Friday, December 21, 2007


If it's true that a writer's muse visits only when writing -- not when researching, planning, thinking of characters -- how do you make sure you get to that point? How do you set the table for the muse, create the forest to set yourself to wander, to work, to commune with said muse?

Or, to put it basely, where to the ideas come from?

Mocked persistently as the most annoying question asked of authors, I think there's a very real question of process here, one that I have no idea how to address.

I've written two complete novels, a sixty some thousand word portion of another (I stopped short of writing about the actual apprehension of the bad guy), and forty three thousand words of a thriller that I parked when I realized I didn't have a good way to introduce hero to villain; they were leading parallel plot lines.

Deep in my gut I've always been thankful that novels take so long to write because I have no idea how to cultivate the story for the next book. It either seems to be there or not. History has shown me that if I do nothing, something inevitably presents itself every couple of years. This isn't good enough.

And what's even more frustrating is that while I'm writing a book there doesn't seem to be any shortage of ideas for the next one, but when it's time to do something with them things invariably seem different. The serial condemnations start: seems too familiar, seems too out there, not exciting enough, too pulp magazine-like. In short, it feels like there's nothing to add to the pot that someone else hasn't already stirred in.

At some point I'll bottom out and start thinking rationally. It will occur to me that wehn I think about the plots of recent books I've read, most of them aren't awash with originality. it's the writing, the style, the ways the stories unfold. It's the characters, the dialogue, movement of the text. In short, it's how fun it is to read.

I suspect the curse comes from wanting to be original, to bring something fresh and unique into the world, while at the same time not being so out there that there's no readily available audience (whatever that means). And then realizing you probably can't do it, no matter how you try.

But, you realize, that doesn't seem to stop anyone else. That doesn't keep thousands of books from being published each year, most of which, at best, could be considered only mild diversions.

I've never experienced writer's block while I'm working on a book; I have a hard time imagining how it could happen. But between books, oh, man, I'm half frozen with a self-paralyzing mixture of fear and self-doubt. I censor myself into inactivity.

Perhaps this is why so many writers of popular fiction write one or two wonderful books and then slide into the endless parroting of their own formulas. They surmounted the hump, they climbed to the top of their own Everests, and now the only thing is to butt slide down. After all, that takes far less originality and courage, doesn't it?

"It was a dark and stormy night..." Hmmm.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Another Log

I made a few remarks about Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader a week or so back. Since then, my buddy's boss posted an entry on his own blog about how he views the Kindle as analogous to the iPod. I don't think so, and I posted the following as a response (I think it makes sense as a standalone entry and hopefully invites comments of its own). At the risk of being walking over the same ground twice, here it is:

I've always thought that the iPod blew up more or less because of timing and Apple's cachet. The user base for MP3 players had reached a certain point so that when Apple jumped in with their cool and groovy marketing and a catchy name (the only MP3 player at the time to have a name that didn't mean something else (i.e. Jukebox, Zen); an iPod could only be an iPod), the flash point took over. That kind of environment doesn't exist for e-books now; there isn't a dry forest for the Kindle to ignite.

I don't think the interface or method of obtaining content is a big obstacle to widespread adoption. While I think this is the Kindle's strongest feature when compared to other readers, I'm not convinced that this is all that big an issue regardless. Comparing MP3 software of years ago to ebook reading
software of today seems out of synch; comparing any computer-to-portable-device software of ten years ago and today makes sense. Initial releases today are much more mature out of the gate. Sure it's simpler to eliminate the computer but it certainly isn't necessary. My guess is that beyond the initial downloading it's a lot easier to manage your e-library on a computer than on the device itself.

A Kindle book at $9.99 is only cheaper than a new book or one that's currently only available in hardcover. And there are no twenty five dollar books at Amazon: a $24.95 hardcover sells for $14.97. Sure, the Kindle version is still cheaper than that but when compared to a $7.99 mass market paperback, the math works the other way. So the price advantage is a very limited one. And if price were the main consideration, there'd be a lot more people patronizing the library.

To me the bottom line is that as a delivery device, the Kindle is way overpriced. Couple that with book prices that are more expensive than mass market paperbacks and I don't think this device is going to do much widening of the e-reader audience. This is neither a "give away the razor and make money on the blades" scenario or one where there is simply an improved value to the consumer. I'll either buy cheaper books (used, mass market) or pay $15 for a first edition hardcover (just five bucks higher than the Kindle price).

Unless something changes radically in the publishing industry, I think the Kindle is fated to appeal to the same group as the existing e-book readers, namely literate technophiles. Commuters, travelers, or people like me with an eye issue (I use my Sony with the large font size to rehab one of my eyes), may want one but as for attracting new users, there's not enough there to sway the reading community away from actual books.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Thin Men

And now, back to our regularly scheduled book-related blog...

A recent Men's Journal magazine did a feature on the top fifteen thrillers of all time. Up near the top they listed Elmore Leonard's "Killshot" but prefaced it by saying that if they hadn't decided to limit each author to one entry on the list, that Elmore might easily dominate it. The surprising thing to me was that he was even on the list, let alone an overshadowing figure.

I'm not writing this to pick on Leonard. He seems to enjoy an incredible reputation, especially among other authors, and is also famous for how-to advice such as his recommendation to leave out the things that readers would rather skip.

The thing is that to me, people like Leonard, Robert B. Parker, and others (I want to try to be less pointed in my criticisms) do what they do well; snappy and realistic dialogue, create interesting characters, have quick-moving plots. But their books come off as thin, the literary equivalent of something skin-deep, a gentle caress versus a deep tissue massage. There's more on the surface than below and the reading, while entertaining, isn't terribly engaging.

I wonder if it has to do with how prolific these writers are. Some of them seem to use the plots over and over again or even borrow from other writers. Most of the writers I'm thinking of have written dozens of books and are very commercially successful. I think at heart the issue is simply that the plots are simply not that interesting. Could it be that they've place so much emphasis on their characters that whether or not they get hammered at night is more important than what they did earlier in the day?

When I read these books, which I do occasionally to confirm whether or not I'm missing anything, it's always the same experience. Fast reads, fun to a point, but at then end I feel like I ate half a dozen doughnuts for dinner: I want more, just not more of that.

Recently Ed Gorman has been talking about (on his blog) how some friends of his find John D. MacDonald's books "too wordy," causing anyone over forty or so to scratch their heads and say, "Huh?" Well, compared to Leonard or Parker, they probably are. I wonder if these guys have been brought along on a steady diet of James Patterson or Dean Koontz or Stephen King popcorn. If that's true, it may be logical to assume that at some point they'd be ready to move past the hors d'oeuvres and move on to a main course of James Lee Burke or even Dick Francis.

Other than that, I'm not sure what "too wordy" means. You expect the plot to move primarily through dialogue? You want pages with more white space? You want fewer pages? I would like to think that keeping one entertained is not something tied to wordiness or word count or anything like that. And that if I do get through a book, it makes more of an impression and satisfies more than teases, than these perennial bestsellers and Thin Men.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Synthesized Humbug

For whatever reason, the few radio stations available up here in this small corner of the frozen northeast play a preponderance of Elton John songs. Not since a high school ski trip to Montana have I heard the airwaves so continuously battered by an artist and/or songs I really don't like (in 1980 it was Neil Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans" that raged across Big Sky country).

For the holiday season it's not enough for one station to go all Christmas music all the time, but it seems like they all did it. And if this is what I have to listen to, does so much of it have to be Mannheim Steamroller? Give me Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, even the Ray Conniff Singers, but take away the synthesizers (and the Elton John) and my holiday would burn a bit brighter.

Bah, humbug. Just saying.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Media Depression

Am I alone in saying that the constant media exposure, the 24/7 news channels, ESPN, the Weather Channel -- all the outlets that bombard us with a constant barrage of stories within their respective purviews -- depress the hell out of me. Good news doesn't sell like bad news and I'm sick of all the scary stuff, especially with an election year coming up. Bottom line, I'm tired of people either telling me how I should think or why I should think it.

If I watch the news about global warning, how can I not think we're screwed? Forget about eliminating pollution, we can't even agree to cut back on emissions twenty years from now. Require better gas mileage? Un-American. But do your part and change to fluorescent light bulbs; they last a lot longer and use a lot less juice.

But they're made in China, where 70% of their surface water and 90% of their underground water are polluted, and where their own government blames millions of deaths a year on poor air quality. Instead of us harming the environment with incandescent bulbs, we can use the Chinese to do it by proxy. It seems like a viable way of "going green" would be to not patronize goods from China.

And what do you do about the mercury in the fluorescent bulbs when they do finally burn out?

A news banner yesterday told me that Hilary Clinton feels the estate tax is important to the concept that Americans want a meritocracy. Huh? So the government is entitled to forty percent of what I make, even after I've paid taxes on it when I was alive, in order to protect society from my children being better off than I was? If my son and daughter can live their lives without worrying about retirement, down payments on houses, job security and health care to the degree that I do because I can leave them some loot, then down with the meritocracy. Of course if I got filthy, Hilton rich, it would be okay. Getting a little rich is not. Taxation as a means to keep me from elevating my children to a higher standard of living? Give me a break. Why comments like that do not drive her from public office of any sort I will never understand.

The Mitchell report was released today, naming names from all thirty baseball teams. Sadly, this isn't all that depressing because, um, didn't we all know these guys were guilty? When Barry Bonds used to look like me and now he looks like the Michelin Man, guess what? Those weren't milk shakes he's drinking.

There's only a weak point here, if any. Turn off the TV. Vote with your dollars, vote with your conscience, and vote the bums out. And I know this won't help a damned thing but I'm boycotting my viewership of next summer's Beijing Olympics. The world scares me and I owe it mostly to television. I know, I'll read more books...

Now that may be possible.

The Third Atrocity

To complete my list of Three Most Evil Acts I've Perpetrated Upon Others, I offer this, a sad tale of intrigue and betrayal set in the world of skydiving. But since it's kind of arcane, I'll be brief...

I don't know what the current world record is for the largest single formation (my last hurrah was as a sub-organizer of the record breaking 220 way) but for a few years the holy grail was a hundred person formation (I believe when I started jumping the record was 60). One year, at the U.S. Nationals in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a group made several attempts at the elusive 100.

I was a young up and comer at that point, small town boy with talent but little national experience. One of the big boys, a current national and world champion, took notice of me and checked me out over a series of jumps. Evidently he also did a kind of background check by asking other people about me.

Anyway, on an attempt at the record, this guy wanted another guy off the jump but he was outvoted by the main organizer. Not only did he think this guy was detrimental to the jump, he had apparently shown some kind of interest in the daughter of another jumper's girlfriend. Since there was a thirty year (or so) age difference, this wasn't sitting too well.

I didn't then nor do I know now the truth of the matter. I do know that the girl in question was, shall we say, precocious in the ways of men and women but that in no way excuses the behavior of a forty year old man who should no better regardless of anything else.

So my new friend recruited me to shaft this guy and get him off the record attempts. His plan was diabolically simple. He arranged the exit order from the plane so that our target was just in front of me and my new partner was just behind. Rather than follow each other rapidly but orderly down to the formation, he wanted us to blow the doors off and scream past the target. The theory was that it would so fluster the boob that not only would he look bad on the exit but that he'd rush his approach and either blow it completely by not docking or else hit the thing hard and embarrass himself right off the load.

Well, it worked. Honestly, though, his exit was so poor it would have been hard not to pass him, even though the instructions given to everyone on the jump were to follow the person in front of them. So the guy was not only off this load, he was off all the later attempts as well.

I don't remember what that formation built to (I think it got to somewhere in the nineties) and I ended up watching the rest of the attempts from the ground as my team had decided that since all of us were not invited on the attempts that none of us should participate (I was the only one this affected, go figure). Anyway, the next attempts were made in Vancouver and then somewhere else when the goal was finally reached. I was somewhere else for that one, too.

So I helped screw the one guy out of his glory. At the time I followed orders without question but I never felt good about it. To this day I still feel ambivalent. Who the hell was I to do such a thing to a guy that I kind of knew and was friendly with on a casual basis?

This is the only one of my three Evil Acts that doesn't make me chuckle when I think of it. All these years later I'm still ambivalent, neither proud nor satisfied that I did the right thing. Likely I was just a putz and had allowed myself to be manipulated and that is perhaps all I can really take from the thing. I tell you what, though, I never did anything like that ever again.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spontaneous Commission

So I finished writing the current novel a few weeks ago. I've set it aside for a bit so that I can forget it, so that I can read it as a reader and not have my brain skim over and be careless because I'm too familiar with the words. This is definitely more draft quality than finished piece and the problem is that I'm not a natural re-writer. I will have some pain to go through. I always have the feeling that once I've written something, even just once, I've already told the story and working on it again and again diminishes something in the process. I wish I could help it but I don't think I can.

In the meantime, though, I want to work on the next book but I don't know what it should be. I have over forty three thousand words of the book I had started working on before this one; I stopped there because I had begun writing it without a clear picture of what the central conflict would be. As I went on, it became clear that both the protagonist and the antagonist had strong story arcs of there own but there wasn't anything in the story that would put them in opposition. At least not in any convincing way that I could think of.

I'd like to salvage something from that effort, which would probably entail creating a new hero (I like the bad guy too much to dump him) and a new story idea. But I don't have this at hand and I'm jonesing for the daily writing of actual pages.

I kicked around a beginning for what would be a sequel to the just completed book but I can't quite commit to the effort. On the one hand it would be easy because the characters already exist but on the other, I still need a story to tell. I wrote a couple thousand words where some guy in a small town unloads a story about the murder and mutilation of his friend to my protagonist. He doesn't want to hear it and steams off to his rented room above a store along the small main street in town. I know his voice and I think this book would need to stay in the first person in order to be consistent with the last one but I miss writing in the third person.

And I've always wondered about new authors who plan to write a series. What if you can't sell the first one? You probably sure as hell can't sell the second and third no matter how much better they may be as books or how much better you may have become as a writer.

I know from many "false starts" through the years that you can't just start writing for writing's sake, you have to have some idea as to what the core book is about and what you want to say. You have to know a certain bit about your characters and what their individual voices are. I call all this the prep work and it's important, especially at the stage where I'm at now (whatever it is). It doesn't matter how well you can say something if you don't have anything actually worth saying.

So I'm waffling right now. I'm hoping there will come a day when I can develop an idea for a book easily as opposed to the hell I go through now. There are so many things you want to accomplish with each book: a certain uniqueness, a freshness, characters that aren't cliched, that you can relate to but that haven't been written over and over many times by many authors, a certain style to the structure, and to the writing. In other words, not the same old thing but not something so different as to be unrecognizable. Cliches in fiction maintain because once upon a time they weren't cliches; they may be tired now but they still work in some structural fashion. When you throw them out you have to replace them with something different that fills the same function.

Much easier said then done. I want to write when I need to plan. My wife says I'm tormenting myself. I'm sure it must all seem so easy from the outside but there you go. At times the writing life is an incredibly personal hell. Now that sounds like a cliche. I should throw it out and start over.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bad TV Viewing

Tony Little is on HSN right now pushing yet another piece of fitness equipment that he likely had nothing to actually do with during its design and development. Right not its a home gym, earlier it was a pillow to allow good sleeping. My point for the fitness equipment shilling is that geez, does anybody out there want to look like Tony Little? He's rounded and curved, not flat and chiseled. But, oh, what a ponytail.

I tried to watch some of SciFi's Wizard of Oz remake, "Tin Man." Couldn't do it. The girl that plays Dorothy, er, "DG", is wearing a mop for a hairstyle, bell bottom pants from the seventies, and doesn't move her arms when she walks (like Raquel Welch in "Seinfeld"). The scarecrow looks like a prettified Marilyn Manson and the actress playing the Wicked Witch looks like she bought a leftover nose from the shop Michael Jackson used to go to.

I used to like "Reasonable Doubts" with Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin. Before that show, Harmon always seemed to me kind of quirky and lost, a lightweight. In that series he played a detective to Matlin's D.A. character with the strange name of Dickie Cobb. But he was a tough guy and he was serious and he was compelling. He made me a fan, which is quite something for an actor who chose to play Ted Bundy in a TV biopic. Now he's starring in NCIS, a show I actually looked for on Tuesday nights. They've shuffled female leads over the past few seasons and I just can't watch the new one. It seems like they keep hiring actresses who look like the previous one and the effect is like a copy of a copy of a copy. Kills the show for me.

What's the point of all this? I feel petty making these observations and I'm not proud. Clearly, I'm too superficial for television. Can you believe I've been a Nielsen reporter twice? This is why I stick to books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


I'll get to my third evil act later...

I could write pages and pages about e-books and what I think of them, the readers, and the future of mankind. I don't really feel like doing that anymore than anyone else would probably want to read it. A friend of mine, though, recently had a chance to put his hands on Amazon's new horribly named Kindle device, and his boss apparently told him he thought it would do for e-books what Apple's iPod did for MP3 players. I don't think so. So here's a small bit on why...

First of all, I think the biggest factor in whatever popularity e-books enjoy may very well be the "self-fulfilling prophecy" angle. Technologically proficient people assume that since technology can do something, that it eventually will. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't; that's part of the larger argument I'm trying to avoid here. There is a niche market, though: commuters, travelers, and people like me (I had eye surgery - I use a Sony eReader to spend two or three sessions every day, eye patch over one eye, to try to counter the effects of amblyopathy - I didn't want to start a library of large print books (they're expensive) and I either read books in the public domain or the ones that came with it). But will it "kindle" the industry?

What Apple did was come up with a name for their MP3 player that didn't have any other meaning (i.e. Zen, Jukebox). This helped give them an identity that other manufacturers lacked. With iTunes they gave non-techies a simple way to populate the thing with songs.

The crux of my point is that the groundwork had been laid by other products and technologies for a number of years before the iPod was introduced. That groundwork wasn't an underground movement, it wasn't unreported or obscure, and it made the consumer base aware that there was a new electronic device suitable for playing music. It's very important to note that playing music has always required an electric/electronic device; an MP3 player was merely an incremental advance.

As far as e-book readers go, no such groundwork exists. Instead of the device being an incremental improvement or "new" option for reading books, it's radically different in that traditional book reading doesn't require a device of any sort; it requires a book. Being able to wirelessly download content may be compelling, but my guess is that only for that small segment of people that have already bought into e-books (commuters, travelers, pirates) but this is NOT the reading community at large. It better not ever be or we will all be in trouble.

I love my Sony eReader. I can increase the text size for my eye/brain therapy and I can read the works of G. K. Chesterton from Project Guttenberg for nothing. This is a very good thing and I've saved a ton of money over either buying large print books I don't want or else going to the library to read large print books I'd rather not.

It might be nice to be able to buy a book wirelessly if I actually bought e-books. Aside from the fact that they're more expensive than mass market paperbacks (explain that to me), Amazon charges for each page you upload that you didn't actually buy. Rather than promote e-books this seems more in line with hurting public domain ones. The Kindle is a transport mechanism and to the extent you hamper my ability to transport what I want, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

I'll stop. I think I'm rambling. I wrote a few notes the other night and pasted them in here and I'm not really taking the time to ensure cohesiveness. If that bothers you, and you were reading this on a Kindle or an eReader, you could throw it in the sand or at the wall or spill your drink on it in disgust. But then your "book" would be ruined.