Friday, April 25, 2008

Short Story conclusion


All the way home and all through his dinner Tobey considered as rationally as he could. While he still didn’t know exactly what it was they were up to, he had identified at least one of the people against him. But they had the advantage of time, he thought; the wheels of their plot had been likely turning since well before last Tuesday when his shorts were taken. After all, 414 couldn’t have just moved in, exactly two floors above Tobey, Tuesday afternoon in time to rendezvous with his laundry. That would be crazy.

The most important thing he’d done, he thought, was not tip his hand. He may not know much about 414, or her possible connection with Elizabeth, or any of the rest of it, but he was reasonably sure they didn’t know he knew something bad was happening, something wrong.

At seven forty five, slowly and deliberately, he collected all of tonight’s laundry in his ancient wicker basket. He didn’t know what else to do but forge ahead with his routine. He didn’t want to tip them off and he certainly didn’t want to play sitting duck all alone in his apartment just waiting for god knows what to happen. He put his plastic bottle of detergent on the top, along with his fabric softener, and at five minutes to eight left his apartment.

Sometimes he took the stairs down to the first floor, but not usually. Not wanting to possibly find himself alone in the elevator with one of his opponents, at least not on laundry night, he decided to risk the walk. It wasn’t such a big break in his routine.

Once Tobey made the laundry room without incident, he nodded to a woman he knew as a Mrs. McAdams who had just finished loading the complex’s two dryers. She said good evening and squeezed out the door, her plastic basket squished against her side.

This was okay, thought Tobey. Mrs. McAdams had lived there longer than he had so it was unlikely she was part of the plot. Since the dryer cycles ran longer than the washers’, though, his own clothes were going to have to wait their turn again. Just like last Tuesday.

With a trickle of sweat working its way down the back of Tobey’s neck, he fed his clothes into the two waiting washers. One for dark, the other for whites. Now that he’d committed to maintaining his normal routine, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow becoming more of a spectator than a participant.

When the sweating grew worse and he began to shake, he checked his watch and went back to his apartment. He’d be back in eighteen minutes, the same as always. Nothing unusual going on here.

* * *

Except for a dedicated and manic pacing in Frederick Tobey’s living room, nothing out of the ordinary happened. At the appropriate time, he returned to the laundry room and calmly and efficiently transferred his damp clothing from the spent washers to the tops of the two front loading dryers.

This was just the way he did it last Tuesday, the way he always did it. He managed an enforced sort of calm by screaming a melody from some long dead composer, Mahler, he thought, in his mind. He projected the same snippet over and over and over, his movements unconsciously falling into time.

And then it was back upstairs for another twelve minutes. But now he had the dryers reserved. And, he wondered, if a new move was underway, if a new die had been cast. The music crescendoed in his head.

* * *

Precisely twelve minutes later, Tobey was back. Mrs. McAdams had just completed the transfer of her own laundry back to her basket for the trip back to her apartment, number 109, to be folded in front of the television set.

Tobey said goodnight, loaded the dryers, and with a deep sense of dread trudged back upstairs. He had another forty minutes to wait and by now the music in his head had finally stopped playing. It no longer helped.

* * *

Inside fifty minutes Tobey was back inside his apartment, no problems, no woman from 414, nothing unusual. As he shot the dead bolt on the door he dropped to his knees and began gulping air like a giant beached fish, his laundry basket clutched to his side in a two-handed death grip.

When he felt his body wouldn’t betray him if he moved, he crawled over to the center of his living room, dragging the basket behind him.

Folding time. Then he could relax, he thought, perhaps mix himself a cocktail. He had survived something, he thought, even if he didn’t quite know what it was.

The droning of the television and the calming of his euphoria almost made him miss it. Tobey sat bolt upright and went through the neatly folded piles again. And then again.

They had made their move after all.

How could he have been so stupid? What chance did he have, trying his best to behave normally, performing well at his job, being a good person, and all the while thinking he could resist the people doing this? They held all the cards, they knew what this was all about. What was he to that?

He was a fool, he thought, but he wouldn’t be any more. He may not be smart enough to figure out what was going on, but he could damn well play the one card he held without them being able to do anything about it. He could see to that.

Tobey flew from his apartment as fast as he could, down the hall and up two flights of stairs until he stood in front of apartment 414. Without pausing he hammered on the door with his fist, then took a cautious step back.

The door opened a foot and she was there alright, holding back the shock she must have felt.

“Hello?” she said, merely curious.

She wasn’t even trying to lie, thought Tobey as he rushed the door, driving the edge of it into the woman’s forehead and knocking her to the floor. She turned away from Tobey on her hands and knees and tried to stand up.

“Where are they?” Tobey bellowed. “Where are my shorts and t-shirt?”

The woman stumbled forward and Tobey could see her object, a telephone on a small table neatly positioned on a small rug at the entrance to the bedroom hallway. Without a thought he pushed her square in the back with both hands. Her feet caught on the edge of the rug as she flew forward, knocking the table over and sending the phone spinning further down the hall.

Tobey jumped on her back, driving the air from her lungs as she clawed at the floor in front of her. He wrapped his fingers in the curls of her long blonde hair and jerked her head back and then drove her face into the floor many times.

“Where are my clothes?” he yelled again, in time with his pounding. If he could just get them back, where would they be? They’d have nothing, nothing at all, and of course they wouldn’t try anything again, not once they realized how he’s been on to them for so long.

The woman wasn’t making any more sounds. She had landed across the small area rug and the telephone cable it had been covering was under her chin. Tobey grabbed it and pulled it towards him, around the woman’s neck, pulling and pulling with all the strength he had left.

Eventually he pushed himself off her back and stood up behind her, an expression of sublime triumph on his face. He could see a wetness spread through the seat of her denim jeans. “Hah!” he said to the figure on the floor. “How do you like it?”

His sense of liberation, of having been set free, was intoxicating. He staggered back toward the front door, strangely uncoordinated, when he saw the thing on her kitchen counter.

The laundry basket.

If laundry had been so important to their plan, he could think of one other way to throw them off. They have a couple of his things, but he’d have their whole basket.

He snatched it from the counter and ran.

* * *

Not long after, when the knock came at the door, Tobey opened it to see two men in sport coats standing in the hall.

“Yes?” he asked, still feeling wonderful.

“Frederick Tobey?” the taller one asked.

“Of course,” Tobey said. “What’s this about?”

“Police, Mr. Tobey. May we come in?”

Tobey stepped back as the two detectives introduced themselves and followed him inside. “Do you know a woman named Amanda Peters in apartment 414, sir?” the shorter one asked as his eyes swept across the room.

A wide grin grew across Tobey’s face as he realized what this meant. This Peters woman, his ex-wife Elizabeth, they didn’t get him. Their plan had fallen to pieces and he had won. All by himself, without anyone else’s help, he had beaten them.

The taller of the two detectives gestured at the neat piles of bras, panties, and other bits of women’s clothing arranged about the carpet. “Is this your laundry, sir?” he asked.

“I did good, didn’t I?” said Tobey.

“Real good,” the shorter one told him. “Turn around, please, and clasp your fingers behind your head.”

“She should have been more clever, I think, but she let me see her on Tuesday.”

The two cops looked at each other as they attached a pair of handcuffs to Tobey’s wrists. They read him his rights as they walked him out of his apartment and into the elevator but he wasn’t really listening. From deep down inside, he felt too damned good for silly distractions.

Riding in the back seat of their car, halfway to wherever it was they were taking him, a sudden thought hit him like an electric shock delivered at the end of a giant sledge hammer. His euphoria evaporated with an icy chill and his stomach knotted as he fought to control his breathing and his bladder.

The boxers, he thought, and the t-shirt: where were they?

He hadn’t found them.

This thing wasn’t over.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Short Story

My disappointing spine has still not recovered from driveway rescue attempts from the spring thaw. On the plus side, I have newly refilled prescriptions of vicodin and carisoprodol. Just don't talk to me about my liver.

So I want to cheat and rather than write a new blog entry I'll post a short story I wrote a little while ago. I'll split it up into a few pieces so it's more readable in the blog. And I'll get more mileage out of it.

I had wanted to write a story with a crime brought on by thoughts going on entirely inside someone's head. His perception of reality is far enough off the objective that he deals with things in a very abnormal way. At the time I wrote it, I thought I got down the essence of what I was going for but based on some reader feedback, I'm not sure. In any case, I'm not a short story writer but I think this at least works at least on a very basic level: I think it is a complete story. It just may not be any good but hey, ya get what ya pay for.


It made sense to him, then, back when it started. He thought it was when she had taken a pair of his boxers from the wet pile he’d left on top of one of the dryers. He never saw her take them, he wasn’t even in the room when they’d disappeared, but when he saw her looking at him in that peculiar knowing way, she had made herself stand out. That was her mistake and that was when he knew his life was about to change.

For the life of him he couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Although they lived in the same four story building, they weren’t friends, they weren’t family, and he didn’t even know her name let alone which apartment she lived in. But he’d find out now. He’d have to if he were going to figure out what she was really up to.

His name was Frederick Tobey and he worked as a CPA for Freedom General Insurance Company. They were a massive company with many holdings, all of whose taxes were filed by the staff on the sixteenth floor of their eponymous building in lower Manhattan. Frederick Tobey rode a bus and then two subway trains to work each day, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, there and back, each and every week day. Tobey rarely took sick days and hadn’t gone on an actual vacation since Elizabeth left him nearly fifteen years ago.

During this morning’s commute, Tobey kept turning the matter of his missing boxers over and over in his mind. It didn’t make sense at first blush but that’s what made it so damned clever. The woman hadn’t done anything obvious when he passed her in the hallway, she’d just given him that look, almost as though she couldn’t help herself. But that was all he needed, he thought.

His work day was difficult; clearly he couldn’t be expected to concentrate on his job with some kind of plot going on against him. Fortunately it was late in the autumn and the mayhem of tax season had passed. This meant that he could more or less cruise through the motions of his daily routine while part of his brain worked constantly on his new problem.

Was he in any danger? How could he know, he wondered. He decided he didn’t have enough facts and he asked his supervisor if he could go home an hour or so early. Given the light work load of the time of year this was not an uncommon request for the rest of the staff but coming from Fred Tobey, who never took time off, it was almost remarkable. But it wasn’t a problem and Tobey left the office at three o’clock. No one noticed his passage.

* * *

During the long subway commute Tobey knew he had to take a few risks in order to safeguard his own future. He’d begin by staking out the mail boxes in the front vestibule of the apartment building. If he could pinpoint his aggressor’s apartment number, he’d at least know where she was some of the time. Perhaps he could even find out her name.

Surely she wouldn’t try anything in the front vestibule, not at that time of the day. If he was as careful with his facial expressions and body language as he thought he could be, she shouldn’t tumble to the fact that he knew something was going on.

Last night’s laundry was done on Tuesday. The next laundry time was on Friday at eight o’clock. Two days. Just two days for him to figure out just what was happening around him.

* * *

While he waited just inside the glass paneled security door, Tobey thought about Elizabeth. He hadn’t been so paranoid since the divorce. The way she had constantly gone through his clothes, had read all of his mail, even told him how he should drink his coffee; it all felt so wrong until he finally realized she was up to something. He wondered if the divorce had literally saved his life. And now there was this.

Perhaps, though, he was exaggerating. Surely there were logical, pedestrian reasons for himself and this woman to have come together the way they have. There were over three hundred units in this building alone; surely pure statistical chance could have taken a hand and touched the two of them together.

He wondered what Elizabeth was up to now. There hadn’t been any contact since she left, which was a relief. No requests for alimony, either, which Tobey still found suspicious.

It was in this slightly more relaxed state that he found himself when the woman finally walked through the door that faced the street. Unsuspecting, she walked directly to her mailbox, in plain sight through the security door, and opened the small bronze door with her key. Tobey couldn’t make out the number from where he was but now he knew how to find the right mailbox. In a marvelous coincidence it was just two up from his own.

This meant he wouldn’t have to risk another personal encounter and he quickly darted up the stairway behind him. He listened from the landing and could hear her as she called and was then swallowed up by the creaky old elevator.

Nearly grinning, he stole back down the stairway, making sure she had gone. Some of these people could be sneaky. He had married one, after all, so he knew.

Standing up straight, feeling calmer now after his reflections from the stakeout, he strode into the vestibule and found the right box.

His knees went weak as he read the number. How could this be? How long has all this been going on? He walked as fast as he could away from the mail boxes and back up the stairs. He knew it wasn’t rational but he wasn’t going to feel safe until he made it inside his own apartment, 214.

Tobey dead bolted the door after himself and couldn’t help but look upwards as he forced himself to calm down. This was no time to lose control.

She was up there now, he knew, in apartment 414. Two floors above him, directly overhead. This was getting sinister. He staggered over to the sofa and tried to sit, but he missed and crumpled onto the floor. He lay there for hours, his head cradled in his arms, fingers enmeshed in his hair. Later, when he realized he had wet himself, he crawled across the floor to his bathroom shower.

* * *

Thursday. One more day. Tobey wanted to call in sick but he didn’t dare do anything so remarkable. The last thing he could afford to do was tip his hand, to let them know that he was on to them. As long as they didn’t have a clue he could act with some control.

In the office he set about filling his day with meaningless meetings. He scheduled them via e-mail and the network calendar programs. No matter what else happened, he wanted to leave a trail and document his day as much as possible. If something were to happen to Frederick Tobey by god he’d have left his mark. Strength in the face of adversity. There would be a trace of him left behind.

By the time he got home, he was exhausted. His mind kept turning back to the missing boxing shorts. Why had the woman in 414 taken that particular pair? What made them different in any way?

The next thought hit him with an icy wave as he fumbled with the boiling water and his tea. Elizabeth? Could 414 be working with his ex-wife? Again, though, for what? But Elizabeth did know his clothes, and she’d know he wouldn’t change all that much in twelve years.

Too much, too much, too much, he told himself as he began to slip to the floor. NO! Keep it together, god damn it! He wasn’t sure if he’d shouted out loud or not but he was nearly past caring.

Tobey took several deep breaths and tried to visualize calming things. He tried ocean waves but the sounds of the crashing surf were too distracting. He tried brilliant white cumulus clouds slowly floating through a bluer than blue sky as he laid on his back in an open field of rich green grass. But the blades made his back itch and he couldn’t be still. He pictured himself floating on his back in a wide, shallow pool, his body barely breaking the water’s surface and not wanting to sink, bobbing gently at the surface. Slowly, though, tiny streams of water trickled into his ears and made him twitch uncomfortably.

Although he was still hugging his knees to his chest on the floor of his kitchen, things were better, more settled. Just to be sure, he checked himself and his pants were dry. Not wanting to upset things again, he crawled his way across the floor and into his bathroom.

Fighting hard to retain his fragile equilibrium (but Elizabeth!), he swallowed a small white pill from a glassine bag with a zippered top. It was supposed to be a generic Ambien that he purchased over the internet. The web site was from Canada but the shipping label said the package had come from Texas. Tobey thought this meant the pills themselves may have come across the Mexican border.

Regardless of what it was, it helped him get to sleep if he took the pill and didn’t try to stay awake. And he never had to submit to a doctor or get stuck with a needle or hit with a hammer or prodded with a finger.

He fell asleep in his bath tub, curled into a ball and dreaming of conspiracies. But thanks to the pill, whatever it was, all that would be beyond his memory when he awoke.

* * *

Now it was Friday and Tobey was refreshed and alert. He almost felt good, he thought, until he realized where he was. Picking himself out of the tub, he walked into his bedroom and peeled off the clothes he had slept in, throwing them into the wicker laundry basket Elizabeth had bought for them when they’d originally taken the apartment.

Laundry. Elizabeth. Tonight…

Laundry night.

Tobey felt much more calm in the morning. It was as if he had an internal reset that could be pushed overnight, allowing him to pick up his life at the beginning of every day and move on.

He shaved, showered and breakfasted, absolutely determined to carry on a normal day. Just as he did yesterday, he’d remain normal and predictable to a fault. Whatever was going on with 414, with or without his ex-wife, would unravel in its own good time. At least that’s what he told himself over his commute.

At work before lunch it was much the same as the day before. Scheduled meeting after scheduled meeting, Tobey imprinted his mark upon the work lives of those around him. If something were to happen, these people would remember Frederick Tobey.

Things grew darker around lunch time, however. Being the off season, his co-workers began to leave on a kind of semi-sanctioned early weekend. Tobey nearly panicked. What if he were left alone at work, exposed, with no one able to vouch for his movements?

He himself left at noon for a cup of coffee at the deli across the street. He didn’t feel up to solid food and he was right. After two sips of coffee he ran to the rest room and vomited repeatedly into the stinking toilet. When he was through he nearly ran out the door.

According to his watch it wasn’t even twelve thirty. Too early to go back to the office. Maybe a walk.

Tobey headed east into the afternoon sunlight, visible in patches high above the Manhattan skyline. After half a block he began to shiver.

Turning abruptly, Tobey careened off the shoulders of half a dozen pedestrians before being able to right himself and plot a course back the way he had come.

His fingernails and lips nearly blue, and with a full on case of teeth chattering chills, he fought his way back to the lobby of his building. Pacing back and forth along the bank of windows, he gradually began to feel warm again. It was seventy six degrees outside.

He returned to the sixteenth floor and found it nearly deserted. What the hell would he do now, he wondered. It wasn’t unheard of for the staff to be granted an unofficial half day during an especially pleasant off season fall day, but would it really be likely to happen this week? The same week a particular pair of his boxer shorts were stolen by a strange woman who just happened to live in the apartment TWO FLOORS DIRECTLY OVERHEAD? It strained credulity. He decided he wasn’t going anywhere.

Tobey found the department’s clerk; he was an older man, semi-retired, and management simply never thought to extend the same privileges to him as the rest of the staff. A perfect alibi, Tobey thought.

Throughout the tax season, pile after pile of manila folders, report binders, and other miscellaneous paperwork would accumulate until some point late in the year when “volunteer” pizza parties were held over a weekend. The staff would come dressed in jeans and t-shirts, munch pizza, tell stories and mindlessly file.

This was what Tobey needed and he set about the task with a maniacal efficiency. At one point it occurred to him that the work was like lifting weights. Requiring no intellectual thought, the exertion nevertheless induced a focus so sharp all other thoughts were obliterated. Running or walking didn’t work this way, he knew; he had been on his cross country running team in high school. When running, the last thing you can do is get away from your own thoughts, no matter how much you may want to.

The clerk had to remind him when it was time to go. Five o’clock and he had his own mass transit timetable to keep.

Fine, Tobey thought. At least he’d made it this far in the day on his own terms.

But that still left tonight.

********END PART 1*****************

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rambling Dissatisfaction

A month or two ago I picked up a short story by Stephen King. It didn't have any of the gimmicky phrasing or cliched adolescent dialogue that I can't get past, so that was good. But from the get-go the story read like something I've seen many times before. As I read it, I kept thinking, Didn't Richard Matheson already do this? Or Robert Bloch? Wasn't this a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode?

In other words, been there, done that. You knew almost immediately what was going to happen and sure enough, it did. So why write the damned thing?

Writing is such a contradictory thing to pursue. On one hand, anyone can pick up a pencil and scribble words on some paper. I'm doing in now (only on a computer). But to make it something someone else wants to read, well, there's the rub, isn't it?

I think millions of people out there can right absolutely gorgeous sentences. Then some much smaller percentage of those can write stunning paragraphs. A much fewer number can carry that through to a page, and a disappearing few for an entire chapter. As for the number that can actually create a book, one with a valid beginning, middle and logical end, well, those are the ones that have kissed the holy grail (lower case, I don't want to get in too much trouble).

What's killing me is the notion that you can have all the innate talent in the world, your facility with language may be second to very few, but if you have noting to say, nothing to write about, big hairy deal.

It's been said, rather cynically, I think, that all novels are made up of the same few plots. So what? There are billions of people out there, all uniquely different, yet still make up one category: human beings. Or two: men and women. The more we ignore particular differences and roll individuals up to higher and higher levels, naturally more distinction we lose. So again, big hairy deal. There are only eighty-eight keys on the piano yet original music has been composed on the thing for centuries.

You can analyze good writing all you want: you can diagram the sentences, praise the dearth of adverbs (or not), marvel at the unique metaphors or allegorical vision. But what is the subject? What is the story that's being told?

Because what I've been thinking about is that a talent for the written word is part of being a writer, but so is a talent for coming up with a story. Sure, you can cheat and consciously borrow the structure of someone else's books (can you tell what I think of that practice, despite what they teach in some MFA programs?), and your writing talent can get you through. And, as a craft, you can practice it and study it and improve it.

But can you do the same with the story part of it? My jaw drops when I consider all the different ideas that make up a series of books like Richard Stark's Parker series. The writing is awfully fine, too, in his spare, noirish style, but it's a lot easier for me to accept the mystery of his craft and style than it is for me to comprehend the breadth of the collection of capers he writes about.

When I consider the writing of someone I admire, I usually wonder, Why did they do that? or Why did they do it that way? When I consider the uniqueness of the stories, the frame on which to hang the plot, I ask, How did they come up with that? Then I ask, how can I learn to do that, too?

And I know I probably can't. My ideas perversely flow while I'm writing and then seem to scamper away like lighted roaches when I'm not. It seems to take me a ridiculously long time to get started on something. Part of the reason is that I constantly discard notions as being too similar or to derivative of other works and I just can't bring myself to commit to something like that. And yet clearly it works for some highly successful folks out there.

So the King story was entertaining but in a way reminiscent of viewing a re-run of a favorite TV show as opposed to enjoying a new reading experience. And I guess that's enough sometimes. I tell myself I wish I could do that but I don't really believe it. If something's been done, it's been done, and I think I want more.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Suspended Articulation

The smartest moment in my life happened when I was a kid, sitting at home flicking channels on the TV. A movie was just about to start so I paused during the opening of the black and white title sequence, waiting to see what kind of potluck broadcast television was bringing to a bored pre-teen boy. Turned out it was the movie Them!, a film I'd heard of but had never seen. Most importantly, I didn't know anything about it.

The story begins somewhere in southwestern desert. People are brutally murdered or killed or eaten or some such thing. No one knows what is going on or what to make of the ravaged sugar stores left behind in the kitchens of the isolated households where the grisly crimes were committed.

Or something like that. It's been years since I've seen the beginning of the movie and the point is that what was going on was a mystery. It took a while for the authorities to figure it out but by then, and within minutes of the opening, as I recall, I had figured out who the villain was. Or what the villain was: ants. Really, really big ones. The clues were there and I was all over them and man, did I feel thrilled watching the rest of the story play out.

I was thinking of this because I was considering how rarely I "figure out" who the bad guy is or what the secret of the house on the hill is or whether or not the presence of the buffalo nickel in the kitchen drawer was really significant or not. There's a reason for it all, and it's not, I hope, because I'm an idiot.

Just like there must be a willingness to suspend belief if we are to enjoy fantastic fiction or movies or any form of media, it also helps if we can suspend our tendency to analyze things, to intellectualize what it is we're actually reading, watching or listening to

When I was even younger than I was when I first saw Them! I used to read the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol. Each book was made up of short mystery stories that were solved by the adolescent and phenomenal Encyclopedia Brown. The challenge for the reader was to figure it out along with the hero, of course, but what was brilliant about the stories was that the reasoning behind the solutions were never presented in the stories themselves. The logic for each mystery was printed at the end of the book which meant the stories never bogged down with cumbersome Aha! moments, never slowed for repetitive denouements, they just crackled from page to page, mystery to mystery.

I never did figure out that many of the darn things and it always vaguely bothered me. I was supposed to be the smart kid, maybe not like Encyclopedia Brown, but at least like someone who knew a thing or two about ants. My father would read the books, too, and as far as I could tell he'd figure out the solution to every one of the stories, making me feel both awe and deficient.

The thing is that I was so caught up in the wonderment of the stories, of the being entertained, that I would not or could not allow the analytical machinery to get in the way of the roller coaster ride. I didn't care what made the gears turn, I just loved the fact that they carried me along with them. My father I'm sure treated them as riddles, appetizing as popcorn, and about as enjoyable. It's only now that I realize while we were reading the same books, we weren't doing it for the same reason.

Clearly my father was not about to be mystified by anything intended for a grade school audience but that's not the point. Even today, if the solution to the mystery or the identity of the bad guy pops into my head before the book or movie intends it, I think there's more likely something wrong or clumsy with the plot or structure. I've never had a problem with a willingness to suspend belief, but now I realize that suspension of the intellectual process is just as important. When it's all over, yes, I will pick the book or story apart mercilessly trying to figure out why it did or didn't work, or even what I think they could have done to make it better. Often I'll even engage in idly wondering what I would have done had I been the author.

But if this process takes hold while I'm reading or watching or listening, than something's wrong. The imagination, the place where the action is supposed to be unfolding, is thrown off. It's like when your favorite toy broke as a kid and as long as it doesn't work any more, you smash the rest of it open and wonder how it did what it did. The magic is gone, though, and you can't get it back, at least not in that particular toy.

Now when I read reviews or hear people talk about how they figured out the ending early on, I wonder, Why would you want to? I did it once, way back when, and I was lucky enough to get the genie back where it belongs. If I hadn't, I'm not sure I'd be looking for any more bottles.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Elementary Science

I don't eat as much as I used to, which is probably a good thing. Back when I competed with the local livestock for feed, I got into the habit of eating out of large bowls. The bigger the better; thick, sturdy, soup-spoon proof. My choice for wedding china was a set of oven-safe mixing bowls.

During an extended stay out of town some years back, I needed a bowl but couldn't find one at the local grocery store. I ended up for an over-sized cereal bowl kind of thing made out of something called "Corelle." This thing has been a mystery ever since.

It feels kind of like metal, tin, maybe, with a coat of enamel. It could be some kind of plastic, I suppose, but it seems much less brittle and rings with a hum when you flick it hard with your fingernail. It could even be some sort of better-living-through-chemistry processed glass but again, it seems too un-glass-like somehow.

Internet searches have proven fruitless. Apparently it's a common enough substance though it has yet to crack the periodic table. I've been using it for close to a decade now and it still looks as white and unblemished as they day I brought it home to the Holiday Inn in Cairo, Georgia.

It's going to suck when I take a hammer to it and see if I can shatter the bastard, though. I just don't know if that would help unravel its inner secrets but what the hell. Maybe it can't even be broken. Maybe the hammer will shatter, or worse, bounce off and back into my unguarded forehead with a force equal to the attempted killing blow. Just to be safe I'll probably not do this as part of a homeschool science experiment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lost in Time and Space

I lost my brother when we were ice skating one time on the fields the city iced over during winter. They opened up a building that had benches with cubby holes where we'd change our shoes then chop our way out the door and out to the ice. They always put up a hockey rink, too, right next to the open ice but we didn't go in there much. I guess people actually played hockey in there but I don't remember seeing them much.

There were four kids in our family, all within five years from oldest to youngest. After stopping at two myself, I have no idea how my mother dealt with it all. Especially since we didn't get along all that well. I'm sure we did in the beginning, back in those times we can't exactly remember, but mostly what comes to mind were the petty fights and resentments. My younger sister used to get me in trouble by saying I hit her when I hadn't. My mom would prove it by having her show me the red marks on her back but it was still a lie. My sister must have rubbed her back against the door frame or something because sure as hell those marks were there, I just never had anything to do with them.

I finally got so sick of it I took a pair of scissors and gouged a nasty track all along one side of one of her record albums. It was a mean gesture, no question about it, but I didn't figure all that many ways to get myself heard at that point. If anyone was listening, they weren't believing. I never heard a squeak about that record scratch. As far as I know, my sister never played that record again and my bad deed went unnoticed. Then one day, weeks or months later, I felt so bad about it I bought a new one and replaced the mutilated one, again without telling a soul. Never heard about that, either.

My brother I did hit, I'm ashamed to say. Not a lot, and not excessively, just a blow to the stomach or shoulder now and again when he really got on my nerves. I know he used to lose pieces to every game and toy he ever touched but troublesome as that was it was never the reason. Other than vague recollections of taunting on his part, I don't have any idea why it ever happened. Still, though, we hung out at least a little bit, and did a few things together.

Until the day at the ice rink. There was a kid there who insisted on skating around and around wearing a black stocking cap even though it was a well known fact that he'd go absolutely ape-shit if someone skated by and plucked it from his head. As soon as he got it back, he'd calm himself like it never happened and keep skating the same random figures we all did. I'm eternally ashamed that I stole his hat a couple of times myself. I may even have done it in front of my brother on that one day I'm talking about.

We grew up in the city where there were a lot of kids. Lots of kids means lots of cliques and bullies. There were shy kids and outgoing kids and kids that played sports and kids that got into trouble with adults. And there were kids that liked to fight.

Other than a few group-think induced instances like the hat thievery from the smaller boy at the skating rink, I was never a bully. And I was lucky to be big enough that I was never a bully's victim. But as I recall there were a group of kids in my grade that I didn't really get along with but that I didn't really care about one way or the other. Some of these kids were on the ice that day and somehow, some way, I ended up in a snowbank at the side of the ice faced off with a number of them.

We weren't fighting, though. I certainly wasn't mad or upset or I probably would have fought. I really don't recall the circumstances, though, if I were pushed or had fallen or if my sitting in the snow had anything whatsoever to do with the presence of those other boys. But I do recall that a fight could have happened, perhaps should have happened when I look back on it, but didn't, merely because I didn't feel like it. My whole life I found it difficult to fight if I wasn't angry or upset or hated somebody. I was never scared of fighting, not ever. Instead I just tended to laugh at someone and tell them okay, whatever, now go away. I did get into fights over the years but that was when the other person really wanted to fight and really made me mad.

So on that day, I was sitting in the snow for some reason, being challenged by a couple of kids I didn't like for some reason, and I declined to get into a fight for some reason. They skated off, I got up; another day in the life of a fifth grade boy. But I remember something else, and this I remember more clearly than anything else: the way my little brother looked at me. He was in the second grade at that point. Lord knows what he thought of the big brother that took him skating and goofing off down by the creek and occasionally hauled off and slugged him one but from that point on it was something different.

Somewhere along the way, we hung out less and less. He took up with his friends, I took up with mine. I didn't like his friends or the things they did and seemed to get away with, and I stopped having any idea what he thought of me. But I knew I'd lost him and there wasn't any going back, not at that age.

Today I don't know him any better than I did back then. We see each other every few years and are at least as polite as folks who see each other time after time in the same breakfast cafe, say, yet with much more distance. I still see the kid with the same mind set and same friends (literally) that he had back then, the same things I didn't approve of then and have no business passing on judgment on now. I have no idea what he thinks of when he sees me. It's sad because this gap is tangible, obvious, and, I believe, unbridgeable.

Last year his beloved dog passed away and after my mother told me about it, I went out to the store and got some stationery so I could scribble out a condolence and send it off to him. I've lost my share of dogs in my life and the one thing I know about him is that he cared for his boy like I care for mine. I sent the card and never heard from him. And still, when I think of that, I remember that day long ago in the city of Minneapolis, a block or so from our house on the public skating rink, when I could have gotten into a harmless scuffle with some punk kid who almost certainly has no memory of that time, that day, or even me. I wonder if anything, anything at all, would have turned out differently in any way that matters. I wonder what my brother thought, and how he felt. Did he think I was afraid? Did he think I wasn't somehow the big brother he thought I was? Does he even remember?

My guess is that he doesn't but I don't know. I don't what he's thinking now any more than I did back then and there's no way to ever know. Odds are that at some point, a funeral or something unpleasant to contemplate will bring us into contact again. I'm sure we'll shake hands, mutter something forgettable, and return to our lives. The ones we somehow chose for ourselves without knowing better, perhaps as far back as that winter day in grade school. Some memories would perhaps be nicer to forget.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tired of It ALL (Don't Read This)

I wish tax cuts were not the issue with Republicans. I wish tax increases (or elimination of past tax cuts) were the issue with Democrats. I wish they would be united on one issue, which would be spending cuts. Someone once said that you can't tax yourself into prosperity. You can, apparently, tax the hell out of people and spend it irresponsibly and increasingly without really seeming to acknowledge it.

It seems to me the best thing we could come up with in our muck-mired system would be to have a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Since congress spends the money, I have an iota more inclination of belief that while they'd spend way too obscenely much, the Democrats would be worse. I think the current congress's approval rating of 13% would be optimistic with a Democrat in the White House.

Which is another way of saying I have no idea how to vote, who to vote for, or sadly, whether to even vote. I don't want to vote for someone or something I don't believe in. I would vote for anyone against Ms. Clinton simply because I feel she's that horrible a human being. We don't need someon who's trumpeting her ability to fight Republicans. Someone who thought they could get along with Republicans would be a much nicer thing.

Stop dividing us into rich and needy, Republican or Democrat, pro-war or anti-war. We're all Americans, we're all the same. Why can't we act like it? And if our leaders can't, how can we? Throwing the bums out would be a good strategy if it works, but it never has. There are always more bums, indistinguishable from the previous set, to take their place.

I live in fear, and I don't want to vote in fear. They've stolen my optimism, the bastards, and I'm begging for reasons to get it back. So far the best I've been able to manage is to drastically cut back my exposure to the media. But the bad stuff is still out there, and still going on whether I wallow in it or not. It's very sad.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Put Downs

Ahhhh, it happened again. I put down a book by a bestselling writer and have been trying to wash the taste of it out of my mind with Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Alan Furst's Night Soldiers. So far, so good.

I don't agree with the notion that people like to read negative reviews more than they like to read positive ones. They probably are easier to actually write because the reviewer (or anyone) can always find things they don't like about anything and write them down. Is that fun to read? Is that fun to write? Does it serve a purpose? On the other hand, a review that merely picks out positive things and portrays an otherwise bad book in that light is likewise worthless or wrong or some other kind of misleading.

I think when you review a book, you ought in some way try to interpret what you think the author was trying to do. After that, you can gauge the book on a number of levels, chiefly, "Did it work?" and "Was it enjoyable to read?"

As long as this is being done, and the reviewer is clear as to what is actually opinion, I have no problem with so-called negative reviews. If I write one, I hope that I can support my opinion in such a way that the reader understands that it is just that, and that there is some justification to support that. I also think that if I read book X and think it's the worst piece of ham-fisted monkey typing this side of a vanity press shopping list, that I should be able to name title and author without feeling bad about it in the same way that I'd tell my friends about it if we were discussing it over the phone.

And if a "negative review" is well reasoned and makes sense to me, it could very well be doing me a positive by nudging me in the direction of not wasting my time and my money. I wish that would have happened in this case.

Somewhere a while back, I read a review of this particular book. It is by a well-known and bestselling author with numerous books, a few of which have been made into movies (one of which spawned a very successful and iconic franchise), and a recognizable name. I'd avoided him in the past, however, because he couldn't pass my first page test. That's where I pick up the book and simply read the first page. If a writer is clumsy and inelegant and prone to cliches, very often it begins on page one and is easily discerned. I put these books down and very rarely ever try the author again. I can't think of a single instance where I tried and been surprised.

But the review of this particular books was overwhelmingly positive, spoke well of the author's portrayal of the technology and tradecraft used in the world of intelligence, and suckered me in to giving the book a chance, despite my impression of the author as one whose style clunks loudly in my inner ear.

By sheer will-power, I made it a couple of hundred pages in, then had to throw it hard and run away screaming. Books like this may not only actually rot my brain, but may cause me to actually question the value of reading and other writing, especially my own. My nightmare fear is that I could not produce something even up to this level...

The book beats you over the head with his knowledge of the intelligence community. It has the ignorant sidekick who, as a participant, consistently and unexpectedly behaves like an old pro, while all the while needing every teensy tiny little thing explained to her by the hero. Very annoying, but not as annoying as the hero, who has to explain every teensy tiny little thing he's doing, feeling, and thinking to the reader who clearly is not expected by the author to be able to follow the thriller along without having every obvious step painted in giant red letters across the eyeballs. This is talking down to the reader with the best of them.

There's a scene where the hero is being chased in a car through a mall parking lot in the rain. Suddenly a woman walks out from between two cars. Time inexplicably slows while the hero processes how little time he has to react and how small his margin for error is. He knows he can miss her by not looking at her; this will cause him to hit her. This is explained by nearly three pages of flashback to his time in driving school with the instructor telling him this is the reason why people skidding out in the middle of nowhere hit telephone poles, lone rocks, etc. So he misses her. Not before noticing the whites of her eyes, though.

But I thought I just read three pages of how he wasn't going to look at her or else he'd hit her. Hell, the guy chasing him probably didn't take the same course and would mow her down anyway.

I'll stop there because this isn't all that informative nor well justified; I'm going to do that because I'm not going to name the author or the book. I'm using it as an example of good reviews doing a disservice to the reader. A review that would have enumerated the positives, say the technical basis for the plot, while pointing out the weaknesses in the characterization and the writing, would have done me a lot more good. Yes, writing may be hard enough without people saying bad things about your books. But passing bad books off as not-so-bad ones is a much greater sin.

Unless the reviewer actually liked the bad book, which after all comes down to a matter of opinion. But wouldn't it be fun to sit down with the reviewer of this book and challenge him with all the reasons I think it's a fine waste of paper? Debate Club with book reviewers, an in your face contentious book club meeting. Now that's TV I would watch. Really.

Usually I'm not shy about naming names in the course of what could be called a "negative review."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Done to Death

Yeah, I know, but in case anyone wants to read for themselves, here's a link to a story of the new HarperCollins imprint: story. They discuss the problem of high returns from booksellers, saying that it's around 40%. One of the prinicipals says that anyone not thinking like they are will go out of business. I'm wondering if anyone thinking like they are will go out of business.

It would seem logical that if booksellers are returning 40% of the books they order that they are ordering too many. I'd want to know why: are they concerned with aesthetic appeal and filling their shelves because they know they can easily return the books? Are they that bad at projecting the demand for a particular book? And if the shops are returning four out of ten books, why are the publishers printing so many at a time? Would restricting the supply, or even rationing them out, force booksellers to estimate better?

I'm neither publisher nor bookseller so it beats the heck out of me. Any way I slice it in my own little mind, the logic seems off. It's not easy being the Smartest Man in the World. Just keep in mind 'World' can be a loosely defined word.


After I've at least half-convinced myself I'm an ignorant buffoon with a laptop, as well as vaguely recalling an Ambien-fueled entry from last night, I came across this quote from a gentleman that published his book about the making of a certain television show through iUniverse:

“I knew that I wouldn’t be in bookstores, but I didn’t realize how devastating that would be,” said Rosenzweig. “Not having a warehouse full of books that will accept books back from booksellers if they don’t sell really puts a crimp in your ability to sell. Booksellers are not interested in becoming book buyers.”

So maybe I am right about being nervous about the new HarperCollins imprint that I've been writing about lately. On the other hand, perhaps reform requires a revolution and this is where it starts.

I still doubt it, though. "Preliminary estimates" from the Association of American Publishers show that total industry sales rose 3.2% last year. This may be a modest gain but the industry is still nearly 25 billion dollars strong. Which, again in my ignorance, seems kind of big to me.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Meaning of Life

I have a lot of things to be thankful for. I'm not terribly bad looking, my wife is gorgeous, and I have two kids that amaze me daily by how they approach their lives and the love they inspire within me. My dogs are pretty cool, too. Once upon a time I was successful at my work. I've been paid to jump out of airplanes, been an organizer and participant in numerous world records, and coached and taught numerous others. Once there were some people who considered me reasonably intelligent.

Sometimes it's good to remind ourselves of some good things that are personal in nature, that speak to your self-image. There are just too many damned people that will negatively influence your life without giving it a thought. It's just what people do. Not all, of course, just some. Enough, though, that the God of Statistics has put me into contact with far too many.

The good thing about the Blogosphere (no, it's not that hideous name) is that any idiot with access to a computer can write one. Such as me. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about at least 99% of the time. I didn't start this thing because I thought I had anything to say that any one ought to want to listen to. But then I realized that this is not the best attitude for an aspiring writer to take so I jumped in.

It quickly became something of a drill for me, "writing practice" as it were. The loose goal was simply to write a coherent thought in a style that was readable, fairly concise, and lucid. A strong opinion would be good, too, because really, that's the kind of person I am.

These entries are typically long, longer than I thought they'd be. I'm not sure if I just can't get to the point or if it comes out of the kind of voice I'm trying to write in. It doesn't help that I typically write these things while homeschooling my daughter. Six or seven interruptions per minute seems about the norm and I just can't maintain enough focus to jump back and forth without losing coherence.

Even now, I was going to write about flaky people and how I try to deflect their impact on my life by erasing them from my thoughts as much as possible. But I allowed my opening to grow, and then elongate, and now my internal blog clock is ringing so I have to wrap it up. Dammit, I'm trying...

My wife thinks I hold things against people; grudges, or something like that. Really, I don't, but she doesn't buy it. When I finally shut the door on my neighbor, he had just come literally screaming out of his house, wearing nothing but a pair of gym shorts, going off on me about the appliance man who committed the mortal sin of backing down my driveway. Since the beginning of my driveway overlaps with a portion of his, he felt that the appliance man should have turned around on my driveway than driven straight out without having to go twice over a buried culvert.

The culvert is a pipe that goes beneath the driveway. All sorts of vehicles travel over them. See, I want to say, how it works is, the culverts get buried and cars drive over them. Since each spring sinkholes form and need to be filled because the either the culvert system isn't working right or there's an underground water channel or the God of Statistics has a hard on for me, I don't know.

This spring we have more sink holes. My neighbor seems to hijack me when I take the dogs for walks. For months we just turn around and avoid the situation. I don't have to hear the same stories over and over and give up hours of "casual" conversation so sticky I'd have to give up homeschooling and making meals for the kids. Today he went to see a lawyer after I called to him that I didn't have time to talk to him this morning. I'm not sure who's more mature: the one who just ignores the other, or the one that goes to talk to a lawyer because of it. The sinkholes are on his property but the water comes from down the hill and we live on it. The holes would probably close our driveway but he ought to be able to drive around them.

But he calls a lawyer on me? To do what? There are other reasons that I won't get into here about how one year of contact with the man is like ten dog's years time. We were good until the lawyer thing because now its like he's picking a fight with out a prize. I'm not going to deal with him. I'm going to deal with the driveway no matter whose property it falls on because that's what we need to do. His presence is immaterial on my actions. Frankly I hope he got himself a really expensive lawyer. I don't plan on even opening it. If it comes registered I'll just refuse delivery.

And I will do my damndest to forget all about it. These are the times I wish I was a Buddhist, and I could meditate on the true art of happiness, focus on freedom from want, and love my fellow man. Dude, I was crying tonight while watching a mixed martial arts match. Two huge guys just plain buttwhipped each other in the name of something not covered in polite Buddhist dharma. I almost couldn't watch it, eyes misting over, but I stuck it out until the match was stopped. These have no idea how to fight this like a sport. It seemed clear to me that with the massive blows the rained repeatedly into the same spots on their faces with their off hands clamped around the back of their opponents necks. Neither man at that point can control the damage that's being done to them, they just have to hang on and pummel longer. Not a lot of the sweet science here.

Free Tibet, already. There are exactly the guys you want to have out in the world teaching idiots me how to let things go and allow the feelings for natural happiness to come out. Running them over with Chinese tanks does nothing for my personal happiness.

And now it's time to go to bed, bearing no neighbor ill will. Tomorrow we'll try to get an expert out here who can tell us how we can overcome the situation. Tonight we bought five hundred pounds of rock from Home Depot and filled a coupld of the holes. I'd like to take the next letter I get from a lawyer and stick it the neighbor's front door. After all, the thing is intended to make him feel better.

So my gorgeous wife thinks I'm an ass. I wish she wouldn't. I've deal with unpleasant people all my life, this is the first time where the forced driveway kind of thing has come up. The driveway will be fixed somehow, then the problem will return next spring. And Tibet will still be in chains.

My ambien is kicking in. It's cool, when it does this it's like the words on the screen or on the page go 3D and move and pulse arond on their own..Another reason for wandering posts. Maybe by morning a new sinkhole will appear and solve my problem once and for all. A Buddhist can dream, can't I? Or at least a fan.

Monday, April 07, 2008

There May Be Cheese

There is more to this new HarperCollins publishing model, I'm sure. Maybe a lot more, maybe not a whole lot. One of my problems is that I don't trust them. Or credit card banks, mortgage companies, oil conglomerates or anyone else where there are too few companies competing for business. Market forces don't work the way they're supposed to when you have an oligopoly.

I've still yet to figure out why the G broke up AT&T and then allowed the Baby Bells to gradually re-merge. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, and he's better known as a dead writer than as a management guru, business is a competition of fraud. And he wrote that twenty years before the Civil War.

Apparently the new HarperCollins is considering offering free e- and audio books to the purchasers of their hardcovers. I like this idea: I read physical books but I also read e-books to rehabilitate my surgically repaired eye. I originally began this process by reading large-print books but I didn't want to build a library of them. If it was a book I thought I was going to like (and why else read it?) I wanted a "normal" copy. I switched to a Sony Reader which allows me to read thousands of public domain books--they don't cost me a dime. My book purchases are confined right where I want them: at conventional books.

It would be preferable to read the same book in both a hardcover and e-book format at the same time. I don't know that it would be compelling (an audio book doesn't do much for me -- they'd be good if I were driving long distances like I used to, but only if they were books I didn't want to actually read) but it would be convenient. And if they came with DRM embedded or were perceived to be an actual threat to the manufacture of real books, then I'd avoid them at all costs.

Is this paranoia? Quite possibly. If physical books ever actually go away, I'd like it to be because there is truly no market for them. My cold, unrelenting, blue steel fear is that the few companies that make up commercial publishing will declare that readers no longer want paper books, they want e-books (or f-books or g-books), and that's what they'll get. I've met too many people that have told me that books will soon be obsolete. Why? I ask them. Simply because we have the technology? There's not improvement here, just an option for a technological change. I'm afraid of publishing fiats and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Publish better books. Sell them at more reasonable prices. Sell e-books for a buck. All of these things would make more readers. More readers would make a better market. Wringing more money out of the existing customer base won't do this, nor will changing whether royalties are paid or books are sold on consignment. They could, in a way, but I don't think they're that enlightened. Instead of "giving them what they want," I feel like I'm listening to a multi-millionaire politician tell me what I as a citizen want. Ultimately I'm afraid they'd simply sell fewer books.

My world is very small. In many ways I wish it were smaller. I just want it to hold books and libraries and stories and writers and all the vicarious thrills and bits of knowledge and wisdom and adventure and mystery... I now buy used books the way I used to buy new books. They're about the same price as what I used to pay (especially with shipping) which means I can actually afford them. I'm already too far down the downhill slope.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Additional Giant Rats

I just read where HarperCollins is starting a new imprint that not only will not accept returns but will also not pay advances. I believe another publisher began a similar program a year or two ago and I think, in the publishing world, that this is too nearly a trend.

If you don't know, books are traditionally sold on a consignment basis. This means that a bookseller has the option to return books that aren't selling for credit. This obviously makes it easier for sellers to stock perhaps a wider selection than they would otherwise, the publisher can't really know how profitable a particular title is until such time as they no longer accept returns for it.

Eliminating the consignment system across the board would probably be a good thing for the industry if they could figure out how to lower the prices or uniformly discount (wholesale price is typically around fifty percent of the marked price). I'd like to think that by eliminating waste they could actually lower the prices to consumers.

But I don't live in the real world...

Anyway, eliminating advances means an author, presumably new ones (established, selling authors wouldn't take this deal, would they?) would be working for nothing longer. Even the typical advance of three to five grand doesn't come out to much per hour (or per day, per week, per year). Leaving that alone, what point does it serve to dis-incent booksellers from stocking your titles?

I would think making it harder for a store to accept product is the wrong way to go. Evidently the point is to use the internet to market and sell the books. Um, how exactly do they plan to do that?

Perhaps it's the wave of the future and e-books will rule uber alles after all. My fear (or paranoia) is that it's not readers that want physical books to go away, it's the publishers. Soaring oil costs mean through the roof shipping rates and I have this vision of being pushed to e-books as the single distribution option rather than choosing it for myself should I choose to do so. Which could happen, I suppose, if they start charging a hundred books for a hardcover I'll be loading up the Sony Reader. But I don't want that. I want books: I want to hold them, browse them, pick them up, put them down, and create a visceral atmosphere of knowledge.

A recent study showed that the biggest factor on a child's growing up to become a reader is not how much they read as a kid, or how much was read to them, but how many books they were around as they grew up.

What's ironic to me is that Neil Gaiman's publisher made his American Gods available online, complete and without charge (read only, no downloading). This provoked some controversy with some people wondering how on earth it would make financial sense to let people read a book for free rather than forcing them to buy a copy. Gaiman himself takes the position that the online experiment is like the library where the point is to encourage readers, to create readers: author appreciation and subsequent book sales will follow.

This seems to me to be eminently sensible and filled with the common sense of how real people actually think. At the end of the experiment, the publisher reported that instead of declining or freefalling sales, orders for American Gods were actually up THREE HUNDRED percent. Which makes complete sense to me. What doesn't is who Mr. Gaiman's publishers are: the aforementioned HarperCollins.

I don't think I get it. Clearly, I miss much. I have no other explanation.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Giant Rats

Today's Ricky's fourth birthday. Some how, some way he got me to offer? agree? to take him to the local Chuck E. Cheese for his birthday. Melissa took the day off and they're at gymnastics now. When they get back, off we go. Only there's no such thing as a local Chuck E. Cheese. We live in a small town closer to Canada than to a city. The nearest Chuck E. Cheese is one hundred and seven miles away. Each way. May the God of Carbon Offsets forgive our souls.

So by way of a quick post, the issue of high prices for e-books has been bumping around in my brain and I haven't been able to shake them out. Why should a book, delivered as an electronic download rather than, say, a book, have to cost as much or more than its paperback equivalent? There's no fossil fuel burning freight charges, packing labor, cardboard box, etc. etc.

And then I finished a book this past weekend, a brand new hardcover history of the CIA, that before I even picked it up showed signs of cocking. It didn't arrive that way and was stored upright on a shelf in an appropriately controlled climate. As I read it, the binding (sewn, not glued) cracked and complained repeatedly. It made me think of that publishing exec's opinion that books should be deliberately made of disposable quality in order to crush the expanding used book market. Are they actually doing it?

Putting the two concepts together, it made me wonder if the prices for e-books aren't where they are because that's where market forces dictate they be, but because that's the target, the price level that the publishers want when (hopefully if) they actually start to sell.

In other words, if they can keep raising prices on new books, from brain-damaged concepts like the inch-taller mass market paperbacks to shoddily made first edition hardcovers, at some point e-books may become more attractive to people than they are now. Rather than entice readers with an easily distributed lower priced product, they'll drive people away from expensive traditional books, leaving them the one option. At a price point they're comfortable with, one with lower costs and higher profit margins.

Sadly, I don't find this far-fetched in the least. Sad, sneaky and underhanded, yes, but not inconceivable by any means. I can't really think of another reason why e-book prices wouldn't reflect the economies they represent. A cheaper, more accessible product would mean more readers, and more readers means a healthier publishing industry. But that may make too much sense.

The only other reason I could come up with is only half as sinister, but still as ugly, is that publishers simply don't care about e-books. Charge whatever, you sell a few, you sell a few; they're not on the radar. Either way, cluelessness abounds. Maybe it just abounds to me, though: I don't get it any way you slice it. Book lovers are your best readers, your best readers are your best customers, your best readers ought to be begetting more best readers, publishers ought to be making it easier to buy and read books (and feel better about it).

But I don't live in the real world. Mine has a local pizza parlor with a giant mouse within a mere two hundred and fourteen mile round trip. While Melissa drives I'm going to read chapters from "The Mystery of the Screaming Clock" to the kids. From paper, even.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Two Words You Can't Write in Books

I've been saving this topic for a time when and if I could come up with more than two, but I'm being hit in the head by Robert Parker's fifth Jesse Stone novel, Sea Change, and I gotta get it out of my system.

This is as good a book as the others I've read in the series. That is to say, nearly the same. But you know that going in, and if you like it, you won't be disappointed. Still, though, I was again struck by how easy it is for Jesse Stone to solve crimes. Someone always seems to turn up and offer him something that advances the case. He can brood on it for a while, maybe do something here and there outside the office, but someone else will invariably drop by and tell him something new. The crime will of course eventually be solved and Stone's so good at it that he makes it look easy to us outsiders.

He actually reminds me a lot of the character Tom Selleck played (before Magnum (I think) and way before the Jesse Stone movies) on The Rockford Files. A complete reliance on my memory and disdain for research leads me to say his name was Lance and that he was a rival P.I. to Jim Rockford. Where Rockford ground away on his cases, often not figuring out who did what or why until the end of a lot of work, much of which got him beaten up regularly, Lance would simply look for a clue, find it, and solve the case.

In one of the cases someone had thrown a set of keys out of a car window; Rockford said it would be hopeless to even look but Lance, of course, said it was nonsense. They drove to the overgrown field, Lance told Rockford where to stop the car, figured out how far the keys would have traveled, then walked straight into the field and stooped over and came up with the keys. Rockford would shake his head and look like he wanted to shoot him.

Jesse Stone solves cases almost like that. But surprisingly I digress...

Like George Carlin's 'Seven Words You Can't Say on Television,' there are words that break me out of a book just about whenever I read them. So far I've only come up with two: giggle and even (when used as an adverb).

A little kid can giggle here and there, and that's okay. The hero should never giggle. An adult should almost never giggle (unless they're skillfully doped or drunk, and then maybe only once a book). In Sea Change several characters, chiefly a set of twin sisters, giggle throughout the book. Adults don't giggle. Adults don't giggle when they speak with other adults. Sisters don't giggle when they're discussing the death of their sister, even if they're somewhat left of center. They don't do it, and others don't discuss it, throughout the entire book.

When writers say a character even does something rather than explain, or usually better yet, shows how a character can do something, I feel cheated. I'm ripped out of the narrative thinking the author couldn't be bothered to show a character's prodigiousness at a certain task, shortcutting it to something like, "Bill could do mean tongue tricks. He could tie cherry stems into square knots. He could chew ice and quote Shakespeare with the proper accent. Bill could even spit watermelon seeds and hit the eye out of a cricket." If this is coming on the heels of a set of descriptive sentences, it makes me want to scream.

So not using these words is one of my own personal writing rules. And I think each writer should make their own rules, whether or not they overlap with anyone else's. Then the only really inviolable rule, and absolutely so, is to not break the ones you set for yourself. Because then you're shortcutting, you're allowing yourself to do something you know you don't think you should do, and you hope your readers won't notice the slight.

But they do. A writer can never insult the reader and be easily forgiven, not if they want to be read again and again.

This post has turned out to be a book review, a point about language, and a theory of writing rules. Coherent or not, others must decide.