Saturday, October 28, 2017

When I was kid in Bend, my family would drive to Portland just before school started to get supplies and clothes. This may not sound like a big deal, but it was a different time. I remember a teacher asking a class how many kids had even been to Portland, and there was a large number who hadn't been, or hadn't been out of state.

Bend was maybe 13K people.

I remember the quickening sensation as we neared the metropolis, the traffic, the sense of entering a larger, busier world.

Weirdly enough, I'm getting flashbacks when I drive from Redmond to Bend. Going to the "big city." Who'd have thunk it?

When Linda and I say, "Going into town," we mean Bend. Weird.

Friday, October 27, 2017

"We don't sell a lot of one thing, we sell one thing of a lot."

Here's my answer to what kind of promotions for new books we do: we carry as many good books as we can afford and can stock. Period.

I do no promotion whatsoever, for reasons I won't try to detail here. Suffice to say, I think most don't work, or are more trouble than they are worth, and often, if time and energy are included, are actual drawbacks.

Originally, new books were brought in haphazardly, and to an unfortunate extent, still are. (If I had the time and energy to promote, I'd be better off making this process better.) I could do a better job of curating, making lists, making sure books don't fall off the list. So far, as if often the case with my store, I'm just making sure I have a steady flow of books coming in. I'm still trying to get up to speed on this.

The way my store works, I've committed to filling the space with as much stuff as I can squeeze in there, and once I went with that model, I realized that Overstuffing is the answer--getting more than I can reasonably accommodate and just keep doing it. Why that works, I don't know.

I have a great advantage for a bookstore in that I have--if I may humbly say--read one hell of a lot of books in my life, and not just in one or two genres, and I've got this sort of encyclopedic thing I do where I just keep slotting titles into my brain even if I haven't read them, I know what they are, to the point where someone will ask for a title and out of the murky recesses of my brain, the author and title will pop up, surprising even me.

When I was a kid, I'd read the movie review books from cover to cover, memorizing first the actors, then the directors and so on. It was a little game my Dad would play with me, trying to stump me with character actors.

I carried that mindset into a comic shop where at first the history of comics and titles was overwhelming but over the years I accumulated so much knowledge that I pretty much at least knew what someone was talking about.

As an adult, I read the New York Times Book Review from cover to cover for years, never reading most of the books, but just curious. And so on.

All this explanation is a roundabout way to say, I can usually separate the wheat from the chaff. And in books, especially these days, there is one hell of a lot of chaff. So being able to look at a long list of books and pick the 10% I should carry is a nice talent.

That's why I avoid most new bestsellers, because most of it is B.S. Some will endure for a few years, and THEN I'll pick them up.

Meanwhile there is a whole history of great books, and a pent up demand if the book is actually in stock and available.

I also order from liquidation sites, which are full of unsold books, but an amazing number of really good books slip through the cracks, enough to fill orders, and with these books I can take chances. Order old Greek plays, or Dante, or Homer, or...well, on and on, just books that I suspect there is Someone out there, in the course of a year or two, who will want it.

People often ask what my bestselling book (or comic or game) is and my stock (heh) answer is: "We don't sell a lot of one thing, we sell one thing of a lot."

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Store demographics: wild guess.

Dave Cline asked the following:

"Have you ever done any demographic analysis on your clientele?

I'm just wondering who in the world buys books from a book store these days?

Are they mostly vacationers, tourists, passersby who are way from their Amazon address and need a book to pass the time?

Or locals who are wandering downtown and have a nostalgic flashback about perusing a real-live-smelling bookstore?


My answer such as it is:

So you got me thinking, Dave. Demographics are complicated.

If you include "locals" as meaning Central Oregon, and "tourists" as everyone else, that still doesn't tell the story.

Probably a more accurate way to look at it is how many of the customers are there as a "destination." That is, they have come into the store to shop and do so on a regular basis.

Locals who infrequently come downtown, for instance, are more like tourists.

So if you include the very casual local browsers as tourists, I think it breaks down as follows, very, very roughly.

Comics and graphic novels: 30% tourists.
Magic: 30% tourists.
Toys: 60% tourists.
Boardgames: 50% tourists.
Books: 90% tourists.

Something like that.

So for books, I really am depending on the appeal of nice books that people want--and some people still want books, believe it or not. Often, I'm often better off with a nice hardcover, even if it's expensive, than a cheap mass market paperback, even though (or because)it takes up the same amount room. (Space always being a premium.)

For readers, the cheaper versions are great, so I have my favorites that I can recommend, and evergreen books that people are always reading.

But for people adding to their libraries, the nicer books, hardback or at least, trade paperbacks, often do better.

I have to admit the whole thing surprised me, but it works great. I don't have to try to be a full-service bookstore, especially with the new bestsellers, which are everywhere. I just have to catch that person who has heard from 5 different friends that "Dune"is a good book, or who have heard of Bukowski but haven't read him, or want to get a copy of that Vonnegut book they remember.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Oh, the bounty.

I worked at Pegasus Books on Monday.

Cameron wanted a day off, the bastard. Ungrateful wretch.

Anyway, I took the opportunity to do a book order, going around the store, looking for holes to fill. There are no holes, but there were places I could still stack. Heh,

My mind flashed back to a day in 1997 when every category of product was in decline. Comics, cards, games, toys.

Worse, I couldn't think of anything to do about it. There was product out there, but I didn't have access. Toys companies were impossible to deal with, book distributors weren't much better. Diamond didn't deal in the breadth of stuff they do now. Even graphic novels were relatively skimpy.

I was ordering everything I could think of that was readily available and it wasn't enough. I'd hit a glass ceiling in Bend, limited by the population and the relative strengths of product that was beyond my control.

My decision was to dive back into Magic, which I'd abandoned because of rampant discounting. I gave in to reality, gave people discounts, and sales picked up, if not profits. The end result was that when Pokemon came along shortly thereafter, I had the mechanisms in place to take advantage of it.

Over the next few years, Diamond eventually came through, offering a wider variety of games, toys and books, and especially graphic novels, and the store became at least marginally profitable.

Little by little, I was able to get access to more and more stuff, and then--about a decade ago now--I dove fully into Games and New Books, both of which were a risk. Games were a risk because every single time I've invested, a full-service game store has come into town shortly thereafter. This time I just accepted reality and expected it and designed it accordingly. (Sure enough, two stores quickly followed, one mostly magic and the other boardgames and magic). But we can still sell stuff mostly because of our location.

But it was new books that was the real eye-opener. I'd stayed away from new books because the wholesalers really didn't want to deal with comic stores. Ironically, the popularity of graphic novels in regular stores made the bias silly and  moot and they finally came around.

I'd also heard so many horror stories about books. I kind of went all in when Borders and B & N were still going strong, when digital looked like it was going to conquer the world.

But the thing I've discovered is this -- if I carry a really good book, someone will buy it. And there is a long history of good books. It doesn't take research to realized that "Dune" will always sell or "The Alchemist" or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and so on. I mean, there they are--proven books--and you are allowed to order them and stick them on your shelf, and then you find hidden gems, and then...

The point is--my problem is no longer finding enough stuff to sell, my problem is choosing which of those things that sell I can fit in my store.

A much nicer problem.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bill Watterson's Kenyon College Commencement address.

Every few years, I re-read Watterson's speech. (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes). It's the best thing I've ever read about the creative life, and I've taken it to heart.

Read it and rejoice--or despair--whatever your inclination.

Friday, October 20, 2017

One of the stories I tell myself in remembering the history of Pegasus Books is that moment in the early nineties when we were in real trouble. I used to walk by the same corner near my store every morning and think, "if anything bad happens today, we're done." And every day we squeaked by.

I'm pretty sure that 9 out of 10 people would have quit. And it would have probably been a smart decision, at least on the surface.

But I had the deep conviction that I had learned my lessons, that if I didn't have ton of debt hanging over me that I could make the store work.

I was watching a program on PBS about small business at the time. I have two stories about that: the first is an episode where a young man was narrating his thoughts about his business while out fishing on a pond, and the thoughts in his head were exactly what I was thinking: and he had just gone bankrupt. It scared me.

That was the moment I went back to the store and instead of trying to compete with my cut-throat (and self-destructing competitors) I raised my prices to retail and let much of my clientele walk away. But at that moment we stopped bleeding money.

The other episode that had an impact on my thinking was an old gambler cleaning his swimming pool who had made a success of it (not my favorite example in that I think gambling is problematic) but his point was that of all his friends who'd started when he did, all of them had quit and gone on to other things.

But his thinking was; he'd gotten the hard part out of the way, that he'd learned his lessons, and just when it looked like he should quit was the moment he should go forward.

Anyway, to my present occupation: I feel I'm at the same point in my writing. At a moment when there seems to be obstacles, it's probably actually the moment when the hard work has been done and now's the time to move forward.

I recognize the same situation intellectually, but I'm in a different place emotionally. I was in my 40's back then, and it took another decade before the store really got to a profitable place. But I was willing to pay the price back then.

Now I'm 65, and I'm not sure I want to spend a decade trying to just get established. I love writing, and I see the struggle (and it's a worthy struggle and there is nothing wrong with it--in fact, it's probably what needs to happen) but I don't NEED to do that. I'm in a good place in my life, and I really like writing, and as I said earlier, publishing is totally confounding.

The biggest reason I survived in Pegasus Books was because I felt like I NEEDED to survive no matter what, that if I'd have had to work at Walmart my soul would have been crushed, that I was an odd duck that didn't fit in anywhere and couldn't really work with others and especially under bosses I didn't believe in.

I'm a self-directed person, and it frustrates the hell out of me to wait on others to get anything done.

What's wonderful about the current writing world is... you don't have to! You can do your thing. Sure, the difference in how many people read you is enormous, and there is a prestige gap, but neither of those things really have much to do with the actual writing.

So consciously, I think I'm willing to make the opposite choice I made back in the 90's. Not to quit, exactly, but not to struggle.

Just do my thing.

Where to go from here?

I'm between books.

A dangerous place for me.

I always feel confident and engaged when I'm writing. It's only when I'm not writing that doubts creep in. (Well, re-writing is the worse, when I witness the reality versus the dream.)

I'm not sure I've ever gone more than about a week after finishing one project before I've started another. Usually, I already have one lined up.

I do want to finish "The Wyvern Riders" which is on the final stretch. (My "Tales of the Thirteen Principalities" are going to be something I go back to again and again without any concern for publishing...I just enjoy them.)

After that? I'm just not sure. I could start writing anytime, but I'd like to have an idea really grab me. I usually feel compelled to write, so I'm waiting for that feeling to overcome me.

At the same time, I'm wondering if I shouldn't put some thought into it. My approach since I came back to writing has been to be open to all ideas, to say yes to everything, to not let myself talk myself out of anything.

Which is good for motivation, but maybe not so good for progressing. That is, it's been a good thing so far, but I'm not sure it's the smartest thing going forward.

What is it I want?

So I've always had sort of two tracks; what I call the "career" path and what I call the "story" path. The career path is at least being aware of whether something has a possibility of selling. The story path is not giving a damn.

However, while being aware, I haven't chosen what to write based on that. I write what I want to write when I want to write them.

Some of my favorite books are the story path: "Gargoyle Dreams" about a lovelorn gargoyle, "The Last Fedora," a golem coming to life from the love a young boy, "Fairie Punk," a travelogue of American mythology, "I Live Among You," about a serial killer who finds he is actually a hunter of evil, and so on.

Even when I've presented these ideas to publishers, after I've written them, I could tell they had zero interest.

My "career" type books I've always been aware that there might be some interest in them: "Led to the Slaughter: the Donner Party Werewolves" and "Tuskers: the Wild Pig Apocalypse" and so on. Fortunately for me, they weren't written for that reason, they were written because I was genuinely interested.

Anyway, I'm at a point where I either have to step up my efforts to get published or take a step back and just do my thing.

I'm inclined to do my thing. (Always with the possibility that something I write for myself has broader possibilities...)

Some of my best books have come from a lark. The idea of a man besieged by killer pigs started off as a joke story about a friend's garden torn up and his dogs chased by by javilinas, or an article mentioning a black sea snake washing up on the shores of California, thousands of miles from where it should be, or the idiocy of "child slave" colonies on Mars.

This is one of those moments, though, when I'm on the cusp. At a time when I want to step back, it may be the moment I should step forward. Be smart, choose the right project. I could double down.

But looking inside, I realize I don't really want go there.

In a nutshell:

Publishing is confounding and frustrating.

Writing is a joy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Done and done.

Made one final big change and I'm done with "Takeover." I'll send it off on Friday morning. I'm going to spot edit over the next two days, just a little clean-up, maybe a bit of description, but basically I'm done.

It "feels" right to me. It's what I wanted.

I've tried not to pander to what I think the editor might want. I've stuck to my vision.

Enough readers suggested that the first half needed a bit more action and motivation, so I tried to supply that without warping the arc of the story.

I also took a suggestion that I take one of the chapters with one of the most colorful characters and where dramatic action happens and make it my "flash-forward" first scene.

I agreed in principle, but it never felt exactly right.

Someone else independently suggested the same character as the opening chapter, but an earlier scene. Still some action, but not quite so dramatic. So that was the final change. It made more sense, doesn't tilt the book so much at the beginning.

So I'm satisfied with the book. It's about as good as I can do.

I've come to recognize that "good" is not the same as "good enough." There are so many other factors involved that it's unknowable. But I'm proud of this book, proud that I took on the challenge. The subject matter was probably a little beyond my reach, but no one else was writing the book.

It's my idea, dammit. I think it had the potential for a literary author to find some real tragedy in the story, but I set out to write a thriller so while I tried my best, I did tip the book toward action, which after all, is what I prefer to read.

Dammit, it's good.

Logical ain't always best.

Well, that was interesting.

As a lark, I rearranged scenes in"Takeover" in the order in which they were written. The chapters fell right into place, a logical progression, much cleaner and more understandable than the current version.

(Which, of course, I kept. I don't make major changes without first saving the best current version. The wonderful thing about digital is that I can attempt experiments like this without ruining what I've already done.)

So you' d think this "cleaner and more understandable" version would be an improvement.

But in fact, it fell very flat. For some mysterious reason there was little life to it.

How can that be? It's the exact same content!

I reaching for "art" here, if you will. (I readily admit I'm probably falling well short.)

I've arrived at the best current version by making artistic choices, chapters that follow each other thematically, if you will, action chapters mixed with character sketches mixed with narrative. I tried idiosyncratic almost experimental points of view. In my own mind, I was trying to duplicate the chaos of real life, where no one knows what the others are doing or thinking but are living in their own worlds, reacting to what's happening around them.

It was done by feel, by a sense of what kept the story intriguing. Subjectively. Artfully, if you will. If it was somewhat awkward, well so's life.

I'd have colorful character statements, followed by a narrative chapter that objectively told what happened, then another colorful character statement, than action, then narrative, then foreshadowing, then narrative, and so on.

Putting them in a logical progressive drained all that away. In this version, for instance, half of the first ten chapters are a character who was purposely created to be the most logical and least colorful character in the book, a character who was meant to be level-headed to carry the narrative.

But he was designed to guide the narrative as a relief from the chaos. A couple of wild scenes, then one of the narrator scenes, then another few colorful scenes, then the narrative, and so on. The narrative scenes lumped together just don't move me.  The wild character scenes lumped together seem too much and without context.

This failure of the logical version is reassuring, somehow. Like I'm on the right track creatively.

This isn't a logical process, it's a creative process. I need to trust my instincts.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Reading my own book.

I don't read my books once I finish writing them.

Strange to say, but I just don't. I mean, I have the whole story in my head, it's part of me by then.

I decided to read "Takeover" from cover to cover. Just read it. No pressure, just enjoy. I have three days so no hurry. No intention of making changes unless they leap out at me.

Got to page 50 and found myself drifting. Sure enough, when I took a close look at the chapter I was reading, realized that the second half of it wasn't necessary. Cut it instantly.

Then took a break.

Will read at least another 35 pages tonight.  Figure I'll take three days to read the whole thing, or about 85 pages per night, maybe a little faster, but I'm not putting any pressure on myself.

Read to page 98. It works. The first fifty pages are still awkward, but also the basis for the entire book. The reader will need to invest, but I don't think it is all that onerous. The character sketches are snappy and interesting, I think, in and of themselves.

It's clear which chapters were new--they needed a little more polishing. Which makes sense. I'm very decisive with editing nowadays. I see something, I just do it, try not to second guess.

I found a few continuity errors, which isn't surprising considering how much I've moved things around, and an amazing number of copy-edit errors, considering how many times this has been edited. Then again, I've been messing with it. Copy errors just always seem to slip through...

Woke up this morning and read the same 98 pages again, this time making changes that I hadn't quite been ready to make last night. (If it struck me wrong twice the same way, it was time to change.)

Tonight I'll try to read another 100 pages or so, then go over them again tomorrow.

Didn't read any further yesterday, instead moved a chapter and inserted the chapter lines. The chapters aren't strictly necessary, but as a reader I think I would appreciate them, as break points, otherwise it's a bit overwhelming.

Adding the new first chapter is a gamble; it's hard to know if it helps or hurts, but ultimately I decided that starting a book with a chapter about the desert dust and mud probably isn't the way to go. So I added one of the more dramatic action chapters to the beginning as a flash-forward.

So today and tomorrow, I read the rest of the book.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Well, I like the book.

So I sat down with the manuscript of "Takeover" and drank a little wine last night.

My biggest insight wasn't about the contents of the book, but how to present it. I need to make an effort to interest the publisher, not--as I am wont to do--just sending it in and saying, "Here it is."

I really need to work on the cover letter and then try to write a good synopsis.

Other than that, I didn't make too many changes to the second draft of the book.

I took a later action scene and inserted at the beginning of the book as a flash-forward. Which then necessitated that I put a timeline in, which I did.  (Previous blog post: I'd already done that in an earlier draft, but in the process of moving chapters around, I'd messed that up. I'll need to go through it one more time to make sure it all tracks.) The event went from being about six weeks long to four weeks, which I think is an improvement, actually. ("Three Days of the Condor" was originally "Six Days of the Condor" heh.)

I added a few details from my trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Other than that, I just sort of dipped into the book at random throughout the night and checked the writing, which can always, always, always be improved. I never read a page without finding something to change, but that never ends and it gets to a point where I'm not absolutely sure I'm improving things. Dangerous to keep refining until it smudges the original creative burst.

The book is now 92,000 words and I probably shouldn't make it much longer. I could probably reach 100,000 but that's a bit stiff for a 'beginner' thriller writer.

About that 'thriller' thing. I'm not sure that's what this is. In the first version, the first half was, if I can use this word, a regular novel, but the second half was definitely thriller territory. This new version is much action oriented and the sequence of chapters are much more forward leaning.

It's still a bit "awkward," but I think that's the nature of the book. Reflecting the"reality" aspect of the story.

What I'd say about this book is that it has "substance." I like the characters, the premise, the plot, the writing.

It ran into some criticism, but I'm not sure if that was because it had more problems than some other books I've done or because people, at this point in my career and because I kept asking for it, whether people were more willing to be critical.

Thing is, this is the book I wanted. It turned out really well, in my opinion. Of course, I always wish I was smarter, deeper, and more insightful, more talented, and I believe this book had huge potential if I was a genius, but I am what I am and the book is my book to do, and I think I pulled it off better than I'd ever thought I could.

There aren't any false notes for me. It all rings true, and that's the true test for me. Whether I believe the characters and scenario.

I think the odds are long of it being accepted, but I'm going to try. If it comes back to me, I'll probably set it aside for a time and come back to it again later. There is enough substance to this book that I could probably do that for years.

For the first time, I don't really know what I'm going to write next. I think I'm going to do another "Hart Davis Strawberry Mountain Mystery" like "Deadfall" this one called "Butcher's Cut."

It's a bit silly to write a sequel to an unsold book, but my creative mind doesn't work like that. It wants to write what it wants to write. I like the characters and the setting and the premise so I'm going to take a couple more stabs at it.
Chapter headings.

Because I write stories with multiple character points of view and several storylines and interloping timelines, I'm always tempted to put in chapter headings. It seems like a good idea, designed to orient the reader to time and place and narrator.

But I'm finding in practice it's way too distracting to the story.

I tried to do that with "The Scorching" and "Snaked" and both were better off without the headings.

It did me some good to try, though, because it made me pay attention to what, when, where, and who was happening, and I found inconsistencies that I could clear up.

Now, with "Takeover," the temptation is even greater because the book is epistolary, made up of vignettes from many points of views. Witness statements, depositions, diary entries, etc. etc.

Turns out, putting a heading at the start of each scene makes the book feel really, really cluttered.

So, for instance, I just added a flash-forward action scene to the front of the book, which might be confusing without a timeline, but when I put in,

 "Vanessa Johnson, Deposition taken Oct. 5, Blue Ridge Hospital, John Day Oregon"

And then followed up with the next chapter by putting,

 "Peter Sterns, Diary Entry, Sept. 2, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument"

It made it feel overwhelming already, like OH. MY. GOD...this is homework!  It's also redundant since that information is in the actual scene.

I may have stumbled across a solution, a halfway measure. One of my editors wanted a timeline, so I put the name and the following words, "Events of (the date.)" Somehow, this doesn't look distracting to me, because they are always the same except for the date.

So the first three entries look like this,

Vanessa Johnson, Events of Oct. 5

Peter Sterns, Events of Sept. 2

Joshua Calley, Events of March 10.

And so forth. Sort of blends in, not intrusive, and allows the reader to decipher the timeline if they so chose, or more likely, ignore it.

I'm going with that, and if the publisher (assuming I have a publisher) has a better idea, he will tell me.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Opposite of addicted?

When it came time to imbibe some wine last night, I was too tired.

I'm like the opposite of addicted to alcohol, in that time after time I intend to drink, and then don't.  Too tired, too busy, too much going on the next day.

Anyway, I do feel like getting a little buzzed can give me a slightly different or skewed perspective on my stories, and there are times--rare, but often enough to notice--that I'll get a true insight that is extremely helpful.

Linda is gone for 4 days, so it's a good opportunity to get soused, look over my book, see how it reads. (Linda has had like two drinks in her life and while she doesn't object to my drinking, it seems rude of me.)

Toby and Todd called birthday wishes yesterday and I told Toby my plans and he said, "What, alone?"

"Uh, yeah. You know animal."

So nine o'clock rolled around and I was too damn tired, my eyes hurt from staring at the screen all day, and I said, "Screw it", watched a documentary, and went to bed. Yep, party animal.

Hey, eight hours of sleep.

So today, my goal is to stay off the computer for most of the day to save my poor eyes. Think about what I want to do with the book. Go for my walk, do some errands, and then much earlier in the evening, around dinner time, sit down with my book and a glass of wine.

That's the plan.

Friday, October 13, 2017

I sell books.

There is something about bookstores that inspires grand sweeping sentiment. My eyes roll every time I see it. There's a site called "Shelf Awareness" that has a header every day with one of these great mystical bookstore statements.

I own a bookstore because I like books. I also want to earn a living, have a nice place to hang out, and meet interesting people.

I'm not out to change the world. I'm not out to save your soul. I'm not floating to heaven from the worthiness of my enterprise.

I sell books.

Friday the 13th is a lucky day.

My dad always said, "Friday the 13th is lucky for the Irish."

I don't where he got that, whether he just made it up, but I've always abided by it.

Linda and I went on our first date on Friday the 13th and that turned out pretty well.

So today is my birthday and I have no fear.

I've spent three days working through the edits and my eyes are sore and I was actually seeing double vision on my walk. When I'm writing, I'm only staring at the screen for a few hours. When I'm rewriting, I'm staring at the screen for most of a day.

I'd hoped to finish last night and start my final go at it tonight, but I couldn't quite manage it.

"Takeover" is my most substantial book, in terms of characterization, plot, and theme. Can't say if it's my best book, but it was a challenge and I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

One of my readers said it was "awkward" in places, and I think that's the right word. But awkward in all the best ways, if that makes any sense. I wanted it to reflect reality (of course it doesn't, but I attempted it) and part of that is seeing the action from multiple viewpoints that don't always jibe--on purpose. Like I said, a more ambitious project that I'm accustomed to trying.

Yesterday on my walk, one of my characters popped up and said, "You're not done with me." It was sparked by something my editor said, about how I'd set up a character to be a certain way but hadn't quite followed through.

I thought up three small sections that totally redeem the character and fit snugly in the existing book.

Makes me wonder. Given enough time and thought, how many more of those kinds of nice improvements could be made?

I have to decide when I've done what I can, and when I might just be overdoing it, and my sense is--other than setting this book aside for another few months and getting more readers and spending months more pondering it, I'm not sure this book needs more work. Heh.

Whatever happens, I'm proud of writing this book.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

“Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” 

Kurt Vonnegut.

Conceptually, the first 100 pages of Takeover were exactly what I was after. I wanted the book set in the real world, paralleling real events. I got into the heads of a bunch of different people, character sketches, really, that tell a story. There's some rich potential there, but I realized that I didn't have the chops to really pull of a serious literary work. Or perhaps I didn't have the interest. Or both.

So I turned to thriller plot about halfway through.

But that left the first 100 pages lopsided. Character development, lots of set up for the second half. The second half is all action, but there apparently wasn't enough action in the first half.

What the characters needed was motivation. They needed something they wanted beside to protest. I mean, once they were there, they'd done the protesting and all the remained were the consequences.

So now I'm back putting trying to add to the tension in the first 100 pages. Fortunately, it can be done. Just inserting a few scenes, not overbearing, but changing the tone of the story.

Later: So now that I've done that, I need to go back and slant everything in that direction.

I think I got lucky. It could have proven to be insoluble.

I'm pretty pleased with the solution I crafted. It doesn't contradict anything I've done before, just puts a different spin on them.

It does mean a detailed rewrite, but the book probably needed that anyway.

One more new scene to write and then on to the rewrite.

Finished the last new scene. I've spent three days collating all the different readers and editor suggestions. Start the rewrite tomorrow. Mostly all there.

I like this book. 

I've gotten all the feedback for "Takeover." Now I have to collate it.

It's a long slow process. Will probably take three days, at a guess.

Then a once-over lightly rewrite, adding the descriptive details I got on my trip, making sure the transitions work and the new scenes are covered.

But other than that, I like this book.

I read at writer's group. Only Pam was there, so it was more a matter of reading it aloud to someone and seeing how it sounded to me.

It sounded very smooth. I liked the characterizations and the interactions. It was more than fine.

I think I may have reached a point where I'm writing what I think is good material and have nowhere to send it, no way to get it noticed.

So be it. I know what I accomplished and I'm proud of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

When you like it and readers don't.

Wrote final scene of "Takeover" and I'm now working on beta reader and editor suggestions. Long and slow and arduous  and most often results in merely incremental improvements, but every little bit helps. Will probably take 3 or 4 days to get this done, then on to the rewrite on Friday. Going to to finish that within about 10 days and then be done.

I like this book. I like the way I did it. I like the characterization, the plot, the writing. It's one of the few times that I've liked a book that others have expressed doubt about. In fact, I like the very parts they didn't like.

I was able to add some stuff to the first half of the book without changing its focus, but I'm not doing more than that. Admittedly, I'm asking for a bit more patience on the part of the reader, but that's what makes the payoff in the end. At least, that's what I think.

Most of the readers thought the first half of the book was slow. I have to take them at their word.

Here's the thing: the setup of the first half and the characterization were built into the very premise.

Now I've always hated it at writer's group when there is a consensus that there is something wrong with a story that can be fixed but the writer says, "But I MEANT to do that. It's on PURPOSE!"

Rarely are these excuses valid. (This isn't usually a case of a huge misunderstood talent but simply lack of experience.)

Most often, it's because the writers aren't willing to kill their darlings. Sometimes you can't convince them they're shooting themselves in the foot. It's hard enough to get accepted, why make it harder? Many are simply beginner mistakes, which because they refuse to change will remain beginner mistakes because that's as far as they'll ever get.

Take the advice and fix it.

Nevertheless, I am using that defense.  I MEANT to do that. It's on PURPOSE!

Anyway, with this book I started off with a certain premise. I'd take a group of characters who I'd try to make as realistic as I can, put them in a realistic situation, have them interact, and out of that would come the plot.

All I knew was that there would be a murder and that a badder group of bad guys would come in so that the hostages and the original occupiers had to band together to survive.

But other than that, I wanted the plot to develop naturalistically.

Here's the thing: you can't be realistic and have a gun fight every ten pages. You can do that in a murder mystery or a thriller, and even though that's what I was what I was calling this book,  I found that the action had to flow from what the characters were doing.

As it happened, it took 100 pages to develop the scenario where the second half of the book was at least feasible.

100 pages of setup and 140 pages of payoff.

I personally feel there is enough going on, enough intrigue and interpersonal conflict, to make it work.

But I can't ignore that a bunch of people don't feel that way.

This is my second attempt at writing a realistic, non-supernatural book. Both The Scorching and Snaked were non-supernatural, but they had some largely fantastical elements. Big Stuff.

Both "Deadfall Ridge" and "Takeover" are more human sized. Mystery and thriller.

What I'm learning is, the for me the supernatural and fantastical elements are a bit of a crutch. I mean, I wasn't using them that way. It's my natural bent. But in trying to write human-sized stories, I'm realizing how easy it was to spice up a story by introducing some fantastical element.

So I'm learning.

But this book was a stretch and that's a good thing and if it's a failure (and as I said, I think it's the best thing I've done) then I think it was a noble effort.

I'm just going to say this right here: I think it's a good book the way it is. I added a couple of action scenes in the first half which I don't think hurt, and I do think the second action scene provides better motivation for the next 50 pages or so, so that was good.

But I'm not going to try to bend the structure more than this.

It's good.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Feeling good about the changes to "Takeover."

I added three new scenes, two of which were action scenes. But even more importantly, I re-framed the motivations by putting the park rangers in danger sooner.

But I also had to move sections around to make the new scenes work, and it's nearly impossible for me to see this objectively. I've asked some people to read the first 75 pages -- again -- to see if I pulled it off.

The new material itself I think is pretty good. I just don't know if it fits properly, or more to the point, whether the surrounding material fits.

I haven't really started the "editing" part of the rewrite yet. This was all structural. I know I want to slant the book in the first half toward more foreshadowing and danger, and I think I can do that with the new structure.

It's so hard to know when you make changes whether you're improving or detracting from the original story. My overall sense it that these are good changes. If there are problems with the first half, they may be in the original concept, which I'm not willing to give up.

I may just have to ask for the readers patience until the plot really kicks in.

Yeah, I know, good luck with that. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Heading for the John Day Fossil Beds.

Taking my long delayed research field trip to the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument.

I fantasize about walking in and saying, "Hey, what would you do if someone came in and took over the place?"

I see the park ranger hitting the panic button.

"Hey, if you don't mind saying, how many people work here and where do you sleep?"

Park ranger backs away, signals to coworkers.

"Do you guys have security measures?"

Cops flood the place.  "Up against the wall, motherfucker!"

"But I'm a WRITER!"

I wrote the book based on my visit a couple of years ago, and while I don't believe it's necessary to be accurate in every detail, it wouldn't hurt to add a few descriptive details and soak up the atmosphere and surroundings.

Walked into the visitor center, notebook in hand, looking for my pen. That turned into an easy entry into the topic of my book. So much for being coy.

The "interpretive ranger" at the counter was friendly at first, but when I explained more about my story she got a little antsy. She turned me over the the "chief paleontologist" who was very chatty. He quickly answered my questions. Probably was, I hadn't thought of enough questions in advance, so I let him talk and tried to learn details that way.

Then they let me wander around with my notebook, drawing maps and diagrams of the place and taking notes.

An extremely fruitful session. Probably won't change much in the book. I'd guessed correctly about a lot, but this nailed down some of the details. It will make a nice grounding to the story. I got some of the correct terminology that should help add to the verisimilitude of the story.

The biggest difference between the book and the actual location was that the interpretive center is surrounded by hills. Not a lot of places to camp. There are some relative flat spots in front of the place, that will have to do. I figure the barricade will be set up in front of the Cant House which is across and diagonal from the center.

Not an unworkable problem.

I decided to visit the Clarno unit of the monument and oh, boy. I didn't realize it would take me an hour and a half out of the way on very, very winding roads. Which wouldn't have been so bad if I'd started the day a couple hours sooner, but the last two hours of the drive were in the dark, so didn't even get to see the wonderful scenery.

Six hours on the road. But what fun. Eastern Oregon really is a marvel. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

This is deep into the process.

I'm feeling my way on "Takeover." Sort of dipping into the manuscript as things occur to me. Moving about the manuscript, trying to sense where it needs help and what can be left alone.

I did have to move some sections around yesterday, which I really didn't want to do. But I've changed the motivations--which I think are much stronger--and that requires my changing the sequence slightly. It will mean the last rewrite is just making sure the tone is correct all the way through.

But so far, I'm taking a very tentative, light touch to it. Adding stuff only when I'm certain. Making sure I'm good with every change. Letting my subconscious work on it.

I've got two action scenes to write, and that will probably be the easiest part of the whole process. It's the in-between and surrounding material that needs to be adjusted and that's much harder.

I'm not totally sure the second action scene is absolutely necessary. I'm plopping it into a slower section of the story, and it will have one of the stronger character's POV. It won't hurt to write it. It can always be taken back out if it's too much or too out of place.

I'm treating this more as a synthesis of tone and ideas than a flat change, if that makes sense. In a way, it reminds me of the way I used to write term papers. I'd always assemble a bunch of ideas, then just sort of string them together, and then step back and wait for the pattern to emerge. Most often a solution would present itself.

I figure that every time I dip into the story, I'm improving it slightly. Most of all, I'm trying to maintain the original tone and intention. Yes, I want it more exciting. Yes, I want it to pull the reader forward. But I don't want any cheap theatrics or drama or action. I'm still trying the maintain the "real" feel.

The last rewrite will be when I've done all the things I think I need to do, the right pieces in the right places, then sit down to make sure it's all consistent, page by page. That's a more critical, methodical process.

In a way, with this "dipping into the manuscript" I'm trying to retain the original fictional dream, to keep the creative part of the process, and holding back the "critical" parts. I know, in the end, I'll have to do a good old-fashioned mechanical rewrite, but I'm holding off as long as I can stand it.


Read Linda the changes to "Takeover."

"You're re-framing the motivations," she said.

"Yes! That's it!"

I love it when there is a clarifying phrase. That's exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm putting the characters in danger earlier, basically, which is a huge improvement and changes the whole tone of the first half. Such an easy change, once I realized it. 

The beginning motivation of the main characters is to protest, but that isn't a strong enough motivation to carry the first half of the book. In the second half of the book I put them in danger and that works much better.

But I can put them in danger much earlier in the book, and that's what I'm trying to do. It shines a new light on what everyone in the story is doing. 


Friday, October 6, 2017

Afraid I'll muck it up.

Starting the rewrite for "Takeover" today.

I have three new scenes I want to write. Part of me wants to just write them and then look for where to put them. Another part of me thinks I ought to read the book and figure out where to best place them.

Don't be lazy, Duncan.

Rewriting is all mental, man.

All right, cogitated all day and didn't get anywhere. Two of the action scenes would have to take place right after each other, which won't help as much as I thought. Both about 40 pages in.

So I'll have to pick one of them.

The second action scene needs to be shoehorned in at about 80 pages in.  It can be done, if I'm crafty enough.

Rewriting is all about being crafty, man.

Next day: Didn't write anything yesterday. Had some ideas, got a general sense of where the new scenes could fit, but I don't think I nailed it down. I think I don't want to write anything until I've got it nailed down.

Problem is, a bunch of phrases and scenes came to me that I didn't write down and now I'm afraid I might have lost them. I think the trick might be to carry a physical notebook around and write those down when they come to me.

Rewriting is all about being flexible, man.

I just can't get anything going at home. I don't know why. So I may just head out into the woods with a thermos and a sandwich and see what happens.

I've never before had this happen: I'm afraid of the rewrite, not because I don't want to do it but because I'm afraid I'll muck it up. I think this book has great potential, and if I'm really patient and coax out as much of the potential as possible, it could be a really good book.

Rewriting is all about being patient, man.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The feedback I'm getting on "Takeover" is that the second half of the book is terrific, but the first half is a little draggy. (In fact, two different editors mentioned that it's the strength of the second half that reveals the weakness of the first...which is a backhanded compliment if there ever was one.)  So if a person reads the whole book they'll like it, but if they can't get to the second half, they won't. Not good.

I'm really really leery of messing with the structure of the book. I almost always feel like it's two steps forward and three steps back. I could move up a couple of action scenes from later in the book, date them, and then go back to the original structure, but that can be tricky and confusing and dating the entries is sort of clunky.

But the reaction of "meh" to the first half was pretty unanimous, so I need to address that.

I've thought of several additional scenes that I think will spice it up. If I can get away with this, that would be great. I'm not sure, though, that adding more to something that is slow is a solution.

In the course of rewriting I'll see if I can cut small bits, and reinforce some of the motivations. Introduce the danger much sooner in the story. The thing about this book is that each character is in their own head so that stuff can be added and subtracted without inconsistency.

I think it can be done, but I have to be very very careful I don't fuck it up. I need to keep a light touch, I think. Not do anything too drastic.

I do think I probably opened myself up to too much critique. The wider the aperture the more that enters. Mustn't get discouraged.

Most of all remember that my own feelings for the book count the most, even above the selling of the book, strange as that may sound. I like the first half of the book, but I can see spots where it can be improved without taking away from what I like, so I'll do that much and no more.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Pondering the meaning of it all.

I'm sort of speechless.

Don't that make you feel mortal.

I never bought a Tom Petty record even though I liked him a lot. But he was always there as a soundtrack to my life.

Los Vegas--I can't bear to think about it, much less talk about it. My God. 

Writing seems unimportant in some ways, and yet it is at the core of who I am these days. Nothing to be done? I lived through the '60's and somehow this feels worse. At least back then you could believe the pain was leading to some kind of progress.

The rest is boring writing stuff...

I haven't been writing for a couple of weeks now. I feel exposed to the real world and it ain't pretty. I getting ready to dive back into the fictional dream as soon as possible.

But first, I need to finish the rewrite of "Takeover."

Turns out, many of the readers don't like the first half of the book or think it's slow. I had someone in writer's group say, "boring stuff about losers" or something like that. She also literally laughed and continued laughing at a scene that was supposed to be serious.

It took me a week or so to absorb that hit.

I'm going to be a bit stubborn about this book. The goal was to try to make this feel like a real event, and that means I can't go for cheap theatrics. I have a couple of ideas of how to beef up the first half of the book in ways that won't subvert that goal.

Up to now I've accepted almost all criticism of my writing. Most often, I've tried to address it. But I think the more I open myself up, the more likely it is that doubts will eventually overwhelm me. Time to dial that back, I think.

There is time to be willing to accept critique and there is time to go your own way.

I see people at writer's group and elsewhere reject basic criticism of stuff every writer needs to learn. All they're really doing is making it that much harder for themselves. But I've got 35 books behind me and I've absorbed a lot, even if I can't always get there. But it isn't a matter of not trying hard enough.

Premise and story are way more important than I originally thought, and the actual writing is less important.

Actually, I don't think that is strictly true. Writing is what makes the premise and story work, but remains invisible to most readers. Good writing isn't noticed and bad writing is. So the goal is to at least not be bad, and then just try to be as good as you can.

So if premise and story are most important, followed by execution, then it becomes something of a crapshoot whether the premise and story are going to appeal to anyone else. It's also a bit of a gamble that the inspiration will carry all the way through the book. I don't think I've ever got all the way through a book feeling completely inspired.

So the hope is that I'll nail it one day. I've come close a few times, in my own estimation. A few of my books have turned out better than I could have ever expected 7 years ago when I first came back.

Whether anyone will ever notice it is another story.

I've also had the experience over the last couple of books of writing the book I wanted and feeling like I got it right--and finding other people don't like what I've done. That hasn't happened before--for most of the time I've been writing my own estimation of a story matched the general acceptance. I'd have to agree with the ratings of most of my books (though there are been some unfair ones.)

I've also had the repeated experience of writing the book I wanted and not having people be interested in the premise enough to read it. I've accepted that. I'll write what I want when I want.

So I may have hit a glass ceiling to my abilities.

Then again every book is a new thing.