Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ave Atque Vale, Angela. Hardly Knew You

Under ordinary circumstances, when you bring a newcharacter on stage for appearance in a novel or short story, you putter with your equivalent of a casting call, build an individual with traits and talents in some relationship to the story. Your first chore is to make sure there is some form of chemistry between that character and the protagonist.

Next step--you do a quick survey of individuals you've known in real life, whisk away some of that character's traits, shake the way a seasoned bartender shakes a cocktail, then you begin to write. As specific examples of this process at work, a former publisher for whom you worked and a former department head at a university you taught have turned into an aggregate of a quirky, self-involved sort of antagonist, someone the protagonist must suffer to some degree with each encounter.

Enter Angela Ayers, who came to life only two days ago as a means of bringing historical and attitudinal information on stage relative to a fictional town in New Mexico for your current project, The Robber Barons.  When you began sketching a few notes for her, you realized she is entirelyfrom whole cloth. You don't know anyone from real life who in any way approximates her.  You wish, in fact, that there were someone like her because you would immediately have a crush on her.  That said, you put her to work. You were not surprised to discover, after you reviewed yesterday's pages, that your protagonist has a crush on her. He's not quite aware of the fact, but he surely will come to realize the chemistry of his attraction when he catches himself wondering if he can lure her from Albuquerque, where she runs a ladies' clothing emporium, to San Francisco, where her education, attitude, and intelligence could lead her to even greater levels of achievement.

The thing he doesn't know about her yet--but will soon discover--is that her father was not adverse to robbing the occasional train in Texas or the Arizona Territory. You only discovered this a few days ago. Given her polar-but-largely-admiring regard for her father, Angela also tried her hand at holding up a train, found herself enjoying the experience to the point where she did it again, and yet again.  Thus she has become an invention of such singular importance that an outcome for her you'd not considered will have to be put into play.  She has to go, which is to say she needs to be killed off. You have no idea how this will come about, but you have forty or fifty thousand words of text in which to make your discovery.

This represents the uncomfortable parallel between creating stories, with which you have some experience, and playing God, with which you have neither experience nor art. The closest you can approximate the former experience with the experiences of real life resides on the loves and losses you've experienced all these many years. You've lost grandparents, parents, friends, lovers, animals; you've lost a beloved sister and a beloved wife.  One of the many reasons you're embarked on this book at all is to get a sense of a contemporary character, the 2020's, as it were, and his grandfather. You already know how your grandfather character is going to take the loss of Angela Ayers. You've been there, done that. Now, you get to write about it.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Days of Wine, Roses, and Shot Sheriff's

Your first formal step taken toward becoming a writer of fiction came when you signed up for the course in creative writing offered by one of the most popular teachers in the Fairfax High School (7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA) of your day. Herman Quick left you with a rousing number of memories. He'd just come off a successful diet to lose weight. Your experiences of him involve a thin, natty dresser. Indeed his trademark was the double-breasted suit.

At Quick's suggestion, you bought--and to this day treasure--a book with the inspirational title, How to Write Magazine Fiction.  Written by a man who worked both sides of the street. By one of his names, he was editor for a prestigious scholarly press. By another of his names, he indeed wrote for magazines.

The advice from Herman Quick, "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," had a broad acceptance in How to Write Magazine Fiction .  You set forth at a blistering pace to shoot various sheriffs in numerous first paragraphs. Indeed,over seventy years later, here you are, in the midst of a two-book contract to deliver stories where there are sheriffs, lawmen, and private investigators such as operatives for the PinkertonAgency.

You in fact are fresh from having attempted to purchase from Amazon's book division a book you acquired in your role as editor in 1965 and was published early the next year. The book, The Pulp Jungle,was a memoir of Frank Gruber's early years writing for magazines that got their generic name from the fact of their printing on a low-grade, acidy paper commonly referred to as pulp.  The idea for this book came about when Gruber delivered to you a manuscript, Brass Knuckles, which was a collection of his crime stories featuring a character named Oliver Quade, also known as "The Human Encyclopedia."  Somewhere in the editing process, you'd observed to Gruber that these reprinted stories, gathered here for the first time, merited an introduction.

After you'd read the manuscript of the introduction for Brass Knuckles,  you phoned Gruber, who, as you recall, was at a television studio, serving in his own editorial capacity as story editor of the ongoing TV series, Tales of Wells Fargo.  "Just wanted to say," you said, "that this introduction could very well be expanded to, let's say fifty or sixty thousand words and, thus, your first book length work of nonfiction."

Gruber, being the man he was, said, "Not entirely true, kid."  He called you kid. You were in fact thirty-four. At the perspective from which you now write, he was correct to call you kid. He reminded you that he'd published a biography of the iconic Western writer, Zane Gray, and had self-published a biography of Horatio Alger.  "Bring you a copy of the Alger next time I see you," he said.  "Autographed, of course."  "Of course, you said." Then you went on to ask when your next visit would be.

"Couple of weeks," he said.  "Let's make it three." By which he meant that he'd bring in the manuscript for the source of these mamories, The Pulp Jungle."

In actuality, he needed a month. He seemed to have forgotten one of the two mysteries a year he write for the then publishing house of Dodd, Mead.

Last time you looked, the going price for a copy of The Pulp Jungle was $435.  Abe Books, this morning, offered a signed copy for $1, 250.  They'd also get you connected with an unsigned copy of Brass Knuckles for $45.

Gruber was not your only connection with this kind of hardboiled writing. You also had dealings with his good chum, Steve Fisher, with a noted contemporary, Bill S. Ballinger, and such glorious others as Robert Turner and Day Keene, even to the point of publishing another memoir from Keene's and, for a time, your literary agent, Donald McCampbell, Don't Step on it, It May Be a Writer.

Those were glorious days, times when you found yourself sitting across desks and tables with the daughter and son--in-law of another grand writer from those days, Frederic Schiller Faust, also known as Max Brand; with William F. Nolan, whom you single-handedly convinced to lower Logan's age from 30 to 21.