Friday, May 22, 2009

The Perfect Sentence

For twenty-seven years, BayCon has been the mainstay of Bay Area (that's the San Francisco Bay Area for those not familiar with the area) Fandom. I had hoped to post here my BayCon guest participation schedule, and then follow that up with some form of convention report. But, alas, family responsibilities have necessitated my cancelling out of BayCon, renting a car (my own car is nearly sixteen years old, and I don't like to push my luck), and making the nearly 400-mile trip to Southern Cal. A helluva trip when it's only for a total of three days! And with no net access during those three days, it will feel like a cosmic return to the age of stone knives and bear claws!

Regardless, my sincere apologies to BayCon for having to bail with only two days notice. But I did check the programming schedule, and the panels to which I had been assigned will still be well-represented. And, I suspect, I will not really be missed. Though I will miss seeing author
Kage Baker (and sister Kathleen), with whom I always meet, for lunch or dinner, whenever we attend the same convention. Kage and I go back a handful of years: I sent her an email on May 5, 2001, in which I introduced myself, sharing with her some of the books I had worked on for Golden Gryphon Press, and then expressed my enthusiasm for a collection of her Company stories. Much to my delight, that collection, Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, was published in hardcover in the fall of 2002. The book sold out its first print run of 3,000 copies in one month -- that's right, four weeks! -- had a second print run that same year, and was then released in a trade paperback edition in 2004. Working on this book was a pure joy, and I couldn't have asked for a more gracious, more knowledgeable author to work with. Thank you, Kage!

But none of this is really the purpose of this particular blog entry. What I want to do is share with you some articles I had written, but to do so requires a bit of history. (Those familiar with my previous blog posts/essays know that you're always going to get a "bit of history" -- but not a history lesson! -- in my blog entries.)

In early 2004, when I realized that I would most likely be freelancing for the foreseeable future, I began investigating additional resources and opportunities. This is when I learned about the
California Writers Club ("The nation's oldest professional club for writers"), and discovered that the organization had a chapter in my area: South Bay Writers. I began attending the monthly meetings beginning in March 2004. The group met once a month at Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose. The club actually had a nice setup: the meetings were held in a large auditorium-like room at the rear of the restaurant. You checked in, paid your fee, and the registration person handed you a chit good for a set amount in the restaurant. Harry's is buffet style, so you would move through the food line, selecting your items, which would be served by a restaurant staff person; at the cash register, you turned in your chit and paid any difference (typically not more than two or three dollars, and that's only if you were a big eater and selected a dessert).

I didn't attend every monthly meeting, but those I did were quite enjoyable and informative. The first hour was devoted to the meal and networking, then club business took up the next half-hour, and after the break we had the guest speaker presentation. Some of the guest speakers at the meetings I attended included Tamara Straus, editor of
Zoetrope: All-Story magazine; Diane di Prima, self-described "Beat Poet Priestess"; and Mitch Berman, writer, editor, and English professor at San Jose State University, who spoke on the hierarchy of literary magazines and the most influential publications. I joined the South Bay Writers club in November 2004.

Then, with some effort on my part to introduce myself and my background to the appropriate people, I was invited to be a "guest faculty" at the 2004
East of Eden Writer's Conference, held in Salinas, California -- the home of Steinbeck -- August 27-29. The conference has been held every even year since 2002, and is sponsored by South Bay Writers. During the 2004 conference, I participated in a Publishers panel as well as a grueling three hours of "Ask-a-Pro" sessions. Each session was approximately ten minutes in length, during which an aspiring author got to present his/her book pitch and provide me with whatever supporting material (excerpts, outlines, summaries, samples, etc.) they had for said book. I may have spent three hours in these sessions, but I probably spent more than thirty hours reviewing the supporting material and providing some of the authors feedback during the following weeks. One author in particular had an impressive first novel, which had actually won the "best novel" category in the writing competition that weekend. Unfortunately, the novel read more like a movie novelization -- all action, all surface, no depth; I asked that he add another few thousand words of characterization throughout, which he did, but not to the level I had hoped. The end result was still insufficient. I would have loved to have obtained this "alternate history/fantastical" novel for Golden Gryphon Press because the story line struck me as unique at the time (Nazis, who had escaped Germany at the end of the war, had taken up secret residence in Palestine; by 1948, they were instigating war between the Jews and Arabs with plans to take over the country, and acquire the Templars' hidden treasure, in the process). And the descriptive scenes were quite wonderful, given that the author had resided in Israel for more than a decade. However, my final comment to the author's agent was to try to sell the story as a movie; and if successful, they already had the novelization written.

At some point during the first few monthly club meetings that I attended, I met Carol Wood, who edited the monthly newsletter for South Bay Writers as well as the monthly newsletter for the San Fernando Valley Branch in Southern California. [Note: the SFV Branch has since reorganized and is now the California Writers Coalition, under completely new management.] Carol resided in SoCal as well, but made regular trips to the South Bay to meet with friends and staff. During one of our conversations, she suggested an interview, to be published in The Valley Scribe (the SFV Branch newsletter), so that I could share with the other members some of my experiences and insights on working with an independent press, submission guidelines, are agents necessary, etc. The interview would be conducted over lunch -- Carol's treat -- to which I agreed. So a couple weeks later (sometime during the summer, 2004) we met on a Wednesday at a local Baker's Square restaurant. Once lunch was ordered, Carol turned on her mini tape recorder and we began chatting about a variety of writing, editing, and publishing topics. Unfortunately, about ten or so minutes into the interview, the batteries died on the recorder, and much to her dismay, Carol had neglected to bring backup batteries. So she pulled out pen and notebook and began writing profusely while we continued our discussion. Lunch, and the interview, concluded; Carol thanked me for my time and even complimented me on some of my comments and insights into the business. I asked to see a draft of the interview before it was published, to which she agreed. After a month or so and no word from Carol, I queried her on the status of the interview, only to learn that the notes she had hastily written during the interview were so illegible, that she was unable to write up the interview -- so she suggested interviewing me again, and this time she would be sure to bring extra batteries. That follow-up interview was never scheduled and, much to my dismay, no interview with me ever appeared in The Valley Scribe.

[Hang in there, we're getting closer to the point of this blog post!] During that initial "interview," however, Carol suggested that I might want to consider writing a monthly column for the newsletter; it would be my choice on the subject matter. I thought about this for some time: I wanted the column to be informative as well as humorous, detailed yet light in content. Since CWC was an organization for writers, I wanted to focus on writing -- not publishing, not agents, not other related subjects, just writing. I titled the column "The Perfect Sentence" -- though what I actually wrote about was the not-so-perfect sentence. The first column was published in the October 2004 issue of The Valley Scribe. I had approximately 750 words to work with for this first column, because it was my introductory column, but all columns after that had a maximum word count of 600 words. You see how wordy I can be in these blog entries; imagine being limited to 600 words!

As I said, the columns all focused on writing, but with a great deal of supporting material, to help make the material more interesting -- at least that's what I hoped. I wrote about well-known authors Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke; George Lucas and Star Wars; one column was even dedicated to the comma! I pulled examples of writing directly from the manuscripts I was editing at the time (with some changes in proper nouns to protect the guilty authors), from books I myself had read and made note of horrendous sentences, and even an example or two from Thog's Masterclass. When you read these brief columns, you may find it hard to believe that I spent hours and hours working on each one. My first draft was always a thousand or more words, and then I had to cut, and refine, and cut, and refine and cut again, so that each word counted, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, I always had to cut examples that really would have added more depth to each column. Between coming up with an idea, researching as necessary, tracking down the various examples, whether it be authors, books, or specific sentences, and then writing and sharply editing each column, I probably spent at least a couple days on each one.

Once completed, I sent each column as an email attachment to Carol Wood; I met, or beat, every deadline. Nary a column was late. The problem I encountered, however, was that I never received any confirmation that the column had been received, even if I followed up with a query email. And when the Scribe was published the following month, I didn't always receive a complimentary copy. And when I did, it was folded in half, addressed and stamped, and sent through the US mail stream. Finally, after I submitted my March 2005 column, I contacted the editor and requested presentable copies of each newsletter; I didn't think this was too much to ask considering I was devoting my time and energy to this endeavor with no other recompense. Finally, a stack of issues arrived in a brown mailer the first week in May 2005. I checked through the issues, but found no December 2004 issue. For my December column, I specifically focused on the work of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, since his birthday was December 16. After much back and forth with the editor, I learned that she had never "received" my column for December, even though I had sent it prior to the deadline. So, posting this December 2004 column here on this blog will be the first time it will see print, virtually speaking that is.

Well, that was the end of my career as a column writer for The Valley Scribe. The columns simply took too much time to write, and their appearance in the newsletter struck me as being a bit too hit-and-miss. The unfortunate thing was, I already had an idea -- and had done some of the research -- for the next column, which was to be on the importance of opening sentences. In preparation for writing this column, I had purchased a DVD of The Owl and the Pussycat, starring Barbra Streisand and George Segal. To sum up, Segal (Felix) is a writer and Streisand (Doris) is a hooker. They end up together, obviously, but there is a great scene in which Doris reads Felix's novel-in-progress and just gives him the hardest time about the opening sentence: "The sun spit morning." You'll just have to watch the movie!

"The Perfect Sentence"

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