Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Freedom of a Deadline (Sometimes)

I don't miss writing on deadline. Newsrooms, to me, are ulcer farms. I still shudder when I remember being the interim editor of the weekend Escape section at The Signal, Santa Clarita, California's exclusive newspaper. I was ultimately in charge of five issues for five weeks.

I generally began planning each issue on Friday, the day that each one before was published, thinking of ideas for articles I could write in-house (without outside research, since I didn't have a car), starting my next From My Netflix Queue column (reviewing whatever I watched that came from my Netflix queue), studying the AP newswires for entertainment, travel, and other categories, looking for articles interesting enough to me to put on the pages. I'm proud of the work I did for those five weeks, and the extensive work I did as an intern at the paper and then associate editor of the Escape section that led up to that. But if I was offered a chance to do all that again, I would much prefer to spend my days reorganizing thousands of fallen books in a library hit by an earthquake. It's easier.

However, I do miss the atmosphere in which such writing takes place, writing a column or a story on the fly, figuring out right then and there different angles for each just in case you feel like your original idea isn't working. And then, when you're done, adding and taking out and putting back in as you're editing. Would you believe that there's greater freedom in that than how I write right now?

When I took journalism classes at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California (also part of the Santa Clarita Valley) in 2004 or 2005, one of the first classes required was taught by Paul Bond, a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter. Up to that point, I had been an intern at the satellite office of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Weston, and had written countless movie reviews for the Teentime pages in the back of the Sentinel's now-defunct weekend Showtime section. In this class, I loved being taught by someone who, when he was done with the class, dashed off to The Hollywood Reporter offices to get started on his work. What he taught, he lived, side by side.

We sat at banks of computers, the monitors and keyboards under glass tabletops. And he would give us sample news stories to write up, usually set on our campus. One assignment was about a suspicious package found in the M building, the media building, our building. Police were called in. The building was locked down. Write about it.

We were taught the inverted pyramid and the general length of a news article of that kind. It was up to us to determine what details the reader should know first. I don't remember all that I wrote, but I think the article started off with someone like, "A suspicious package found on the third floor of the M building yesterday prompted school officials to..."

Dare I say it, I enjoyed writing that article, taking the facts given to us and incorporating them into a hard news piece. No time for flourishes, or overly descriptive reactions to the scene. Just tell the reader what happened, what they need to know.

These days, I'm burdened with what I want to write. Good burdens, but laced with indecision about what to focus on, the result being that not much gets done. But it will. The ideas keep coming, and I've got to focus on one soon and see it through, for my own continued attempted sanity.

Despite the company of such luminaries as the great John Boston, the soul of The Signal, when I was there, my favorite newsroom was at College of the Canyons, for the Canyon Call newspaper, where I was a staff writer. You were allowed to make mistakes, as long as they were cleaned up by deadline.

To this day, I'm still trying to figure out what "News Feature Story" won me the second place 2006 SoCal Conference Mail-In Award from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. For a time, the award hung on the wall next to the entrance to the newsroom, but some time after leaving the paper, I decided that it was mine, despite being part of the history of the paper, and took it down and took it away with me. It sits in my closet, where a few issues of the Canyon Call may also sit, but I think that bag mainly has the issues of the Escape section I oversaw.

My favorite article that I wrote was a feature on the men's golf team led by Gary Peterson, also the cinema teacher at College of the Canyons. I walked clear across campus, to where they were practicing, interviewed Peterson (who was also my cinema teacher at the time), and a few members of the team. I think I touched upon their dedication, what they hoped to achieve this season, what they looked to improve upon from last season, you know, your typical sports article. It remains the first and only sports article I wrote. But I liked going out there, taking in that atmosphere, watching their furrowed concentration, and just the peacefulness surrounding them. I wanted to write about nothing but that! Only that! If I could have made a career writing about the peacefulness of certain places, I would have stayed in journalism.

In that newsroom, I had space to explore. I had time to think. Lots of it if I wanted. Oh, I have that today, but it's a different feeling. It's easier when you're in your 20s, mulling over this or that, thinking about how to write something, all the while the sun begins to set through the windows and you realize it's time to get home, but just a few more minutes. Just a few minutes to explore this line of thinking, see where it takes me, see if it works for me, and change it if it doesn't. And then go down that path.

The innocence of writing back then. I didn't know as much as I do now, and even so, it's still not that much. But I know more of who I am as a writer, who I want to be, and it's intimidating. Less so when you're younger. Long before What If They Lived?, my first book, was published, a few fellow writers in the newsroom asked me if I was going to write any books. I told them that I didn't think so. I didn't have any ideas. Well look at me now.

Maybe I should try to recapture that writerly innocence. Not to forget what I already know, but approach it how I did back then, with endless possibilities to explore, and new ways to go if I don't like how it's going. Not to be so intimidated by what I'm writing, but see it as an opportunity to learn more about myself, what I can possibly do. Something like that.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Libraries Shouldn't Be Hidden

I received a copy of FDR's Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance in the mail yesterday, wanting to reread it after having read The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence, author Robert Klara's latest.

I ordered it from Better World Books from Mishawaka, Indiana, through abebooks.com. When it finally came after two weeks, I was going to write to them to complain because I thought I had ordered a paperback copy. But in reading time, and having read a few books after I had ordered it, I forgot what copy I had ordered.

It turns out that Better World Books had listed this as a Former Library Book, and I think I ordered this one because it was the cheapest. But looking at this former library copy, while I am happy to have it to read again, I'm also disappointed. For while this library, whichever one it was, left its Dewey Decimal call number at the bottom of the spine, it completely blacked out its name on the title page under the Palgrave Macmillan name with very heavy permanent black marker. The barcode at the top of the back cover was marked up the same way. All that remains as proof that this came from a library besides the Dewey Decimal number is a stamped date of Mar 22 2010 at the bottom of the back flyleaf, the date the library acquired this book, with $27.00 beneath that. True, all this library thought about at the time was bring this book into its collections. It wasn't thinking about bibliophiles who might receive this book in the future, like me.

This library doesn't necessarily have to advertise. It belongs to a city, or a town, and therefore is only accountable to that place. But leaving clear where the book came from when it discarded it and sent it away would have been free advertising for bibliophiles. I wanted to know where this book came from. Perhaps I would have looked for the library's website and visited it. I would live in libraries if I could, and so this is my way of knowing other libraries outside of where I live. The black marker is so thick that I can't make out any possible letters. It could be considered a lost opportunity for this library, or library system, or it could be that they just want to be left alone. They don't want any outsiders to notice them. If so, I wish they didn't have that attitude. I would have been deferential.

Or it could be some new policy of Better World Books to black out library and town names from former library books. But then, what good would that do them? I would think that any bookseller as substantial as Better World Books would want buyers to see that their books come from so many different places. No, I'm chalking this one up to the library.

While I'm sticking to my local library's own books for the foreseeable future, I hope that the next former library book I buy is more open to me. In turn, I will be more open to it.

LATE SUNDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE (5:47 p.m.): I just found this e-mail in my inbox, sent late this morning:


Thank you for your email. We work with many libraries who send their overstocked
books or old editions for us to sell. The libraries then select a local charity or
one of our literacy partners (Books for Africa, Room to Read, and The National
Center for Family Literacy) to receive a portion of the proceeds, in addition to
earning funds for their own programs. Your book came from one of those libraries. We
do ask that these libraries not make any changes to the book, apart from something
like a discard stamp, unfortunately, not all libraries follow these guidelines. I
can assure you that this is not a new policy of ours. Thanks for the support!



It's heartening to know that charities benefit from these books, and good to know that Better World Books is not responsible for this. They're as open as I always thought they were.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I'm Gonna Read Like It's 1999

After every time my editor at BookBrowse, the book review site I write for, e-mails me a .pdf file of how my latest review is going to appear in the next issue, I take stock of my reading life. What can I read to make my book reviews better? Do I fall back on Michael Dirda, one of my favorite book critics, or the books I have of Nick Hornby's reviews for McSweeney's, or both? What fiction should I be reading to make my reviews more informative? There's no guarantee that what I read in between reviews will directly relate to whatever book I'll read next for a review, but something in those books, or in the act of reading those books, could inspire an opening for a review that ties together the particular book I'm reviewing and what I thought of it, perhaps something about how the plot in that book has been done better elsewhere, and then I have an example. Or just getting better at capturing the atmosphere of a book in so few words. After all, I have a minimum of 600 words, though I prefer to go no further than 620 words. If my editor wants me to add more thoughts, it's easier to add to a small review than it is to try to whittle down a much larger one. I learned that very well when I was new to BookBrowse. Even though I had written movie reviews for 13 years up until then, and had written the occasional book review for a Southern California publication called Valley Scene Magazine, writing book reviews regularly was a bigger challenge, coupled with the worry that the owner of BookBrowse and my editor might think I'm not worth the trouble and then would tell me not to write any more reviews for them. Then where would I be for a writing outlet I could possibly enjoy?

Nevertheless, another review has come and gone, this time of Night of the Animals by Bill Broun, which I thought was a quiet masterpiece. I received the .pdf file of the final copy of my review from my editor, and here I sit again, thinking of my reading life. Dirda and Hornby have come and gone. I could fall back on that trope, but sitting in front of me is What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jo Walton. I had never heard of Jo Walton until I bumped into her in the Henderson Libraries catalog and found her book. This collection of essays would be good, because as she writes in her introduction, "Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions. Here I'm mostly talking about older books, and these are my thoughts on reading them again."

That's true. Never, to my knowledge has BookBrowse reviewed reissues of classic or older books. It's always either what has recently been published, or what will be published in the next month or two months. Yes, my reviews are always first reactions, but is there possibly a way that I can make my reviews feel as comfortable, as casual, as knowing as writing about rereading older books? I want to read Walton's collection to find out if there's anything I can learn there.

However, after each of my reviews is put in the pipeline for publication, I'm not only thinking of how to improve my own reviews, I'm thinking sharply about what I'm reading right now, what I want to read, what I possibly should read. What I'm reading right now doesn't matter so much at the moment as what I want to read and what I possibly should read. I'm going to work backwards.

What I possibly should read is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two, which the entire world knows is the rehearsal edition script for the enormous play being performed in London's West End right now. I have it right in front of me, and it's due back at the Green Valley Library on Saturday. I can't renew it because despite there being 20 copies in circulation, there are 84 holds behind me.

I like wandering this wizarding world, but I'm not a devoted fan enough to drop everything right now and read it. I could get to it midweek, since I can read 308 pages in a short time, but I don't think I'd want to rush through it like that. I'd want to take time with it. Plus, despite one book review ready for the next issue of BookBrowse, I'm reading the deeply-felt memoir Please Enjoy Your Happiness by Paul Brinkley-Rodgers, and that review is due on the 20th. Two weeks left. Fortunately, I've written the two opening paragraphs, but I still have to finish reading the book. Besides, what I've liked about BookBrowse from the start is that when I review a book, as opposed to reviewing a movie, it's just me and the book. Sure there's the press release about the book from the publicist, tucked in between the front cover and the flyleaf, but all I have to do with that is take it out and pitch it, or use it as a bookmark. I don't need to know what the book's about because I've already read what it's about when I chose it for review. I don't need to read quotes from other authors and reviewers about the book because I'm looking to form my own opinion about it. Whereas with movies, every critic is hyperaware of the summer movie season and awards season. E-mail inboxes are bombarded with press releases about this awards hopeful or that one, and publicists always eagerly ask you if you want to review this one or that one, and to reply to them if you want to attend one of the screenings. That was one of the reasons I got out of movie reviewing. It started to feel like a hamster wheel. Conversely, I've been reading since I was 2. I never want to get out of this.

What I want to read has come in different stages. There's Murder with Macaroni and Cheese, the second Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery by A.L. Herbert, one of my new favorite authors. I've been waiting for this one since last year, right after I finished reading Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles, the first one. I also have here William Howard Taft: The President Who Became Chief Justice by Bill Severn, published in 1970. One review on Amazon calls it a "decent high-school bio of Taft,".....".... written for advanced junior high or beginning high school students", but I don't care. In my boundless passion for presidential history, William Howard Taft is my favorite president to study and I'll read everything I can find about him.

That that biography is from 1970 brings up something else. I feel like we're in an age now where the latest headlines, the latest trends, the latest Pokemon to catch on one's phone matters more than history, than slowing down for a little more time to think. It bothers me a little, but it also excites me. It means I own certain things. When I saw a few people at breakfast in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn in Ventura, California that we stayed at a little over a month ago tapping away at their phones, it just meant that there was more of the lobby for me. I get more space to explore. I get more trees, more sky, more opportunity to see where air conditioners are placed around my apartment complex in relation to the apartments they blow into. I also realized that in the rush to know the latest and presumably greatest (for five minutes until the next greatest thing comes along), I get more books.

Related to my desire to write better book reviews (my editor said that this latest review is "one of your best....full of insight....well constructed (no waste of words)," but I disagree. It's not one of my favorites, and I spent most of the time worrying if I was making the right connections in the review, if the whole thing read well, if it all made sense), I got a yen to read essays again. I went to the Henderson Libraries website to look up "Best American Essays" (always my starting point for reading essays), and I found that the 2015 edition was checked out (the 2016 edition comes out in October). I then saw that The Best American Essays 1999 was available from the Paseo Verde library, so I put in a request for that. I see now that as technologically irritating as society can be today, I can wander well into the past and have some of it to myself. I'm sure that The Best American Essays 1999 hasn't been checked out in some time. So I have the space to wander through it as I wish.

It's the same with the 1930s, one of my favorite decades to study. I decided two weeks ago that I also want to read novels from that decade. I'm sure that there are others reading those same novels, but not the majority. I am a minority in literature and I like to keep it that way.

Of course, my assumptions could be wildly incorrect, but even so, would that really matter with so many Pokemon still to catch? After all, they have to be caught before the next insta trend roars in. I don't mind. Keep them coming! I'd much prefer to have the option to renew my library books if necessary. Then others can have them, if they happen to notice them.