Monday, March 23, 2015


I have been reading with some interest the new controversies surrounding Scientology, the religion founded by Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction writer, who also wrote a few fur trade western stories.

I ended up an agnostic long ago, having concluded that I could not say for sure whether God exists or doesn't exist, and it would be impossible to make the case one way or the other. What did seem plain is that the various religions offer ways to manipulate God, usually by invoking some formula of faith or works.  Do you want or need something? If you believe such and such, or behave so and so, then you might win the favor of God, and be rewarded.

I did come away with an ethical sense built around the Golden Rule: treat others as I would wish to be treated, or to put it negatively, don't do to others what you would not want done to you. It seems to be a serviceable approach to living and getting along with friends and loved ones. I am also filled with gratitude toward my parents and family and countless people who have nurtured me, and given me a chance to live a good life. It makes me who I am.  I suspect the idea is largely alien to Scientologists.

What seems most obvious to me, so far, is that its members do not seem to be adults. They are trained to be manipulators not only of others but themselves. It seems to be a reverse church, operated by people who appear to be stuck in adolescence, in which each member is a god who manipulates others to get what he or she wants. Whatever you want, you manipulate others to obtain. That strikes me as rather sad, and the source of deep delusion, frustration, and ultimately, discontent. I find myself wondering whether there is a genuine adult in the entire church. I doubt it.

Friday, March 13, 2015


About 1956 I heard for the first time Harry Belafonte sing the banana boat song. The music was strange to these bourgeois midwestern ears. Calypso. Something out of the deep southern world somewhere. But it was the message that caught me.

Come mister tally man, tally me banana, daylight come and I wanna go home.

The man had wrestled his bunches of bananas to the pier, and wanted his labor tallied, so he could go home before dawn, and fall into a numb sleep. It was a sort of toil that wore the body down, along with soul and heart. 

It was my first glimpse of the hard world that traps most of the human race in endless toil, the labor barely repaid, exhausted men and women carrying their staggering loads, so the rest of the world can live in comfort. That has not changed much since 1956. Quietly, invisibly, millions of mortals, children, adults, women, old men, carry their loads. Technology has not changed that. They sew for pennies an hour in Bangladesh, carry bananas into the holds of great vessels, grow yams in the grudging soil of Africa, and we consume these things that show up on the grocery shelves, and in the market aisles, wrought by grueling and dull labor.

In a way, Harry Belafonte introduced me to the real world. It took me a long time to grasp the meaning; to learn to empathize with these nameless workers whose lives spool out on plantations and factories and ports and ship bellies. They are anonymous, and but for some calypso music that fell upon alien ears in 1956, I would never have thought about them. Now, generations later, I have come to understand that it affected my writing, and gradually changed the way I perceive the world and its sadnesses.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


My friends and neighbors gathered at Glenn's Place to slip me into my ninth decade. I asked that it not be a party, and it wasn't. It was just a quiet eve, in which there were lots of hugs and kisses and handshakes.

Livingston is remarkable for its diversity. We are a town of eight thousand or so, surrounded by ranches and wilderness.  Among those who stopped at my table were a literary agent and his wife, a portrait artist; a former executive vice president of Sony music; an author of numerous prized nonfiction books; a PBS cinema photographer; a bookseller; the operators of a fine hotel; the world's finest adventure writer; the editor of a superb quarterly magazine; and a dozen others from all walks of life.

And that's for starters. I count myself one of the most fortunate of men.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Writing Again

A few days ago I pulled up some chapters of a mystery I started a year or more ago, a book I abandoned half way through. The novel had gotten so complicated and impossible that I had set it aside, hoping maybe to discover what went wrong some day in the future.

It was one of my Axel Brand mysteries, set in late 1940s Milwaukee, a big industrial city where tractors and electrical equipment and steam shovels were built. It was a diverse town, first and second-generation German and eastern European, with a tavern in every neighborhood. My hero, Joe Sonntag, was a detective who often had to deal with the beliefs and habits of different people from every corner of Europe.

It had a great beginning in which a husband, a dental technician, shoots his wife at a church supper, a deliberate act intended to be seen by the whole congregation. He cheerfully confesses his crime, and awaits his fate. The couple's four children had vanished one way or another years earlier.

But the story got complicated beyond my abilities, and I finally set it aside. It involved things usually not seen in mysteries, such as liturgy, even some theological beliefs, which is why the murder occurs at a church social event. But now I have revived it. I've read the seventeen completed chapters, made some changes, altered the story here and there, and am ready to plunge in again. It was in better shape than I had supposed all these months. Yesterday I wrote a few pages, my first writing since June, and I am very glad that it went well. I should finish the book this spring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Spastic Internet

The utility of the Internet seems to be declining swiftly. It is paralyzed with ads, and these shoulder their way onto your screen whether or not you are reading paywall or free publications. They sometimes paralyze my screen, locking up my computer until I figure out how to back away or shut down. It is no longer possible to click on some story of interest and have it come up swiftly; we must suffer a lengthy ad, sometimes more than one. This is true not only of news sources but also entertainment sources such as YouTube.

A few sites, such as Wiki, still allow a reader to glean information without being bullied, but by and large I am drifting away from the Internet entirely. It is no longer an attractive or useful option. Except for PBS (which is eroding as well) TV doesn't do much better, with a third of each hour devoted to marketing. I am reading more, perhaps because advertisers haven't figured out how to invade my books, or at least ones I might buy. Maybe that is a reason why books will survive during the electronic era. I've gone back to using my computer primarily for word processing.

I don't suppose there is much to be done about it; no protests or boycotts will slow down the promotional takeover of the medium. And in any case, there are those who like the ads; they are the sorts who watch the shoppers' channels on cable TV for some ungodly reason. But books are relatively free of invasive content, except for front and back matter. This may be the golden age of TV, but content is declining steadily, especially during political campaigns, when I would guess that less than half of airtime is given to content, the rest going to promotions. Print newspapers have ads, but we can elect to read them or not, at our leisure, which is a good reason to subscribe for home delivery.

The promotional effort doesn't stop with those media. Even though I am on the federal do-not-call list I am frequently targeted by commercial entities who call to sell me something, mainly because the government does not even try to enforce the law.

The only benefit from the deafening din of commerce is that we grow numb to it; the more noise, the less we hear, and all those Internet, newspaper, phone, and TV ads sell nothing. No one hears anything in the Tower of Babel.

We should rename the country the Republic of Huckster.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Out of the Grave

If you, like so many people I know, have a few self-published titles resting in Amazon's Swamp, the grave of many tens of thousands of self-published novels, maybe you should give some attention to ways to promote a title and resurrect it from the dead. If it stays where it is, untouched, it's going to rot there forever. But electronic publishing gives you a chance to revamp everything.

One of the first decisions made by publicists with traditional print publishers was whether to sell the title or the author. Their instinct was to sell the title; that's their product, and they wanted to move it off the shelves. In some instances, they got it wrong. An entertaining author might garner more notice than the title itself.

Authors can be fascinating, and may be a roundabout route to selling a title. Put simply, do you sell Norman Mailer, or sell his titles? In my case, there was nothing of interest about me to sell. I came from a sheltered bourgeois family, lost in a sea of politeness, so the publishers didn't have a bad boy to promote. But selling the author doesn't mean the author has to be a bad boy. The author may have an interesting background. Something startling or unique. Something that evokes curiosity. And that is when the publicists might prefer to push the author rather than four hundred pages of type.

If you decide you want to push yourself as a novelist, you may need to overcome innate modesty and talk boldly about your life and goals and how the book fits into them. You can open your Amazon set-up and redo your whole approach. You have nothing to lose. Your books are lying in their graves, and you can bring them to life if you come up with some imaginative promotion. Maybe sympathy will do it. Or empathy. Or shock. Only remember you're competing with hundreds of thousands of self-published titles, and you need to focus on whatever makes you or your material stand out.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Selling the Novel

I worked for years as a book editor for several small midwestern publishers. It was up to the editor of a title to provide catalog and sales copy, simply because the editor was the only person in the house totally familiar with the title.

I often spent more time creating promotional copy for a title than I spent editing the book. Sales were the lifeblood of the company. I had to come up with material that would entice buyers to buy, readers to read, reviewers to review, wholesalers and retailers to stock and promote the book. Unless I succeeded, those small publishers would fail.

Sometimes that task was maddening, as when publishers asked for revisions ten, twenty, and more times, never satisfied that I had gotten what could be gotten out of the book. And in the process I developed skills, common enough in most print publishing houses to this day, that have served me well.

As I began putting my reverted titles into electronic editions as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, it became my task to write the descriptive copy that would sell the book. Only now I was my own boss, and it was up to me to reject anything that didn't work. One good thing about electronic publishing is that one can return, over and over, to the title, revamp the material, even put a new cover in place, at minimal cost or effort.

I learned to use sentence fragments, things to catch the busy browser. Sometimes my descriptions were successful, sometimes not. I am still working on the ones that don't sell books. But here is an example of a successful description that is earning me money every month. It describes my novel, Second Lives.

Gilded Age Denver. Five people try to rebuild their broken lives. Some succeed. Others are changed forever.

In 1880s Denver, fabulous fortunes are won and lost overnight. Some win and live high; others have their hopes dashed and dreams shattered.

One is Lorenzo Carthage, a man who has won and lost several bonanzas, and never quits looking for the next one. Another is Dixie Ball, who has been everything from the mining queen of Telluride to a chambermaid. Another is Yves Poulenc, a tubercular poet planning to die as gracefully as John Keats. And Cornelia Kimbrough, trapped in a loveless and miserable marriage to a financier she can't escape, but seeking a new life anyhow. And Homer Peabody, Esq., a lawyer who never succeeded at law and now wonders why he is alive-- and whether he can still find a worthwhile life doing something else.

And drawing these and many other people is the magnetic city itself, Gilded Age Denver, lording over plain and mountain, and inspiring people to make their dreams come true. A few find the courage and grace to rebuild their lives, and overcome their disasters. But only a few.