly.
Sometimes Not So Plausible
Of course, not everyone brought it off as well as the masters. I recall reading one book of that era in which the criminal got into a rowboat during a tide so high it took the water nearly to the top of a 60-foot cliff, enabling the killer to fire a shot from the wave-tossed boat through the windows of the house and plug the unfortunate victim. It was a case of better shooting than plotting.
As a writer of mystery novels in the classical tradition, I do my best to see that a reader gets a good explanation of the crime or crimes by the end of the book. Loose ends belong in bad hair, not mystery novels. You can no longer call all the suspects into the study, as the detectives of the 1920s and 30s routinely did, but you can show the investigation as it develops and leave the reader in no doubt as to how and by whom the crime was committed.
Tying the story up neatly by the end is important in a mystery novel, but so are character development, atmosphere and detail. It’s a challenging time to be practicing in the genre, but some of the old ways are still good ways. If nothing else, the reader should finish the book knowing what happened and why.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
This past weekend I read a mystery novel, as usual, but it was a Kindle book on my iPad so I didn’t need a bookmark. If I had been reading a book of the dead-tree variety, however, it’s good to know that I would have had a wide range of bookmarks to choose from. Boy, would it have been a wide range.
A lot of readers, I know, don’t bother with formal bookmarks. They use grocery receipts, business cards, dollar bills — whatever is at hand. I’ve heard stories of people buying a book at a secondhand bookstore and finding, when they opened it, a large bill inside that had been used as a bookmark. You don’t get that on Kindle.
I, on the other hand, belong to the group of people who collect bookmarks and who look at them as part and parcel of their reading history. Toward that end, I recently took an inventory of my bookmark collection.
Memories of Bookstores Past
The great majority of my bookmarks come from bookstores that give them away as advertising when a customer buys a book. As might be expected, I have a ton of bookmarks from the local bookstores where I regularly shop. That includes Bookshop Santa Cruz, the recently closed Crossroads Books in Watsonville, and River House Books in Carmel.
A few of my bookmarks aren’t from bookstores at all. I have one my sister sent me for a literary magazine that published one of her poems and another from some sort of online organization that claims to connect writers and independent bookstores. And I have a bookmark from Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, where I have never bought or read a book, but have purchased far more breakfast treats than are probably good for me.
And I have a few bookmarks from stores I’ve visited in the past that no longer exist. There’s one from The Book Keeper in West Yellowstone MT (which I last visited in 1989) Toyon Books in Healdsburg CA, Phileas Fogg’s Travel Books in Palo Alto, and Borders, which failed to outlast the local bookstores that were so terrified of it.
Ah, The Places I’ve Been!
I even have a couple of bookmarks from stores I’ve never been to, including City Lights in San Francisco and Stinson Beach Books, just north of the City. Those turned up in secondhand books I bought elsewhere. Not as good a find as a $20 bill, but a find nevertheless.
Of the bookmarks that reflect my travels (and purchases), I come across the following: Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle, Bart’s Books in Ojai CA, Point Reyes Books, The Book Den in Santa Barbara, Gallery Books in Mendocino Twice Told Books in Guerneville CA, and Upper Case Books in Snohomish WA.
And I’m sure if I did a thorough search of the house, I could come up with a dozen more.
Finally, there’s a special class of bookmarks: the two I paid for. One was purchased at the Oxford University bookstore in 1990 and shows an image of the college, with no additional information. The other was bought at a stationery store in Venice in 2009. Not bad souvenirs, when you come to think of it. They cost almost nothing and last a really long time if only you can manage to avoid losing them.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
No author ever sets out to make a mistake, and no author ever writes a perfect book. That’s the case with fiction and nonfiction books, both of which I’ve written. A book is simply too big a project to be bug-free.
In a work of nonfiction, many mistakes are indisputable. The author spells someone’s name wrong or gets a date wrong. The author’s interpretations of the facts can also be wrong, but these are subject to endless debate and need not concern us at the moment.
The question of accuracy in fiction similarly involves considerable ambiguity and openness to interpretation. The author wants to get details right, obviously, but if she has a certain type of pistol ejecting its shell casings when that type of pistol in fact doesn’t, how important is the mistake? I’d argue (and some would argue otherwise) that as long as she’s not writing a forensic-investigation novel and plays fair with the reader about the clue of the shell casings, it’s a pretty minor error.
The Intentional ‘Mistake’
Fiction being fiction, authors are free to imagine things that don’t exist. Suppose a mystery writer was setting a story in a clearly identified national park, using many of its real elements as part of the tale. Then suppose said author gave said park a fictitious old lodge that the real park doesn’t have, in order to provide a place for suspects, victims and more ambiguous characters to mingle. Would that be a mistake?
Of course not. It’s fiction, and as long as the author acknowledges that it was done intentionally for the sake of the story, where’s the harm? The important thing in a piece of fiction is that the imaginary world is true to itself and in the larger sense reflective of the real world in some way.
I got to thinking along these lines last week, as I was working on my fourth mystery novel. I’ve gotten into the habit of showing the new book to Linda piece by piece as I write it. She often catches typos and raises points about characters and facts. It’s very helpful, really.
The Mistake That Wasn’t
Looking over a recent passage, she came to a scene where I had one of the characters driving a certain type of Subaru station wagon and promptly told me Subaru didn’t make such a wagon. Trying to get it right, I had looked that up on Wikipedia beforehand and found that they did make such a wagon in the early to mid 1990s, and that since the story was set in 1997, the character could indeed have quite plausibly been driving one.
And then I got to thinking. Suppose I hadn’t looked it up, had been wrong about the model, and the mistake had made it into the book. If someone had pointed out the mistake to me, I would have been annoyed at having made it and made a note to myself to be more careful the next time.
If, on the other hand, someone had made the criticism that the character in question didn’t seem to be the sort of person who would drive a Subaru, I’d have been gobsmacked because I would stand accused of not being true within my fictional world.
I raised the point with Linda a couple of days later, and she got what I was saying. She also reassured me on the point I considered important, saying of the character in my book, “She’s definitely the sort of person who’d be driving a Subaru.”
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
The death of Joe Garagiola last month, brings us closer to the end of the era of iconic baseball players. Not that Garagiola was a great player himself (though he was better than he pretended to be later on), but he belonged to the last generation of ball players who played when baseball was the national pastime and its practitioners were the princes of the sports world.
As a member of what may be the last generation to widely and seriously collect baseball cards, I feel the passage of that time. The first ten years of my life, baseball was the American sport. Ten years later it was supplanted by football. Baseball still does well as a niche sport, but it probably will never be the national game again.
Probably the turning point came in 1959, the year after the famous NFL championship game (no Super Bowls back then) in which Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to a comeback win over the New York Giants. That game drove the NFL forward, and it never looked back.
Growing Up In Between
In 1959, I was nine years old and beginning to seriously follow baseball for the first time. The great players of that era, nearly all gone now, are the ones I remember fondly. Ted Williams and Stan Musial were nearing the end of their careers, as were two of my Dodger heroes, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were in their prime. It was in 1959 that Sandy Koufax struck out 18 San Francisco Giants on Aug. 31 and gave us a glimpse of what was to come.
My father took me to Dodger games in Los Angeles, but he liked football more. Probably that had something to do with growing up in the South. In 1959 there might be one college football game on TV each Saturday and a pro game on Sunday. It was a condition today’s sports fan can barely comprehend.
Radio broadcasts of baseball held more sway then than they do now. When the Dodgers came to Los Angeles, they were on KMPC radio the first couple of years. They then moved to KFI, a 50,000-watt clear-channel station with a signal so strong we once picked it up after dark in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and caught the tail end of Koufax’s first no-hitter.
Last Man Standing
Think of the Hall of Famers who were stars in 1959, and you realize that few are still alive. Mays and Aaron, for sure, and Frank Robinson. Among pitchers, only Whitey Ford comes to mind, unless you count Koufax, who hadn’t really hit his stride yet.
Whenever I see an obituary of one of the great ball players of that era, a piece of me dies along with it. Those passings are still big news because there are a lot of people who remembered seeing them play at a time when Major League Baseball was the big thing in sports. We mourn not only the players, but the primacy of the sport they played as well.
When the Hall of Famers from the 1970s onward begin to die in significant numbers, they will no doubt get decent obituaries in The New York Times (assuming the Times is still around), but it won’t feel the same. They’ll be mourned as the superb athletes they were, but not as American icons. They played the wrong game at the wrong time for that.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
In the past week my email inbox has been brimming with correspondence from a number of old friends.
I’ve heard from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Kristen Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Chelsea Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Wendy Davis, James Carville, Barney Frank, Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Boxer, and Congressman Pete Aguilar.
And those are just the individuals staying in touch. I’m also hearing from organizations like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, End Citizens United and EMILY’s List.
What can I tell you? I’m a popular guy with a lot of famous friends who all love me for one thing.
They want my money.
The Mother’s Milk of Politics
It’s getting to be tiresome. I understand that it takes money to run a political campaign, and that, as former California Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh used to say, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Thus has it always been and always will be.
But if my experience is any indication, it has been accelerating out of control lately.
It seems as if almost every day, there’s a deadline of some sort for raising X number of dollars to keep Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or some other Republican villain du jour from destroying America as we know it. All I have to do to stop that is give a dollar or two or three.
Of course, no sooner have the funds been raised to stave off the crisis at hand than there’s a new crisis and a new deadline the following week. It never ends.
It’s a technological problem, in some ways. In the old days, they’d have had to send a letter and pay for paper, envelopes and postage. That had the effect of imposing some restraint. A blast email costs nothing but the expense of having some hack write it, so there’s no reason to hold back from sending as many as possible — to the point of ridiculousness.
Can’t Smell the Ordure
Now I realize Democrats feel they have to target smaller donors to offset some of the bigger contributors the Republicans get. But even so: Do the people who send all these emails have any idea how obnoxious and offensive the ordinary citizen finds them? How truly sickened most people are that our political system has become an endless pursuit of dollars?
Probably not. I think today’s political operatives have been living in the outhouse for so long it smells like a rose to them. I’m reminded of the story of former California Governor Gray Davis, who was asked by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters what politician he most admired and why?
I forget who the politician was, but I’ll never forget the why. Davis said he admired the individual he named because no matter how busy a day he’d had, the man always found time to make 100 fund-raising calls each night.
That’s not exactly what you’d call a profile in courage.
Years ago, I saw Louis Malle’s film Phantom India, and a scene that has stuck with me ever since was the image of a swarm of beggars approaching the camera with their hands out. These days I feel as if I’m revisiting that image every time I check my inbox. Our politics has become a beggar’s opera, and we’re all worse off for it.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
For the past year, I’ve been phasing out my business. In February, I turned 66, and while my health is pretty good and I enjoy what I’ve done for a living the past quarter century, I want to spend more time on my mystery novels and do more traveling with Linda, now that she’s retired.
At the same time, I don’t want to give it up entirely. Not yet, anyway. So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to cut back while keeping a hand in it. My recent experience with emergency surgery only served to remind me of the uncertainty of life and the importance of taking steps to make sure I’m doing what I want to for the rest of it.
In retiring, but not really, I have one advantage. I’ve been a consultant with a number of clients, which gives me some leeway in terms of cutting back to just a few and working for them until they or I decide not to do it anymore.
50 Ways to Leave Your Business
The scaling-down process began at the end of 2014, when I decided to stop looking for new clients. If someone specifically sought me out (and, to my surprise, that actually happened a few times), I’d consider it, but I wasn’t going to do any more selling and would concentrate on existing clients.
Within that group, there were a few who were probably on the way out, whether from change in personnel, selling a business, or simply moving in a direction where my services weren’t going to be that important anymore. In a few instances like that, I decided to take the initiative and break it off myself, letting them know I was moving into retirement. I sense that a couple of them seemed relieved that I’d spared them an impending awkwardness.
Finally, I gave some thought to the question of the qualities of a client I’d still like to work for, given that I don’t really need the money, but still want to do a little bit of what I think I’ve done well for a number of years. I came up with three qualities for a retirement, or semi-retirement client.
It Has to Be Interesting
The first is that the work has to be interesting and not unduly stressful. Being of a curious disposition anyway, I’ve found all my work interesting to one degree or another, but clients who have long-term need for someone available at the drop of a hat, who have jobs with short deadlines and a lot of people to work with, are clients I can do without these days.
Second, the people have to be good to work with. I’ve never had clients who were total jerks because I don’t put up with that. But people who can’t make up their minds, who don’t reply to emails or return phone calls, who make a job too cumbersome are people I can do without these days.
And finally, they have to be clients who pay on time. Chasing down unpaid bills is probably the number one drawback of having your own business, and I’m over it. If you can’t get me a check within three weeks of my sending an invoice, find someone else to do your work.
And looking over those last three paragraphs, it just dawned on me. This is how it should have been all along.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
In the recent Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies there’s an early scene in which Tom Hanks talks about insurance. He’s having a civil debate over drinks with another attorney about whether an accident that kills several people should be counted as several occurrences, with the insurance company liable for each one, or as one occurrence, with the insurance for the accident covering the maximum amount per occurrence, regardless of the number of deaths and injuries.
I’m assuming the scene was put in to show — prior to Hanks defending a Soviet spy and later negotiating the release of an American spy pilot — that the character had a keen legal mind, which would come into play as the drama progressed.
But even so: Talking about insurance law? That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do in a big-budget movie aimed at a wide popular audience. After all, what if the insurance debate put people to sleep?
He Believed in Himself
Now I’m guessing again, but I suspect Spielberg had enough faith in himself, Hanks, and the Coen brothers (who wrote the dialogue) to feel that he could put that scene in the movie and not lose his audience. In fact, by developing the character, he might have pulled at least some viewers deeper into the film. It certainly made a positive impression on me.
Spielberg is a master story teller, and job one for a story teller is to make it interesting. An awful lot of terrific story ideas have never become good books or movies because the artists couldn’t get the details of story telling right. It has a lot to do with pacing, weaving together the threads of the story, and imparting information at the right time in an effective way. Not many people can do it.
Adding detailed information that doesn’t immediately move the story forward is even harder. It can be worth doing because character development and creating a sense of mood or place can make a story richer and more memorable. Think, for example, of Dickens taking two pages to describe the howling storm that rages on the night Magwitch returns to London to see Pip again in Great Expectations.
I’ll Take the Details
It’s hard to say how typical I am, but I’m one of the readers who wants a bit of detail. If a murder takes place during a bird-watching expedition, I want the author to tell me something about bird watching and why it exerts a spell on its followers. If characters are regularly meeting in their favorite bar, I want the author to tell me a bit about the bar, because in doing so, the author is telling me more about the characters.
These days I read a lot of books where detail of that sort is missing. And at one level I can understand the reasons. An author or filmmaker understandably wants to keep the story going and the pace as fast as possible, and, let’s face it, a lot of times the extra details are laid out in a way that doesn’t work. So why pause to admire the scenery when it’s so easy to have more action?
A good story teller, and one with a sense of depth and breadth, is more likely, however, to say something along these lines: I find it interesting, and if it’s interesting to me, I think I can make it interesting for everybody else. And then does just that. Is it a skill that can be taught? I rather doubt it.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
They still had a functioning linotype machine in the composing room when I started work at the newspaper in 1972. It was gradually being overtaken by early versions of computerized typesetting (CompuGraphic was the brand name), and eventually the linotype machine was painted over and put by the front door as a sort of freestanding sculpture that would have scared the entrails out of any competent liability attorney.
We didn’t have computers in the newsroom. What we had were typewriters, and some pretty ancient ones at that. Most were Underwoods, with a couple of Royals thrown in. We used them to type our stories on cheap paper that still had chunks of wood floating in it.
When the stories were complete, we didn’t hit a “send” button, we took the paper out of the typewriter, arranged the pages in order, and pushed the corners of them over a sharp metal spike on the managing editor’s desk. A couple of people perforated their thumbs trying to do that.
Composing a Story on the Fly
There were reporters at the county seat in Santa Cruz, and there were other times when reporters were out in the field and had to get a story in under deadline. Today, they’d write them on a laptop and email them in. Back then, the stories had to be dictated.
What that meant was that the reporter would call in to the office, sometimes from a pay phone, and dictate a story to another reporter, who was cradling a phone receiver on one shoulder and typing the story. I’ve always felt that the ability to dictate a story cleanly was one of the great journalistic skills of the time. Not many people could do it well back then, and I suspect hardly anyone could do it now if forced to.
It’s hard enough to keep a story straight when you have it in front of you and can check it. When you can’t see the story and have to remember exactly what you said — well, let’s just say that takes an awful lot of concentration. An almost inhuman amount, really.
One of the Best There Was
I got to thinking about dictation recently when I saw one of our former reporters, Lee Quarnstrom, a couple of months back. He was in Santa Cruz, plugging When I Was a Dynamiter, his memoir, which had a large focus on the time he spent with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s.
That’s not the sort of background you’d expect to produce a mind so clear and focused that its owner could almost seamlessly dictate a 750-word story, on a tight deadline, complete with paragraphing and punctuation. Lee did it all the time. Other reporters needed a lot of help from the news staffer typing the story, but with Lee, you could just type what he was saying and make only the slightest of changes later.
Years later, when he was working for the San Jose Mercury, Lee described how a computer guru came to the Santa Cruz news office and explained the benefits of the new computer system, especially how it allowed you to move paragraphs and rewrite things easily. Lee said he didn’t need all that because he just sat down and wrote the story from beginning to end.
“Oh,” sniffed the computer guru condescendingly. “You must have learned to write on a typewriter.”
Damn straight, and he and the rest of us who did were better writers for the experience. It’s one clear case of how an improvement in technology isn’t entirely an improvement.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
In the past couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of being invited to two book club meetings that were discussing one of my mystery novels. It was a great experience, and one that gave me a bit of an insight into how the books are being read by typical readers.
The first book club met on January 10 and was discussing my second novel, Wash Her Guilt Away. The meeting began with the playing of the video trailer for the book, and, since he had a cameo role in the trailer, the retired local police chief was also invited to the event.
About a dozen people were on hand, and it turned out a couple of them were fly fishermen. As the book is set during a fly-fishing vacation, that gave something to talk about, and they showed pictures of fish they had caught. They were bigger fish than I usually catch, but let’s skip the sour grapes.
The Question I Didn’t Expect
A certain amount of the discussion at this meeting (and at the other, as well) had to do with questions about how I write the books and where I get my ideas. My general answer to that question is that as a writer I’m always stockpiling material and ideas and that once I start to map out a story line, things begin to fuse together into a semi-coherent whole.
Even so, there were questions I wasn’t expecting. One that threw me for a loop came from a man in the group who said he didn’t understand why a successful 55-year-old businessman would be attracted to a 27-year-old woman. (They were already married when the story began and were two of the key characters.)
Of all the things in the book that I never expected to have to explain, that would top the list. As I sat there trying to formulate a tactful response, one of the women in the group came to my rescue.
“Oh, come on,” she said, and made a hand gesture with an unmistakable meaning. I thanked her under my breath.
Just Among Rotarians
Last week, I went to the second book club. It was formed by members of a nearby Rotary Club (not the one I belong to) and was discussing my first novel, The McHenry Inheritance.
The club has ten members, but on that blustery, rainy winter night only four showed up. I knew them all, and it was a convivial experience. They had some good questions and comments.
The lone man in the group analyzed the ending of the book, using the Rotary Four-Way Test: Is it the truth; is it fair to all concerned; will it build goodwill and better friendships; and is it beneficial to all concerned. It was a way of looking at the ending that hadn’t occurred to me, but at the same time showed that he had been considering the moral complexity of it.
And there was a make my day moment, too. One of the women in the group said that when I published the book three and a half years earlier, and sent out emails to everyone I knew, she decided to buy it, even though she’d never bought an e-book before. It took her a while to get it on her iPad and be able to read it, but she persevered and said she loved the book.
Now that’s what I call a loyal customer.