Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 1

Desktop Publishing (DTP) is the creation of print-ready documents using page layout skills on a personal computer. That is to say, a person sitting at her personal computer can use her word-processing/layout program to create a document that can be printed as a newsletter, or a greeting card, or a book. She can most likely print the newsletter or greeting card directly from her printer. But in order to print/publish the book, she will have to submit the document to a publisher.

That publisher can be an ebook publisher such as Kindle or Smashwords; it can be a traditional publisher which uses traditional printing presses; it can be a Print On Demand (POD) publisher such as CreateSpace or Lulu, which sends the document to various POD fulfillment centers who print and ship the book.

The kind of self-publishing I have explored and used is the POD kind in which the author creates the page design and cover, determines the price and distribution, and is responsible for the marketing. To date I’ve self-published ten books through CreateSpace, and I’ve turned all ten of them into Kindle ebooks after first publishing them as softcover books.

Bloomingdale Public Library

Selling my self-published books at the Bloomingdale Public Library, with Phil Passen

I first became interested in self-publishing in 2009, probably as a result of the fact that editors were taking way too long to respond to manuscript submissions. Also due to the fact that some of the rejection letters I received stated that the story was wonderful but, in the publishing house’s opinion, the book would not be profitable. So I reasoned that in addition to submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers, I would try to self-publish those stories which editors at mainstream publishing houses did not or might not want.

Back in 2009 I did a bit of research on the various self-publishing options. Lulu and CreateSpace (CS) seemed the most usable at that time, and I chose CreateSpace because marketing my books through Amazon (via CS) would be both easier and more profitable.

CreateSpace charges no setup fees: thus it’s possible to publish a book at no cost on CreateSpace. This is how I published each of my ten self-published books: at no cost.

No financial cost, that is. I confess there was definite wear and tear on me as I worked to conquer the difficulties of formatting manuscripts into facing-pages book form. In my public presentations (“How to Self-Publish on CreateSpace at No Cost”), I guide the attendees through the CreateSpace process step by step, from set-up through finished book. However, I find it more interesting to look at my experiences in chronological order: what I learned, book by book.

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1987, hardback, Contemporary Books

From the get-go I realized that self-publishing a book would most likely result in my making a few mistakes. If I were going to make mistakes, I would prefer to make them on a reprint, not a new book. The rights to She’s on First, my first novel, belonged to me, so I decided I would reprint it myself, as my first CreateSpace book.

I began formatting the manuscript in early November, 2009. That’s when I realized that even though I had been working with documents for decades, an 8.5″x11” manuscript page was N.O.T. the same as what was required for self-publishing a  book. After perusing the various book trim sizes that CS offered, I settled on the 6″x9” size. I guess my choice was a good one: two or three years later CS made the 6″x9” size its default selection.

I tried to create 6″x9” pages on Pages (Apple word processing software), but couldn’t. My attempts frustrated me for days and days. And days. Admitting defeat, I stuffed my MacBook into a backpack, hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, and walked to the Apple store on Michigan Avenue. There I explained my problem to the first person who offered assistance. He showed me how to set the page size in about, oh, three minutes.

Creating a 6″x”’ template was the single biggest problem I had to solve in formatting my first manuscript. At that time, CreateSpace didn’t offer templates. They do now, but because they didn’t then, I had a lot to conquer.

The second most difficult problem for me was figuring out how to make my word processing program show one header on a left-hand page and a different header on a right-hand page. Specifically, I wanted the title of my book to appear on the left-hand page and my name on the right-hand page.

I absolutely could not do this, and so She’s on First was published with the same header (the title) on both the left-hand and right-hand pages.

SOF Sample copy

My template, showing the layout of two facing pages

The typeface I chose for She’s on First was New Peninem, which no longer looks anything like it looked back in 2009: it was a serif font back then (as you can see in the pages above), but now it’s offered only as New Peninem MT, which appears to be a sans serif font. I have no idea what intrigued me about it back in 2009, because after my novel was published I realized that wherever I had used italics, the New Peninem font didn’t look good. It especially didn’t look good if there were Arabic numerals involved. Maybe, some day, I’ll go back and convert the entire document to a more readable typeface, such as Palatino or Times New Roman.

I think that by 2010 (if not even earlier) CreateSpace offered Cover Creator as a way for its customers to easily create book covers. For my first book (in fact, for my first nine books) I didn’t explore this option. That was because I wanted a really great cover for the reprint of She’s on First, and I didn’t particularly want a cover design that would look exactly like other cover designs. So I asked friend Robin Koontz, a writer/illustrator/designer, if she would design the cover. I paid Robin for her design, so, while I published for free on CreateSpace, I did lay out some money for the cover design. And I also paid for the cover photo. I’m both glad and grateful that Robin took care of dealing with the cover template that CreateSpace allowed me to download after the interior was approved.

SOF-COVER-FINAL-JAN16-2010 copy

The cover template, created by Robin Koontz, who, just before publication changed the color of the black line to a striking orange-red

Back in 2010, if you wanted to self-publish through CreateSpace you had to order a physical proof of your book and examine it. This later changed so that now you can proof your book online, without ever holding a physical copy in your hand. Even though I’ve published ten books with CreateSpace, I always order a physical copy. When I received my proof copy of She’s on First, I opened the book to the middle and saw that the interior margins I had created were too narrow: I had half-inch interior margins, but after seeing how tight they looked, I changed them to three-quarter-inch margins.

Where I Succeeded
•  Creating a 6×9” Template
•  Creating Page Margins
•  Inserting Headers
•  Inserting Page Numbers
•  Choosing Fonts
•  Examining the Proof Copy and Correcting It

Where I Failed
•  Creating Distinct Headers for Left- and Right-Hand Pages
•  Choosing a Problem-Free Font

In February of 2010 I published She’s on First as a softcover book. A few days later I submitted a PDF of the document to Kindle for publication as an ebook. This means I accomplished my goal of self-publishing a softcover POD book — and ebook! — with about three months work on my part. At this point I was already thinking about self-publishing a second book. My goal was to reduce my formatting time from three months to maybe three weeks.

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Read She’s on First and decide for yourself if the New Peninem typeface should be replaced with a different one.

An Unnoticed Theft

My father emigrated to the US a month short of his fourteenth birthday. I’ve told part of his story in The Line Between. As a teen, he fell in love with the silent movies of the time, particularly the westerns. My father wanted to be a cowboy. But that wasn’t possible in eastern Ohio, which was not home to cowboys.

Horses were another matter. Many farmers and even non-farmers owned horses. My father so coveted a horse that, one night, he inadvertently stole one. I explain the result in the poem below.

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My Father Was a Horse Thief

Joe longed to be a cowboy, wear a white hat,
ride a black stallion and thunder after bad guys.
The Packards, Studebakers, and Arrows

of his new land held no lure for Joe: moving
pictures with western heroes called. Every night
after chores, Joe bolted down the street

to the saloon, where Old George Clark hitched
his horse to the rail. Joe stroked that horse,
fed it, and pictured himself in the saddle, looping

a lasso and roping bad guys who wore black hats.
The stallion didn’t belong to him, but Joe was a kid
and Old George Clark drank his nights away and the horse

was there. One night in the drizzle Joe couldn’t resist:
unhitching the reins he sprang into the saddle with a loud
Giddyup, just as he had seen done in the movies.

Snorting, the stallion burst into a destination trot
that no amount of desperate Whoa’s! would stop.
When it reached home the cayuse finally halted,

and not a Giddyup in the western world could start it up
again. In the gloom and rain Joe trod three desperado miles
back to the saloon and waited: waited to come clean to Old

George, who at closing time reeled out and peered around.
Joe stammered, confessed that he had taken the horse
for a ride and it wouldn’t bring him back, but Old George

wouldn’t be tricked: he figured he must have walked
to the saloon, and so he walked home. Thunder rolled
as good guy and bad guy hoofed it home in shades of gray.

 

rain

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This poem is from Crossing the Skyway: Poems, by Barbara Gregorich.

Baroque Music and Multiple Endings

Multiple-ending stories are a kind of fiction in which the reader decides which plot path to pursue. The concept for the first wave of interactive fiction books, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, which were hugely popular during the 1980s and 1990s, was developed by Edward Packard in 1976.

The Choose Your Own Adventure stories had plots that branched out in several different directions. Think of a branching-plot novel as one in which the reader climbs up the main trunk of a tree, then chooses a branch to follow. And from that branch, another branch. And so on. In order for a branching story to move forward, the reader has to make choices very soon after the story starts. Each decision leads to further decisions, and this continues until the chain of decisions leads to an ending (or sometimes not!). In some of the books, 40 different endings were possible, and the ways to reach those endings varied. In other words, if on page four the reader chooses Option C, that doesn’t mean that Option C will always lead to Ending #15. Depending on the choices after C, a reader could end up with a different ending. Ending #24, say.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books were so popular that at least twenty other similar series were published. (Nothing inspires imitation like success.)

In a tree, branches do not double back on themselves and end up where they began. In a book or a game (as computer gaming, role-playing with action and consequences), though, readers/players may end up back where they started. This isn’t ideal, and it isn’t common — but it is possible, depending on the fiendishness of the branching-plot constructor.

Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to write a series of computer stories with branching story lines. These were for first- and second-graders learning English as a Second Language. At that time there were no books or articles I could find that explained how to write branching stories, so in order to understand what I needed to do, I read seven or eight Choose Your Own Adventure books.

bach-concert-for-2-violins

Armed with an understanding of how these books worked, I spread many 3×5 notecards out on my dining room table. What I wrote on one notecard would serve as one computer-screen worth of text. I also had pens in different colors of ink, plus a paper tablet and blank paper. Knowing that classical music, particularly Baroque, affects brain waves and analytical abilities, I put several Bach CDs on. Then I began work on the first of many stories (I think the work-for-hire assignment consisted of twelve branching stories).

The Baroque music did stimulate my brain. The first thing I did was create the first two computer frames of the story. On my diagram, these are frames A and B. The story is about Crandall, a hermit crab, outgrowing his shell and looking for a new home.

Branching

Then I considered various ways Crandall’s search could end, and I wrote four endings. These have squares around them on the diagram. They are R, 0, M, and Y.

Next, I put the diagram aside and began writing individual “frames” (parts of the story) for the results of the C choice. That branched further into a choice between F and G. The F choice ended the story at R. The G choice, however, led to another branch, a choice between J and K.

The J choice eventually led to a choice between O and P. O ended the story. But P did not — P actually took the story all the way back to the second step of the D choice. If you study the diagram, you can see that some of the choices lead to unexpected results. That was fun.

Here’s what my notecards looked like. Each notecard is one computer frame’s worth of story.

Crandall

I remember that it took me two eight-hour sessions to develop the first of these branching stories. It was indeed a lot of fun, but also a lot of very hard work. In some ways, this branching-story assignment was the most complex writing assignment I’ve ever had. I had to be able to think of different plot possibilities. Instead of choosing one possibility over the others and following the story to its cause-and-effect conclusion, I had to juggle the plot possibilities and keep each and every one alive. And make certain that each led to a cause-and-effect ending.

And these were very small stories for first- and second-graders. Imagine all the possibilities that a game creator must juggle!

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Barbara Gregorich suggests you listen to Baroque music while reading her Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Series Yes, Series No: Part II

There are at least two kinds of books in series. One kind continues the series hero and supporting characters, but not necessarily in chronological, event-driven order. Examples of such series are the Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie’s Poirot series and her Miss Marple series. The Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys books also fall into this category.

The other type of series, more modern than the first, develops the life of the hero in a chronological, cause-and-effect, event-driven order. This is the type of series that some fans will read only in the order the books were written, because they want to experience the hero’s life in the order the events occur. Interestingly, my favorite mystery series when growing up was the Trixie Belden series, and those books were definitely chronological order and event-in-hero’s life driven. And my two Proof novels, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, are written in sequential-events order. The third Proof novel will continue in that vein.

Unknown-2I’m a fan of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. Gordianus is a Roman finder, or detective, who lives before, during, and after the rise of Julius Caesar. The novels in the series are “interrupted” with collections of short stories sandwiched between — short stories featuring Gordianus, but at the same time short stories that aren’t in chronological order. Saylor isn’t the only writer to have done this. As a reader, I find this interruption of the novel form disappointing. I feel that the hero’s life is not progressing, especially because the short stories are often from different periods in the hero’s life. And, because the novels are in chronological order, I have to struggle to fit the short stories into a time framework. Going back and forth in a hero’s life pleases some readers and displeases others.

When writers decide to write a story out of sequence — for example, in their fifth book in a series, they might write about events that occurred before the first book in the series — publishers may decide to put numbers on the outside of the books, and these numbers refer to the chronological “place” the book holds in the series. If a series is complete, these numbers help. If a series is still in progress, the numbers may become invalid!

Many authors who write series grow tired of writing them. They need a mental and emotional break from the characters. They need time to let new plots develop So they take a break from the series as a way of replenishing the well. But so often, what they do is start a second series of books. Sometimes the characters in this second series know the characters in the first, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell if a writer is writing one series or two. Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jimmy Chee series was like this — maybe it was two series, maybe it was one series which wandered around a bit.

Unknown-3Some writers write series not about a single set of characters, but about people who live in the same town. Each character gets his or her own story. Romance writer Robyn Carr did this with her popular Virgin River series, though she stopped the series at twenty books and started a different series. When I read reviews of romance novels in Publishers Weekly, I notice that many of them are about, say, four sisters, each of whom gets her own book. Or five brothers. Or ten cousins. One good thing about this is that each author is committed to a short series, not an endless series.

The longest series I’m currently reading — that is, I haven’t stopped reading the series for one reason or another — is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I’ve read the first twenty-three and am waiting for number twenty-four. The next longest series I’m still reading is the No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I’m about to read the most recent book (seventeenth in the series).

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Barbara Gregorich has one more Proof novel to publish before she has a series.

Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.

Agony.

I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)

But.

What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.

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Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.

Baseball’s Longest Game

The longest game ever played in professional baseball started on April 18, 1981. I’ve long been fascinated by this game and several years ago I wrote a 33-stanza poem about it: one stanza for each inning.

This poem is the one I receive the most comments on and the most requests for. It was first published in Bardball.

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No Ties, No Ticking Clocks
April 18, 1981

There are no ties in baseball,
there is no ticking clock.
The game could continue forever.

One night in Rhode Island
the Rochester Red Wings
face the Pawtucket Red Sox.

A fierce wind invades the stadium,
numbing fans and players alike.
Make this one quick, everyone hopes.

Lights generate no warmth.
Fans applaud, the game begins.
Six scoreless innings, then Rochester drives in

a single run. Bottom of the ninth,
the PawSox also score a single run.
There are no ties in baseball,

there is no ticking clock. There are only
more chances. The extra innings creep
like icicles: tenth, eleventh, twelfth arrive

and depart with nothing but snowballs
to show: big, round, cold zeros.
At the end of eighteen innings

the score remains one-one.
The temperature drops to bathyspheric depths.
Players light bonfires in trash barrels,

burning broken bats as fuel. Fans go home
to furnaces that blast hot air.
Players long to go home, too, but first

one of them must cross home.
The stadium sells out of food. Clubhouse men
deploy into the frigid night and return

with chow the players bolt down. The game
goes on — four hours . . . five . . . six.
There are no ties in baseball,

there is no ticking clock.
And then, top of the twenty-first inning —
Rochester scores a second run.

Hallelujah!
The game will, at long last, be over.
Completed.

No. Not meant to be.
Pawtucket also scores a second run
in the bottom of the twenty-first. Game tied,

two-two. The contest will continue. Players
know it, the remaining fans know it. This is baseball,
not some nickel-and-dime tick-tock diversion.

The managers think otherwise:
they want the game called and resumed
later, preferably on a warm

summer day. They appeal to the umpire,
who pages through his book coldly
and finds . . . no applicable rule.

“Play ball!” he huffs, his breath a speech
bubble in the frosty air. And so players stumble
through the motions they’ve been making since

they were six years old. Half-asleep, half-frozen,
they are all good enough to play at the Triple-A level,
and definitely good enough to keep one another from scoring.

By the end of the twenty-seventh inning,
Rochester and Pawtucket have played
three full baseball games. Again the managers

appeal to the umpire, but the blue man stands
by his earlier decision. There are no ties
in baseball, there is no ticking clock.

The fans: a score of them remain. (A score!
If only somebody would score!) Nobody goes out
to scrounge up food for the fans, who dare not

burn stadium seats to stay warm.
Why do they stay? Do they know
they are witnessing baseball history?

History, schmistory, the managers don’t care —
they understand about ticking clocks
and no ties, they just think somebody

has to show some common sense.
And so, calling it common sense,
somebody calls the league president

at three o’clock in the morning.
After he is awake enough to understand
the situation, the league president grants

permission to call the game. And so,
at the end of the thirty-second inning,
the game is called, to be resumed another day.

Before the fans can unstiffen enough to leave,
the Pawtucket organization awards a free season pass
to each of these true blue-from-the-cold lovers of the game,

The players stand in hot showers to thaw,
then dress to go home, stepping out
into the early morning sunrise.

Two months later, the Red Wings return
and the game resumes, the score still two-two.
Rochester fails to score,

but Pawtucket does not, driving a run
across the plate in the bottom of the thirty-third inning.
The longest game in baseball history

is finally completed.
There are no ties in baseball.
There is no ticking clock.

_____________________

Barbara Gregorich is fascinated by long games and long odds, such as those faced by the Cleveland Naps/Indians during their first two decades of existence. She wrote about this in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

Biggers’ The Black Camel: Clues True and False

I have been reading the Charlie Chan mysteries of Earl Derr Biggers’ for the fourth time (having read them the first time when I was sixteen), and I’ve been blogging about them, concentrating on my reactions during the fourth reading. (See Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture.)

unknown-1The Black Camel, Biggers’ fourth Chan novel, is one of the three that I’ve remembered the solution of since I first read the books (the other two being The House Without a Key and The Keeper of the Keys). Up until now, I always considered this the least intriguing of his mysteries, though I’m not sure why. I suspect my original lack of enthusiasm for the book had something to do with Tarneverro the Great, self-styled fortune teller to Hollywood stars. If you look at drawings of Tarneverro on book covers and depictions of him in movie posters, you can see that he’s made to look like an evil villain.

In my first three readings I thought of Tarneverro as cunning, manipulative, and unlikeable. On the fourth reading, though, I felt admiration for his quest for justice as well as for his quick thinking and his skills at deflection and misdirection. Moreover, on the fourth reading I greatly enjoyed watching the way Tarneverro thinks he can outwit Chan when, in fact, he can’t

Tarneverro is a great name for the fortune teller. The first half reminds me of tarnish, whose root means dark or dull; the second half reminds me of any of the roots meaning true or speaking truly as, for example, veracity. Part of Tarneverro speaks the truth. The other part darkens, dulls, or stains that truth.

As intriguing as Tarneverro is, it’s not the fortune teller I want to concentrate on, but the outline of The Black Camel, which I offered in my previous blog, Outline: The Black Camel. In that blog I boldfaced some information and italicized other information — and challenged the reader to figure out what the boldface and italics indicated.

If you read the outline, you’ll see that Biggers did a masterful job of plotting the story of Shelah Fane’s murder and tying it to the murder of Denny Mayo three years earlier. Sometimes mystery writers make the villain the main adversary of the detective. This is a risky ploy because at some point in the novel readers will begin to suspect that the person who seems to be obstructing the investigation is the perpetrator of the deed. Biggers, instead of developing Shelah Fane’s murderer as Chan’s adversary, developed Chan’s “helper” (Tarneverro) as his adversary. This helper is almost as observant as Chan himself, with excellent powers of deduction and the will and skill to act quickly. It is this helper, Tarneverro, who lays down the false clues which hamper the investigation. It is Tarneverro’s aim that Chan never solve the crime of who murdered Shelah Fane. The false clues are in italics in the outline.

unknown-6However, it isn’t the fact that somebody (even a “helper”) is laying down false clues that make The Black Camel such a satisfyingly plotted book. What makes the plotting so satisfying is that the very first thing Tarneverro tells Chan about the murder of Denny Mayo is absolutely true — he, Tarneverro, hopes to reveal the name of the murderer that very evening. Neither Chan nor the reader have any reason to doubt this statement. Chan and the reader accept it as true. Which it is.

But after the murder occurs, everything that Tarneverro tells Chan is false: that Shelah Fane hid in Mayo’s apartment the night of the murder; that she promised to write the name of the murderer in a letter; that the murderer of Denny Mayo also murdered Shelah Fane. Lies, lies, lies . . . but oh so believable lies. Lies that, once you accept the truth of Tarneverro’s first statement, seem to follow so logically that nobody questions them. The lies  rest on the very solid, unshakable truth of what the fortune teller first tells Chan: that he hopes to reveal the name of the person who murdered Denny Mayo.

The construction of the plot is brilliant.

Although Tarneverro is the person shielding the murderer of Shelah Fane, and the character who is most misdirecting the investigation, Biggers further complicates the plot by adding other characters who are also telling lies or withholding the truth. The person telling lies is Julie O’Neill. Those withholding crucial evidence are Smith and Robert Fyfe.

The pace of The Black Camel is brisk: the whole novel takes place in less than 48 hours. The wit is delicious, especially the exchanges between Chan and Tarneverro. The scenes of Chan with his three eldest children are delightful: they speak in slang, which he abhors. The scenes between Chan and the Chief of Police show how respected Charlie is, and show what a good working relationship he has with his boss. And the Chief’s repeated desires to “break Tarneverro’s alibi” (with Charlie always replying that the alibi is unbreakable) add a great deal of reader anticipation: each time I read the book, I keep expecting Chan to break the unbreakable alibi! The reader keeps thinking not that the alibi is solid, but that it will be broken.

If you haven’t already read The Black Camel, now is the time to enjoy it. And if you have, perhaps now is the time to reread it.

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Barbara Gregorich has more to say about not making the villain the main adversary in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.