Sunday, January 30, 2011

Drood: What Is Good Mystery Writing?

Photo: Charles Dickens

See below for the 5th and last part of my short story, "Shadows."  I hope everyone's liked it.  I have been away for a few days; an immediate family member has been diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer--in five different areas.  This is bad enough, but there's also a major deadline at work: tons of things due this coming week.  Of course.

So what does one do when faced with all this?  He escapes!  He reads!  I finished Dan Simmons' Drood--all 771 pages of it.  It's taught me a few things about mystery writing, and maybe writing in general (I warn that there may be some spoilers below):

1.  It starts with a quick introduction by the narrator (Wilkie Collins) and the main mystery of the whole 771 pages.  Why did Dickens perform a "murder" of one of his characters that so engaged--and horrified--his pre-Victorian audience?  This was apparently opposite his normal character.

2.  Did Dickens murder someone?  The method is explained in one sentence.  Very specific detail.

3.  Did Dickens become obsessed with a person/thing named Drood?  (Avid readers will know that Dickens was in the middle of a masterwork when he died, titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood.)

4.  The main settings are described in very specific detail--good writing, never boring--by the end of page 2.

5.  The style, tone and mood of the narrator are established by then as well.

6.  The famous Staplehurst train wreck that Dickens was a part of about 5 years before he died is used as a springboard for the whole novel, and is very well-written and well-used.  This starts on page 3 and ends on page 11.

In short, this bestselling novel does what mysteries should do, what agents want mystery manuscripts to do: it poses the mysteries immediately.  It advances very interesting questions that readers would want answered: Did Dickens kill someone?  What was that Drood business?  It sets Dickens up as the focus of the novel, despite Collins being the narrator--which astute readers will realize as another point.  Collins should be the main character of Collins' narration/memoir; he is, perhaps, but Dickens is definitely the focus.  This establishes another huge theme: Dickens overshadowing Collins in life, as in this "memoir."  Again, this is established immediately and solidly by page 11.

Main characters; main themes; main settings; main mysteries; main questions--in short, everything, established in the first few pages, and then springboarded tremendously well using the train accident Dickens was in--with his young mistress and her mother, by the way, and not with his wife.  By page 11, the reader wonders a ton of interesting things and has no choice but to read on.

Agents have mentioned this time and time again.  Do this, and do this well, and they will represent the work and it will get published.  Dan Simmons had 771 pages to work with--and an already-impressive bestselling status--so he could have done whatever he wanted, at whatever pace he wanted.  He still did all of this by the first 11-15 pages.

It isn't selling out.  It's good writing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Change in the Blog

Tomorrow will mark a change in this blog.  I've decided that from now on, it'll only be about my writing specifically, mystery writing in general, or mysteries--true crime or fiction--specifically.  That's it.  In other words, my writing, or mysteries, all the time.  The idea of this blog, after all, is to a) attract an audience, and b) attract an audience for my work!  I've been doing too much of one and not enough of the other.

No more.  So don't go anywhere, anyone, 'cuz I'll still have things to say.  It'll just be more focused.

Look for a different blog about any musings I'll have about books, or anything else, coming soon to a different page.

To start this off, how many of you watch History Detectives?  Well, what if a History Detectives-type guy, Tukufu Zuberi perhaps, because he's amusing and charismatic, got a lead from a viewer and, in the process of researching it, got in over his head?  I can't picture Tukufu Zuberi getting in over his head in anything, but if he did, he'd handle it, right? 

So this is a new novel idea--I know, maybe the 7th in the past four weeks, and it's at the planning stage and outlining stage.  This will have to be a heavily-researched item--I'll have to research researchers!--but I'm excited about this as well.

I really am better at starting than I am at finishing.  But this is a good problem to have.  I'd much rather have too many ideas than too few.  I'll continue to stockpile 'em and work on them as they come.

And get more organized... 

Monday, January 17, 2011

We're All Characters for Someone Else's Fiction

Photo: Grave of Wilkie Collins, from his Wikipedia page.

As I read books of real-life people from the past--both non-fiction and historical fiction--I've been wondering lately how the descendents of these real-life characters feel about how they're being portrayed.  For example:

--In Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis is depicted as a manic-depressive, or, at best, a sometimes-unreliable depressive and melancholic.  This is as of page 300 or so.  I know that later the book will tackle his really violent suicide, and I know that the author, Stephen Ambrose, will go into greater detail about how Thomas Jefferson wrote about Lewis' manic depression; about how his father and other family members suffered from it, and showed characteristics of it; about how Lewis tended to shun socializing, sometimes, but at other times was a manic socializer; and about how his moods, frankly, ran the gamut from A to B in just a few days.  As great an outdoorsman as he was, he is depicted as, honestly, a bit of a nut when he wasn't exploring.  He was uncontrollably impulsive in everything--especially financial and emotional--when he wasn't exploring; when he was exploring, he was as meticulous and reliable and thorough--and brilliant--as one can be.  Very resourceful when in the middle of the Missouri River, or the Rocky Mountains, but he often couldn't function normally in the middle of society.

How could his descendents, if any, be taking this?  Isn't it absurd, in a way, that we must bear a thought not only of how we are to be perceived in our own lifetime, but also hundreds of years afterwards?  His outrageous suicide will be described for all the world to see.  The most personal, in some ways, of all acts, will be the least personal thing about him when the book is fully read.  And before we say that we are not as famous as he, and so don't have to worry, I should point out that his exploring companions are also mentioned by name.  More than one was a deserter (It was considered an army expedition, so they were technically AWOL, brought up on charges and put on trial by Lewis and Clarke, etc.)  They drank too much; got lusty for the female Native Americans; were at times cowardly; at others, gossipy.  You get the idea.  All for the world to see, including their descendents.  And they are important to no one in the literary world outside of Stephen Ambrose.  Yet, on this expedition, we know all about them.

In Dan Simmons' Drood, we learn that Dickens and Wilkie Collins unabashedly cheated on their wives all the time.  Dickens lusted after a girl younger than half his age; Collins is constantly described as piggish, and overweight, and full of himself, and he lusted after everyone, especially widows and prostitutes.  He says he had a light meal, and that meal is described as a feast for five or more--but it was "a light meal" to him.  So he was overweight and didn't seem to know it.  He was unreliable in terms of his own character, and his own weight.  All this took place just 140 years ago; there's surely someone of his lineage alive today.  What could they be thinking?  And who's Wilkie Collins outside of literary enthusiasts today?  The Moonstone, anyone? 

I looked up all of the things these two were said to have done in the real world, and it's all true.  Their characterizations are not made up for the sake of selling copies.  I take a little umbrage against this today because it already seems as if nothing is ever private anymore.  Someone can type something bad about you, and post it, and it's on the internet forever.  Numbers we call, people we email, sites we go on--everything has an electronic trail and is forever if it's electronic.  (Detectives call it our electronic fingerprint, just as we have an environmental fingerprint in terms of the energy we use, and a consumer or economic fingerprint in terms of the goods that we purchase and/or consume.)

We are all characters for someone else's fiction--now, and 140 years from now.  That's always been the case--"All the world's a stage," after all, and Shakespeare said that circa 1600, over 410 years ago--but that has never seemed more the case than it is today.

My gorge rises at it.  Though I myself have never done anything so wrong to worry about it, we're all far from perfect, and it's the point of the thing.  That's my biggest misgiving of historical fiction and nonfiction: Even the best-written of them contain elements of the unforgiveably slanderous "unauthorized" biographies.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading and Writing in A Bygone Era

Photo from

Okay, so my reading of Undaunted Courage has had me envious of the outdoors skills of Lewis & Clarke and their men.  I've mentioned before that they make their own shelter, kill buffalo, elk, deer, and frankly anything that moves (though bears gave them a hard time), cook their own food, hike sometimes over 25 miles a day (while carrying all their supplies!) and so on.

[Quick disclaimer: I'm not envious of their ability to hunt, per se, as I am not a fun of hunters today shooting at living creatures that are no danger to them and that cannot fire back, but that's because shooting animals on your own is not as necessary today as it was then.  Today it's sport; back then it was survival.  As such, I am incredulous at the ability of these guys to survive on their own like that.  I suspect that today's sport hunters are trying to recapture a little of that unnecessary and non-existent manliness of a bygone era, but that's another entry.]

Anyway, I love writing outside, and I have to add that I'm a fan of living outdoors and hiking, and I regret that I don't have the time to do so anymore.  I like camping and hiking so much that I have done so in the fall and winter, and would again.  It's quiet; it's peaceful; you live in Nature and outside of yourself; you get away from it all; everything slows down and you view your existence with much more clarity.  I even write much better outside.  I wrote before that I would actually go to my father's shed in the dead of winter, and write on my laptop in the small light that he's got in there.  It is very easy to imagine that you're in the middle of nowhere over there, just hearing the sounds of the wind and the chill of the cold.

A guy I know, Roy Scribner (I always forget to ask him if he's related to the famous Scribner publishers), does take his family to the outdoors, and camps with them, and just has an awesome time.  He knows everything there is to know about such things, so if you have any questions at all, ask him here.  Anyway, this sounds like Heaven to me, and I certainly would've thought so as a child.  He and his family take camping vacations up and down the West Coast, where the REAL forests are--unlike where I am, which can be best categorized as "woods."  But I'll take 'em.  Anyway, getting the kids away from the computer (where I spend WAY too much time!), their cells, their games, their Ipods, etc.--this is probably more necessary now than at any time in the history of this country.  For the adults and for the kids.  It makes me think of a lost time when things were much simpler and when, frankly, there may have been much less to do.  More time to read and write!

That's what's holding me back right now--too many options.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I just--and I'm talkin' like ten minutes ago--started up a QueryTracker account.  One of the free ones, of course, but it looks like it'll be very useful in terms of keeping track of my business correspondence.  I do that myself, but it is quite the chore for me.  I'm simply not as organized as I should be, so why not see what it can do?  It has a lot of basic stuff: website info., info. for blogs, lists of favorite books and authors. 

It makes you rate authors and books, though, which is silly.  I don't know about anyone else, but my likes and dislikes change frequently, and my favorite anything is based solely on my mood at the time.  I'm likin' Dan Simmons right now more than anyone, and so right now he's my favorite, but I'm probably not going to put him in Shakespeare's class anytime soon.  What gets me is that QueryTracker makes you rate them; it's not an option.  Ridiculous.  So the first author I listed at #1, and the first book I listed at #1, was "These are not in any actual order."  This makes perfect sense to me; what follows then is a list of my favorites without acknowledging any #1 favorite.  This I am willing to do.  I'm setting it all up for the exposure to the website and blog anyway, and for the convenience of organizing my literary business correspondence.  If you want to know what books I like, check me out on Goodreads!  (In fact, do that.  I'm told my reviews are okay, and I've got an eclectic list.)

So I'll see how convenient the thing is, and how well it organizes my business, and I'll get back to ya.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Few Small Things

Photo: Snowy Road

Spent quite a few hours today on the business side of things.  Surprisingly uplifting and not at all the chore that it usually is.  I have quite the system by now.  Runs more smoothly than it used to.

Odd thought of the day: I was at my father's house, helping to shovel him out, when I realized that he has a small shed with working plug outlets.  And I thought: What a great place to write those scenes for the concentration camp novel and The Gravediggers and a couple of others that call for really cold, desolate scenes.  I really would sit in that shed (it's got a working light, too) with my laptop that I could plug into the wall if I had to.  I can see myself doing that, even for many hours or many days.  Only writers would look forward to doing this.  As I mentioned a few times lately on this blog, we're all a little crazy.

Office and basement are both a bit better, though the desk could use a de-cluttering again.  But I can read and work more in the basement than I used to.  Now I have two places in the house to work; not too bad.

Scrivener is working well, but it expires on me on January 30th.  They'll probably ask me to renew for the $40.  I'll do it.  Hell, I've spent more than $40 in two weeks at Dunkin' Donuts!  (I'm probably not exaggerating.)

These are all small things, but in this business, it's the small happinesses that lead to much bigger things.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Books and A Rejection

A few quick things about what I'm reading:

Undaunted Courage

It is amazing what these guys could do in the outdoors.  Make cabins, make canoes, hike thousands of miles, ride the rapids, cross the Rocky Mountains and the Bitterroot Mountains, make peace with the Native Americans they found, document every new species of animal and plant, coordinate their location by the stars, write all this in their journals, kill all their food, skin and cook all their food, cure the sick and injured--and face their fears of the unknown.  All of this, for years.  Away from their families and friends.  Despite all this, Meriwether Lewis, after conquering all of these obstacles, after camping on the Pacific, took a look at his life and didn't like what he saw.  Said he hadn't accomplished enough, done enough for the general good.  Considered himself a failure.  (Stephen Ambrose, the dedicated author, concludes that Lewis had been a manic-depressive.)  I cannot imagine this; I'm proud of myself when I walk a few blocks with my greyhound.  There probably aren't a hundred people in the country today who could do what Lewis and Clark and their men did.  I'm almost 300 pages in.


Author Dan Simmons has created an already-moody (after just 30 pages) telling of the last few years of Charles Dickens' life, as told to us in an unpublished document penned by contemporary author (and still known amongst English majors) Wilkie Collins.  Very atmospheric, and shockingly good writing.  A very memorable scene in the beginning: It's well-known that Dickens was in a train wreck five years or so before he died, and that his much-younger mistress and her mother--and not his wife--were with him on the train.  He got out of the carnage mostly unscathed--although headaches, backaches, and what we know now are PTSD-related symptoms dogged him the rest of his life--but the people he saw and tended to would remain with him, buried undead in his psyche, until he died.  The description of these people, and their severed arms, sliced-open heads, fractured skulls--and the mysterious Drood (who could've whispered his name as "Dread"), who was but a shadow with a long black cape, two slits in a skull that passed as his nose, and razor-sharp little teeth--was extremely well-done and clearly in my head as I type this.  It is this writing, this atmosphere, and this narrative sophistication that helped this novel sell well and become Dan Simmons' breakout work.  (Though his previous, The Terror, also garnered great reviews.)

I recommend both of these books highly.  I usually read one non-fiction and one fiction work at the same time.  You're not always in the mood to read just one type all the time, right?

Upon my research today, I came upon these two tidbits from two separate agents' websites:

--Query with SASE...No snail mail.
--Prefers to read material exclusively...Only responds if interested.

And I received the shortest rejection ever just under an hour ago: "Not for me--thanks anyway."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway--and Dan Simmons

A friend of mine is leaving Sunday to go overseas for a few months, so he and I hung out for awhile tonight.  Where would two writers hang out on a Tuesday night with the salt and sand trucks haunting the roads and with both guys short on money?  Borders, of course!  Since his birthday is Saturday, I figured, Why not get him some books and then go out to dinner?  So what do you get an educated guy who's passionate about literature and writing?  James Joyce's Ulysses, the granddaddy of literate, educated, passionate writing.  C'mon, it took a landmark obscenity judgment in 1933 to allow its distribution in the U.S. at all, and the last 30 pages is one sentence--and much of that is the evocation of a young woman's stream-of-consciousness and lustful thoughts.  (One wonders if it would have been as big a deal had it been a man's lustful thoughts.)

Then I heard he'd never read Joyce before, so I got him Joyce's Dubliners, too.  I have to admit that the real treat of that volume is the short story, "The Dead."  As brilliant as Ulysses, in a much more compact and different way.  The last image of snow and ash-like substance is genius.  Lastly, because he'd never read Hemingway's short stories before, I bought him a complete collection of Hemingway's short stories, the Lingua Vica Edition, or something close to that.  A friend of mine, who works there, sang the praises of "The Killers," and mentioned its obvious effect upon Quentin Tarantino, which is a leap I will also take.  I preferred "Hills Like White Elephants," which my friend said was horribly overrated.  He was denounced by another friend of mine who works there.  This latter friend is the husband of my 6th grade teacher, because this state is like that.

After buying him these classics, I bought myself Dan Simmons' Drood, and another, earlier book by Simmons.  All of this cost me under $20 because I used my better half's 33% coupon, plus a 15% coupon I found in my wallet from a survey I did for Borders, plus another 15% coupon I found as I was leaving the house.  I took the survey for that one and used it just in the nick of time.  The remainder was paid for by a $30 gift e-card from a friend of mine--Thanks, F.!--and the final tally for me was under $20.  I hope to have the time to read these two books sometime in the next 9 months. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Novel-Writing Software

Photo: Codex Sinaiticus

This is why I'm going to download a free version of a novel-writing software.  I feel a little badly about this, as if I were selling out or something, but I feel strongly about my reasons, though I feel...older and insecure because of them, too.

I can only speak for myself. I wrote my first novel longhand in a college notebook and I had a blast with it. It was hard for me to visualize what I was doing, and moving scenes and chapters around...I had to re-write everything. But I found that I wrote better.

When my hands and wrists hurt, I used my Epson Expert 2000. Yes, we're going back aways. This baby had a tiny horizontal screen that was a breakthrough back in the day. Used these tiny disks; it took 13 of them to hold a novel. This was a little better, but you could only see 16 lines at a time, and if you moved anything around, you had to change the order you saved your chapters in on those disks, and if you printed anything, you had to print it all over again. Misery. But I loved--and very much miss now--the typewriter sound effects, as the thing was a typewriter, too. Much easier to make shipping labels on!

Then time passed, the dinosaurs died off, and I got a computer. I wrote Cursing on this, which was a breeze compared to everything else, but I had problems. Moving chapters around was a pain. Storyboarding was hard. Visualizing it in my head wasn't enough anymore, as the plot got complex, and the characters, etc. I needed notecards, which I wrote out, but not well, and then I lost some of those. It was still hard to move things around. And now...

I find that I am a much better writer if I can visualize everything, including said notecards, storyboards, etc. And if they're on the computer, and I save as incessantly as I do, I won't lose them. And the best thing, the thing that's making me choose the free Scrivener over the free yWriter, is that Scrivener lets you download pictures into the thing that you're working on. So I can "see" my character (such as the guard mentioned in one of my blog posts) in a picture in the same screen that I'm writing on. This is cool for me.

The bottom line now is that I've become more of a visual learner and writer, and I need stuff on the screen to keep me focused. (I've a touch of ADHD, or I'm just incessantly hyper.) I need things to change a bit from my current way because I've stalled a little. The ideas are coming fast and furious, but the writing time has greatly diminished, and I need to become much more organized. This is how I'll do all that. I don't doubt that there'll come a time when I'll shut it off and go back to the notebooks (I already have a little), and I'm looking on my PC for a typewriter sound effect for the keyboard--Is there one?

I'm doing what I can to write with the time and the attention span (and the money, which is why I'm downloading free stuff) that I've got at my disposal. Tryin' somethin' new. Greasing the wheels. Anything to keep writing productively, right?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Writers Write

Photo: William Shakespeare's likeness on his Crypt's Monument

I have to face the harsh truth that I am not writing as often as I should be.  There are many reasons for this, mostly the fact that I am tired upon coming home in my attempt to pay The Man.  And often I have to comtinue the job at home.  This weekend, after I was totally useless yesterday with a migraine or a sinus headache, I had just one day (today) to do a lot more work for the job, which I did do.  I was so exhausted Friday that I realized I had been essentially a walking zombie all week long.  I awoke Saturday with a start, thinking I was very late to my job, and then I awoke a short time later with a massive headache that only improved, slightly, when I joined friends for a nice dinner.  Then I got home, too tired and headachy, to do any writing.  I have read a lot, but that is small consolation.

I love my job, but it is draining, and after I get home late...Well, I won't preach to the choir here.  If you follow this blog at all, then you're probably a writer as well.  And if that's the case, you already know what I'm saying.  And I don't have a huge family, either.  I just can't imagine.  If I'm not getting any writing done now...

And yet I also know that, despite how these obstacles seem like reasons, they're not--they're excuses.  Writers write, bottom line, and I haven't been as much as I should.  The 6 novels aren't going to write themselves, right?  If you're a writer, you've heard the stories:

J.K. Rowling would wake at 4 a.m. to start writing before she had to be mommy to her kids in the morning, then write while they were in school, then mommy her kids again until they went to bed, and then write until she fell unconscious, just to wake up at 4 a.m. to do it all over again.

Stephen King would teach during the day, work at a laundry press at night, and wrote consistently anyway, and not in an office, either.  His office was a typewriter on his lap.  I guess weekends, and during the nights he didn't work part-time at the laundry.

I'm banging my head against the wall sometimes because I don't know where else the time would come from.  I don't watch much television at all--just House and the occasional football game.  I read a lot, but writers have to do that, and I won't stop that.  I don't read excessively, to the point of escaping.  I had to do my laundry, and I had to re-arrange the pantry, and I had to write down what was in the pantry, and I ended up doing about 4 loads of laundry, and I only read about 50 pages today of the book, and I read a couple of sections of the paper--and here we are.  Not much writing done today, at all.  I had to find the extra time, in fact, to do the blog entries, including this one.

I know that the only answer is, damn it, find the time and just do it.  I know this.  I know that I just have to write for a few hours a day, minimum, and just do it.  As I mentioned in another entry awhile ago, that's the only answer--just do it.  Find the time.  Find a way.  Just do it.

I'm tryin', man.  I'm tryin'.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

If It Fits, It Fits. If It Doesn't, It Doesn't.

Whoa!  I got a lot of emails and comments about the last blog entry, so please let me clarify a few things.  (And thanks very much for those who responded.)

First, in response to an email, I wasn't saying that I should write an inspirational work because someone mentioned that, when I did, let her know.  Not at all.  In some ways, Cursing the Darkness, though very dark, is inspirational at the end.  The main character, after all, finds redemption and saves a life.  Solves a few major crimes and mysteries while he's at it, too.  So I do, in a way, write inspirational things, though not quite in the Anne Morrow Lindbergh vein.  Thank you, reader, for that email.

Secondly, I have to admit to a slight loss in confidence.  The business side of writing had been getting to me, and I almost had my hands and arms thrown up, but I recovered a bit today.  I am only going to write what I want, as I concluded yesterday, though today I am a bit more confident about that.  As I said, I can't say that it's a stance I'm advocating; I simply cannot write anything I'm not driven to write.  It's part of why I stopped being a freelance reporter and copyeditor.  (The other part was the lack of decent payment!)  Thank you, Emma, for your comments!  Rest assured that I'm still in it to win it--for me.  I assure you, I used to work for the papers, and unless I get my own column (which I was promised back in the day, and never got), I'm not going back!  (Though I do miss the freedom, the driving around, the independence, the meeting of new people...)

Lastly, thank you all--e-friends who emailed and/or commented--and others who called, for giving me a little pet on the head and the advice to carry on.  I will.  I am.  (After I get done the work necessary this weekend to pay The Man.)  I will indeed write what I am driven to write, what I want to write, and I will write really long blogs when I want to.  I'll keep my eyes and ears open to what's been selling, but I won't gear my work towards it, per se.  If it fits, it fits.  If it doesn't, it doesn't.

Thanks again.  You all rule!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Who Do You Write For?

Been gone for a couple of days.  Very, very tired, and a little sick, and overall very blah.  Happy New Year to you, too.

An online friend wrote something to me today that, paraphrased, said: "When you write something inspirational, please let me know..." and so on.  Very nice person, offered to have me on her site as a guest writer, and so on.  But this got me thinking.  Should writers write what they want, what they feel?  Or should they write what they hear will sell?

My writing, for those who've gone to the site to check it out, tends to be a bit dark.  Okay, it's very dark.  Okay, my better half's right--it's straight out depressing and horrifying, if not somewhat interesting.  I am, after all, writing a concentration camp novel, an apocalyptic novel, and the finished novel is about murder and mayhem.  So, okay, no happy/smiley here.  Even my blog, I'm told, could use a touch of the light.

Should I write something happy/smiley?  Or should I write what comes?  Or, maybe more to the point, should what comes be more happy/smiley?  Now were talking personal psyche and psychology.  I'm not that bad, or sad, or horrifying, I assure you.  Stephen King isn't a complete psycho, despite his stories, and a lot of people actually wouldn't be traced back to their characters or stories if they weren't attached by name or fame.

Though it has been pointed out to me (many times) that Brad Foster and I are essentially the same.  I don't have shots of Dewar's at nine a.m., and he doesn't have my job (which WOULD make many people have shots of Dewar's at nine a.m.), but I admit that he and I are alike in...spirit.  Mood.  I am much more pleasant.  And I don't carry a gun.  We both have somewhat the same attitude towards society, though he's darker, and I suppose the dead-end alley effects both of us, though he more than I.  Hmmm...

But I digress.  Not, "What to write?" but, I guess, "What to write like?"  I don't know about everyone else, but my answer to that has always been that I can't write what I don't want to write.  If forced to write something light, fluffy and amusing, I'm not sure I could do it.  Foster is very funny, I'm told (and I agree), but admittedly he's not in a life-of-the-party kind of way.  If you like your dose of reality with a heavy touch of sarcasm and slight exaggeration, he's your guy.  Cursing does end with inspiration, though that's born out of a hole in Hell to begin with.  There was nowhere to go but up, mood-wise.

But what to write like?  This is to be continued, but I also have to point out that the question applies to blog entries themselves.  A couple of rules of thumb for blogs is that the entries should stick to mostly one theme or subject (mine kinda don't) and the entries should be just a few paragraphs, certainly no more than 4 or 5 (many of mine are much longer than that).  The stats bore this out: The longer blogs are read (much) less frequently.  In fact, they tend to be skipped, just like long paragraphs of description.  So one frame of thought is, "Don't do that because your readers don't like it."  And another is: "I'll write what I want, and those who like it enough will read it."  Guess which one I favor?

Bottom line, I suppose, is: Who do you write for?  If I wrote for my readers, I'd write more light and fluffy, and my entries would fall under the same category (and, no, not just mental), and they'd be much shorter.

And so--I write for me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bert Blyleven and Superficial Thinking

Photo: Ed Walsh's T206 Baseball Card

For this post, I'm going to beg for your indulgence, especially if you're not a baseball fan.  There's a big-picture here, which mostly speaks to the power of the intelligent swaying the masses with intelligent writing, and it's also a little about the unfortunate and maddening need to have to do so.  It would not be a sin to skip the numbers a little, if you have to.  This will be long, so if you absolutely cannot bear numbers, or stats, or baseball talk, I'll understand if you scroll down to the last 4 paragraphs.  You'll miss the build-up, but you'll still get the overall point, I think.  (If you don't, scroll up a little and skim if you have to.)

I'm glad Blyleven was elected to the HOF for many reasons, but mostly because he's the poster child for sabermetrics.  (The importance of sabermetrics will be the subject of another entry.)  His stats, superficially below the Hall's standards for so long, now show why those standards were superficial to begin with.

Were the writers put off by his 287 wins--13 wins shy of the magical 300?  Were the writers that stickly?  300 wins, or else?  Even without the knowledge of WAR and other newer sabermetric standards (some of which I am honestly ignorant of myself), these writers knew what ERA was, right?  And WHIPs?  (That's walks + hits divided by innings pitched.  Essentially this shows you the number of runners allowed on base by the pitcher per inning.  Statistically, this absolves good pitchers who work for bad defensive teams.  It also shows you the occasional pitcher who has high WHIPs but low ERAs.  How can that be?  Answer: He pitches well in the clutch, when he has to.  Think Dice-K from a few years ago.)  I don't doubt that this was actually an issue early on in the voting.  But how could it have been as the years went by?  287 wins means he probably should have had 300, so why didn't he?

Look at his stats from 1971 to 1974.  In order, his won/lost records were 16-15, 17-17, 20-17, 17-17.  His ERAs were 2.81, 2.73, 2.52 and 2.66.  Here you have the definitive "problem" of his career.  In those 4 years, he was among the league leaders in wins and ERA each year; yet, all told, he won only 4 more games than he lost, and was also amongst the league leaders in losses.  How can a pitcher win so many games while losing so many games, and have good ERAs?  Simple: He pitched for teams who did not score for him, or did not field well for him.  This is odd, because (I'll have to research this) but the Twins at the time had Killebrew, Oliva and Carew and Olivo, didn't they?  They should've scored well, and often.  Maybe they just didn't for him, or they dropped the ball.  (sorry.)  That's odd, too, because Blyleven was a strikeout/flyball pitcher.  Hmmm...I'll have to come back to this.  The point is, though, that with a swing of 3 games a year--easily possible with his ERAs--then he's got a 19-win season and three consecutive 20-win seasons.  And 299 wins.  Pick up one more in all the years he pitched, you got your 300 wins, and your established peak value.  With those, there would not be a HOF discussion about him.

This also points out that win totals are often a lousy indicator of a pitcher's value.  With King Felix's Cy Young last year, this will be forever cemented in the minds of the voters.  He pitched for a lousy team that was one of the worst all-time scoring runs, and so he won just one more game than he lost.  But the voters, more savvy than in the past, correctly looked past that and gave him the Cy.  Imagine pitching for that team for most of your career--though not that bad a team--and you'd have a career much like Blyleven's.  Had Blyleven pitched for the A's or Yanks from 1971-1974, he would have easily won at least 22 games each year.  A quick glance at a Bill James Abstract shows that his teams were well below .500 teams in those years.  In 1973, he went 20-17 for a winning % of .541.  Not great on the surface, but spectacular when you see that his team played .488 without him.  In 1984, while with Cleveland, he went 19-7, for a .731 winning %, and the team played .412 ball without him.  That's an extreme example, of course, but it shows you what we're dealing with.  By the end of the 1986 season, he had 21.4 more wins above the rest of his team, according to James's Abstract published in 1988.  In other words, as mediocre as his .534 winning percentage is, it is far better than the combined winning % of the teams he played for.  In short, he played really well for some really bad teams.  (A quick glance at Nolan Ryan's stats shows you that, had he pitched for the Yanks for most of his career, rather than some very bad California and Texas teams, he would have won close to 400 games.)

To further prove this point, a few quick things I learned while gleaning other people's articles and blogs:

Joe Posnanski, a sportswriter for SI, points out that Blyleven won more 1-0 games than anyone else in the last 90 years.  Why?  Because he had to.  Blyleven, I mean.  At a guess, you'd have to imagine that he also lost more close games--or gotten a no-decision--than any pitcher in the last 90 years.

He's 13th all-time amongst pitchers in WAR.  This means that if you removed him from the roster, and replaced him with an average pitcher, that pitcher wouldn't be able to win as many games for that particular team than Blyleven did.  It takes a special pitcher to win for bad teams, and essentially Blyleven was the 13th best pitcher at doing that, all-time.  As a point of reference, Steve Carlton won 27 games and a Cy Young for a last-place team one year.  Blyleven (without pitching exactly as well as Carlton, in one year or for a career) did that almost every year of his career.

The obvious stats:

His 287 wins are 27th best, all-time.

His 3,701 Ks are 5th, all-time.

His 60 shutouts are 9th, all-time.  Since 1966, only Ryan and Seaver had more.  These last two things highlight another essential aspect of a HOF career: dominance.  If you strike 'em out, and you shut 'em out, you're dominating them.  If they can't hit you at all, and they can't score off you at all, you're dominating.  He was the 5th best and the 9th best at doing that.  Ever.

His 241 complete games is 91st all-time.  Not so hot on the surface, but from 1970 to the present, that'll be in the top ten.

He's a ROY winner, a two-time World Series winner, and he threw a no-hitter.

In 1985, he went 17-16 but led the league in games started, complete games, innings pitched, shutouts and strikeouts.  Again, if you finish what you start, and pitch more than anyone else, and they can't hit you or score off you, that's dominance.  He completed 24 games that year.  No one since 2000 has finished more than 10.  In 1985, when no one but Bill James was aware of these other benchmarks we've discussed, the Cy Young voters still looked past his won/lost record and he finished 3rd in the voting.

I could go on, but we've both probably had enough.  Why am I taking this so seriously?  First, it's very clear to me, and has been for a long time, before I ever knew anything about these other sabermetric benchmarks, that if you've pitched more innings than most, and you've struck out more than most, and you've shut down opposing teams more than most, then you're better than most.  And, if you're better than most, you should be in the HOF.  I knew this 14 years ago.  This is simple logic, and you don't have to be a sabermetrician to very clearly see this.

It is frustrating when people, in baseball and in real life, have a certain bias towards what they're looking for to the exclusion of everything else.  It is true that he doesn't have 300 wins.  It is true that he won 20 games just once.  It is true that he doesn't have a very obvious showing of peak value.  It is true that his peak years, statistically, may have come early, and since they came for a bad team, the stats they created don't look great on the surface.

But I hate on-the-surface thinking.  It annoys me--and often angers me--that sometimes that's the best that most people can do.  There's a lack of long-term, big-picture thinking here, of seeing the forest through the trees.  Blyleven wasn't the beautiful woman you can easily pick out of a crowd.  He's the beautiful woman who wears baggy sweatshirts who slips through the cracks of the minds of superficial thinkers.  He's the actually-attractive woman at the end of an 80s or 90s movie who the lunkheaded guy finally sees for who she is.  He's the guy who pitched for mediocre teams in the 70s and 80s that were not in NY or CA and therefore not on television most of the time for everyone to see.

He's the person you actually have to think about to appreciate.  And it took baseball's best 14 years to be able to do it.  And without a rabid fan base of sabermetricians and internet supporters, they wouldn't have.  He's not Pedro; he might not transcend eras like Pedro did.  But I tire of the articles and blogs today that make it seem like you have to be an expert in theoretical quantum physics to understand the numbers well enough to appreciate him.  It isn't so.  You just have to think.  A little.  Why is that so hard?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

J.D. Salinger

I've talked about him so often on this blog, and I've mentioned Catcher so often, I might as well review a couple of his books that effected me so permanently--but not in a Mark David Chapman kind of way.

Catcher in the Rye

Loved it because it's universal, an onion that never loses its layers. Constantly re-read. Loved so much I obnoxiously utter the whole paragraph of the carousel scene at the end to anyone at anytime. I have 3 copies of it--one, a hardcover, just so I can look at it on the shelf. Any non-burgundy cover--except for the hardcover with the carousel horse and NYC, of course--is blasphemy.  I'm sadly serious about this.

I read this because one day in senior English class, after finishing Bang the Drum Slowly, I poured over the list of accepted books to read for class and found it.  I thought it was a story of a down-on-his-luck baseball catcher who was playing so low in the minors that he had to play in rye fields, or something.  My English teacher at the time said, "Oh, that book's perfect for you."  Considering its sometimes lurid reputation since, I've always wondered exactly what she meant by that.  But I was afraid to ask...

Franny & Zooey

It ain't Catcher, but it ain't bad.  Catcher and Nine Stories are better, but you can see the genius at work here, too. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Nine Stories are must-reads, too.  A short story in Nine Stories, "A Good Day for Bananafish," is about Seymour Glass, oldest sibling of the Glass family, covered more thoroughly in Franny and Zooey--and the basis of the family in the movie, The Royal Tannenbaums.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

Photo: Dust Storm in Cairo, Egypt

I'll bet that writers in general have a lot of obsessive behaviors, things that have to do with writing, but are also more about personality.  For example, I already wrote about my need to have the office organized, and the writing desk cleared, before I feel writerly.  And if I'm not feeling writerly, I'm not writing.  The odd thing is that I'm not an organized person, and normally that doesn't bother me.  My desk at work is a mess!  Always has piles of things on it.  A co-worker frequently comes in and clears it and organizes it--though whether this is more for me or for her is open to debate.  But the clutter certainly bothers her more than it bothers me.  Yet I can work perfectly well with it in that state.  In fact, it's so cluttered so often, that when it isn't, it makes me feel a little weird.

And my car!  It's a pit all the time!  A real mess.  Even I get ashamed, but who has the time to clean it?  Piles of garbage, of bags and wrappers and other things are always all over the place.  It gets so bad that I frequently have to move things out of the way just so I can fit the dog in the back and not worry that he'll be buried by an avalanche of things when I turn a sharp corner.  And yet I drive perfectly fine.

So why is it that my writing office is an exception to this?  I don't know.  Maybe because that's where creation happens, or springs from.  (I rarely do much actual writing in the office.)  Maybe because, if you've noticed in past entries, I have so many projects in my head that I get paralyzed if the office is as cluttered as my head is.  Maybe it's just because I feel that, if I'm not selling some work that day, or accepting representation, I should at least get the damn office clean.  I don't know.

I've also already written about my favorite writing shirt, and I also have to admit that I check my emails very obsessively when I'm expecting a response from a magazine editor or an agent.  I mean, at least once or twice an hour, if I can, when I'm not at work.  That's a lot, I know.  I need help.

Like I said before, we're all a little crazy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

You Are What You Feel Like

Photo: Fish Stuck in Fence after Hurricane Ike, Associated Press photo by Eric Gay

Let's talk about my office.  You would think that a writer would be able to write anywhere--even should be able to write anywhere--and that his office is just a place to save things, to file things, to send stuff out...But for me, I have to feel comfortable and writerly in my office, even if I do most of my writing out of the office.  Isn't that strange?

So I've mostly cleaned off the desk, cleared out some non-essential books--if there can be such things--and cleared off the writing desk that I actually do some writing on.  (I mostly use this desk because of the computer, which I use to type my blogs, save things, send stuff out, and other business-like things.)  I've even placed the keyboard in a more comfortable and productive position, one that it's never been in before.)  Now that I've done all this, I feel more the urge to write, even though I know most of the writing won't be done in here.  I know that's weird, but creating is all about feeling, right?  You are what you feel like.  It's just like how I have a favorite shirt I wear to write in.  Makes me feel more like writing.  We're all a little crazy.

I also put my first contract (for a short story) on my office door, so that I look at it now everyday.  (It'd been standing on the air conditioner, which is off to the side, easily visible but not in the middle of everything.)  Shows me that I can get it done, no matter the rejections, the unproductive days, and anything else that makes me lose that feeling.  Because you really are what you feel like.

My office is all set for now.  I'm ready.  Bring it on.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Three Essential Books for Writers

As a public service to all writers out there, I recommend these three books.  Lamott's and King's are popular and no-brainers, but the Heinlein book may surprise you.  It's dated, yet oddly useful and occasionally fascinating.

Bird by Bird--Annie Lamott

Brilliant writer. Can't get enough of her, from her days at to anything recent. A must for anyone who even thinks about becoming a writer. I re-read it every now and then if I am stuck, or just for a kick in the butt.  Also a great exercise in Voice, for those who struggle with that, and for those who don't know what it is.  Her voice is unmistakable.  You'd know it was hers just from the writing alone.  Indispensable.  Take a look at her archived pieces on, too.  A writer's writer, severely underappreciated by everyone else.

Grumbles from the Grave--Robert Heinlein

Some dated (and kinda sexist) stuff, but a great little book for aspiring writers in terms of dealing with editors, agents, contracts--and, most importantly, writing. Not a How-To, like On Writing or Bird by Bird, nor a memoir, but a collection of letters between Heinlen and others, published by his widow. Best piece of advice: produce copy, produce copy, produce copy.  Also an interesting look at the writer himself.  His widow lets it be what it is.  He doesn't come across as an aesthete, and he makes no bones at all about how he wrote mostly for the money, but you don't have to be fascinated by the guy to learn something from him.

On Writing--Stephen King

Indispensable, on par with Bird by Bird and John Gardner's book (which I also recommend). Brilliant. I've seen this used high schools and in colleges.  This book started the recent appreciation of King outside of his actual fanbase.  Other writers and writing organizations started taking him seriously as a writer after the publication of this book.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Writerly Things

Happy New Year, everyone!

Today I'm taking it easy.  Doing writerly things like: reading (over 150 pages into Undaunted Courage--a semi-biography of Meriwether Lewis and a history of that era and the Louisiana Purchase--that my better half's mother was nice enough to get me for Christmas), organizing the office (I've decided that I'm going to keep only the books and research materials I need to write the novels and stories I'm working on right now, and store every other book away), sending out three short stories that were finished awhile ago (including one that takes place on Christmas and Christmas Eve--guess I missed the boat on that one), and--oh, yeah--writing!!!

May we all have great writing and even better contracts this year!!!  I leave you with a really good quote I stumbled across recently, applicable to all writers and other artists:

"The truly creative mind, in any field, is no more than this: a human born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create-so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating."

-Pearl S. Buck