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July 2004 Letter from Dan

Greetings Friends, Readers, and Visitors,

The 13th Annual Lincoln Street Fourth of July Waterfight went off as usual last Sunday. What my daughter and I started just a decade and three years ago – a few neighbors meeting in the middle of the street at high noon on Independence Day to throw water balloons and get wet – has now become quite the institution here, with around 80 people participating and the entire block closed off all day. There’s no better way to get to know and to keep liking your neighbors than to squirt them with hoses, pelt them with water balloons, and throw buckets of freezing cold water on them – and vice versa. Then the tradition is that during our annual Open House right before Christmas, we and the neighbors watch videos and CD slideshows of the waterfight – always fun to see yourself running around in a swimsuit on July 4th when it’s ten below outside. (see photos)

On a much sadder note, Jean-Daniel sends us his letter from France this month with the news of the death of Monique Lebailly, a lady who translated several of my books and who was admired by everyone who knew her. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to meet Monique and spend some time with her – not something that novelists get to do with many or most of their translators around the world – and Jean-Daniel mentions in his column the wonderful time I had in 1996 with Monique and Jean-Daniel as we explored the Catacombs under Paris. The sight of six millions sets of human bones stacked mile upon mile affected me enough that I included the experience in THE RISE OF ENDYMION which – as Jean-Daniel points out – Monique then translated for the French edition. Neither writers nor translators are exempt from the tides of such ironies.

Monique Lebailly’s passing is a sad day for all of us who knew the lady and who admired her work. I thank Jean-Daniel for telling us more about her and about why she will be missed.

As for the rest of my July message here, I thought I’d write a few words about writing.

I can’t speak for other writers, but summer is always a productive writing time for me. (It has to be productive since I have several hundred more pages to write before my September 1 deadline for OLYMPOS.) Perhaps part of that productivity for me comes from the summers when I was still a full-time teacher but also writing novels for publication – the bulk of the books had to be written in the three months of summer.

I love the rhythm of writing in the summer. Again, all writers have different methods and schedules, so I’ll just speak for myself. Many writers love rising very early, but I find it one of the great perks of being a writer that I don’t have to rise early. If I’m still drinking coffee and reading newspapers at 9 a.m., I feel no guilt at all. The days have their own literary circadian rhythms. Then, of course, I have to commute to work – but since my office is less than a hundred feet down a path behind my home, I’m rarely stuck in traffic.

Most days, of any season, I spend much of the morning on the business side of being a professional writer. Most beginning or wannabe writers never or at least rarely consider this aspect of the job – writing is that romantic, creative thing one does in one’s ivory tower – but as a full-time novelist and sometimes screenwriter, business takes up several hours of almost every day of my life. Even with three wonderful agents – Richard Curtis my literary agent in New York, Danny Baror taking care of foreign sales, and Michael Prevett handling film, TV, and electronic gaming deals in Los Angeles – I still find myself returning phonecalls, analyzing contracts, deciding on deals, discussing projects, and conferring with agents, editors, film producers and others each day. I like to get this work out of the way by late morning. I also print out the previous day’s pages most mornings and revise them by hand on hardcopy, then go back to the computer and put these revisions in along with other improvements. Again, every novelist has his or her way of getting back into the novel before writing again – rather like FAA controllers I’ve known who show up at their jobs half an hour or more before they go on duty just to watch the controller on duty and “get in the zone” for when he or she is ready to take over the radar screen. Most of us novelists re-read the previous day’s work, some like me rework it and just keep going into new territory, and others have their own special and secret tricks. Whatever keeps you writing and in touch with the muse.

A few years ago I was interviewed by a local reporter who had a dual reputation for wanting to be a novelist and for arrogance. His first question to me was – “So how many pages do you write each day?” I was modest and took my minimum number – “Five pages makes me happy,” I said. The reporter smirked and said, “That few? Wow. Well, I guess I can write so many more when I write fiction because I’m trained as a journalist.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, and because you produce the literary equivalent of guano when you sit down to write.

What the prolific young reporter hadn’t considered was that five pages of fiction each day is quite an accomplishment – that’s five pages to final draft. Or damned close to it. And perhaps he didn’t know that as with many professional novelists, I write every day. Five pages to final draft every day is thirty-five pages a week or a complete novel in ten weeks.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. I usually write more than five pages per day – ten is closer to my average – but many of those are revised down or hammered out of existence or later cut. A few of those pages are simply taking the wrong trail and I have to backtrack, but just as I hate doing that when hiking in the mountains – I hate going uphill when I don’t have to – so I’ve learned not to take too many wrong turns in my writing. (My area of expertise when I was an elementary teacher was in gifted/talented education, and I still try to keep up with research on human intelligence. Some years ago, when IBM was analyzing its “Big Blue” chess program, the engineers and programmers were trying to understand why a human chess master could beat a program that could – quite literally – analyze more than a million potential moves and their consequences in under a second. The answer, of course, was simple. A human chess master doesn’t see a million possible moves – or a hundred – or even a dozen. The chess master, through that amazing combination of talent and experience, sees only the best four or five moves, and chooses from them. So, I think, it is for novelists. Out of a seemingly infinite set of storylines, dialogue swatches, and other choices, only the few best should appear to the seasoned writer. Of course, choosing among even those few can be a tricky business, especially when going down the wrong path for even a few pages can cause a cascade of other wrong choices.)

Some days the press of business and the unrelenting demands of human life – say celebrating someone’s birthday or going to see the new Spider-Man movie – leave you with no pages to final draft that day. Other days you complete twenty or twenty-five pages. (All novels are marathons, not wind sprints, and all pro writers learn to pace themselves, but toward the end of a long project, say that last month of work, we can be like plodding trail horses breaking into a gallop at the sight of the barn. I’ve been known to complete 50 pages or more in the last 48 or 72 straight hours before a novel is finished.)

But in the meantime, the rhythm of writing in the summer is a pleasure. Business and calls and faxes and e-mails – there is always fan mail to respond to, however quickly – in the morning, then perhaps a slow lunch with family in the shade on the back patio, then more hot hours writing until it’s time to get depressed in front of the 5:30 broadcast national news on TV. (Out here in Colorado they run the news early, knowing that we’re all farmers and like to get to bed early.) Then dinner and perhaps even a movie on DVD (shown on our high-definition plasma screen that one of my novels bought us – the almost perfect movie machine when paired with a great surround sound system.) Then back to work.

My writing office is hot in the day, taking up as it does what was once a hayloft over the garage of our 1906 home. The downstairs “business office” we built some years ago is cooler, but I can’t write down there. Too orderly there. Too efficient. So even with the windows open to the screen upstairs and the overhead fan on high, by 5:30 p.m. on an average Colorado summer day, I’m worn out, soaked with sweat, and feeling every page I wrote as if it was a high ridge climbed. I could afford air conditioning, but I like this aspect of summer writing – all the footpounds of energy expended remind me that this is not an artsy-fartsy artiste thing, but essentially a blue-collar craft of quality story telling, closer to bricklaying than to building fairy castles out of air, something that requires energy and sweat and a shower at the end of a long shift.

But in the evening, sometime before nine p.m., I clock back on the job for the next round of writing, and with the neighborhood growing quiet, with New York and Los Angeles finally ceasing their calls and e-mails, the best writing and rewriting of the day begins. Sometimes, with luck, I can call it a night around midnight. Other nights run much later, with only our Welsh Corgi, Fergie, waiting up for me out on the back step in the dark. (She thinks she’ll get a dog treat if she waits until I come in to go to bed – and she’s right.)

Thus OLYMPOS has been opening and revealing itself to me in the hot days and long, cooler Colorado summer nights. I just hope that it finishes revealing itself to me by its deadline date of September 1.

Most of you know the following poem by Wallace Stevens. But substitute the word “writer” for “reader” and the poem remains equally true, equally evocative, even while giving an insight into the pleasures of summer writing.


THE HOUSE WAS QUIET AND THE WORLD WAS CALM

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.


Sincerely,


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