Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Disqualifying Qualifiers

Writing teachers tell us to use adverbs sparingly, if at all, and I think they've got something there. The current popular tic where speakers place adverbs strategically to avoid expressing unqualified emotions or reactions waters down the effectiveness of speech no end. The effect on a piece of writing would be even worse.

A morning talk-show host here in Seattle seems incapable of direct expression of feelings. In one breath, he can be kinda shocked, a bit mad, a little mystified, and sorta blown away. He also finds events and occurrences to be pretty unique. Another local personality, in one short interview, admitted to having felt "a little bit surreal," and said that some correspondence he'd received had been "pretty moving" and "pretty powerful." Which, he added, had been "kind of the most surprising thing to me."

My most impressive example of this emotion-dilutive communication style came from a woman I overheard in animated conversation with a friend on a Seattle sidewalk. "Yeah, yeah," the woman shouted. "I was like, y'know, pretty much just BLEAAAAAAH!" Say wha'?

Could this disinclination to convey unqualified feelings relate to the sense that incivility is rampant in our culture, and maybe we ought to hit the soft pedal when we can? Or is it considered bad form to appear overly controlled by one's emotions? Whatever, listening to the way people talk puts the screws to me to pick up my blue pencil and - aside from their appearance in dialogue, as I might employ dialect or regionalisms to identify speakers - commit unqualified mayhem on those weak, flabby qualifying adverbs in my writing. When my characters are blown away, there's gonna be nothing sorta about it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Word Thief

My wife is forever warning people to watch what they say in my presence, lest their words end up in one of my books. Fiction writers can be - and are - shameless about stealing comments, gestures, appearances, tics, anything that will help move a story along. But until today, I'd never realized how deeply this trait is ingrained.

After last week's blog about Building Brands, I decided to provide my own antidote by writing about my literary hero, the late John Jerome. In the September 29, 2002 New York Times Book Review, Bruce McCall labeled him "hands down...the most successful writer I've ever known." Jerome wrote eleven books, none of which came close to being a best seller. For Jerome, the writing was its own reward, preferable to money or fame. He "inquired into the uncommonness of common things," McCall wrote. "He believed he was mining worthy insights." After having read Jerome's book, ON TURNING SIXTY-FIVE, I'll testify to the worthiness of his insights. I recommend the work to anyone of any age.

According to McCall, Jerome "was up and at the keyboard before sunrise every morning, as close to 365 days a year as he could manage, fashioning his daily thousand or more words of meticulous prose, writing away the years as if he were being paid a thousand dollars an hour." McCall also noted, "He would have made a lousy celebrity in any event. He never met a cocktail party he couldn't bolt in a minute, hated public speaking, cultivated no connections." Not that he was anti-social - he had many friends, and was active daily outside his writing room. But as McCall put it, he "was in the best sense, an old-fashioned kind of writer, inspired by solitude, soothed by privacy, a respecter of craft who couldn't cut a corner or miss a deadline or tolerate a typo." My kind of guy.

But as I read through the article to refresh my memory, I stopped cold as I came across Jerome's maxim: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." All I could do was laugh. That quote appeared word-for-word in my own book, THE KING OF RAGTIME, in the mouth of Eleanor Stark, to describe her father, John Stark, Scott Joplin's publisher, to a T. I wrote that book in 2007-2008, five-plus years after the publication of Bruce McCall's article, and when Eleanor Stark's comment popped up on my computer screen, I had no idea where she'd gotten it from. Guilty as charged! Watch what you say around me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Buy This Book!

Today, I finished reading galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, my December release from Poisoned Pen Press. That's the last step in writing the book.

And now comes the promotional work, nothing new and different. Read "Building the Brand," by Tony Perrottet, in the May 1 edition of the New York Times Book Review.

I'm not a salesman by nature. For a while, my wife, daughter and I ran a sideline business in antiques, and I had real trouble when it came time to convince a potential buyer he or she couldn't live without a particular item on our shelves. It was near-routine for one of my associates to tell me to please go take a nice walk around the show, and stay out of their way.

Maybe if I work at it, though, I could become one of those awful shills on the radio. Say, the hard-sell guy: "How much longer are you going to put up with those mystery novels that sink you into a coma after fifty pages? Are you masochistic or something? You owe it to yourself to buy A PERILOUS CONCEPTION. I challenge you! Act in the next sixty seconds, and you can pre-order it from amazon for $16.47, a saving of a full third over the suggested retail price of $24.95."

Or, how about the bird who preys on the need to keep up with the Joneses? "You're having a wonderful day – everything's gone right for you...until you pull up a chair at Happy Hour, and your girlfriend says, 'What do you think of A PERILOUS CONCEPTION? Is that Pulitzer material, or what?' Can you picture her face - never mind the suddenly-empty chair beside you - when you have to admit you haven't read it?"

Then, there's the slime-throated creep who wants us all to go down and talk to his, his good friend, who you can trust, at the car dealership, the mattress store, or the wellness emporium. "You need to go down and see my friends, the good folks at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. You can trust them to fix you up right with a copy of the very book you simply have to read. I'm talking about A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, the ultimate Seattle-based mystery." Hmm. The staff at SMB really are my friends, and you really can trust them to fix you up with just the right book for your reading taste. (Ignore the final sentence in that palaver, and we've got a first in radio advertising).

Best of all, I think, is the testimonial. "I'm here with Ophelia Waye, prominent reader of mystery novels. Ophelia, tell me, how has reading A PERILOUS CONCEPTION changed your life?" "Well, it's a revelation, Larry, nothing less. For more than ten years now, I've been reading two, sometimes three, mystery novels a day, and never felt satisfied. I just had to read more and more of those darned books. But A PERILOUS CONCEPTION cured my compulsion. I'll never read another mystery. Now, I spend fourteen hours a day watching television. My husband noticed the difference immediately, and I couldn't be happier."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Work As Play - Promotion in San Marino and L.A.

What a trip, in every sense. Six days of sunshine and seventies is as close to heaven as a Seattleite is likely to get, especially this spring.

San Marino was a blast. Muffy Hunt, the chairwoman of the One Book/One City Committee gave me a eye-popper tour of the Huntington Library and Museum, and then I enjoyed a nice, relaxed lasagna dinner with the Friends of the Crowell Public Library, the librarians, and Phil Cannon, a ragtime guitarist who'd provided the entertainment for a concert the week before. Here I am in the picture to the left, with Ann Dallavalle, the Crowell Librarian(far right), Muffy (next to Ann), and other members of the OB/OC Committee.

Then it was time for my presentation on Brun Campbell, the real and fictional Ragtime Kid. Ann had my talk up and ready on the library's computer, no fuss, no muss, no glitches. Nobody booed, so I figure I was ahead in the game. I signed a bunch of books, courtesy of Book'Em, the excellent independent mystery bookshop in South Pasadena.

Next came the LA Times Festival of Books, where I signed copies of my ragtime trilogy in the Mystery Ink and Sisters in Crime-LA booths. At the SinC-LA booth, I happened to be sitting next to Barbara Reed, a novelist-pianist who writes mysteries set in the world of music publishing, so we had a lot to talk about when we weren't scribbling our names onto title pages of books. Here's a picture of me, telling Sister Jane DiLucchio about my trilogy.

Now, as Gene Autry used to say, I'm back in Seattle again. Back to work. My galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION are waiting. Once I've gone through them, it'll be time to get serious about starting the next book.

And meanwhile, there's unfinished business with Brun Campbell, a Venetian with a colorful history. Venice, a city with a colorful history (and present) ought to pay this guy some attention. How about an exhibit in the Venice Historical Society? Ragtime concerts? A Brun Campbell Ragtime Festival? Wouldn't it be something to walk up to 711 Venice Boulevard, where Brun barbered for some 25 years, and see a statue of a young white boy and his black piano teacher, sitting side-by-side at a keyboard?