Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Observation — 1954, Old Guard Fades: Soviets, Soviets Everywhere

Dave Brubeck

The Soviet Union, with the Nazi threat behind them, seemed to be everywhere — signing treaties and attending summits.  The French weren’t having a good year. In a warning unheeded by the U.S. later, the French lost Vietnam. And Algeria’s war of independence from France began.  Nasser took over in Egypt.  Joseph McCarthy got his comeuppance, condemnation from fellow Senators.  Many in the South weren’t happy with the Supreme Court. The justices officially banned segregation in public schools.  Children began receiving the polio vaccine.  The World Series was broadcast in color.  From Here To Eternity won the Academy Award.  Other top movies of the year were: Rear Window, The Caine Mutiny, Sabrina, and The High and the Mighty.  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and Anais Nin’s Spy in the House of Love topped the bestseller lists. The Mystery Writers of America gave The Edgar for Best Mystery Novel to Beat Not The Bones by Charlotte Ray. Billboard listed its top five of the year — ‘Little Things Mean A Lot’ by Kitty Kallen, “Wanted” by Perry Como, ‘Hey There” by Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), “Sh-Boom’ by The Crewcuts and “Make Love To Me,’ by Jo Stafford. Oprah Winfrey debuted in life as did Michael Moore, Harvey Fierstein and Denzel Washington. Saying “goodbye,” were Lionel Barrymore, Henri Matisse, Colette and Frida Kahlo.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the wood horse?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Observation — 1975, Wonderfully Silly In A Seriously Transitional Year

President Gerald Ford barely escaped assassination.  Watergate continued to implode with the convictions of former Nixon boys — Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell. Cambodia fell to Pol Pot. Saigon was on its way to become Ho Chi Minh City.  Elton John, The Bee Gees and David Bowie seemed to dominate the music scene.  Paul McCartney formed the group, Wings. Captain & Tennile’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and Glenn Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” topped the Billboard charts. Top movies:  Jaws, One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Salo, Or The 100 Days of Sodom, and Dog Day Afternoon. Peter's Pence, by John Cleary, picked up the Edgar for best mystery from the Mystery Writers of America. Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, Judith Rossner’s steamy Looking For Mr. Goodbar, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Agatha Christie’s Curtain (Poirot’s last case) were the year’s best selling books. Angelie Jolie and Bradley Cooper entered the world, Chiang Kai-shek, and Pier Paolo Pasolini left it, as did the demonic Spanish dictator, Franco.  Union boss Jimmy Hoffa went missing.  The words “Corinthian leather” entered our lexicon. If you were around, what were you doing during the year of the wood rabbit?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Observation — 1944, Making The Best of Dark Times

World War II was about to wind up but that wasn’t known even by year’s end.  Sadly it was the year Anne Frank was found hiding in an attic by the Nazis. Leningrad was liberated from the Nazis after 600,000 die. Nazis also left Rome.  Hitler assassination plan failed.  The Japanese pulled out of India.  FDR was re-elected for the fourth and final time. The International Monetary Fund and The World Bank were established. The first general purpose digital computer was created. DNA was discovered. Keeping it local, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the St. Louis Browns in the World Series. Batman and Robin made the comics section of U.S. newspapers. 1944 was also a banner year for film noir — Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Woman in the Window, The Lodger, The Mask of Dimitrios, Phantom Lady and Laura, Gaslight, The Suspect, The Scarlet Claw, and Betrayed. The Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll “ was at the top of the Billboard charts as was Besame Mucho, by Jimmy Dorsey, I’ll be Seeing you by Bing Crosby and I’ll Get By, performed by Harry James.  How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn, Kitty Foyle by Morely Christopher, Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther topped book sales.  Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was the major novel of the year. Jean Anouilh’s daring play, Antigone, opened in occupied Paris.  Michael Douglas and Diana Ross came into this world in 1944 as did Smokey the Bear.  Leaving it were Glenn Miller, Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wassily Kandinsky and the promising Lodger star Laird Cregar. If you were around, what were you doing during the year of the wood monkey?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Writing — How Many Words Are Too Many? How Many Words Are Too Few?

Thomas Mann's Classic, 80 Pages
From a business marketing point of view I understand that because of production costs, brand image and customer demand most publishing companies have developed criteria for the books they publish.  Maybe they only publish mysteries. Why not?  Maybe they specialize even further and publish only noir or maybe only cozies. Makes sense to me.  Do what you know best.  Or do what you love. Most publishers have another requirement ­— word count.  Though this is most annoying to me, having a minimum word requirement isn’t arbitrary on their part.  Experience has taught them that buyers of mystery novels, at the moment, expect 60,000 to 80,000 words. According comments I’ve picked up as I sample various blogs on writing and reading, many, many readers feel cheated if there isn’t certain heft to the work.  They don’t count words, or really look at type size or leading, or the white space between chapters but they do look at the number of pages. I think they need to know how misleading that can be.  Sure, if you are a reader who likes epic novels or story that covers a group of characters over generations, a big, thick, doorstop of a book may be essential to tell the story. But generally speaking, I think readers ought to know that the satisfaction a reader receives isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative.

I remember reading a mystery a few years ago by a best-selling, award-winning author when I came upon a passage that described a place that was very familiar to me. That description, though paraphrased, was awfully close to the description on the entity’s web site. In reality, no harm, no foul. In fact, the organization’s PR Department was probably grateful for the exposure.  On the other hand the lengthy passage did nothing to advance the plot, develop character or add color to the setting.  I’d bet my bottom dollar, as they used to say, that this bit of diverting narrative was added later to meet the publisher’s word count requirement. I can imagine the writer’s frustration.  The book was done, but damn, it was 8,000 words short.

Tolstoy's Tome, 1,296 pages

In an ideal world, we writers would prefer to tell the story with the number of words it takes to tell the story, whether that turns out to be 20,000 or 120,000. (If you are a writer who disagrees with that, I’d love to hear from you.)

Perhaps, in the future, technology (both print and electronic) will convince publishers to stop adding filler to their products. I believe asking a writer to make the work longer simply to make it longer is like telling Van Gogh to make that picture of the sunflowers a couple of inches taller.  

Meanwhile, I have really good mystery manuscript called Wake Up Little Theo that comes in 3,000 words short of the 60,000 mark just sitting round gathering dust.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Observation – 1956, No One Was Bigger Than Elvis

If you turned on the TV, you found Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle and all over the radio.  Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis split. It was also the year Morocco freed itself from French and Spanish rule. The Eiffel Tower caught fire. The Soviets were busy crushing Poland and Hungary.  The U.S. tested the H-Bomb and we first observed the neutrino. Heavy-weight boxer Rocky Marciano retired undefeated.  Nat “King” Cole was attacked on stage in Alabama. Dick Clark hosted “American Bandstand “for the first time. Little Richard released ‘Tutti Frutti.” Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were honored with a Pulitzer Prize for their play, The Diary of Anne Frank. The scandalous Peyton Place by Grace Metallious first appeared in book form. Among the year’s most influential fiction were The Floating Opera by John Barth, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Howl by Allen Ginsberg. The Mystery Writers of America announced that Margaret Millar won best mystery for Beast In View. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith was on the short list.  Marty won the Academy Award for best picture.  The movie houses showed Seventh Seal, Giant, The Searchers, Around the World in 80 Days and The King and I.  Elvis had the top two on Billboard’s chart, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”  “Lisbon Antigua” by Nelson Riddle was third followed by “My Prayer” by The Platters.  Gogi Grant had a hit with “The Wayward Wind,” and Les Baxter did ‘The Poor People of Paris.”  It was the end of the line for Bertolt Brecht, Jackson Pollack, Tommy Dorsey and Bela Lugosi. On the other side of the birth-death continuum were Geena Davis, Larry Byrd, Tom Hanks and Sugar Ray Leonard, who made their first appearances on earth. If you were around, where were you during this year of the fire monkey?