Maybe I shouldn’t be giving away my writing secrets.
Maybe I should be like Ernest Hemingway, who, with the exception of a couple of Paris Review interviews in which he gave cryptic answers to questions about writing craft, was selfish with his knowledge throughout his life and shared very little of it.
But there’s something that I’m seeing over and over and over again in so many novels published today that I have to say something. In both genre and mainstream novels, whether indie- or traditionally-published, I see “very good” or even “great” modern authors making the same mistake. Incredibly, one such book on Amazon has over 1,000 4- and 5-star reviews.
This trend has reached a point where someone has to say something.
And as one writer who knows what he’s doing, I am happy to take on this cause célèbre.
Here’s the deal: When you write a sentence, one of the things you have to decide is which part of the sentence is going to get the most detail or emphasis—the subject, the verb, or the object (the receiver of the action). Each of these units is called a syntactic slot. The subject is the person or thing performing the action. The verb is the action. And the object is the person or thing receiving the action. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t pack all of your syntactic slots. Packing slots creates cluttered, distracting sentences with hazy images that give the reader very little to latch onto.
(Of course the above is highly simplified—explained exactly as I did when I taught writing at Baruch College, City University of New York. I received a Distinguished Teaching Award for my efforts.)
Let me give you an example of a bad sentence—one that violates the above rule of “don’t pack all of your syntactic slots.” Following is the sort of opening sentence often found in poorly written fiction (especiallly poorly written genre novels):
When the lone stoplight in Hudsonville, Texas—a dry, dusty West Texas town, population 1,400—turned green, Blake Tanner, Dallas private detective, took a drag on his hand-rolled cigarette, flicked the stub into the wind, glanced at his piercing blue eyes and devil-may-care jet black hair in the rear-view mirror, and slammed his hand-tooled cowboy boot on the accelerator of his rebuilt, sky-blue 1963 Cadillac convertible with the 400hp V8, reveling in the khaki cloud of dust he left behind the car and looking forward to hunting down his quarry, bank robber Hal Driver, somewhere in the next lonely, dusty, desperate town.
Now…obviously I’ve been hyperbolic with my example; most opening sentences (even those of poorly written novels) are not that long or ponderous. But even novels with openings composed of several shorter sentences are often laden down with packed syntactic slots—attempts by authors to pile up the information.
Why, oh why, do writers (actually, more often, authors) do this?
There are several reasons:
1. The author isn’t a very good writer. He read somewhere that good fiction is about detail (which is partly true), so he makes a point of packing every single clause and syntactic slot full of detail.
2. The author is lazy, so she either doesn’t write multiple drafts of her work, or she doesn’t take the time in later drafts to edit out the unnecessary details. She wants to get it “all in there,” but isn’t willing to do the heavy lifting, which is to keep in the story only those details that are truly important. A story isn’t every thing that happens; it’s every important thing that happens.
3. The author doesn’t trust in the reader’s intelligence, probably because he isn’t particularly intelligent himself. He believes that he needs to spell out every single thing for the reader because the reader, in his opinion, is a dip-shit incapable of forming a mental picture of a scene unless provided with ALL of the details. For example, in a recent very highly-rated mystery novel, the author describes the counter at a DMV office as being “chest-high.” We’ve all been to DMV offices, and guess what? The counters at all DMV offices are chest-high.
4. The author doesn’t trust in the reader’s patience. She doesn’t believe that the reader will continue to read beyond the first few sentences or paragraphs, so she puts in every detail that she thinks will hook the reader and make him want to read on. What she doesn’t understand is this: The way to keep readers reading is by withholding information, not by dishing it out. Put another way, don’t take the reader where he wants to go.
Whether you’re a relatively new writer trying to finish your first novel, or you’re a seasoned author putting the finishing touches on your latest work, I hope you’ll take into account what I’ve written here. Nothing makes a potentially good story look more amateurish than packed syntactic slots or cluttered sentences, so no matter what stage you’re at, I strongly recommend you go back to the writing table and address this aspect of your work.
“Chris, whatever you do, just keep writing.” —Anne Bernay, 5/1994
Twenty years ago this month, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew I wanted to write, and that’s it. That’s all I knew.
Since graduating from college in Boston two years earlier, I had been working as a reporter for a weekly newspaper. Then—very briefly, while between reporting jobs—a waiter, a substitute teacher, and a Radio Shack salesman. Then a reporter for a daily paper.
It was in February–March of 1994 that my musician friend Tony Scotto and I got the idea of moving to Boston. It would be his first time there, and I was returning. Our brilliantly conceived plan amounted to this: he would get a day job that enabled him to gig at night, and I would wait tables and write while looking for a reporting job.
Like many plans—especially the quarter-baked ones of two 24-year-olds—they disintegrated soon after we settled in. Tony and I had a temporary falling-out, and I was forced to find another place to live. Luckily, my longest friend (now about 35 years!), Jason Scott, came to my rescue by inviting me to share his one-room studio apartment across the river in Cambridge for a while. So I did.
Jason had never been particularly “domestic” (major understatement), so when I showed up and saw the filthy kitchen, the mountains of laundry, and the general state of disorder in the place, I wasn’t at all surprised, and I set out to fix it. I had that day off from the restaurant where I was working (Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street), so I spent the entire day cleaning the apartment and preparing a nice meal for my friend. And we ate it together—he on his futon bed, I on my deluxe cot (which cot, by the way, Jason and his girlfriend at the time soon broke—don’t ask).
Besides waiting tables 4–5 days and/or nights a week, I was writing my fiction—every day. Since the apartment (366 Harvard St.) was so tiny, and since Jason’s snoring rivaled the sawmill that Hemingway lived above in Paris for a while, each morning I walked down to Harvard Square and set up among the chess players, the students, and the homeless newspaper hawkers. And there I wrote.
(Right about now, you’re asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with Anne Bernay? Who is she? What are you thanking her for?” Well, as Polonius says to Queen Gertrude in my favorite play, Hamlet, “Stay awhile…I will be faithful.”)
I wrote every morning inside the snug Au Bon Pain café (or outside, if the weather was nice) from 7:00 until 11:00, and then I was free to walk anywhere in Boston. I went to the Boston Public Library and checked out books. I went to lunch with former professors. And a couple of times, I dressed up and sat in the lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel eye-flirting with the beautiful rich women. I was free, that is, unless I had to wait tables that afternoon or evening.
I was not a good waiter. I tried, believe me, but it required skills I simply don’t have. Like multitasking. When given more than three tables, I would start to panic. Thankfully, the female waitstaff all liked or pitied me, and they frequently helped me out. One of them, Helen—a lovely girl from Ireland—said to me, “Chris, you can never work in service. You’re always thinking about something else.” And she was right. Often during a shift, I would duck into the walk-in refrigerator and write something in my pocket notebook.
Still, even with the help of other waitstaff, the pressure got to me, and it came to a head the day after the Boston Marathon. I had been working double-shifts for 10 days straight, I hadn’t been able to write very much, and I was scheduled for another double that day. I snapped. I told the assistant manager that I needed a break.
She refused. We argued. And I quit.
I remember that as soon as I walked out of there with my meager tips for the day, I took a homeless man to dinner.
With my afternoons and evenings now free as well, after my morning writing sessions at the Au Bon Pain, I began taking longer and longer excursions into Boston, often ending up at a bar, drinking a beer and making notes about my adventures that day. And it was at one of those bars, at the end of the work day on May 10, 1994, that I met Anne Bernay.
At rush hour that evening I saw a covey of attractive, laughing young women flock into Bertucci’s, a brick oven pizzeria near Faneuil Hall. The womens’ shoes echoed on the cobblestones, and when I got a whiff of their perfume in the salty sea air, I decided to follow them in.
I was at the bar, jotting down my day’s observations in my pocket notebook. Since quitting the restaurant, at the end of every day of exploring I would stop into a different bar around the city and write down anything unusual that had happened or that I’d seen, heard or smelled. It was practice in the art of observation. I sat at one corner of the bar drinking 20-ounce drafts of Sam Adams Boston Ale and trying to recapture these moments that had struck me in some way. One was from a few nights earlier, when I’d been walking back to Cambridge:
“Saw a couple eating dinner on the MIT bridge tonight. He wore a tux and she an evening gown, and they had a complete table set up on the sidewalk with a light blue tablecloth, silverware, candle in a hurricane lamp, and cobalt blue place settings.”
When I finished with my observations exercise, I ordered another beer. Down the bar, a trio of women about my age were smoking, and a miasma of cigarette smoke hung in the air around them. For some reason, the smoke cloud triggered a memory of my first job, at 14, as a busboy and dishwasher in an Italian restaurant.
Turning back to my notebook, I drifted into the memory, smiling at surprising details like how every Thursday afternoon Sonny would clean out the cash register, bundle up the cash in a paper bag and host a dozen dark-suited men in a closed dining room that evening. The restaurant was right off the Taconic Parkway, about 80 miles north of New York City, so even at age fourteen I had imagination enough to know they were mobsters paying a “visit.” Three pages in, I ordered another beer and looked around. The smokers were gone.
However, in their place, a few stools away from me was a woman with fair skin and pale blue eyes. She wore an emerald rain slicker, which I only mention because it perfectly complemented her hair: full, thick, and with loose curls that just touched her shoulders, forming little cursive J’s, O’s and S’s, it was a color I’d seen described as “Light Red Copper.”
A piña colada sat on a napkin in front of her, and she was twirling the glass around and around in her fingertips while staring at it. I went back to writing and put down two more sentences and half of another when I noticed her watching me. She must have known that I was on to her because she quickly turned her head back to her drink, making her curls jiggle. She took a sip of the piña colada, swallowed and said, “So, what are you writing?”
I closed my notebook, stopping in mid-sentence (I know this because that entry—May 10, 1994—remains unfinished to this day).
“I was remembering my first job—as a dishwasher in a mob restaurant.”
She giggled. “Well, that explains it.”
“Why you were so intense about it. What else do you write?”
I gave her my spiel, and in retrospect I probably laid it on a bit thick. I talked about being a “former” newspaper reporter (I’d left the paper only two months earlier), and that I had a magazine piece coming out soon about a champion tennis player’s experiences at Wimbledon (neglecting to mention that the piece was about my own tennis coach, Gaurav Misra, and that it was going to appear in a local magazine, not Sports Illustrated). All the while, she looked unblinkingly at me with those pale blue eyes and shook her head as though in a daze.
“Wow,” she said when I finished, “you’ve got a lot of guts. Do you do other work to earn a living?”
“Like a day job?”
“I do, but I quit it a few days ago. Long story.”
She looked into her drink. “I wish I were a writer.”
“Ah, you wish you were,” I said. “The subjunctive mood. Nice.”
“I majored in English.”
She told me. “I wrote some stuff for the magazine, too, but I haven’t done anything since.”
“It’s never too late,” I said. “What do you do now?”
“I’m a proofreader in a law firm.” She looked down at her drink again.
“Hey, at least you have a job.”
“You have a job—you’re a writer,” she said. “Just think of anything else you have to do as experience for your writing.”
I wanted to leap out of my stool, take this woman in my arms and kiss her, but I thought that might be a bit much. Instead I grabbed my things, including my beer, and moved down to the stool beside hers. I gestured to the bartender for two more drinks and put a twenty down to cover them.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.
“How else am I going to have my way with you, if I don’t ply you with alcohol?”
She giggled. “You’re cute.”
“You think I’m kidding,” I said. “Can’t you tell I’m one of those guys that needs to get girls drunk first?”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Chris Orcutt,” I said.
We shook hands, and I raised my beer.
“A toast?” Her eyes widened. “To what?”
“To beautiful Boston redheads in shiny emerald coats.”
She smiled and clinked my glass with hers. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
“So, Chris,” she said, “why are you here all alone?”
“Do you want the long version or the short version?” I asked.
“Well, if it were any other guy, I’d want the short version, but I like listening to you.”
“Good, I’ll give you the epic version.”
Now…I could tell you about how that evening, after meeting at the bar, Anne took me to dinner, and how we walked to the quad at Radcliffe College, sat on a bench and held hands. The air was warm and the lawn was lush, and several old maples in the courtyard stirred in the shadowy breeze.
I could tell you how we met in Harvard Square a few days later, how she picked me up in her Volkswagen Cabriolet (with the top down) and we played tennis at the courts over at the Business School, and it began to rain, and we kissed in the rain, remembered that the top was down and ran back to the car and toweled off.
I could tell you about how we went to dinner in the North End, and how the old Italian couple that owned the restaurant thought we were married and gave us a table in the brick courtyard outside and brought us a complimentary bottle of Chianti. I could tell you about how Anne and I painted a picture of a life together, and how we took walks in the Public Garden, and how I met her for lunch a couple times outside the law firm where she worked as a proofreader. I could tell you about how she was with a man she didn’t love, and how in two short weeks we fell for each other. I could tell you about all of those things, but I won’t. Not here. Not now.
What I want to tell you about are the things Anne said to me—words that have sustained me while writing in relative obscurity for the past 20 years. She truly was an angel, and she came along when I most needed one.
During our dinner in the Italian restaurant, I told her about my new job as a parking valet, remarking that it was pathetic compared to her boyfriend’s work as a lawyer. But instead of scoffing at my new job or belittling it, she scowled and said something I’ve never forgotten. She said,
“Chris, don’t let those little shit jobs get you down. You’re a writer. You’re above all that crap. Just think of it as experience for your writing.”
For Anne, the days after our dinner in the North End were hell. She and her boyfriend had a big blowout, during which she considered moving out and getting her own apartment. I tried hard to convince her to do it. At some point during this escapade, she came by Jason’s place and sat uncomfortably on the corner of the futon mattress and read through some of my writing. I walked around the block while she read, and when I returned, she put down the pages slowly. Then she turned to me with a smile—a smile that I still remember because it was tinged with awe—and said, “Chris, whatever you do, just keep writing.”
Looking back on it now, there was finality in that statement. I think she had made up her mind about the kind of life she wanted, and while she admired me and my willingness to live as an artist, I think she knew that she didn’t have it in her to make the necessary sacrifices. (I don’t say this as a criticism, by the way; honestly, I think she would have been nuts to choose me over her stable boyfriend.)
She asked to borrow some of my pages to show her college friends, and the reverence with which she asked and put them in her bag told me I didn’t need to worry about them. Besides, I wanted her to take them. I wanted to guarantee that I saw her at least one last time.
A few days later, we met in the Public Garden. The ducks were out, as were the swan boats, and the flowers were in bloom. We walked together holding hands, but as soon as someone approached us on the path, we uncoupled because she was worried about bumping into people she knew.
And once again, she said something that has stuck with me, kept me going all these years, and I realize now that maybe our purpose in meeting was to inspire each other. She said,
“I told my friends I met a writer and they asked me if he was the real deal. And I said, ‘Yeah, he is. He really is.’”
Anne Bernay, wherever you are, when you said that, my heart swelled. You were the first woman who truly appreciated and encouraged my writing.
This evening, I did my first-ever LIVE radio interview, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Host Pam Stack asked me some thought-provoking questions and gave me the opportunity to give detailed answers.
There was also a wonderful, unexpected call-in—my friend and colleague Hillary Leftwich, who praised my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, and asked me, “If you could have dinner with only one of the characters in the novel, which one would it be?” It took me a good minute to think of my answer. To hear it, you’ll have to listen to the podcast below. :)
I really enjoyed Pam’s conversational style; after the first 10 minutes, I relaxed and felt as if we were having a conversation in her living room.
Anyway, I think I did a good job on this, my first LIVE radio interview. I hope you enjoy it as well.
Besides my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, we’ll be discussing my other fiction, the craft of writing, and anything else she decides to ask me. (I’m sure there will be surprises.)
Some of you might recall that I did my first radio interview back in December of 2013 with “Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem” host Stephen Campbell. That interview was recorded and edited, however, and my thanks go out to Stephen for making me sound as good as I did.
Although Pam is a surpassingly pleasant person, because of the “LIVE” aspect of our interview, I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about it.
Pam Stack is a voracious reader, a compelling interviewer, and an indefatigable promoter of writers. I’m truly honored to be on her program, which has featured a wide variety of prestigious and bestselling authors in all genres—from mysteries and thrillers, to romance, to literary fiction, to select nonfiction titles.
If you’re available on April 30 at 8:00 p.m., go to the link at the top and listen in. There’s a call-in number on the show webpage, and I’d be delighted if you called in with your questions about my work. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.
Back in February, my documentary filmmaker friend Jason Scott created a short documentary about me any my use of pencils for writing first drafts. The doc came out last month, but I realize now that it got buried on my “About” page, so many of you probably haven’t seen it.
Anyway, it’s about 3 minutes long, and if nothing else it proves that Jason can film anything—even a guy writing in pencil and talking about them—and it’s going to be interesting. I hope you enjoy it.
Last Monday, March 17, I said that I was going on a little “vacation” because I had exhausted myself while finishing the novel. The novel had exhausted me, but contrary to what I and others might have suggested, I did not go to a cabin in the woods, nor to a remote, sun-dappled island.
The truth is, I have been in a psychiatric hospital for the past week.
I have had bipolar disorder (manic depression) for over 25 years, and have been diagnosed with the disease for about twenty. For the past two months I had been experiencing what’s known as “ultra-ultra-rapid-cycling”—extreme swings in mood from low to high that include sobbing, irritability, impulsivity, anger, laughter, etc., with changes in mood coming sometimes within time spans as short as an hour.
These mood swings are triggered and/or exacerbated by periods of intense stress, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, or, in my case, all of the above, coupled with working to exhaustion on making my new novel as perfect as I could make it.
The hospital I went to lured me in with photos of a finely-appointed parlor, fireplaces, swimming pools and walking trails; but once I got there, I discovered that those amenities were for the celebrity-centric detox program, not the “Acute Care Unit” with its 24-hour lockdown, which is where I was put.
For a week, I was given new medication and observed around-the-clock by psychiatrists and nurses. My only communication with the outside world was via a pair of monitored telephones in the hallways; I had no access to the internet or any electronic devices.
On the plus side, I collected some great material for a future book. I learned a lot about myself and came to respect my fellow patients for their bravery and support. We watched The Shawshank Redemption (“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’”), plotted coups involving TV usage, played chess and Scrabble, strolled the euphemistically-named “deck” (an Alcatraz-like exercise yard in miniature), ate meals together, debated the merits of various medications, took side bets on minutiae including when the kitchen would open, gave each other nicknames (like “Green Lantern,” for a guy who wore only a Green Lantern hoodie) and shared our experiences in group discussions.
The photo shown is of a typical hospital room. Alexas described the hospital in general as “a Travelodge with nurses, full breakfast, group meetings and 15-minute bed checks.” The rooms, as well as the entire hospital, are designed to be low-stimulus, low-stress. Miraculously, however, I did manage to get a little writing done at the desk in my room.
While I was in the hospital, I debated whether or not to tell everyone the truth about where I’ve been and why it’s taking me a little longer than I’d hoped to release One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. And then while inside I met a remarkable young woman (she’d just been diagnosed bipolar; she had been rapid-cycling; and she was mature, talented and intelligent beyond her years). It was she who convinced me to “lay it out there, Chris.” She said I should do whatever I can to reduce the stigma. So, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
However, my doctors’ orders include sleeping, eating better, and not driving myself as hard in my work. So, please be patient with me as I work (gently) to release the new novel. I just want all of you to understand why it might take me a little longer than I originally promised. The hospital stay helped, but I am by no means “cured,” and I need to learn to take things easier.
Today, for the first time in weeks, I took a walk.
A long walk.
I put on my coat and my Boston Red Sox cap, and I walked a quiet road north of where I live. I passed a pheasant farm, which, if you don’t know Millbrook, probably sounds ridiculous. But trust me—around this rarefied countryside, pheasant farms are de rigueur. I passed a large meadow that my wife and I refer to as Darcy Meadow—named after Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, because on summer mornings there is often a romantic haze hanging over it like in the climactic scene in the 2005 movie. And I passed what we call the Christmas in Connecticut house. We call it this because the place looks exactly like the house in the classic film—especially when there’s snow on the ground.
I passed these things and kept walking.
As I continued to walk, sucking in the cold, fresh air, I could feel the fog clearing out of my head. My heart beat faster. Blood surged through my veins again.
All through the holidays, I had kept myself chained to my desk, attending to a number of business-related matters: doing a radio interview, updating this website and my Twitter page, being active on Facebook, writing some speeches, and interacting with fans of my books and readers of this blog.
In addition, for the past two weeks, I was dealing with a crisis in my personal life that put me on an emotional roller-coaster and caused me to lose sleep, weight and peace of mind.
But here’s the thing: Through it all—no matter what—I wrote.
In one form or another, and with varying levels of output, I have written every day for 25 years. Some days it’s been only a sentence or two in my pocket notebook; many days, a few pages in my journal; and on one exceptional day (during a manic cycle), I cranked out 8,602 words towards the second Dakota novel. (I’m sure of this number because, for a long time, like a lot of writers I kept track of my daily word output.)
I’ve written through a horrible tooth abscess, mononucleosis, and paralyzing depression. I’ve written through the death of my beloved grandfather, and I even wrote on the morning of my wedding (in my journal, briefly, about my bride-to-be).
I was pondering all of this—how writing has seen me through the best and the worst times of my life—when I reached the end of my walk. I was miles down a dirt road, Woodstock Lane. Ahead, a flock of wild turkeys walked out of the woods and crossed the road.
I thought about a difficult email that I’d had to write before I left on my walk, and how until I wrote it, I was uncertain how I felt.
And then, I had an epiphany. We writers live for these, and we always write them down. I took out my notebook and wrote,
If you are truly a writer, then writing is how you process the world, and you can’t be certain what you think or feel about something until you write about it.
I stood in the leaves on the edge of the woods and wrote many of the thoughts that appear in this blog entry. A Range Rover crept by, and in my periphery I saw the driver staring at me. I ignored him. We writers are used to this. We’re used to whipping out our notebooks at inopportune times, or in less-than-ideal places. Just yesterday, in the supermarket, I saw an attractive young mother with toddlers, and the scene reminded me of something, and I stopped in the Bakery section, planted my notebook on some boxes of pies, and wrote about it.
At that point, finished with my thought, I put my notebook away and headed back down the road. The wild turkeys were long gone. It was getting late in the day, and the woods were growing dark.
No matter what vicissitudes life has brought me, writing has always been there. And when I’ve had problems, questions, or crises, even if I haven’t written about them specifically, the very act of writing—writing anything—has brought me answers.
Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.
Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.
I haven’t heard the completed, edited version yet, so you can bet I’m going to tune in to hear how I did.
If you’re interested in hearing about the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, my fiction, and writing in general, tune in today (Thursday, Dec. 19) at 6:30 pm (Eastern time) to the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell.
I hope you’ll tune in, or if you can’t hear it live, that you’ll check it out afterwards, when it becomes available for streaming. Thank you.
Thanks to the thousands of readers of my Dakota Stevens mysteries, in the past 18 months I’ve been able to fulfill two lifelong dreams.
The first was going to Paris, spending two solid weeks exploring every inch of that gorgeous city, and walking in the footsteps of my literary idols—including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Flaubert and Maupassant. (You can read about that trip here.)
The second, which I fulfilled only two months ago, was driving through all of England and Scotland, seeing the castles of my ancestors in the Scottish Highlands, and visiting the iconic locations associated with my favorite works of English literature: the Chatsworth estate (the basis for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and 221B Baker Street in London.
This last location, of course, is the residence of the most famous detective ever—Sherlock Holmes. A detective so famous that some people don’t realize that he and his partner, Dr. John Watson, were entirely fictional—the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor himself.
From the time I was 10 years old, well into my late teens, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I read all 56 short stories and four novels multiple times. I collected Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias and books about Victorian London. I read biographies of Doyle. I read textbooks about criminalistics and forensic science (this was many years before the CSI TV shows). And I went to college to study forensic science, with the original intent of graduating and working at the FBI crime lab.
My plan to get a degree in forensics and work for the FBI lasted two semesters. Through one of my courses—Criminalistics and Crime Scene Investigation—I met a forensic scientist from the state crime laboratory and shadowed him. I visited his lab, interned for a few hours a week, and accompanied him when he testified in court. Doing these things, I began to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the largely tedious work involved in forensic testing, nor would I enjoy being grilled on the witness stand by needling lawyers second-guessing every test I performed.
By then I knew that I didn’t want to become a forensic scientist, and I had decided that the sciences were boring; ultimately the answers (or at least some of them) were in the back of the book. Besides, I had discovered that I was more interested in questions than answers, and I enjoyed literature and storytelling too much to give it up for what I perceived would be a humdrum life of science. So I changed my major to philosophy, expanded my reading of the classics, and began doing seriously something that I had done since I was 11 years old—writing stories.
But it all went back to Sherlock Holmes. Even though I didn’t write a mystery of my own for many years, the richness of the Holmes character, and the verisimilitude of his world (as described by Watson) had made a deep impression on me. I knew that whatever the subject or genre, my goal was to write stories as entertaining and compelling as Doyle’s, with characters that were equally strong and larger-than-life.
As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was creating the Dakota Stevens series, Sherlock Holmes and Watson couldn’t help but be literary touchstones for me. I wanted a Holmes–Watson dynamic, but I wanted such a duo to reflect modern sensibilities, and I knew that I wanted the counterpoint, the yin and yang, of having my “Watson” be a woman. And so I asked myself, “What would the dynamic of a modern Holmes and Watson—a man and woman detective team—look like?”
And that’s where Dakota Stevens and his “Watson”—the brilliant and beautiful Svetlana Krüsh—came from.
I didn’t get a chance to visit 221B Baker Street until the morning of my last day in the UK. Alexas and I had specifically chosen our hotel because it was in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, relatively close to Holmes’s address, and when we exited the hotel early that Sunday morning, we were unsure whether to try and walk there, or take the Underground.
We were fumbling with the map when I glanced down the sidewalk and saw a cabbie buffing his freshly-washed black cab. One of my other, smaller, dreams was to ride in a London black cab, and so I got the idea of fulfilling two dreams at once. I would take a London black cab to 221B Baker Street.
I asked the cabbie if he was taking passengers yet (it was barely seven-thirty), and when he replied, “Absolutely,” Alexas and I climbed eagerly in.
“To 221B Baker Street, my good man,” I said. “And hurry!”
Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there was considerable traffic on the streets, and it took a good fifteen minutes to reach 221B. During the ride, the cabbie asked me why I wanted to go there, and I gave him an abridged version of everything you’ve read so far. I also told him some of the history of Sherlock Holmes, and how Doyle had based the character in part on a medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. I mentioned that I was a mystery novelist from the States (“Not famous—yet,” I added), and the cabbie said he would buy my books on Kindle (Dakota Stevens #1 & #2). Finally he dropped us off, and I gave him an extravagant tip. I wanted him to remember me as generous so he’d be more likely to buy my books and tell others about them.
With the exception of a few construction workers gathering in front of a building a few doors down, Baker Street was empty and quiet. A single door, marked 221B, sat next to a closed Sherlock Holmes collectibles store. I knew from my reading ahead of time that Holmes and Watson’s apartment on the second floor was decorated and staged as though they still lived there and had just stepped out. I also knew that admission to the apartment was ridiculously expensive, and was sure to be a disappointment—what with having to share the experience with a mob of people who were merely going there so they could check one more item off of a “bucket list.” It was unlikely that the true Holmes lovers, the serious aficionados, would be part of any tour group. They’d all know it was a Barnum sideshow.
Besides, the building, with a Victorian façade on it, didn’t fit with the other buildings on the street. Not only were the other buildings of more modern architecture, the building numbers were out of sync. It was clear that 221B used to be farther down the street, but that building had been torn down and rebuilt, so they created a new 221B Baker Street (in Victorian style) and wedged it in a few doors down.
But it wasn’t about the actual, physical address anyway. It’s not as though Holmes and Watson had really lived, and I was seeing the exact building and apartment where they’d resided. No, it was about the idea of 221B Baker Street. It was about what 221B represented.
As I stared up at the windows, the stories came flooding back to me: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (a great TV version here). “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” “The Final Problem.” “The Musgrave Ritual.” “A Scandal in Bohemia.” A Study in Scarlet.The Hound of the Baskervilles.
It was about all of the pleasure these stories had given me since I was a boy, and how Sherlock Holmes had been a constant companion to me through my difficult and awkward teenage years. It was about how these stories had launched me in a certain direction in life, and how they had inspired me to write the best detective novels I possibly could.
Alexas took some photos of me standing proudly in front of 221B Baker Street, and then we took a few of a young Japanese woman who knew that 221B was famous for something, but famous for what, she had no idea.
So often in life, the moment of actually realizing a goal, fulfilling a dream, is a letdown compared to how we imagine it will be. But not this time. Not for me. Seeing 221B Baker Street—the home of my childhood hero—affected me much more deeply than I thought it would. As I stared at it for the last time, I realized then how much I had dreamed of being there, how important the place was to me. And I told Alexas so, and began to cry.
So I was browsing Kindle books on Amazon earlier today and came upon one that thoroughly pissed me off.
Truly, this book represents everything that’s wrong with ebooks.
In the content, advertising and book cover, the author details how a writer can write a book a week, and how turning out such a quantity of “writing” is the key to making a lot of money on Kindle.
Let’s talk about this, shall we?
Yes, you can get rich writing a book a week—when most of your “books” are 50 or fewer Kindle pages, and when you’re writing books about how to make money writing books for Kindle.
Not so easy is writing a real book a week—say a novel. I’d like to see Foster live up to his advertised maxim that the quantity and the quality have to be there, if he were trying to write a novel a week.
I’ve read a number of these ebooks about “getting rich writing books for Kindle,” and as a lifelong writer who has earned a living as a journalist, technical writer, scriptwriter and speechwriter (in addition to novelist), I find their common assertion that there’s nothing to this, that anyone can do it, not only insulting but also dishonest.
Writing is like any other specialized skill: It takes years and thousands of hours of study and practice to do it well. Just as I wouldn’t expect that I could go into a dentist’s office tomorrow and begin filling teeth, no one should expect that they can sit down and dash off an ebook in a week that will make them a lot of money.
The main problem I have with Foster’s “book,” as well as all of the others that advocate writing a quantity of work for Kindle, is that they promote a writing-as-lottery mentality. They promote the idea that a person can just churn out a “book,” and that the possibility exists that they’ll make tens of thousands, or millions, of dollars from the book with little effort.
This writing-as-lottery mentality is bad for Kindle and indie-published books in general because it lowers the overall quality of the work out there, and it reinforces the idea among readers and literary opinion-makers that ebooks (especially indie titles) are junk. Well, we writers who have worked long and hard at our craft, and who strive to give readers excellent quality work for their money, resent this.
We resent ebooks like Foster’s, as well as those that advertise that it’s easy to amp-up sales of your current books with a few simple changes to your book listings on Amazon. I have read probably a dozen of these titles, each time convincing myself that this one is different, that this one contains the keys to the kingdom. Guess what? NONE of them do. These authors are simply getting rich on our desire to sell more of our work, and any of the “fixes” that they suggest, if they help sales at all, are merely temporary.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say.” Don’t allow your work to become part of the glut of mediocre ebooks on Amazon; have something to say, a story to tell, and put your absolute best work out there—every time. You might not rake in the money as Foster and his ilk do, but you can take pride in the idea that you are only publishing good work, and that if you’re suddenly taken from this earth tomorrow, you at least will have left something of substance, of yourself, behind.
Especially in the winter, and especially if you live in the boondocks, have only one car, and the closest semblance of civilization is a mile away.
I used to be content working alone from home all day long, but in the past year the silence has become oppressive. My only company where I live are the woodpeckers that gather out at the suet feeder. Unfortunately they’re not very good conversationalists.
Which is why, in recent months, I’ve been hiking into the Millbrook Diner every day.
Often before I even get inside, Kenny, Randi or Alex sees me coming from across the street, pours me a cup of coffee, and places it with the crossword puzzle at my regular seat. A small act that, more than anything, makes this writer feel a lot less lonely.
I always exchange hellos with Thanasi—the gracious owner—and sometimes I visit with other regulars—people whom I know only by first name, and with whom I interact only at the diner. Regulars like Bill, who, at close to 80 years old, walks five miles with his wife every day. Or Wayne, a fascinating, semi-retired man who flies planes and trains horses. Or Helen, an erudite Greek woman with a thousand stories to tell.
I like to read in the diner, but mostly I drink a lot of coffee there, and I write. (Popular definition of a writer: “a device that converts caffeine into words.”)
Over the years I’ve written and edited thousands of words in the Millbrook Diner. Stories. Journal entries. Executive speeches. Video scripts. Plays. And the Dakota novels (see ads to right). Most recently was a 10-minute play for an upcoming play festival.
Whatever I’ve been writing, I’ve found the mild noise of the diner to be creatively stimulating. Also, the familiarity of the people and the surroundings gives me a sense of community, of connection, that I need so I don’t feel so isolated.
Who would have thought that a diner could do all that?
The Millbrook Diner is my second office, and I thank Thanasi, his wife, and his staff for always making me feel so welcome.