Treasured Friends

I bade a sad farewell to some treasured old friends a little while ago.

I learned that a local bookstore owner would pay me fifty cents a copy for all my old books, which he would then re-sell to his customers to realize a small profit.

Like you, perhaps, I have purchased a large number of books over the years, both hard- and soft-cover varieties.  They’ve all been read once—some much more often—and those I wanted to keep were placed lovingly in one of several bookcases.  But, as we downsized to a smaller home, the day arrived when there was just no more room.

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Being one to whom books are almost living things, I couldn’t bear the thought of packing them away in musty cartons for storage, out of sight and soon forgotten.  Somehow, though, it seemed alright to pass them along to others who would enjoy them as I had.  So, over a number of weeks, I carried out the task of sorting and packing more than three hundred-and-eighty books.

I had acquired the habit years ago of writing my name and the year when the book came into my possession on the inside front cover of each one I read.  How delightful it was to browse them once again, as I sorted, lingering over memories associated with those many years.

There was a boxed set of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, Lord of the Rings, a gift from my brother in 1960; a biography of John Kennedy and a copy of the Warren Commission Report of 1965, when the shooting in Dallas was still a recent shock; several novels in a series about a modern-day knight-errant named Travis McGee—the first purchased in 1966 and its successors as each was subsequently published; a number of biographical works from the late 1970’s about such notables as Churchill, MacArthur, Lee and Jackson, and Trudeau (the elder); a Civil War story, After the Glory, perhaps my favourite novel; and, of course, dozens of others.

There were titles of a more recent vintage, too:  thrillers from such writers as Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Lee Child; more biographies of famous and infamous people—Ghandi, Mandela, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Jimmy Carter, Terry Fox; histories of significant events in my lifetime, dealing with the aftermath of the Great War, the great depression, the fall of Soviet communism, the rise of the Beatles, and the future impacts of technology.

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I had determined to be ruthless in my sorting, adamant about packing everything, unyielding in my determination to move all of them out.  Inevitably, however, there were some I had to keep (including the eight I’ve published, of course).  I’ve never been resolute about being resolute!

Anyway, in due course, I was finished.  Ten cardboard cartons, each the repository of hundreds of hours of private enjoyment, sat waiting for me to take them to the bookstore.  But I, despite my earlier resolve, was plagued by a great sense of loss, a sense of having betrayed a trust, a sense of abandoning something that had become a part of me.

And so, they sat for awhile—those cartons echoing with silent, accusatory voices of so many old friends—awaiting my decision as to their fate.

After several restless nights, plagued by remorse, I hit upon an idea.  An old pal of mine owns a cottage near Parry Sound, one unencumbered by the modern notion that such getaways must have access to the internet, telephones, and television.  Solitary pursuits are the order of the day in his idyllic retreat, and I gave him a call.

frosty-cabin

“How’d you like to meet some new friends?” I asked him.  “They’d love to come and stay at the lake, and I know you’ll like them.”

It took some further explaining, naturally, but he came by the next time he was heading north, and we loaded the cartons into his SUV.  As he pulled away, I bowed my head, placed a hand over my heart, and mouthed a sad goodbye to those treasured old friends.  Dramatic, I know, but heartfelt.

However, I was greatly comforted by knowing I’ll be able to say hello to them all again and again each time I visit.  It brought an old ditty to mind—

Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver, and the other gold.

A Writer’s View

I’m occasionally asked about the art of writing by those who read my blog-posts and books, but I’m usually caught off-guard, quite unprepared to give a cogent answer.  I was better primed for an industry online interview, however—an edited transcript of which is shared in this post.

Q. What is it you enjoy most about writing?

I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I want in the first-draft stages—creating credible characters, inventing dialogue, describing events, contriving plausible story-lines.

But even more, I enjoy the rewriting, where I can change things, reconstruct situations, alter outcomes.  I love having the opportunity to shape and re-shape the fictional world I’ve created in each story—almost like a wizard, going back in time with the power to change what originally happened.

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Q. What is your writing process?

I write everything down as soon as possible after it occurs to me —essays, short stories, blog-posts, episodes for my novels—sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning when the thoughts tumbling in my brain won’t let me sleep.  Later, when the frenzy of first-draft has abated, I rewrite them to see where, or if, they fit in the overall picture.

I often spend hours on end in the process, even to the point of missing lunch or dinner.  I’m amazed when I discover that four or five hours might have passed before I paused for breath, so to speak. For me, writing is an alternate universe, one in which I easily lose myself.

Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember the first story I wrote as an adult.  It was titled The Leaving, and was included in two of my published collections of tales.  It told of the conflicting joy and sadness associated with the realization that my two daughters were growing up, leaving their childhood behind.  It was predicated on a credo my wife and I adopted in their upbringing—hug them close, then let them go.  The hugging was easy, of course; the letting-go not so much.

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Q. What prompted you to try writing a novel?

In the beginning, it was an attempt to answer the question as to whether or not I could do it.  And it took a long time to figure out—five years from inception to publication.  I was hoping to accomplish a number of things, the first being just to finish it; while I had been writing stories and poetry for a long time, I had never attempted a novel.

Additionally, I wanted to tell a story that would prove difficult for readers to resist.  I wanted to relate that story mainly through dialogue among the characters—in their respective voices.  I discovered, however, that the telling of some events had to be in my own narrator’s voice.  I also wanted to create convincing characters in whom readers might invest—little knowing at the time that I would become so attached to two of them that a series would follow.  They feel like friends now—to the point where, rather than creating their story in each successive book, I’ve come to feel like I’m simply recording it as it unfolds.

Q. How many books have you published?

To my astonishment, there are five novels now: By Precept and Example, 2007; Until He Killed Her, 2010; Lockdown, 2012; First Do No Harm, 2015; and the most recent, Missing and Murdered, 2017.  Each of the stories is told against a backdrop of contemporary events taking place at the time of publication.

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There are also three books of collected stories: On Top of the Grass: Tales of a Snowbird in Florida, 2008; It Matters to Me: Tales of a Young Father, 2010, and The Passing Parade: Tales of a Bemused Bystander, 2017.

All the books can be found, in print or e-book formats, at a number of locations, including http://www.amazon.ca and http://www.barnesandnoble.ca.  They are also available online at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a sixth novel in the Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series, and I hope to have a fourth collection of tales, Tall and True: Tales of a Peripatetic Blogger, published in 2018.

Q. When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I spend a lot of time reading—more, perhaps, than writing.  And I sing bass with an a capella men’s chorus, Harbourtown Sound, which is both enjoyable and time-consuming.  The chorus website is http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/.

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I also try to stay active in golf, tennis, cycling, swimming, and other physical pursuits.

Q. Who are your favorite authors?

There are several, including John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, John Sandford, and Randy Wayne White—all of whom write in my preferred genre. I also enjoy authors from different genres—Bill Bryson, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Winston Churchill, to name a few.

 

On Writing

It was and I said not but.

Huh?  Say again?  That statement doesn’t make sense.

Well, a long-ago English teacher wrote it on our classroom chalkboard one Monday morning, and challenged us to figure out how to make it intelligible.  It remained there all week, ignored by some, I’m sure; but it captivated my attention, and I couldn’t rest until her challenge was met.

This was the teacher who first told me I had the makings of a writer, who encouraged me to write every chance I got, who supported my naïve ambition to write the great Canadian novel.

Beyond the importance of having a good story to tell, she said, and the necessity to populate it with believable characters, there are some essential rules you must follow if you want readers to persevere with you.

once upon a time

Number one:  correct spelling and grammar are crucial.  No reader will long stumble through badly-written prose, full of misspelled words, misplaced commas, and mistakes in punctuation.  Sentences contain subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and phrases; it is the good writer who knows the distinctions among them.

Number two:  an easy, flowing style may sometimes override basic grammar rules, but a discerning reader will know the difference between literary licence and literary incompetence.  Woe betide the author who does not.

Number three:  show, don’t tell.  Describe what’s happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader.  My teacher provided this example, the opening stanza to a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…

Contrast that with this oft-parodied opening phrase from Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night…

The first example allows the reader to imagine the conditions, to see them, to hear them, perhaps even to feel them; the second removes that opportunity absolutely.  The first draws readers in, engages them; the second renders them passive receivers of the information.

Number four:  if you worry about what someone might think of you when they read your scribblings, my teacher said, you’ll never write a thing.  Many years later, I was pleased to read what Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, had to say about that:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…

just write

The final example is one I devised for myself:  it’s impossible to actually finish a book.  The best I can do is to simply stop writing at some point, and bid goodbye to the people who inhabit the story.  For me, the process is initially about the writing; thereafter—endlessly if I were to allow that—it involves the rewriting.

And on that point, the wonderful American writer, Elmore Leonard, advised:

If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.

For me, the truest pleasure comes from the act of writing, of creating something that never existed before.  Ernest Hemingway, another superb American writer, put it this way:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it.  And it makes me happy when I do it well.

My English teacher has long since passed away, but I still remember her admonitions, her inspiration, and her love of good writing.  As for that seemingly-nonsensical sentence she wrote on the chalkboard those many years ago, a sprinkling of punctuation made everything clear:

“It was ‘and’,” I said.  “Not ‘but’!”