“So, what are you working on?”
When people find out you’re a writer, they tend to ask this question a lot. Sometimes I’m glad to answer: “I’m working on my fourth Jack Keller book,” or “I’m working on my sci-fi vampire space opera.” Other times, the question makes me flinch, because the project’s at an early stage where I’m not really quite sure what the heck it is yet, and it feels like if I say something out loud, it’ll congeal into something unformed and unready, like an experiment that comes shambling out of the lab too soon as something grotesque and horrible.
Lately, however, I’ve had to answer that question “nothing.” Because I haven’t been writing any fiction at all. I’m writing my weekly newspaper column, but that’s about it. Looking back, it’s literally the first time I’ve been able to say that in the last ten years. I’ve always had some project in the works. Oh, sure I might have been procrastinating on it, but for the past ten years, I’ve always at least had something to feel guilty about not writing. So why am I on hiatus now?
Well, every time I finish a book, I always say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. This one, however, really took it out of me. To begin with, I accepted one of the shortest deadlines I’ve ever had, because I really wanted to work with Jason Pinter and his new venture, Polis Books. I saw that Jason was not only putting out some exciting new stuff, he was also doing reissues of great, neglected works like the ones in Dave White’s Jackson Donne series. So when he responded to my query asking if he would be interested in re-issuing the Jack Keller series by shooting back “would you be interested in writing a fourth one?” I said, “oh, HELL yeah.” After all, I’d had a fourth one in the works when I parted ways with St. Martin’s. So all I had to do was dust off the old notes and the 10,000 or so words I’d written as a starter and it’d be smooth sailing all the way, right? I think I may have even said the words that have gotten me into the most trouble of any throughout my life: “how hard could it be?”
As always, the answer was “harder than it looks.” Getting back into Jack’s head was more difficult than expected, especially since the events at the end of SAFE AND SOUND left him kind of a wreck. The other characters didn’t seem to want to come alive, either. But slowly, they did, and things proceeded as well as can be expected for a first draft.
Then, right before Christmas, my father died. I don’t want to go into too many details, but he did not go easily or painlessly. It was, in fact, thoroughly emotionally shattering for everyone concerned, and getting back to the computer after grueling hours at the hospital with my mom proved to be impossible. Then, when that was finally over, it was (oh joy) the holidays, and then at the first of the year, I launched into a busy trial schedule at the day job. But finally, I pulled it together, got back on the horse, pulled a lot of long writing and revising sessions, and managed to stumble to the finish line, or at least eke out a decent draft, which I turned in only three weeks late. It’s the first deadline I think I’ve ever missed. When it was over, I was drained, emotionally and creatively. I needed a break, and the rest of life wasn’t giving me one, so I took one from writing while waiting for my editor’s notes to get back to me. That process has taken longer than expected (for what turned out to be some very exciting reasons), so the hiatus went on longer than expected as well.
So what have I been doing while not writing? Well, I’ve read a lot. Watched a lot more TV than I usually do. Walked the dog. Played a lot of computer games I haven’t played in years. Probably drank more rum than is strictly good for me. Eventually cut back on that. In general, though what I’ve mainly been doing is feeling kind of aimless, restless, bored and oddly anxious, as if I’ve forgotten to turn the stove off or as if I can’t remember where my car is. I guess I’m one of those people who writes because not doing it is like having an itch you don’t scratch. So I suppose it’s time to get back to it.
Thalians, guests, and others: how do you typically react to the question “What are you working on?” And while we’re on the subject, what ARE you working on? What’s your longest hiatus, and what are you like when you’re not writing?
by Taffy Cannon
When you finish a return with Turbo Tax, you are offered the option of completing a questionnaire about the experience. This has historically been pretty dry, but for 2014, somebody got creative.
“Thinking about preparing and filing your taxes, how would you rate your overall experience with TurboTax?” The answer continuum ran from “Not Impressive” to “Awesome.” Yes, you read that correctly. Awesome.
Another question wanted to know at what point in the process something “delightful” happened. Delightful? My answer, of course, was “Never.” It’s tax preparation software, not a hot fudge sundae.
But I got to thinking about the way people perceive things, and how often we are asked to believe that something is really fun when in fact it is tedious drudgery.
And how we are indoctrinated from an early age, forming all sorts of hidden memories that surface when we become parents ourselves. At that point, we continue the dastardly chain by pawning off all manner of chores on our children when they are too young to know any better.
“Let’s shovel snow!” “Let’s see how many dandelions we can pull!” “Let’s scrub-a-dub-dub the bathroom!”
It’s faux fun, and it’s scary how easily you can buy into it.
For the record, my own list of faux fun is topped by exercise and housework.
I have always believed exercise to be the devil’s handiwork, though I do grudgingly complete minimal amounts of it and have actually paid to belong to a gym. It was a women-only gym that was bought out by a big glitzy place with huge plasma TVs playing sports, frequented by buff young hardbodies strutting their stuff. I took a refund on the rest of my membership—had to fight for it, actually, as I recall—in the late lamented ladies gym, and never looked back.
Exercise is often touted as a way to experience endorphins, and for those lucky enough to have achieved that nirvana, I congratulate you. But since I personally have only encountered endorphins on the printed page, I have to agree with the friend who says exercise is only fun when you’re through.
As for housework, do I really need to elaborate?
I recently watched some housework-related related YouTube commercial videos from my childhood. In these commercials, housewives in crisp shirtwaists and perky aprons positively glistened with enthusiasm as they discovered new miracle cleansers. They emulated orgasm with bleach-and-toxin-riddled laundry detergent, sold in boxes the size of Rhode Island. And I don’t even want to talk about what happened once Mr. Clean came on the scene.
I am descended from a long line of indifferent housekeepers and if anything, my standards have grown higher as I age. Also my standards took a significant jump when my daughter become engaged to the son of a health inspector.
But that does not mean that I consider housework fun, or that I ever will.
I asked some friends about their experiences with faux fun, and got fascinating responses.
Reunions. Baby showers. Visiting relatives you barely know or don’t like. Tupperware, Amway, Pampered Chef—those awkward gatherings where you are expected to arrive with a checkbook and to feign enthusiasm for arcane kitchen paraphernalia.
Then somebody mentioned New Year’s Eve. This struck me as odd until I stopped to think about it. Because both my parents had worked in the Emergency Room on multiple New Year’s Eves, they never left the house on December 31. Which would have been fine, except that I had some kind of Stork Club-based notions about what constitutes proper welcoming of a New Year. (Every December when we watch Holiday Inn, I recognize those New Year’s Eve scenes as a prototype of that fantasy, which has never coincided with my actual life.)
I started making canapés at a tender age with oddball bar and hors d’oeuvre paraphernalia that my parents had received as late forties wedding gifts, but I don’t remember a lot of specific New Year’s Eves. One I do recall was the first I spent with the guy who would eventually become my husband, featuring a bottle of sparkling burgundy and his high school fraternity pin. Another was the college year we drove forty miles in eighteen-below weather to a party in the Chicago suburbs where we knew maybe three people.
After that, matters leap pretty directly to the most recent turn of the century when a dear friend hosted a party to welcome a millennium I wish she had lived to see more of. Mostly, however, I have turned into my parents and never go anywhere, celebrating at home when it’s twelve o’clock somewhere.
The friend who mentioned New Year’s Eve noted two exceptions: “One was watching a Twilight Zone marathon in a nice motel on the southern Oregon Coast during a big storm with my husband and wine and snacks. One was a lobster dinner at your house in Chicago.”
Hard to argue with that motel on the Oregon Coast, but who knew that my family’s idiosyncratic holiday celebrations would become somebody else’s memories? Particularly when I didn’t even remember that occasion, other than that it must have been during college.
And then, just like that, another friend trumped her. “I’ll second you New Year’s Eve and raise you Valentine’s Day.”
Faux fun. Who can get enough of it?
Being a writer is like being asked to commit to saying “I do” every day. It requires a monumental leap of faith and a belief in yourself that, in the end, you will indeed prove worthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a freelance writing assignment or trying to finish up your new novel, each time you sit down to start a writing session there’s this dance with yourself that begins — and the music isn’t always inspiring.
It usually starts with a handful of questions that race across your brain: “Maybe I would be more productive if I waited until tomorrow morning and got started first thing while I’m fresh?” “Shouldn’t I put the chili on first and let it simmer all day?” “I wonder if a little nap would refresh me and leave me more open creatively?” And on and on it goes.
This is why many writers have pristine kitchens, well vacuumed carpets and meticulously organized closets. It is also why writers often excel at rationalization — we wrestle mentally with ourselves every day. But it is also why so many of us are crippled with self-doubt. After all, who are we to think that we have the magic to take a blank page and transform it into cohesive thoughts with the power to move strangers thousands of miles away? Who are we, indeed?
In a way, sitting down to write each day is a lot like foreplay – except the process lasts longer. There you are, approaching this pivotal moment, not knowing if it will be glorious or disappointing. So you get your head into the game and tell yourself that it’s all up to you. You can either make the effort and get something out of it, or half-ass it and waste your time. See? Foreplay!
I go through this psych-out every time I sit down to write. So far, I have won the battle. For 40 years, I have managed to produce an ungodly word count to foist on the world. How? Here are some of the things I do to get going. Think of it as the writer equivalent of pumping the gas pedal and turning the ignition key:
I start by revising something I wrote the day before, then pick up my speed as I near the end and pray my momentum will take me into fresh content. This almost always works. Although, just as often, I get bored revising and leap right into creating. Thank god for editors with longer attention spans than me.
I decide to fill in a few character details or deepen an outlined scene, then convince myself that I really need to create that character or scene while I have the details fresh in my head. This works, but not always — as is evident by the incredibly elaborate outlines and schematics I use to create my books.
I lie in bed, going over a scene, letting it take form in my brain until it becomes so real that I have to jump up and sit down in front of the computer and get it all down on paper before it disappears. Perhaps creativity cannot be rushed, but it can certainly be ripened, like expensive fruit you’re not sure you like. It just takes the will and time to daydream your vision to life.
I pretend I’m a dog and give myself treats to perform. Before I started paying attention to my blood sugar levels (something none of you want me to ignore, trust me on this), if I finished a page, I rewarded myself with chocolate and Little Black Dog would get a Beggin’ Strip just for sticking by me. But now, I go big or go home. If I meet my page deadline for the day by noon then, by god, I am sitting down with a grilled ribeye and salad for lunch. Just try to stop me. And there’s no scraps left for Little Black Dog, either.
I create artificial deadlines and heap enough urgency on those deadlines to scare the crap out of myself. This particular psych-out can be tricky, especially if certain unnamed persons in your writing circle regularly blow off even their publisher deadlines with little more than a shrug (you know who you are, people). But I seem to be imbued with more than my fair share of Catholic guilt. If I tell myself I must have a chapter finished by the end of the week, than that is enough to light my fire. I am pretty sure there is an obsessive-compulsive disorder lurking behind this technique, but like so many things, I choose to ignore it.
I use procrastination to fight procrastination. This is not as crazy as it sounds. It goes like this: I love writing, it’s just the getting started each day that makes me feel as if I’m staring into the abyss. On the other hand, I really hate filing taxes (a writer never quite knows what penalty the tax demon will bring). So starting every March, I begin my most productive writing time of year by using writing to put off filing my taxes. Sure, I could compile my receipts… but why not finish that chapter instead? It’s genius! By the time mid-April rolls around, I’ve banked a couple hundred pages and somehow managed to file another tax extension request. It worked again this year. I think. I’m still fanning the flames of my tax panic to keep going. These things cannot be rushed.
But what I really need are equally unpleasant tasks I can use throughout the year to make writing an attractive, viable alternative. Getting a colonoscopy? Having a root canal? Getting my eyebrows threaded? If I weren’t so darned healthy, and had not already tried threading — surely a technique created by a sadomasochist? — I am sure I could find something in that arena. Alas, I come from sturdy stock, and so I am still searching for another effective procrastination tool. The trick is to find something almost as urgent and important as writing, which is why I can’t use running as an excuse to put off writing or vice versa. You see, I don’t give a crap about running. And being an optimist, I too easily blow off walking as well, convinced as I am that another beautiful day will always come along. So I’m still searching for seasonal procrastination tools and your suggestions are certainly welcome.
In the meantime, good luck to my fellow writers as they face the day’s blank page. I’ll be thinking of you as my fingers approach the keyboard… and pause.
Now, if you will excuse me, I really must begin today’s writing session.
This St. Patrick’s Day morning when I sat down to write my post, an earthquake once again rocked Los Angeles. 6:25 a.m. and I’ve got the coffee brewing when this bad boy hits. As if reacting to an underground explosion, our house bucks and sways, the windows rattling and glasses clinking. There was an initial jolt then the earth roiling, then another round of tectonic plates sliding and grinding. When a quake happens, and being a native I’ve experienced more than I care to recount, you start thinking about getting everybody together for safety. I flashed on the notion that unlike as I’d been taught years ago, don’t get everyone under a doorway. If the doorway falls away, the collapsing ceiling would kill us.
Considering where to locate ourselves, I yell for my wife and our grown son to get up – he would usually be on his way to work this early but was going in later for a company meeting – the quake subsided. Reports later quoted Robert Graves, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who said the earthquake was the most significant one in the Southern California area since the magnitude 5.5 earthquake in Chino Hills in 2008. The quake was felt all the way from Perris, out in Riverside County to San Clemente, down in Orange County.
Odd but a quake had been on my mind the day before while I signed a few of my books and browsed at the Paperback Collectors book show. This is an annual gathering of used book sellers with an emphasis on paperbacks where various writers are invited to sign as well. Being a fan of ‘70s and ‘80s eras paperback vigilant series, I was reminiscing about one in particular featuring a rough and ready chap called the Warlord.
The premise of the series was thus: Vietnam vet (they were all Vietnam vets then), ex-Special Forces soldier turned history teacher Eric Ravensmith (you gotta love that name) leads a band of survivors in a California which has been torn away from the rest of the mainland by a massive earthquake. Additionally there’s some sort of radiation belt surrounding the state and Ravensmith also draws on his training (including using a crossbow which you see used by characters in the horror TV series the Walking Dead and the dystopian, neo-pulp Revolution — replete with swords and machine guns), by a Native American shaman-type, his foster dad Big Bill Tenderwolf. The six book series was primarily written by Raymond Obstfeld, with Rich Rainey penning the last one, all under the house name of Jason Frost.
In the movie Escape from L.A., it’s also a quake that has made So Cal a Mad Maxish-like breakaway land mass. Mercenary Snake Plissken is coerced into service once again. This time he’s to penetrate the bizarreness that is the Island of Los Angeles to retrieve a remote control of an orbiting electro-magnetic pulse satellites that could, pre-dating the nanobots who do this in Revolution, wipe out all electrical apparatuses in a targeted area. In the 1974 big budget, all-star cast Earthquake disaster movie, Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Green, Richard Roundtree and various other A and B listers scramble to survive with their chins up when the big one decimated Los Angeles.
IMDB succinctly sums up the film Demolition Man; two men—one, an evil crime lord; the other, a risk-taking police officer—who are cryogenically frozen in the year 1996 and reawakened in 2032. Following a massive earthquake in 2010 that destroyed much of Los Angeles, it merged with San Diego to form a planned city called San Angeles in which all crime has seemingly been eliminated from mainstream society. And in the sci-fi novel Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a giant comet plunging toward the Earth causes all manner of mess including earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes exploding. In one memorable scene, a surfer shreds the ultimate gigantic tidal wave to his death as it sweeps in to level the beach town of Santa Monica, California
As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tweets about readying his quake pic, San Andreas, I’m going to have some more coffee and contemplate how I can transform my jitters of the Big One into genre gold.
Meet Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, most often called McBleak. He appears to be a one percenter, hobnobbing with other millennials of his ilk; excursions on yachts while extolling the virtues of banksters, and enjoying the fruits of his non-labors while the rest of us hustle to put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door.
In the novella The Extractors by Gary Phillips, he lays plans to take a greedy man’s gain while wondering if his girlfriend, who comes from inherited wealth but is dedicated to using her resources to make a difference, is beginning to see through his façade – and if so, can he bring her to his side or will she turn on him? But nothing ever goes as planned, and McBleak has to think fast on his feet or his life might be extracted from him.
Available for $2.99 on its own app bookxy across all platforms as well on Kindle, Kobo, etc.
• • • • • • •
Also in Southern California, Taffy Cannon has been lurking at the library.
I was just on a Noir panel for the Oceanside Library’s Big Read program with Lisa Brackmann, Alan Russell, Ken Kuhlken, and Debra Ginsberg. On April 5, I’m moderating a mystery panel at the Carlsbad Library with Denise Hamilton, Vince Aiello, Isla Morley, C.E. Poverman, and Matt Coyle.
• • • • • • •
It’s back to France this summer for the five Bennett Sisters, last seen in Lise McClendon‘s Blackbird Fly. The new book will be out in May (called The Girl in the Empty Dress) but in the meantime you can read installments of Blackbird Fly for free on Wattpad. Suspense, wine, & intrigue. There’s a snazzy new cover too, redesigned by the amazing Lisa Desimini.
Ready to read it straight through? That can be done!
• • • • • • •
JD Rhoades reports in with exciting news. Look for his new thriller, Devils and Dust, coming soon.
I’m pleased to announce that Polis Books the digital imprint started by bestselling author and former St. Martin’s Press editor Jason Pinter, will be publishing six of my books this spring: all three books in the Shamus award-nominated Jack Keller series (with spiffy new covers, naturally) , then the thrillers BREAKING COVER and BROKEN SHIELD, all leading up to the release of a brand new Jack Keller novel, DEVILS AND DUST. I’m totally psyched to be working with Jason and Polis.
• • • • • • •
My crime story, Girl’s Night Out, will be published as an e-book by Shebooks, an exciting new internet publishing venture featuring fiction, memoir and essay, by women and for women, in April, 2014.
My Canadian true crime, Death Dealer, which was five years in the making, will be published by New Horizon Press Books in September. Death Dealer fascinated me because while the killing took place in northeastern New Brunswick, it would involve search and rescue teams and game wardens with trained cadaver dogs from the neighboring state of Maine to locate the victim’s hidden body. Two full first degree murder trials, and many appeals later, the killer was sentenced to life is prison.
The fourth book in my Joe Burgess police procedural quartet, And Grant You Peace, will be published by Five Star in October.
Here at Thalia we are word slingers. We craft sentences that lead to paragraphs that morph into scenes that join into chapters and eventually become novels. We love words. They are our clay, our seeds, our bricks, our dirt.
That said, we live in an image-driven world. A world of television, movies, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the next big photo site. For me writing stories is a way to describe the movies in my head. I am a visual person. I really wanted to be a film reviewer right out of college. I love movies. I love the stories they tell, the subtleties conveyed in a passing look on screen, in a touch, in the twitch of a smile. Film is an emotional medium. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. An image conveys different emotions to different people. Words work on readers the same way but there is something about a picture.
Assuming then that I have added all sorts of pictures to this post and you are still engaged, I’d like to point out that a thousand words makes a very short story. Like short-short. One-thousand words times five is a short story. One-thousand words times seventy is a novel. So a series of seventy photographs might tell you the story depicted in a novel? In a comic book there are twenty or thirty pages with six or so panels per page. That makes 120 to 180 images per story. Does that mean a comic book is richer and more textured than a novel of 70,000 words? Your call. To each his own entertainment.
I come to you with no agenda. I don’t write comic books or screenplays. I am a novelist. I love the long form story. I can write short stories but I don’t find them as, well, rich and textured and satisfying as a novel. A novel takes months to organize. It takes another big chunk of time to write from that hilarious outline you wrote before you started. Six, ten, twelve months, sometimes much more. Then more time to clean up the mess of the first draft. If a novelist is lucky and extremely organized — and can we say ‘driven’? — writing a polished long work of fiction in twelve months is good, honest work. That doesn’t include time spent promoting your book, blogging (yes, here we are!), tweeting, traveling to conferences, doing public appearances and booksignings and even getting your book copyedited and proofread. And if you’re not with a traditional publisher, getting your cover designed.
The novel, despite its name, isn’t all that new any more. Today the definition is “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Realism is a bit of a stretch these days. Novels of urban fantasy, science fiction, and time travel exist. What ties them together is the understanding they have of the human psyche, human existence, its vulnerabilities and ironies. Is that touch, that indescribable something, more easily conveyed by a film clip or a photograph? Or is the depiction of the journey a character goes through, the barriers, the trials, the highs and lows, more honest?
During Oscars week we can take some collective joy in the stories told on film, and every medium. Some movies are adapted from books we love. We hope they translate well. (If not we can always go back to our books.) More are delivered via letters and words and sentences, between pages, on screens, wherever people read. Wherever we get our stories is fine.
Our stories bring us together, help us connect with one another, and illuminate the fabulousness and ironically deep pain of life. Which makes us all better humans, if only we continue to read and listen to stories.
PS: I was watching ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ while I wrote this. Not saying it changed my life. Just saying. ;-)
by Taffy Cannon
And it wasn’t much money back then, either. When I was a contestant, Single Jeopardy started at $25 and Double Jeopardy ended with $250. In these days of five-figure daily payouts and individuals who’ve earned up to $3.5 million, that sounds like chump change, but back in 1979 it represented the possibility of buying a few more months to work on what would become my first published novel.
Here’s the key: back then, you got to keep the money you earned, win or lose. Today the losers head home with only memories and the Rice-a-Roni, game show parlance for “parting gifts” listed on a crawl at the end of the show. In olden times, you got it all.
Becoming a Jeopardy! contestant in the new millennium involves endless rounds of paperwork and testing and a scouting roadshow that forever circles the country in search of hidden intelligentsia. I know highly-qualified people who’ve been attempting for years to become contestants.
But back then it meant going to a second-floor office up on Hollywood Boulevard and taking a written test. If you did well on the test, you were called back for a practice session with actual buzzers, and if you passed that hurdle, you were slated as a contestant.
Art Fleming was the host, a genial man who had been with the show from its daytime black-and-white beginnings in March 1964. He was the host when I watched with my mother, back when prize money started at $10 and Single Jeopardy invariably featured a category of “Old Testament” or “Five Syllable Words.”
That first era of Jeopardy! lasted peacefully and successfully through 1973, when a Daytime Programming hotshot at NBC began bouncing it around different timeslots, a process which eventually got it cancelled. The last of that first incarnation’s 2753 episodes aired at the beginning of 1975, after which the time slot was added to Another World, creating the first hour-long soap opera. (When Jeopardy!’s second incarnation ended, another half hour was ceded to Another World, bringing it to ninety action-packed minutes a day.) A weekly evening prime time Jeopardy! ran for thirty-nine episodes in 1974-5, and then the show went dark for three years.
When it returned in October 1978, it was as The All-New Jeopardy!, a name change I had entirely forgotten until I looked it up on Wikipedia. The show was tarted up in an attempt to add suspense, including basic structural changes. Three contestants began Single Jeopardy, but only the two highest scorers went on to Double Jeopardy. Whoever was ahead at the end of Double Jeopardy was declared the winner and went on alone to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board for a chance to earn more through an absurdly complicated mechanism.
This did not produce suspense, as it happened, or success.
The show got cancelled after only five months, which I didn’t realize at the time. All I knew was that a couple of weeks after I was told I’d be a contestant and might expect a call a few months down the line, Jeopardy! called back, all a-bustle. They were going off the air at the end of the next two-week taping cycle, and wanted all of the best contestants currently in the pipeline to participate in those final weeks.
Was I available?
Well, yes. But while flattering, this was also utterly unnerving. The idea of going on Jeopardy! was scary enough. However, if they really were gathering the best and brightest, I was in deep trouble.
I did practice a bit. I made sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself with anything obvious like state capitals, and I used a Jeopardy! board game with tiny red plastic panels that you slid up to reveal answers printed in secret agent ink on the paper beneath. For buzzing in, you used the same kind of cricket clickers we had for New Year’s Eve as kids. Fortunately I did not need to master the clicker since I was playing alone.
I am not sure in retrospect that practicing with this game was any help. I was also pretty certain of this at the time. But it did keep me busy as the show loomed on the very near horizon, and reading almanacs was incredibly tedious.
There was no online game in 1979, of course, and even home videotaping was in its infancy. The only reason I have video of the experience is that a friend of a friend had cutting-edge home VHS recording technology. It was, after all, L.A.
Art Fleming was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and the show taped in Burbank. Taping was scheduled to run through five shows on Saturday and another five on Sunday so Art could pop in and out of town.
We were instructed to bring five changes of clothing, in case we kept winning, and also to provide five interesting facts about ourselves for Art to use in small talk. This was not easy because my life was rather dull, and I don’t remember what most of them were. One that I do recall was that I had managed to delay the departure of an Amtrak train from Fort Worth in hopes that my husband and cat, arriving at the station separately, would make it on board. (I told you it wasn’t interesting.)
The question Art did ask caught me by surprise. Noting that I was originally from Chicago, he asked how I had happened to come to California. Prepared to discuss Amtrak and my cat, I was momentarily taken aback, then listened with fascination as my voice answered, out of thin air: “Manifest destiny.”
Contestants and their families made up the audience, and I was called for the third show. My opponents were a guy who had just smoked his opposition and a previous contestant brought back because they done him wrong. Judges had too-late determined he should have gotten something right or the other person should have gotten something wrong, so they were giving him another chance. Lovely for him, of course, and normally I am a big fan of justice. But my only thought back then was that each of them had experience that I didn’t, particularly in using that accursed buzzer.
Timing was critical with the buzzer. You had to be careful not to buzz in too soon (i.e. before the window fully opened) because then you’d have a time penalty and somebody else would definitely get in first. But if you waited too long, somebody else would get there first as well. Not a problem if you’re running a category you know cold, but something that can turn on you if you come up against a real stumper.
It was terrifying.
Not only were all these people ridiculously smart, but the equipment was unfamiliar and crucial to success, or even survival. I had voluntarily placed myself in a position where I could humiliate myself on national television in a pseudo-intellectual endeavor, a truly dreadful double-header.
I did nicely on some stuff and made horrific blunders on others. The doctor’s daughter did well on “Human Body,” and the news junky aced “Headlines,” winning money for identifying Patty Hearst and the Ayatollah Khomeini within moments of one other. The woman introduced as “a writer from Venice, California” also ran “Women Writers.” As it happened, I’d just lost a bunch of money on wrong answers when I should have known better, so when a Daily Double came up in this category, I bet everything I had left.
Six hundred smackers.
The answer was “She wrote ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.”
The Former Contestant had become a former contestant once again by having the lowest score at the end of Single Jeopardy. Shirley Jackson now gave me the jump to catch up with the Returning Champion and tie the score just before our final Double Jeopardy question was revealed. We both knew the answer, but he rang in first and told me later that he didn’t wait to see the question.
And so I was dropped off the boat as The Returning Champion sailed on to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board. As I recall, he didn’t do very well there.
I wrote the above account of my game from memory, a set piece that has become fairly well established over the years. And I was going to let it go at that, since this was a fond reminiscence and not a term paper. But I got curious, and dug out the VHS tape from 1979.
The criminal justice system, about which I’ve written many fictional accounts, is overloaded with contradictory reports on memory, so I figured I probably had messed up a few details. I knew I had no recollection whatsoever of many categories, and there’d been a dozen. I specifically recalled wrong answers I’d given, but not much that I’d gotten right.
The set, which I recalled as cheesy, was actually even worse. It looked like the play stages I used to put together as a kid for productions of “Rapunzel” and “Rumplestiltskin” in our kind-of finished basement. But we were natty dressers.The Returning Champion and Former Contestant both wore stylish seventies polyester with longish curly hair, one white ‘fro and one unruly rebel. The Returning Champion’s white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal some manly chest hair, had a fifteen-inch lapel span. The points of those lapels looked like high-end pie servers.
As for me, I looked impossibly young and smoker-slim, wearing enormous round tortoise-shell glasses.
(A few years ago at a Sisters in Crime conference at Sony Studios, we went into the current Jeopardy! studio. It is gargantuan by comparison to the humble digs out in Burbank, and several generations of glitz more advanced. The chairs were even comfortable.)
As I watched my own competition again, it began to remind me of the description of war as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I remembered getting many things wrong, but in reality I barely ever was able to buzz in. The Returning Champion took the lead and played aggressively, and he totally understood how to use the buzzer. Now and then I’d get in and run a category (I’d forgotten all about “Florida”) and they made expensive mistakes more often than I did.
I was astonished to discover that at the end of Single Jeopardy, I was actually in the lead by fifty bucks, with a cool $700. I’d also forgotten betting very cautiously on an audio Daily Double that I knew instantly when I heard it. And who could have foreseen how funny it would seem today that Ted Nugent was an answer in the category “Musical Instruments?”
I most assuredly had forgotten that my last correct answer in Double Jeopardy was “Who was Dorothy Parker?” And I should have remembered that one, because as a teenager I memorized every single one of her bittersweet love poems. I once recited “Resume” as my eight lines of required weekly poetry for high school English.
I had also forgotten the significant stretches of time where I sat demurely between two guys who had those buzzers down, wondering if I would ever get to hear my voice again. They were just so damned fast.
And then I finally caught on to the buzzer myself, and made an incredible comeback in the final minutes of the game. When I got control of the board after watching The Returning Champion run “19th Century History” I went straight to “Women Writers” for $250. At $200 I got the Daily Double, and then I moved over into “Headlines” at $250. I was bouncing all over the board from the bottom up, concentrating on the categories I felt confident about, fast and furious. It really was a photo finish, and the Returning Champion and I both look stunned at the end of it, right before a commercial break.
Next up was Jane Russell for the Playtex 18-hour bra, back in an era when women’s lingerie could not be modeled on actual women in television commercials. Liquid Plumr showed disgusted homeowners bailing water out of sinks allegedly chock-a-block with useless Drano. Other cleaning product commercials were balanced by a portent of YouTube videos to come: a Meow Mix commercial for a contest in which people would submit tapes of their own cats meowing. The cat on camera fiddled with a giant reel of professional recording tape as the rules were explained.
The All-New Jeopardy! was gone after the following week’s shows, and it would be five long years before Alex Trebek returned with the current incarnation in 1984.
How did I feel about losing? Well, I wouldn’t have minded playing again, once I actually had the hang of it. But I had accomplished the mission I set out on and I was satisfied.
I went home with $1750 and the Rice-a-Roni. There was no actual Rice-a-Roni, though I did get $25 worth of Chunky bars, which is way too many when nobody in your household likes them. I also got a little cooler from Kentucky Fried Chicken and some paint. Applesauce and canned soup, plus some quality time with The Rug Doctor. All that Rice-a-Roni brought the taxable income on my IRS paperwork from NBC up to nineteen hundred and change.
There was even a brief coda, as I learned of a game show circuit for which I had now qualified. Networks were hungry, it turned out, for bright contestants to appear on programs which could be won by a persistent parrot. There were even very specific rules about how often you could appear. Since I knew that the questions on most game shows were a lot easier than those on Jeopardy! I found this prospect fairly appealing, at least until I got to my first tryout. There I learned that I am not somebody who can jump up and down and squeal with glee as I identify the river that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans.
When the game show loot ran out, I went back to temping.
I have been fortunate to know a lot of intelligent and interesting people over the years. Several have been Jeopardy! contestants and a couple are five-time champions, which impresses the hell out of me. I even know some people who have been featured in questions.
I also now know a former Jeopardy! writer.
Fast forward a couple of decades from 1979 and my appearance during Art Fleming’s swan song. It’s the turn of the century, and I’m publishing crime fiction and becoming active in the mystery writing community. I meet Jerrilyn Farmer, also a rising mystery writer, and discover that she was a writer on Jeopardy! way back when. And guess what? Turns out she wrote all the questions in that “Women Writers” category for my show, which she remembered clearly because she was the only woman in the writers’ room and everybody thought it was a stupid category.
She also taught me that it is imperative to use an exclamation point in the name of the program, a fact which had somehow escaped my attention. You’re never too old to learn.
So am I glad I did it? Absolutely.
Would I do it again now? Not on your life.
Was the paltry payout worth it? You’d better believe it.
I worked a lot of office temp jobs back then, generally alternating three months of work and three months of writing. That Jeopardy! check bought me three months, a lifetime supply of Chunky bars, and a story that I can still drag out thirty-five years later with relative certainty that somebody will be willing to listen.
Who could ask for more?
“I hate writing. I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker.
I wrote those words today, and I have to ask: are there any sweeter words to a writer? Those last two words that signify that that’s it, the story’s done, th-that-that’s all folks!
For some writers, of course, that’s just the beginning. There are rewrites, edits, proofreading, and more rewrites. I do all of that. But my practice is not to put those magic words on the page until all that’s done and I’m ready to either start getting the thing uploaded (if I’m self-publishing) or send it off to my agent or editor (if I’m going through a publisher, as I am with the one I just completed).
But how do you know when it’s done? How do you know when to stop fiddling and fussing with it and put those fateful words on the screen, save the file with the word “FINAL” in the title, and release the monster on an unsuspecting world?
Sometimes, the question is easier than others, like when you have a deadline, or when (like me) you’ve blown said deadline because pretty much your entire December was an unrelieved personal nightmare. But even when I know it’s got to go, my finger still hesitates when pushing the “send” button. I always feel like there’s one more thing that I should change, one more scene I could tighten up, one more line of dialogue I could have rewritten one last time in an attempt to kick it up from merely very good to awesome.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Bruce Springsteen and his classic album “Born to Run”. I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think it’s one of the best rock albums ever made. I’ve worn out multiple copies over five different formats. So I was kind of shocked to hear that Springsteen almost didn’t release it. He spent months messing with it, re-recording, re-mixing, chasing the sound he had in his head that he couldn’t quite seem to get down on tape. The title track alone reportedly took over six months to get right. Finally, in despair, Springsteen proposed to his producer, Jon Landau, that they scrap the whole thing and start again. “Listen,” Landau is supposed to have said, “you think Chuck Berry was in love with everything he ever released? Put the damn thing out there.” So he did, and rest was history.
I said I was shocked to hear about Springsteen’s travails in getting the record out, because I heard the story before I was writing on a regular basis. After the first time I spent weeks agonizing over whether the book was actually polished enough to let anyone who didn’t love me see, I understood.
So, is this next one my “Born to Run”? Who knows? One of the side effects of all this editing and rewriting is that I’ve spent so much time second-guessing that I can’t tell what’s good about it and what’s not so good. Quite frankly, I can’t even stand the sight of the damn book anymore, which is my usual criteria for writing “The End.”
As for the book itself, it’s the long awaited fourth Jack Keller novel, entitled DEVILS AND DUST. I’m tremendously excited to be working with writer-turned-publisher Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books, which will be re-issuing the first three Keller books, then the new one, as e-books. Look for them wherever e-books are sold.
So how about you, fellow Thalians? When do you know when it’s done?
One clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That’s why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots. Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader.
Let’s start with empaths. Being an empath can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people’s emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer’s characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book from a bad one. When you are reading a book by an empath, the author’s understanding of how others act and feel can be both humbling and moving. Every character comes to life. Every moment counts.
Voyeurs, on the other hand, can be both wickedly entertaining and devastatingly cruel. Their ability to see every move you make and then use it to their own story’s advantage is literary opportunism at its finest. We all know people who specialize in sitting in the corner at parties, watching everyone else, having a grand old time keeping karmic score. They don’t miss a beat and they have the memories of elephants. They can be a real pain in the ass because it’s so hard to hide anything from them and even harder to illicit a genuinely personal reaction from them. They risk nothing but see everything. I can only imagine what life with a writer voyeur would be like. No privacy. Nothing sacred. No real emotional involvement by the writer, just a constant watchfulness – and a willingness to turn your life into words on their page.
To me, though, the very best writers are a combination of both empath and voyeur. To feel for others alone is to lack perspective. To observe without feeling is to lack warmth. But give me a writer who can not only convey what it is like to be someone else, but also fill in the details and put that life in perspective — and you can sometimes achieve greatness. I will give you two wildly different examples of books that fit this bill: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin and Floaters by the inimitable Joseph Wambaugh. Their characters breathe with life and, as authors, they respect the worth of even the most minor of their characters. Yet they also offer observations about what it is to be human that ring with a wisdom transcending a single lifetime. They are a joy to read.
Then, of course, we have the parrots — and that’s the best word I can think of for writers who emulate other writers or follow a formula they think will bring them success. It is not enough to describe what is happening in your story, as if you were providing people with a television show on paper. It is not enough to pile plot twist upon plot twist unless there is some meaning behind all those machinations. But still people do it, book after book, and many succeed, through luck and a willingness on the part of publishers to clone bestsellers. That doesn’t make them good writers. It makes them lucky writers who wind up in the hands of readers (readers who, upon hearing that a book is on a bestseller list, make the mistake of thinking it must be better than all the others). But reading a book written by a parrot is like eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. The satisfaction is short-lived and you are soon left hungry and wondering, “You mean that’s all there is to it?”
All of which leads me to an irrefutable fact that most writers would like to avoid: to be a good writer, you must first know yourself and you must be willing to dive deeper than simply putting words on paper. You have to be willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of others. You have to be willing to pay attention to the lives of others. And you have to be driven to put it all together in a story that offers readers a glimpse into life as you — and only you — both see and feel it.
Cross posted to www.katymunger.com