Monday, January 17, 2005

January's Last Laugh

Those readers of this feature outside of northern Arizona (and even, I suppose, some readers inside northern Arizona), may not be aware of my monthly column "Last Laugh", in Mountain Living Magazine, or, as it's officially known, Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine. I'd link to its website, but to date, it doesn't exist. So as a somewhat dubious public service, here's the January installment of "Last Laugh":

A dark and Trevor Stormy night

When I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a book. A detective novel, in fact. That the hero was named “Trevor Storm” should give you a hint as to whether it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But in retrospect, what was truly remarkable about it was how I wrote it – by hand. Using a ball-point pen, smudging all the way.

I filled 120 pages of a small, vinyl-covered notebook over the course of nine months, writing instead of learning about osmosis in Mrs. Wilkie-Mortl’s biology class, and proofreading instead of asking girls out on dates. (Hey, I didn’t say I was proud of myself.)

But the point is, when Trevor Storm finally, um, solved whatever crime had taken place, I had myself a big, thick wad of handwritten pages. This was way longer than anything I had ever written before, including that eight-page illustrated report on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, or the ten pages on Burkina Faso.

But if I was ever going to get it published, or at least optioned for a movie deal, I needed to get it typed. Fortunately, my dad somehow convinced (or paid, I’ve always assumed) his secretary to transcribe it on the office typewriter. Which is when I learned that 120 handwritten pages yielded... 43 typed pages. Double-spaced. I never did get that call from Penguin-Putnam, or even Steven Spielberg.

Today’s aspiring ninth-grade writers are far more fortunate. Most of them, for example, are sophisticated enough to know that “Trevor Storm” is a pretty drippy name for a detective hero. (They can also do a Google search and learn that the real-life Trevor Storm appears to be a 19-year old arson suspect in Shelbyville, Illinois.)

But beyond that, today’s high school hack novelists have many more tools at their disposal. For starters, they have a extraordinary weapon in the “thesaurus” feature of Microsoft Word. This gives them the opportunity to rethink, for example, the use of the terms “extraordinary” and “weapon”, and subsequently refer to the thesaurus as a “groovy bludgeon”, or perhaps a “marvelous mace”.

They also have a much better choice of fonts than I did. I was pretty much limited to what is now known as “Courier 11 pt., bold”, but which in those days was referred to as “IBM Selectric”. Nowadays, future Pulitzer non-finalists can choose from everything from the popular “Times New Roman”, to something called “Arial Unicode MS”, to the less-popular “Enya bold”. (And what better way to catch a potential publisher’s eye than to have your manuscript look like lyrics from a new age chanteuse?)

Finally, the frosh scribes of 2004 can use the “word count” feature of their word processors. This will help them avoid the would-be embarassment of writing a 120 page tome, only to learn that it’s a novella, or even a brochure-length story. It’s a lesson I’ve learned, as I write this 500-word column and learn that I’m still seven words away from completion. It was a dark and stormy night.

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