Sunday, February 26, 2012

Writers and Movie Stars

One of the problems with being a movie star is that your perfect, 20-something face is always with you.  Most of us, as we age, glance into the mirror with varying degrees of dismay, locate the remnants of the face we most fondly remember having, and think (at least most of the time), "Not so bad."   But for a movie star, that long-lost face has been frozen in time, in all its flawless symmetry.  

Writers, on the other hand, are for all intents and purposes faceless, which is probably a good thing.  Our readers, if we're lucky enough to have any, don't really care if our jawline has begun to sag or our hair is receding.  So why, you might be asking, am I pairing movie stars and writers, only to say we're not alike?  Even those who love reading most, I think, are in little danger of confusing, say, Lauren Bacall and Lawrence Block.

But actors and writers do share a somewhat similar problem.  Just as movie stars always have their youthful faces stalking them, writers are haunted by their early prose.  It's out there, unchanged and unchangeable, just waiting to sandbag us.

My first published novel came out in 1990, which is longer back than I care to remember.  I went for almost two decades without ever glancing back at that book or the five that followed it in the 1990s because there was no reason for me to do so.  

When I did look back, beginning about two years ago, I hoped that I would have what I think of as the ideal relationship with my earlier work, which is to say (a) that it's not embarrassing, and (b) that it's not as good as my current work.

(There are few more complicated expressions than the one on the face of a writer who has just been told by an enthusiastic fan, "But you know, I really like your first book best.")

The reason I had to reread the early books was to decide whether to put them on sale as ebooks after the rights reverted to me.  There were six titles in the series, three of which I remembered liking, one of which I was neutral about, and two of which I actively (at least in memory) disliked.

Quelle surprise.  I liked different ones this time around.  And the one I disliked most, way back then, may well be (at least to my present taste) the best of the bunch.

The Bone Polisher is the book I thought I probably wouldn't put up.  It was the next-to-last in the series, so I didn't have to look at it until the end of the process, and I almost didn't look at it at all.  When I did, I was fairly startled.

I had completely forgotten most of it.  There's a twist at the end that I had no memory of, and when Simeon Grist, the series' hero, went into a certain house in the last chapter, I thought, "What the hell is he doing?"

The writing is pretty good, too.  I can say that without feeling like a blowhard now that I no longer remember writing it.  In places it's material I'd have to go way on tiptoe to write today, which is not altogether a comfortable feeling.

We all like to think we've gotten better, but here I am, confronting a 17-year-old book and not entirely certain I could write it today.

Once I read it, I had another reason for possibly not making it available.  I'm kind of dreading having people tell me they prefer my old stuff.  But it's online now, for sale for $2.99 on Amazon, with a terrific new cover by the redoubtable Allen Chiu.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Thanks, Tim, for again giving me something wonderful to look forward to. I mean in addition to "The Bone Polisher." There's no doubt in my mind that anything you publish--no matter when--is among the best that's out there.

    What I want to thank you for is pointing out the upside benefits of a downside memory. In my case, though, I think it will be better described as a "kvell memory" experience.

  2. Great thoughts, Tim.

    Re: not sure you could write parts of it today... At ANY given moment of our life, there are things we can ONLY do then. Skills not only come and go, but they CHANGE, for better or worse or just plain different. In general, yes, our skills TEND to improve as we exercise them, whatever 'improve' means. But experience, that thing which improves our skills, also changes US, and sometimes in ways which prevent us from ever again doing something the same way we did (or would have) in an earlier time.

    C'est la vie... Live in the moment and let each moment bloom in its own way.

  3. "Kvell surprise." To blow a pun is embarrassing, but when it's about memory it''s...

  4. I remember being blown away by "A Nail Through the Heart," and I haven't been disappointed since. I think that if we approach a new book with an expectation of what we're going to read, we do the the writer, and ourselves, a disservice. It's important to me to recognize that I'm not going to get the same book each time from the same author, let alone when I pick up a Lee Child or some cozy, all of which can please, if not in the same way. To quote Jeff-Kvell surprise ;)

  5. Hi, Jeff, and that pun was blown before you blew it, if you know what I mean. Thanks for the kind words about my memory, though.

    Everett, you are n a sense the father of the feast, since if you hadn't scanned the book I never would have reread it and put it online. But my descriptive powers in that book seem to be sharper to me than they are now, or maybe I've just had too many difficult sessions lately. But I'm not sure I could write the three chapters at the combination Halloween party and wake just now.

    Lil, that's great advice and a typically generous reaction. It was (really) very unsettling to read BONE POLISHER and find myself asking from time to time, "Who is this guy?" and then realizing it was me. On the other hand, a couple of people who just read it like it a bit less than I do, so maybe -- oh, who knows?

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  7. I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well. movies & cartoons