All of literature is connected. Listen.
Norb Vonnegut and I joined up recently in Manhattan at the Algonquin Hotel. Where else agreeably to conspire about the future of Algonquin Redux? We both appreciate literary confluence. There I told him this story, every word of it true and unembellished. “You have got to put that on AR,” he insisted.
Its cover blares this terrific blurb: “Wall Street. Washington. Intelligence. The Navigator gives you the smartest, wildest ride of your life.” — Norb Vonnegut, Author of The Trust.
Friends help friends. The content of the blurb is not the point of this story. Norb’s name on my cover is.
I had just given a copy of the ARC to my father Walt Pocalyko, who will be 88 in about three weeks. Still a lion, still a reader, he took one look at the cover and smiled broadly. Then he pointed at Norb’s name and asked me if that was Kurt Vonnegut’s son.
Only that’s not how he phrased the question.
“Wait,” Dad said. “Is that Bernie O’Hare’s buddy’s son?”
My father was a close friend of Bernard V. O’Hare (1923-1990), whom readers of Slaughterhouse-Five know from the poignant opening story-of-the-story. Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) finds his old Army buddy. They had been prisoners of war together. Real-life soldiers Kurt and Bernie experienced the actual firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 huddled in a slaughterhouse. During a visit to Pennsylvania to reconnect with Bernie while writing his World War II novel, Kurt encounters stern opprobrium from Bernie’s wife Mary. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies,” she accused him and her husband, “and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” Kurt promises her that war won’t look wonderful in his book.
It didn’t. Slaughterhouse-Five may be the pinnacle of anti-war fiction. Its subtitle is The Children’s Crusade and the novel is dedicated to Mary O’Hare.
“No, Dad,” I replied. “Norb is not his son. Same family though. A big family. And he’s used to getting asked that question. He’s a distant cousin.”
“Did I ever tell you,” Walt continued, “how Kurt found Bernie?”
“Huh?” I said. From here on, Walt gets to tell his story and I’ll fill in some details.
“Bernie had been our solicitor for Bethlehem Township. This had to be in ’64, because I was just building our Lewis Avenue house, remember? You and your brother were kids. Bernie got himself elected district attorney for Northampton County the previous November. He was wrapping up his solicitor work that year, spring or summer. You were what? Nine? Too young to remember, really, how active I was in the township then. Boy those were great years.”
My father was on Bethlehem Township’s school board, its consolidated school board, then its auditor, zoning administrator, and municipal secretary throughout that decade.
“I used to go right over to the municipal building every afternoon when I finished at the Steel.”
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania the Steel was always preceded by the definite article and capitalized, even when spoken. In the summer of 1964 Walt was a financial manager there. He was 39 years old.
“This had to have been during one of our Saturday morning meetings. As I said, Bernie was still attending. The way I remember it, Connie Schubert came in to find me. I know you remember Connie, my secretary. She said that there’s a guy here looking for Bernie. I went out and met him. Such a nice, decent guy. We chatted for quite a while, and eventually he told me that he and Bernie were prisoners of war together. Now I remembered that Bernie had fought in the Bulge along with your Uncle Mike and your Uncle Pete, but until then I’d forgotten that he was captured and became a German POW. That’s where the two of them met.”
Literary history, Dad.
“Like a lot of us, those two kept in sporadic touch since the war. Bernie went on to law school in the late forties of course. That day, as best I know, was probably the first time that they had seen each other since ’45. Kurt located Bernie by coming to the municipal building, finding Connie and then me. So soon enough, Bernie comes out. It was not any kind of big emotional reunion, even after what? Nineteen years? None of us was that way. But those two were both obviously very happy to be there. Together. They had one hell of a bond. And they were really fine, good men.”
That way would mean . . . emotionally expressive about their combat experiences in World War II.
“The best part of those meetings was afterwards when we’d all reconvene at the Peacock.”
Roadhouse. Burned down the year Bernie died.
“By the time I got there Bernie and his army buddy already had a couple of beers in front of them and were just talking quietly. Talking. I knew other POWs like that. They had it the worst of all of us. We had a great afternoon after that, maybe eight or ten of us eating and smoking cigarettes and drinking and talking. Bernie’s buddy just became one of the gang for the day. And the funny thing is, Mike, he didn’t tell us he was a writer. I never knew that until you came home from college with his book. The one Bernie and Mary are in.”
This story comes full circle in The Navigator.
My favorite stunning reader moment in Slaughterhouse-Five is this: “An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”
The tribute meme in the prologue to my novel is this: Seconded in April 1945 to an intelligence operation liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a B-24 navigator sees “the faces of the Englishmen and the other Americans flattened beyond belief in frozen stares that must, he recognized, exactly mirror his own.” I was vaguely conscious of Kurt Vonnegut excreting his brains when I wrote that line, more so 367 pages later when this reveal comes in my acknowledgements: When the fictional navigator saw those faces of men forever changed, “he was looking at Walt Pocalyko in real life.”
We’re back to the Algonquin Hotel. “They were amazing men,” Norb says to me quietly.
“They are amazing men,” I reply as Norb nods agreement.
And I mean it with love.
Peace, Bernie. Peace, Kurt.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
I thought I’d do something a little different for this post and discuss some current events in the publishing world. As most of you have probably heard by now, Amazon has recently announced its acquisition of social-network-for-books, Goodreads. This after already acquiring Goodreads competitor Shelfari, and 40% of competitor LibraryThing. Wow, if that’s not intent to dominate, I don’t know what is.
Could one company (which is already the 800-pound gorilla in the room of retail bookselling and which has recently established multiple publishing imprints) owning so much digital book real estate be a good thing?
What are your thoughts?
I, for one, wonder if they will synch the reviews from Amazon and Goodreads.
If you want to dig a little deeper, here’s one of a plethora of articles about the deal and its implications:
I myself have been a long-time user of Goodreads (and Amazon), and I hope that Goodreads continues to be as useful and entertaining as it has been so far. Join me and let’s go along for the ride:
A sweet dry wind blows downriver through the Rio Grande Valley. Squinty sun, cornflower sky. Mid-afternoon two and a half weeks ago. I am in Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican border town in Tamaulipas, catching shade in an open-air bar and . . . doing research for a novel. Yeah. Let’s go with that.
The bar is called the Red Panty.
Not a word of this is made up.
Above and behind the friendly-laconic Mexican bartender is a backlit drink menu painted on a plexiglas rectangle. No prices, just the names of the cocktails. In English. Sort of.
The menu fascinates me. Zoombie, Huracan, Orgasmo, Black Rusia, Amareto, and Panter Punch. Margarita and Piña Colada are correct—they’re Spanish words, after all. A Martini is a Martini the world around. But mix gin with lemon juice and they’ll serve up a Gin Fish.
I am smiling at the mistakes when I have two thoughts. First, shame to be judging my gracious hosts like the Yanqui that I obviously am here. Next, realization that no matter how atrocious the spelling is, I still know exactly what the drinks are. English rendered badly matters . . . and then again, it doesn’t.
This is the Zoombie Paradox, worth considering. It applies to my novel and has broader implications.
We’re about seventy days from the launch of The Navigator.
One feature of my book is that language play drives its narrative as a thriller. The first German word is on the first page and the language itself becomes a key plot device. I am on solid ground in German. Less so in Hungarian, one of the languages that my mother and grandmother spoke at home when I was a kid. I use a fair amount of Hungarian in The Navigator to illuminate one character. Japanese, French, Spanish (a whole quick dialogue), Hebrew, and Arabic all make cameo appearances.
I like languages. I can fake it with flair in a number of them. I figure if you manage a foreign language at about fifteen percent competency you get by. Best result, you show respect for the people who speak it every day, who think in that language.
After I got back from Mexico I began having one of those writer’s anxieties. I wonder how many native speakers of the languages I employed in The Navigator will think that I am a foolish foreign language poseur, about as fluent as the guy who wrote the Red Panty’s drink menu.
The Zoombie Paradox transfers. Foreign language accuracy matters in a novel . . . and then again, it doesn’t.
Those languages, other than plot-critical German, are there to create auras, feelings, emotions, verisimilitude. They are poetic lodestones even if you need to be informed that nagyszerű is what you say in Hungarian when a girl is gorgeous or that yaru ka yarareru ka is Japanese for kill or be killed.
There are moments in The Navigator like the one where a character tells a story, then ends by saying the Hebrew words hashem yinkom damam, and I don’t explain what that means. Kind of a code between me and readers who figure it out. Those who do get a clue about that character.
Foreign languages matter.
With language play, mood and setting become clearer in fiction, even when readers do not understand the snippet. The idea conveys anyway.
One of my closest friends in the academy is Dr. Kathleen Stein-Smith at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where I was a trustee. Kathy just published a book on this subject, The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit and Our Economic and National Security. You can tell from the title which side she takes. She argues that even with English as the new lingua franca (lingua anglais?) worldwide, we Americans isolate and disadvantage ourselves by knowing and speaking only English.
I will leave to her and other credentialed thought leaders just how this insight might play out. I know from the paradox that there are degrees of freedom for disagreement.
I also know that when I spoke Spanish to the bartender at the Red Panty, he answered me in English, as if to say . . . Give it up. We’re both better off if we talk in the language you use all the time.
So I shrugged, shifted to English, and sure enough, the world didn’t end. Nobody cared.
The Red Panty is that kind of place. The question is . . . is fiction?
In The Navigator there is an unapologetic shout-out to an unlikely place. A suburb.
The walking paths of Reston, Virginia are famous and special. They are particularly special to the residents of Reston, who style themselves as stewards of the nation’s preeminent planned community. Built beginning in the 1960s in what were once the forest and agricultural wilds of northwest Fairfax County, the “new town” was constructed with meticulous planning and a fierce local bureaucracy. In the beginning, everything was laid out. Zoning reigned with rigidity rivaling Soviet central planning. The result was stunning. Everything about Reston was special, parklike, and visionary.
Reston is my city home, location of our Washington pied-à-terre. I live here when I’m not up on the Blue Ridge. Reston is unique in the whole east coast megalopolis because of the most profound sense of community extant anywhere in exurbia. I know—I ran for office here once.
Reston is mourning. Our only Barnes & Noble store closes tomorrow. I am not smiling in this picture of my sad last walk through a furniture-piled inflection point the other day.
News of the store’s closing broke in December. “It’s not personal,” a prominent local journalist wrote, while admitting “I don’t think I have made more than a handful of purchases in the last two years.”
The B&N is just a couple hundred yards from our high-rise. I was looking forward to holding one of the book launches for The Navigator there in June. To having a public reading and signing. To hosting my friends there. Not going to happen now.
Here is my contrarian suggestion about why the store is closing.
This event is not, as the econo-punditocracy usually suggests, a result of the economic watershed in the book publishing industry, the rise of e-readers, fewer people buying and reading books, the emergence of publishing on demand, B&N stores “showrooming” for on-line purchasers, or the astonishingly successful market dominance of Amazon.com.
All of those factors play. But they are peripheral to what has changed the bookstore market and its sociological role in connecting readers.
This is now a market too perfect for profit.
Robert Kuttner wrote that phrase in a prescient 1998 essay about Internet commerce in Business Week. He attributed the concept to economist Joseph Schumpeter, of “creative destruction” fame.
The closing of the Reston store is not the fault of Barnes & Noble corporate or the wildly fluctuating purchasing mores of readers. It’s much simpler than that.
Margins on costs for that store were high and climbing. The developer-owner of the property wouldn’t budge when the store’s lease came up for renewal. The landlord had a new tenant lined up . . . as if the world needs another Container Store. (That is not a novelist’s metaphor, that’s really what’s going in there.) Little negotiating leverage was left for B&N, which indeed tried mightily.
Margins on net operating income at the same time are decreasing wherever books are sold. Trust me. Ask your local independent bookseller. Or anyone working in a Big Six publisher—soon to be the Big Five.
Squeezed from both ends, B&N couldn’t construct an income statement with a positive number in Reston.
Unlike in business school case studies, in the real world, when stores can’t turn a consistent profit, they close down. In corporate Barnes & Noble, shaded by the penumbra of the Borders bankruptcy, each store must be contributing. Our expression in the Navy was “every tub on its own bottom.”
This interplay has deep meaning for us as writers and as readers.
There used to be a physical, tangible book community alive in the Reston Barnes & Noble. We will not be the same when we are connected only by electrons and screens. As a tribe none of us needs additional distance—the reader-side analogue to the clear-eyed brilliance of Douglas Corleone’s post here, The Lonely, Uncertain Life of a Writer.
I’ll miss the conversations in that store. The discoveries. The visual feast. The tactile pleasure of holding hardcovers. The inventory change-ups. The volume and density of books, books.
I’ll miss judging the “new and notable” on each visit—even though I haven’t read any of it yet and probably never will.
I’ll miss the wonderful cross-platform ability to order something on-line, walk over there, and buy the book, set aside waiting for me by the time I arrive.
I’ll miss the people whom I only know by face, with the decency of boundaries, shared small smiles, and nods.
I’ll miss the ever-upbeat homeless woman who was still shuffling through the store’s bare-shelved aisles during my final visit, talking to herself incoherently as she always does.
I will probably miss most the anticipation of seeing my own novel displayed on a poster in the windowspace that now announces “This Barnes & Noble is closing on February 28th.”
This store’s demise is a symptom of colony collapse disorder for book people.
I revere independent booksellers of course, but I really liked having a big bookstore nearby.
Harold Stenger, my old mentor and beloved literature professor in college, used to say, “The law of life is the law of change.”
I quoted that line when I gave his eulogy.
My daily writing output runs erratic. Some days I’m a scene machine, other days I agonize for hours on a sentence I end up deleting. I’m positive I missed something in the writer’s handbook—the password to the club, the secret handshake, or a hoodoo brew to make my fingers fly over the keyboard (and I’m not talking coffee.) In an effort to find a clue to consistency I became a process junkie. I love hearing how others work, especially writers like Daryl Wood Gerber, the award-winning author of two mystery series who writes thrillers in her spare time. What is spare time?
Today marks the release of To Brie or Not to Brie, the fourth novel in the bestselling Cheese Shop Mystery series Daryl writes as Avery Aames. I coaxed Daryl/Avery into sharing her process and a few of her writing secrets with me.
RS: Four novels in three years, another release coming in July, and a thriller in the pipeline. Do tell—how do you organize your daily writing process?
DWG: First, I set up how long I have for the whole book, from outline to finish, adding in a full reread, and then another reread. Once I’ve established that, I start a book. I wake around 5:30 to 6:00 and try to write for 2 hours without any interruptions. That seems to be best for me. I’m almost in my dream-state at the time of the morning. The negative voices have not yet gotten hold of me. I follow an outline that has the basics of a scene/chapter laid out. If I get “stuck” at any time, I might reread the chapter before and see if that spurs me to write the new chapter. If that doesn’t work, I get on my feet and pace and ask questions about conflict. Where is the conflict, where is the love? And then I ask what if…? If that doesn’t work (you’re getting the idea that writing is not easy!!), I take out my timeline outline and fill in details. [That timeline includes things like all the cheeses or cookbooks I reference, clues, red herrings, etc.] At least I’m writing something. Around 8 I break for breakfast, exercise and email. I try to get back to writing by 10 a.m. and write for 2 more hours. Understand, I’m not a machine, so there are many days where this schedule gets shaken up. But putting my rear in the chair is so important. In the afternoons, I often go to a coffee shop, slip in my earpods, turn on classic or jazz music, and go through what I wrote in the morning. Those moments are total delights.
Do you always follow an outline or will you let characters veer off on their own?
DWG: I follow an outline, BUT a character can veer and they often do. It’s like having a road map. I feel comfortable going from point A to point B, but if I see a nice picnic spot on the side of the road I might stop. If there’s a sign for a wine or cheese tasting down the road, it’s a done deal. LOL. Sometimes my characters “tell me” that they have to diverge and I do listen. I’m not a writing tyrant.
One of the writing mantras I heard early on was read, read, read. What are your reading habits? Do you read for pleasure or consider it part of the job and take notes?
DWG: This depends. I read for pleasure when I’m on vacation. I have a couple of authors that I buy specifically for vacation reading. When I read for work, meaning I need to learn from a style or I’m reading to judge a contest, I take notes, I dog-ear pages, I underline. I can be quite the student when necessary. I’ve learned so much from other writers. I try to grasp voice and tone, and I weigh why that book is a bestseller and the other one (sold at the same time) is not. It’s important to understand all aspects of the business.
DWG: As an actress, I learned how to take rejection. I was talented, and I was successful and, yes, I was lucky, too, but there were times I cried myself to sleep wondering why they didn’t “like” me. The whole worth thing comes into play. Regarding the series, another producer put my idea into action and made it a hit. I was thrilled to get through the door at the time. Writing TV and then screenplays, I really started to understand the three-act structure. I still apply that to my work. I try to have thrilling chapter ends so the reader will turn the page and not “switch channels” during the commercial break.
I love your “switch channels” theory!
I have a few short questions left to get to know you even better—
Mac or PC? Mac.
What else is on your desk? Books, bookmarks, and inspirational sayings. A microphone so I can record a chapter or short story. There’s a “Say Cheese” mug (it’s new). On the other side it says, “Life is great; cheese makes it better.” ~Avery Aames
Complete silence or background music? I love music. I can write in complete silence, too.
Favorite writing snack? Chocolate – Hershey’s Kisses or Dove Dark Chocolate.
And for fun? Swim, walk, golf, practice ballroom dancing in my kitchen…great floor! Gardening, cooking, reading, taking photographs
Most embarrassing song on your iPod: “I Honestly Love You”…but Hugh Jackman is singing it.
Fave film: Romancing the Stone, It Happened One Night, Godfather.
Guiltier pleasure: Wine and cheese
Guiltiest pleasure: Wine and cheese and chocolate – in bed.
Hah! Sounds like the perfect end to an exhausting day. I think I’ll try your early rise and on the computer trick to see if my internal editor/critic will stay behind in bed for a few hours. And for full disclosure, I admit I occasionally sing “I Honestly Love You” out loud with the radio in my car.
Thank you so much for taking us behind the curtain into your process, Daryl. I wish you continued success.
As AVERY AAMES, Daryl writes the Agatha Award-winning, nationally bestselling Cheese Shop Mystery series featuring a cheese shop owner who cares about family above all else. Set in the quaint, fictional town of Providence, Ohio. As DARYL WOOD GERBER, she writes A Cookbook Nook Mystery series featuring a cookbook store owner who is an avid reader and admitted foodie. Set on the coast of California & debuts July 2013. Daryl’s short stories have been nominated for the Agatha and other awards.
When I was twenty-one I wrote my first novel. It was awful in the way that only undergraduate novels can be awful. I graduated from college on Memorial Day 1976. Ahead of me were a few months marking time through the Bicentennial summer before a fixed reporting date at Navy flight school.
I used that time to try to sell the novel. My agent, Peter Shepherd at Harold Ober Associates, was a New York literary giant tolerant enough to take me on as his development project and shop the book. Agents would do that then.
He was unsuccessful of course. Thank God.
But I did try hard to market the book. Probably too hard, facing a commencement-moment-certain for real life. Before the year was out I moved to Florida, earned my commission as a naval officer, then married the college girlfriend to whom I dedicated that book. The novel went mercifully unpublished. I never looked back.
Yes, same wife today. I know you were wondering.
Here’s the point about 1976: I wanted to be a writer so much more than I actually had something important to say.
And I have the pictures to prove it.
My co-conspirator, the photographer, was a wonderful, warm, shy, incredibly literate woman, my friend then and now. Guarded with her passions, her fervor and artistry bloomed behind the lens. Audrey Tiernan went on to a storied career as a photojournalist.
I don’t know what’s more extraordinary, the fact that the two of us had some kind of contextual author’s image in mind on the day we drove to an abandoned train station for that photo shoot . . . or that Audrey was only nineteen when she took those magnificently composed pictures for the dust jacket that never was.
A great unspoken truth in book marketing, especially of novels, is that the author’s photograph on the dust jacket, and today on a web page, has real meaning.
As readers and book buyers we infer a lot about a book—credibility, message, themes, voice, and vision—when we first look at the image of the man or woman who wrote it.
We don’t necessarily want to admit this, but we judge the author visually in order to form first impressions. Impressions that coalesce quickly.
They are telling us something, or they are trying to.
So who was that guy? What kind of book, what kind of image was he trying to market?
I called Audrey, who has more objectivity than I do. “You have to remember,” she said, “even then as a photographer I was always trying to create an image of how the person sees himself. But I’m bringing my vision to that process. I think about that dilapidated closed railroad station that we shot at, and the intense young author . . . “
“Who was trying too hard,” I interrupted.
“Sure you were,” she concurred. “But that made for such an interesting juxtaposition. I liked that. This is different from journalism, where I’m covering a news scene. There I am documenting. In portraiture I’m trying to promote something, to show a vision, to elicit a reaction. And those photos of you were quite imposing.”
“Yes they were.”
“We were so young.”
“Yes we were,” I agreed, and I could hear her smiling over the phone.
Audrey Tiernan’s 1976 photographs show a want-to-be writer with concentration, intellectual intensity, drive, imaginative and romantic flair, artistic and sexual flirtation. All eclipsed by the dominant impression of a guy trying to prove something . . . only, really, he doesn’t precisely know what he’s trying to prove.
It’s 37 years later. For my picture on the dust jacket of The Navigator I turned to Carl Cox, one of the country’s best-known and most successful photographic portraitists. We’ve been friends for years.
Carl happens to love thrillers and all things literary. He is a genius with the camera and in the digital darkroom, and has been at it professionally almost fifty years, since he was a teenager.
“First things first,” he said. “I have to read your book.”
Now here’s a subtlety that, if I wrote it in a novel, someone would criticize as naïve and too obvious. Carl specializes in location portraits. For the first part of our photo shoot, he took my picture at . . . a train station. Union Station in Washington, DC to be precise. There we got the money shot, the one that’s on the dust jacket of The Navigator, on Amazon.com in advance of the book’s June 11 publication date, and here on Algonquin Redux.
“I know you,” Carl said, “but in creating this photo I first pictured in my mind the guy who would have written that book. What would he look like? The author and the book have a lot of texture. I had to get a sense of image first.”
The Navigator begins with a startling dark prologue, at the liberation of a German concentration camp in 1945. “The Holocaust Museum is one of my most important accounts,” Carl continues, “so I was tremendously personally impacted from the beginning right on through. By the time I finished the novel I was ready. Washington is my home town. Everything in the novel was familiar to me and rang so true. I saw you most intentionally like Mickey Spillane, from the way he looked on the books I read as a youngster. His photograph influenced me along with his mysteries. Not that your book is like his stuff . . . “
“Hey, I’ll take that comparison any day,” I said. Spillane sold over 225 million books.
“I meant that in your photos you come across as tough and intellectual, confident, hard but not mean. These are pictures of a calm man, well-ordered. There are a lot of secrets he keeps. He has something important to say that I want to read.”
Which Carl Cox also thinks happens in this photograph, taken in his studio later that day intentionally and reverently in the style of Yousuf Karsh.
I believe that the photographs, old and new taken together, prove a point.
Writing, our writing life, and a good life overall are so much easier when you have a message to convey and a story to tell.
Also, it helps to get past the point in life where you’re desperate to prove something, desirous to be someone you are not.
Or not yet.
I have a friend who wants to be a writer. Well, he already is a writer — a newspaper reporter — and a very good one, at that. But he would also like to be a novelist. In fact, he’s working on something right now. Something that he asked me to read and, hopefully, offer some guidance.
Now, before you think I’m some selfish writer who doesn’t want to help others, let me explain. I refused to read his book because it’s not finished. He still has a ways to go before it’s done. I told him I’d happily read a completed manuscript. But a half-finished one? Well, that’s just a waste of time.
When explaining my reason for not wanting to read his work right now, I gave him the biggest piece of wisdom I could think of. It’s this: The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is a completed manuscript.
It’s pretty straightforward, no? Also easy to grasp. Granted, there are dozens of reasons why some people get published and others don’t, but the biggie is what I stated above — a completed manuscript.
Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book”? Or witnessed that age-old excuse of “I just haven’t gotten around to writing it”? Every time I hear something of that ilk, I want to shake the person and remind them that books don’t write themselves. Writing a book is hard work. It takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes hour after lonely hour in front of a blank computer screen, slowly creating a world out of nothing but words. Those who fail to understand that often end up with desk drawers full of half-completed manuscripts.
I know this from experience. I was that person for years. Back when I was a young, aspiring writer, I started (and abandoned) several projects. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least four different books that I started writing but never finished. For most of them, I lost steam around page 100. That’s the point when, even after putting in so much work, I realized that I still had 200 to 300 pages left to write. And I got intimidated. And tired. And just flat-out bored. So I would stop and move on to something else, only to get intimidated and tired and bored all over again.
But then, one day, I decided to just push through all that doubt and tedium and kept on working. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just liked the idea I was working on better than the others. Or maybe, deep down, I realized the words of wisdom that I recently gave to my friend, that I would never, ever get published unless I had a finished product that actually could get published. And when I did finish it, I felt pretty good about myself. I had created something out of nothing! I had written a book!
There’s a great Stephen Sondheim song from the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” It’s called “Finishing the Hat.” While on the surface it’s about painter Georges Seurat and how the woman he loves can’t understand why he needs to paint, it’s also about the pains of creating something, anything. Georges’ example is a hat. And how you have to finish it, even though the rest of the world keeps on spinning just outside of your window.
I love that song. I can relate to it. I especially love the ending, when Georges looks at one of his sketches and proclaims: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” Whenever I finish a book, that’s exactly how I feel. “Look!” I want to shout to everyone who will listen. “I made this!”
So that’s why I said no to my friend. It was my way of dangling a carrot on a stick, coaxing him into finishing the manuscript. I don’t want him to be like younger, stubborn, lazy me. I want him to fulfill his dream of getting published. But, more than anything, I want him to feel proud of what he accomplished. I want him to finish that hat. Where there never was a hat.
As much as the act of writing seems like a pie-in-the-sky activity, for most professional authors it is grounded in the reality of deadlines, contracts, promotion, and marketing. We create a product, from concept to execution. To do so, a writer needs tools. And many of these tools are supported by infrastructure — which traditionally has been very concrete (paper, ink, desk, chair) and has semi-morphed to the digital age (computers, printers, hard drives, USBs). Recently, it has evolved to include a rather intangible element: the cloud.
I recently spent several months upgrading my computer system. I’m fairly tech proficient, which I attribute to a nascent mechanical-engineering gene passed down from my father. But technology for the sake of it doesn’t thrill me. I don’t buy game apps, I don’t play video games, and I don’t play hooky at the Apple store.
That being said, I do appreciate having technology to support my work. I do not write longhand, so I rely on having a laptop and a desktop to support my work schedule. But the past few years of tight deadlines and pressing family demands resulted in a system that had not been upgraded, and had two overflowing inboxes that hit four digits because I hadn’t figured out how to sync my systems. (I read and responded to emails on my laptop, and others on my desktop. Unable to sync them, I was worried about deleting them and losing business correspondence, so they all stayed in my inbox). My anxiety grew as my inbox became more and more unruly.
I knew the solution was to create a home network. And since I had slowly converted my home system to Mac, I knew I needed to join to iCloud, something I had resisted as I am inherently suspicious of saving data to something as nebulous-sounding as a cloud – over which I have little control (don’t worry, I also use Time Machine). However, when my cellular contract for my outdated Blackberry expired, I bought a new iPhone, and began the long, sometimes frustrating, occasionally baffling journey to upgrading, syncing, and iCloud-ing all of my computers and devices.
It was worth it. I now have my emails, contacts, and calendar synced across all of my devices. I am finally maximizing the potential of my technology infrastructure.
I have to give a big shout-out to all those people around the world who quietly populate tech help forums and provide solutions that actually work. They truly are the heroes of the cyber age. I can’t tell you how many times I googled various error messages and found solutions. I also hired an IT guy to help with some of the setup because the issues were not solvable via the Apple Genius Bar, etc.
Once I put that layer in place, I decided to explore the productivity apps for my system. I am in a very intensive research phase of my new book. It is a historical thriller, and the scope of research is enormous.
Here is where I have taken my technology infrastructure to a new level through a clever and functional app: Evernote (free!). I’ve always been a bit skeptical about productivity apps, usually finding they languish on my home screen while I resort to tried-and-trued methods of simple note taking on blank paper.
However, while sick over Christmas, I decided to use my downtime on the sofa to explore Evernote. And I’m very happy I did. Quite simply, it is an app for keeping notes organized. One creates a notebook, ie. “Research”. Within the notebook, one creates individual notes. These notes can be in the form of a photo, a PDF scan (using an app such as GeniusScan, see below), a document cut and pasted into a note, or a note written directly on the note template.
The feature that I am finding indispensible is the “web clipper”, which one installs on the browser tool bar. When one finds a web link to add to the notebook, one can click the Evernote web clipper icon, and then save the entire web page or a selected section. I am addicted to this function! It saves me from littering my computer screen with urls, or having to dig around in my bookmark bar on my browser. All my notes, regardless of the medium, are saved in one place. One caveat: the web clipper icon does not install properly in IOS, so I use my laptop or desktop to do web research, and then sync it to my iPad. And Evernote syncs across all my devices, so my notes are available on whichever device I happen to be working.
Once I have created the note, I then tag it, usually with several tags. Then, when I need to find a reference about the subject, I search for notes with those tags.
Finally, I’ve used Evernote in conjunction with GeniusScan, a free app (which I upgraded for $2.99 to take advantage of its cloud functions), that will allow one to use an iPad or iPhone to “scan” (take a photo) of a document, and convert it to PDF format. This app has allowed me to scan the title page and colophon of library books which I might wish to borrow again. I can add tags to the scan, then upload it directly to my notebook in Evernote. The apps work seamlessly together.
Evernote has become an indispensable tool for me to organize information. Of course, how I use that information is where the art of writing takes off. The infrastructure upgrades have made the takeoff much smoother and reduced the turbulence.
P.S. My computer system and research organization isn’t the only infrastructure I’ve been improving. I’ve been trying to add more whole grains and veggies to the family diet. I created a “Recipes Notebook” in Evernote, and have been clipping all the recipes I find online. When I’m out grocery shopping, I can double-check them on my phone to make sure I haven’t forgotten something, and then I load the recipe on my iPad to prepare the meal.
I leave you with a favorite recipe that has been improving my personal infrastructure: Arugula and Roasted Chickpea Salad with Feta, from Bon Appetit. I can prepare this in 10-15 minutes, with the following tweaks:
Even when the headlines are not full of tragedy, it’s not always easy being a crime writer. I worry about the moral implications of contemplating violent death. I sat at my keyboard with tears running down my face while writing about the death of a favorite character in DEATH MAKES THE CUT. Worse than that, my coworkers laugh nervously when they see me carrying scissors, and waiters give me odd looks when they overhear my friends ask who I’m going to kill next. In real life, real crime makes me sick to my stomach. So why do we love our crime fiction and why is a mild-mannered, law-abiding writer like me fascinated with that most heinous of all crimes – murder?
Evil exists in the world. As readers and as writers, crime fiction lets us view and attempt to understand horrible deeds through the safety lenses of fiction. Some books show the crime through the eyes of the killer and reveal his motivation, however twisted. Some books show the impact of the murder on the lives of those left behind – but in a fictional and therefore bearable way. Murder mysteries provide a controlled peek into the uncontrolled vortex of human evil, without the uncertainty and terror that accompanies the real thing. Plus, let’s face it – murder makes for darn good reading.
Crime fiction shows us how good people cope with tragedy. After a murder, the protagonist somehow has to pick up the pieces and make sense of things. The professional sleuth (the police officer or detective) struggles to maintain her emotional distance from the case while putting herself in harm’s way. This lets us feel admiration. The amateur sleuth (the friend or relative or innocent bystander) copes with loss and terror while fighting to achieve some kind of justice or closure. This lets us feel empathy. Sometimes the protagonist isn’t perfect and makes mistakes or choose actions that aren’t completely legal or even smart. This lets us feel superior. Crime fiction gives us the chance to live and triumph over life-altering events without actually experiencing that nasty life-altering bit.
Finally, we read and write crime fiction because of the unspoken promise: at the end, a good mystery delivers both understanding and some type of justice (something not always found in the real world). At the most basic level, a murder mystery is crime…and punishment. I find crime fiction to be some of the most deeply moral literature being written today. In most mysteries, there is a true sense of right and wrong; murder can never be rectified, but it can be avenged and the murderer must not profit from his crime. Mysteries explore the human response to evil and provide a sense that there are still good people in the world – people who do the right thing, who fight against injustice, who leap over tall buildings…no wait, that’s a different type of fiction. Seriously though, I find the struggle to find and stop evil as portrayed in most mysteries to be inspirational. It gives me hope in the human condition. (As a side note, I’ve recently read a few mysteries which are morally gray at best, and I have not enjoyed those at all.)
These are the big underlying reasons we enjoy murder mysteries and why we should be proud to enjoy them. Of course, there’s also the suspense, the drama, the action, and the adventure, which are definitely not to be sneezed at. What about you – why do you enjoy curling up with a great mystery?