About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sons Following Fathers - Presidentially and Personally

This post will be my third post concerning 41 by George W. Bush, his personal portrait of his father, George Bush. The first post was a review of the book. The second examined the absence of discussion on George W.’s decisions not to enter the U.S. military at 18 or 22. (He enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard.) Tonight’s post is a reflection on sons and fathers. I received the book as a gift from my sons. They inscribed: 


We hope that you enjoy this book, which we feel is particularly relevant since it is about a son following his father into politics just as we have followed you into law.

Lots of love and Merry Christmas!

Jonathan and Mike

There is no current better example of a son following his father in the U.S. than George W. following his father in becoming President of the United States.
George W. did not seem destined for a political career. He had followed his father’s footsteps in entering the oil industry in Texas after he graduated from university. He even returned to Midland where he had spent his pre-teen years.

In the book George W. speaks of the enjoyment he had in working on his father’s early political campaigns in the mid-1960’s. He continued to be engaged in George’s political career.

In 1977 George W. decided to run for Congress. He says:

Dad was surprised when I told him that I was considering running for Congress. He suggested I visit his friend former Governor Allan Shivers to ask for his advice on the race …… [Shivers] looked me straight in the eye and told me that I couldn’t win …. It was not Dad’s style to try to dictate the course of my life. On a decision of this magnitude, he wanted me to make up my own mind. In hindsight, I suspect that the Shivers referral was his way of warning me that the race would be difficult and that I should prepare for disappointment.

George W.’s loss in that campaign was to be the only electoral loss he has experienced.

In 1993 George W. decided to run for Governor of Texas. When he called his parents:

Dad was quiet. I was not surprised that Dad did not have much to say. Throughout my life, he never tried to steer me in one direction or another. His approach to parenting was to instill values, set an example, and support us in whatever we chose to do ….. Through his words and his life, he had taught all of his children the value of public service.

I discussed the practice of law with my sons as they were growing up. They heard from me about the highs and lows of litigation and the enjoyment in helping someone in a land transaction or probating an estate. They knew I thought it was a good profession and that I was glad I had chosen to be a lawyer.

My sons certainly thought about law while they were in school. Generally they considered being a lawyer too hard a job. I kept telling them if they could find an easy job they should take it. I told them that I hoped they would decide upon a profession they believed they would like for it is too difficult working in a job you dislike getting up for each morning.

I did try hard not to direct them in a career choice. I had appreciated my parents giving me the opportunity of a university education with the encouragement to study what I thought best for me. It was a challenge not to promote legal careers for them. I thought both of them were well suited to being lawyers. They are analytical, skilled with words and enjoy dealing with people.

After their earlier comments I was as surprised to hear they were going to become lawyers as George hearing from George W. that his son planned to run for political office. Each of my sons had been at university for 3 years when they called to advise Sharon and I they wanted to go to law schools. Those calls, three years apart, were two of the happiest calls I have received from Jon and Mike.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What is missing from 41

In my last post I reviewed 41 by George W. Bush, a biography of his father. As set out in my previous post I enjoyed the book. I wish it would have had more about the relationship between George W. and his father.

In particular, I had hoped to learn what George W. and George discussed about military service when George W. was 18.

George W.’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, had joined the Connecticut National Guard in 1916 and was sent overseas in WW I as a field artillery officer.

A generation later, Prescott wanted George to go to university, rather than enlist when WW II began for America with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941.

Instead George enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. He had been outraged by the attack and felt a sense of obligation to serve as he had received the benefits of life in America.

In 1964 George W. was 18. He went to university at Yale and had a student deferment. In 1968 he joined the Texas Air National Guard which effectively kept him from serving in Vietnam.

The book has not a mention of any discussion between George W. and George when George W. was 18 about military service. George W.’s father and grandfather had fought in the wars of their respective generations. George W. could have joined the military but chose instead college. I would have been interested to know what George told George W.

It was a defining issue for every American father and son of that generation. It was the major decision of their teenage lives for my male South Dakota cousins turning 18 in the 1960’s.

 I am positive the topic would have been discussed. Did George express a definite opinion as his father had discouraged him from joining the military or did he stay neutral? It is hard for me to think on such an important topic that there was no advice.

By 1967 George was a U.S. Senator and made a trip to Vietnam. It is fair to say he supported America’s intervention in Vietnam.

Once again the book has nothing about George W.’s student deferment about to end in 1968 and what he should do at that time. In a Washington Post article he described his decision:
In discussing his own decision, he has always said his main consideration was that he wanted to be a pilot, and the National Guard gave him a chance to do that. In 1989 he tried to describe his own thought process to a Texas interviewer. "I'm saying to myself, 'What do I want to do?' I think I don't want to be an infantry guy as a private in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do is learn to fly."

Asked in a recent interview whether he was avoiding the draft, Bush said, "No, I was becoming a pilot."

There was advice from George on important issues. A few years later, after the Watergate scandal had finally ended, George shared his thoughts with his sons. After learning that Richard Nixon, who thought was his friend, had privately criticized him, as a “worrywart” and weak, George a letter to his sons about what he hoped they “would learn from the Watergate debacle:
Listen to your conscience. Don’t be afraid not to join the mob – if you feel inside it’s wrong. Don’t confuse being ‘soft’ with seeing the other guy’s point of view …. Avoid self-righteously turning on a friend, but have your friendship mean enough that you would be willing to share with your friend your judgment. Don’t assign away your judgment to achieve power.”

It would have been fascinating to learn what the Bush family discussed concerning the military and Vietnam when George W. was 18 and 22.

I have one more post about 41 and it includes my sons.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

41 by George W. Bush

(7. - 805.) 41 by George W. Bush – George W. (hereafter “George W.”) has written “a portrait of my father”, George H.W. (hereafter “George”), the 41st President of the United States. Not unexpectedly it is a respectful summary of the strengths of George by a loving son. My knowledge of George was more limited than I realized until I read the book.


Born and raised among the American elite of the northeastern states, his father a prominent Wall Street banker, he had a privileged upbringing. What was striking was his close and loving family. Many in the American aristocracy have fractured family lives. He came from a stable family that provided him with solid values.


George made the decision to serve his country by joining the Air Force by enlisting on his 18th birthday. Becoming the youngest qualified pilot in the Navy he flew one of the most ungainly planes, the Avenger bomber, ever to fly off aircraft carriers.


Shot down and adrift in the ocean just off Chichi Jima his life was undoubtedly saved by being rescued by an American submarine. Others captured at that time were killed by their Japanese captors.


He married young at 20. George and Barbara have now been married for over 70 years. While I had always seen them as a devoted couple the book makes clear they had a strong marriage. It is nice not to be reading about personal scandal in the marriage of a famous couple.


I had always thought of George as a conservative man being a lifelong Republican stalwart. While conservative politically he was never conservative in his life. He has spent over 90 years pursuing new opportunities and challenges.


George’s adventurous spirit was evident after WW II when he declined to join Wall Street and went from the wealthy enclaves of New England to live in Odessa, Texas and work for a company servicing the oil industry.


While Americans have been moving to the West since the first settlers on the eastern shores few have chosen to leave a comfort in the urban East for the challenges of the Texas oil frontier. George was confident he could be successful and was actually eager to take risks.


Within a few years he had formed his own oil drilling company. George used his New York connections to seek out investors in his business. While living an independent life there was no foolish pride in avoiding the investment money available through his Eastern family and friends.


What might have been most surprising to me was George’s vast network of friends that extended around the world. He was at the forefront of networking in his generation. George W. wrote that there are thousands of people around the world who can pull out of their desks a letter personally written to them by George.


Successful politicians in America must love people. If you lack charisma it is almost impossible to get elected. You can become Canadian Prime Minister while neither being fond of the people nor compelling (our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and a former PM, William Lyon Mckenzie King are good examples) but it has been a long time (Richard Nixon) since America has had a president who did not enjoy meeting and greeting and talking to his, since there has not yet been a female President, fellow Americans.


I found it interesting that neither George W. nor George really gave advice to the other when President. Both focused their relationship on being supportive. Each left it to the advisers chosen by the President to give advice on policy and legislation. Their relationships during the respective presidencies was reflected in George sending his son corny jokes to try to lighten George W.’s day when dealing with the constant demands of the presidency.


George was blessed with the ability to make a decision and move on whether in business or politics or personal life. He was never paralyzed when facing a decision.


There are not a lot of decent men in politics around the world. George was honest. He cares about all Americans. While financially comfortable he was never wealthy. He pursued a life in politics to make his nation a better country. He never sought to become rich.


George W. is an engaging writer. Much as I perceived him as President he has no ambition to be an intellectual. He is not writing a rigorous academic study. He writes smoothly and tells the story of his father’s life well. The pages slide by easily. The charm that helped get George W. elected President is evident through the book. I think he could have revealed more of his relationship with his father and that issue will be a part of my next post.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts

Harry Bosch, one of America’s best known fictional policed detectives in the long running series by Michael Connelly, has a fundamental principle guiding him:

Everybody counts or nobody counts.

It has driven him in pursuing killers. Each victim – whatever social status or sex or age or race – deserves his best efforts. The phrase is repeated in almost every book in the series.

In an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2012 Connelly speaks about the phrase: 

"The reality is that detectives are not always investigating the murders of their girlfriends or people they know," says Connelly, who took up writing crime after several years as a police reporter at the Los Angeles Times, in an interview. "They have to make impersonal cases personal, and I gave Harry that ability. He comes to a crime scene, and his client, if you will, is dead. It's the unfairness of what's happened to that person that makes him angry, and gives him that relentless drive to find out what happened and zero in on whoever was responsible. As he always says, everybody counts or nobody counts."

In the most recent book, The Burning Room, Harry cringes when, during a meeting with prominent Latin politician Armando Zeyas, his superior recounts the phrase as confirmation of Harry’s dedication and Zeyas is instantly smitten by the phrase.

Later Harry is attending an event in support of Zeyas and finds:

      On the second floor they walked down a long hallway
      with entrances to the various ballrooms. The Merv
      Griffin Room was actually a grand ballroom at the end
      of the hallway with two sets of double doors that stood
      open and waiting. On the wall between the doors was a
      ten-foot-high poster showing a black-and-white photo
      of Armando Zeyas shaking hands and engageed with a
      circle of smiling supporters. The shot had been taken
      with a fish-eye lens, which gave the resulting photo an
      exaggerated sense that Zeyas stood at the cener of the
      people. Bosch paused in horror when he saw the slogan
      printed above the circle of people of every age, gender,
      and race:
            Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts!
     Zeyas 2016

To think a politician would usurp his precious phrase leaves Harry fuming.

Zeyas has also adopted the phrase without attribution to Harry for which Harry is probably grateful.

I thought it was brilliant for Connelly to have Harry’s signature phrase stolen away. To make it a politician, a profession despised by Harry, makes it even more apt. It is exactly what he would expect from an unscrupulous politician.
As I thought about the phrase I searched on the net to see if it had origins before Harry Bosch. While I have seen it in use in some health or social work websites I have not found a source beyond Harry.

Archbishop Ilsley Catholic School in Acocks Green, Birmingham, England has adopted the phrase as its school motto but there is no specific sourcing of the motto.

Many have used the phrase everybody counts. Nelson Mandala used it in speaking of the Special Olympics:

After watching some of the competitions, Mandela said: “When you attend a Special Olympics Games…and watch the sheer joy on faces – not just of the athletes, but more overwhelmingly among spectators – you begin to realize there is much more at work than simply athletic competition. On one hand, it is the story of years of tragedy transformed into pure joy, driven by the beauty of sheer effort. But at the same time, it is a profound statement of inclusion – that everybody matters, everybody counts, every life has value, and every person has worth.” 

What is uncommon is the combination of "everybody counts" with "nobody counts".

I have not found other sources to say “everybody counts or nobody counts” was a theme for fictional sleuths before Harry.

Despite Zeyas I expect Harry will continue to live by his creed in the next book by Connelly.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

7. – 804.) The Burning Room by Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch has a new partner, Lucia Soto, better known as Lucky Lucy in the L.A. Police Department after killing two armed robbers in a shootout in which her partner was killed. Lucy, at 28, with less than 5 years on the force has been been made a member of the elite Open-Unsolved Unit as part of an administrative decision to bring fresh thinking young officers into the special Units of the Department. Senior detectives call them the “Mod Squad”. (While intended as a derogatory term I doubt many of the young officers have even heard of the 1960’s T.V. series of hip young detectives by that name.) Lucy has to convince Harry that she is up to his investigative standards.

In an unusual twist to set up the story Harry and Lucy get a 10 year old case with a just deceased body. Orlando Merced was shot in the spine while sitting on a bench in Mariachi Plaza. The bullet, lodged in his vertebrae, could not be removed. A decade after the shooting he has died from blood poisoning brought about by the deteriorating bullet. With the cause of death linked to the shooting it is now a homicide case.

It is a brilliant premise that maintains Connelly’s elite status as a writer of crime fiction. 

When the bullet is extracted during a rather gruesome autopsy the police are startled to learn it is a rifle bullet. It is confounding information. The whole original investigation had been based on the assumption that Merced, a musician in a mariachi band, had been shot by a member of the local Latino street gang known as the White Fence. While never confirmed it was thought the shooting was a form of gang intimidation. 

Adding to the puzzle it is a bullet which was fired from a hunting rifle. Why would such a gun be in downtown L.A.?

While Harry, like many of his generation (my generation) is not really current with all the electronic devices, he is fully aware of advances in police technology. New science is at the heart of the Open-Unsolved Unit.

With a rifle bullet all assumptions on where the gun was fired must also be re-examined. Where a trajectory kit would have been used by Harry as a young officer the trajectory is now turned over to a specialized police department that, using computers, not only computes the angle of the bullet but provide multi-angle animation of the shot. Harry and Lucy are provided with a vivid recreation of the shooting. 

Harry is wary of local politician, Armando Zeyas, who had used the shooting a decade ago to help his successful campaign to become mayor. Now, through doubling a reward, he is looking to leverage the murder for his plan to become governor. How he personally irritates Harry will be my next post. 

While Harry is solely focused on the shooting he finds that Lucy has been quietly looking into a 21 year old case. Smoke from a fire in a residential complex killed 9 Latin American children. Harry’s annoyance over her divided attention ends when she tells him she was a survivor of the fire. On her arm are tattooed the names of 5 of the children who were her friends. 

Harry gradually realizes Lucy is a lot like the young Harry. She burns inside to solve murders. The number of hours at work mean little to her. She will not rest. She arrives early and leaves late. Whether you consider her obsessed or committed she is completely dedicated. 

In the fire case Connelly draws upon a real life L.A. shootout that further illustrates his talent at taking an event and letting it inspire a new story. 

Harry continues to want to be a good father to Maddie who is now 17. He cares about her. He watches over her. He is a touch over protective (Every boyfriend must be told he is a police officer. He wants teenage boyfriends to know he is a man who carries a gun.) However, all the time spent on the job means he must basically schedule time with Maddie. The book made me long for him to spend more time with her for she will soon be gone to university.

Part of Harry’s conflict with time is that he is in the last year being a detective. His extended career through the DROP program is near expiration. Harry’s love of police work is driving him to spend all the time he can solving cases. Early in the book: 

To him, every day he had left on the job was golden. The hours were like diamonds - as valuable as anything on earth. He thought that it might be a good way to finish things, training an inexperienced detective and passing on whatever it was he had to pass on. 

It is a wonderful book. I did not think the resolution was worthy of the rest of the book but the ending is powerful and poignant. There is no author I look forward to more than Michael Connelly.
Connelly, Michael – (2000) - Void Moon; (2001) - A Darkness More than Night; (2001) - The Concrete Blonde (Third best fiction of 2001); (2002) - Blood Work (The Best);  (2002) - City of Bones; (2003) - Lost Light; (2004) - The Narrows; (2005) - The Closers (Tied for 3rd best fiction of 2005); (2005) - The Lincoln Lawyer; (2007) - Echo Park; (2007) - The Overlook; (2008) - The Brass Verdict; (2009) – The Scarecrow; (2009) – Nine Dragons; (2011) - The Reversal; (2011) - The Fifth Witness; (2012) - The Drop; (2012) - Black Echo; (2012) - Harry Bosch: The First 20 Years; (2012) - The Black Box; (2014) - The Gods of Guilt; (2014) - The Bloody Flag Move is Sleazy and Unethical; Hardcover

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sengai – Monk and Artist in Tokyo Kill

In Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet the hero, Jim Brodie, is also an art dealer specializing in Japanese art. A part of the book involves a new ink painting coming on the international art market from the Japanese monk artist, Sengai. Where it had been for decades plays a role in the story.

What intrigued me was Lancet’s description of the painting:

The painting depicted a chubby Zen monk, maybe even Sengai himself, skipping through a graveyard, doing a jig, a bottle of sake in one hand, while three roughly sketched tombstones seemed to sway in the background. It was a joyful, smiling, silly frolic. Uninhibited and not afraid to look foolish. On the side was an inscription that read      

        Above the sorrow, dance.
                 In the lingering merriment
                Infinity’s echo

A humourous Zen painting was distant from the austere ink paintings I associate with Japanese art and sent me searching for information on Sengai.

Sengai Gibbon (1751 – 1847) is a fascinating man. Becoming a monk at the age of 11 he gained fame as a Zen scholar in his 20’s when he gained his certificate of enlightenment when as stated on the http://darumamuseumgallery.blogspot.ca/2007/10/sengai-gibon.html blog:

        … he answered the koan (a Zen riddle calculated to
        trigger insight) "Why did the Patriarch come from the
       West?" with the poem:
            Sakyamuni (Buddha) entered extinction 2,000 years 
            Maitraya (The Messiah-like Buddha) won't appear  
           for another billion years —
           Sentient beings find this hard to understand,
           But it's just like this —
           the nostrils are over the lips.

Subsequently, as an abbot he was noted for his modesty and his sense of humour.
"If by sitting in mediation,
one becomes Buddha..."
He refused to be limited in his artistic spirit:                        

        As an artist Sengai was not only an outsider to the
        established art schools and academies, but a free spirit,
        whose manifesto expounded that painting was not a
        subject that could be limited by rules. This philosophy
        is apparent at first sight in any of his paintings, which
        look sketchy, improvised and perhaps — to the Western
        eye — unfinished. careful studies of light or color
        impressions here; expression is all! And yet they each
        convey some profound Zen principle or aphorism in an
        easily understandable form, much like the pithy insight
        seen in parables, proverbs or political cartoons.

His personality shines through in his reaction to the equivalent of 19th Century Japanese tourists:
       In his old age he became more and more popular and was
       frequently deluged by visitors bringing sheets of  paper for him
       to inscribe. His amused response is expressed in another poem:

            To my dismay
            I wonder if my small hut

            is just a toilet
            since everyone who comes here
            seems to bring me more paper!

You cannot help but wish you could have met this profoundly thoughtful and exuberant monk.

I have known Benedictine monks since I was a teenager and have seen in several that combination of intellect and humour. I believe the discipline of their order lets them concentrate their thoughts and their faith filled lives makes them joyful.
In our era Sengai is noted for his work titled The Universe, a copy of which is below. I expect it has fascinated numerous contemporary artists as it appears to be a 20th Century rather than 19th Century work


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet

(6. - 803.) Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet – The second Jim Brodie thriller / mystery opens with a rush:

Eight people had already died by the time Akira Miura showed up at our door fearing for his life.

With as dramatic an opening as the first in the series, Japantown, Lancet is establishing a pattern of grabbing the reader’s attention in the opening sentence.

Miura is a 96 year old former officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. He wants Brodie Security to protect himself and the two living members of his WW II unit. There have been two recent home invasions in Tokyo where 8 people were killed. Miura says a member of his unit was killed in each home invasion. He is sure Chinese triads committed the brutal slayings. Tokyo police have dismissed his concerns as:

         “They insisted the killings couldn’t possibly be motivated 
         by ‘ancient history.’ “

Miura remains convinced that the home invasion murders are revenge for the actions of the Japanese army in Manchuria during WW II where he was stationed. While he tried to treat the Chinese appropriately he said:

“Whenever higher-ups came through they expected to be entertained. They invariably ordered us to ‘weed out traitors’ and ‘set up inspections.’ The first consisted of lining up any villagers in jail for target practice. The second involved examining local beauties in private. These were orders we couldn’t refuse or they’d –“

“- put a bullet in your head.”

Miura’s shoulders sagged under an old guilt. “Without a second thought.”

Miura and fellow soldiers tried to make amends after the war but not all were willing to forgive.

At the same time Brodie, who also is an art dealer, hears a rumour floating around London that a rare and valuable ink painting by a Japanese monk, Sengai, with a beautifully done inscription has come on the art market. Its provenance murky.

Brodie Security accepts the assignment to protect Miura.

That night Brodie is summoned by the Tokyo police to the site of a gruesome murder. The victim has been hacked to death. His right arm and teeth are also missing. Brodie is shaken when he learns the identity of the victim.

Driven to find out what has happened Brodie delves into the murky underworld of the Chinese community residing at Yokohama. There has long been a Chinese enclave in the city.

Were the triads the killers? They have been avoiding attacks on Japanese people to prevent aggressive police pressure. Would they risk a massive police investigation for revenge almost seven decades after the war? If not the triads, who would wreak such bloody vengeance?

Most of the book takes place in Japan. I wish more had taken place in America.

A greater regret is that Brodie as art dealer has a minor presence in the plot.

I enjoyed the book but not as much as Japantown. There is a high body count. While I did not find the number of killings as distracting as some other books I found the investigation more premised on brawn than brains. Brodie is a bright and clever man. I wish his intelligence, rather than martial arts skills, had been allowed to play a greater role. I would have appreciated more insights into Japan and its people like:

The Japanese prefer to bury their shame rather than face it. Some of the younger generation were adopting a more open attitude, but the older generation still preferred deep-sixing a problem, mistake or not, and bearing theguily. To them this was heroic. It epitomized the traditional spirit of gaman – forbearance. Made them feel admirable. Like martyrs. But to people caught in the middle – like Miura – holding their tongues led to a slow acidic burn of the soul.

I hope the series is not drifting towards conventional thrillers.
Lancet, Barry - (2013) - Japantown; (2013) - New and Old Japanese Secret Fighters


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mass Production Writing (Part II)

Barbara Cartland dictating a book
In my last post I discussed some writers who had a prodigious literary output. Balzac, Dumas, John D. Macdonald and Rex Stout were my examples. Dumas topped the group having written 650 books. This post will discuss Barbara Cartland, Mary Balogh and Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, the author who inspired my posts on mass production writing. As well I will add some personal experiences on volume writing.

Romance writer, Barbara Cartland, wrote 723 books and became a world record holder when she wrote 23 books in 1983. In her obituary in the New York Times Richard Sevro wrote:

She was frequently able to dictate 7,000 words in an afternoon session, which usually lasted a few hours. She held forth from a sofa, a hot water bottle at her feet, her dog cuddled next to her, asleep. Her secretaries were not permitted to sneeze or cough while she dictated.

Perhaps in part because of her approach to dictating, her prose offers a prodigious number of one-sentence paragraphs, closer in its look to wire-service journalism than to the pages of Faulkner or Fitzgerald.

Multiple secretaries were needed to keep up with her dictation.
Mary Balogh
Mary Balogh was born in Wales and came to rural Saskatchewan almost 50 years ago to teach school. She settled in Kipling and married and started writing in 1983. In the ensuing 32 years she has written 60 books and 30 novellas with historical romance themes.
On her website she says the following about how she started writing:
My first five books were written longhand and typed into an ancient typewriter. The First Snowdrop was the first book to be written into a computer--an all-in-one dinosaur of a machine that had me in transports of delight. I could actually go back and correct typing errors! I could make wholesale changes without having to rewrite the whole thing. Best of all--and I still have not quite recovered from the novelty of this--when I was finished, I could press a key (no mouse in those days!) and the printer would do the typing for me while I put my feet up and relaxed--or washed another load of dishes, or marked another set of essays...

Currently she says:

I am very organized and very disciplined. I write every day when I am working on a book, and I write a set number of words a day, except when I am revising – 2,000 words.

The origins of my posts on mass production writing came from an article in last week’s New York Times titled My Dad the Pornographer by Chris Offutt. He describes how his father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, writing in rural Kentucky, wrote over 400 books, mainly pornography using 17 pseudonyms. While I do not admire his genre I acknowledge being interested in his approach to writing.

His basic method was not complicated:

Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went.

What enabled to go into mass production, often a book per month was:
   He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences,
   descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in
   three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections
   into topics.
Eighty percent of the notebooks described sexual aspects of women. The longest section focused on their bosoms. Another binder listed descriptions of individual actions, separated by labeling tabs that included: Mouth. Tongue. Face. Legs. Kiss. The heading of Orgasm had subdivisions of Before, During and After. The thickest notebook was designed strictly for B.D.S.M. novels with a list of 150 synonyms for “pain.” Sections included Spanking, Whipping, Degradation, Predegradation, Distress, Screams, Restraints and Tortures. These were further subdivided into specific categories followed by brief descriptions of each. 
Chris likens his father to a titan of the assembly line:
Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.
At university four decades ago I was not well organized. When short essays piled up on me I developed a method of writing an essay quickly that let me write a 3-5 page essay in a day. I would try to discuss my intended theme with a professor to get a sense if the topic accorded with the assignment.  I would research an essay during the day. That night I would make an outline of the essay I had researched. I would then turn to the research for essay of the previous day. I would write and re-write the opening and closing for that essay. I would then write the body of the essay from the outline. I found waiting a day after research to write the essay let mind work on the subject and wrote a better essay.

As a lawyer I frequently draw upon what I have previously written. If I can copy for a brief from an earlier brief I will cut and paste. It is more efficient than re-writing the same argument. Clients are more interested in submissions being economical than original.

My greatest output came when a series of submissions for 3 separate hearings was needed almost 10 years ago. While working full time on my usual mix of files I wrote submissions totaling 900 pages for the hearings. The writing took place from May through August. I worked with the aid of a researcher. There was some repetition between the submissions but most of what was written was different for each submission. I have no desire to repeat that summer.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mass Production Writing (Part I)

Many writers struggle to write books. A few churn out books at an incredible pace.

Honoré de Balzac, the prolific French writer of the 19th Century. His output was partially from writing 12 – 14 hours a day, with the longest stretch, from the middle of the night through the morning (he would eat an early supper and sleep for awhile before rising by midnight).

At the same time, as set out in article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, he aided himself by not always having to create new characters:

Also in 1834 the idea of using “reappearing characters” matured. Balzac was to establish a pool of characters from which he would constantly and repeatedly draw, thus adding a sense of solidarity and coherence to the Comédie humaine. A certain character would reappear—now in the forefront, now in the background, of different fictions—in such a way that the reader could gradually form a full picture of him.

Still his composing style was not efficient:

Balzac was notable for his peculiar methods of composition. He often began with a relatively simple subject and a brief first draft, but fresh ideas came crowding in during composition until finally the story expanded far beyond his first intention. The trouble lay in the fact that Balzac tended to expand and amplify his original story by making emendations after it had been typeset by the printers. The original skeleton of a story was thus filled out until it had reached the proportions of a full-length novel, but only at a ruinous cost of printer’s bills to its author. Even when the novel was in print he would frequently introduce new variations on his theme, as successive editions appeared.

Alexandre Dumas wrote 650 books. In an essay for the Guardian David Coward writes about how he wrote so many books:

To take one example: between March 1844 and August 1845, he wrote and published The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Twenty Years After and La Reine Margot. In February 1845 he successfully sued a journalist who accused him of running a 'fiction factory' staffed by hacks who churned out books which he merely signed. He admitted using secretaries and collaborators, who nowadays would be researchers, story consultants or script editors. But he always acknowledged them and counted his most efficient lieutenant, Auguste Maquet, as a friend. Certainly, to help a struggling author, he sometimes added his own name to the title page (his name sold anything). It is also likely that on rare occasions, when up against a deadline, he sent a Maquet chapter to the printer unread, but unrevised Maquet is unmistakable - flat and limp and proof that Dumas did indeed write all those books. The 'Dumas touch' - pace, humour, atmosphere - is unmistakeable.

John D. Macdonald, creator of the Travis McGee series, wrote over 70 books and hundreds of stories.

The Pulp Serenade blog in 2011 quoted a Washington Post Times Herald article of an interview with Macdonald on how he wrote books. He would write 7-9 hours a day usually working on several books. He would shift between books when he got bored with writing a book.

On writing the article said:

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. “I think the same situation is involved in painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it.”

He seldom edits with pencil. “I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again.”

Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe series, had an approach comparable to Macdonald but more refined. He wrote dozens of books and stories swiftly. In an unposted review of his biography Rex Stout – A Majesty’s Life by John McAleer I wrote:

He would take 3 days to 3 weeks to work out a plot in his head. He started with the setting and would go on to the most interesting ideas for that setting (why would a visitor conceal a paper in one of Wolfe’s books?). He knew the names, ages and occupations of the 6-8 most important characters. He knew who would be killed and usually by whom and why. He said 2/3 of what was said by characters came out as he was writing the story. He developed a writing rhythm that lets him write a novel in 38 days. Stout averaged a page per hour of writing. When he completed a page he would put it face down on the completed pile and go on to the next page. He never revised!

My next post will discuss a pair of contemporary mass production writers including the author who inspired the posts.