Thursday, May 15, 2014

Incredibly Interesting Interview

Thriller Guy has been working for a long time, well, working is not the right word, on a book about how to write a novel. Will he ever get around to settling down and actually putting it all together? Probably not. But bits and pieces of it crop up here in this blog on occasion. In fact quite often. In the course of this noodling, he has been collecting quotes about writing from various writers. From now on, TG will start, or end, these entries with a few of these quotes. He’s not going to comment on them (usually) or expand them, just toss them out there. Good! you say, finally something that he doesn’t have to express an opinion on! I feel your pain. It’s not easy being Thriller Guy.

John Updike worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."
Thriller Guy has recently been spending time looking over Allen Appel’s shoulder as he labors away on his latest manuscript. Watching paint dry, grass grow, etc. comes to mind when thinking about how dull this is. The image of a solo writer bent over a computer keyboard has never been particularly compelling, as the failure of many computer-themed thriller movies have shown. TG has been observing this professional novelist-at-work, looking for writing tips ‘n tricks to pass along to his readers. Appel is presently working on a short novel set in the early days of the automobile industry, though it has less to do with building cars than it does with sex and murder. Because watching is so incredibly boring, TG has decided to simply interview Appel in an attempt to cut straight to anything useful he has to offer TG’s readers.

TG: Why should my readers, or anyone else for that matter, look to you for advice on how to write? What’s so special about you?

 AA: Thanks, TG, for your usual blunt, antagonistic attitude. Don’t you ever lighten up?

TG: No.

AA: I guess it’s because I’ve written and published seven novels, and seven or eight non-fiction books, plus several more novels published as Kindles and too many to count unpublished novels written while learning how to write. I would say it comes down to one word: experience. Or maybe three words: experience, hard won.

TG: OK, so you’ve written a lot of books. Have they made you either/and/or rich and famous?

AA: No.

TG: So why do you do it?

AA: Because there’s always a chance that they might make me, if not rich and famous, at least afford me a reasonable standard of living. Besides, I’m good at it. The reason some writers do very well and other writers do not do so well has far more to do with luck than it does to the quality of the work. This has been proven so many times over the course off history that it is indisputable. Sort of like global warming.

TG: OK, I’m not going to get into a climate change argument. You’re working on a novel. Tell us about it.

AA: I didn’t start out to write this book. I was working on a book that was to be part of my Pastmaster series, time travel books featuring history professor Alex Balfour and his wife Molly. And now the cast includes their son Max, fourteen years old, who has inherited the family time-traveling ability. While doing the research for this book, I came across an interesting fact: beginning around 1910 the Ford Motor Company employed as many as three hundred detectives to help oversee the hiring, firing and lives of their more than 15,000 workers. Henry Ford was obsessed with building not only Model Ts, but building the sort of work force that could produce them reliably and in enormous quantities. These detectives oversaw almost every facet of the worker's lives, from making sure their homes were clean and efficiently run and the men went to work every day to investigating any criminal matters involved with the Ford plant. After I read this, the thought wormed its way into my head that this was an original milieu, this Ford detective agency, that had not been exploited by any other mystery writer, at least none that I knew of.

TG:  Why is that so important? An original milieu. 

AA: Because there are so many mysteries written that it’s important to begin with an original premise so an author can establish himself as different from the scores, hundreds, of other writers cranking out thousands of new mystery novels every year. Originality is the holy grail of the mystery writer: an original villain, hero, setting, structure, profession, whatever, can be the difference between getting published by either a legacy publisher or self publishing and succeeding rather than slipping soundlessly into the sea of unpublished manuscripts all floating around seeking a home. Agents and publishers aren’t looking for more of the same from unpublished writers, they’re looking for something strikingly original. Self publishing authors need something to separate them from their thousands of writer brothers and sisters, all fighting for a portion of the internet pie.

TG: But you’re not an unpublished writer. You have had many books published by legacy publishers. Doesn’t that give you an advantage?  

AA: That’s true, the part about me having had many books published. But the same applies to me as for many other writers and even first timers because I am not a hugely successful published writer. The days of the midlist author chugging along year after year with a mildly successful series are gone. (That is not strictly true. The vast changes in the publishing industry have now brought back that midlist possibility. Independent publishers and self-publishers have show that it can be a profitable publishing model. But more on that in another interview.) At any rate, I had the idea about the Ford detectives and it seized me. I immediately began plotting, even though I tried to stop doing so.

TG: Why would you want to stop?

AA: Because I wasn’t supposed to be writing this book! I was supposed to be writing the sixth volume of the Pastmaster series. This wasn’t part of the plan. And to make things worse, I had put the sixth book up as a Kickstarter project and it had been successfully funded so I owed it to my contributors to write their book. That’s how they refer to it, as their book. And that’s how I think of it as well. Many of these folks are fans of the series and have stuck with it for years. I owe it to them.

TG: So where are you with this book? What’s the title?

AA: The Ford Murders: Delia. I’m in the final stages. In fact, I just finished the final draft.

TG: What constitutes a final draft? How many other drafts have there been?

AA: The first draft was finished last October. I rewrote it, because first drafts always suck, two or three more times. It then went to four writer pals who read it, passed it around, made corrections and gave me notes. These guys are all excellent writers, but they aren’t much use in the trenches of line-by-line edits. Their skills as real nitty-gritty, copy editors is limited but that's fine, that's not what I wanted from them. What I wanted was specific answers to questions I had about the general tenor of the manuscript. One question was if there was too much sex in it. There’s a lot of sex in it. There were other questions as well. When I had all their notes and the marked up manuscript, I went back and rewrote the book again, fixing all the errors they pointed out. Then I rewrote it again to make it better, incorporating their suggestions about style, structure and plot points. Then I gave it to one of my loyal fans, an experienced journalist and excellent writer herself, to read and correct. She did so. I rewrote again incorporating her corrections and suggestions. I then handed it over to my wife, who is the ultimate copy editor and a keen reader, particularly of mysteries. After she finished it, I rewrote it incorporating her corrections and suggestions. Note that by now, it had gone through eight complete rewrites and been read by six professional writers and a few other beta readers whose opinions I value.

TG: That’s a lot of rewrites. Why didn’t you just write it better the first time?

AA: Hah! Because it’s impossible to write it “better” the first time. I’m always amazed, and annoyed, to read and also to hear from writers who tell me that they don’t rewrite, they do it right the first time. They are deluded. I’ve never known any writer whose book couldn’t use another run through, including my own. You never catch everything. You’d think if you had six or seven professional writers comb through a manuscript looking for errors that you could eliminate every one of them, but no, that is not the case. There are always mistakes. And I’m not just talking about misspelling and typos. I have found that those writers who profess to getting it right the first time have the weakest, least original books. (And most error-ridden.) Rewriting forces an author to think about changes, and when you think about changes you come up with changes. You may toss out many of these ideas that float to the top of your brain pan in the middle of the night, but there are always some that you should incorporate. And every time you rewrite a manuscript, you are opening up your mind to new changes. Thus making stronger, more original stories and books.

TG: It makes me tired hearing you talk about it.

AA: It makes you tired doing it. You, TG, have often made the point that writing a novel is the most difficult -- at least physically and mentally -- of all the arts. It’s generally agreed that it takes around a solid year to finish a novel, and by finish I mean have it as good as you can possibly make it without going insane. Because by the time you write The End at the finish of the Nth draft and print it out for the last time you are hovering, if you’ve been working hard enough, on the edge of madness. You are physically spent, you are heartily sick of your characters and you often feel you’ll never write again. Or at least not for a while. (Mark Twain used to write about this spiritual and physical exhaustion when finishing a novel. Fortunately, he said, “The well always fills back up,” and a writer goes back to it, sooner usually, than later.

TG: So the book is done?

AA: The book is never done. I’ve printed it out, I hope, for the last time. I’ll read through it one more time and fix any flubs I find and try not to come up with any new bright ideas.

TG: What happens to it now?

AA: It goes off to my agent. He’ll decide if he wants to handle it. He’s already read it once, an early draft, and thought it might have a chance on the market if I expanded it and smoothed it out. If he doesn’t like it, I might put it up with my other Kindle books and sell it through Amazon. It’s time to move on to the Pastmaster book, back to what I was supposed to be working on in the first place.

TG: I have other questions.

AA: Save them. We’ll get to them next time.

Writer quote:

Le CarrĂ©: Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep…I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer…

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bhob Stewart

In today’s Reaper Report, Thriller Guy is saddened by the death of Allen Appel’s great friend, Bhob Stewart. TG will let Appel tell us about Bhob.

There are plenty of nice obits about Bhob on the Internet. He died a month or so ago. Here’s one in Comics Journal that gives some particulars of his life.

Bhob spelled his name with the included H to differentiate his name from several other Bob Stewarts who were also in the comic book industry.

Fun Fact to Know and Tell: Bhob invented the term "Underground Comics."

I have known Bhob for 45 years and would say that he had a profound impression on my writing, something I’ll get to later. I met him around 1968. I was friends with his brother Joe Stewart, who was a writer. A bunch of us lived around Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, and hung out in the Circle and at the local dive bar, the Admiral Ben Bow. There was a gang of us, all interested in Art with a capital A. Two of the gang were putting out magazines, Joe was doing one called Mind Fuck and Bill Garrison, another long-time pal and writing mentor, was putting out one called The Circle. As you can imagine, Joe’s title made it difficult to get his magazine into traditional bookstores, but he stuck with it. His brother, Bhob, lived in New York and was in contact with a lot of comics people, notably R. Crumb, and was responsible for getting Joe some very cool graphics for Mind Fuck. Joe proposed a trip to New York to visit Bhob. Someone found a car that ran, and we drove up.

We arrived at Bhob’s many-story walkup in the West Village. It was night and Bhob welcomed us in, but he was working on a comic strip so we sat around and watched him and another guy doing their thing. Bhob had dark, Byronic good looks (see picture) with a mellow baritone voice. He was the artist for the strip. The other guy, I don’t remember his name, was the writer. He sat at a desk with a portable typewriter, and Bhob sat near him at a drawing table working on a large sheet of drawing paper laid out in squares. They had their backs to each other. The writer would type, saying the words he was typing out loud as he typed them. They were working on some sort of fantasy story that featured a Conan the Barbarian type guy with a sword. As he would type/tell the story, Bhob would sketch the scene being read as the guy read it. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I knew people who could draw, but not draw like this. To order. Fast. The scene would just come alive on the drawing paper as it was being written. I was stunned. It was the coolest act of creation that I had ever witnessed. We hung around awhile, but it was clear that these two would be at it for hours so we left. There really wasn’t room for all of us, (three or four, I can’t remember now) to sit except on the floor. It was a classic crappy New York apartment. Later Bhob told me one of the problems living there was the cockroaches kept eating the paint off the plastic cells they used when they were doing animation. I don’t remember much else from that night, we must have slept somewhere; I have no idea where.

Soon after that Bhob became involved in putting together the first of the real comics-as-fine-art shows ever attempted. This was at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (no longer in existence) and was curated by the great Walter Hopps. So Bhob was in town a lot; we all
Walter Hopps
hung out and he and I became friends. Bhob was a great storyteller and over many shitty beers at the Ben Bow, and over many fine years to come, Bhob told me many stories of his life. I argued long and loud in an attempt to get him to write them down, but he mostly resisted. There are a few stories on his wonderful blog, Potrzeibe, but most of them are destined to be lost now, as I can’t remember the details well enough to record them. It’s a shame, because they were wonderful, terrifying and beautiful, often at the same time.

Bhob was from the south, Texas and other places. The family moved a lot. His father was an alcoholic who sold things, maybe farm equipment, but had trouble holding jobs. He flew fighter jets in the Korean War, and the way I understood it never really fit in anywhere after that. He could be violent and abusive and when drinking he was real trouble for Bhob, Joe, and Bhob’s mother. You could just imagine the sort of kid Bhob was just from the stories. I’m sure he was way smart then, too smart for the dirt poor south. He didn’t fit in and if the local kids weren’t throwing him off the roof of a garage they were tormenting him in other gothic ways. He never complained, though, when he told these stories. They were matter-of-fact and all the more powerful for being so. He rode around town on his bike, and when he was older he rode around town on a motor scooter. He wrote a sort of newspaper for his high school until he got in trouble for making fun of a local businessman and they made him stop printing and distributing it. There was a dog, that as I remember the father took away and shot because of some infraction. Like I said, Southern Gothic.

In his mid teens he hatched a scheme to get out of the south. In the 1950s there was a TV show called Pantomime Quiz  based on the game of Charades, which I remember watching as a kid. If you could stump the celebrities for two or three minutes with an original charade riddle, you could win a free trip to New York. Bhob figured he would win the trip and when he got to New York he would just disappear and never go home again. It was a good plan. At the time, there was a huge popular hit song, Come On-a My House, Come On-a, Come On-a, sung by Rosemary Clooney. It was sung in a fake Italian accent. One of the categories on the Pantamime Quiz was joke song titles. Bhob’s title take off of Come On-a My House was, Song of the Lovesick Geisha Girl: Kimona My House, Kimona, Kimona. When the show informed him they were using his gag, he thought he was a sure winner. Unfortunately, the night they used it, one of the celebrities was this goofy Japanese lady who had a small amount of fame because she was goofy. She was a frequent guest on the Jack Paar show. That night she was wearing a kimono. It took all of eleven seconds for the panel to guess the title. They sent Bhob a huge box of breakfast cereal as a consolation prize. He had to get a bit older and go off to college and graduate before he escaped to New York.

He and I worked on many projects together, some successful, most not. Over the years he taught me how to write. I wrote my first book that would go on to be published, Time After Time, in the early eighties. After I finished a first draft, I asked Bhob if he would take a look at it. I sent him a copy of my typewritten manuscript (that’s how we rolled back in the olden days, Little Ones). A couple of weeks later it came back in the mail. I opened the package, and I was shocked. Every page was covered in blood-red ink as Bhob slashed through almost every line I wrote. And made merciless fun of me in the process. I would write something stupid like, “His mouth curved into a smile.” And Bhob would run a line through it and write, “What else would he smile with? His ear? Change it to, ‘He smiled.’” Line after line, page after page, dripping with blood. I rewrote the whole book and took every suggestion he made, wincing with every sarcastic comment. Here’s just a bit of what I learned: If someone knows better than you, take their advice. Even if I didn’t agree with his suggested change, I knew that just because he had remarked on a line or word meant that I should rewrite it some way, if not his way. And I learned to develop a very thick skin when it came to my literary abilities, which were pretty much zero. After every rewrite Bhob went through it again, and there were seven re-writes. The last time the manuscript came back in the mail it was pretty damn clean and there were very few jokes made at my expense.

Bhob did this for me for every book in my Pastmaster series. There are five books in the series. The last book, In Time of War, is dedicated to Bhob. For the first three books I had no money to pay him, and he never asked for any. After I started getting better advances I would send him what I could afford. He cashed the checks, but never mentioned them. There was a time, when I was in the middle of the series, where I would lay awake at night worrying about Bhob’s health. It seemed to me (he was an incredibly heavy smoker) that if he died I would never write another book. Or I would never publish another book. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it without him. Eventually I did write other books without having him do his editing thing. I felt like it was such an imposition, that it was asking so much of his time and labor, that I couldn’t ask. I already owed him more than I could ever repay. But I think they would have been better books if he had.

As time went on and I was publishing without his help, I decided to pay it forward, or whatever that ridiculous phrase is, by doing the same thing for other writers that he did for me. And so for years I have line edited my friend’s books (as they have done mine) for free. Now I do it for others, only I charge for the service. Unfortunately, when someone is paying you it doesn’t seem right to make fun of them while you’re editing, but I still think it’s good training for writers. As regular readers of this blog know, Thriller Guy cannot stand writers who think they are capital W Writers. Bhob taught me it’s a job, and the important thing is the story. Story, story, story.

I said Bhob was a smoker, This is how much he smoked. He and I had gone to a conference together in Montreal. We were sharing a room. In the middle of the first night I woke up and Bhob was sitting in a chair across the room, in the dark, smoking a cigarette. He told me that his need for nicotine was so great he had to get up two times a night to smoke so he could go back to sleep. The last years of his life were not kind to him. His lungs were shot, and he was a semi invalid. Then it got worse and he had to live in a nursing home. For several years while he was in the home we Skyped a couple of times a week, or more. The only thing I ever heard him complain about was how someone kept stealing his tuna submarine sandwiches out of the communal refrigerator. Bhob loved tuna fish subs, above all other foods.

Bhob died two days after the last time we Skyped. We had our usual conversation; me asking him for help with my latest book. I’m writing a sixth volume in the Pastmaster series and have been wrestling with plot problems, structure, characters and ideas. Just like everyone does when they’re writing a novel. And Bhob was firing off title suggestions and plot twists, just like he always did. He was particularly passionate about the theoretical underpinnings (it’s a time travel series) and we were tossing back and forth the possibilities of using a multiverse explanation and synchronicity, which was one of Bhob’s favorite theories. Then he lay back in his bed and asked me to tell him the story of the book. So I started, and for a half an hour I told him the story. He didn’t say a word. I thought he might fall asleep, but he didn’t. When I finished, he thanked me, said it sounded like it was going to be terrific and that he was tired, so we hung up. Later, I realized that I think that was the first time I ever told Bhob a story, at least a story of any length. It was always the other way around. And it felt very good that he approved of it.

I don’t know where Bhob is now. I never heard him say if he had any views of the afterlife. But wherever it is, I hope for three things. One, they serve tuna subs, and two, he can breath again, and three, that he’s happy and his lips are curved into a great big smile.

RIP, Bhob Stewart.