Monday, May 22, 2017

Scott Does Dallas (again)

It’s out of my hands.

I am talking about my book and, no, it is not really out of my hands. It is just that I am waiting for comments, feedback, corrections and general reaction before doing anything else. After the most recent pass, I am happy with it. That is not to say I feel it is perfect. Perfection is an ideal and by definition unachievable. I have too much of a journalist background geared to deadlines for me to get hung up on perfection. At this point my to-do list includes listening and acting on whatever I get back and then undertaking one last pass in an attempt to catch the previously uncaught. Then comes the “easy” part, that is, the technical part that is satisfying in that success can be measured objectively instead of subjectively. I am talking about the formatting, press prep, uploading and business end of the whole book process.

It is something of a relief to have my brain freed up for things like the occasional blog post and spinning ideas for upcoming books. (Unless reaction to this book is such that I am convinced to give up writing altogether and go into full-time subsistence farming.) Next up is still my gothic supernatural opus or what I keep calling (and will most likelyy inevitably regret calling) my Dark Shadows homage. I need something completely different in tone and theme from Dallas’s end-of-Carter-administration exploits. Toward the end of writing the second Dallas book, though, I was getting quite keen to launch into the third Dallas novel. Now that I have had a chance to decompress, however, I do not think I can face into him and his dipsomaniac existence quite so soon again. I am now, instead, tending toward finally tackling my long-planned epic of the lives of multiple charactes in 1980s Seattle. Perhaps the new season of the brilliant but profane HBO sitcom Silicon Valley is infusing me with a need to revisit the world of software people.

A warning. A blog post is not a legally binding contract. Any of these intended plans could be altered or elminated at any time. Even the third Dallas book is optional. I was perfectly happy with one single Dallas book—until people kept telling me they could not wait for the next installment. Apparently, what I thought was a neat, tidy resolution of the story was, in the eyes of most other people, a cliffhanger. The early word so far from at least one beta reader of the second Dallas book is that it is in even more need of a follow-up.

Is this going to be my curse? Writing an endless series of books about Dallas, trying each time to finally wrap up the series—and failing?

Something to look forward to: I have distilled a playlist of music—to which I listened a lot while writing the book—into an eighty-song five-and-a-half-hour Spotify playlist, which I will make public at the same time the book is released. If any filmmakers out there are looking for a project, allow me to point out that this playlist could easily be adapted into a film soundtrack. Hint, hint.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What's in a Name?

Imagine my shock. Suddenly the hero of my first and third novels was dead. The author is always the last to know.

Okay, my protagonist is not really dead. Actually, I guess I am only presuming he is not dead since I have not yet worked out where Dallas Green would be today in 2017 and what he would be doing. Obviously, though, I have worked out where he is at least as far as the end of the upcoming book and, truth be told, a good few years after that, since I have already been plotting out the third installment in his prospective trilogy. I hope that is not a spoiler to be divulging he survives for that amount of time. I figure that, when the protagonist of a book is narrating the story in the first person, he necessarily cannot narrate past the end of his own life. Well, unless he is narrating from beyond the grave like William Holden’s character is Sunset Boulevard.

The shock I mentioned above had to do with an obituary I came across in The New York Times last month. It reported that Dallas Green had died on March 22 at the age of 82. Of course, the story was not about my fictional creation but about a real person.

The real Dallas Green (actual full name: George Dallas Green) was born in Delaware and had an undistinguished baseball pitching career before going on to manage to the Philadelphia Phillies to their first-ever World Series title in 1980 (coincidentally the very same year in which my upcoming book is set). He later was a manager for New York’s Yankees and Mets. He was known to be tall and hot-tempered and to have a booming voice. His life was marked with sadness that went beyond simply being one of numerous people fired by George Steinbrenner. His nine-year-old granddaughter was one of six people killed in the shooting that injured U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson six years ago.

One of the tricky things about writing fiction is coming up with names for characters. It is pretty much impossible to come up with a plausible-sounding monicker that does not already belong to some number of real people. Generally, one avoids using the same name as someone particularly famous—unless maybe it is a plot point or important detail for building the character. (“Unlucky enough to be named Frank by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sinatra, he was regularly beaten in school by bullies who insisted he sing for them with the same voice quality of his famous namesake.”) Not being much of a follower of sports, I do not think I was even aware of the existence baseball’s Dallas Green when I came up with that name for a teenager in a California farming town in the early 1970s. As for his best friend, Lonnie McKay, I don’t know how that name came to me but, after the book was published, a childhood acquaintance mentioned with some amusement on Facebook that his cousin had the very same name. Had I met or heard about the real Lonnie and then had the name stick in the back of my head somewhere?

I did learn of another real-life Dallas Green not long after Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead came out. I was listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio one Saturday when Scott Simon interviewed a Canadian singer/songwriter named Dallas Green. If I had missed hearing about him up until then, it may have been because he was a vocalist/guitarist in the hardcore band Alexisonfire before setting out on his own seven years ago. He has since recorded under the name City and Colour—because his name is a city followed by a color. Born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario in 1980, he was actually named after the baseball manager who achieved his World Series triumph that very same year.

I am sure there are many more Dallas Greens out there. A quick web search, for example, turns up a couple of men (a DJ in the Washington D.C. area and an Australian athlete and father who died way too young last year) and a couple of women (a technical administrator in northern California and a recent bride in North Carolina).

It is always worth doing a search on a character’s name before committing it to print but, as I say, you are never going to come up with any kind of normal name for a character that is not already being used by a whole bunch of actual real people out there. I suppose the best you can hope for is that your fictional creation does not resemble a real person to the extent that you could be looking at lawsuits—especially if your fictional creation is not very well behaved.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

After the Ides

Unlike Julius Caesar, I had little to fear from the Ides of March. That was the day I officially finished my first draft of the Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead sequel. And just in the nick of time too, since two days later came St. Patrick’s Day, and that is when all the brain cells that had been holding all my pent-up prose for the final chapters were subsequently and tragically destroyed.

I am still keeping the book’s title to myself, but I can confirm that it definitely will not be Julius and Calpurnia Are Dead—at least not unless the manuscript undergoes some serious rewriting and thematic changes.

The story turned out to require 32 chapters and, at more than 116,000 words, the page count for the paper edition should be in the neighborhood of 350, making it the longest of my three tomes to date. Of course, all these statistics—as well as the title—are still subject to change, but I tend to resist too many major changes once I get to this point. Much, much work remains, but the book feels complete to me in terms of how it reads in my head if not actually on virtual paper. With a bit of ruthless editing, it could well shrink back down to the 100,000 words that had been my original target.

I have actually done this enough times now that the stages I go through mentally are very familiar to me. With the creative work of plotting pretty much over—and weeks of crafting and polishing ahead—the imaginative part of my brain has already skipped ahead. My brain is thinking about everything from what would make a nice book cover to how the story might continue in an eventual third volume. (It’s good to be thinking about that while there is still time to drop some foreshadowing into the second book.) I am also now free to develop ideas for my next project which, if I heed the reader feedback I have gotten thus far on Facebook and other places, will turn out to be the supernatural gothic tale that has been knocking around in my head since high school. (Yeah, another one of those.)

As I think I have mentioned before, I had not really intended to write a sequel to my debut novel. I thought the story of Dallas and Lonnie’s ill-advised foray into Mexico stood on its own and was complete on its own terms. After getting much prodding and continual inquiries about a follow-up, though, I began to think what kind of story might flow out of Dallas’s future life and, lo and behold, the story ended up writing itself. (Well, I can only wish it had written itself. That would have been a whole lot easier.) I hoped the effort would, in the end, feel worthwhile artistically and not end up as a mere completionist exercise. Happily, by the time I got to the end, I had a similar emotional involvement and investment as I had when I got to the end of Dallas and Lonnie’s original story. (“Of course, you would say that,” says you. “What else could you say after all?” Fair point.) Hopefully, it strikes the right balance between reproducing what readers may have liked about the first book while offering something new and different.

Do you need to have read Max & Carly in order to understand and/or enjoy the new book? All I can say is that I wrote it as if the reader had not perused the previous novel. Strangely, in fact, there were times when I thought this new book would actually be more enjoyable if you had not read the first one. After all, what you need to know gets filled in along the way. On the other hand, there are references back to the first story that will be best appreciated by those who have indeed read it.

As with the first book, the story involves a journey that is both geographical and trascendent—not to mention an inordinate amount of alcohol consumption. Dallas grew in the course of his adventures in Mexico, and the same is also meant to be true about his experiences in Europe. Just as the first book gave me an opportunity to visit places I had never been as well as to revisit places where I had been, the new book has provided me the chance to revisit places like San Francisco and Bordeaux as well as, through research and imagination, do things I had not done, like attend a film festival in Deauville and experience Berlin as it was during the Cold War.

I hope the people who pestered me into writing the book will be happy. They will definitely get the answer to some of their lingering questions. Some answers, though, they may still be pestering me to provide—in the prospective third book.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Being There

I am happy to report that I have only a few more chapters to go on the first draft of the Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead sequel. (Yes, it has a title and one that is much shorter than repeatedly calling it “the Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead sequel,” but no point committing to it publicly until I have to. After all, I might think of something better in the meantime. Also, no harm in maybe building a little suspense?)

When I say “a few more chapters,” I do not actually know for sure how many. My target page count is around 300, and I estimate that I am at about 278 but with still a lot of story to fit in at the end. My wife always says that my books feel to her like they are rushed at the end, and maybe this is why. Personally, as a reader, I like a bit of accelerating narrative pace coming down to the climax of a story, but that is just me. Anyway, either the final few chapters will be packed with story or else this book will be a bit longer than I had planned.

I hope to have the first draft wrapped up fairly soon, once I get back to it. As usual around this time of year, I have been interrupted by the midterm school break, which this time around will end with the annual all-nighter to obsessively watch the Academy Awards in real time.

As with the first book, this one has been, alternately, an exercise in jogging the old memory and spending a fair bit of time in research. Both books deal with eras that I remember well, but the story in each case brings my protagonist Dallas to places that I happen to know and also to places that I do not. For example, in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead the locations in California are all places I know well, including Tijuana across the border. His journey with his pal Lonnie as far as Guaymas also traces a journey I myself made, although to get there my friend Rich and I actually traveled there from Mexicali by train rather than by driving a ’65 Chevy. South of Guaymas, however, that part of the journey was entirely concocted from research and imagination. I like to hope that I got away with it since a number of readers have indicated that they assumed I was writing about a road trip I had actually taken myself.

In the new book Dallas travels to France. That was pretty easy to write about—and in fact quite a bit of fun—since I have been to France several times and lived there as a student in the early 1970s. I was never there, however, in the year 1980, which is when Dallas goes, but that has not been hard to deal with. Much of his time is spent, though, in the resort of Deauville, which is a place I have never been. So back to the research and imagination. From there he travels to the city of Bordeaux, which is precisely where I myself lived so that was, relatively speaking, a piece of cake. I spent many months walking the streets of that city and its suburbs, although a few years earlier than Dallas. And, I should note, that Dallas has a few experiences there that I most certainly never had. It is important to get that on the record at the outset.

So the question that comes to my mind is this one. Is it better if a fiction writer has actually been in the place (and at the time) he is writing about, as opposed to going the research/imagination route? Or does it matter?

Armed with the above information, readers who care about this can judge for themselves when they read the book. I can tell you one thing, though. After I have written about traveling to these places in Dallas’s first-person voice, I end up having the strange feeling that I have been in those places—the same way any reader feels that she or he has been to a place after reading a vivid description of it in a novel. This is not meant to be a sneaky way of praising my own writing. It is the combination of researching, going through the imaginative process and writing it all down in another person’s voice that makes me feel as though I was in these places—kind of in a dream world or alternative reality sort of way.

It is really interesting what the mind can make itself do in the process of telling a story.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Things That Get Bumped in the Night

Years ago Jimmy Kimmel began a running gag on his talk show about Matt Damon. It started when Kimmel was wrapping up what he felt had been a very lame show (“I think my guests were a ventriloquist and a guy in a monkey suit”) and at the last minute, in an inspired fit of show business gallows humor, he threw out the line, “My apologies to Matt Damon; we ran out of time.” Thereafter he frequently repeated the line, much to occasional viewer Damon’s confusion—so much so that the actor eventually cornered Kimmel to get the explanation.

I think TV chat shows nowadays are generally too carefully scripted and produced for this to happen much any more, but I remember many occasions of getting all the way to the end of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and hearing him apologize to some hapless unseen comedian or singer about running out of time. I imagine it was the dread of any rising newcomer who finally got his or her big shot at the coveted late night television audience.

That very thing happened last Friday night to my wife’s cousin once removed. An accomplished musician and performer, she was scheduled to play her harp on RTÉ’s Late Late Show in order to promote Dublin’s upcoming TradFest festival. She was even featured in televised teasers earlier in the evening. All of us friends and family were huddled around the telly in anticipation—except for certain ones, including her parents and her nearly-90-year-old grandmother, who were actually in the front rows of the studio audience. We waited and waited for her appearance. We waited through a moving tribute to Ireland’s seaborne rescue services, a chat with a couple of veteran actors and an interminable on-stage performance of a botox procedure. Then, after literally hours, host Ryan Tubridy said the dreaded words. He apologized to Lisa and said they would have her back on a future telecast. Sigh.

Strangely, I myself could emphathize quite sincerely with her. As it happens, I was bounced from a potential spot on the airwaves just a few days before Christmas. The saga began a few weeks earlier when the wife alerted me to the fact that Joe Duffy was soliciting self-published books. If you do not listen to Irish radio and do not know who Joe Duffy is, well, it is kind of hard to explain. Basically, he is a sympathetic ear in the afternoon. While any current event, whether international or local, can be up for call-in discussion, most of his shows seem to involve listeners ringing in with stories about personal problems, travails and frustrations. Whether it is a problem with an incalcitrant bank or government red tape, Joe—a plainspoken presenter with a classic Dublin accent—can reliably be heard to utter audible sounds of sympathy and concern. Usually on Fridays the show is a forum for a panel of codgers to bring out their corny jokes.

On the day of the winter solstice, however, the topic was to be self-published books. The idea was to chat with some of the authors, and the collected books would be donated. I dropped my two in an envelope, sent them off to RTÉ and then forgot all about it—all the way up until a couple of hours before the program was to air. The phone rang, and it was Richie, a nice researcher from Joe’s show, wanting to do a pre-interview with me. He had lots of questions, mainly about Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, and I was happy to answer all of them. It was gratifying that Richie had spent enough time with the books to be familiar with them. He took my mobile phone number and asked if I would be available if they rang me during the show. Of course, I was. When the show began at 1:45 we listened intently, keeping an ear out all the time for a phone call, knowing the radio would have to be shut off before answering it. We continued listening until the program ended at three o’clock. It turned out that they had more—way more—authors lined up than they had time for, which of course is the prudent thing to do.

The vast majority of authors interviewed had written memoirs. A lot of Richie’s questions had been about how much of Max & Carly had been based on my own experiences. I suppose it was natural for an inveterate people person like Joe Duffy to be most comfortable talking to authors about their own lives rather than their creative process. Also, in contrast to the books that got featured, neither of my books has very much to do with Ireland. One had a single secondary Irish character, and the other had characters with Irish names but were not Irish. In any event, it provided a few hours of excitement in the house to break the usual daytime routine.

As it happens, that was not the first time I had been approached about going on the air only to be cut when it came down to the wire. A few years ago a producer for an RTÉ afternoon TV show got in contact with me. It was a few days before the annual Academy Awards telecast. He had spotted my movie blog and wondered if I would be interested in participating in a panel discussion the day after the Oscars. I may not have sounded overly enthusiastic since it would have meant a three-hour drive to Dublin after little or no sleep since the Oscar telecast typically ends around six in the morning in this time zone. Besides, I had the distinct impression that I was being lined up as a contingency in case the person they really wanted could not make it. In any event, I was subsequently informed that I need not trouble myself.

I guess when it comes to Ireland’s state broadcaster, I am just its answer to Matt Damon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Might Also Like...

I am fascinated by book-selling web sites that use an algorithm to suggest books that may also be of interest to you, presumably based on titles you have previously searched for or links that you have clicked on.

So it was particularly exciting for me when I was able to start searching for my very own first published book and see what sorts of books got suggested for people who had searched for it. Here is a typical result.


I have to say that at least the software deduced the historical reference fairly logically.

More interesting was the result from an Australian web site.



Stephen King? Art Spiegelman? Kate Grenville? Now that’s one eclectic reading list. At least this time the algorithm was smart enough to also suggest my other book as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Happy Birthday, Dallas

Today marks the 64th birthday of my fictional protagonist, Dallas Green. I have no idea where he is today or how he is doing at this mature age. I have only figured out the trajectory of his life through the end of his 28th year.

I did not know his exact birthday until I began my current writing project. In Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead I had established that he and his friend Lonnie were both born in December 1952. This was necessary for the plot of the book since they both had to be born with that month-long window which would result in both their graduating from high school and being included in the draft lottery in the year 1971. I myself was born that same month, but I did not want either character to have the same birthday as me. That might be fine for wildly successfully authors like J.K. Rowling, but I want to have a bit of distance between me and my fictional creations. As it is, enough people have accused Dallas of being a thinly veiled version of myself. Hopefully, by the time readers have finished the upcoming book, the ones who actually know me will realize that Dallas is a very different person from myself. If they still persist in thinking Dallas and I are one and the same, then I will have to question how well they actually know me—or else how well I know myself.

In the new book I needed to specify the exact day that Dallas would turn 28, so I picked the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It seemed as good a day as any and, as it happened, it kind of fit in thematically with what would be going on in his head at the time.

I have reached a midpoint in the first draft of the new book. Dallas has found himself generally at home with his new life in San Francisco but, as in the first book, events conspire to send him fleeing out of the country. The story this time is more complicated, and more characters come and go in and out of Dallas’s life. Plotting from this point onward becomes more challenging because Dallas’s story interweaves with various things that were happening in various parts of the world at the time. The more I have revisited the year 1980, the more appreciative I have become of what an event-filled tumultuous year it was. For one thing, not unlike the current year we are living through, the end of the year marked a distinct turning point in what the American government looked and acted like.

So if you are imbibing anything nice this evening, try to remember to say a little toast to Mr. Dallas Green, originally of Kern County, California. Wherever he is out there, let us hope that the sometimes ill-advised adventures of his youth were prologue to a satisfactory and happy later life.