A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Should We Give Our Readers Hell...or Give Them What They Want?

Almost all writers I've known have been torn between two impulses they're helpless to resist. On the one hand, if they've worked for years and are finally enjoying some well-earned success, they're more than a little scared of messing with the formula. The voice of Success urges:

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And so they do, and continue to do, until the rebel devil cries:

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They begin to feel enslaved by their successful series or threatened in some unfathomable way by the love readers feel for one standalone book. Maddened by fear or resentment, they either tank the series or give it a twist that will turn readers off. Or, rather than follow their one runaway success with a sequel or something in a similar vein, they do something offputtingly different. Ah, the sweet siren call of

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One remarkably talented writer I know is taking time off from a series of Tartan Noir mysteries--one that's been gathering steam--to work on an historical epic of 100,000 words. Another mystery writer I follow swings almost depravedly from mystery to romance to sci-fi. Hey, even Conan Doyle felt compelled to try at least to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Lawrence Sanders comes to mind as a supreme example of a writer who perfectly balanced his commercial instincts and his independent spirit. Unwilling to grind out a Deadly Sin novel a year (the Sin books took 3-4 years to do), he launched a second series--of shorter and lighter Commandments. Oh, and he wrote two limited series of just two books apiece--the Peter Tangent and the Timothy Cone books. Meanwhile, always busy, he wrote many standalone titles, from erotica to thrillers to capers. Then, when he'd grown older, he launched the easy and breezy Archy McNally series.

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The man I call The Colonel had brilliance to burn and a game plan that reminds us of Russell Blake--who's also committed to writing whatever he pleases to write.

For those who are less prolific, Claude Bouchard offers an excellent alternative. Lightly scattered among entries in his bestselling Vigilante series are standalones written to appease the rebel devil's voice.

We can see the same spirit at work in Clint Eastwood's early film career: one film for himself to each three for his fans. The older Clint likes to say that he'd always been able to tell his fans to buzz off if they weren't amused. But the man who made the two Whichways had one eye at least on box office success.

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Somehow we all have to find our own way to calm those dueling voices.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How 2 Wrong Turns Became 3 Rights

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This week a string of Wrong events converged into a theme. And I tip my hat to Tony, whose quote I found after I'd already learned--and so I could appreciate that it couldn't be put any better.

Event the First:
This week I returned to writing a book I'd set aside two months ago. I'd needed time to recover from a nasty injury--and time to screw up my courage. My backpack had been stolen in May and along with my laptop I'd lost a notebook containing some 50 new pages. Though I'd had some grave doubts about sections, the lost pages came to assume almost mythical importance. And if I couldn't recover those pages, how could I hope to go on?

One day like any other day, I simply couldn't not continue. I accepted the futility of trying a word-for-word recapture. Hell, after a couple of months I couldn't even outline exactly what I'd done. Then again, though, I'd started doubt some major decisions that I did recall: including the too-sudden killings of two minor characters I'd come to like. I set out to take every day as it came, along with each narrative turn.

End result: the two minor characters not only lived, they took on more active roles. And the female character has transformed into something shockingly different from the act that she'd put on. As I wrote, freed of my fears of the loss, a section I'd forgotten about took its place back in the narrative queue but at a new time, in a different way. Now my confidence came back to me. My book was back in business. And...


Lighting struck again: a cool idea for a spin-off series starring the two Seattle characters whom I haven't killed and a major player in the Boss MacTavin series, largely set in San Francisco.

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Event the Second:
I needed shirts for the new job. No problem, I thought. At Value Village in Capitol Hill I could certainly find 3-4 like-new top quality shirts, worth $150-$200 marked down to $12-$15 each.

Drat the cat, though. That VV store had closed and the nearest other sites weren't to be easily reached. What to do? I Googled Seattle Thrift Stores and made my decision: I'd try...Salvation Army?

Talk about wrong roads. The Men's Shirt rack held hundreds of dress shirts--and every one of them looked soiled, old and cheap. They might as well have been stamped Loserville, fine with the crowd that had thronged there.  I wheeled around, about to go. But on the way I spied a rack with attractive looking shirts that hadn't attracted a crowd.

Here, sold as Sportshirts, were the designer and premium shirts: Sean Jean,  Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Tommy Bahama, Ralph Lauren...I walked out with one helluva trio for under $50.  And I'll return to that store twice a month, now that I know where to look.

Actually, there's more than one, all complementing Tony's:
1) As I learned with the pages I'd lost: Though I hadn't lost them on purpose because the work displeased me, the experience taught me faith in greater powers at play. I remained chained for as long as I thought the lost pages couldn't be bettered. 
2) Listen to the inner voice! I'd killed off two characters, mainly because they weren't coming to life and I didn't know what to do with them. Now one of the two characters refused to die and came roaringly to life in the most unexpected way. And, with her, so did her partner. 
3) If we need to tweak our thinking about the 'wrong' turns we've taken, we also need to be slower about drawing any conclusions. I found three simply sensational shirts because my eyes were open as I was leaving that store.

So, travel wisely and well today, friends, today and all your other days. Learn from your right turns, your left...and your wrong. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The September Siege is Born!

I know, I know. You're wondering what happened to the August Assault.

It's reborn as the result of meeting a brilliant local artist whose work had caught my eye. For decades one person had taken all my photos. The time had come, however, to find a new photographer and a new approach.

At the start I'd thought only of whipping myself into superior shape and letting my shape do the talking. Along the way, though, I started to think of the brilliant work Jean Schweikhard had done in branding my Boss MacTavin covers. I'd paid her fairly for that work and had been thrilled with the results. Yet here I was planning to engineer a photo that blended with that branding...and to do it on the cheap.

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I emailed the artist, outlining my basic ideas and the timeline that I hoped to meet. I proposed that we meet today--as we did--to talk about his fee and a string of 3 payments. He was not to start work until he'd received the downpayment in August. At that time we'd meet again to brainstorm again re the shoot, which would take place in early September,

The meeting today went beautifully. And the artist--Edd--proved himself to be of the same school as Jean Schweikhard. He began to grill me in a quiet, friendly way about what I hoped to accomplish...why I felt so adamant about doing a beefcake photo...what props we might use to suggest a fusion of my character, Boss MacTavin, and his creator, Reb MacRath. We disagreed from time to time. At other times, we weren't sure how to resolve things that I still feel are essential: the absolute imperative that the photo must possess a sense of kinetic energy.

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We spoke about color--I insist on black and white, but agree that the colors I wear for the shoot are partial keys to our success.

So, you might sensibly wonder, can a photo be all that important? Well, a great photo can't make a great book, that's for sure. But there are certain photos that do such justice to the spirits found within their authors' works that readers simply can't resist. A few examples?

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Lawrence Sanders          Ernest Hemingway                          

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Donna Tartt                                                    Tom Wolfe

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Mark Twain                                             Mickey Spillane

We've got our work cut out for us. With the exception of Donna Tartt, the writers above are not lookers. But in every photo there's that undefinable something that commands attention and respect.

So the extra month will be well spent. The devil's in the details...and I'm hell-bent on making sure this shot is full of the devil.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Retail Bullies and The Cleveland Uppercut

If you work in retail or any service industry, you know what it's like to be on the receiving end. You've gone home close to tears from the public abuse that you've suffered...again. For simplicity's sake, let's group all the public bullies into one class:


The receiving end, trust me, is nowhere to be:

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I've worked for over twenty years in retail and customer service (major book/department/convenience stores and three hellish call centers).

1) Call center work can be the most degrading work in the world.

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You work in a tiny cubicle, with rushed imperfect training and often imperfect equipment, dealing with telephone tough guys and gals. You take angry calls for 8 hours a day...with 5 minutes personal time should you need to go to the bathroom. Your call metrics are insane: the times allowed for call handling and file notation...your average time between calls (you may need to research a matter or ask for a lead's assistance). And callers will scream about the hold time while their rants increase the holding time for others. Furthermore, your calls are monitored for quality--while you must, to meet your metrics, get rid of bums who are calling to rant. As they used to say at one call center, 'If they don't blow, they've gotta go'. (Or: if they're not buying, screw 'em.)

2) Any form of retail is second most degrading.

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Sadly, the worst abuse comes from those in the same field: from waiters to baristas, from doormen to busboys, from bullied clerks in other stores to call center prisoners. Bullied themselves to the snap-point, they revel in sliming clerks who can't hit back.

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But payback is a two-way street with often shocking reversals. An RB never knows if the sad sack s/he's abusing is ready to quit and go postal. An abusive fare beater never knows if the driver s/he's just spit on is willing to do something crazy in turn.

All RBs would do well to remember the punch heard round the world: The Cleveland Uppercut.