by Pat Holt
Wednesday, March 3, 2004
PATTY'S 2004 WISH LIST - #3: DELIVER US FROM URINAL SCENES
I'm sure you've noticed how quickly The Ubiquitous Urinal Scene sneaked into screen and print over the last, say, 10 years.
I don't mean the innocent men's bathroom scene as in "Witness," where the astute little Amish boy witnesses a murder and hides in a stall. And I don't mean the scene in "The Godfather" where the youngest son Michael has to find the gun that's been hidden behind the overhead toilet tank and quietly panics as his searching hand doesn't locate it (but finally does) and out he goes after smoothing his hair to calm himself and never using the toilet, thank heaven.
Nor do I even mean the disgusting but truthful scene in "Train Spotting" where the young addict who's swallowed drugs has to rummage around his own, well, leavings in a public john to find the re-ingestible stuff.
No, these are Stall Scenes in restrooms that are not the same as Urinal Scenes, which you *never* see in older films but have increasingly crept into film and literary thrillers in the last decade or so. I'm sure my household is not the only one in which a collective groan hits the rafters every time two or three men are seen standing shoulder to shoulder, staring straight ahead or glancing down, talking out of the sides of their mouths and trading news and gossip they think will remain within the confines of the Men's Room until - uh, oh, they realize someone might be listening behind the stalls, at which point another groan goes up as the characters predictably demonstrate for the camera filming them from the chest up all the small adjustments and dink-a-dinks and zipping up they must do before looking under stall doors for evidence of feet and then, uh oh, remembering that a person can hide from view by standing on the toilet, so then comes the breaking of locks and crashing of doors and guns at the ready until nobody is found and they can leave the men's room with everything safely holstered.
All this has happened a hunnert times in the movies. But it's even more egregious in print, as Brad Meltzer's opening scene - Chapter One, Page One, Sentence #1 - demonstrates in his new political thriller, "The Zero Game":
" 'We shouldn't be here,' I insist, as I stand at the urinal.
" 'What are you talking about?' Harris asks, unzipping his fly at the urinal next to mine. He has to crane his neck up to see my full lanky frame.
"At 6'4" I'm built like a palm tree and staring straight down at the top of his messy black hair. He knows I'm agitated, but as always, he's the perfect calm in the storm.
" 'Come on, Matthew, no one cares about the sign out front.'
"He thinks I'm worried about the bathroom. For once he's wrong. This may be the restroom right across from the floor of the House of Representatives, and it may have a sign on the door that says, 'Members Only,' as in 'members of Congress,' as in 'them,' as in 'not us.'
"But after all this time here, I'm well aware that even the most formal members won't stop two staffers from taking a whiz..."
Two staffers taking a whiz. That's real nice, Brad. I guess if these guys just went in and came out, as women do in the "ladies room," it wouldn't be such a big deal - or a big male deal, it seems. As literary/cinematic references go, we haven't seen a woman sit down on a toilet seat to "take a whiz" since Jane Fonda played George Segal's wife in "Dick and Jane" 40 years ago, and you can still hear the cries of outrage.
Now it's true that some people think the 13-year-old boys to whom action movies with toilet humor and sexual references appealed a decade ago have now grown old enough to run the studios that make the decisions to add more urinal scenes, and that's why we're stuck with so much, you know, peeing.
Okay, I had to say the word. But not you, Brad! And hark, ye other commercial novelists whose heroes are always changing locations: We don't want to watch your characters relieve themselves in Paris, London and Rome. We want to *see* Paris, London and Rome. And Brad! You've got to work on something far more important, anyway, so ditch the urinals and read on.
THE ROBIN COOK SYNDROME (OR: PRESENT-PARTICIPLE HELL)
I don't mean to pick on poor Brad Meltzer - in fact I'm here to save him from his own participial petard, so to speak. I call this the Robin Cook Syndrome because about two books after "Coma," the medical conspiracy doctor-turned-not-very-good novelist stumbled on a technique he thought would make his stuff sound, well, readable.
This technique is the use of present-participle phrases such as this (I paraphrase): "Finding myself in the men's urinal, I could have killed the author of this book." In this case, "Finding" is the present participle, and the phrase ends with the ubiquitous "urinal."
Well, here's the rule of thumb: You get maybe one present-participle phrase every five or ten pages, because if you overdo it, as Robin and Brad have done, a certain sing-songy sound and rhythm emerges, making the narrative sound as childish to the ear as it is amateurish to the eye.
But it seems that when Brad discovered the technique in "The Zero Game," he got addicted right away. He inserted "ing" phrases two or three times to a *page,* making the reader want to leap up and say, "Don't do it, Brad! You're pushing us away."
What does the text look like when an addict can't let go? Here are a *few* examples I've written down from a book that I'm sure has thousands of them:
wasting no time, IOy, not only is this Present-Participle Hell for the reader, it's Dangling Modifier Torture for Brad: "Back on my knees, it takes me two minutes..." Well, "it" is not the subject here, Brad! "Making the turn on the road, the trees...." Now see, who's driving, the hero or the trees? Brad also falls into Repeat Purgatory as you can see above ("pat," "palm" and "curl") and, not shown here, with his favorite word, "spin" ("I spin back," "I spin around," "spinning, I").
And Brad, no need to send thanks. I do this as a service to published writers in the hope that next time around the cycle will be broken. And remember, there's no shame in finding a good copyeditor before you submit your manuscript for publication. Many times, that's the most courageous thing a writer can do.
LIVE FROM CITY HALL
Thanks to the many readers who inquired about a slowdown here at HoltUncensored.com. As it turns out, the entire staff decided to get married at one time, so after sitting on the telephone Redial key for several days (now you can schedule weddings online at www.sfgov.org), we all trooped down to City Hall with wedding duds a'flourishing.
Here's one thing gay people learn that wedded folk have known all along: Marriage licences are so official with their multi-colored threads woven through the document that "they look like money," as my own dearest Applicant #1 happened to observe.
I must say this is the quietest "revolution" any maverick columnist (Applicant #2) and her partner could have imagined. The first thing you see upon entering City Hall is a bounty of colorful wedding bouquets spread out on the marble steps of the great rotunda, all sent anonymously from throughout the world (Tokyo was the most faraway city that we saw represented). It's quite a treat to observe ministers, judges and other "marriage commissioners" reverently selecting the perfect flowers for "their" couple of the moment, who in turn accept each bouquet with shining eyes, even if their already loaded down with flowers they've brought themselves.
And so a hush falls over the proceedings as the present Applicants take their bouquets and glance at the cards attached - "To the Happy Couple from Ft. Lauderdale, Fl." "Wishing you the Best! - Toledo, Ohio" (only an hour's drive from Defiance, home town of App.#1).
Perhaps the emotion hits hard because whatever "riots and protests" the Governor has predicted, or the "shock" the First Lady experienced, or the "negative" poll results or anti-gay signs (there were *none* that day) across the street or the President's support for an anti-gay Constitutional amendment or the homophobic hatred that is so prevalent in gay history, these flowers simply reverse all of that. They say that people all over the world are sending these wedding bouquets to say they support us and the people who are marrying us. (After the ceremonies, volunteers distribute the bouquets throughout City Hall offices workers have given up their free time to volunteer processing thousands of marriage licenses.)
The great fun of getting married in City Hall is that many other couples are doing the same thing under different "marriage commissioners" around the great dome, with kids and families smiling and crying all over the place. Everybody applauds as other couples journey through each stage - from, say, the City Clerk's office to the Records desk to the Cashier's counter. All it takes is for one person to hum a few bars of "Going to the Chapel," and the whole room or alcove breaks out in song. One lone heterosexual couple, surprised at the outbreak of applause wherever they turned, ended up hugging and shaking hands with a dozen happy gay witnesses who were clearly pleased as punch to stand in. Outside, wedding parties of lesbian couples were singing "Here comes the Bride, here comes the Bride, here comes the Bride..." and local columnist Leah Garchik instructed guests and witnesses to buy traditional His and Her towels and swap them around so there'll be no mix-up when the couples open their presents.
And what does this have to do with books or the book industry, you may ask. Well, in the six years I've been writing this column, the focus has often landed as well on the First Amendment and the many subtleties of free speech and free expression we all experience in daily life - as well as the ways that American media have covered these issues.
As a former writer for the traditional press, I've been critical of the pressures that corporate owners have brought on mainstream journalists to take either a safe middle-ground with bland reporting or to sensationalize routine events for the sake of ratings and newsstand or subscription sales. Even more appalling has been a persistent caving in by the media and book publishers to email and phone campaigns from the Christian Right, which has instructed the mainstream to "balance" news coverage by bringing in or quoting rightwing bigots and bullies like Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Laura Schlessinger, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and others.
But this time we've seen almost none of that. Media coverage of same-sex marriage has separated legal from religious opinion, has not sensationalized the few protesters who come and go (usually go), has viewed the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling with fairness and balance, has shown the end-of-ceremony kiss as it would with heterosexuals, has followed the Constitutional amendment story without bias (I looked for "Bush: What an Idiot" headlines without luck) and has let California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hang himself with comments predicting "riots" and "protests" and "dead people" everywhere (ha ha, Arnie, you can't teargas San Francisco's Winter of Love.).
Indeed, why *has* the mainstream media been so respectful of gay marriage? Why haven't the big TV vans lined up in front of City Hall to tape the lone lesbian who crossed the street after waiting in line all night, ripped down an anti-gay-marriage placard and stomped on it in the rain? Well, for one thing because that was the end of it. There have been no clashes, no fights, no shouting matches, nothing. In fact, the handful of protesters that first came out have disappeared entirely; occasionally you see people kneeling and praying, but that's just the usual summoned crowd hoping to get out of jury duty.
The larger reason, I think, is that everything the Christian Right has accused journalists of being is true. They're a bunch of social liberals, the sinners! Like state court judges who refused to issue injunctions because no harm could be found in this outpouring of love (let alone the windfall of money pouring *into* city coffers), the media keeps showing us stories of joy - the far-flung travelers, the celebrities, the moms and dads, the entourages.
And stories of possibility: Richard Daley of Chicago says he has no problem with same-sex marriage. The mayor of New Paltz started issuing marriage licenses all by hisself, bless him, and yesterday Portland, Oregon, began marrying same-sex couples as well. Barney Frank, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein said hey, we thought of this first! as if gay marriage is the hot, the best, the *aspired* thing to do. And don't you love those guys in New Mexico? "Okay, we're open! Wait, we can't do it? Okay, we're closed." Well, they tried.
The three expressions of astonishment you hear most among gay people: 1) "I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," and boy, ditto that. 2): "Only a straight mayor could ever have pulled this off," and yes, it had to be someone like SF's Gavin Newsom, fresh, bold, politically ambitious and idealistic at once. This single move could make or break his career, but so what? If only Clinton hadn't fallen for "Don't Tell, Don't Ask," we could say he stood up for something in his eight years as president. 3) "Thank heaven for African Americans" who proved once and for all (we hope) that "separate but equal" is disastrous for a democracy. All the country has to do now is catch up.
We'll see this week how California's Supreme Court handles the issue, but in many ways it doesn't matter. Those photos of thousands of gay people waiting patiently for their turn at equal protection have said it all: Once the door opens on civil rights, it can never be shut again.
And if you think the above hasn't got much to do with books, wait 'til the Fall and Spring! The volumes on queer-eye-for-the-[straight]-wedding-style will be flowing like the champagne that's still bubbling the great dome right off City Hall.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your commentary on used books and Amazon, one fact not mentioned (unless I missed it) was the scourge of remaindering. Authors get no royalties on books publishers dump at fire sale prices after a few months out. This is another reason your formula in the 2004 Wish List - #1 is needed: Amazon, every remainder catalog and bookstores with remainder stacks sell new books that have been remaindered and the author gets nothing. Your comments on this please.
Holt responds: The only silver lining on the remainder scene ironically came from a bookseller who wrote last year that instead of returning many unsold new books to the publisher, he was selling them on Amazon.com's used-book marketplace. In this way, because he never returned them, the publisher considered them sold; the author got full royalties; and the bookseller recouped part or all of the loss. But this was only for selected books, and of course it does take time to describe, sell and ship them. But for this bookseller the process is worth it.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
A reader wrote (about your column on Amazon.com collecting and paying sales tax):
What you're asking Amazon to do is to single-handedly overturn the First Sale Doctrine, a guiding force in the U.S. legal system for centuries. Once I buy a book (or CD or DVD), then that physical object is mine to do with as I please. I cannot reproduce the book outside fair use but I can give it away, sell it, or line the bird cage with it without further compensation to the copyright holder. They got paid when I bought the book new.
The big media companies want to overturn the First Sale Doctrine, and any such action by Amazon.com would be fuel for their legal fire. Please tell us you were joking.
One thing the writer seems to miss is that humans - even lawyers and politicians - can occasionally draw intelligent distinctions. Of course your proposal calls upon Amazon to collect and pay sales tax voluntarily, so this is all moot anyway.
But even if you had proposed a legal mandate, it's not necessary that such a mandate would have to include you or I as individuals. That is, such a mandate could require only that those who hold themselves out (on Main St. or on the Net) as sellers of used books pay the royalty, but not the occasional (garage sale type) seller; or you could require that only those selling more than $X per year of used books pay the royalty. I'm not saying that these are the only ideas -- I'm simply saying that it's quite possible to imagine ways to have even mandated used book royalties without interfering with the rights of individual people to dispose of their own property without having to pay royalties.
I'm afraid that the reader's failure to imagine this is symptomatic of a very widespread problem, which is that real people have been trained to forget that corporations are not people -- once you remember that laws can (and should) treat natural people and fictive people differently, it's obvious that a royalty on used books need not inconvenience natural people in the slightest.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Regarding royalties to authors for the sale of used books, I (author of 7 books) have decided that when I sell used books on Amazon, I am going to send 10% of the proceeds to the author, assuming the publication date isn't something like 1895. I am inserting wording to that effect in the message that posts with the book. Maybe I'll start a trend?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I just finished "The Ten Mistakes" column on writing. It was eye opening. However, I have one question. Honest answer please.
Don't you think some (maybe all) editors get lost in the trees of adverbs, commas and flat sentences and many times can't see the forest of a good story? Is the story any good? The grammar can be fixed. How many really good manuscripts are at the bottom of a slush pile because the author had grammatical mistakes on the first page?
Richard Alan Nelson
Holt responds: It's not just a comma here or an adverb there but a growing sense on the part of the agent or editor that the writing is weak, and that no amount of "fixing" can make it work. I agree with you that plenty of wonderful ideas for books are floating around out there, but unless readers feel they're transported to another time and place (and not distracted by lousy grammar), the writing is not good enough.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read with interest the letters mentioning Public Lending Right programs in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada, we have a similar system, administered by the Canada Council. In 2003 the PLR Commission distributed $9.40 million to 13,889 authors. As in Britain, payments are based not on circulation or even the number of books in all libraries, but on the number of copies of a given title found in a random sampling of libraries. Each such "hit" results in a modest fixed payment to the author.
Authors must register each book with the PLR Commission as it is published. My first novel came out in 2002, and my PLR cheque was not large but very welcome.
P.S. Lest the situation here in Canada sound too rosy, I should also mention that the "hit rate" for each copy of a book detected in the selected libraries (which is around C$35) actually decreased by 5.2% from 2002 to 2003 (and will very likely go down again in 2004) because while the budget for the program has remained the same, the number of registered authors sharing the pie increases every year. According to the PLR Commission, there were 620 more eligible authors in 2003 than in 2002.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read carefully and tried to remember your ten tips for writers. One of your correspondents said that you obviously see bad writing all the time, proving to him that such writing gets past editors, so why worry about it. Well, as for me, I may read the first few pages of a badly written book, but I won't finish it, and I won't look for another by that author.
Writing carefully is a sacred duty, like civility. I hope I'm not in a smaller and smaller circle of readers with this view. If writers can't wade through the Chicago Manual of Style, they could at least splash along in Strunk & White, 3rd Ed., which is far easier to navigate.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
What is your opinion regarding Print on Demand books? I have published four books at iUniverse.com and I find that this is the Cadillac of all POD companies. Unfortunately, the bookstores demand 40% discount, and the big stores, Barnes & Noble, e.g. refuse to put PODs on the shelves. POD is not going to go away. What do you suggest to improve the situation, or should it be scrapped?
Holt responds: Well, since I wrote about PODs before, you know my feeling - I love 'em, I've reviewed 'em and I've tried to cull through 'em looking for candidates that local bookstores might sell. But gad, the problem of POD stigma and poor discounts for booksellers are huge obstacles. The only good news I hear from POD authors is that you have to be the champion of your own book in all ways from the beginning. In other words, general bookstores are the last place to sell a POD - they don't trust it, they don't have space for it, they can't afford it and don't know how to promote it. So you can just forget them for a while. Find your target audience, go after it with focused promotion and see if you can build your market out from there. It's slower but much more effective in the long run.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
A few comments on the latest column:
Most good agents are very good on contracts. First of all, they sweat blood to modify publishers' boilerplate contracts to something that doesn't skin the author alive. Unfortunately, there are not that many lawyers out there who really know a lot about (literary) intellectual property issues. When I was in 9-5 publishing for about 40 years, I used to dread authors using agent/lawyers who knew nothing about what publishing is all about, and spent, no doubt, hours and hours and charged their author/clients dollars and dollars for making points about contracts that were pointless.
I used to have the same feeling of dread when an author hired an "outside" PR person who had largely done PR for movie companies or pharmaceutical firms or whatever. They would usually unleash utterly useless releases to reviewers and anyone else that did a lot more harm than good. And they would burn the frail connections that good book PR people (yes, and there are still a few good ones) had built up over years with media contacts.
There are, indeed, some excellent publishing lawyers and I often turn to them for guidance. But there are not all that many of them. So let's give agents (good ones, at least) a break - they work very hard and effectively at getting outrageous contracts ("we also want rights to distribute to the entire universe as Stephen Hawking understands it") to be a bit less exploitative of the author. On the other hand, publishers in this environment, even the monster congloms, need all the income they can get. So - it's a delicate balance, otherwise known as "nature red in tooth and claw."
Intellectual property and copyright: another area of red claws and a need for some balance. Driven by the record companies and movie studios (downloading, piracy issues, etc.) and other proprietors, intellectual property theories are driving everyone to the wall. The whole point of copyright was to give authors, creators, etc. protection for a reasonable period of time - and not impede the flow of new ideas. The Web is both a nightmare and a dream. And we have to find some place in the middle. Copyright means what the word means--the creator has certain rights that must be enforced (the most important, perhaps, being copyright infringement, otherwise known as plagiarism, which seems to have become endemic in everything from college term papers to books.) What the balance should be I am not wise enough to figure out--I leave it to others to create a framework.
One of the chief reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union was that the overnment hated Xerox machines. They hated PCs even more. The Kremlin did not like the idea of free and promiscuous sharing of ideas, knowledge, information. Which, of course, stunted the growth of every area of intellectual/creative activity in the dear old USSR. We have to be careful to avoid going in that direction - but at the same time protect the creator's right to derive full and fair benefit from his/her creation. The laborer deserves his/her hire.
But it is a nice question of "copyright" rights when it comes to things like used book sales. Yes, the author has already earned (one hopes) a royalty on the initial sale of the book. After that - well, I sell my used books to second-hand bookstores. Cui bono? Should I dedicate a percentage of what I get when I sell a book by the author of that book? Should the used bookseller pay something? It comes down to the voluntary sense of fairness. Yes, as you point out, it would be good PR for Amazon or B&N or anyone else to pay something. But to legislate what that something should be raises a whole cloud of problems. (The models offered by the library system in the UK and the Copyright Clearinghouse in the US are good examples of fairness, effectiveness, practicality, and balance.)
When I was a working editor at a string of major publishing houses, I spent a lot of time fighting the system to defend the author. Every editor has had this experience. But the publisher was, after all, paying my salary. How to deal with the Biblical adage that "a good servant cannot serve two masters"?
Well, by telling yourself that you are really working for the best interest of THE BOOK. And that's where the balance comes, and fairness, and equity, and all that good stuff. In the Internet age we face a terribly complex problem - how to fairly serve creator and consumer. I wish I had better answers - but the literary equivalent of the Patriot Act is not one that we want.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Comments Re: The Ten Mistakes
What should the aspiring writer believe?
You said the list could be called "10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR," yet you use example after example of faux pas from published authors. So why weren't these people rejected by page 5? Are they friends with the editors? Is it OK to ignore good form in one sense as long as the overall story is salvageable? Or are they just considered lucky [published] amateurs?
Overall, you made good points. But I sometimes wonder how meaningful these tips are when I read so many books -- literary, mainstream, genre -- that defy "the rules."
Holt responds: You're right, we don't know why these mistakes get through, but we do know that readers tire of them and abandon books because of them. We know that sometimes agents and editors do, too. So the idea is to raise the bar your own self; develop the highest standard of editorial quality you can for the reader's sake, for posterity's sake, for the-terrific-writer-inside-your-head's sake. If lousy writing gets in print, the rest of us have to write better.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't know if you're familiar with longtime book wholesaler and employee-owned Bookpeople, but I received this news from a friend who works at a local small press:
FYI, we got a form letter today from Bookpeople saying that BP Wholesale will be closing its doors on March 15th. It said: "This is not a forced liquidation. The employee-owners intend to wind down the buisness in a professional, if expedited way." Sad, if not unexpected.
I don't know if many of your readers would know of Bookpeople, but certainly most publishers and booksellers would.
I hate to see another book business tanking, and I also hate to see an employee-owned business closing its doors. But many local book people (like me) once worked at Bookpeople, and I certainly learned a lot there that I've used in other jobs.
Holt responds: The loss of Bookpeople is certainly one of the saddest occasions I've witnessed in the book industry, and anybody who's ever been in contact with this group has felt it personally. I watched it start up with founder Don Gerard and used to go over there several times a year to "bone up" on small press books for review. To get a flavor of what life was like around the 30th anniversary of Bookpeople, go to item #3 at http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column23.html.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You obviously hold a lot of insider knowledge about the publishing industry... but occasionally you come off as a *wee* bit paranoid:
You wrote: "in California the new governor has spent most of his time stealing a million here, a million there from those selfsame schools and public health programs to cover a state deficit of $10.2 billion."
Do continue to cover the publishing industry. I respect your knowledge. But please, no conspiracy theories.
Holt responds: I didn't realize I sounded like a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly apologize if so. Nobody I know blames California's deficit on Barnes & Noble, but I do blame chain stores for dodging their responsibility as retailers to collect and pay sales tax, which every independent brick-and-mortar in the state continues to do. As to #4, it's inconceivable to me that B&N and Borders would leave the treasure trove they've found in California. All anyone wants is for existing state tax laws to be enforced; I'm sure you do, too.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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