Confessions of a Between-The-Margins Scribbler


Books have always seemed like magical things to me, from when I could barely hold one, through the long years to now. Because of that, and maybe more so because I never saw anyone in my house doing it, I never wrote in books. Even when I bought my books in college, and saw how many people would highlight material or write margin notes, such behavior seems almost sacrilegious to me.

But when I encountered things people wrote in the margins of books—“Not intuitive,” “Good point!” “Will be on test,” I always read them with fascination, particularly notes that were longer, and often that took issue with the author. (It’s always easier to argue with an author in his pages than in his face.)

That’s why when I saw the extensive marginalia (really, end-of-book blank-page marginalia) in Wade Davis’s One River, which my sweetie Alice is reading, I poured over it. That took some doing, and at some points a magnifying glass, because the writing was in a tiny scrawl. I am a person whose handwriting can give you liver failure, so I speak with authority.

The Davis book is nonfiction, its topic exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Why some reader took it upon him or herself to inscribe topics like “My Drug History” in the back of this book was puzzling, but gratifying. And why the writer would mingle “beer” and “coffee” amidst “DMT” and “Magic Mushrooms” was intriguing, but how much volume of drinking “Irish Cream” would cause one to note it as an entry in one’s drug history? And “Speed H20” was beyond any personal abuse of mine.

The most fascinating and extensive list on the pages is the “People I’d like to meet,” Perhaps this dates the writer, or the desired names were aspirational from the scribbler’s other reading, but among the luminaries:

Neal Cassady
Alan Watts
Albert Hoffmann (first synthesized LSD)
William Burroughs
Gary Snyder
Bukowski

He goes from these literary counterculture figures into bands and singers, i.e., The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones. But in another column there’s Mort Saul, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope, so he’s digging deeper than those tie-dyed 60s years. And there are interesting compositional distances between Margaret Mead and Ann Landers, but they are near each other in this writer’s pantheon.

There’s a “My Reading Record” area near a “Minds I’ve Entered Into…” but the material below that doesn’t seem to list books or minds, but titles of songs and events, like “Hands Across America.”

So, why did this person write these things, and why in this book? Alice is only a short way in, but what she’s said doesn’t indicate that the work is some kind of pantheon of the greats that might prompt such an exercise. Did the marginalist not want to buy a diary? The scribblings remind me a bit of what F. Scott Fitzgerald has the Gatsby character write to himself in his formative years: Rise from bed; dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling; study electricity; work; baseball and sports; practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it; study needed inventions.

Did this writer want to construct lists that told him he was on the right path, had tasted of stimulating minds, was a member in good standing of this coterie? I don’t know, but it made me wonder if I should write such a list.

Oh, there’s also a list titled “Mexico”:
Vitamins
2 Kerchiefs
3 Shirts
Red Jacket
Green Levis
Swim Trunks
Sandals

I didn’t see Frida Kahlo on the want-to-meet list, but if the writer included a good deal of food in that packing, they might be able to search for her ghost for a while. I’m not yet tempted to write my own confessions in the back of a book, but I do know Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be in my drug history.

The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

Save Yourself from Toxic Novels

We all know that literature can rot your mind. Or was that candy corn? Regardless, many people don’t know that books are literally dangerous, particularly new releases. Here I examine my new novel, Aftershock, for cholera, plague, St. Vitus Dance and other conditions. All in the name of keeping you safe.

Books as Butterflies: Aftershock Takes Wing


A couple of summers ago, my galpal Alice planted many milkweed plants in our flower beds and yard. Milkweed, besides having some lovely flowers, is a nesting site of sorts for monarch butterflies. Those fluttering lovelies lay their eggs on the flowers, eggs that produce some seriously striped caterpillars, who then devour the leaves like pizza from the heavens.

Nature, that big show-off, then insists that those caterpillars pupate: they manage to form themselves into a chrysalis, a stylish little pouch like the one above, which was hanging from our water valve fixture. If you look closely, you can see the faint outlines of the butterfly-to-be’s wings. Nature, also host to many outrages, sacrificed that chrysalis to some other hungry creature, but we have another in a more protected spot, who is much further along, the wings darkly defined.

We’ve been checking in on it many times a day, because pupas are supposed to hatch into mighty monarchs in a couple of weeks—and this dude is due.

What Strained Metaphor Is He Going to Use to Talk About His Book?

Glad you asked. The way we’ve been anxiously awaiting the emergence of the butterfly is akin to what I’ve done with a book of mine I’ve been messing with for years. Its chrysalis period has been longer than our monarchial one, but hey, time compresses and dilates, as you know. The important part is that the book is about to take wing.

I set up my new novel, Aftershock, for pre-order on Amazon. You can see its handsome cover above. I’m giving the first 10 blog readers who request a PDF copy of the book a chance to read it for free. All I ask of you is to consider reviewing the book on Amazon on or not long after the day of its release, which is March 10. You won’t be able to post a review until official publication.

No obligation to write a favorable review (or any review at all), of course, but if you do write one, please note therein that you were given an advance copy, so that no Amazonian shoots me with an arrow for being deceptive about my promotion.

Write to me at bentguy@charter.net if you’re interested. I will nag you once the day before publication about the review, but you are welcome to ignore me. Alice does it all the time.

Oh, and if you were wondering what the monarch larva look like before they spin their chrysalis, check it out:

Handsome devil, eh? Books as butterflies—what a concept.

Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

Joel D Canfield: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Keyboard

I can’t speak for the past, but at this moment, Joel wasn’t doing anything illegal with his mouth

Let’s throw open the stage (I hope he’s dressed) to Joel D Canfield, an author pal of mine who has just released his second novel in his Phil Brennan mystery series, A Still Small Voice. Joel has multiple books in multiple series, but the real multiplications are for you: he’s giving them away for free.

That’s a good bingo right there, but the kicker is that his books are good. I’ve read a number of them, and helped out with some editing on more than a few, and they are chockablock full of intrigue, whimsy, deception, suspense and high-nutrient storytelling. Grab a few and settle back (or jump up tensely when the story turns)—you’re in capable writerly hands.

Here I’ve asked Joel a few questions about his trade and where he’s going with his work:

You have written and published many business books, but in the last few years, you’ve turned your writing toward fiction. What steered that change? Did you always write stories, but are giving them their full due now?

I’ve always been a storyteller but until a few years ago never wrote any of them down. My narcissistic streak loved the attention I got from spinning a good yarn so I listened to good storytellers and stole their best ideas. When my wife’s social media business took off, I took on the household chores and stopped worrying so much about making money, which is possible with a business book, but a right challenge for fiction authors. In fact, I’ve recently started giving away every one of my novels to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, and reduced the prices at Amazon as low as they’ll allow.

You used to call your novels something like “Raymond Chandler cozies,” though I think you amended that a little. How would you describe the genre and general flavor of your fictional work?

I like putting morally rigid people in ambiguous situations, forcing the best bad choice. I used to call them Chandleresque cozies. But they’re not cozies, which carry certain implications about happiness and light. I love noir, revere Chandler and Hammett, but my books aren’t quite as dark. Like Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and other books, mine are more about people and their struggles than about a puzzle to solve. They’re as much literary fiction as they are mystery. Since calling them “literary fiction” would be like announcing that my restaurant “serves food” I’m sticking with “mystery” as the short answer.

From your research, you are probably more familiar with story structure, story beats, character arcs and the like than many writers.  What do you look for in an editor to help with the underpinnings of a story (or provide with story mechanics)?

I don’t think it’s hard to find an editor who knows a good sentence. Harder to find one who knows a good story. I’m far more concerned about developmental editing, feedback on whether I’ve composed a ripping yarn, or just a ball thereof. Just as important is working with someone who respects my style, balancing what a reader wants to read with what I need to write.

You have several mystery series going, with distinct settings and characters. Will there be more of all? Have you considered specifically pushing the existing characters harder, challenging their stable pictures of themselves or anything on a structured, outlined level? Or do you think ahead more in broad strokes?

After an artistic crisis at the end of 2015 I spent the first 9 months of 2016 deciding whether or not to continue writing. The answer was yes, which launched a heavy rewrite of A Still, Small Voice. It also launched three months of introspection which included the kind of inner-demon-wrestling authors love to foist on their characters. I’m not all the way through, but far enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Having spit into the abyss when it stared back, I’m ready to ratchet up the turmoil and put each of my characters through an appropriate level of pain. They’ll thank me later.

Scotch or Bourbon? (Or for you, should I ask, Pancakes or Waffles?)

Irish. Particularly fond of Wolfhound. And waffles, please, topped with morally unambiguous toppings: butter and real maple syrup.

I can’t let Joel have the last word here, can I? The Bentley answer to that last question would be Waffles à la Wolfhound, with liberal dollops of whisky (or even whiskey) and syrup. Mmmm…

Tips for Supercharging Your Small Business

Since I can’t be the smart person ALL day long (it’s bad for my complexion), I like to let others step in and counsel us freelancers, solopreneurs and small business types. But I did get my licks in: below is an infographic (click to enlarge) that has a bounty of advice for small—but strong!—businesspeople on matters integral to small businesses, and I even get to throw in my penny’s worth too. The good folks at Invoice2go put this together, so give them a look.

Also, here’s a bonus complement (and contributor) to business savvy: 47+ Best Motivational Quotes Ever to Equip You with the Drive to Succeed, because motivation and inspiration pair better than even wine and cheese for business success. Enjoy!

Also, I know that you are desperate to fill your electronic stockings with electronic stocking stuffers, so I’ve reduced my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See to $3.99 until January 15. Stuff those stockings with abandon (and ebooks).

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Perhaps everyone would be  in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey...

Perhaps everyone would be in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey…

Out in the old Airstream office again, starting to work on an essay. “Starting to work” means looking out of the windows for a spell, straightening a counter that’s already ruler-straight, peeking at Twitter—but with eyes wide open, so that a peek becomes a stare—and on and on.

If you’re an at-home working writer, and one for whom discipline is a comrade who sometimes leaves early for lunch, you might shy from the tyranny of the page, and look for like cronies to complain to. But it’s been years since I’ve had office mates that could tolerate hearing my sighs about bad sentence structure over the cubicle walls. Sometimes my cat comes out to the trailer to discuss subject-verb agreements, but most of the time, it’s just me.

A great privilege it is to be able to work from home, and a greater gift to be able to work with words, the dizzying whirligigs that they are. Writers need to sequester their minds in order to stew, consciously or not, over their word soups, but sometimes the kitchen seems a little quiet. The habitual patter of your mind can be a little wearing, especially when it flies off center, and you start thinking things like “Tom, when you tilt your head just so, you look a lot like Madeleine Albright.”

When the Idea Salon Is an Asylum

But when you realize that the errant voices in your head are, shockingly, less crazy than the ones on the Internet, you know that going out in that uncivil commons is no way to relax and exchange ideas in the idea salon, finger sandwiches at the ready. I have a standing policy to not read the comments pages of many postings, because their curdled sourness doesn’t offer companionship to any but the crazed.

Even more crazed than me.

But thankfully there are a few spots on the InterTubes that can offer solace—and even fine writing advice, so you can coddle yourself into thinking you are working, sort of. One of the best is WriterUnboxed, with its daily postings on craft, marketing, personal writing foibles, the publishing industry and much more, written by a splendid range of seasoned experts, newbies and specialists. Equally as helpful as the sound writing advice is the collective community of peers and writing chums, who share comments in the sandbox that are insightful and warm, but without too much mush. (Mush causes mold.)

For writers like me, living in their hollow, echoing wooden heads, a place like WriterUnboxed is a godsend. Now and then, they even let me write something there.

Combat the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer: Collaborate

Another way a writer, who might be out in his ’66 Airstream with screaming orange plaid upholstery for eight hours a day, might reach out and still get some writing done is by collaborating with another writer. Rick Wilson and I have been working on a novel together, based on this short story, for a couple of years, and the final chapter is just a whimsy of words away from being done.

Working with Rick has been delightful, and in the many moments when I’ve staggered in the process and lost my oxygen, he’s opened the valves on new tanks of enthusiasm. And since Rick’s a dentist, I’m going to ask for nitrous for the home stretch. I’ll post more about the book in blogs to come.

Lastly, when a writer is feeling low or lonely, there are the works of other authors to lift and educate. Books are great companions too, and have been through my life. I just finished the delightful and hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I shock myself by never having read a Toni Morrison work before, so Jazz is next.

Books themselves are quiet company, even if the upholstery is too loud.